We all have our own kinds of freakishness and grotesqueries, celebrated or hidden.” – Susan Swartwout
Born in New Orleans and a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University, Susan Swartwout has published more than 100 poems in literary journals and anthologies. Her first poetry collection is titled Freaks, and she returns to this theme in her latest book Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit.
Swartwout’s own history and writing are steeped in the Gothic elements of quotidian life in the Deep South. She celebrates the odd beauties who embellish our plain lives: sideshow freaks, grief-stained grandparents, Tom Thumb, a werewolf, The Fat Lady. By exploring the lives of freaks, Swartwout is sending the message that there’s much more to life than approval by society. “There’s great beauty in self-awareness and self-celebration,” she says.
In honor of National Poetry Month, we asked her about infusing Southern Gothic into her poetry, why she’s so intrigued by these so-called “freaks” and the importance of poetry in general. Read her poem “Louisiana Ladies’ Watermelon Tea—1890” in our Poetry section.
EZB: Your book is described as “Southern poetry with a gothic twist.” What does that mean to you?
SS: The landscape in my poems is predominantly Southern, and many of the traditions are those that I experienced in the South, such as having Cajun neighbors with chickens or getting caught using inappropriate Civil War-era language like ‘lily-livered’ as a weapon when I was five years old. The Gothic twist is composed of elements like the freak shows, now considered politically incorrect, although we admired them, were amazed by them, and I don’t recall anyone ever making fun of sideshow folks. One reason was that they were known to be pretty fierce; another, such derision would have gone against our raising. We all have our own kinds of freakishness and grotesqueries, celebrated or hidden, so I was taught that ‘calling names’ is definitely throwing rocks from the front yard of your own glass house.
Southern Gothic also includes exploring the so-called negative or socially unaccepted sides of anyone’s character, sideshow freak or mark. Politeness is our training; holding dark secrets is our art. We’re plum tickled to tell you about our dark secrets once we feel you’ve earned that right.
EZB: Many of your poems explore the lives of sideshow freaks. What is it about these characters that intrigues you?
SS: I admire their (anyone’s) ability to survive in this often unfriendly world, to find a niche where they excel, and to flaunt the heck out of it, unabashedly. My background was being raised white, female, Southern, lots of brothers, which means I had/have real issues with labels that my long-suffering family encouraged, such as ‘lady’ and ‘woman’s work’ and ‘not for girls’ and ‘not your concern.’ Sideshow freaks became role models to me in general because I perceived them as not being concerned about society’s approval or looking like everyone else, as well as being inventive and creative. There’s great beauty in that self-awareness and self-celebration. And many of them are brave to live normal lives. Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Siamese Twins, married American wives, had over 20 children and put them through college. That’s incredibly brave and admirable.
EZB: In your poem “The Goddess Discord Brings Her New Doll Buggy into My Yard to Show Off, When I Don’t Want Her There,” you write that “We’re born into our language.” How has being born Southern influenced your own language?
SS: Although I was born in New Orleans, we moved back and forth across the Mason-Dixon quite a bit, so I lived also in the cities of Framingham, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Chicago. I’ve always loved words and their multitudinous sounds from all the dialects that occur when we humans formed our various tribes. I wish I had been able to retain my Louisiana accent. It has been dragged across country so many times that it lost itself, but reappears lightly when I revisit the South. Southerners love their vowels; they like to let them linger in the air a while longer than Northerners usually do. I think that’s one reason I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry, although she was a New Englander. Miss Emily did know how to show a vowel a good time — ‘of Ground or Air or Ought.’
My upbringing in the South also made me aware of language as fluid and treacherous — beautiful and ever changing like a river and yet a vicious weapon when sharpened or when used without compassion against another human. In New Orleans, you could go from Metairie to the Garden District and hear a world of different words and idioms in different accents and languages. I was so fascinated by human communication that I took classes in high school and college in Spanish, French, Italian and Russian. I have been working on Dutch, and learning German is a future goal as well. Learning new language is not just about communication, being able to speak to others in their sounds, it’s also an expression of honor for that language and the people who live within it. New Orleans put me on this path.
And, really, Southerners have some of the best expressions in the cosmos, like caddywompas, smack-dab, that dog’ll hunt, fixin’ to, hissy fit, hell’s half acre, light’s on but nobody’s home, baby girl (affectionate term for a female of any age), little pea-pickers, high-falutin’, braggadocious. And my all-time favorite yet slightly backhanded and condescending comment: Well, bless your heart.
EZB: Do you have any favorite Southern Gothic authors or works?
SS: Favorites are Flannery O’Connor and her portrayals of characters so misguidedly righteous that they use a language of platitudes to support their pride, Carson McCullers, whose Cousin Lymon is one of the most complex dwarves in literary history, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Faulkner’s Light in August, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Padgett Powell’s Edisto, many of Eudora Welty’s short stories and her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, which is lightly Gothic but 100 percent Southern and, more recently, Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
EZB: This interview is taking place as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. Why is reading poetry important in today’s world, and who are some of your favorite poets?
SS: I wish I had a quarter for every time someone, including savvy fiction readers, has told me, ‘I can’t do poetry’ or ‘I don’t read poetry; I just don’t get it.’ Wow. That’s really missing out of a lot of intense language and brilliant ideas. Anyone can read poetry and imagine one’s own meaning for it, or that feeling that one has been in this same place or held this same notion of being as the poet. We come to poetry for companionship, for fresh language previously unheard, for visions we hadn’t thought of before, for the heaven of wordplay and human understanding in a world of miscommunications and feuds, for a moment spent more in thought than in turning pages. We read a poem and, for a while, we inhabit it and the world it offers. Poetry exercises your brain and feeds your soul.
My most favorite go-to poets lately, besides the inimitable Emily Dickinson, are Lucille Clifton, Bob Hicok, Wislawa Szymborska, Bob Creeley, James Dickey, Nick Flynn, Denise Levertov, Bill Trowbridge, Cornelius Eady, Natasha Trethewey, Ocean Vuong — well, that’s for starters.
EZB: You also serve as publisher of the Southeast Missouri State University Press. What do you look for in new submissions for both books and journals?
SS: In both journal submissions to Big Muddy (fiction, poetry, essays, photos) and The Cape Rock: Poetry and in book manuscripts, I look for excellent writing, a story or thought process that has movement even when the mood is pensive, and a plotline or structure that I haven’t read again and again. Certainly, literature has archetypes, but their composition and delivery should be fresh.
Our most popular books have been historical fiction, with a strong element of research, literary fiction, especially our Nilsen Prize for a First Novel winners, and our series of anthologies, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. We like emerging writers as well as established ones. I’m actually not looking for the next great American novel, though I wouldn’t turn it away. There is a whole system of agents and commercial presses to process the big moneymakers. I look for the manuscript by the author who’s going to write the next great American novel someday. We’re an independent press, we want to help great new writers get attention, and we consider it a privilege to be a stepping stone.