Meeting Poets and Poetry: Helene Swarts and Pearl London

From 1970 to 1998, Pearl London taught a now-famous poetry seminar, “Meeting Poets and Poetry,” at The New School. London invited poets — including luminaries such as Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, John Ashbery, Derek Walcott, James Merrill, and Jorie Graham— to present their works-in-progress to students in the course, illuminating their poetic process by talking students through the various drafts and revisions of their work. In 2010, an edited volume of some of those conversations was published by Knopf as Poetry in Person.

Helene Swarts, alumna of the Continuing Education program at The New School, participated as a student in the course for many years, and presented her own poems in London’s poetry workshop.

Laura Cronk, on behalf of The New School Creative Writing Program, recently interviewed Swarts about her time with Pearl London, writing poems during the women’s movement of the 1970s and 80s, and what she is working on now.

Laura Cronk: You studied in Pearl London’s poetry class at The New School for many years. Could you tell me how you first decided to enroll in this class?

Helene Swarts: I found Pearl while studying for my graduate degree at NYU. Fortunately, some of Pearl’s students told me about her splendid class. So, at last, when I had a little more time and flexibility, after becoming a wife; mother; teacher; and published poet, I found Pearl London and enrolled at The New School where I remained her student for about six years.

Course description for Pearl London’s seminar, New School Course Bulletin, Fall 1970

LC: What was your background in poetry and writing before taking the class? How was your writing life impacted by studying with Pearl London?

HS: I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a poet and a teacher. It was an innate feeling that I had to follow. I was fortunate that my uncle paid for and enrolled me in the acclaimed Ethical Culture School in Brooklyn, where I flourished with a small group of enthusiastic students and teachers. And very importantly, at New Rochelle High School I was introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Discovering Emily Dickinson was the defining moment in my life as a poet. If there had been any doubt before, there was absolutely none after.

During a summer job while in college I worked as a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue on Fifth Avenue where I was offered a job to go into their Buyer Training Program. Although I loved pretty clothes, I had to pass on the opportunity, as I knew I wanted to be a teacher and a poet — that was really all I ever wanted to be.

After graduating from college, I taught 5th Grade in Great Neck, Long Island. While teaching, I also wrote poetry. I began sending my poems out to be considered for publication. Over the years, I was often quite successful at getting my own poetry published, for which I am deeply grateful.

I studied for my Master’s in Literature at NYU, and later went on to study under Pearl London at The New School.

Discovering Emily Dickinson was the defining moment in my life as a poet. If there had been any doubt before, there was absolutely none after.

LC: Did you take other courses or attend events at The New School when you lived in New York?

HS: I did not take any other classes at The New School other than Pearl’s. During my New School years, my time was limited what with raising my children and being on the Board of The Child Study Association of NYC. I knew I would keep learning what I needed to through Pearl’s class, and felt lucky to have found her.

Family photograph of Helene Swarts in the 1970s

When my children were in grade school, and while I was a student in Pearl’s class, I served on the board of The Child Study Association of NYC at the invitation of Jossette Frank. Themes of returning wounded Vietnam veterans, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and loss were being explored in well-crafted children’s books and poems we were asked to review.

Sometimes I would bring my daughters into the city for the day, where they learned to listen to the forceful opinions of these outstanding Board members. Afterward we would hold our own “mini-meetings’ discovering various ethnic restaurants and visiting The Fifth Avenue Library, The Guggenheim or the Met before running back for the train to the suburbs with their charming houses and worrisome limitations.

All of this prompted two timely poems of mine which were featured on the front cover of the Sunday Magazine Section of The Hartford Current and ran throughout the edition (approx. 8 pages were dedicated to my poems). Also, an illustrator was hired to enhance the impact of the poems: “Kindergarten In The City” and “The No Father’s Club.”

LC: How satisfying to have poems appear in a newspaper where a whole community will read them. I’ve been so happy that The New York Times has started running a poem a week in their Sunday Magazine (curated by Matthew Zapruder, a former New School faculty member). Seeing a poem included in the weekly conversation in this way is really exciting.

Going back to your experience in London’s poetry course, could you say something about the atmosphere of the class? I’m personally so curious to know what it was like to be in that room.

HS: Pearl London honored her students for who they were as much as she honored poetry. She filled us with the excitement and intensity of each search for the exact word, sound, shape and tone that would present itself to us as we learned to harvest our own gifts. She was always constructive with criticism and never dismissive.

LC: Is there anything about being a poet in New York in the 1970s and 80s that you particularly enjoy thinking about now?

HS: Our world was changing and so were we. An active women’s movement was adding safety, purpose, and direction to our writing and we explored that in and outside of Pearl’s class. It was risky for women to reach out to find their voice, but that was something I could do and my poems enabled me to do so without reservation. Each time I left my suburban town to venture into New York City and Pearl London’s class at The New School, I found a sense of great relief and joy.

Letter of recommendation from Pearl London to Helene Swartz, 1978

LC: These three words “safety, purpose, and direction” are so interesting in relation to your experience of finding your way as a writer during this time. There is always a sense of personal risk in committing to making art, but that must have been heightened for women then. I love that you knew from such a young age that you would devote yourself to poetry. You took yourself seriously enough to make a significant place in your busy life for nurturing yourself as a poet. It feels like a very New School story. People still come to us who are ready to identify as writers and realize that the mentorship and community of others who also take this seriously is essential.

Your daughter, Jen Swarts, forwarded a beautiful letter that Pearl London wrote on your behalf. She praised the lyricism and deep compassion that shaped your poetry, as well as your contemporary sensibility and, in approaching edits, your willingness to follow “the shaping spirit of the imagination” (quote from Coleridge). My hunch is that she did not offer praise lightly. Is that true? Also, I would love to hear how you think your own style has evolved. Have you made any significant and conscious departures in your style or have your poems continued to follow the trajectory that you began in New York?

You took yourself seriously enough to make a significant place in your busy life for nurturing yourself as a poet. It feels like a very New School story.

HS: Pearl’s integrity and compassion helped me to leap-frog over my own doubts. For me it was always about the poems and my changing perception of myself as a poet, student, mother, wife and teacher. Week by week and year by year, Pearl London’s poetry workshop helped me grow my own soul and craft. She helped me find purpose and style that seemed to grow organically from both subject and spirit.

dearest ALL
Allow my Soul
to pilot my heart
steady my breath
gird my work
- Helene Swarts, Feb, 2016

LC: It’s wonderful to see an example of new work! Thank you for sharing. I know that you now live on a small island off the coast of Maine. That sounds like a version of paradise, especially for a poet. How has living in New York City and in Maine impacted your writing?

HS: I spent my formative years in NYC. In addition to the years I spent as Peal’s student, Ethical Culture was the greatest gift I have ever received which helped to shape my life’s work as a poet. Living in New York helped amplify the gifts I received through visiting museums and The Fifth Avenue Library as a young girl and later exploring the Lower East Side with my young daughters. The wonderful anonymity of New York allows even the slightest doubt for creative thinking to disappear. Later, when we moved to Maine full time, poetry amplified for me the ocean that holds our small island, the changing sky, and the early sunrise.

Image from “Playing with Time”; photographs by Elizabeth Budington and text by Helene Swarts, 2016

LC: What are you working on now?

HS: Right now I am working with a historical photographer who reproduces turn-of-the-century glass negatives and matching my poems with them. It’s a great project and we are enjoying the work together. Elizabeth Budington received her MA in Fine Art form the Museum of Fine Art Boston and has been searching the world over for these wonderful glass negatives. Liz had exhibited in my daughter’s art gallery, Casco Bay Artisans, a couple of years back and my daughter thought it would be a good idea to put us together. And it was. We had a very successful Show “Playing with Time” in early January of this year at my daughter’s gallery in her new space on Commercial Street in Portland. Since the show, we have gotten a lot of great feedback and have been asked if we intend to put a book together — I have so many poems and Liz has so many photographs. Very recently, someone from the Portland Symphony Orchestra asked Jen if we would be interested in putting music to this show — Jen and I don’t really know what this would entail, but we are more than happy to listen. It’s all very exciting.

LC: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your experience and current work. It’s an honor to become acquainted.

“People still come to us who are ready to identify as writers and realize that the mentorship and community of others who also take this seriously is essential.” To discover more about writing workshops at The New School, visit our Continuing Education website.

Helene Swarts is the author of the books of poems In the Great Tradition and Both Sides of the Day, and co-author of the play The Party. Her poems have appeared in Island Times, Poetry International, Portland Press Herald, The Christian Century, Visions, The Cafe Review, Tunxis Review and The Portland Press. She is an educator who has taught all ages from kindergarten through university, most recently teaching poetry at The University of Hartford. At Pearl London’s recommendation, she read her poetry at a New School Commencement Ceremony in the early 1970s.

Laura Cronk teaches at The New School Creative Writing Program, where she is Associate Director for Undergraduate Curriculum. Her book of poems, Having Been An Accomplice won the Lexi Rudnitsky first book prize from Persea Books. She is poetry editor of The Inquisitive Eater.