Vigilant Listening :: a conversation with Wally Swist, author of “Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir”
“Wally Swist’s life has been steeped in poetry and guided by a steadfast belief in the power of literature. As book seller, a book creator, a poet, an essayist, a reviewer, and a generous supporter of other writers, he inhabits a world in which reading is indivisible from writing, and can’t be untangled from life itself.
So, it seems utterly fitting that Singing for Nothing maps that life by way of his essays and reviews. Through the assiduous shaping of his critical commentary on literature from around world and close to home, Swist has created a distinctive, thought-provoking memoir that is also a celebration of literature itself.”
–Jane Brox, author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light
[Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir, by Wally Swist. Forthcoming from the Operating System, August 2018. 344 pp. Selections of Singing for Nothing appear in Still Harbor and Adelaide Literary Magazine. “Poetics of Nothing,” an excerpt, can be found here as part of our ongoing Field Notes series.]
Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
My name is Wally Swist. I practice in a variety of genres: poetry, haiku, poetry translation/interpretation, nonfiction, children’s literature, and memoir.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
Becoming a poet and a writer is a calling. I was drawn to literature and writing in my mid-teens. The gestation, or the journey, of becoming a writer or a poet is a one of an entire lifetime. It is life-altering and life-augmenting.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I never introduce myself as a poet, but do offer that I am a writer and an editor. My favorite anecdote regarding this is what the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, said to me, once many years ago, upon meeting him. He said, with his characteristic humility: “I am only a poet when I am writing.”
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
True writers and poets write because they need to. Poems and stories are edicts. The best literature had to have been written — and the work reflects that urgency and need. Cultural and social forces shape any writer’s or poet’s work. You may live in the mountains and write mountain poems. However, since Trump has been elected president you will more than likely begin writing poems about Trump trying to take away the mountains.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
Life is struggle. Politics are, too. To understand this we must be cognizant that struggle is not anything that is mitigated by progressive social gains. Struggle continues at all times. It is ongoing. Our struggle against our oppressors is what lights the darkness.
Books, early on, that made a difference were The Stranger by Albert Camus, the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Ginsberg’s Howl and Corso’s Gasoline, Robert Creeley’s For Love. Also, reading Sailor on Horseback, Irving Stone’s memorable fictional biography of Jack London offered me hope that I could one day become a writer. Reading Joseph Campbell some three decades later also opened doors and made me rich.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
I am at an age when one thinks of what one has possibly accomplished. Singing for Nothing from Street to Street: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir brings together 40 years of scrupulously selected nonfiction interspersed with memoir. The editor of The Operating System, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson offered direction on the project in my writing memoir that might push the genre of just an ordinary nonfiction collection. It was her brilliance that sparked me into writing the memoir, and I am grateful to her for her guidance. She is an exemplary editor and a visionary publisher.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
For decades, I found a friend in perseverance. The last decade I have found my angel in what I call listening to guidance. Listening to guidance may be for some another way of learning to be vigilant to hearing one’s inner voice. Also, even though one more than likely, whether writer or poet, has had mentors or teachers, the real work needs to have been developed by you and spoken through your voice. Finding one’s own voice is part of the journey. There are no secrets, except for executing the work itself. Through the work one discovers the power of one’s voice. Through the work one comes to terms regarding how one lives and then through that process the work just might possess some life of its own, beyond the writer.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
My book’s title was generated by lines of a poem by the late Californian poet, Bert Meyers, wrote:
Be like the rain
that wears a ragged coat
and finds the lamp
in the smallest stone
and sings for nothing
from street to street
from In a Dybbuk’s Raincoat: Collected Poems (Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series/University of New Mexico Press, 2007).
However, many poets and writers influence my work. Nonfiction writers include Joan Didion, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, and John Hanson Mitchell. Poets include Walt Whitman, Lorine Niedecker, Bert Meyers, Robert Francis, Federico Garcia Lorca, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Richard Wilbur, Mary Oliver, and too many others to mention.
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
When one assembles and crafts any Selected volume it is an enormous endeavor. It is a privilege to have lived and to possibly have written well enough to find reasons enough to gather work for such a tribute. The tribute being to the work itself and not so much the author. A Selected volume is really meant for readers now and in the future. Hopefully, such a book will contain enough guideposts it will be worth for readers and writers to glean from in the present and for many years to come.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
This book, if anything, is a testament. It is a testament of 40 years of belief, of perseverance, of diligence, and of courage. The book at its best should mirror the times: from the late 1970s to the mid-21st century teens. The book really is more than just a memoir and certainly more than just a Selected Nonfiction. It is a book about writing and the shaping of a writer. The book is also about espousing literature and the love of reading writing that is well written.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
My practice continues. However, as is previously offered, any Selected volume is its own watershed. My best hopes for the book are that writers of any age might find camaraderie and possibly inspiration in reading the work.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
Publishing writing is a public act. If we, as writers, are fortunate to publish, and actually, initially, to have written well at all, then what we publish is definitely an example of social activism, especially if there is any consciousness whatsoever that is exhibited in the work whatsoever. It is more important, as well as significant, to write about racism or ageism, for instance, which is close to my own struggle, and/or privilege, which is what I would call entitlement, as it is to write a poem about clouds.
However, it is how you might write a poem about clouds. If you are Vladimir Mayakovsky, then you may be brilliant enough to write about “a cloud in your trousers” or how “the material is words from the vocabulary of soldiers” and “the tools of production — a pencil stub,” as can be found in his marvelous book, How Verses Are Made (Jonathan Cape, 1971).
We are never thoroughly isolated as writers. Emily Dickinson wrote in seclusion but her poems were her “letters to the world.” Miklos Radnoti, the Hungarian poet, whose body was found in a mass grave after World War II by his wife, discovered that there was a manuscript of poems in his coat pockets, which was published as his inimitable collection (of hope), entitled The Clouded Sky.
Writing is a very social act.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
Yes, there is. I am so very honored and grateful that my book is on the same list as those by the great Jerome Rothenberg and the perennially inspiring Margret Randall. Frankly, I couldn’t be any happier.
Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois UniversityPress, 2012), The Daodejing: A New Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015), Candling the Eggs (Shanti Arts, LLC, 2017), The Map of Eternity (Shanti Arts, LLC, 2018), and Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir (The Operating System, 2018).
His poems and prose have appeared in The American Book Review, Anchor: Where Spirituality and Social Justice Meet, Appalachia Journal, Arts: The Arts in Theological and Religious Studies, Commonweal, North American Review, Rattle, and The Woven Tale Press.