April, along with signaling the start of pleasant spring vibes, is National Poetry Month. Luckily, both the gorgeous weather and the proliferation of poetry coincide with poet Leonard Schwartz’s upcoming visit to Vassar. Schwartz is a Bard graduate and Professor of Literary Arts at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.
He is currently on sabbatical and teaching at Columbia University. He will be reading from his recently published books IF and At Element, both of which contain poetry that is inspired by nature and pieces that question the history of poetry regarding nature.
The impetus to invite Mr. Schwartz to campus came from his meeting Vassar Professor of English Michael Joyce, who specializes in hyper-text fiction, at an event sponsored by poet Stephen Motika, a Vassar graduate and the current director of Poet’s House, a poetry library and literary center in New York City.
When talking about Schwartz’s work and why he invited him to Vassar, Joyce said: “He has a particularly ‘Vassar sensibility’ with its range of his philosophical ideas, and his political interests.”
Furthermore, Joyce explained that seeing any speaker exposes the Vassar community to different ways of thinking and perceptions, a staple of the liberal arts education. This is particularly true of Schwartz’ material concerning nature poetry.
In describing his work’s nature-based slant, Schwartz explained: “I have always been interested in the relationship between a form of writing called philosophy and a form of writing called poetry. I’ve always thought that you could find moments in which the figures of the myth turn into the concepts or abstractions of philosophy.” According to Schwartz, myth is a way of encouraging nature to speak with us by giving it a voice.
That being said, his recent work offers a critique of nature poetry as it stands today. Jokingly, Schwartz referred to mainstream nature poetry as “nature porn.” He said: “Nature poetry reifies or objectifies the natural object away from everything else, in the same way that porn reifies or objectifies and isolates the sexual act.”
Schwartz takes a more holistic approach when writing about nature. “In terms of nature I respond to it both existentially and by way of text,” he said.
Schwartz expounded on the differences between Ecopoetics and nature poetry. “What is ecologically sound or what I call Ecopoetics doesn’t even look like nature poetry on the surface. It has to be as complex as any ecosystem and derive on the interdependencies that an ecosystem has,” Schwartz furthered.
As part of his own codependent relationship, like those found in nature, he cites his current home in the woods of the Pacific Northwest as inspiration, as well as other poetry about this genre, including work by fellow Northwest poet Robin Blaser and his collection titled “The Holy Forest.”
Poetry is not the only complex system in Schwartz’s writing. He also describes the process of writing poetry as being a way of drawing on experience and inspiration from outside texts much like a conversation. That conversation extends to Schwartz’s experience finding a balance in his life as both a professional writer and a teacher.
“At Evergreen State College, where I’m teaching, everything is team taught so I’m always working with someone in a different medium or discipline and learning from that conversation. I’m also engaged with students I’ve taught in a seminar situation,” he explained. “In a seminar you plant a seed and then months later or nine years later the idea emerges,” he added.
Besides being nature inspired, Joyce also described Schwartz’s work as being very muc h grounded in the political. “Everything is political…politics is the art of power and people are always trying to maximize one’s power or distribute power equally or otherwise,” said Schwartz.
That said, he has also addressed current political issues head on in some of his earlier works. Schwartz lived in New York City in the early 2000s and was there during the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. He wrote works in response to his own thoughts about the attacks and their intense social fallout.
For his Vassar visit, he said he was considering the idea of reading a series of his poems called the “Apple Anyone Sonnets” from that period. These poems, while not explicitly political, are curious because they contain keywords in English that are in fact derived from Arabic.
When talking about why he gave himself this constraint while writing his poetry, Schwartz explained, “This was at the time of greatest persistence in the political mainstream that there was a clash of civilizations, that our nation and the Arabic world were so radically other and different to one another…which of course is not true.”
He, however, wanted to demonstrate this false conception more subtly. “You can barely name a piece of fruit without using a word that’s derived from Arabic,” Schwartz laughed. “English and Arabic were so profoundly intertwined that it was absurd to talk about a clash in civilization.”
Schwartz often approaches his process by setting a goal or responding specifically to other writing. His current course at Columbia University is called Ecopoetics: The Black of the Page.
The phrase “working from the black of the page” means writing with prewritten work in front of you, by doing research and finding a topic or structure ahead of time before starting the writing process. Schwartz likened working with language as an artistic material to the unlikely example of working as a sculptor with stone in a quarry.
According to Joyce, this approach gives his work the ability to illuminate while maintaing a strong poetic voice. “His work gives life to complex ideas without losing musical vision,” Joyce said.
Schwartz will be reading at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17 in the Faculty Parlor in Main Building.