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SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Terese Svoboda

Interviewed by Derek Alger

Terese Svoboda is the author of 11 books, including, most recently, Pirate Talk or Mermalade (Dzanc Books, October 1, 2010), a novel told entirely in dialogue about two brothers who meet a mermaid, fall into pirating, and end up in the Arctic; and Weapons Grade: Poems (University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series, September 1, 2009).

A native of Ogallala, Nebraska, Svoboda’s writing has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, among many other literary journals and magazines.

Svoboda graduated from the University of British Columbia, and Columbia University, where she received an MFA. She lived for a year in the Sudan, making documentary films, and has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, The New School, and the University of Hawaii, to name a few.

Her publications include five novels, among them: Tin God (University of Nebraska Press, 2006), A Drink Called Paradise (Counterpoint Press, 1999), and Cannibal (New York University Press, 1995), which won the Bobst Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writer’s Award. Cannibal was also chosen as one of the top ten books of the year by Spin magazine and hailed as a “women’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’”

Svoboda is also the author of the poetry collections, All Aberration (University of Georgia Press, 1985), Laughing Africa (University of Iowa Press, 1990), Mere Mortals (University of Georgia Press, 1995), and Treason (Zoo Press, 2002).

She is the author of a story collection, Trailer Girl and Other Stories (Counterpoint, 2001), and the nonfiction book, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent (Greywolf, 2007).

Derek Alger: Congratulations on your new collection, Weapons Grade.

Terese Svoboda: Zoo Press went out of business shortly after they released my last collection, Treason, and for a long while no one could even buy copies. This was discouraging. The poems in Weapons Grade developed slowly, as my anger toward our occupation of Iraq began to dovetail with my research about our occupation of postwar Japan for my memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent. Not that I didn’t include love poems and poems that enjoy themselves as well.

DA: Since you’ve traveled so extensively, let’s start at the beginning. Where did you spend your childhood?

TS: I am the eldest of nine. We lived in a small town in southwestern Nebraska. My father was a district judge and what is known as a “corn, wheat and beef producer.” He still commutes twenty or more miles to his acreage.

My parents were of the generation that memorized poetry and recited it at the campfire or around the table, and led a Great Books group. My mother painted until about the fifth child. My grandmother gave me ten cents for every book I read during the summer, and I quickly figured out that the poetry books were the thinnest. I had an uncle who published a book of poetry, so I knew it could be done.

The advantage to living in the middle of the country is that when you turn eighteen, you have either coast to escape to. I left for Manhattanville College just outside NYC. My mother went to a Sacred Heart school and assumed I’d be safe there. Ha. Eldridge Cleaver took over the administration building—it was the Sixties! I studied philosophy for two years, spent six weeks studying it at Oxford, and took poetry and painting from Carolyn Stoloff who showed me I could do both.

DA: What came next?

TS: Everyone was an artist then but when the great wave of time pulled back, everyone but me had become doctors or bankers. I left Manhattanville after two years. Since I was paying for my own education, I shopped around. I attended classes at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts because I had a boyfriend who was an ironworker and they were building a brewery there. Then I went to summer school at Stanford where I thought I was going to do a course in radio—I had been an announcer for three years—but instead took creative writing with Ed McClanahan who was a Prankster with Ken Kesey. Educational. Then I enrolled in the University of British Columbia and earned a BFA in Creative Writing and Studio Art. It cost $300 a year and I had a scholarship.

Such a fabulous place—why did I leave?

DA: New York City was beckoning.

TS: I loved the anonymous feeling of New York, I loved to travel without going anywhere. There are eight languages spoken on my block so I am surrounded by people I know but I don’t understand a word they’re saying. A little like living in a big family.

DA: What did you do when you first arrived in New York?

TS: I did two stints at Columbia’s MFA program.

DA: What did you do during your gap at Columbia?

TS: I went around the world for the Smithsonian’s National Film Archives, spending six months in Cook Islands in the Pacific and then a year in Sudan. I had received a PEN/Columbia scholarship to translate the songs of the Nuer, a people living in south Sudan. After I returned, I got an NEH translation fellowship to complete the project, which resulted in Clean The Crocodile’s Teeth, published by Greenfield Review Press. After Columbia, I wrote grants for a living, specializing in film. I was one of the producers for the PBS series, Voices & Visions, and later made my own art videos.

DA: Your ten videos have been featured at the American Film Institute and the Museum of Modern Art and many museums abroad.

TS: Those years were the Wild West of video-making, with the technology finally available to anyone. I very much enjoyed making stories out of whatever footage came my way. Eventually, I co-curated a show for the Museum of Modern Art called “Between Word and Image,” titled after an influential essay on video by Octavio Paz.

DA: Your first poetry collection, All Aberration, was an impressive debut.

TS: It was published nearly ten years after getting my MFA—about right for shaking off influences and finding something to say.

DA: Tell us about Laughing Africa and how that collection came about?

TS: I was so excited after I wrote the title poem, I sent it everywhere, even to The Nation—and it was pages and pages! Eventually, Derek Walcott published it in Ploughshares.

DA: I find it hard to believe you ever had difficulty writing stories.

TS: I would have been perfectly happy to continue writing poetry—I love writing poetry. But I had a story I desperately wanted to tell about my filmmaking experience in Africa and it wouldn’t fit in a poem. But, like many poets, I couldn’t write a sentence. I was fortunate having studied writing at the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate where the emphasis was on writing all genres. After Columbia, I studied with William Melvin Kelley, writing, in the end, a hundred short stories before I managed to get one to work. I actually counted. Later I took a course with the irascible Gordon Lish who legitimized my voice (not that he would put it that way!). After thirty-odd versions of my African novel, I started completely over. At least by then I knew the plot, the hardest aspect of fiction-writing for a poet.

DA: You must have been a good student; your first novel, Cannibal, was hailed as a “women’s Heart of Darkness.”

TS: I was blessed with a quote.

DA: Your next poetry collection, Mere Mortals, came out at the same time. And then you published a second novel, A Drink Called Paradise.

TS: Mere Mortals contains a bizarre reworking of “Faust” in blank verse, and a long poem, “Ptolemy’s Rules for High School Reunions,” which was great fun. A Drink Called Paradise was a conflation of my experience in the Cook Islands and what happened to the Marshall Islanders—and much of the French Pacific—after 300 atomic bombs were tested there in the Sixties. I was teaching in Hawaii when Cannibal came out, and I suppose being there for a year was also an influence on that book.

DA: Did you have plans to teach?

TS: I began by teaching in Poets-in-the-Schools but for the most part, I avoided being a teacher. I felt I knew so little. Economic need overcame my qualms.

DA: But you’ve had positive experiences teaching.

TS: Many. Teaching for the Poetry Society of America, in residence at the public library in Spring Valley, a stint at Sarah Lawrence, and then many, many more colleges. But no one except the Hawaiian faculty ever bestowed me with a flower crown!

DA: You published a memorable collection, Trailer Girl: And Other Stories.

TS: I gave Counterpoint a collection of stories and a novel, asking them to choose. Their decision was to put them together. I’m not sure that that was the best way to go, at least from a marketing standpoint, but I’m very proud of the book.

DA: It’s difficult to forget your novel, Tin God, which starts with “This is God.”

TS: I spent a very long time agonizing about point-of-view with the African book, Cannibal. How could I do third person when I knew so little about the narrator’s situation in Africa—I had no authority, and the boyfriend was possibly CIA. I settled for an extremely close first person. The narrator could trust only what she saw. Choosing God as a point-of-view was a logical step, especially since God is a Midwestern, middle-aged woman. My eight siblings concur.

DA: Tell us about the evolution of your recent nonfiction book, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent?

TS: Years ago, at a wedding reception, my uncle accosted me with “Do I have a story for you,” a line many writers have heard from their relatives. He had been an MP guarding an American stockade in postwar Japan. I told him to put his story on tape and then we’d talk, figuring he’d forget about it. Years after that, he fell into a serious depression. My father suggested I ask him about his story. He had indeed begun to put it on tape. Every time he sent me one, I called to say how great it was—detailed, funny, exotic, even a love interest. Then school started, I got busy and didn’t call. He committed suicide. Eventually I listened to that last tape and what he revealed about that stockade and its gallows drove me into another genre.

DA: So, what comes next?

TS: I have two novels coming out: Pirate Talk or Mermalade this fall, a story in voices about two pirates who end up in the Arctic, and Bohemian Girl—my answer to Willa Cather—a novel about a girl held hostage by a mound-builder rescued by a Civil War balloonist. Enough said.

—More biographical info at Terese Svoboda’s website


SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Derek Alger

is a graduate of the MFA fiction-writing program at Columbia University, and currently editor-at-large at Pif Magazine, where many of his interviews with writers are published. His most recent fiction has appeared in Confrontation, The Literary Review, Del Sol Review, and Writers Notes.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury