Contributor Spotlight: Heather Swan

Heather Swan author photoHeather Swan’s piece “Liberty” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

Although I have lived on both coasts and in Colorado, and, for a while, Nepal, much of my life has happened in the Midwest. My work is threaded with aspects of the Midwestern landscape––what light does to fields at different times of the day, of the year, which birds are singing, the drama of the harsh winters, the ecstasy of seeing a crocus emerging from the snow in spring…

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

It’s always funny to me when I hear someone say that they find the Midwest to be lacking in natural beauty. While we don’t have mountains or oceans, we have undulating hills, gorgeous lakes of many sizes, prairies, forests, bogs, fens, drumlins, creeks, valleys full of Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susans…so much understated beauty, which I feel we need to work to protect.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

There are many places, and specific times, from my childhood that inform who I am in ways I can’t even comprehend, and I know that I am probably always writing to try to figure those things out. One example would be a barn we lived in with my mother when we couldn’t afford an apartment. We put hats on at night because there were so many bats living in there with us, and my mother didn’t want them to get caught in our curly hair. She named all of the insects and animals. Any bat was called “Angel” and the wasps were all called “Winthrop”…She did not want the nonhumans to be something separate or frightening. My identity has been shifted by that time and place, certainly. But more generally, I would say that the prairies and the woods of the midwest are where I feel most centered and connected, and where much of my writing happens.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

I think I write around an idea or a question for a long time with poems which approach understanding it from a variety of perspectives. And the way I enter those poems is always a surprise. Like being on a treasure hunt and finding some clue as you’re walking around in your day and then thinking: Oh! That’s part of it. And then I write into that unexpected clue to learn what it has to offer, what part of the mystery it’s holding.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I think as a poem begins, however it begins, with an image or a question or an ache, almost immediately it creates its own parameters which dictate form and rhythm and diction. My own practice is to try to figure those out and then fiddle within that set of guidelines that the poem demands until it seems to be doing what it set out to do. And some poems stay unresolved for a long time. It requires both attention and distance, I think, to get it. I feel really lucky when a poem finally sounds unified and compete.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

Hmmm…such a hard question, a bit like asking painters to name their favorite color maybe! I will say that one writer who has had a huge influence on me is Jane Hirshfield. When I discovered her spare, beautiful poems, years ago now, they spoke to me of the honest nuances of being human in ways that other poets had not. In person, she is generous, fully present, and wise as well. More recently, Ross Gay’s work has been crucial to me, as it as it so elegantly encapsulates both the great suffering and the miraculous beauty of being alive in our human bodies.

What’s next for you?

I am just finishing up two poetry manuscripts. One of them deals primarily with the relationship we (both human and nonhuman beings) have with pesticides. As I wrote my nonfiction book about honeybees, I became painfully aware of how many chemicals we interact with on a daily basis. I also continue to write nonfiction about environmental and other issues that we face in our current historical moment.

Where can we find more information about you?

My book Where Honeybees Thrive is forthcoming from Penn State Press in October, and I also have work at Edge Effects and other online and print journals.

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