POET INTERVIEW – LINDA BAHEN SWENSKI
We’ve all come to know Linda Bahen Swenski through her personal and dynamic work here at Poetic Bloomings. She is one of those who is sorely missed when she can’t make it over here to share the fruit of her muse with us.
You will want to read Linda’s Memoir Project chapbook, “I Hope I Have Learned Something,” if you have not already done so. I asked Linda to share one of her “favorite” poems with us. She chose to share “Good-Bye,” from this very chapbook.
GOOD-BYE (by Linda Bahen Swenski)
There is no easy way to say good-bye.
I want to hug and hold you, not to cry.
But mixed with happy memories I had before
I feel the fear that I can’t bear them anymore.
Though friends and neighbors offer their support,
my total grief does my faulty smile distort.
For with you, something in us all will die—
there is no easy way to say good-bye.
And so together we should face our grief at home,
for in the end our fear is being left alone.
We will never heal our hearts, and yet we try—
there is no easy way to say good-bye.
I know that there were times we fought with rage.
My memory scrapbook doesn’t seem to have that page.
No consoling words erase the need to cry.
There is no easy way to say good-bye.
There is a part of you that lives on too—
a treasure chest of memories that I shared with you.
These loving thoughts will help me to get by.
There is no easy way to say good-bye.
So through my sorrow I must face another day.
No soft shoulder serves to take the pain away.
And though my heart is breaking, my eyes are dry—
there is no easy way to say good-bye.
If to us a thousand lifetimes more were left,
the final end would leave me still bereft.
So with prayer or song or quiet or tear-filled eye,
there is no easy way to say good-bye.
LINDA: This poem is one of my favorites because it got me through one of the toughest times of my life so far: the death of my Father. I wrote it in the shower where I was being cleansed as much by my tears as by the showerhead. It was one of those poems that just fell out of my head. I certainly didn’t set out to write a poem to my dead father in the shower. But there it was.
Since then, I have often sent this poem to friends and relatives who have lost a parent or other dear one. It seems to carry a universal truth that sums up how many of us feel when faced with this type of tragedy. We have mixed feelings that are impossible to sort out because they are boiling in a soup of uncontrollable emotions. I know that this poem has become part of some peoples’ memorial books for their loved ones, and I feel honored by this. But more importantly, it helped me to get through a very difficult time and deal with a terrible loss the only way I knew how. In this case I chose a poem for its function over its form. I have probably written poems that were more structurally sound or graphically beautiful, but I have never written one more personally meaningful.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you for sharing this with us again, Linda. It truly is meaningful – dense with memory and emotion, and an excellent write.
I see that you are a Speech Language Pathologist. That seems somehow appropriate. How did you get into this profession?
LINDA: Oh you will LOVE the answer to this question. I wanted to be an elementary school teacher from a very young age, but when my Mother saw the college course catalog and what I would be taking, (things like English for the Elementary School Teacher, and Math for the Elementary School Teacher) she said that there was no way that she would pay for such stupid college courses. So I went to my second choice which was Social Worker. My Father said there was no way he would pay for me to be trained to go into some inner city and get myself killed. I said, I was out of ideas because that is what I had always wanted to do. My Mother, having been looking through that course catalog, said, “How about being a Speech Therapist.” I was furious at this point and just said, “FINE.” And that is how I chose my profession.
Having told this story, I could not possibly have picked a better career. I have been a Speech Pathologist for going on 40 years and I truly love it. There is flexibility in being a speech pathologist in that you can work in the schools, in hospitals, for an agency, open your own clinic, or even work from home. That makes it great for mothers and for people who get easily bored with one setting. Maybe mother does know best.
MARIE ELENA: You are absolutely right – I DO love your response to this question! What an amazing story! You need to write a poem about that. 😉
What exactly do you do in your line of work?
LINDA: I have for most of my career worked with those who have severe disabilities, rather than those who have minor articulation or language issues. Many of my clients have been unable to speak at all, and my job has been to come up with alternative ways for them to communicate, whether it was with sign language, pictures, a communication device, or a gesture system. Other times I have been able to retrain someone who has completely lost their speech abilities through stroke or accident, or who never developed speech skills to begin with and enabled them to use speech to communicate. It has been a challenge and very rewarding.
MARIE ELENA: That’s just so admirable, Linda. I can only imagine how challenging and rewarding it really is.
Is there any correlation between your work with words verbally, and your passion for the written word?
LINDA: There surely must be. A lot of people say that I have a way with words when I am speaking, but I certainly feel that my words are improved by the careful consideration and review I can give them when they are written down. And again, I would say that because of the work I do, I tend to put much more emphasis on the meaning of words than their appearance or structure. Although I often hear that a picture is worth a thousand words, I do not see that as an obstacle, I see it as a challenge. How few words can I use to paint that perfect picture? I would love to get it down to a sentence!
MARIE ELENA: That is how I see it as well. Most often, the poetry I am most impressed with is that which says much in few words. It’s just my personal preference.
In your poem “When YOU Were Alive,” (from your chapbook) you say, “So I tried to explain a large concept to a small child in words he could grasp.” I must tell you, that line endears me to you. Do you consider this to be a learned skill? Part of speech therapy, in a way?
LINDA: I think you have put your finger on something here. If you look at my poetry, I tend to stay away from humongous words, difficult phrasing, and obscure references. Although I love to read poetry that is complex and abstract, I tend to write in very simple and concrete terms. Many poets do a fantastic job of allowing the reader to take their words and create their own interpretations of their poems, making them personally meaningful. When I write a poem, I usually have a specific idea I would like to share, and I try to be as concise and direct as I can. I sometimes take the point of view of a human trying to explain a common experience to an Alien from another planet. I like to pare feelings and experiences down to their most understandable form, then to demonstrate their significance to us all. I think it would be rare to get to the end of one of my poems and not be certain of exactly what I was trying to say. It probably does come from my speech pathology background. Every part and position of every word carries meaning. The –ed or –ing at the end of words, the re- or ex- at the beginning of words, and the work order and punctuation of each sentence all change the meaning of what is being said if it isn’t done correctly. Those nuances are just as important in speech as they are in poetry.
I spent a lot of time when my kids were little trying to use the correct words with them. One of my favorite stories about this is when my 5 year old son had heard the word, “prostitution” on the news and being a curious soul asked me what it meant. I, of course, was stunned by the question, but I believed in never lying to my children, so I told him that I was busy fixing dinner and would he please ask me later (giving me some time to think and hoping he might forget). He did not forget, and asked me again later, but having had time to think about it, this is the information I gave him: Prostitution is when someone, usually a woman, does something illegal for money. This satisfied his curiosity, contained no untruths, and when he was older was easily reconciled with the full definition. He is 32 now and says that one thing he always appreciated was that I didn’t lie to him and I always tried to find answers to his questions. It would sure be a lot easier now with Google! I try to do the same in my poems. I try to be honest and to share all the necessary information as simply as I can.
MARIE ELENA: Oh, that is just all so excellent. The more you tell me about yourself, the more I can see how your basic personality suits your career perfectly.
One of your favorite quotes is this: “Life is too short for drama and petty things, so kiss slowly, laugh insanely, love truly and forgive quickly.” I Googled it, and it seems the author is unknown. I can relate to the sentiment 100%. What would you consider your main source of “drama,” and what do you do to curb it?
LINDA: To me “drama” is the need to justify the overblown emotions we sometimes experience when the words or actions of others are not compatible with our own expectations.
MARIE ELENA: Great explanation.
LINDA: We sometimes make it worse by exaggerating, involving folks who have no business being involved, and making trouble where there doesn’t need to be any. What do I do to curb it? I write! When I am feeling excessive emotions over something that has been done or said, I write a letter to the person or persons I feel are responsible. I tell them that I am, of course, right, and they are incredibly wrong. I vent my anger, puzzlement, frustration, disgust, indignation, and sadness in all their glory. Then I put the letter in a drawer. I pull it out and read it whenever the need for drama washes over me, usually several times over the course of a day or two. Then, when I feel they surely must know how I feel from the exquisite way I have expressed myself, I tear up the letter and throw it away, completely satisfied with no one the wiser. Writing for me, in this case, allows me the freedom to express feelings that are sometimes best not shared, may be damaging or hurtful, but need to be dealt with in order for my mind to be peaceful. As you have probably guessed, some of my poems have come from just such drama.
MARIE ELENA: Linda, I have one sister, and no brothers. Tell me about growing up in a relatively large family. Then feel free to brag about them.
LINDA: My family is not as big as many, but it certainly made me who I am. I am the oldest of 5 kids, 17 years older than my youngest sibling. Since my Mother was only 18 years older than me, I felt more like a mom that a sister a lot of the time. I had a lot of responsibility growing up which I hated, but it was a huge character builder.
I never had a room of my own until I graduated from college. I could not wait to have a place over which I truly had control! It was an actual goal in my life to live by myself for at least one year before I got married. I happily lived on my own for 3 years. Aside from all the years with my family learning to accommodate and compromise, it was the most important time of my life. I was finally able to see what I could do on my own. I could see myself as a separate entity, not dependent upon or responsible for others. It was very freeing.
When you are in a large family, everything you do affects others. John Bradford, who has written many books about families and how family members affect each other, pictures it like a mobile. When all the pieces are hanging from a mobile and you touch or move any one of them, all of the other pieces are affected as well, sometimes for a long time. The larger the family, the more pieces of the mobile there are and there is more movement and greater disruption.
I think I would be a very different person if I had come from a small family. I think I have a tendency toward selfishness and that was definitely tempered by having to be considerate of so many other people. I have both a strong need for alone time and for time with friends and family. I think both of those needs were strengthened by my long-term large group experience. Perhaps the most significant thing I gained from having such a large family is tolerance. We used to argue for entertainment. We loved to disagree. But we were always respectful of those who did not share our viewpoints, because we had to be. In a large family you MUST learn to agree to disagree.
My family has, of course, continued to grow. Two of my sisters and my brother are married and have children. It is glorious to have in-laws and nieces and nephews added to my birth family. I am married and my husband has two sisters, but after 35 years of marriage they and their families seem like blood relations as well. I have a terrific son, 32, who has been with his significant other for over 10 years, and a lovely daughter, 22, who is also in a long term relationship and will be graduating from The Ohio State University May 5. I am waiting patiently for a wedding and a grandchild, but these things can’t be rushed. I am willing to wait until the time is right, not that I really have a choice.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you for generously sharing your family with us. How lovely they are!
Now, just for fun: You’ve experienced the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and present decade. Which one would you choose to spend the rest of your life in, and why?
LINDA: I would have to say the 70’s if I had to pick one, since it was really the decade of most importance in my life. I graduated high school and college, lived on my own for the first time, got married, bought my first house, and got pregnant. Essentially it was the decade in which I changed from a child into a responsible adult. It was also a decade of change and social revolution for blacks and women. It may have started in the 60s but it became a reality in the 70’s. I also love the music of the 70’s, it was free and experimental and every time I hear a classic rock song I am right back there in my mind. In all honesty, though, it is probably just nostalgia that would make me choose the 70’s.
MARIE ELENA: What drew you to poetry, and how old were you when you began writing?
LINDA: My first experience with poetry as a child was probably Nursery Rhymes. I LOVED them, and still as an adult know them all by heart. Then, of course, it was Dr. Seuss, which I read constantly. By the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, I was writing rudimentary poems. Then in sixth grade, my teacher said that I could write a poem for my assignment instead of a composition. Well, poems have WAY fewer words than compositions so I was off and running with that assignment, not realizing how much more difficult poetry can actually be than prose. I quickly became enthralled with the puzzle of trying to fit the right words together and with the magic that occurred when it actually worked. It amazed me that a few words, properly placed, could say infinitely more than a dictionary full of wrong ones.
In High School, a dear friend gave me this poem he had written on a little piece of scrap paper:So here I am again, wide awake, wondering if it’s late or early next morning, so tired I could die but no matter how I try to go to sleep, to get some rest, to find any relief at all, I’m kept awake by the noise of the little man inside my head tacking your picture to his wall.
Nothing he could have said or done could have been a clearer message than those few words on that torn corner of paper. The power of poetry had hit me. Then when I went through a pretty apocalyptic identity crisis a few years later, I got through it by writing it all down in a 24 page epic poem. Oh, yeah, there was a lot of crying and emo too, but honestly that was the beginning of my dealing with strong emotion by writing it out. The poem itself, as you can imagine, was awful. It was filled with rantings about, “what do I matter?” and, “no one cares!” But it did the trick. I read it repeatedly to myself, satisfied that I had captured every self-involved drop of insecurity I could. It was titled, appropriately enough, “If You Care Enough to Read This.” Wow. But after I recovered my sanity, I continued to express myself in poetry. I still have some poems I wrote on the back of paper placemats while I was waitressing my way through college. It has always been a great outlet for me.
MARIE ELENA: You brought out the “puzzle” quality of poetry, which brought out a “duh” moment for me. I have never thought of it in that manner. “It amazed me that a few words, properly placed, could say infinitely more than a dictionary full of wrong ones.” This speaks to me as well.
Linda, do you have a favorite poet, or a favorite style?
LINDA: My favorite poets have always been Emily Dickenson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, probably because I can so clearly relate to the feelings they express. And Emily Dickenson tends to use those simple, meaningful words to which I am drawn. I like different poems depending upon my mood, my mental capacity, and their presentation, but I am always drawn to the simple and direct. A good poem also has a cadence, a rhythm, or a pattern that sweeps me along like music. It is something that just grabs your heart and runs away making you chase it.
MARIE ELENA: Is Poetic Bloomings your first experience in getting your poetic voice “out there?” Was it hard for you to do at first? Or did it just feel “right?”
LINDA: Except for sharing poems with my family, which I have always done, Poetic Bloomings is my first experience sharing them with others. And it did feel “right” from the beginning. The site is so user friendly, the format so welcoming, and all the poets so supportive that it is nearly impossible not to feel at home here.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you, Linda. It really does have a magical quality to it, due to the mix of talent, love of the craft, and love for one another. It never ceases to humble Walt and me. We are so grateful for all of you.
One of my favorite poems of yours is this one, about autism.
AUTISM (by Linda Bahen Swenski)A small sound
the wrong order
lights that are too bright
a slight irritation
food that isn’t bland enough
something that is unexpected
and I blow apart.
MARIE ELENA: These few words are piercing. Do you speak from experience?
LINDA: I have worked with probably close to a hundred children and young adults who are on the autism spectrum. I was fascinated by Autism when I first learned of it 45 years ago while studying to be a speech pathologist. I am no less fascinated by it today. It is often said, “If you meet one person with Autism you have met one person with Autism.” It is disorder that manifests in so many different ways, but even in its mildest forms it can be devastating for the individual and his family. Those of us who have never had to deal with a social/communication disorder will never understand the difficulties it creates.
People with autism are born the same and look the same as anyone else. There is no genetic test for it yet. So for a few years a family has a seemingly normal child. Then, when the diagnosis comes, it is as if the family has to bury the child they thought they had and give birth to this new child of which they have no understanding. It can be heart breaking. This can be true of other disorders as well of course, but we still understand so little of the causes of and treatment for Autism, and there is so much misinformation about it.
MARIE ELENA: “Then, when the diagnosis comes, it is as if the family has to bury the child they thought they had and give birth to this new child of which they have no understanding.” Yes, heartbreaking. And Linda, your poem captures the essence quite effectively.
You seem to recognize that you have a way with words. Do you recognize yourself as a “poet?”
LINDA: I definitely have a poet’s heart. I think poets try to arrange the world with words into a form that can be more easily handled. We like to make it more beautiful, more organized, more meaningful, and more accessible. That is how I see myself as a poet.
MARIE ELENA: Beautiful, Linda. This makes me smile.
Now, as I ask all our guests: if there was only one thing we could know about you, what would you tell us?
LINDA: Who would have thought that THIS would be the tough question for me? I guess I would say that I am a creator. I like to make things. I make poems out of words, but I also knit, cook, crochet, sew, tat, do counted cross stitch, etch glass, make candles, and much more. I have also tried some other things like jewelry making, quilting and basket weaving at which I do not seem as skilled. For me a productive day is a happy day, but there is nothing I like to make more than I like to make new friends.
MARIE ELENA: As my little two-year-old granddaughter would excitedly exclaim (arms spread wide), “All friends here!” Thank you, Linda, for an enjoyable and gratifying look into who you are. I’ve enjoyed this immensely!
More of Linda’s poetry may be found at her Poetic Bloomings Poetic Recollections page: http://poeticbloomings.com/poetic-recollections/linda-swenski/.