Author Highlight: Poet, Collaborator & Community Builder Ellie Swensson
Not all poetry is inspired by rhythm and sound, or pen pressed to paper. For some artists, poetry serves a powerful means toward the ends of collaboration, conversation, and community building.
For a championing example of this poetic model, look no further than Denver-based poet and performer Ellie Swensson.
Creating community through poetry is the beating heart of everything Swensson does: She’s the founder and co-director of Bolder Writers Warehouse, a local mobile writers’ community resource that hosts events, writers groups, and more. And she can be found frequently lending her voice to social advocacy events like Writers for Migrant Justice, an event focused on raising awareness and money for an organization helping to reunite separated immigrant families.
Now, Swensson is reveling in the beauty, horror, excitement, and more of publishing her debut poetry collection, salt of us.
It’s no surprise that Swensson’s first book is a testament to the countless relationships she’s forged with the many local artists she adores. Swensson sat down with us to talk about everything from her decision to move her poetry from the stage to the page, the local artist who inspired her book cover design, and how community collaboration has been the compass guiding the most important decisions behind her first book.
Read the full interview below, and be sure to get your copy of salt of us on November 3rd (or even earlier if you’re a pre-sale Patron, which also gets you entrance to a VIP early release party!).
1. When did you realize you wanted to be an author?
This question is a tricky one for me. At age 7 I knew I wanted to be a writer, but "author" was never a word I aspired to. To be honest, publishing a book is a recent ambition for me.
I've focused most of my creative life on community building, curating events, fostering collaboration, and participating in readings and performances. I bucked against the idea that publishing is the end game of writing, and therefore didn't focus my energy in that direction.
I've made a few small, hand-bound chapbooks just to have something at readings when people asked where they could find my work.
Toward the end of 2017, I realized I needed to step up my game and start thinking about what it would mean for me to have a full-length book.
I still have no idea what it is going to feel like to hold this book in my own hands and to see it held by others. I'm now at a place where I'm genuinely excited by that unknown, and by the opportunity to navigate this additional path for my craft.
2. How did you find your publisher? Did you have any experience with self-publishing before you found your publisher, and if so, what was your journey like?
Punch Drunk Press and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship around this project. PDP founder Brice Maiurro reached out to me in August 2018 offering to publish a collection of my work, but it was put on indefinite hold when he left PDP that fall and the press's publishing future was uncertain.
I went through some serious mourning and rallied hard to put myself back out there — started researching different small presses to see who I would want to work with and where this book might be able to find a home.
I sent my manuscript out to a few places, and there was also a part of me that knew PDP is where I wanted this project to land, somewhere, somehow. A big part of that pull was that I wanted this book to be in community with work I admire, and ever since I read As for the Body by Blake Marcelle, I knew I wanted our books to be brothers and I didn't want to give up on that.
Then Sarah Rodriguez, PDP's reigning editor in chief, contacted me in the spring and said she wanted to re-start the project and everything just started to click back into place. Sarah and I had some really great meetings where we discussed how we could collaborate on this process, and we established from day one that collaboration was crucial to the experience overall.
I wasn't interested in just sending a manuscript and expecting PDP to do all the heavy lifting, and I also wasn't looking to be the driving force of the entire effort. I think we found a really great dynamic in which we each could bring our skills to the table to create something we are truly excited about.
I cannot thank Sarah of PDP enough for reigniting the spark of this project. After that false start in 2018, I needed some serious wind under my wings, and Sarah offered that in spades with her support of me personally and creatively.
If you’re in the Front Range area, you may already know about the enthusiasm and sincerity Sarah brings into a room. She cares about people and she cares about creativity and she cares about cultivating the spaces that bind these two together, and that is exactly the kind of person I want to be working with.
3. What are some challenges you encountered during the publishing process?
Deadlines are brutal. It's all fun and games until you really sit down and realize this is a physical thing you've got to get out into the world, and you have to commit to it.
Also, this is the first time in my entire writing life that I've experienced that period when you hate your own work for a little while. I honestly believed that to be a myth or at least a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that self-doubt and imposter syndrome definitely came on fast and strong when I least expected it.
It's also a challenge to identify what support you are going to need along the way, and I'm really grateful that Sarah gave me the freedom to put together a team I wanted to work on the book (Jona Fine for design, and Michael Malpiedi for distribution/strategy).
These are two people I respect and trust a great deal, and they both have skill sets and experience I lack. Not to mention they are both incredible at supporting me whenever I feel frustrated and stuck either creatively or personally throughout this process.
4. How did you choose your book printer? What was the biggest challenge, surprise, or joy when printing your book?
Part of the collaboration process was really opening up a conversation about aesthetics and the experience of the book as an object.
Sarah, Jona Fine (the book designer), and I met and talked through Sarah's dreams for the press, as well as my personal vision for salt of us, and we identified which elements overlapped and complimented one another. After noting the design elements we wanted, we all kept an eye out for books that fit that model and started noting the printers in publications that caught our eye.
It was an issue of Metrosphere, a MSU student publication, that sealed the deal for me. This art mag is honestly one of the most aesthetically pleasing publications I've encountered in a long while, and when we saw that Frederic Printing was the printer for that project, that's where we ended up.
I think the biggest challenge thus far has been coordinating all the little things and communicating those details to the team, but there can also be joy in that minutiae. Sometimes I love learning the hows and whats of the production process, and sometimes I resent being in the weeds. It's a balance that depends on the day.
5. How did you choose the cover design for your book?
I am so glad you asked this! The story of the book cover is quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of the book.
As soon as Sarah and I met about publishing my book, I knew I wanted Jona to design it. I knew this not because of Jona’s experience at a professional publisher, but because of their understanding that books are sacred objects of creative collaboration and expression.
Jona’s exploration of miniatures, meditations on eros, undying love of typography, and meticulous attention to detail was exactly the kind of artistry I wanted to engage with.
For a while we considered a minimalistic, typographical cover, but then we started talking about red brick dust, dirt, and texture. We didn't have a solid direction for a while, and one evening while I was walking to the train home from work I was overcome with an idea — I knew I wanted to ask Daisy Patton, one of my favorite living artists, if I could use one of her images for the book.
I’ve been following Daisy’s work for a few years, and although we have never met in person, we have corresponded through the weirdly small world of Instagram since last spring.
During our conversations, she invited me to her studio which was in Denver at the time, and although I was unable to make it, the hospitality of that offer stuck with me. I was struck by the kindness of this stranger who just “gets it” in a really generous, genuine way.
Fast forward a year, and I have this strong vision of Daisy’s image on my cover. Her paintings have so much texture, memory, joy, reverence, and this wild poise that's really evocative to me, and all of those elements felt like they'd make just the right kind of welcome and invitation to my poems. So I did the scary thing I hate doing — I asked for something.
I sent Daisy a message, asking if she’d ever had her art on a book cover and if she’d be open to me using an image of hers for mine. Without hesitation, Daisy sent an enthusiastic yes, and invited me to pick any image or detail I was drawn to from her gallery.
Again, she issued me an incredibly kind and hospitable invitation, and this time I was able to wholeheartedly — and a bit tearfully — accept. The main image of the cover is a detail from her larger than life painting “Untitled (The Gardener)”.
Every time I see this cover art, it reminds me that no book — and arguably no work of art, period — is created in isolation. It reminds me to take care of myself, of my community, to pay attention to intention, to be conscious of impact, to engage with honest invitations, to trust the process, and to lean into patience without negating my ambition.
It's overwhelming to me in the best of ways and feels like a really strong testament to the book's overall goal and purpose.
6. Do you have any advice for self-published authors looking to find a publisher?
Notice what you notice. That's one of the simplest and best pieces of advice I've ever received.
All credit is due to Reed Bye, who shared that sentiment during his Dharma Arts lecture at Naropa's Summer Writing Program. I've found it really applies to every part of the artistic process, including publishing.
Notice the books and publications you're drawn to — the typography, the dimensions, the paper weight, the page count. Notice the writers that inspire and challenge you — the publishers they work with, the writers they collaborate with, the stylistic choices they make. Notice the publishers that you respect — where they sell their books, who they are publishing, what events they are attending and promoting.
All those pieces can come together to inform a unique path that leads to your own book, from design to distribution to promotion. And that path can lead toward publishing with a company or a self-publishing on your own.
I truly don't think there's a right or wrong choice there. Just, notice what you notice.
7. What book should everyone read right now?
I'm torn between three books here:
- Dispatches against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco's Housing Wars by James Tracy
- How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz
- Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color edited by Christopher Soto
The first two are very informative texts on gentrification/displacement in the US. I think it is crucial for artists to understand the process of gentrification and displacement as we are usually heavily implicated in that progression through cultural capital and innovation — turning warehouses into galleries, participating in public art “beautification” or “rejuvenation” projects, etc.
These practices are by no means inherently problematic, but if they are perpetuated without an understanding of cultural history/appropriation and the language developers use to justify rent and property value increases, artists will continue to serve as a means to an end.
We have to understand the deeply rooted causal relationships of which we are a part and start interrogating and reforming our participation in community building. Who are we creating for? What stories are we telling? What space are we taking? How can we increase access and visibility?
The last recommendation is an anthology everyone should experience. Through a combination of new and familiar poetic voices, Nepantla provides an intersectional testimony of queerness that is CRUCIAL to witness and honor.
The book is filled with potent moments of intimacy, fierceness, trauma, joy, resilience, suffering...a phrase that comes to mind for me is that this book has necessary teeth and tenderness.
Ellie Swensson is a queer southern ex-pat currently writing poems in Denver, CO. She earned her MFA from Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in 2015. She is the founder and co-director of Bolder Writers Warehouse with Emily Duffy, a mobile writers’ community resource. Swensson is a firm believer that poetics is what occurs where eros, divinity, and careful craft intersect. Her poems are published in a handful of places you may know, but she prefers her words alive in the mouth and the body. Pre-order her debut poetry collection, salt of us, from Punch Drunk Press today »
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