UCSC Professor David Swanger is Santa Cruz County's new poet laureate. Photo courtesy of David Chesluk.

City on a Hill Press sat down with Santa Cruz’s newly-appointed poet laureate David Swanger  (and his dog Choco) to talk about poetry, what the post means to him, and the changes he has seen in his 40-odd years at UC Santa Cruz.

CHP: When and how did you decide you wanted to become a poet?

Swanger: I’m not sure there was a decision point, but I began as a short story writer when I was living in England on a one-year fellowship, which I took as a year off from college. I went there and the conditions were ideal for me to become a writer: I was alienated a bit from my surroundings, the weather was damp and clammy, I didn’t know many people, and I had a lot of time on my hands. Then I found myself in graduate school, and emotionally distraught over love affairs. And I started writing poems late in the night, staying up late and writing these poems, which always look good to me at night — but they didn’t look so good in the morning.

So I just started as what I think is an occasional poet, someone who writes when he has some kind of emotional intensity, either an extreme high or an extreme low, and I think a lot of people get started that way. I did that for several years while I was a graduate student. Poetry fits my lifestyle because it’s an amazing art form. You can sit down and get up two or three hours later, sometimes less than that, with a finished work of art. There’s an old saying, “a poem is never finished, it’s merely abandoned.” But you can decide at a certain point, “I’ve got it, I’ve done it.” So it was serendipitous that I became a poet, but the form suited my temperament.
CHP:How has the environment at UCSC changed since you began teaching here in ’71?

Swanger: Well, the times changed. I mean, this was a flagship campus initially — the way Berkeley is sometimes thought of as a flagship campus. It was the hardest one to get into. It was the most creative, the most vibrant in the arts, and a leader in teaching. Most of the classes were small seminars and workshops, and the arts and humanities were dominant.

But then the place grew out of favor, as the environment of the larger world changed and students and their families became more concerned about employability and practical matters, and the campus began to experience a dearth of applicants. And so there were worries. A famous scientist named Robert Sinsheimer was hired as chancellor to transform the campus, and to elevate the sciences. So this place, which didn’t have many graduate programs but had undergraduates, and emphasized the liberal arts — and essentially impractical education, like thinking and imagining — fell out of favor. And Robert Sinsheimer did his job. He transformed the place.
He got a lot more money and funding for the sciences, and graduate programs were started up, largely in the sciences. And in fact, I admired Sinsheimer, even though I disagreed with him, because he was an honest, forthright and effective chancellor. He didn’t affect the university the way I wanted it to go, but nonetheless I admired him. So what I’d say is the arts are now another way of being, but not the prominent way of being on campus.
CHP:What about the poetry scene specifically?

Swanger: Well, I think it’s still a vital celebration here in Santa Cruz. There’s an organization called Poetry Santa Cruz, which sponsors readings. There are at least two bookstores where readings are regularly held, and we have the oldest poetry show in the nation, Sundays on KUSP. Everywhere you turn in Santa Cruz, as a county, you find poetry.

CHP:What, in your opinion, is poetry’s purpose?Swanger: First of all, I don’t like to make pronouncements about poetry. But I think it has many, many benefits. To engage in writing and reading and talking about poetry, it’s an act of the imagination and the creative — it connects you with other people. It’s an imaginative and an empathic act, as well as an intellectual one. But it’s not different from the other arts in this regard. So, I think if one wanted to say “what’s the function of poetry,” you’re also saying, “what’s the function of art?”
CHP:And what is the purpose of a poet laureate?
Swanger: An ambassador on behalf of poetry. I thought I was pretty active as a poet, in giving readings and submitting my work to publishers before this happened, but once the newspaper pronounced I was the poet laureate, suddenly I’m just inundated with interview and reading requests. So I’ll get to go places and do things on behalf of poetry that are exciting to me — in schools, in civic groups, among groups of poets that I know, and among groups that don’t normally engage in poetry. So it’s like having a passport or something. A passport and a ticket.
CHP:What do you do when you’re not writing?
Swanger:Well, my family comes first.  I do whatever I can with my wife and my children, who are grown up now. And I’m a boater — I go out on the water a lot. I ride something called a surf ski, which is a version of kayak with a long fin. And there was a thing about me in the Sentinel before any of this poetry stuff started, because a whale dove right under my boat and a buddy of mine got a picture of it. I think they called that article “Close Encounters of the Cetacean Kind” or something. But anyway, I’m out on the water quite a bit. And as you can see, I like spending time with my dog, Choco.

CHP: What do you hope to work toward as poet laureate of Santa Cruz?

Swanger: I have the usual things, which are to work with poets and to support ongoing and important poetry activities and events. But also I want to reach out to populations that normally don’t have as much access to these conversations. I want to extend my reach as ambassador to places where poetry hasn’t always been so prominent.