Q&A: Tree Swenson Leaves Academy

Catherine Richardson
From the May/June 2012 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For more than forty years, Tree Swenson has dedicated herself to the promotion of literature across the country. As cofounder, in 1972, of the Port Townsend, Washington–based Copper Canyon Press, she helped build a nationally recognized house devoted specifically to poetry. After two decades there, she moved on to earn a master’s degree in public administration, motivated by the belief that literature, just like the more robustly supported fields of theater and the visual arts, needs a body of trained professionals to nurture its creative workers and bring their efforts to an audience. After a decade of putting her degree into action as director of programs at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, in 2002 Swenson assumed the post of executive director of the Academy of American Poets in New York City, where she has overseen the development of poets.org, National Poetry Month, the annual Poets Forum festival, and Poem in Your Pocket Day. In January Swenson announced that, after ten years, she would be stepping down at the Academy in the spring to return to the Pacific Northwest, where she will take on the role of executive director of the Richard Hugo House, a Seattle literary center. Before exiting New York, Swenson spoke about leaving one dream job for another.

What informed your decision to leave the Academy?
I’ve been on the East Coast for twenty years, and I’ve known from the beginning that eventually I would move back to the Pacific Northwest. It’s the territory where my soul resides, and there was a confluence of factors that led to this decision. I believe that change is healthy, both for individuals and organizations, and it seemed like ten years was a substantial chunk of time to spend at the Academy. This was actually my dream job from way back when, to do something that would allow me to look at the whole of what’s going on in contemporary poetry. 

Do you have specific plans for Richard Hugo House?
My philosophy when I came to the Academy was not that I was coming in here with an agenda. I think that when you have a vital organization it would be foolhardy for a director to think she could come in and immediately know what should be done. Also, it’s not as if the director is the organization. It’s board members, staff members, and all kinds of people who are invested in its work. So in a way the director is more like a conductor—trying to find the tune and bring all the different elements into harmony so great things can happen.

So you’re looking forward to getting there, getting the lay of the land.
Yes, and getting back in touch with the Seattle literary community, which is really active. I need to find out what the community needs before heading off in any direction. I will say that I have long thought every city in America ought to have a thriving, throbbing literary center as part of the cultural landscape, just like every great city should have visual-arts museums and operas and jazz clubs—it’s important that cities have places where writers can congregate.

What will be new about your role at Hugo House?
All my life I’ve been devoted to the idea of the national, if not the international. When we were starting Copper Canyon, I did not want to be the publisher of a small, local literary press that published only local authors. I wanted to be a national presence. So I’ve been really devoted to the idea of the larger conversation. And this is a chance to put my feet on the ground in a different way and engage with a very specific community. It’s a total shift in the trajectory of my work.             

Catherine Richardson is an editor at Phantom Limb Press and the managing editor of Washington Square.

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