Ellie Swensson on Potluck Power and the Poetry of salt of us

Ellie Swensson
Ellie Swensson Mick McClelland
Colorado poet Ellie Swensson believes in the power of community. This is borne out by how she's planning her upcoming book-launch events for her debut collection, salt of us: with potlucks, friends and maybe a little dance. We caught up with Swensson to talk about her work, her life, and the events surrounding the launch of her first collection, salt of us: a community potluck on November 3, and a book release at Boulder Creative Collective on November 7. Here's what she had to say.

Westword: Punch Drunk Press and ReCreative are co-hosting the community potluck on November 3 to celebrate the publication of your new collection, salt of us. What do you have planned for that night, and why a potluck?

Ellie Swensson: I'm a big believer that no art is truly made in isolation, so I knew I wanted my book release events to be social gatherings to bring community together. This book coming to life means there are a whole lot of people who deserve to celebrate, and what better way to be in community than a potluck? Food is such a fundamental connector, and a potluck is an ideal way to resource-share. The goal is to create an event that feels pretty much like an indoor block party — we'll have the potluck spread out to start, followed by a stellar lineup of performances, and then we'll wrap up the night with book signing and just kicking it. I wouldn't be surprised if I found a way to work some dancing time in there, too.

The performers for the night are Jesse Lee Pacheco [creator of the art zine Sharkwater], Sarah Touslee [director and producer of Murmuration] and Blake Marcelle [author of As for the Body], all of whom are powerhouses in their own right.

click to enlarge PUNCH DRUNK PRESS
Punch Drunk Press
I have to ask: favorite potluck dish? I'm a staunch deviled egg guy myself.

Nice. I support your love of deviled eggs, and raise you some good old-fashioned Southern potato salad.

And what about the more official release party you have planned for November 7 at Boulder Creative Collective?

That's interesting... I'd say "official" misses the mark here. The party at Boulder Creative Collective is going to still be very community-centric, with a set list of six performers, all of whom have contributed to the Bolder Writers Warehouse project in various ways through the years. We’ll also have a table where attendees can make their own collage art using printed pages from my book, water color, salt, and other collage materials. It’s an evening dedicated to co-creation — I want my book to be something that people engage with and make new, and encouraging attendees to cut up and rearrange pages from my book into their own creations is really exciting to me.

Performers for November 7 include Sarah Richards Graba [a member of collective.aporia], Jona Fine [editor of Le Petit Press], Sarah Rodriguez [editor-in-chief of Punch Drunk Press], and Emily Duffy [co-founder of Tart Parlor], plus encore sets from Jesse Lee Pacheco and Blake Marcelle.

I sense a strong community theme here, which makes sense; a lot of your work has centered around the building and supporting of both an artistic and a social-justice community. I want to get to those specifics in a moment, but first talk a little more about why community writ large is so vital to you and your work?

There's a deep-rooted mythos about writing as a solitary activity and writers as loners — but I think writing is a team sport. Even if your writing practice is you alone in a room, each word that hits that screen or that page is never evoked in a vacuum. We all carry the imprint of material we read, workshops we attend, events we participate in, professors we learn from, editors we trust, collaborators we connect with, and an endless list of external influences and inspirations that make it into your work. There's visual art and lyrics and advertisements and church hymns and scent memory and standup and recipes and myriad other things that create this swirling vernacular of past and present daily experience. And all that is before we even get to hauntings, epigenetics, oral histories... . Honestly, I feel like this list is never-ending. 

Writing is never alone, even if it feels lonely. Because of that, I want my writing — as well as the events I curate and support — to be outward -facing. I want to be breaking the echo chamber and this self-fulfilling prophecy of scarcity that perpetuates artists creating in silos. We are told over and over that resources for arts communities are decreasing — grant funding, venue and studio space, academic programs — so how do we survive in that? We have to connect, and we have to talk about resource sharing and tapping into our own abundance. Because it's there. How do we establish alternative modes of value? How can we collaborate? What do our experiences offer? Are there personal networks and connections we can open-source to increase access? What space should we be holding, and what space should we be yielding?

So that community focus is a two-way street. It's what creates the work, and it's also what the work is dedicated to creating.

One of your accomplishments has been to found and co-direct the Bolder Writers Warehouse. Tell us how that started, how things are going, and what your proudest moment in that work has been?

BWW started out of a series of community conversations when I was still living in Boulder. A group of local poets, mostly Naropa alumnis, started meeting and talking about what it would be like to have a physical place for us to host readings, workshops, general gatherings, and possible also to have a shop of local art. These conversations started up when we lost the old Innisfree storefront on the Hill, and I remember Joe Braun, Jonathan Montgomery, Mike Malpiedi, Eric Fischman, Matt Clifford, Craig Collier and I were all trying to co-vision this space and what the community might want to see in it. I think it's really important to note here that while I got a lot out of these conversations, these gatherings were mostly men and all of us are white. That's critical to name when we are talking about communities — you have to name who was in the room, and maybe more importantly, who wasn't.

In these conversations, we went back and forth on the necessity of physical space, and I was one of the loudest advocates for us having a physical location. It felt like a necessary stance to take in a place that was still claiming artists and poets as the cultural lifeblood of the city while we were actively being displaced — from homes, studios and venues — because of rent increases. I remember these conversations were all pretty calm and conceptual, but there was a huge fire that lit in me, and I started throwing everything I had at making this idea a reality. Fast-forward a few years, and I was lucky enough to connect with Boulder Creative Collective and throw them the idea of having a writers' studio in their mostly visual-arts space.

I put together a GoFundMe campaign, and we raised over $4,500 to make it happen. We opened our doors in July 2016, and over the course of about two years we hosted over sixty workshops, dozens of readings, editing groups, weekly open-studio hours, and a bunch of one-off events like a maker's fair, Dadaist Game Night, and book releases. My proudest moments, though, came when I negotiated contracts to get poets paid for their poetry and performance. Giving a poet a check that has "Poetry" on the memo line was a really amazing experience; artists are so often expected to offer their work and their time for no compensation other than "exposure," and we are also told that if we accept money for our art, then we become sell-outs. Talk about a problematic, self-deprecating narrative. Artists create value in the world, and they deserve value in return. Eric Fischman actually wrote an article about that experience that was published on the Boulder Poetry Tribe website.

We moved out of the physical space in 2018, because I couldn't sustain the financial strain of keeping up with the rent. I took a step back and recalibrated, because I knew the project wasn't done, but it needed a new evolution that was more sustainable and agile. Last year, Emily Duffy joined as a co-director for BWW, and since then we've presented at two national conferences, co-hosted a quarterly reading series with Kleft Jaw Press, and collaborated with Natalie Earnhardt on the Writers for Migrant Justice reading. We've focused a lot on supporting other organizations and reading series happening in the region. There is so much good work happening in our local and national communities, we want to serve as connectors. We are working on some really exciting projects to further that mission. These ideas have been brewing for a while, and we are almost ready to launch some, so you'll want to keep an eye out for that, for sure.

Let's talk more about the book. How did you bring all of these poems together? Were most of them written for the collection specifically, or were these collected over time, one by one?

The pieces for salt of us represent a pretty wide span of time. There's a poem in the collection from as early as April 2012 and as recent as March of this year. Sequencing them all was a hefty task. I have a few different poetic voices, and it was important to me that this collection showcased that dynamic. Poetry collections often are very focused in their scope, and this collection breaks that norm. I want readers to feel empowered in their own voices, to feel called to empathy and solidarity, to feel challenged to examine their various identities and how those identities walk in the world.

Who are your poetic influences?

Does this article have a word limit? Because that's a big one. If we're talking writers I admire, Dianne DiPrima, Anne Sexton, Selah Saterstrom, Audre Lorde and Denise Duhamel all have pieces that feel like home to me and that challenge me to make my words do some deep, necessary work. If we're talking performance, HR Hegnauer, Blake Marcelle, TC Tolbert, Mick McClelland and Shay Reynolds all have performances that replay in my head again and again and remind me why poetry is so potent when expressed through the body. If we're talking local community members that are doing the WORK and holding it down, Eli Whittington, Emily Duffy, Toluwanimi Obiwole, Ladyspeech and Suzi Q Smith.

Music is also a huge part of my process. For this collection specifically, there are some songs that played on loop during the writing and editing process, and I feel like they have their fingerprints all over the pages. If you know me well, this list will make a ton of sense: "Pony," by Ginuwine; "I Need a Forest Fire," by James Blake; "Cost Your Love," by Miya Folick; "I Like That," by Janelle Monáe; "Possum Kingdom," by Toadies "Your Best American Girl," by Mitski; "Midnight Mischief (Tom Misch Remix)," by Jordan Rakei; and "GLOWED UP," by KAYTRANADA and Anderson .Paak.

What do you hope readers take away from reading the collection itself? What themes are you playing with there?

This book is a celebration and a rebuttal. It's a political proclamation and a drag show and a family recipe. It's my futch anthem and my Southern blessing. We are all full of contradictions, and we've got to lay those contradictions out with compassion and serious self-reflection. And we've got to dance, y'all. We have to foster joy in ourselves and in our communities.

How do Denver and Boulder's writing scenes — or is it one big scene at this point? — play a role in your work?

It for sure isn't one big scene, and that has its pros and cons. Assimilation is really dangerous, since it tends to lead to cultural erasure; it's a lot more than just Boulder and Denver. Longmont, Nederland and Aurora all have really strong poetry communities, too, and that's just what I know of. There's definitely been an increase in collaboration and crossover, but each place has its own microcosms and its own infrastructures. There are multiple references to local poets, events and places in the book, so that influence is pretty clear. These are the voices and the spaces in which my poetics started to find its way. This book wouldn't exist without them.

What do you consider the most unexpectedly poetic place in Colorado?

This is a really great and terrible question all at once. How the heck do I choose just one? I feel like every place has the potential to be unexpectedly poetic if you're paying attention. That said, I have a soft spot for alleys, and two specifically come to mind: the alley beside Kitchen's Ink with the ReCreative banner, and the alley between Buffalo Exchange and Queen City General Store on 13th.  

Back to potlucks one last time: If salt of us was a potluck dish, what would it be?

Probably my grandmother's cheese biscuits. If you're curious to know why — or if you've never had a homemade cheese biscuit — you should for sure come to the event on November 3, because I'm planning to make a lot of them.

Ellie Swensson will read and sign and make cheese biscuits to celebrate the release of her new poetry collection, salt of us, at a community potluck on November 3 and a book release at Boulder Creative Collective on November 7.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen