Photo by Lee Woolcock
American poet Karen Swenson is originally from New York but has spent much of her life travelling the world as a journalist, educator and human rights advocate. She has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and had her poetry published by The New Yorker, Saturday Review and numerous literary magazines in the US and the UK. Her poetry work includes the collection The Landlady in Bangkok, winner of The National Poetry Series. She has recently set up home in Barcelona.
I think I’m a very East Coast sort of person. Before I came here to live, I had travelled in Europe. My husband and I drove through Spain in 1960—the only bright spot which I can remember is Barcelona. I was astonished by the architecture. Barcelona was not a cheerful place in 1960 but how beautiful it was.
Europe was very comfortable, a little bit like grandmother’s house. I began to realise that I was looking for something that wasn’t familiar. Around 1974, a friend got a Fulbright to Iran and I thought, I’m going to get two tickets for my son and myself and go to Iran. If you like desert, and I tend to like desert, Iran is just a gorgeous place with beautiful mosques.
I went alone to Bangkok. As cultures go, in this world there is no better place for a single woman to travel alone than Thailand. Because it’s Buddhist, it’s a ‘no touch’ culture. People are very polite but they’re also warm and full of smiles and interested in who you are. You hit the occasional grumpy Thai, but not often.
To an American in the Seventies and Eighties, Lonely Planet was a revelation. I discovered that there were these things called guest houses. I moved out of the hotel [in Bangkok] and into the guest house which was run by a woman who is the focus of one of the poems in one of my books, The Landlady in Bangkok. I made friends with this woman and I kept going back there.
When I went to Burma, it affected me very strongly…in the atmosphere of people knowing that their government was out to get them, that I had seen here in Spain for the first time when I was 24. My feeling is that Burma is now slowly changing. It isn’t going to happen as quickly as it happened here.
When I first started writing about Asia, I didn’t want to presume. I didn’t want to do that colonialist thing where I entered the head of someone whose thinking process I had no idea about. That is important to me because that means that I’m much less likely to misrepresent something.
I’ve been a member of PEN it seems to me for most of my life. PEN is an organisation against censorship and the persecution of writers. I went to PEN and said, “I’m going to Indonesia, is there anything I can do for you?” And they said, “We’re missing somebody. He’s a novelist, his name is Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He’s supposed to be living in Jakarta but we don’t know where and we can’t find him.” I got to Pramoedya’s house and there was a soldier standing outside because he was under house arrest. One of the things he said that made me very glad was, “I didn’t think anybody knew about me”. He had spent 18 years on the island of Buru as a prisoner. That was the first time that I tried to do anything with people who were prisoners of conscience.
I’ve done lots of work with people in Burma. I’ve written letters for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for 18 years while she was in prison [and under] house arrest. This past summer I met her, which was an enormous thrill.
I went into Cambodia and found that, I think, all but two writers in Cambodia had been killed in Pol Pot’s time. It seemed to me that no one hadn’t seen a relative killed in front of them. When you come out of a nice, peaceful American background, this stuff is on the other side of the Grand Canyon emotionally.
Part of what’s going on right now in the US is that people feel they’ve lost stability; they don’t express it that way but there’s a sense of “what’s it gonna be tomorrow?” There’s a lack of continuity. Human beings like continuity; it makes you feel anchored.
What I liked about Barcelona was that there is culture. You give poetry readings and people come. People go to art galleries and are interested in art and they hang art in their homes. And the love of music is so strong here. It’s alive, it’s not dead, and that seems to me enormously important because art isn’t something that you keep in a box. It should be something that’s alive and moving in the culture. And I needed a city where I was going to look at the sea.
I write, I go to the gym, I go to the opera, and there’s still things I haven’t done in Barcelona that I’m ashamed I haven’t gotten to them yet, but I will. In some ways, it’s a very similar life to what I lived in New York but without the hassle.