Welcome Back, Russel Swensen!

This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us in the past twelve months—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.

Today we bring you Russel Swensen, who won the Black River Chapbook Competition in 2011. We’re very pleased to announce that his full-length collection The Magic Kingdom will be our first book out in 2016.


The Author

Swensen Author Photo - Manuscript Consultations

Russel Swensen earned his MFA in fiction from the California Institute of the Arts and his doctorate in poetry from the University of Houston. He taught for three years at Prairie View A&M University. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Clock, Quarterly West, Pank, Better, Third Coast, The Collagist, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Southeast Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, We Listen For You,  Space City Rock, LA Weekly, OC Weekly, Houston Press, Dallas Observer, and other fine publications. He wrote “the subway episode” for Welcome to Nightvale. In 2009 he was the recipient of the American Academy of Poets/Brazos Award. His poetry chapbook, Santa Ana, was a finalist for the 2010 Gold Line Chapbook Contest and was the winner of the Spring 2011 Black River Chapbook Contest.  He lives in New Orleans with his rat terrier Zulu and his rescue dog/monster dog, Mazzy Star.

The Book

I started The Magic Kingdom in 2002 while I was earning my MFA at CalArts. Almost none of the poems I wrote in Los Angeles actually survived the process. I actually wrote most of the book while in Houston (which is a place that very much makes you miss Los Angeles). Still, some of the earliest monster/failure/poems came back about a decade later grafted on with very little editing or smoothing. It was kind of like finding a bunch of horrible sounding cassette demos and thinking “yeah the record needs to sound more horrible.” Parts of “What Happens Next” (the roaring part), “Little Fury Things” (which was originally titled “The Smell” after the bar of the same name in downtown LA), and the title poem itself are pulled from those ear-splitting demoes. Because sometimes to make something good you need a little bad. Like if you go back to Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You it’s incredibly easy to find passages that are uh not good. But it’s beautiful. It’s my favorite book. A precocious, magical, and occasionally bloodthirsty book that didn’t give a shit about perfection. It’s not about the line by line. It’s about the sound in your head when you read the entire book and try to shut your eyes and realize that everything in life is screaming.

Most of any writer’s process is boring. It’s feeling bad and feeling bad and feeling bad and trying to reshape a page until you don’t find it totally cringe-inducing. It’s mostly living with almost unendurable shame on a daily basis- you have this thing and it’s an important thing and every day you fail it. So if you write from 4 am to 8 am every day or if you occasionally wake up and have no idea what city you’re in or what the hell you took last night or why and you really don’t want to wake anyone up but you just remembered a way to make pg 47 sting less- I mean, I’m guessing it doesn’t feel that different. You can say you tend to your book like an orchard or that you find writing to be both “necessary and intoxicating” but it’s kind of the same bullshit. You don’t resent anyone for it either. You’re no better. You don’t even want to think about the shit you’ve said- trust me it was terrible too.

What’s maybe a little more interesting is when the bones stop rattling around in your head- when you say “I think it’s done? Is that what done feels like? Hey maybe this is what done feels like!” and of course you don’t believe that the first time or the second or the third. But you start to. It’s so seductive. This story you’re telling yourself about not failing yourself- how you want it to be true. So you show your book to your colleagues and your friends (but by this point you don’t really have friends, you just have a few people that haven’t stopped talking to you or haven’t stopped talking to you yet) you send it out to contests and presses you try to publish every poem (it must be good, people like the pieces of it, they like almost all the pieces of it, and yeah maybe you don’t but you could be wrong, you’ve been wrong in one way or another for more years than you can count). So you practice saying “it’s basically done.” And you send your book out into the world and wait for the applause. Of course all that happens is the princess comes home at the stroke of midnight, stone dead in her carriage. Every fucking time. And I mean it’s because you didn’t give her any decent protective spells but it’s a lot easier to shake your fist at the world. Damn you world for killing all my pretty girls.

Call this the wishful thinking stage. You have this thing and it’s an important thing and at some point you decided “good enough” was actually good enough. It’s good enough and it’s good and maybe even great ok? But you can’t quite figure out why every time you look at your poems you feel like your brain is chewing on itself. Why the first word you think when the ceiling sort of coalesces above you is “fraud.” The next stage usually involves trying to write six more books in like a month and either gardening compulsively or locking yourself up a in room in Vegas and never even coming out to gamble. You still kind of think you’re “good” but maybe the world’s just “bad” so you start a bunch of projects that look a lot like poems except there’s nothing in them except for a whimper at the core.

What’s next? Well it depends. A lot of times a shitty editor happens and you end up publishing your baby and maybe you’re even praised for it and maybe most of the time it doesn’t make you want to burst into tears (whispering to your pillow every night “I deserve this, I deserve this, I deserve this don’t I deserve this?”). Maybe you give up. Maybe you start to collect recipes and write things on them like “sounds exciting!” or “like this but with a bit more insouciance?” Maybe you get so sick of teaching five adjunct classes a semester you apply to law school or “get serious” in your relationship (how you even have one is beyond me) or blow your brains out all over the cheap formica of your mostly unfurnished apartment. Maybe you start thinking of yourself as a “scholar” and blow the dust off your books. Maybe you become celibate or start talking (you never stop talking) about self-care, mindfulness, community, mental health, I mean basically you’re back to bullshit. You make new friends that love bullshit too. If you’re reading this you’re probably thinking no it’s not like that at all! Writing is beautiful! Sex is fun! What it sounds like Russel is you just really hate everyone especially people that are in fact “good” or maybe you’re thinking it’s just really sad that this dude can’t enjoy life and literature. That’s fine. The people I’m writing to aren’t in this to feel good about themselves. They just don’t want to be bad. Because these are the ones that finally admit maybe I feel “bad” because this book is in fact fucking terrible and no one is ever going to tell me that not even the people that tell me to never call them again. But you wake up one day and no one has to tell you is the thing. The problem is the problem you’ve always had. You had this thing and it was an important thing and not only did you fail it but you lied about it. Maybe you lied to yourself for six weeks or maybe you lied to yourself for six years. But fuck that, you’re done with that. You’re going to fix it. This time you’re going to get it right.

Me I walked out of a relationship and a PhD program at the University of Houston and drove back to Los Angeles. You don’t have to do this and I wouldn’t advise it. I slipped out in the dead of night. I was “that guy.” You don’t have to be. But you have to become more than what you are or there’s no point. And sometimes part of that involves a kind of loss. You should endure that. You should like it.

I know a lot more about failure than success. The trick seems not merely to “fail better” but admit to yourself “I am failing both myself and whatever I believe is higher than that.” Think this all the time. If you think whatever you’re doing is fine, it’s not. It never is. “Getting right” happens if it happens at all because you’re a combination of desperate and lucky. Like some bad ass lawman from the 1800’s. You could be down in the dust feeling your life sink into it- but instead you’re watching someone else fall and the sun is beating down on you and you walk away. I was in Los Angeles and I fell in love and so I put that in the book. And then I took it out of the book. And I realized oh that’s what needed to happen, both those things. Mark Doty had given me some pretty good advice and I spent a lot of time trying to remember it (and I do: but that’s a different essay). I’d get drunk and think “it doesn’t have to be good or good enough it has to be as good as it can possibly be.” I read Frank Stanford and David Foster Wallace and no one else. I broke my phone. I got really fucking drunk. I vowed I’d break the sun.

At this point I had been working on “Santa Ana” [the 30 pg heart of my book + what became my first published chapbook] for nine years. It was originally called “The Fires” and was basically me thinking obsessively about teenage runaways moving from house to house as fires rampaged through Malibu [as both inevitable and of course sort of emblematic of… something]. Because being moved by fire and moving with fire is Los Angeles. Los Angeles is all the fire. It was awful btw. The worst fucking poem in the book. And I couldn’t stop. I just wanted it to stop being awful. I wrote more than 200 pages of that poem. It feels like I deleted even more than that. But this time [that time?] everything seemed simple. I read a lot of children’s literature. I went to punk shows I was way too old for. I stopped thinking. I watched coyotes file past me in the evening with kittens dripping from their mouths. They walked and I walked. I stopped thinking and pretty soon I stopped talking. An entire life with your eyes closed. I made probably the only technically impressive moves in my book. They seemed hilarious to me and not at all clever but for some reason I didn’t care. So dumb I seemed smart. I didn’t care about anything. Six weeks and I was done. More done than I’d ever been with anything. I did not love it but I did not hate it. It was no longer my problem. And Lo: I saw that this was good. Even this wasn’t the end- but after 8 years I’d written a poem. That was the beginning. For a long time after that I woke up more tired than I had ever been. But I didn’t feel like a liar. I didn’t ever feel like a liar in quite the same way again- until my book was done and I started another.


The Location

This is a dumpster on Franklin between Highland and La Brea. Those coordinates may mean nothing to you. I mean it’s incredibly unlikely they do.  But it is a place.  It was an important place to me. But what are place names except for “you weren’t here and I was, feel bad because you were not here.” Geography is both cruel and enticing. You hear the name of a bar or tiny city in Arizona and it’s almost magical. You can practically taste the despair and the scorpions. If you close your eyes you can sense who would never love you back and why and what one time you wrote upon her arm. Or you hear a name and think “this is nothing to me, this is map.”  You think “fuck map want meaning.” Or “this has meaning to someone else, someone else falls in love here, for me, nothing.”

For me, this was a block from the tiny studio apartment I lived in just at the very edge of the Hollywood Hills. “Leave Me Lonely” is what’s painted across it. But I saw other messages too. For a long time I thought the city was talking to me. That some wounded part of the city had found a way to me. That its messages appeared on the battered paint of the dumpster like sweat emerging from someone who had run for too long and too far to tell you anything. Their gasping the only message extant. Every morning (in the yarn drunk morning), I’d walk by on my way to the liquor store (Limelite Liquor) and there would be a new message. Of course, none of it was for me. And none of it was “real” in the sense you might desire it to be. For you there was no dying angel living in a dumpster and trying to talk. And for me there was.
This became a part of “Little Fury Things,” a poem that I’m not sure reaches anyone but me. Still sometimes I read it and my eyes cat scrunch closed and it’s almost like I’m there again. In the middle of the storm, screaming.

The Excerpt


Here’s how it happens. You’re at the trailhead in Elysian Park and a man on an ATV drives up and hops off. He tells you there are coyotes ahead and that they outnumber you seven to one. He says you have no chance. He says they outnumber your dog seven to one. And you’re confused because you’re in the middle of the park and unsure in which direction the coyotes have been seen. Have they slunk out behind you or are they waiting up ahead? You try to ask the man on the ATV but he just laughs and drives off. Now you’re not sure if he was serious. But there are coyotes in these hills. You’ve seen them in the moonlight gliding forward as though on wheels. You want to say I’ve seen them too but the man is now a speck in the distance. This is Los Angeles and maybe he just meant there are coyotes and they do on average outnumber you and your tiny rat terrier and her strawberry spots. Or maybe he meant coyotes in a larger sense that there are predatory things in the hills filming spots for all terrain vehicles or throwing wrap parties in Beverly Hills (laughing softly and stopping when you walk into the room). Or maybe he just meant that you have no chance whatsoever that he saw something in your hesitant step that looked cowed and overwhelmed. Don’t discount this possibility. Everything she said last night can be seen in the middle of you like a single mourner in the village square. Or it’s just a joke and he wants to scare you. Why would coyotes be out in the daylight? Don’t they evaporate in the sun, don’t they run when they hear pebbles stirring in the ground? It doesn’t help that you’re hungover and sore and that everything is quivering as though touched with a faint breeze. Troubled into being. This isn’t a good part of your decision making process. You think you could probably kill a coyote with your canteen. You should have brought a canteen. If they come at you how do you make sure your dog is safe while you vanquish them? You need someone else to hold her then you can beat the coyotes against flat rocks or throw them off the path watch them roll through the brush like bowling balls— you will laugh heartily. But then you’ll look up and your dog will be missing. You know this with a terrible sense of certainty. You’ll look up and call her name.


The sky spread with a knife.

All day, the ash settled slowly over the deer paths. The sky was red and rust and the pussy willows, if there were pussy willows, wept.

She had a tattoo of a star on one shoulder; she had scars and smelled like lilac. In the tub her bones moved like veins.

He was a drifter from Koreatown, loved that Karaoke, dessert at the H.M.S. Bounty: the pit of an apricot adrift in a saucer of honey.

Standing at the door as if made of brass; his hands came together like cymbals. Possibly at the Brass Monkey or underwater.

Where she saw him first. As he lost his job, if he had a job. He stopped, clasping his hands together as in prayer, the moment he saw her.

Or she shook the ash from her hair like dew and his hands remained outstretched, long after the dazzle of her scent.

She said yes; they walked through the lallating light. The question was the question, avoiding representation.



You’re a tour guide. The room you’ve been subletting is being shown along with the rest of the house to a bevy of interested parties. There are girls from New Zealand and Sweden. There’s a faint pattern of condensation on your cheeks. There’s a Psychology professor from UCLA. Several twenty somethings with no readily identifiable source of income. Their phones have video capabilities. Someone at a great remove looks through the screen, someone ushers the phone through the room. It’s strange to watch someone describe a place to a thing. You expect subtitles you were promised subtitles. But instead a rootless confusion, a broken comb. Why do these people have to be so selfish? You’re not sure why exactly but every time someone fingers the fixtures you feel a little bit dirty. The gesture seems private and at this point they’re still your fixtures. That’s all. And if people keep playing with them water will come flooding out. It’ll pour out your forehead and your fingertips and it will smell bitter and acrid. It will be like urine that is dark as tea. You don’t want to cry dark urine tea. They’re the ones who keep touching things. They’re going to make you spill and this makes you anxious which makes you feel like water is definitely welling up and becoming inevitable. Nervousness distends your stomach. You’re like a plague baby in aviation shades. Shifting your weight constantly from one foot to the other. Even though you know the effort is doomed. They want to make sure things work. You don’t have a job. That’s part of the problem right there. They have jobs and girlfriends and you have water. They want to check each and every faucet. You’re looking too long at the drains. You’re making people uncomfortable. You smile wanly. It makes people uncomfortable. You walk into the walk-in closet and hope it passes. You describe the closet but tell them they can’t come in. You’re shouting but remain calm. You’re not shouting anything unreasonable. You describe dimension and utility. The shoe racks for instance. The feeling of imminence isn’t entirely asexual. When it happens. Does it have to happen? You don’t want to have to explain to people that you’re not a spigot. They’ll probably give you a long look. Your shoes are filling up with blood. There’s no way of telling that it’s blood. Someone has to take your shoes off and check.

The Dogs

Mazzy Star (left) and Zulu (right)