From 1970 to 1998, Pearl London taught a now-famous poetry seminar, “Meeting Poets and Poetry,” at The New School. London invited poets — including luminaries such as Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, John Ashbery, Derek Walcott, James Merrill, and Jorie Graham— to present their works-in-progress to students in the course, illuminating their poetic process by talking students through the various drafts and revisions of their work. In 2010, an edited volume of some of those conversations was published by Knopf as Poetry in Person.
Helene Swarts, alumna of the Continuing Education program at The New School, participated as a student in the course for many years, and presented her own poems in London’s poetry workshop.
Laura Cronk, on behalf of The New School Creative Writing Program, recently interviewed Swarts about her time with Pearl London, writing poems during the women’s movement of the 1970’s and 80’s, and what she is working on now.
Laura Cronk: You studied in Pearl London’s poetry class at The New School for many years. Could you tell me how you first decided to enroll in this class?
Helene Swarts: I found Pearl while studying for my graduate degree at NYU. Fortunately, some of Pearl’s students told me about her splendid class. So, at last, when I had a little more time and flexibility, after becoming a wife; mother; teacher; and published poet, I found Pearl London and enrolled at The New School where I remained her student for about six years.
HS: I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a poet and a teacher. It was an innate feeling that I had to follow. I was fortunate that my uncle paid for and enrolled me in the acclaimed Ethical Culture School in Brooklyn, where I flourished with a small group of enthusiastic students and teachers. And very importantly, at New Rochelle High School I was introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Discovering Emily Dickinson was the defining moment in my life as a poet. If there had been any doubt before, there was absolutely none after.
During a summer job while in college I worked as a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue on Fifth Avenue where I was offered a job to go into their Buyer Training Program. Although I loved pretty clothes, I had to pass on the opportunity, as I knew I wanted to be a teacher and a poet — that was really all I ever wanted to be.
After graduating from college, I taught 5th Grade in Great Neck, Long Island. While teaching, I also wrote poetry. I began sending my poems out to be considered for publication. Over the years, I was often quite successful at getting my own poetry published, for which I am deeply grateful.
I studied for my Master’s in Literature at NYU, and later went on to study under Pearl London at The New School.
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