Terese Svoboda

Featured Binder: Terese Svoboda

We spoke with Terese Svoboda about her new book, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, a rich, detailed account of Ridge's life and world.

What about Lola Ridge drew you to write her biography?

I'd never heard of her, and she lived in my neighborhood on the Lower East Side a hundred years earlier. Her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, portrayed that neighborhood with such sympathy and directness that I couldn't resist. The title poem of her second book, Sun-up and Other Poems, captured what it was like to be a rebellious child, a voice I'd never imagined in that era, and the rest of that book is about sex and radical politics – eye-opening. By the time I got to Red Flag, I was hooked. She was as rebellious in life as in her work, at a time when women were breaking out of the Victorian mold with sledgehammers. She left her son in an orphanage after coming from Australasia, worked for Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger while conquering the poetry world which included her friends Williams, Moore, and Crane. Her parties and her editorship of two important magazines stayed the path of modernism. Her last two books recall Crane's, whom she mentored early in his career – or his work mimics hers. She's kind of a Pound/Crane/Loy rolled into one, with a anarchistic spirit that the Occupy generation should appreciate.

In an essay about the parallels between you and Ridge, you wrote, "The biographer’s life must not compete, and most importantly, must not obstruct in the telling." How did you avoid competition or obstruction while writing this book?

Originally I envisioned a blended biography/memoir in which I would expand moments in my own life to illuminate our differences and make clear the contemporary lens. This became too cumbersome, and anyway, I was always headed for 1941, her death and the summing up of her work, which spooked me. I tried instead to approach the controversial aspects of her life as impartially as possible, offering numerous rationales for her decisions, to avoid condemnation or even unearned adulation. The biographer can't avoid picking and choosing her material and revealing where her interests lie, of course, but she can offer it without undue emphasis.

As a poet, novelist, memoirist, short story writer, librettist, translator, biographer, critic, and videomaker, you work across genres and forms. What advice do you have for writers exploring new mediums?

It is not a good idea to spread yourself thin if you can avoid it. Since we are not Europeans who accept and promote the woman or man of letters, you risk losing your audience if you write in numerous genres. My rationale for my own practice ignores what I just wrote. Whenever I feel blocked or discouraged by one genre, I turn to another. That way at the least the dopamine flow continues uninterrupted. When I sense new failure, I return to that earlier genre with lessons learned, some of them useful to the inert material that resisted me before.