Poet Denise “Dee” Sweet was Poet Laureate of Wisconsin from 2004-2008 and is Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies, English, and First Nations Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She has been honored with awards from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, the Wisconsin Council or Writers, the Positive Indian Development Center, the Wisconsin Women’s Council and others. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Songs for Discharming, and Know By Heart. I met her at the Rice Lake Library’s Coffee with the Author series and suggested an interview. When we talked by phone two weeks later, she shared her thoughts on poetry, faith, culture, and her struggles with an eating disorder. You can read some of her work here.
Erstwhile Luddite: How long have you been writing poetry, and when did you realize this could be a significant part of your career?
Denise Sweet: I wrote a poem when MLK was assassinated. That was 8th or 9th grade. I was always raised to imitate nursery rhymes and I always loved language, but around this time I realized poetry was more than just rhymes. There was content. I could communicate my grieving through putting it down on paper. This poem was read over public radio and I realized that I had some talent. Throughout high school I wrote poems. As a young mother, I would write poetry just to occupy myself. I would write in my journals at night. It was mostly bad poetry. A writer has to hone her or his trade by writing bad poetry.
When I returned to college, I was blessed by the faculty at UW-Eau Claire. So many award-winning writers—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, journalism. They cultivated a community. I decided with all this, I should give writing a shot. I had some talent, and I worked very hard.
From the start, I wanted to be able to teach others to use words this way. My desire to teach is derived from my love of language, and wanting to dispel the myth of the Queen’s English. We don’t talk that way. We need to liberate the language and subject matter from the idea of correctness.
My strongest students—award winners, or people who go on to MFAs—get this idea. My legacy as a teacher is to help people understand there is no un-poetic subject matter.
EL: What are some projects you are working on right now?
DS: Poetry boot camp was something I had to let go when I became Poet Laureate, but that’s something I hope to re-initiate. I’m working with Joel Friederich to do this in a rural area. It’s something that recruits talented young poets, from about 6th-9th grade. They have to audition to get in, and we have some rules about being considerate to each other. I have helped some of these young people go on to study the arts at the university level.
I’m working now on poems that are “origin” accounts. The origin of love, the origin of envy, of loneliness, other emotions. As poets, we are trying to embed emotion in the poem, but the emotions themselves are invisible, unnamed. You aren’t supposed to come out and say they are there. So I am playing with that.
I’m also finishing a collection of poems to be translated into Spanish, Ojibwe, and Portuguese.
EL: What are three words that describe your writing?
DS: Faith, intuition, revelation.
EL: What do you mean by revelation?
DS: The revelatory act. Words have so many layers, I don’t always understand what I’m writing until I’ve read it, revised it, and let it go. We think a poem is about something, but then we put it into form and then we see it for what it is.
Regarding faith, my upcoming collection is called As Those with Faith Will Do. I’m not talking about faith in a deity, but in ourselves. About what it is inside of us to not be complicit or stand silent.
EL: Do you think faith in a deity and faith in ourselves is, at core, the same thing?
DS: I don’t know and I don’t really need to know. I’ve become very interested in Buddhism, especially in the writings of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I think we have to recognize that we are all god with a little “g.” I used to engage in writing with as much humility as I used to pray in Catholic school that I would be worthy in God’s eyes. Now I see I need to honor all living beings. Especially bodies of water.
EL: Interesting that you refer to bodies of water as living beings.
DS: In Ojibwe culture, women are keepers of the water. We enter into a covenant as soon as we are born that we will make sure everyone knows that only women are to conduct the ceremonies for water. Sometimes men go into sweat lodges to purify themselves. Women don’t have to sweat, we have the ability to cleanse ourselves. Every time we go into our moon, we are cleansing ourselves.
EL: As a scholar of First Nations Studies, what do you think of college diversity programs, especially as regards Native students?
DS: First, we are not an ethnic group, we are a political entity. We have the power to negotiate with foreign countries, for example. But we all have a cultural identity. You don’t have to be an Indian to go to your elders, learn the stories and dances of your culture. I don’t want students to think that only people of color have culture.
Ethnicity should not be treated like a petting zoo. Try to learn about where you come from. The assimilation policy from Ellis Island all the way through today has had a far greater impact on [European] culture in this country than on people of color.
EL: Can you talk about your recovery from anorexia?
DS: Cognitive therapy saved my life. I really had to listen to what the disease was dictating. I’ve done irreparable harm to my body, and now I have a responsibility to be a role model. Sometimes I stay healthy for myself. When things get too tough I do it for my grandchildren. I was in treatment three times before getting healthy in 1993. It’s a progressive disease, like alcoholism. Each time you pick it back up, you pick up where you left off.
Most students don’t see that they are bombarded with images of “perfection” and that it is very difficult to undo these images. I tell myself “I am not the disease, I am Denise Sweet.” When I was sick I said “My name is anorexia nervosa and my problem is Denise Sweet.”
I don’t want to die that way. I want to die an honorable death, even if it’s falling out of a tree or getting hit by a bus, I don’t want to die from this disease.
EL: What do you wish I would have asked you?
DS: About the persistence of memory. I’ve had strokes in my past. What fascinates me is what I remember. Things I should remember—like what day it is—don’t matter. But, for example, I remember that I had a fear of heights as a kid and I kept challenging myself. I climbed a silo, a windmill, a forestry service station. I can’t remember much of my childhood, but for some reason I remember that.
EL: What would your superhero name be?
DS: Sappho. I love her work. Even though most of it has been lost, and what’s available is often just half a poem, it’s amazing. If just half a poem can be that good, then that’s the superhero name I want.