Dr. Susan Swartwout is a person who thrives on change, and she’s made her fair share of changes since arriving at Southeast in 1996.
She began teaching creative writing and became faculty advisor for Journey Student Literary Magazine. It wasn’t long until she’d initiated the Journey Student Reading Series, a monthly program in which student writers field test works in progress before an audience. She conceived and designed the Cyberfiction class (approved under the title Cyberpunk Fiction) while seeking out authors to visit campus for readings, book signings and lectures. She pushed for and succeeded in bringing about the Independent Press Publishing minor. Soon afterward, she launched Big Muddy, A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, an interdisciplinary literary magazine, followed closely by Wordsfair, an annual, discipline-spanning campus event celebrating creativity and artistic expression. In 2002, Swartwout, a small press expert who’s worked for Amazon.com, Dalkey Archive Press and Fiction Collective 2, channeled her ingenuity and literary expertise to establish from scratch the Southeast Missouri State University Press.
“What do you do with an English major if you don’t want to teach?” Swartwout said. “It seems to me working with print artifacts is a natural answer, whether you’re creating them or crafting them, or whether you’re writing copy or shaping it in desktop publishing ᾰ it seems just perfect for English majors. So I wanted to have that working lab.”
Perhaps the only thing rivaling her technical skill is her passion for writing. Swartwout’s ability to critique honestly and constructively, and her sincere interest in her students’ work have energized the Department of English. There is a talented, vibrant, expanding community of creative writers at Southeast now, and Swartwout is its champion.
“The creative writing classes are always over-filled and we keep getting more and more writing majors,” Swartwout said. “Good writing and desktop publishing are very marketable skills,” Swartwout said.
The year before she arrived, Southeast had 19 English majors with a writing option. At time of publication, there are 45.
Swartwout’s enthusiasm for writing is infectious because her discipline for the craft is absolute.
“I’m writing all the time, in one way or another,” she said. “I do journal writing, much of which turns into poetry.”
Swartwout’s collections of poetry are entitled Freaks and Uncommon Ground. She co-edited Real Things: Anthology of Popular Culture in American Poetry and A Student’s Guide to Getting Published. Her poems and short stories are published in literary journals such as Nebraska Review, The Laurel Review, River Styx, Negative Capability, Mississippi Review, and Spoon River, among others. She is a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation award, the Dillinger Good award and a St. Louis Poetry Center award.
Writing and teaching aside, Swartwout enjoys tending her garden, which is in its fifth year and has consumed most of her yard. She grows everything from spiderworts to English roses and likens entering it to walking into a painting.
“It’s my painting, my creative expression,” Swartwout said. “I started out with painting, so it’s kind of coming back to that.
“When I went back to school, it was in visual art. Then I took a fiction class, and all the bells and whistles went off. I was hooked. I said, ‘Good grief! I’ve always loved reading. I’ve always loved to write. I have notebooks full of writing. Why don’t I go do that?’ So I did.”
Every couple of years, Swartwout hits the road with an old friend in search of adventure. A former volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Mexico and volunteer painter and translator in Honduras, she also recently got her lifelong wish to become a grandma.
“I think that’s a good balance,” she said. “They both feed writing. The contemplative spot, the garden or home, gives you time to think and formulate. The travel gives you the observations and experience to develop characters other than those that you’re most familiar with.”