Last night, Open Books was packed solid with friends, peers, and fans of poet Joan Swift for a combination memorial service/reading to celebrate the life and work of a giant of Northwest poetry. Hosted by Doug Johnson, publisher of Yakima’s Cave Moon Press, the evening saw friends of Swift including Tess Gallagher and Esther Altshul Helfgott read favorite Swift poems and share their favorite memories.
Helfgott called Swift “the big sister that I never had.” She said that when they met, they took to each other immediately. “She did a lot of kvetching,” Helfgott laughed, “and I guess I was the right person that she needed for kvetching.” They talked about everything, including poetry. “Joan may not have taught formally,” she said, “but she taught me.” Gallagher called Swift “one of our most undaunted poets,” adding that she was “courageous — even a bit savage, in a way.” Gallagher read several poems from Swift’s posthumous book from Cave Moon, The Body that Follows Us — poems about aging and loss and persistence.
Poet Holly Hughes praised Swift’s ability to ride “that razor edge of risk which is also tempered by sorrow.” She remembered first meeting Swift: “she seemed a little bit ethereal. But when Joan started talking I realized that Joan is not ethereal.” The room burst out in laughter then; most of the speakers made reference to Swift’s tendency to be straightforward and direct in almost every aspect of her life. She was honest and sometimes blunt, but never cruel. Her honesty served as both a survival mechanism and an artistic imperative. “Joan didn’t have an easy life, but she made art out of the losses,” Hughes said.
Attendees were invited to read their favorite Swift poems and share their memories. Several people never met Swift, but found strength through her poetry. Others got to know her late in life. It was striking to realize that no matter how they came to Swift — be they best friend or total stranger — everyone was describing the same woman. Swift, on paper, was the same person as Swift in everyday life. The authenticity of her voice, her commitment to her own truths, spoke to everyone.
Helfgott took the opportunity to make several announcements about Swift’s legacy. She said she was working on a website to give Swift a presence on the internet. And she also announced a new award called The Joan Swift Memorial Award for Women over Seventy, which will be administered by Poetry Northwest. It’s a fitting tribute for a poet as vibrant as Swift, who felt compelled to work up until the very end of her life.