Spencer Szwalbenest, though only a freshman at the Joint Program between GS and the Jewish Theological Seminary, is already a published poet. His Facebook page puts out new content regularly, and he’s working on his second collection, The Decadent Season. Bwogger Elana Rebitzer sat down with Spencer, who self-identifies as “edgy, but in the ironic sense,” and Spencer’s roommate/manager David Treatman, to discuss his past work, the future of his poetry, and how he got into this eclectic passion.
Bwog: First, tell us who you are.
Spencer Szwalbenest: “I’m Spencer Szwalbenest, I’m a first year in GS/JTS, studying Philosophy and probably Jewish Thought.”
David Treatman: “I’m David Treatman, also a first year in GS/JTS, studying History and Jewish Literature.”
BW: How did you start writing poetry?
SS: “In the beginning, I had a seventh grade English teacher who was a really encouraging person, we were doing the poetry unit and I would show him my poetry, and he was like “we’re going to put that right on the fridge,” figuratively. After I stopped taking that class with him, I stopped for a bit, but then I was an edgy teenager writing song lyrics my freshman year. I guess, poetry really started becoming interesting to me again my sophomore year of high school. I read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and I wanted to be Walt Whitman, so I was really inspired by him. My first collection, White Letters, which I put out at the beginning of last school year, is very inspired by Whitman. Now, I’ve been inspired by more modern poets like Leonard Cohen, E.E. Cummings.
BW: How did you get published?
SS: This was more of a “you pay them to make the book.” It was good to experience really putting together a collection, and making my poetry something I did for more than a half hour at a time. With Vanity Publisher, you really are responsible for it. I had a friend’s parent who did some amateur copyediting, and I of course edited it some to make it more coherent as a work. They did work with layout, and with the cover, but a lot more was on me than it would be in a normal situation.
BW: What’s changing about this process for your next collection?
SS: This collection is centered around fall. It’s called The Decadent Season, and along with being a little shorter, I really vetted the poems to make sure they worked in the set. There are two different approaches to Autumn in this book. The first one is called “First Fall”, which was actually inspired by a poem I wrote the morning after the election. It wrestled with youth being broken, and the idea of us being alone in the world. Come to realize, a lot of poems I’d written before that actually worked with that theme, so that is the first half of the book. And then the second half is called “Fressenzeit”, which is German for “feeding time,” it’s a verb which specifically applies to animals. That is actually more work that I did last year. It explores the idea of the traditional values and institutions that we hold dear, mainly country, religion, and family, losing their values in modern society, and how accepting the season and harvesting the pleasures of this world is the real answer to that.
BW: David, what’s your relationship to Spencer’s poetry?
DT: “Spencer and I are roommates. He approached me because I do a lot of graphic design stuff and layout. He posts poetry on his Facebook page, so I’d seen his poems before. He sent me a bunch of them, and he was like, “Hey David, I just wrote a book. Can you help me with it? Over winter break, I read all of his poems and I thought of a cover that would fit. Professionally, I’m trying to put an image on that will both represent what he wrote and also be really eye-catching. I don’t think I’m the inspiration for any of it, but I could be wrong. Spencer acts differently around people than how he perceives the world, and for people who do know Spencer, it’s really exciting to see him doing more work.
BW: Spencer, Do you feel that coming to college has changed how you write?
SS: I rarely really invent imagery anymore when I’m writing. Just through novel experiences and being around New York, I’ve been able to gather enough things to really write about what’s happening in my life. It ends up being more how I paint the narrative rather than an image that I’m trying to invent myself.
BW: How can people buy your book?
SS: We’re working that out right now. We’re probably going to get copies from Book Baby, and we’ll be selling them in person, so if people want to pre-order a copy, they can email me.
DT: There’s two different avenues of production that we’re looking at. One of them is going through this company called Book Baby, where they’ll publish the book and put it on Amazon, and Spencer will get royalties, versus just buying the book and Spencer selling it himself, so we’re just looking at the scope and the scale of how big Spencer wants it to be.
BW: Why should people, who may not know you, buy this book?
SS: What I attempt to present in this book is not only a new way of looking at Autumn, but really a new way of trying to find meaning in life. For me, a lot of what Autumn represents is like a farewell to the sureties of childhood and the sureties of the way life is painted to be in. I think, for this collection, I really try to see how to be an independent person in mind and an independent person in life.
Image via Spencer Szwalbenest