A few weeks ago, writer David Swerdlow came to campus to read several poems and a few passages from his novel “The Television Man.”
I was so excited when I noticed a poster in Zurn advertising the reading. I recognized Swerdlow’s name right away as the man who judges Gannon’s annual poetry contest and was eager to hear him share some of his own work.
He read for an hour mid-morning, and luckily, I had a gap between classes that allowed me to attend.
I slipped into the back of Waldron 219 and joined an intimate group of mostly English majors and faculty, and those who, like myself, more or less just wandered in.
Swerdlow, a professor of English at Westminster College, looked exactly how you’d imagine a writer with a forte for poetry: he had glasses, a mustache and radiated a quiet confidence mixed with humility. During his introduction, he spoke plainly yet eloquently about his family, his life and his work in light of the world and the times.
He began with a selection of poems that grappled with his feelings about his aging mother and worries for the safety of his wife – a Latina – and their daughter in the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
After the poems, Swerdlow transitioned to reading from his novel “The Television Man.”
The novel follows the 48 hours after a shooting at a fictional high school in rural Pennsylvania, told from three alternating perspectives: the shooter, the shooter’s mother and a victim’s father.
I closed my eyes and settled in as he read a short section from each of the three perspectives.
His training as a poet shined through beautifully. He rendered each narrative with painful acuity and layers of nuance.
The vignette from the perspective of the shooter’s mother was shattering. When she gets a call at work, Lewis’ mother’s hands begin to shake. “We’re in trouble now,” she says softly to a co-worker. She focuses on birds sitting on a power line and the color of the sky while she drives to the police station, as her world comes crashing down.
The vignette from a victim’s father was equally harrowing, and the portion from Lewis’ perspective – a massive challenge – was maddening, haunting and frustrating.
When I finally opened my eyes, my lashes were wet with tears.
I will absolutely be buying a copy of this book.
After the reading, Swerdlow opened the floor to questions, and I asked about his editing process.
He responded with a piece of advice I’d never considered before, but that immediately clicked once he said it.
“Editing is about getting back to the original.”
To edit – to strip down, rearrange, add on – isn’t to create something new or better, but to reveal the original.
To edit is to hone the visceral feeling that first made you sit down and write, to clarify the image that thumps in your chest and rattles your ribcage.
I’ll be mentally stowing that piece of advice right beside “You can’t edit a blank page.”
I went on to my 11:15 a.m. class that day with fresh eyes, the kind of eyes you only have after reading a good poem or closing a good book.