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Bookstories 7: Wally Swist’s A Life in Words

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Trinity Bookstore Manager Wally Swist Was Bitten Early By The Literary Bug
April 30, 2000|By JANE GORDON; Special to The Courant

As a freshman at the University of New Haven in 1971, Wally Swist would pack up 200 mimeographed copies of his newest collection of poetry and haul them down to Washington Square in Manhattan. In the midst of New York University, the park has long been home to poets beating their breasts as they howl their words to the indifferent masses.

In the fashion of 18th-century pushcart peddlers who would sing out “Chap! Would ye like a book?” the young Swist would walk up to passersby and ask them if they would buy a chapbook of poems, just a quarter apiece.

Unable to shake Swist’s perseverance, the masses sent him home heavy with quarters, light on paper.

But quarters do not make a living. History records poets as having other jobs to sustain them physically as their words sustained them otherwise: Wallace Stevens was an insurance man; Marianne Moore a teacher, librarian and editor; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin and Harvard. Swist decided to combine his marketing savvy and his devotion to words to not only sell his own writing but others’ works as well. He became a bookseller.

After running some independent bookstores in the Northhampton, Mass., area, he returned to his native Connecticut and, in 1998, took over the management of the Gallows Hill Bookstore on the Trinity College campus. It is an appropriate place for a poet, a brick building with a rounded wooden door reminiscent of medieval structures. The bookstore, owned by Barnes & Noble, is part of Hallden Hall, and gracefully carved letters above the shop’s entry read “Hallden Engineering Laboratory.” Beside the door hangs the Gallows Hill sign. The name is a grisly reminder that more than two centuries ago, traitors to the American Revolution were hanged from gallows atop Vernon Street, or what was then Zachary’s Lane, right at the campus. Remote from downtown Hartford, the site was considered prime for hangings. Crowds could gather to watch the spectacle at the foot of the gallows and at the bottom of the cliff on what is now Zion Street, says Peter Knapp, Trinity College’s archivist.

“Large crowds were quite common in executions of that day,” he says, “particularly when those executions were the results of actions by the condemned that threatened the welfare of the country.” Four British Loyalists were hanged on the site during the course of five years, from 1777 to 1781, including Moses Dunbar, a Wallingford native and captain in the British Loyalist Forces, who fled to British-occupied New York City. But in Dunbar’s haste, he left his family behind. He returned to get them, was caught, convicted and hanged. Perhaps worse, in the righteous fervor of the day, Dunbar’s wife and young son were put on a cart and driven to a spot where they would have a full view of his hanging.

The executions are now part of history, which is one of the many sections at the bookstore. Art and architecture, science and ideas, a children’s section, philosophy, poetry, drama, dance, theater, film, Judaica and religion, general history, European and Asian studies, literature, gender and gay and lesbian studies—the list is long. But in the fashion of college culture, where else can one find Read My Lips, a Cultural History of Lipstick (Chronicle, $14.95, hardcover) or a social history of rudeness, another of walking?

The esoteric nature of Gallows Hill—which is not Trinity’s College textbook bookstore (there is already one of those on campus) and is not a mass-market store hawking 30 copies of Danielle Steele’s latest—prompts the stocking of such titles. Works from university, small and independent presses fill the store.

Swist tries to lure the community into the shop: Last year he held poetry readings at the store, and this year he is having authors speak.

He also compiles a bestseller list once a semester. Carolyn Forche’s translation of Sorrow by the Central American poet Claribel Alegria leads the list (Curbstone Press, $13.95, paperback), with a biography of Francois Truffaut second. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke made the list two times, as did Pablo Neruda. The list is almost exclusively composed of poetry, biography and history, with Seven Mythical Creatures, a pop-up book by Celia King (Chronicle, $9.95, cloth) evidence of an audience for children’s works.

Swist’s voracious reading as a youth propelled him into writing, particularly when he read Sailor on Horseback, Irving Stone’s telling of the life of author Jack London.

“My friends said after I read it that I was glowing, actually emanating,” he says. “I thought if I gave it great perseverance, I could actually become a writer.” Swist went on to win the Juniper Prize, a literary poetry prize named for the poet Robert Francis, whom Robert Frost called “the best unknown poet in America.” After the poet’s death, his house in North Amherst, Mass., was willed to a writer for one year to live and work. Swist has also many books of haiku in print. His first full-length collection of poetry, The New Life, which is primarily nature poetry, was published by Plinth Books in 1998. A second collection of his poetry will be published by Timberline Press in 2000, and he is coming out with new lyric and short narrative poetry next year.

Here is an excerpt from “The Sudden Nearness” by Wally Swist, from The New Life:

Driving to work in traffic over the Calvin Coolidge Bridge I try to stop short to avoid the car ahead and lose the brakes in the ’71 Volkswagen, then swerve into the oncoming lane.

Thank God, there are no cars coming, that I am quick enough to pull up the emergency brake.

I may never have seen the sunlight again that falls through the mountain ash by the barn in October; the sudden nearness after first snow of the white pine that fringes the meadow; the brook’s cool surge that rushes through April, past budding pussy willow; not another taste of farm fat tomatoes, sweet corn, the trout I manage to catch.

“This is my life,” I think, “the best of everything,” and skid to a stop on the far side of the bridge.

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