Cole Swensen was born near San Francisco in the town of Kentfield, California, in 1955. She became interested in art and writing at a young age; her mother was a painter, and she began writing poetry when she was eleven or twelve years old. Swensen designed her own bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State University to include a mix of creative writing, literature, bookbinding, and calligraphy classes. Though she continued to practice the art of bookmaking through her twenties, she decided to stay on at San Francisco State for a master’s degree in creative writing. Swensen received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
While completing her studies, she began to visit France regularly. Since 1987, she has spent part of each year in France, working on French-to-English translations as well as her own poetry projects. She began translating in earnest around 1992 and prefers to translate living poets’ work because she believes doing so ultimately contributes to an ever-evolving, ongoing international conversation about poetics. She also enjoys translating more than one book by a single author in order to better understand the writer’s oeuvre. She believes “books are never isolated gestures, but are always interlaced with all the other books by a given author.”
Swensen spent six years as a professor at the University of Denver before joining the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She divides her time between Iowa City; Washington, D.C., where her husband lives and works; and Paris, where she spends her summers and part of her winters. She is the founder and editor of La Presse, a small press that publishes contemporary French poetry translated by English-speaking poets.