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Todd Swift Interview

Todd Swift was born in Montreal, but grew up in St-Lambert, Quebec. Swift's poetry is translated into and published in many  languages, including French, Croatian, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Arabic, and Korean. In 2003, Swift edited the chapbook series (In English, French, German and Brazilian versions) 100 Poets Against The War. Salt Publishing in Cambridge, UK, released a print version, March 5, 2003. In 2004 he was Poet-in-residence for Oxfam, and ran the Oxfam summer poetry festival, which featured Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and Wendy Cope (and other major poets) with a grant from the Arts Council, England. He lives in Marylebone Village, London.

Kevin Higgins is an Irish poet and critic living in Galway.   

 

 

 

 

KH: Your most recent collection, Rue Du Regard, was published towards the end of last year. How has it been received?

TS: Rue du Regard has had mixed reviews, but many. Poetry London felt it wasn't enough like Prynne; some critics felt it was too experimental. Mostly, though, in places like Books in Canada, The Globe and Mail, and other journals of note, the reviews have been positive, indeed.

KH:  Rue Du Regard is your third full collection. Café Alibi was published in 2002, and your first collection Budavox appeared in 1999. How do you think  Rue Du Regard differs from your two previous collections?

TS: A poet is ahead of his readers, especially if the poet is widely-travelled and thus without a home base. Few readers have seen the strategy of the trilogy, which is to encompass and outflank all various possibilities for 20th century poetry as it extends in to the 21st. The first book addresses poetry in terms of its popular roots - Beat, spoken word, and mixes that with Life Studies era Lowell. The second book is very much a Movement, British book - a reaction to the first, thus, the diction is from Hardy and Larkin - but the subject matter continues to explore violence, pornography, travel, and so on. The third collection changes direction, and returns to the roots of modern poetry, in French poetry (Larbaud, etc.), and thus becomes more Eliotic, Ashberyian - and by extension addresses the claims of such gentlemen as Prynne. Each book is also about eloquence, style, and personae.

KH: If you had to choose a favourite poem from each of the three collections, which three would you pick?

TS: I am not sure I have favourite poems - I dislike them equally. In Budavox, 'Evening on Putney Avenue' is a key poem, addressing my family dramas, and period in psychoanalysis. Cafe Alibi's 'The New Fedora' blends concerns with my father, my exploration of the exotic, and style. In Rue du Regard, 'Homage to Charlotte Rampling' extends my interest in film theory, scopophilia, and the French-English nexus.

KH: When did you start writing poetry? And why do you think you chose poetry over, say, fiction or script-writing?

TS: I didn't choose. I write scripts - have had over 100 hours of TV product produced, by the likes of HBO, Fox, Parmount, but it is all dross. I also write prose - essays, reviews, short stories. But, yes, poetry has me over a barrel I wish I had a more profitable delusion. I have been writing poetry since my mother read me Cummings and Frost when I was three or four. I became a dedicated poet at age fourteen or so. First became published about twenty years ago, when I was 19. Poetry has allowed me to work through my orality. Speaking, eloquence, confession, utterance, all this is central to my chief personality. I used to be a champion university debater.

KH: Who were the poets who most inspired you back then, your poetry heroes/heroines if you will?

TS: Ezra Pound, if only for his unlikely, indelible name, and for his impresario-tendencies. Eliot for Prufrock, the greatest poem for 120 years in English, surely. Yeats for the romance, the never-satiated lust. Curiously enough, little-known-now Kenneth Fearing, the communist in the 30s. And of course Dylan Thomas - what kid escapes that man?

KH: You’re originally from Montreal. And in the last five years you’ve lived in Budapest, Paris and now London. How does where you happen to be living affect the poems you write?

TS: Frankly, it makes me a cosmopolitan. If I have a gripe it is that most practising poets these days don't bother to truly scout out the full territory. They get awfully comfortable quickly - especially in London - forgetting the range and scope (and I don't mean just various schools). Having lived in so many cities with thriving literary communities over the years (I have lived in Rome, Berlin, Montreal, Budapest, Paris and now London, as you say) I have read widely and met many fine poets who are often off  “the map”. It is an outrage Ranjit Hoskote, one of India's best poets, for instance, is not well-known and published in the UK and America. Having lived in many places means that the broad range of  my  work - for radio, stage, on CD - and in many publications - is often misread, misunderstood or ignored. I am like one of those iconic men in the Greene novels, with a white suit, three-day stubble, looking askance at the pariah dogs and batting away the tsetse flies: an outsider with an insider's ironic aversion to the world's inherent crap status.

KH: You’ve been very active as an anthologist, editing both the Short Fuse and 100 Poets Against The War anthologies. What impact  do  you  think this has had on your own writing? Has it in any sense been a distraction? Or has it enriched your own work?

TS: It's been a terrible distraction, if you think my own work is only poetry. However, I am utopian enough - or was - to believe in the idea of a globally-linked community of younger poets who could perhaps overthrow the established hierarchies in publishing and poetry reception. I have certainly paved the way. But you know, the New York publisher of Short Fuse informs me that not one person has bought the anthology in two years. Given the book features poets from Armitage to Emily XYZ (literally) and is the first 21st century book to showcase poets from all continents where English is written, and in all styles, that's not a personal tragedy, but a very telling insight into what doesn't reach people. I must  tell  you that most poetry readers play it far too safe - they respond to received reputation established and maintained by well-oiled marketing machines that have nada to do with the poetry on the page. My new anthology for Nthposition has received almost no reviews in the UK, despite featuring some of the major North American, Australia, and Irish poets (for instance) of the moment. I have digressed. I believe that editing poetry is like being a film editor - it is an art that transcends the craft and the artefact produced. Those anthologies are finally my notebooks, where I sketch my influences and tastes. No other poet in the world under the age of forty has been as fortunate as I in being able to edit or co-edit  five  international anthologies - I have been able to celebrate hundreds of new voices and in some cases publish them first. In that sense, in the sense  of  having rubbed shoulders with so much good and new writing, my own poetry has been enriched.

KH: You’re also poetry editor for the Nthposition website, and you’ve edited a number of e-anthologies. Indeed, 100 Poets Against The War   began its life as an e-book. How do you think the internet is working as a tool for promoting poetry?

TS: The Internet is working fine. The readers are home sick. The poetry establishment has signally failed - because their benchmark  of  awards and publication on paper would be radically altered - to rise to the occasion. However, maverick critics and poets like the great  Welsh  writer Peter Finch have noted that some sites, like Jacket, or Nthposition, are in fact as good or better than most little magazines. More and more, younger poets are using the Internet and getting their work out there, in ways impossible to achieve with paper. For the record, I still  love the smell of paper and ink too. I see publication online as being more like a radio broadcast, in terms of dissemination texture, rapidity, and so on. The  BBC Poetry, Please! programs don't replace books, they enhance them - same with digitally-sent poems on the 'net.

KH: You recently had a poem published in The Daily Telegraph on the subject of the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla  Parker  Bowles. You were one of a number of poets asked to contribute poems about the wedding. Your poem was quite sympathetic to Charles and Camilla; whereas most of the others were pretty dismissive. What is the relationship between the Todd Swift who wrote this poem and, say, the Todd Swift who edited 100 Poets Against The War? Is there a contradiction between the apparent conservatism of one and the activist radicalism of the other?

TS: I am an Anglican leaning towards Rome - but the Rome of Boff. I support the suppressed heresy of Liberation Theology.  As such, my  anti-war, social justice stance is inspired by the example of Christ. Before you puke, let me stress my faith is severely taxed by the world and its wonders. I firmly believe the arms trade is indefensible ethically and logically, and that rampant capitalism is a great evil. But I also shop  for  the latest Oasis album, so shoot me. I must plead Whitman's Multitudes here. Like many poets, I have borderline tendencies. On the subject of Charles and Camilla - let them marry. I believe gay people should be allowed to get hitched unmolested, so why start carping on about the royals? Also, I find the British tendency to rain on all parades a tad tiresome. Tony Blair is an eloquent cretin, and should be selling used cars in Nebraska. My books did not stop him, but history records his war was illegal, and we opposed him.

KH:  I saw an interview with you somewhere recently in which you said that these days you are less and less interested in performance poetry and more and more interested in poetry on the page. Why do you think this is the case?

TS: I recently read at a spoken word event - indeed am currently part of a tour featuring such poets - and I was astonished that no one (well one Canadian) knew that I was one of the father's of the slam movement in America from 1988-1997 (a decade). My explorations of  this  form,  live and on CD, etc, plus the activist anthology works, mean there isn't much I haven't seen or done in that sad tired art. Basically, most  spoken  word artists are failed comedians too bored or dumb to do their homework - read the books, listen to the classic sound recordings. People like Christian Bok or Adeena Karasick, who merge textual innovation with powerful performance are different. My problem with spoken word is that is a ghetto where little poetry leaks in. My main aim in this life is to get more ore into my lines, not less. If and where the page and stage meet in excellence - what I called fusion poetry - then there you have the sea into a mighty river and all is good. However, my advice to any young poet performer is to keep one eye on the published mainstream, and one foot in the fecund gutter, and merge, merge, merge creative levels and intensities. Balk at categories or genre-cabals. Open up - and read books more than to audiences.

KH: In the British poetry world there seems to a pretty starkly drawn line separating the mainstream and the avant-garde. What  do  you  think  is the reason for this ‘‘either or’’ state of mind? Shouldn’t it be possible to appreciate the work of both Glyn Maxwell and Denise Riley, both  Carol Ann Duffy and Tony Lopez?

TS: Smart readers and poets - like John Stammers, George Szirtes, etc., - read widely across the spectrum. This divide is the hobby-horse of  the mediocre, disgruntled and petty - in other words, 98% of the world. As Plath said, the big say yes (I paraphrase), the small  say  no. The problem is not with Lopez or Maxwell (though both certainly have their tendencies and affiliations) but with their unwelcome fans. Rather, let  us state  this more clearly: poetry is language used in various ways. If you think language is for inquiry and exploration, you might not think it  is about  decorum and wit - hence, the battle of Ancients and Moderns, which we are reliving now (the same but different French critics and  London  journalists). Both sides are correct, since language is famous for being able to multitask - thus language is a woman. Unfortunately, some experimental poets are crashing boors who haven't changed their clothes in three weeks and think John Lennon was shot by Ted Hughes - and some mainstream poets are sherry-swilling chinless wonders who actually want to see a return to fox-hunting and Georgian Verse. The fact is that  the UK is sort of a rigid system of hoops, gates and other weeding out techniques. Mainstream poets like to safely select their poets via the map of prizes, and publishers they know and trust; the avant-garde, which has been ignored incorrectly, has made the mistake that all radicals make - they've played up to their worst stereotypes and become unintelligible cranks. The mainstream should risk far more, and the avant-garde should entertain  the idea that words can sometimes be used to communicate clear meaning and commands, like "shut the door on the way out". Poetry doesn't evolve, but it does improve with time, and some of the innovative poets like Denise or Peter Riley will be read with pleasure in fifty years. So too will many of the so-called accessible poets. I urge compassion, eclectic reading habits, and a willingness to appreciate the polar opposite. There's been some nastiness on all sides, and it's time to blow the whistle. But, let us never forget: a poem is a delight of  words in the mouth - kill that sucker and you've got shit on a stick.

KH: Who are the poets writing now you most admire?

TS: You could go to nthposition.com and see many of them. More expressly, I enjoy both Charles Bernstein and Wendy Cope - the full spectrum. In Ireland, it strikes me that Patrick Chapman is over-looked and should be more widely published. Canada has some superb younger poets - I recently edited a selection of them for the new issue of New American Writing - poets like Sina Queyras, Jason Camlot, David McGimpsey, Louise Bak and Lisa Pasold. Some younger Americans to keep an eye out for: Jen K. Dick, Ethan Gilsdorf, Rodrigo Toscano, Michelle Noteboom, among many others. Australia has great writing from people like David Prater, Brentley Frazer, Lucy Holt. I think the South African poet  Isobel Dixon is very good. I know so many UK poets - refer to my anthologies.

KH: What’s next on the agenda for Todd Swift?

TS: I am curating the Oxfam Summer Poetry Festival. I have another anthology to do (or so); and a collection of essays on English Poetry in Quebec in the contemporary period. I also have a fourth collection to finish. I graduate with an MA from the University of East Anglia's creative writing program shortly, and hope to continue lecturing in poetry, film and creative writing, subjects dear to my heart. I am always  tempted  to hang up my panache at 40 (next year) but know better: poetry is my vocation, and I aim to continue to be its Zorro.

 

copyright © Todd Swift & Kevin Higgins