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,
Higgins is an Irish
poet and critic living in Galway.
most recent collection, Rue
Du Regard, was published towards the end of last year. How has it
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.
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?
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
you had to choose a favourite poem from each of the three collections,
which three would you pick?
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.
did you start writing poetry? And why do you think you chose poetry
over, say, fiction or script-writing?
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.
were the poets who most inspired you back then, your poetry
heroes/heroines if you will?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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,
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,
don't replace books, they enhance them - same with digitally-sent poems
on the 'net.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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
more clearly: poetry is language used in various ways. If you think
language is for inquiry and exploration, you might not think it is
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.
are the poets writing now you most admire?
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.
What’s next on the agenda for Todd Swift?
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.
© Todd Swift & Kevin Higgins