The Argotist Online
Todd Swift Interview
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
Higgins is an Irish poet and critic living in Galway.
Your most recent collection, Rue Du Regard, was published towards the
end of last year. How has it been received?
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.
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?
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.
you had to choose a favourite poem from each of the three collections, which
three would you pick?
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.
When did you start writing poetry? And why do you think you chose poetry over,
say, fiction or script-writing?
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.
Who 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?
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?
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
think this has had on your own writing? Has it in any sense been a
distraction? Or has it enriched your own work?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
In the British poetry world there seems to a pretty starkly drawn line
separating the mainstream and the avant-garde. What
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?
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.
Who are the poets writing now you most admire?
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.
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.
© Todd Swift & Kevin Higgins