In Conversation with Melissa Studdard
Todd Swift is a British-Canadian poet and expert on modern and contemporary poetry, and has been editing poetry collections for over 20 years. He has been a university professor in Budapest, London, Glasgow, and Worcester, where his subjects have included poetry, literary theory and creative writing. He is the editor or co-editor of numerous global anthologies, including Carcanet’s Modern Canadian Poets and Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry. For over a decade, Swift has run the popular literary blog Eyewear, which is archived by the British Library. As well, he is Director and Publisher of the indie press Eyewear Publishing Ltd. Swift is author of nine full collections of poetry, including Seaway: New & Selected Poems, from Salmon, Ireland and Selected Poems by Marick Press, USA. Mark Ford, professor at UCL has called him “the Orson Welles of Contemporary Poetry.”
Below we discuss the velocity and versatility of his poetry, the role of the poet as a helpmate and friend to other poets, the international state of poetry composed in English, and much more.
MS: Your poems have been praised for their versatility and the multiplicity of their influences, but one thing that unifies them for me is their incredible energy. Whether narrative or lyric, whether traditional or experimental, whether somber or comic, your poems seem to each propel forward with an unstoppable momentum from the very first lines. To what do you attribute this energy, and are there other signature elements that you feel identify a Todd Swift poem?
TS: I am really glad you have sensed that velocity. There is a British lyric modern tradition from the 1940s that’s been described as “oratorical” – and I enjoy the idea of a poem being spoken out passionately, almost like an operatic aria. More to the point, textually speaking, a poem for me is always something that rushes down a page, unable to finish its sentences, as it were, eagerly piling more and more on. Without wanting to pun on my name, I do like a rapidity in poetry – quick shifts, surprising changes. I feel a poem is an event, like a perfect kiss or pop song, or a rush out of the rain. It’s an idea borrowed from Poe, but I like the orgasmic brevity of the lyric form. Regarding other signature aspects of my style, I have a few. Titles are important for me. Also subtle numerologies. Shaping poems into stanzas that appear regular but have ironic implications, the form cutting across the meaning. A sinister subtext, a sense of life’s little certainties and pleasures being constantly threatened – the fight-back against what wants to rob us of fun, love, hope – those are themes; as well as an exploration of my fantasies of being a beautiful femme fatale. I should add I enjoy rhyme, and follow Bob Dylan and Paul Muldoon in trying to play with rhyme a bit.
MS: Poetry as a rush out of the rain — I love that.
You bring a similar energy and passion to the promotion of other poets and poetry as a medium. Watching you from the outside, it looks like a calling, really. Was there a point at which you realized that poetry was your great love and you might want to focus on it and leave your other fascinating career options behind?
TS: Well, my beloved Uncle Jack ran a law firm, and I could have joined that. I also had a lucrative career as a TV writer for major American companies in the 90s (like HBO, Fox, Paramount, Hanna-Barbera, etc.) writing kid’s shows. But my first love was poetry. My mother read me Robert Frost poems from the time I was born — it was in my blood. I began seriously reading Ezra Pound and Leonard Cohen around age 13, and became hooked. It is a calling. To be a poet and a mentor and friend to poets. I am 49 now, and I have been running reading events or editing magazines and journals pretty much consistently now for over 30 years. And of course, editing or co-editing anthologies since I was 20. It’s a vocation. Frightening, really, because the world doesn’t seem to love poems as much as I do, so it’s all a bit confusing some days, being an evangelist for an art that is half lost-cause, half the necessary angel.
MS: You mentioned above that you once worked in film and animation, and I know you were also a champion debater. Were there skills that you learned from working in these other fields that now transfer to writing poetry?
TS: Yes, very much so. When I was the story editor for Sailor Moon, for instance, or working on The Next Mutation Ninja Turtle show, often with co-writer Thor Bishopric, certain skills got honed, especially the ability to be pithy, to be economical; but also, the ability to listen to an editor, and collaborate. I am unusually open to listening to editorial suggestions. I like workshopping because I see the benefits of getting notes. Also, the ability to work fast when one has to, and also to get the job done. Debating is very much part of my soul or psyche. I like to see both sides of everything – this is why I love ambiguity in poems, and enjoy making statements in poems I then subvert, query, and turn about.
MS: In your essay, “The Place of the Poet in the 21st Century,” published in 2002, you bemoaned poetry anthologists’ predilection for American and British poets over English-speaking poets from other countries, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Now, over ten years later, have you seen much change in this regard? What other changes have you noticed in English-language poetry anthologizing over the past decade or so?
TS: Well, the fact that the Griffin Prize has a prize for a Canadian, and then a Prize for International poets, shows you the sort of thinking that remains to be countered. That is, what we tend to see is, the main publishers and critics of English-language poets are either British, Irish or American (or a mix of all three), and they tend to be based in New York or London, or nearby – or at great universities. It is natural for canonization to follow the patterns of power – a poet purporting to speak about a nation like America is going to be of more general interest than one speaking about New Zealand. Who is the New Zealand Whitman? Do we know? Care? We should. At the moment, I am concerned with the near total lack of respect given to Indian poets (from India) who write in English – a handful of them are as brilliant as any poet now writing, and few if any have books out in the so-called West. I aim to change that. Tupelo Press and the Poetry Foundation are doing a good job of trying to reverse these tendencies to over-emphasise the larger nations.
MS: You cut an interesting figure in the world of poetry. You engage with performance poetry as well as page poetry, pop culture as well as high culture, digital mediums in addition to print. Looking at you as a model, it seems there are many roles a poet can play in contemporary life. How do you view the role (or roles) of the poet in contemporary culture? And how do you see it varying from country to country?
TS: Well, thank you. The figure I cut is the figure of a person quite fascinated by lots of experiences, and events. I grew up in the 80s, really, enjoying the post-modern play of signs that was MTV music videos. I love Orson Welles and Spielberg and Hitchcock films. I read widely, from comic books to Christian Bok. My eclecticism has caused me trouble, especially in the UK, which is often all about getting people into boxes; I resist the pigeonholes. I am not a pigeon. I am a poet, and we are multiple. I do think the role of the poet is to be a helpful, tolerant, encouraging person, above and beyond being a writer of poems. This puts me at odds with some magisterial figures, or unhelpful ones. There are a lot of selfish poets that just focus on themselves. For example, what has Leonard Cohen ever done to promote any poets from his home town of Montreal? He could have been a great advocate for Quebec poetries. Sure, he has given us some fine poems and wonderful songs, but a poet should be like Pound – a visionary, a leader, a mentor, a guide, an editor, a helpmate, a friend, a publisher, a gadfly, a haranguer.
MS: The Ministry of Emergency Situations, a collection of your selected poems was recently published by Marick Press in America. Can you tell us a bit about what this process was like for you and how you went about deciding what to include?
TS: This was a great honour for me, and I was pleased to have endorsements from James Franco, Terrance Hayes, and Annie Finch, among others, for the book. Working with Mariela Griffor, the publisher, was great – she really understands what a poet needs in terms of support. In terms of selecting the poems, I was given a very generous 200 pages to offer readers a selection from my eight previous books, and as I had been publishing since 1989 or so, there was a 25 year span to draw from. I’ve published perhaps 600 poems in pamphlets, books, online, and in magazines since the ‘80s, and selected around 125, with the help of Catherine Graham, a Canadian poet and editor I admire.
MS: Are you working on any new projects? What can we look forward to from you in the near future?
TS: Oh my God. I always take on too much! I am co-editing The Poet’s Quest for God, a huge anthology of about 300 poets, across a spectrum from atheism to deism, surveying all faiths. My press publishes about 15 poetry books a year and I edit all those. I am preparing an Australian version of my Selected for a launch next year – I find the process of introducing work to a culture that may be unfamiliar with my poetry always forces me to revise, revisit and really challenge who I thought I was. It’s a chance to reshape the Todd Swift story – I have been, in the past quite confessional in my work, but I am also an abstract lyricist in places (my PhD was supervised by philosopher-poet Denise Riley, a fan of O’Hara) – the challenge is to convey the full field of exploration. I am working on a novel, and a book of poetry criticism – a sort of memoir, as well. I’d like to live to be at least 60, and write a few more books. Becoming close to 50 is scary. I once was a young poet; now I feel vaguely white-haired. I am currently editing an 83-year-old poet’s collection, and what is inspiring is how poetry never stops.