Robert Sward is a soft-spoken heavy hitter. Working just off center stage for over fifty years now, Sward has aged well, as have his poems. Not a few of them, in fact, are indispensable. His Collected Poems, 1957-2004 (Black Moss) offers a distinct range of pleasures, and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor. Other books among his list of twenty include Heavenly Sex (2002), Rosicrucian in the Basement (2001) and Four Incarnations, New & Selected Poems (1991). His poetry has appeared in a dizzying array of magazines and anthologies throughout the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Born in 1933 in Chicago, Sward’s many addresses since include New York, England, Mexico, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Toronto. In 1985 he put down roots in Santa Cruz, where he still lives. He embraced the Internet in 1987, and has published widely on-line. He has taught at prestigious universities, won major prizes, and held a laundry list of jobs unaffiliated with academia. Currently, he teaches through the extension program at UC Santa Cruz. He served in the U.S. Navy in the combat zone during the Korean War.
This freewheeling conversation is part of a larger one; a completely separate, companion interview will be featured in Chiron Review #78, Spring, 2005.
Where does a poem come from? An idea? A line?
ALL OF THE ABOVE, being tantalized by an idea, say. John Torres, a sculptor I met at the MacDowell Colony, spoke of how he intuited what form resided in a hunk of granite or marble and had only to chisel and carve to release it. Poems also come from lines. A friend of mine, washing dishes, remarked on the ugliness of her dog, a Boston terrier, “He’s so ugly he’s a psalm to ugliness.” That ended up in “Clancy the Dog.” Wonderful! And from a review of Andy Warhol’s movie The Sleeper, I got the line, “The action runs left to right,” which led to my only publication in The New Yorker, incidentally. Other poems, like “Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9” come all at once. It’s a great mystery, but once one has had the experience of a poem coming like that, a gift that one could not have chosen, one is forever changed.
Well. . .I wasn’t sure if I was going to bring this up, but since you mentioned two dog poems right off, I will. You clearly have an affinity for dogs in your work. “Uncle Dog” was the first poem in your first book, and is still one of my favorites. I realize certain subjects or themes move certain writers, and others don’t. But. . .on behalf of cat lovers everywhere: Why no cat poems?
OF COURSE I HAVE NOTHING AGAINST CATS. What can I say? I can take them or leave them. But I am genuinely moved by dogs. Many dogs, even dogs I meet for the first time, I get this “feeling” in my chest-not unlike the feeling I have when I see a beautiful woman. I have this physical sensation. . .That may be followed by sexual thoughts or sensations, but the first sensation is inevitably visceral, “heart-arousal,” I’d call it. Further, and forgive me for going off on a tangent, but my interest in health food dates back to the late 1940s when, a teenager, I began lifting weights and delved into the relationship between health, body strength and diet. We had a dog at the time and, researching the contents of one dog biscuit versus another, and the nutritional value of dog biscuits versus saltine crackers and Campbell’s soup, I began sampling dog food, biscuits. I would never consider eating cat food. But having consumed some dog biscuits, well, I felt I had a further understanding of dog-mind.
Now that’s commitment! Practically method writing. . .Since I mentioned one of your early poems, and having just read your Collected Poems, I note in the early sections especially, a lot of free association. More aptly put, mental hop-scotching rather than verbal gymnastics. Something along the lines of Bly’s “leaping,” but usually without the darkness, the at times self-consciously imported “duende.” Where did you pick this up? From other poets? Is it how your mind works?
YES, I SUPPOSE I WAS DOING THIS WHEN I FIRST BEGAN WIRITNG, in the early 50s, and yes, it is the way my mind works. Also, because I tend to pick up on “spoken word,” the way I hear, overhear, language in conversation. Everyday talk strikes me as surreal, mental hop-scotching. Also, I’ve known and lived with creative, intelligent women with lively minds who seemed to have a capacity to think, let us say, on five or six levels at once. There are people with one-track minds, but the women I am thinking of may speak about a friend’s looks and health issues, refer to a TV show, laugh and joke, think of something we may need to get for dinner, allude to some sexual matter, intimate secrets, life, death and after-life matters. . .all pretty much at the same time. These elements in my early work are probably equally due to literary influences: Freud, Jung, Pablo Neruda, Robert Bly. And I’ve also been influenced by great comedians: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Mort Sahl, among others.
Tell me a little more of how you got started, what it felt like to be drawn to poetry when you were coming of age.
IN 1951, AN 18-YEAR-OLD SAILOR stationed in San Diego, I used to hang out, when I could, in bookstores. I had recently begun writing and was looking for places to send my work. I wasn’t so much interested in getting published as in getting a little feedback on the half-literate things I was writing, awful poetry. Sending work out to Poetry (Chicago) and Time Magazine what did I know? It was my way of knocking at the door of literature, of the “community of poets.” In the military during the McCarthy era, writing poetry was suspect, a form of subversion, a “commie” activity, it seemed. So when I discovered Poetry (Chicago), for example, I was really taken with it, and read my first copy cover to cover, over and over. That was, I believe, my introduction to William Carlos Williams.
You have no doubt experienced many changes in the public face of poetry, particularly in the outlets for publishing. Any then-and-now observations on that score?
IN THE 1950s, I COULD READ The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago) and some of the academic quarterlies, and feel I was keeping up. In the 1960s, it still seemed possible to read and submit work on a regular basis, to keep up with all the major literary magazines, though there were two or three times as many as there had been a few years before. Now, with the proliferation of venues for readings and outlets for publication, one is lucky to have any kind of readership much beyond one’s own community. Writer’s Market lists. . .well, let us say, more than one would care to count, let alone have time to read.
So life was simpler back then, even for a poet. . .
IN THE 1950s, THERE WAS SOMETHING OF A TWO-PARTY SYSTEM, the Beats and the “gray-faced academics,” with the Black Mountain Poets a respected “third party.” Now you need a calculator to enumerate, let alone keep up with the activities of the various poetry slams, the Latino/Hispanic readings, the Native American poets, the African-American and Hip Hop poets, the Cowboy Poets, the Language Poets, the New Formalists, the New College Poetics poets-to name a few, and, of course, the blending and crossing over of one and the other. . .Yes, there’s a proliferation, a balkanization of poets into smaller and sometimes hostile groups. . . It would be useful if there was a little more solid discourse, more willingness for people who write poetry to risk saying in print what they say in private about their fellow poets and the state of poetry.
Younger poets are very concerned with “making it,” whatever that means. You have been published widely and regularly, but are not a household name. How important has it been, and is it, to you to be “popular,” to be a “player,” in the greater world of po-biz?
OVER THE YEARS, I’ve come to value my relative lack of popularity. It’s part of who I’ve been and who I am. I may have been “noted,” as people claimed, in the 1960s and 70s, but I believe I partially disappeared from people’s radar when I moved to Canada and began teaching at the University of Victoria. I lived in Canada from 1969 to 1985, ten years in Victoria on Vancouver Island and five years on the Toronto Islands. In fact, I wrote a non-fiction book, The Toronto Islands, An Illustrated History, and that became a bestseller-anything over 5,000 copies in Canada is a “best-seller!,” and that actually felt good, being popular. In a sense, I started all over when I moved back to the States in 1985. I worked as a food reviewer (“Mr. Taste Test”), an undercover Santa Claus, technical writer and editor, community college instructor, yeah, academic freeway flyer, etc., and gradually got back into the literary scene, writing, publishing and giving readings. Popular? Not really. Truth is, I’m just lucky to be doing what I’m doing, participating, a player still, if the term even applies, in what Philip Levine calls “little world of poetry.”
Poems come into flower heard aloud, the page has limitations. That said, I have become something of a skeptic about today’s cult of the reading. What can a reading provide that print withholds, and vice versa?
IN THE 1950s and 60s I heard live readings by Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Stephen Spender and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few. It enabled me to feel the unique one-to-one relationship between poet and poem-no intoning, no vocal bullshit with the poet taking on his “now I’m going to read you a poem” voice. Like you, I’m a skeptic about what you call the “cult” of the reading. But, take Lowell for instance. His early poems seemed remote from my own experience as the Jewish son of a podiatrist growing up on the North Side of Chicago. It wasn’t until I heard him read that his poems came alive for me. And I read “Prufrock” scores of times without really hearing it. The truth is, Eliot was a poor reader of his own work. He sounds depressed and his voice is flat. Still, for me his Caedmon recording was a revelation. Yes, there are poets who say readings are performances, “shows” that have nothing to do with the “real thing”-what appears on the page. The Iowa Workshop’s “cornbelt metaphysicals,” as they were known in the 1950s, wrote for the page. Fuck ’em. Poetry is an oral art, and I don’t know what a writer gains by hiding behind print. And remember, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” applies as much to poetry as to music.
What are you working on now?
THE COLLECTED POEMS ARE OUT and I’m touring, but I’m already working on the next book. I’m proceeding, by the way, more from book to book. Black Moss has been good to me, and it allows me to think this way. New poems? I’m working on several at one time-they’re monologues, mini-dramas having to do with the father-son relationship, a continuation of what I began in Rosicrucian in the Basement, then Heavenly Sex. The poems, by the way, are full of imagery, but the images arise from the imaginations of the speakers, of those in the poems who have “talking roles.” I’m just a storyteller, but I’m also after musicality, and the characters, the speakers, the “story” calls out for a certain “sound,” a peculiar “voice” that is, and, at the same time, isn’t, my own. . .but I know, when, in my terms, I’ve got it right. And, friend, it doesn’t come easy. . .