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Interview with Santa Cruz Poet Robert Sward, Author of Rosicrucian in the Basement

The following interview with Robert Sward was conducted by Monique Parker in September, 2001.

Q. - Who is the Rosicrucian in the Basement?

A. - Well, it's basically my father, Dr. Irving M. Sward, born 100 years ago in Poltava, Russia, into an Orthodox Jewish family.  Dad became a successful podiatrist--did foot surgery, etc.  After my mother's death, he became a devout Rosicrucian and remained one for more than 30 years. Still, he practiced podiatry in a Jewish neighborhood, his friends were Jewish, and if you were to talk with him or listen to his stories, you'd know he was Jewish to the core. The alchemy he practiced in the basement was his secret.

Poet-critic Dana Gioia calls Rosicrucian in the Basement a "verse autobiography,"  suggesting there is a story line, a narrative organization to the sequence.  At the same time, the material takes on a life of its own.

Q. - In one sentence, what is Rosicrucian in the Basement about?

A. - What it was like having a Jewish Rosicrucian podiatrist for a father.

Q. - Podiatry and Rosicrucianism seem an unlikely pairing of subjects for a sequence of poems, but Hanging Loose Press editor Robert Hershon says you've somehow managed to pull it off.

A. - Three of the Rosicrucian poems appear in "Hanging Loose" magazine and I'm grateful to Robert Hershon and the magazine's editors for accepting them. As for the pairing of subjects, I like the tension between a vocation where one utilizes one's hands--performing surgery on feet, for example--while at the same time distinguishing between the two worlds, visible and invisible, and communicating, sometimes with people with foot problems, and sometimes with angels.

One thing I learned from Dad is that podiatry, like poetry, can be a means to cleanse and, indeed, open what William Blake called the doors of perception.

Q. - How so?

A. Feet are no less an expression of the infinite than a sunset.  Open your eyes, give your feet, give anything for that matter your full attention and it is possible you will see something essential, something amazing, what a yogi calls the "play of consciousness." Our eyes are lenses, but so are our feet. As Dad says in the opening poem, "We of the here and now pay our respects/to the invisible./Your soul is a soul... /but body is a soul, too." If you work with feet every day for fifty years, as my father did, you may come to view the world in a new and unusual way. You may come to see, as Rainer Maria Rilke put it, that "we are the bees of the golden hive of the invisible."

Q. Why so much dialogue?

A. - Many of the podiatry poems are in dialogue form because that's how they "arrived."  Usually I have to cast about and struggle to "get" my poems. The podiatry poems, which are still in progress, are a little easier to get down on the page. I hear them spoken by my Dad, in my imagination, and I simply write them down as I hear the old man talking.  He died in 1982 but still it's like taking dictation.  I'm interested in staying true to my father's use of words, his intonation, humor and musicality.  The challenge is to remain true to Dad's voice and, at the same time, enable the reader to hear it all--corns, calluses, metaphysics and song.  Speaking of dialogue, another source of inspiration is klezmer music and the conversation one hears going on between, say, the violin and the clarinet.  I've been listening to two extraordinary CDs, one called "Leopold Kozlowski, Last Klezmer" put out by Global Village Music.  The other is by The Andy Statman Quartet, "Between Heaven & Earth, Music of the Jewish Mystics," from Shanachie Entertainment Corp.

Did you know that in parts of Russia, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews were only allowed to play on "quiet instruments," the fiddle and flute, for example.  "Strong" instruments, like the bass. drum and brass were forbidden.  In these Rosicrucian podiatry poems I'd like to think I'm using a full range of instruments, from loud to quiet, and that, correspondingly, there's a variety of expressions, tones and dramas going on.  Like klezmer--and jazz--my father's conversation tends to be free-flowing, improvisational, funny and oddly bluesy.  He puns, he sings, he muses and segues from one instrument, so to speak, to another.  At times, it seems, the foot is the loudspeaker for his spirit.

Q. - Most poets resist writing dialogue.  How did you get started?

A. - For many years I was one of those who resisted.  However, in the 1980s, I was interviewing people for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, writing features for the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star and the Financial Times.  My work as a print journalist and broadcaster taught me something new about the magic, beauty and music of the spoken word.  Truth is, I like working at the edge, that point where the spoken language as we hear it either merges--or resists merging--with what we have learned to expect of the written word.  In short, working as a journalist opened me up to including dialogue and, indeed, profiles--feature material--in my poems.

Q. - Explain.

A. - Virtually all poems contain a speaker and someone being spoken to--the reader, one's lover, or even oneself, as in a soliloquy.  With the podiatry poems, instead of having the father speaking to an implied son or a son speaking to a missing father, why not have both father and son present at the same time?  That's one reason poems like "The Podiatrist's Son" and "Wedding" appear on the page as one-act plays.  They're poems, but they might also be performed as mini radio dramas(s) or theater.

Also, having a dialogue going on between father and the son makes clear some of the more subtle conflicts between them.  It helps bring both men to life and enables me to communicate more in fewer words.  Dialogue can often move along the action more quickly than narrative.

As you know, many writers believe journalism is the enemy of literature. I don't think that has to be the case.  I'm glad I took a fifteen year sabbatical from the University, and feel my writing and teaching are stronger for it.  I certainly have more to offer my students.

Q. - Say more about your father and the writing process.  What motivated you to write these poems?

A. - As I mentioned, my father died in 1982, but I can still hear him speaking and a voice from another part of myself answers back.  What can I say? Whether we like it or not, our parents somehow live on inside of us.  Lately I've begun to understand and appreciate him more.  When he was alive I was generally annoyed with him.  I remember him as self-involved and occasionally violent.  He'd often lose his temper.  Also, he was a workaholic and I resented his fixation on his podiatry practice.  In fact, for years I didn't think much about him.  Now he's re-emerging and I'm remembering things I genuinely liked about him.  Strange to say, twenty years after his death I'm taking pleasure in his company.  How could I not?  These days, my dad is my muse.

So, part of the motivation in writing Rosicrucian in the Basement is to answer the question: What was THAT all about?  THAT being life with this conservative, rather stern, five-eyelet, white shirt and tie, 9-5 immigrant, pogrom-surviving, podiatrist Republican.  The whole process has been cathartic and healing. 

Check out Robert Sward's website at http://www.robertsward.com

Robert Sward will read from his work at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, November 13, 2001 at 7:30 PM. . He will be joined by artist and poet Doug McClellan. 

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