Poetry Santa Cruz Poetry Santa Cruz
Interviews

Life Is Its Own Afterlife:
A Conversation with Robert Sward

[sample poem “Life is its Own Afterlife” included below]

Interviewed by klipschutz

Robert Sward is a soft-spoken heavy hitter. Working just off center stage for over fifty years, he has aged well, as have his poems. Not a few of them, in fact, are indispensable. A citizen of both Canada and the U.S., his just-published Collected Poems, 1957-2004 (Black Moss Press) has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award. 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 Canada, America and the U.K.

Born and raised in Chicago, Sward served in the U.S. Navy in the combat zone during the Korean War and attended the University of Illinois and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with the G.I. Bill. After teaching at Cornell University and winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, he moved to Canada in 1969 to serve as Poet in Residence at the University of Victoria, where he also founded a publishing house (Soft Press) and later moved to Toronto to work as book reviewer and feature writer for The Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star.

Sward produced four major broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, including interviews with Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Leonard Cohen, John Robert Colombo and Earle Birney. Sward's non-fiction book, The Toronto Islands, was a bestseller.

Moving back to the U.S. to work as tech writer in Silicon Valley, he embraced the Internet in 1987, and has published widely online. In addition to a distinguished and peripatetic University career, Sward has held a laundry list of jobs unaffiliated with academia. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches through the extension program at UC Santa Cruz.

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klipschutz: As we speak, your Collected Poems is in production. I can’t imagine what it feels like to do a Collected…

Robert Sward: At lunch recently a friend and I were celebrating the publication and he held up the cover—the artwork—for a waitress to admire. She glanced at the title, the dates and the photo and shook her head. She had trouble taking it in. What was I doing in the restaurant celebrating my Collected Poems, 1957-2004, if I was no longer among the living? Interesting. And, well, there was a death involved, a psychic death. And I had just turned seventy. The book was mine, and yet it was also the work of a stranger, someone not entirely, but subtly “other.”

For a variety of reasons I’d say it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, one of the worst experiences of my life. And a blessing too, a gift…to have my publisher suggest that I do such a thing and to have survived long enough to be able to put it together myself.

KL: How did you assemble the Collected?

R.S.: I spent nearly six months sounding and auditioning poems…lots of reading aloud. In retrospect it seems strange because the final product, drawing on nineteen earlier books, is chronological…It should have been easy: Pick the best and put ’em in order. But the mechanics of selecting, and of editing, was tied up with a lot of emotion. All the poems and books came back to haunt me. There were some mortality issues too, of course.

KL: To avoid confusion, and since you mention “auditioning” poems, we should touch on the fact that you think of it as basically a “Collected Selected,” culled from several Selecteds, New & Selecteds, and more recent work.

R.S.: Yes, that’s right. It opens with a few poems from Uncle Dog, my first book, published in London in 1962, and concludes with Heavenly Sex from 2002. And I added poems that had been hanging fire and started others.

Again, it should have been easy. Fifty years of writing. No problem. But it was a problem. I was just easing my way up to my seventieth birthday and, as I say, I was brooding on the nature of aging. What does it mean to devote half a century to writing poetry—making certain sacrifices, for example, turning away at crucial times from the needs of people I loved? Wives and children. I found myself asking: Whom am I writing for? Who am I selecting for? And what will it mean to my children and grandchildren?

KL: Doubt creeps in…

R.S.: It does. From the thousand or so poems I’ve written since the early 1950s these are the ones I’d like to preserve. A thousand poems! What a way to spend one’s life. And the vast majority of that lot are stinkeroos, pure and simple. It was easy NOT to include these, the obvious stinkers. But deciding which poems I cared a lot about, for all kinds of reasons, that was harder. . . When I work on a new poem, say, something that really engages my attention, I go through something similar. But, imagine a brand new poem, new and yet oddly familiar, made up of good and not so good shorter poems, a longish poem, 228 pages, that’s been in progress for fifty years—and I see The Collected itself as a single, entire poem—well, it makes special demands.

And just before completing my selections, I experienced a pre-partum. . .pre-printum “disorder.” I was unable to write, unable to sleep—no dreams, the imagination, such as it was, stopped functioning. I’d heard of depression, but truth is, I knew nothing about it, knew nothing of what it meant. . .couldn’t concentrate. I was a mess. I couldn’t stand my own work, I was unable to concentrate on anything, it seemed, including reading magazine articles or the daily newspaper. What was that all about? To this day I don’t entirely know.

KL: And you revised right up until the end.

R.S.: I write and I revise and I write and I revise. And I revise my revisions and then go back and revise some more. What do I revise for? That the poems flow musically, that they seem natural and un-revised. Simple, clear and straightforward as possible. Especially with the monologues, the father poems, the sequence I’ve been working on since 2001.

KL: Did you find yourself revising old poems?

R.S.: I know I am contradicting myself, since I’m fundamentally opposed to poets, late in their careers, going back and…but yes, I did revise. Years ago I learned that W.H. Auden, a poet I regard as a mentor, went back and revised certain earlier poems. As a reader that really disturbed me.

KL: Didn’t history play a little trick on him? As I understand it, the original versions are the ones most often reprinted…

R.S.: Yes, and some of Auden’s sumptuously erotic, deliciously bawdy works, poems he never intended for general consumption, eventually found their way into print and show us another side to the man. Scandalous, scurrilous, bizarre…but you’re also aware that the author was a genius—and one of the most skillful poets of the last hundred or so years.

I was against it when Auden did it, and yet I could understand Walt Whitman revising and revising Leaves of Grass up to the end of his life. It’s a question of intention. Auden had one intention—sanitize the work to reflect his later political positions and beliefs. Whitman had another, to improve the poem. An oversimplification, of course, but you get the point. For myself, I cut certain lines that seemed to obscure the work’s intention. I spent the summer of 2003 revisiting every poem in the book, working with enjambment, refining punctuation…challenging the poem, what to leave in and what to leave out.

KL: In 1964, in the introduction to your first U.S. book, Kissing The Dancer, William Meredith writes about your style, its originality. Who were some of your early influences?

R.S.: In 1956-1958, studying at the University of Illinois, I read Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Eliot, Sandburg, Marianne Moore, cummings, Pound, but also fiction writers like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and others. Hearing some of these—and Chaucer and Shakespeare—on the Caedmon spoken word series…hearing poetry read aloud…I’ve never been able to get enough. Hearing Thomas, for example, was a revelation. How could you listen to Dylan Thomas and not become a poet or songwriter?

While teaching at Cornell I met my dear friend Paul Blackburn, then poetry editor for The Nation. Paul in particular was an influence.

KL: Do I detect an influence from the New York School, prominently Frank O’Hara, in some of your earlier work?

R.S.: I like Frank O’Hara’s work…and Kenneth Koch…but I’ve never been much drawn to the New York School, though I do see some affinities—the humor, the offhandedness, and openness of form, the attention to visual artists…

KL: You broke into print at roughly the same time as the Beats came on the scene. How did you feel about them, generally, and Ginsberg in particular?

R.S.: I was impressed by the Beats—their camaraderie and the fun they seemed to be having. Ginsberg came to Iowa City in 1968, I believe, and gave a terrific reading…he drew hundreds of people. The Iowa poets seemed unnerved by him, mocked his work and the “look” and gave parties where one was expected to dress up in blue jeans, etc., and pretend to be “Beat.”

I met him briefly when he visited Iowa—was teaching there at the time—toked on a joint with him. Ginsberg always seemed to me to be Beat Mother Hen, the Nurturer in Chief, and also an astute and effective publicist. Did you know that he worked for an ad agency in San Francisco, doing the Ipana toothpaste commercials? The experience wasn’t wasted on him. In a sense he was the brains behind the Beat movement, ambitious for himself and for his friends. Nothing wrong with that—without Ginsberg’s PR skills, I don’t think we’d be reading the Beats as we do.

It makes you think. If you’re gonna write and want attention, some kind of readership, you’re probably gonna want a group of like-minded friends, allies working in a similar vein plus someone who can act for you as Ginsberg did for the Beats.

KL: Which leads me to the observation that you yourself have never been regarded by critics as a member of a “group.”

R.S.: Well, yes, that’s a bit of a contradiction. I like hanging out with writers, painters, musicians, but I’m also something of a loner, someone who has been struck over the years at the readiness of fellow poets to join with others and form “groups.” With certain obvious exceptions—the Beats, Black Mountain—people tend to think of poets as solo acts, moody outcasts, scribblers in the attic…In my experience writers can be as cliquish, clannish and snobby as Republican golfers, members of a country club.

It has always struck me as unseemly for poets NOT to go it alone. How could one be serious as a writer AND belong to a clique? I used to think along these lines when I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I touch on this in my poem “Iowa Writers’ Workshop—1958.”

KL: And then the Beats blew into town…

R.S.: Yes, pretty much. The Beats referred to the Iowa Workshop poets as “Corn Belt Metaphysicals,” formalists engineering precious artifacts, gray-faced Ph.D. candidates writing in the style of John Donne and George Herbert…with scarcely a poem about Iowa and the Midwest, let alone work that drew on the contemporary idiom. In that respect I suppose I had the field all to myself.

KL: What were you doing that set you apart at the Workshop?

R.S.: I wrote free verse, tended to avoid rhyme and meter. Of course, too, I was something of a loner, versifier-as-recluse and, truly, it’s no surprise I was odd man out. I was also a veteran, older and more “serious,” if that's the word, than my friends. Also, I seldom felt the need to include references to classical mythology and the fountains of Rome…or the relentless use of irony as a defense from, God forbid, the risk of appearing to actually mean what I was saying. I drew on what I heard and experienced using the 1950s, 60s idiom. For some reason that annoyed people.

I suppose I also took a perverse pleasure in going against the prevailing fashion, Brooks and Warren’s New Criticism, the aesthetic of the time. Few people today have any idea what a big deal literary criticism was in the 1950s. My friends in Iowa probably spent as much time reading criticism as they did reading contemporary poetry and, for a while, I was right in there with the worst of them.

KL: To get back to Ginsberg for a minute, has your opinion of him changed? He’s a popular target now in many quarters.

R.S.: Changed? Yes. I think even more highly of him now than I did in the 60s. People will be reading him long after they’ve forgotten the name of our current president.

Reading biographies of Ginsberg one sees how needy he was. At the same time, one can’t help appreciating him for what he was: Warm, intelligent, heartful and, for a poet, unusually generous. Amazing…I truly wish I’d gotten to know him personally.

By the way, picking up on your earlier question about groups and cliques, you don’t see that Beat Poet phenomenon, that Black Mountain phenomenon, that academic Language Poet or New Formalist phenomenon happening with novelists. There’s one Saul Bellow. One Philip Roth. One Doris Lessing. One Margaret Atwood. One Norman Mailer.

KL: Often I am hooked in by a poet through one poem. With you that poem was “Barbecue.”

R.S.: I started “Barbecue” at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and completed it at Middlebury College in 1958…

KL: To me, it’s pure satire, young couples in the dwindling twilight of the cocktail era, pre-counterculture—a hilarious spoof of ‘Cheever Country’, but caustic—more a frame of mind than a geography, though. A marital smorgasbord…

R.S.: Yes, it plays with a gathering of hot, somewhat privileged, intoxicated individuals, young husbands and wives…yep, a marital smorgasbord.

KL: What prompted the poem, what shaped it—gives it that loopy circularity—kaleidoscopic, dizzying?

R.S.: It was prompted by what I witnessed of social gatherings my parents attended. It was prompted, further, by the suburban academic gatherings I attended in Iowa City and Bread Loaf, Vermont, in the late 1950s.

Earlier I had seen my Russian-born podiatrist father and his podiatrist friends slapping each other on the back when they met, drank and hung out together. Because I saw Dad as self-consciously “there” and, at the same time, “not there,” I wondered if he and his friends—like that English philosopher who kicked a curb to “prove” its existence— slapped one another on the back to ensure the presence—at the party—of the other. Anyway, I was struck by a certain “disconnect” between the fun and games the people seemed to want—and the occasion seemed to promise—and the self-conscious, desperate aloneness, the private sorrow, the alcohol-fueled desperation. “Barbecue” is pretty tightly constructed. Much of what I wrote at that time was in syllabics—syllable count, influenced by Marianne Moore. A couple months of work. Henry Rago at Poetry (Chicago) published it in 1957. The worksheets, if anyone is interested, are at Washington University Library in St. Louis, MO. [Note: “Barbecue” can be read at www.robertsward.com—just click on “Poems.”]

KL: You’ve been married a lot—and make no secret of it. Four times? Five? You’ve lived all over and raised several families. It’s hard to keep it all straight…In retrospect, what part has fidelity played in how your life has unfolded till now?

R.S.: Fidelity. . .more often than not the lack of fidelity messed things up. I have come to agree with Robert Graves who says. . .here it is, here’s the quote I was looking for “. . .the act of love is a metaphor of spiritual togetherness, and if you perform the act of love with someone who means little to you, you're giving away something that belongs to the person you do love or might love…promiscuity seems forbidden to poets…”

I’ve done some of my best writing when I’ve been faithful, solid and secure in a relationship. I need conventional, nitty gritty practicality in order to write, well, let us say zany poems, poems that move and have a little joyous noise to them.

My friend Lyn Lifshin feels the same way: “I also feel a single relationship, not the turmoil of slamming and slithering back and forth, is the best for writing.”

KL: “Sausalito Ferry Poem” finds you feverishly penning your paramour—maybe one of your wives?—a poem, and forgetting to get off the ferry. You end up waving goodbye to her. She is unamused, even as you proclaim your love in the poem you are writing—to her! Did that really happen?

R.S.: Hmm. I began the poem while living on the Toronto Islands in Canada. The Islands are a 15-minute ferry ride from the Island dock to downtown Toronto. Something like that did happen, but in Toronto. Why the Sausalito setting? Because I wasn’t able to finish the poem until I moved back to the U.S. and, one day, traveled on a ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco. That refreshed me, brought it all back. Of course by then the wife in question had already left. As you might imagine, there’s some self-mockery in the poem. I don’t know about other men, but more than once my “paramours,” as you call them, have complained, “Robert, you’re not listening…” But I am listening. Just not always to them. But really, what is the line between self-involvement and productive dreaminess?

KL: You lived in Canada for many years, and have dual citizenship. Two recent books, and your Collected, have come out with a Canadian press. Do they consider you one of their own—a ‘Canadian poet’—or a Yankee interloper?

R.S.: Nowadays, I think I’m accepted, at least to a degree, though if you’re a real Canadian, you live in Canada—unless you’re Wayne Gretsky. But I do have family there, my son, his partner and their daughter. Let’s say I’m connected, yes, but not entirely accepted. After all, I’ve lived in Santa Cruz since 1985 and I know I wasn’t considered “one of their own” when I lived in Victoria, B.C., the heart of English Canada. In the 1970s newly arriving Americans were regarded with skepticism. In 1951 I had volunteered for overseas duty with the U.S. Navy, served in the combat zone during the Korean War, but was still considered someone escaping the draft. I also looked like an American hippie. In fact, I was an American hippie, but I was there to teach at the University of Victoria—1969 to 1973—until they decided my teaching methods put me at odds with the dominant white South Africans in the Department and my poetry…well, they called it “incomprehensible.” Some of it was…And my teaching methods were controversial. That is, holding classes at the professor’s house was considered risky, out-of-the ordinary. So in a sense I left under a cloud.

Anyway, I married a very earthy, Russian-Canadian from Montreal, Quebec, lived in Canada with her for fourteen years, fathered two children, Canadian citizens and, as Jack Foley suggests, I’m a citizen, at heart, of both countries, both worlds…but I also inhabit, as he says, “an enormous in-between.”

Canadian poet Richard Stevenson recently wrote: “You’re a Canadian, man! You committed the unpardonable sin of coming up here to live and getting involved with us bush leaguers!”

KL: You were a publisher for seven years in British Columbia. What was that like, being on the other side of the fence, dealing with poets’ egos and idiosyncrasies?

R.S.: Ten years, actually, 1969 to 1979. Well, I felt it was time to pay my dues, serve other poets, deal with their egos and idiosyncrasies—as publishers had had to deal with mine. I learned humility. As Coffee House publisher Alan Kornblum told me, “Poetry has a shelf life somewhere between yogurt and cottage cheese.“ In short, I learned that while you may not make money by writing poetry, you could count on losing money, lots of money, if you publish it. I made two big sales: I sold my house and then I sold my car.

Our publishing house, Soft Press, produced twenty-one books including a signed, handset, numbered edition of In The Clock Of Reason, by William Stafford. I think we sold it for $5.95 and there were people at the time that complained we were “overcharging.”

If I had it to do all over again, I would. I paid my dues and learned something about what it takes to publish a book. Anyone who is serious about writing—poetry or fiction—should have a year or two of training in book design and typesetting…preferably old style, with lead printing type and high quality paper. And I’m not excluding people who do desktop publishing.

KL: With notable exceptions, little is heard of Canadian poets in the U.S. In his Lives of the Poets, director of the Carcanet Press, Englishman Michael Schmidt singles out Canadians for a special dig. He calls modern strains of English language poetry “streets,” and writes: “Canada (a short street, that)…”

R.S.: He ignores the fact that Toronto, alone, according to “The Guinness Book of Records,” has Yonge Street, “the world’s longest designated street.” It also has the world’s largest annual literary festival, at Harbourfront, and readings pretty well every night of the year, as my friend, Canadian poet John Robert Colombo points out. Some short street!

KL: So is it chauvinism? Cultural imperialism?

R.S.: On the question of chauvinism, yeah, I think there’s a lot of that in the States. Cultural Imperialism? Absolutely! My Canadian friends believe this goes back to colonial days, when both Canada and the U.S. were trying to throw off the yoke of British Imperialism. In their view, the U.S. has continued to think of Canada as a branch plant of England and the tendency, I believe, is for Americans to read British poets before they read Canadian.

Arrivals, the largest Canadian poetry anthology published in the U.S. was edited by poet-critic Bruce Meyer back in 1985. To my knowledge there hasn’t been anything like it since. Of course literary isolationism doesn’t preclude Americans from competing in droves for any available prizes. And Canadian poets tell me the majority of the judges—as for the Griffin Prize—have been from the U.S.

KL: And this year’s winner was an American, August Kleinzahler. So get your back up even more over this and tell me why this is a problem, what am I, the American reader of poetry, missing?

R.S.: An entire literature! The list of world class poets writing in Canada right now, or just recently expired, is long, and includes Robyn Sarah, George Johnston, Margaret Avison, Don Coles, Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, Al Purdy, Gwendolyn MacEwan…

God knows, it’s hard to keep up. Poets whose work I know or whose reputations compel me to seek them out include the amazing Robert Priest, John Lee, Marty Gevais, Richard Stevenson, Ronnie Brown, Phyllis Webb, Don McKay, Anne Szumilgalski (who did manage her first book with Doubleday in the U.S.), Robert Bringhurst, Patrick Lane, Eli Mandel, Alden Nowlan, Robert Kroetsch, John Newlove—and many of these names come from the sixties! …And let’s not forget Canadian-born Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop and that all-around man of letters, John Robert Colombo—author of 150 books. This year we’ll see a two-volume, folio-sized collection of 2,500 poems… one of the most prolific writers in Canada, Colombo has produced 40 books of poetry since 1960.

The big difficulty is distribution. Firefly Books distributes some Canadian books in the U.S., including many of the poets just named. You may have to special order others from the publishers, but it’s worth the effort.

Look, most Americans aren’t even aware that north of the border there are two independent literatures, French and English. There’s not a lot of translation or communication between “the two solitudes.” On top of that we have our U.S. education system which is an underfunded mess and, particularly at the elementary and high school level, pretty xenophobic.

When we turn to Canadians they tend to be the ones with international reputations—usually for prose. Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler…

KL: And most recently Anne Carson, much of whose work I find puzzling, and chilly, intellectual. The scholar in her seems to be wrestling with the poet, and for my taste too often gets the upper hand. But, flashes of brilliance, surprises. What’s your take on her?

R.S.: I admire “Tango II” from The Beauty of the Husband and I like it that those who comment on her work are themselves driven to write…poetry…in order, it seems, to do justice to what they are reading. That says something admirable about her reviewers and something admirable, too, about Carson. She’s been called a philosopher of heartbreak, and I can see why.

And as well known as she is, even some of her early books are hard to come by in the U.S. Most poetry is published in small editions (500 or so copies) by small literary houses with a staff of two or three part-time people. The result, in Canada, is that many of the country’s best poets, unable to find a slot with a larger firm, go begging for an audience even in their own country.

KL: But wait, I was at a book fair in Seattle in the fall of 2002 promoting—if you can call it that—my most recent book, and some Canadians were there. I met James Bryner, the Literary Press Group rep, and spent the better part of two days trading quips with two publishers, Richard Olafson of Ekstasis Editions, and Brian Kaufman of Anvil Press and subTerrain magazine. They both had the time-honored litany of small press woes to relate, but I also noticed they carry sizeable lists of poetry. And from what I gather, they receive subsidies—the kind of money small presses in the U.S. haven’t had from government for maybe 15 years now. I don’t know about audience but poets seemed to be getting published, and in handsome editions…

R.S.: The key word here is “audience.” It’s great to be published, but how does that translate into readers? I’m all for Canada Council’s generous subsidies. . .God bless them. I’ve benefited from those subsidies myself. Ten of my twenty books have been published in Canada. But Canada’s a huge country and some publishers are content to be minimalists…they’ll “do” the book, put out something resembling a catalog, and not worry much about distribution…that said, yeah, thank God for Canada Council and the poets we have…even if we have to scramble to learn about them—and find some way of buying their books.

Then there’s the question of reviews…and the tendency of poets, in print, to be kind to one another. That’s the tendency in the U.S., but it seems even more so in Canada. Few people are willing to rock the boat, say what they’re really thinking.

KL: If one can generalize, what is the Canadian take on Canadian poetry?

R.S.: My Canadian friends concede that there’s a flatness to the Canadian voice that isn’t enticing, but at the same time—as Bruce Meyer points out—“you can do a lot with flat.” Canadians haven’t done enough to export their work either through readings or through foreign editions. Quick, name six Canadian poets. Okay, time’s up.

Also, Canada tends to be twenty years behind in terms of literary waves. My friend Bruce has been a New Formalist since 1987 when, he says, Richard Howard put him onto it. The first New Formalist anthology is scheduled to appear in Canada later this year, Bruce says.

Bear in mind that, compared to Canada, the U.S. poetry scene is huge. Two or three readings by a foreign poet in Canada—at Toronto’s International Festival, for example—and everyone knows who they are. Canada may be physically larger than the U.S., but the community is small enough for that to occur. Anyone who’s read at Harbourfront knows this is true.

Canadians are doubly at risk because they’re civilized and polite and yet have to contend with this giant attack dog to the south. Yet, as Bruce Meyer puts it, “I would hate to pin the label of chauvinism on anyone. Let’s just say Canadians are a shy people who don’t realize their own value and keep their light hidden under a bushel.” Which is true. God bless them.

KL: For the adventurous reader, who are some of the younger Canadian poets to seek out?

R.S.: One is the gifted Montreal poet Robyn Sarah, author of A Day’s Grace and Questions About The Stars. I read with her recently in Toronto and her work is fresh in my mind. She’s been singled out for praise, too, by the critic David Mason in The Hudson Review.

I’m not sure what “younger” means, but poets young or new, new because we haven’t yet heard of them… the list would include: singer-songwriter Robert Priest, Toronto poet laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (a priest), hockey-playing anthologist-poet John Lee, Marty Gervais, Ronnie Brown, George Elliott Clarke, Richard Stevenson, Stephanie Bolster, Julie Roorda and Bruce Meyer who, with several of the others, has been to the U.S. and read here. Friends in Canada mention dozens of poets scarcely known in the U.S.—Borson, Friesen, Safarik, Zwicky, Noble, Moure, Brand, Donnell, Thesen, Musgrave, Thompson…

KL: Many poets have dry spells, writer’s block. Carl Rakosi famously stopped writing for 30 years—to raise a family—then picked up right where he had left off. What is the longest you have gone without writing a poem?

R.S.: My driest time came in the late 1980s when I was fed up with freelancing, chasing assignments, chasing subjects, chasing people to get paid. I badly needed money and found work writing software user manuals in Silicon Valley. Sitting in a windowless cubicle in Santa Cruz off Mission Avenue on Highway 1, I had to learn UNIX and XENIX and a whole new way of being…I worked in the tech writing area of the engineering department and, to my surprise, many of my co-workers turned out to be story and science fiction writers. The truth is, they were writing, but I wasn’t. I was just trying to become a competent tech writer. I had no juice left to write poetry. No poems for a year.

We parted on good terms, but in truth I was fired for having “too literary a style” for software user manuals. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, I left a passionate devotee of computers.

KL: Robert, you’ve been writing since the 1950s. With your Collected Poems due out, what’s next?

R.S.: I’m preparing for a series of readings in Canada and the U.S. And working on a new collection. I’m fortunate these days. Black Moss has been good to me, has invited submissions, which allows me to think about writing in a new way, one poem at a time, yes, but sequences, books…instead of paying contest fees and spending valuable time sending out manuscripts as I did in the past, for fifty years.

As for the new poems, they’re mini-dramas, one-scene plays, dialogues, monologues, having to do with the father-son relationship, a continuation of what I’ve been doing since Rosicrucian in the Basement. And talking dogs, too. There’s imagery, yes, but the images arise through the characters themselves, including the dogs—and the poems call for a certain “sound,” a peculiar “voice” that is, and at the same time isn’t, my own.

KL: After all these years, when you sit down to write, what still gets you excited?

R.S.: Everything. Everything about the next poem that got me excited fifty years ago still gets me excited. It’s all really one work and, in a sense, I’ve never stopped and, at the same time, I’ve never finished the “next poem.” Truth is, friend, I’m right back at the beginning.

KL: That’s good to know. It makes me feel a little better.

R.S.: Free verse or not, they’re still verse, still music…There’s a tension between what I am striving for, and the reality, the falling short. It’s the interaction of at least two elements, often contradictory. Podiatry, for example—my father’s profession—and metaphysics, or the way in love-making a woman loses her voice and becomes luminous, seems, just as the breathing turns heavy, to sprout wings, moist…fragrant…sweaty. That excites me, and something similar happens when the writing goes well, the muse insisting words be spelled correctly, that the poet attend to every last detail or, as I’ve heard her say more than once, “Shut the fuck up.” Even so, it may take years to get a poem right.

And, friend, it doesn’t come easy…I’m an anxious person, addicted to suspense. Is it going to happen…? Is it even going to come close to happening? Does it matter…? Did I remember to wash my hands before sitting down at the computer? You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure. It’s a game. It excites me. What can I say? I love the game.

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[sample poem]

Life Is Its Own Afterlife

Podiatrist Father:

“Enough already. Mourn,
         mourn all you want…
What good will it do?
Truth is, I feel great, son. Never better!

“So what if I’m invisible?
So what if I’m dead?
You don’t need a body to be a mensch,
        a man of substance.
Ach, but with a body at least
you’ve got some privacy.
Without a body you can’t conceal anything.

“There’s more, son,
        and bad news for you.
God, —this will surprise you—
when you die one of the first questions He asks is,
        Did you marry?’
Turns out after God created the world, the rest of the time
He spent making marriages.
So a couple, when they meet, it’s bashert,
        ‘it was meant to be.’
That’s so… that’s how
         together they fulfill their destiny.
But divorce, that they don’t allow.
So you won’t be coming.

                But thank God
        for what you’ve got.
What are you missing? Not much. There is no afterlife,
        not really.
That’s right, son.
Life is its own afterlife.”

--

Copyright 2005, Robert Sward.

-END-

This interview has appeared in Chiron and in another form in Poesy.

About the interviewer:

A San Franciscan for over 20 years, klipschutz (aka Kurt Lipschutz) is the author of three poetry collections: Twilight of the Male Ego (Tsunami Inc. 2002), The Good Neighbor Policy, and The Erection of Scaffolding for the Re-Painting of Heaven by the Lowest Bidder (o.p.). He has been called a satirist, and worse. His poems have appeared in anthologies and periodicals throughout the U.S., including Poetry (of Chicago), as well as in Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. His journalism includes interviews with Carl Rakosi and critical appreciations of Harvey Pekar and Bill Knott. He is a part time scrivener in a law office.


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