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Todd Swift talks to Poetry Kit

Poems by Todd Swift

Todd Swift is a highly regarded poet and poetry editor of the much respected internet magazine nthposition and he is also one of the forces behind the anthology "100 Poets Against the War".  Jim Bennett recently caught up with Todd and put a few questions for Poetry Kit.


Tell us something about yourself.

I was born in Montreal, Canada, on Good Friday, 1966.  I was three months premature, and barely survived the incubator.  I was a precocious speaker, and dictated my first novel to my parents when I was four.  I was a lonely child, and spent most time dealing with my difficult home and school life (I was smaller than most kids and non-athletic, then) by reading and writing.  My first favourite poets were Pound, Cohen, Yeats and Dylan Thomas.  Later, I added Larkin, Frost and Hardy to the list.  From these I took various lessons.  The chief one was that poets can come from any place, and write of any experience. That craft and dedication and passion must   endure.  At 18 I published my first poem.  At 21, my first anthology, a study of Northern Irish poets, was released to good reviews. 

In my mid-twenties I won the Young Quebecer of the Year Award in the Arts and Education category for my work hosting events, editing, and writing.  I have since published seven books of poetry, including the New York Short Fuse anthology; released a poetry-music CD with Tom Walsh; and continue to work on more projects (for New American Writing, among others). I was visiting lecturer at ELTE University in Hungary between 1998-2001, and taught courses in film and poetry.  I have written some TV and screenplays. I believe in encouraging others to write poetry, and making poetry more of a communal, and less an antagonistic, process.  My poems have recently appeared in Jacket, Poetry London, Poetry Wales,among others.  I moved to Europe with my wife, in 1997, and have lived in Budapest, Paris and now London.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has compared me to Ezra Pound in the 10s and 20s in Paris and London, which is very flattering indeed.  I am returning to do an MA in poetry at the University of East Anglia in autumn 2004.

How/when did you start writing?

My family life was both very difficult and somehow loving.  My father struggled with personal problems that led us to not have much money.  But my parents let me "become" a poet, when I told them at fourteen that is what I wanted to do.  My mother had begun reading me poems when I was very young; and my father (at one time he was a pop singer) used to croon to me.  I began writing seriously when I was "expelled" from one of my classes in high school and re-assigned to the library for that class everyday (History with a sadistic teacher).  That's where I discovered books on or by the heroes I mention elsewhere in these answers.  I was also greatly influenced by, oddly enough, Alistair MacLean; and any Penguin I could find.  My poetry was not simply adolescent, though I was.  I did write love, lust and despair poems (as all young, and old, poets do) but also aimed to get away from the regular themes by exploring religion, and notions of decadence, inspired by Poe, Rimbaud and Huysmans. My first poems were quite formal, even ryhmed and in metre.  In some ways, better than my work later.  Hard to recapture that intensity.  I recall submitting a manuscript to Faber in 1982 (when I was 16) called "Evil Genius".  Craig Raine, I think it was, returned it with a lovely letter, saying no, but thanking me.  He liked my use of the word "aporia" and said I should keep writing.  That helped.  My first poem was published 20 years ago, when I was 18, by The Fiddlehead, a good Canadian journal.  I just mailed it in.  I used to write poems in pen, and then type them up on an electric typewriter (!) my mother bought me.  I am glad that expense finally paid off, because I know my parents spent a lot on their moody young writer.

Was there anything that particularly influenced you?

I experienced a great deal of chaos - the madness and cruelty of others, in childhood, some terrifying moments.  I turned inwards, and became a gentle swimmer in words.  Lyrics were my safe house, a good home.  I believe poems should warn, worry but ultimately heal.  I love anthologies of poetry, and these influenced me too - Alvarez's as much as Palgrave's - which is why I like to edit them myself.  They were my closest friends until I met Sara.  I am also very influenced by weather.  Growing up in Canada, one faces minus 30 winters, and snowdrifts high as half a house.  I had a pet husky dog called Rascal, and he'd pull me along the ice.  I'd compose poems walking/racing him.  I loved the crisp, ultra-blue winter sky, and the snow, and the freezing air.  I also recall loving New Gold Dream by Simple Minds.  I thought it full of religious meaning.  In fact, I have also been influenced by my Anglican roots.

Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?

I admire many poets.  I read widely.  Unlike some contemporary poets who see an unbridgeable gulf between "Mainstream" and "Postmodern" poetry, I enjoy many styles and strategies.  I enjoy Charles Bernstein, and Edward Thomas, for instance.  Some of my strongest influences are not poets: Orson Welles (I see poetry in terms of cinema sometimes); Hitchcock; Freud; song-writers like Costello; comic books; the colour field painters.  But my necessary poets include Shakespeare; Wallace Stevens; Hopkins; Rilke and Eliot; Dickinson; Auden; and Donne: as well as contemporaries, and friends.  The best Canadian poets writing now include Jason Camlot and Adeena Karasick.  I try to write and edit poems with a cinematic eye, taken from my work in TV and on films.

How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing?

I write every day.  I am a professional screenwriter, and also write articles and reviews.  But I try to write a poem or so every few days.  The best come from a bottling up of thoughts and emotions, over several days or weeks.  They come quickly.  Then I edit them for months, even years.  I believe in passion and immediacy at the composition stage, and forensic cruelty even, at the editing stage.  A poet must be both composer and editor, like a good director.  I just know when a poem is finished.  A “Spidey-sense” tingle.

Do you make much use of the internet?

I am currently the poetry editor of which features many kinds of poetry.  I think the internet creates an immediate and non-commercial community that can help share poems without all the hype and nonsense of so much marketing.  I also have an eponymous web-site ( .  I enjoy surfing for news, and poetry.  I think the internet is best as a means of communication, rather than the originator of new forms of poetry.  Of course, digital, hyper-poetry comes to have full meaning with the net; also, sound poets can disseminate their work more easily via computer networks.  But for me, a poem's strength draws from its unique basis in one person, anywhere, with nothing but their inner voice, and some means to inscribe that.  I find that getting opinions of other poets is very useful, at later stages in the development of a work, and I often electronically workshop certain poems or manuscripts.  I sent my third book to about fifteen close friends whose work I respect, and they each had valuable insights.  My work in the collaborative medium of TV/film has made me less afraid of receiving, and applying such critique for constructive ends.  I also collaborate with co-editors - anthologies are a kind of art form, texts selected as a director selects images and scenes; or a DJ samples music.  And I have worked with the composer Tom Walsh on our sound art CD, Swifty Lazarus: The Envelope, Please, which many critics have said is one of the best examples of word-music poetry.  We tried to write the score (and dialogue) for a film Welles never made.  My audience has shifted as I have matured.  In my 20s I wrote for a very hip, even sexy, urban audience: I was a performer. I bought into the derangement of the senses creed, which is fine for a young gun, but soon wears thin.  In my 30s, I have rediscovered the silence at the heart of written, text-based poems, and am seeking more grace, elegance, and wit.  From Ginsberg to Donne, if not Dickinson, by way of Hopkins and Stevens, I'd say.  But I am also very aware of the pressures of experimental poetry and its demands.  I suppose I seek an audience of intelligent, well-read people who like art-house movies and also enjoy James Bond.  Add to this a need for social justice.  A very difficult matrix to weave through.  I am quite utopian in my belief that poetry can change lives, if not history.

Why poetry?

Poetry is the highest art - to touch with care.  It truly combines the supposed objectivity of science; the contemplation of philosophy; the mysticism of religion; the movement of the dance; the colour and shape of art and architecture; the energy of sport and love; the passion of war; the subtlety of diplomacy; and the beauty of music.  Each well-made poem is a microcosm of what is best (and perhaps worst) about us.  Poetry very definitely can and does have a social impact.  I was editorial coordinator for Poets against the war, and also led the peace poetry e-book revolution of 2003.  We staged readings around the world, and were able to bear witness.  I think performance poetry has a place.  At its best, it returns us to the necessary communal, organic, ancient and mysterious power of poetry.  At its worst, it is an embarrassment: beer-farts and cheap gags, trivializing the goddess we crave.  Slam was a vital movement of the 90s.  It is still growing, but I think it may have peaked as a movement.  We need to move beyond competitions, to projects of conciliation, sharing and community-building.  Poetry should not be marketed only as entertainment, but as something ubiquitous and necessary, like water.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I recommend tolerance.  I believe poets should be open to styles and modes alien to themselves.  To recall their own vulnerabilities. To welcome the other, the alternative.  But not to yield their demands of excellence.  We must balance an urge to democracy with the need for excellence.  Tough to do, but essential.  And never give up.  Who can say you are not a poet?  The ones who said that to Dickinson or Hopkins?

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently completing Rue du Regard, my third collection of poems; several anthologies of poetry for 2005; and a study of English Quebec Poetry since 1976, with Dr. Jason Camlot; as well as a novel and some more scripts.  I write and edit all the time.  Tuckers me out.

What do you hope for in your future career as a poet/writer?

I hope to live an exemplary life, as an artist, and a person.

You have mentioned the 100 poets against the war anthology.  When it came out it drew a lot of attention because of the stand you were taking against the invasion of Iraq and war generally.  Do you feel the initiative changed anything?

Nthposition’s e-book anthologies were downloaded over 250,000 times in less than two months.  They were read from, after being printed up, at readings from Japan to Los Angeles, New York to Paris, Halifax to London, Oxford to Berlin - and all points in-between.  The Times and The Guardian, not always on the same page, both hailed them as groundbreaking.  The use of e-books in a revolutionary (literally) activist campaign was aided by our work with Sam Hamill's Poets Against The War in the USA, with which we were linked (indeed, I was editorial coordinator for them in 2003).  That campaign brought over 14,000 poems, actually printed up, to The White House. Together, these readings, protest marches and other events, generated a great deal of media attention, and helped focus and define the anti-war stance, long before the Howard Dean campaign began to advance the interface between community and technology for political purpose. 

Perhaps because of the number of poets involved there was some concern expressed about the quality of the actual poetry. 

Among the thousands of poets who sent in poems against the war, were Sean O'Brien, Ruth Fainlight, Mimi Khalvati, George Szirtes, Michael Donaghy, Peter Robinson, Marilyn Hacker, to name only a few.  It is true that perhaps 10,000 of the poems were sent in by "amateur" poets - concerned citizens - from all ages and occupations – but why restrict poetry to professionals?  How else to become a sanctioned poet, if not by starting somewhere?  And, the last few thousand were written and submitted by respected, widely published and award-winning poets. 

I believe the reason so many people are threatened by the networking, the net, and its creation of new relationships, and instant books, is that it breaks the control/capitalist cycle, where publishers and editors accrue great power and prestige by establishing an "eye of the needle" for new talent.  The truth is, publishing, writing, and sharing such work, need not be so narrowly-defined.  As Napster and other sorts of sharing have redefined the role of the big media companies in terms of music and film product, global events like the 100 Poets Against The War movement unsettle the accepted norms of big publishing.  And that may prove historic.  We did not stop the war, but have left a potent blueprint for future protest.


{This poem is based on the book of the same name, and my own experience.  It first appeared in my second collection, Cafe Alibi.}

The Child, The Family, And The Outside World
Glass and rubber intervene.
You pull sheathed, inserted arms
from the container where she stays,
then look back, touch unable.
Leaving is like carrying fear to term.
Mother, the click of your heels
going down the polished hall
is just her heart, your heart.


{This poem is from my first collection, Budavox.  It represents my more cavalier/decadent style, and explores some of my favourite early themes of love, desire, loss and death as the inevitable admixture.}

The White Kitchen
Yes, you are gone
and I believe that bodies rot
when buried in the ground,
though as to what happens
to living creatures
that walk their peripheries
in a distant town, assuming
the invisibility of mere departure,
I am helpless to say.
Your hair is likely now
to be dirty blonde
(as always), your height
still vertical, to my chin, if
my head were present to compare.
Not dead then, but distant.
On the occult telephone
your voice sounds
as oddly rushed as from the ether,
summoned by a crone.
I can add nothing new
to metaphysical conjecture,
I am no oiled and bound Egyptian,
have no name for what’s been done
here in your absence’s white kitchen.

{This poem first appeared in Poetry Wales.  It explores my concern with innocence and experience.}
After School
She bends at the foolproof coil,
her bicycle locked around STOP,
handles curved down, a ram’s horns
butting clear space, left out alone
to notice, but not take.  I learn
her routine by rote, can recite
times and places: when she is late,
or safe at home.  All this the result
of her orange reflector, visible
in the failing light.  It has become
my signal, floating like a firefly
in confusion on a country lane.
Its property to warn is better known
than how it also will attract.
Time to follow my girl again.

{This is a very new, unpublished poem.  It appears here for the first time.  It represents an attempt to move forward, while looking back, at the first 20 years of my poetic, and sensual life, often the same thing.  I attempted to incorporate images and flavours of Bob Dylan, The Stranglers, and other musicians I have enjoyed, along with a sort of Rhymer's Club (Men of the 90s) feel of lost time regained in melancholy nostalgia. Some Swineburne, an early influence I failed to cite elsewhere. It also explores my interest in long, rhetorical, flowing essayistic poems.  I enjoy playing artifice off of truth, revelation.  I felt it addressed some of what came up in the questions I answered.}
On the eve of 20 years after being 18
I am not there anymore.
Who could not share
Such complaints?
Let me have the card
Of the man who never
Returns to that country
Baggage-handlers say
Is regret.  That man
Is lying.  I shall call him
On it.  Point out to me
The lady who admits
To no remorse or reminiscence;
Her sense is lost, she fibs.
The countryside known
Locally as what-once-was
Is sun-gloomy, slow and lasts;
For memory lies fallow,
Yields its narcotic leaves
In any season at all; in shade
Or full-bore sun, these parts
Look familiar.  What is lost
Bears resemblance to what
Is still in our hand, as father
To son.  That is, the present
Is related to that smaller distant
Self we tend to call after
Ourselves.  Close the door
When you go, sweetheart.
The opium of the breeze
From that day we danced
In close comfort tends to feel
Quite strong.  I shiver
Under the ceiling fan.  I lay
In such sure sugar folly
With certainly best girls
And pleasures were grown
And gathered, green grapes
To our red mouths.  Sense?
It made none.  Begun, simply,
Went on from there.
I catch glimpses of hair.  Strands
Of repentance amid doing wrong;
Time was a popular song we
Could not remove from our minds.
How it never winds up that way.
Today, the golden taste is neutral,
And the foil is plain and closed.
The smoke is of leaves somewhere,
Not from that sly unbottled genie
Which makes a bed of endless sleep
Seem to walk among painless fields.
So we became one, like a couple
Under the steeple, that best promise,
That opium day, week and year; is
It still there, tell me, that lapel
Pierced with the poppy, that dream?
Now all is rapid, cold and seems
To be a home for those retired from
The quick and early splendid errors
That the young trample under foot
As they run their waves through long
Grass, towards the hill-wide sky.
What is the name of that inhaled girl
Who is glassy, honey-filled, a world?
April 7, 2004


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