Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: George Swede

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George Swede (photo credit: Anita Krumins)

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Starting in 1968, George Swede's poems began to appear in many leading Canadian journals: Antigonish Review, Arc, Canadian Forum, Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, Event, Grain, New Quarterly, Open Letter, Poetry Canada Review, Poetry Toronto, Quarry, Rampike, Scrivener, Tamarack Review, Toronto Life, University of Toronto Review, Waves and White Wall Review, as well as other fine publications such as Cicada, Frogpond, Industrial Sabotage, Modern Haiku, RAW NerVZ, Salt, Stuffed Crocodile and What.

His work appears in 35 collections: 15 books, 8 chapbooks, 8 mini-chapbooks, and 4 broadsheets. His latest books were published by Inkling Press in May 2010: Joy In Me Still (haiku) and White Thoughts, Blue Mind (tanka). Swede has also edited seven anthologies, including The Universe Is One Poem: Four Poets Talk Poetry (Simon & Pierre, 1990), There Will Always Be A Sky (Nelson Canada/Houghton Mifflin, 1993) and Global Haiku: Twenty-five Poets World-Wide (Iron Press/Mosaic Press, 2000). Other stints as an editor (in various roles) include Poetry Toronto, 1980-81, Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, 1982-1990 and Red Moon Press, 2000-2008. Since January 2008 he has been the editor of Frogpond: Journal of the Haiku Society of America. His work has also been featured on international radio and television.

Reviews of Swede's work have appeared in major newspapers such as Asahi Shimbun (Japan), The Halifax Herald, The London Times (U.K.), Mainichi Daily News (Japan), The New York Times, Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Washington Post as well as in literary periodicals and in hundreds of poetry journals around the world.

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TTQ- Tell us about your latest collection of tanka poems, White Thoughts, Blue Mind (Inkling Press, 2010). Why do you think tanka poems have not received as much notoriety as the haiku in the West, and which form do you prefer to write and why?

GS- My first tanka-only collection, First Light, First Shadows (2006), won the Snapshot Press Tanka Manuscript Competition for 2005. This success motivated me to write more tanka than normal and resulted in White Thoughts, Blue Mind, a collection in which I continue to experiment with the form.

A number of reasons explain why the haiku has captured the Western poetic imagination more than the tanka. I'll focus on just a few. One involves translation — the shorter haiku was easier to translate from an unfamiliar and complex language than the tanka. Thus, during the late 19th and early 20th century, literary-minded travelers to Japan, from many different countries, brought back examples of haiku they had translated into their native tongues, particularly Dutch, English, French, German and Spanish. These translations inspired many members of the Imagist movement (heyday being between 1908-1917) to write haiku-like poems (e.g., Ezra Pound's "In A Station Of The Metro").

These events were followed by Japanese scholar R.H. Blyth's four-volume Haiku (published between 1949 and 1952). Their Zen orientation captured the imaginations of the Beat Poets who then published haiku that inspired a much larger audience than before, and eventually the haiku became the most popular poetic form in the world, if we can judge by the number of links devoted to it on the Internet. The tanka, while more popular than the haiku in Japan, had a later start with Western scholars and never had popular champions. Nevertheless, Western interest in it is growing because it adds an extra dimension to the haiku moment.

My preference for writing haiku or tanka depends on each day's moods and associational processes. On some days the haiku form is too short for what needs to be said and then I turn to the tanka.

TTQ- What is it about the writing of Bashō that sets him apart from other poets and designates him as the King of the Haiku? Do you have a few favourite Bashō poems you would like to share that show his immense talent?

GS- Bashō (1644-1694) was born at a time when literacy was mushrooming and resulted in more and more people becoming engaged in poetic activities. Particularly popular was haikai, a variation of renga, in which formal rules were relaxed and a wider range of imagery and diction were expressed, usually in a playful manner rather than as serious poetry. The hokku, or first stanza (in all renga), was the most important verse since it set the course for subsequent links and, by the 17th century, an increasing number of poets, including Bashō, were writing hokku as autonomous poems. (Only in the late 19th century, did hokku that stood alone become known as haiku.) Ultimately, Bashō's hokku began to be seen as superior to those of his contemporaries because he had a wonderful command of the language and a keen sense of all the possibilities heretofore unexplored in the verse form. To quote Makoto Ueda (in Bashō and His Interpreters, Stanford University Press, 1991):

He was a daring explorer: he used slang terms, he borrowed from classical Chinese, he wrote hokku in eighteen, nineteen or more syllables. Even more important, he endeavored to make hokku true to actual human experience, to what he saw, thought, and felt, with all sincerity and honesty . . . he demonstrated that hokku was capable of embodying, in its brief form, all the various sentiments and moods of human life. (p. 3)

As a result, he drew to him talented students who evolved into accomplished hokku poets themselves and helped subsequent generations remember their mentor. Inevitably, literary scholars became interested in Bashō's work and his reputation grew exponentially.

Here are a six of Bashō's haiku I especially admire (from a variety of sources):

on a bare branch
a crow settles
autumn dusk

the sea darkens —
a wild duck's call
faintly white

the old pond —
a frog jumps in
water sound

above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark sings

summer grasses
all that remain
of soldiers' dreams

stillness —
the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks

TTQ- What inspired your collection of haiku poems Joy In Me Still (Inkling Press, 2010). Do you use a particular formula when writing haiku, and how extensive is the editing process for you?

GS- The inspiration behind Joy In Me Still was straightforward — ten years of periodical-published haiku that cried out to be gathered into a book. My prior collection of haiku, Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku of George Swede, appeared in 2000 (Brooks Books).

As for using a "formula," I do try to shape words into a "form" into a haiku or minimalist poem. Apart from this overarching goal, I see no other common process at work. But readers might see things differently.

The editing process varies from no editing at all to a number of rewrites spread over months or even years.

TTQ- Do you think Western poets are using the form of tanka and haiku more so in their writing today? Are these forms still considerably popular in Japan as they were back in the 60's when millions of copies were sold, and the Beat poets of the West were heavily influenced and started writing poetry in both forms?

GS- From the vantage point as the editor of Frogpond — the largest circulation haiku journal outside Japan — the number of poets writing haiku (and its related forms, senryu, rengay, tan renga, ranku and haibun) is steadily increasing. Each year the number of submissions to Frogpond from around the world, including Japan, has gone up. To date, we have published work from 41 different countries. Various European editors have told me that they are experiencing similar growth in the number of poets writing haiku and its related forms — in Bulgarian, Dutch, German, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish and Swedish.

Regarding the relative popularity of the haiku and tanka in Japan today, I have heard from Japanese poets and scholars that collections of tanka can still sell millions of copies; not so for haiku. However, a new development has arisen that favours the haiku, at least for now — more and more Japanese are writing haiku in English. This is partly due to ESL teachers realizing that the haiku is a useful tool for learning the subtleties of another tongue. Of course, the tanka is bound to follow.

TTQ- What has your experience been like as editor of the online magazine Frogpond. Can you give us a brief history of the journal, and what kinds of goals have you set for it in the future? Do you find that many established poets and writers are submitting their poetry to the journal?

GS- First, a correction: Frogpond is a print magazine. The winter issue has over 160 pages. What appears online is only a sampling of the current issue. The full title is Frogpond: Journal of the Haiku Society of America. The Society is incorporated in New York and 90% of members are from the United States. In January 2008, I became the first Canadian editor in the journal's 34-year history. Because of the huge workload, I accepted the position only after my spouse, Anita Krumins, agreed to become the Assistant Editor. Our responsibilities include dealing with submissions, editing, layout and printing, as well as myriad other tasks that befall all editors.

We set ourselves one over-arching goal: to make Frogpond a recognized and respected journal internationally. So far, we have been successful. Frogpond is now listed with the MLA International Bibliography, Humanities International Complete and Poets & Writers, as well as with several other guides for poets seeking periodicals in which to publish. Although Frogpond is the journal of an organization, submissions are open to everyone. It comes out three times a year. For each issue, the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo gives a prize of $100 to the author of the best haiku. In addition to haiku, we publish senryu, tan renga, rengay, renku, haibun, essays, reviews and the results of several yearly contests that involve cash prizes ranging from $50 to $150.

In its 34-year history Frogpond has published work by and reviews of all the major haiku poets in the world. It has also published work by and reviews of writers famous for what they have done outside the haiku world, but who have dabbled in haiku: writers such as Allen Ginsburg, Robert Hass, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Billy Collins and Paul Muldoon. During our three years as editors, we have added to this list of mainstream writers: E.D. Blodgett, John Elsberg, Eric Greinke, Ian Marshall, Michael Palmer, John Sexton, Gerald St. Maur, Michael W. Thomas, James Tipton, Priscila Uppal, Denis Thériault, etc.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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