This video interview with Robert Sward was conducted by Wallace Boss of Boss Productions, and is part of The Muse DVD Magazine series. The Muse DVD Magazine was a periodical in DVD format that featured interviews with some of America's finest writers, painters, sculptors, potters, weavers and musicians. This interview is an excerpt that features Robert Sward and discusses sources of creativity that contributed to over 25 books, including his New & Selected Poems, 1957--
Read Full Review Here) Santa Cruz Poet Releases Career Collection Robert Sward's New and Selected Poems by Stephen Kessler -SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY When Robert Sward arrived in Santa Cruz in 1985, he instantly became the area's most nationally famous resident poet.New and Selected Poems: 1957 - 2011 is culled from Robert Sward’s newest and best works, including both previously unpublished poems and selections from his 20+ books of poetry. It is the definitive Sward collection, exhibiting throughout his signature style: outwardly zany and fanciful, but inwardly serious, troubled, and questioning. They cover the territory Sward has tread so well—love, divorce, multiple marriage, aging, loss, and the challenge of bringing up children in a highly unstable world. Reviews: "Indeed, the winding road offered by New and Selected Poems 1957–2011 is a fruitful, enlightening journey where we are mesmerized by the sounds and sites of a poet who has examined not only what poetry is, but what it means to live as a poet." -Iris Jamahl Dunkle (
“Robert Sward’s poems are the result of a plunge into a never fully ironized, often hilarious sense of mysticism: they are the product of a restless, spiritually adventuresome sensibility masking itself as a stand-up comedian. This poet learned early that the comic, the ‘zany,’ was a mask by which one could assert oneself—through which one would be listened to. In his poems, the mask remains, but it is at the service of an essentially visionary impulse: ‘the vision, the life that it requires.’ Wonderful work.” —Jack Foley“These are such funny, sad, generous poems—peopled with characters it's impossible not to love, especially Robert's podiatrist-Jewish-Rosicrucian father with his wisdom that bridges all dualities expounding on the feet and the soul, sex and death, the broken and the whole. In one poem, Robert asserts, 'In a world of No, dogs are a Yes'. And in the world of poetry, this book is a resounding Yes. Read it when you’re happy, but especially read it when you’re depressed. You'll find yourself joining in with the many dogs in these poems, saying, 'Woof, woof f—in’ woof!'” —Ellen Bass Product Details: Paperback: 208 pages Publisher: Red Hen Press; 1st Edition edition (October 1, 2011) ISBN-10: 1597092614 ISBN-13: 978-1597092616 Purchase on Amazon
Photo of Leonard Cohen by Robert SwardPhoto and interview with Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward This interview took place in Montreal, Quebec - 1984. INT: Your latest album is called " Various Positions. " Why that title? LC: When you're gathering songs together, the ones that you have and the ones that you can finish, they generally fall around a certain position: and this position seemed to me like walking, like walking around the circumference of the circle. It's the same area looked at from different positions. I like to have very neutral titles. My last album was called " Recent Songs " and that was the most perfect title I've ever come up with. But " Various Positions " is okay. My next one is going to be called " Songs in English. " INT: What connections are there between " Various Positions " and " Book of Mercy, " your new book of poems? LC: " Book of Mercy " is a secret book for me. It's something I never considered, although it has an organic place, I guess, among the things I've done. It is a book of prayer and it is a sacred kind of conversation; the songs are related, of course. Everybody's work is all of one piece, but " Book of Mercy " is somehow to one side. For me personally it's just a document, an important document. But a popular song has to move more easily, lip to lip. Songs are addressed and constructed that way. "Book of Mercy " is a little book of prayer that is only valuable to someone who needs it at the time. It isn't aimed in the same way that a song is aimed. INT: Yet I find it reads very much as if it were a love poem. It is a book of love ... without the kinds of tensions that are in your other love poems and songs. It's very much an I-Thou relationship. LC: Well, I hope it has those qualities, because if a thing doesn't have those qualities it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't even touch yourself. But it is a particular kind of love poem. We always have someone looking over our shoulder when we write and we always have an idea of a public. But I think that in " Book of Mercy " that process was as rarefied as possible. The public almost evaporated in the construction of that book. It really was meant for people like myself who could use it at a particular time. INT: Have you been surprised by the audience that it has found? LC: I'm always happy that a thing finds any audience at all and I've gotten some very kind letters from people who are not readers of poetry. I've gotten letters from soldiers and people I ordinarily never hear from. INT: In an early poem of yours, " Lines from My Grandfather's Journal, " you write, " Even now prayer is my natural language." It strikes me that you may, to some extent, have found your natural language in Book of Mercy. And of course a psalm is also a song. LC: I think that I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech that I heard in the synagogue, where everything was important. The absence of the casual has always attracted me. I've always considered the act of speaking in public to be very, very important and that's why I've never been terribly touched by the kind of work that is so deliberately casual, so deliberately colloquial. There are many great masters of that form, like Robert Creeley, but it isn't the sweetness for me. It isn't delicious. I always feel that the world was created through words, through speech in our tradition, and I've always seen the enormous light in charged speech, and that's what I've tried to get to. That's a hazardous position because you can get a kind of highfalutin' sound that doesn't really strike the ear very well, so it has its risks, that kind of attachment. But that is where I squarely stand. INT: One sees the importance of naming in Book of Mercy, and you have just suggested that this is how the world came into being, through incantation, through saying and through naming. LC: Yes, that's always touched me, the capacity to create the world through speech, and my world is created that way. It's only by naming the thing that it becomes a reality. A lot of people quarrel with that idea because that limits the direct perception of things. Everything is going through speech; everything is going through the idea, and a lot of people feel that things should be able to manifest before your awareness without the encumbrance of speech. I know it's a very old-fashioned idea and not popular today, but the kind of speech designed to last forever has always attracted me. INT: You once said that " the angels of mercy are other people. " What does that mean? And what is the relationship between angels and language? LC: I don't know. One of the things I always liked about the early Beatnik poetry -- Ginsberg and Kerouac and Corso-- was the use of the word " angel." I never knew what they meant, except that it was a designation for a human being and that it affirmed the light in an individual. I don't know how I used the word " angel." I've forgotten exactly, but I don't think I ever got better than the way that Ginsberg and Kerouac used the word in the early fifties. I always loved reading their poems where they talked about angels. I've read a lot of things about angels. I just wrote a song with Lewis Furey called " Angel Eyes. " I like it as a term of endearment: " Darling, you're an angel. " I mean the fact that somebody can bring you the light, and you feel it, you feel healed or situated. And it's a migratory gift. We're all that for other people. Sometimes we are and sometimes we aren't. I know that sometimes it's.just the girl who sells you cigarettes saying " have a good day " that changes the day. In that function she is an angel. An angel has no will of its own. An angel is only a messenger, only a channel. We have another kind of mythology that suggests angels act independently. But as I understand it from people who have gone into the matter, the angel actually has no will. The angel is merely a channel for the will. INT: You speak about will in Book of Mercy. There's one psalm about the will and it seems to be a wall that prevents something happening or some opening of a channel LC: Well, we sense that there is a will that is behind all things, and we're also aware of our own will, and it's the distance between those two wills that creates the mystery that we call religion. It is the attempt to reconcile our will with another will that we can't quite put our finger on, but we feel is powerful and existent. It's the space between those two wills that creates our predicament. INT: I am struck, in Book of Mercy, by the relative absence of will. One of course needs a thread of will to pray. One even needs a thread of will to write a psalm. LC: Those are really ticklish questions. I think you put your finger on it. Somehow, in some way, we have to be a reflection of the will that is behind the whole mess. When you describe the outer husk of that will which is yours, which is your own tiny will -- in all things mostly to succeed, to dominate, to influence, to be king -- when that will under certain conditions destroys itself, we come into contact with another will which seems to be much more authentic. But to reach that authentic will, our little will has to undergo a lot of battering. And it's not appropriate that our little will should be destroyed too often because we need it to interact with all the other little wills. From time to time things arrange themselves in such a way that that tiny will is annihilated, and then you're thrown back into a kind of silence until you can make contact with another authentic thrust of your being. And we call that prayer when we can affirm it. It happens rarely, but it happens in Book of Mercy, and that's why I feel it's kind of to one side, because I don't have any ambitions towards leading a religious life or a saintly life or a life of prayer. It's not my nature. I'm out on the street hustling with all the other wills. But from time to time you're thrown back to the point where you can't locate your tiny will, where it isn't functioning, and then you're invited to find another source of energy. INT: You have to rediscover the little wills in order to take up various positions again. LC: Yeah, that's right. The various positions are the positions of the little will. INT: Has there been another time in your work where you have discovered the will, where you have abandoned the little wills? LC: Well, I think that in writing, when you're cooking as a writer, it is a destruction of the little will ... you are operating on some other fuel. But there are all kinds of writing. There are people like Charles Bukowski who make that tiny will glorious, and that's a kind of writing that I like very much: a writing in which there is no reference to anything beyond the individual's own predicament, his own mess, his own struggle. We don't really live in Sunday school, and Book of Mercy is Sunday school. It's a good little book and it's a good little Sunday school, but it isn't something that I could honestly stand behind all the time. I certainly wouldn't want to stand behind it publicly. It is that curious thing: a private book that has a public possibility. But it's not my intention to become known as a writer of prayers. INT: What is it like going from Book of Mercy to a tour of forty European cities giving concerts, as you're about to do, singing songs from the new album? LC: Well, it's not very different. You definitely go into a concert with a prayer on your lips. There's no question about that. I think that anything risky that you do, anything that sets you up for the possibility of humiliation like a concert does ... you have to lean on something that is a little better than yourself I feel I'm always struggling with the material, whether it's a concert or a poem or a prayer or a conversation. It's very rarely that I find I'm in a condition of grace where there's a kind of flow that is natural. I don't inhabit that landscape too often. INT: Do you really feel as though you're experiencing humiliation when you're out there? LC: Well, I mean this in a kind of lighthearted way. When you walk on the stage and 5,000 people have paid good money to hear you, there's definitely a sense that you can blow it. The possibilities for disgrace are enormous. INT: Are your audiences in Europe, where you've done many, perhaps most of your concerts in the recent past, very different ftom your audiences in North America? LC: Speaking technically, like a salesman about territories, there are real differences in audiences. For instance, a Berlin audience is very different from a Viennese audience. A Berlin audience is very tough, very critical and sharp, like the edge of a crystal. You have to demonstrate the capacity to master your material, yourself, the audience. There's a certain value placed on mastery. In Vienna, there's a certain value placed on vulnerability. They like to feel you struggling. They're warm, compassionate. Of course it changes with seasons, whether you're playing in winter or summer, there's a thousand variables, but at the bottom, if you can find the door into the song.... You're singing the same songs every night and it's necessary to find the entrance into the song, and that always changes, and sometimes you betray yourself in a song. You try to sing it the way you did the night before and people can feel it. People can feel that you haven't found your way into it. If you find your way into it, people repond to that. If you don't, you feel a certain frisson of alienation that you yourself have created. It's in the air. INT: A resentment? LC: It can go from a certain absence of warmth in the applause to things being thrown on the stage. INT: Did that ever happen? LC: I think I was shot at once at a big festival in Aix-en-Provence. That was when the Maoists were very powerful in France and they resented the fact that they actually had to buy a ticket. A lot of them broke down the fence and came into the concert and I did notice one of the lights on the stage go out after a kind of crack that sounded like a gunshot. I don't know. But they're tough critics, the Maoists. INT: What about the French generally? You have said you are French. How do they respond to you? LC: My work has been well received in France. One of the reasons is that they have a tradition that my work fits into. They like to hear that battle in the voice. They want to hear the real story. The well-known ones are Brassaens and Brel, but they have hundreds of such singers. They don't have a preconception of what the voice should be. So my songs have struck home there. INT: There was a lot of ferment in Montreal in the late 1940's and early 50's, a lot of excitement around poetry and figures like Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. Did that touch you at all? LC: Oh, very much so. Both those men were very kind to me. I studied with Louis Dudek at McGill University and he, as many people have mentioned, is a really magnificent teacher. He gave a sort of dignity, an importance, to the whole enterprise of writing that enflamed young people. You wanted to write. You wanted to be a poet. And he looked at your poems and spoke about them and criticized them in a very accurate and compassionate way, which is his style. I never studied with Irving Layton. I never felt influenced by Irving or Louis as models, and there was never any attempt by Irving or Louis to influence their students toward a certain kind of writing. But they enlightened the whole process. INT: I'm sure you're familiar with Irving's assessment of you as the high priest of poetry, himself [Irving Layton] as the prophet, and A. M. Klein as the archivist. How do you feel about that? LC: I don't know what " archivist " means. INT: Collector of the archives. Keeper of the scrolls. Keeper of the tradition. LC: Well, I would never quarrel with that. That's a useful description. Irving, as the prophet, and probably the best writer we've ever produced in this country, does stand on a mountain. I inhabit a different kind of landscape. INT: Is there any tension between your role as solitary poet, if one can call it that, and the role of public performer? LC: I never think of myself as a solitary poet. I don't feel any conflicts in what I do. There are economic pressures, and there's a desire too, as a musician would say, to " keep your chops up, " to keep singing and keep playing, just because that's the thing you know how to do. So between that and the need to make a living, you find yourself putting a tour together. What the real high calling behind any life is is very difficult for me to determine. It goes all the way from thinking that nothing any of us do is terribly important to feeling that every person has a divine spark and is here to fulfil a special mission. So between those two positions, there's lots of space. But I've put out a record and I know I have to go on a tour or nobody will know about the record and if nobody knows about the record, it defeats the idea of the song moving from lip to lip, and it also makes it impossible for me to support my family. So all these things conspire to place me on a stage and hopefully be able to entertain people for an evening. INT: So there are really very practical considerations as well. LC: Well, I don't think there is any other consideration but practical. I've never been able to disassociate the spiritual from the practical. I think that what we call the spirit or spirituality is the most intense form of the practical. I think you have to find those sources within yourself or there is no movement, there is no life to be led. Many people have different ways of locating that source. Some people avail themselves of the traditional ways which we call religion or religious practice. There are many people who have absolutely no need of those particular references, but it doesn't mean that their lives are any less spiritual. On the contrary, it might meant that their lives are more spiritual. They are living spirits. And there's no distance. INT: It strikes me that there's sometimes more irony in your songs than in your poems. I'm thinking of lines like " He was just some Joseph looking for a manger. " The inflections in your si ngi.ng voice convey a variety of different attitudes, and in some instances an attitude like irony comes through more clearly in the songs. LC: Yeah, I see what you mean. I think of Bob Dylan, who gets the inflections of street talk, the inflections of conversation, and does that with such mastery ... where you can hear a little tough guy talking. You can hear somebody praying. You can hear somebody asking. You can hear somebody coming onto you. When you're composing that material and you know that it's going to occupy aural space, you can compose it with those inflections in mind. And of course it does invite irony because that irony can be conveyed with the voice alone whereas on the page you generally have to have a larger construction around the irony for it to come through. You can't just write, " What's it to ya? " If you sing, " What's it to ya? " to some nice chords it really does sound like, " Well, what's it to yah, baby? " But.just to see it written, it would need a location. INT: How much connection do you feel with Dylan's music, or with others, like Joni Mitchell, for example? Whose music is closest to you now...? LC: Well, like the Talmud says, there's good wine in every generation. We have a particular feeling for the music of our own generation and usually the songs we courted to are the songs that stay with us all our life as being the heavy ones. The singers of my own period, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, all those singers have crossed over the generations. But we have a special kind of feeling for the singers that we use to make love to. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Copyright (c) 1984, 1998, 2000 by Robert Sward. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author or his estate.
Interview by Robert Sward This interview took place at the University of Victoria, Canada - 1982. Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec in 1915. He attended Protestant schools in Montreal until at the age of nine he moved with his family to Chicago. He studied at the University of Chicago and received his bachelor's degree from Northwestern University with honors in sociology and anthropology. He has taught at New York University, Princeton, the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago. Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man (Avon) appeared in 1944. He received a National Book Award for three of his subsequent novels. The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet (all Avon). Humboldt's Gift (Avon), published in 1975, was awarded the Pulitzer prize. In 1965 he became the first American to win the International Literary Prize, awarded to him for Herzog. In 1968 he was awarded the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the highest literary honor France accords to a non-citizen. I first met Bellow in the early 60s at the University of Chicago, about the time of the publication of Herzog. Nearly 20 years later, on a visit to Victoria and compelled by a reading of Bellow's latest book, The Dean's December, I sought him out once again, this time in his modest office in the University of Victoria's Clearihue, Building. Our conversation focused on the new novel. The Dean's December, Bellow's first fiction since winning the Nobel prize, counterposes two societies, that of Bucharest, Rumania and Chicago, Illinois. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Albert Corde, the dean of students at an unnamed Chicago college, both cities exhibit the symptoms of societal breakdown. Corde has traveled to a barren, bureaucratic Bucharest with his wife Minna to offer support and comfort at a time when her mother is dying. There he muses on his own life in Chicago, describing in some painfully eloquent passages Chicago's street life. Bellow and I spoke for an hour, until interrupted by the light knock of a student at the door. As I rose to leave, I was struck by the resemblance of Bellow to his creation, Albert Corde. Bellow too had the face of a man who seeks to trace or find "the human motion of character"; a man who, it seemed to me, had written a novel which, for all its bleakness, was an affirmation of humanist values. Sward: I like your phrase, "Truth should have some style." Yet The Dean's December has been criticized as a novel of ideas. Do you think the reception this book has had suggests readers are reluctant to accept novels of ideas or novels that have been labeled by reviewers as vehicles primarily for the author's ideas? Bellow: Readers don't like to be disturbed. They don't like either their habits or their expectations to be frustrated. But I think anyone who reads this as a book of ideas misses something; misses the emotion with which those ideas are presented and the passion behind them. This is for me a very intense book. It's not just a treatise. The opinions themselves would be meaningless if they were not passionately expressed or dramatized. And I would be the first to to be leery of abstractions in a novel if they were nothing but abstractions. Writing of this sort is writing which is meant to be passed through the soul, not just absorbed idly, superficially. If you see it in that perspective, I don't think you can take The Dean's December as a book of abstruse half-truths. That's a lazy view of the book. It's nothing of the sort. It's attached to all sorts of human disasters. The reviewers are missing or evading the point. Sward: Some readers of earlier books of yours feel that there is a bleaker view of life dominating later books like The Dean's December. The question arises, to what extent does this reflect your own world view? Bellow: A writer is a sort of medium. He doesn't decide in advance exactly what he is going to do. Only a commercial writer sits down with a set purpose to write a book that reflects attitudes that the public desires. If you know in advance what you are going to write, then you are a commercial writer. Or if you know in advance what you are going to paint, you are a commercial painter, a poster man. I am not a poster man. And when I begin to write I don't know what is going to happen. In my own writing I'm a historian, a chronicler in a sense. I know there are lots of people who think that's a mantle that I have no right to wear. I don't know how they decide who has the right. Many of them, when they read Mr. Sammier's Planet, decided I was a reactionary old stinker. Well, it is not for me to tell them what to think. But I'm free to say that this is merely ideological classification and reflects an unwillingness to read as closely as is necessary. People are in a hurry to pigeon-hole you because they don't have the time to deal with you as an individual. They are much too busy. One needs one's routines in order to survive the attacks of chaos and panic that beset everybody. So I don't actually blame people trying to find a rubric if it is going to help them. But if it just strengthens prejudice, then it is a threat to culture and art. Sward: I haven't seen a single review of The Dean's December that picks up on the book's humor or wit. Bellow (agreeing): Corde doesn't yield willingly to some deeply depressing circumstances. Corde is obviously a man of wit, and wit is one of the assets he's protecting. Wit itself is one of the rights of the civilized mind. This is an odd moment in human history and much of modern thought is dead thought, repulsively and oppressively dead. The need now is for thinking that is so passionate it becomes vivid. I don't blame people for not wanting to be bothered and if they'd rather have antics or copulation in the novel, well, the world's so abundantly supplied with these things I can't see why they'd object if I come up with something different. They're welcome to their cakes. and if they're willing to eat flat cakes and drink stale ale, there's plenty around. But why should these people be affronted by a new kind of book? Why this outrage in many quarters? Why this outpouring of wrath? Why? Should I tell you something personal! It took guts to write The Dean's December. I knew in writing the book that I was challenging a great many taboos. Flaubert said long ago that the new idea is always loathed. Now there are two possibilities. Either I haven't come up with anything new or I have indeed come up with something new. There's a 50-50 chance I have come up with something new. Sward: In the February 1982 issue of Esquire, you stated that reporters and media people generally are far more interested in satisfying a demand for excitement than in experiencing and conveying human emotions and character. What does the media do and how do you distinguish between the work of a novelist and the work of a journalist? I might add that for me the central theme of The Dean's December is what a human being really is. Bellow: You're quite right. And what it is possible for a human being to be in a time like this. I don't think the media deals with questions of this sort. I think the media gives you the news of the day, not news of being. That is what a good novel. story or narrative poem should bring, news of being. The media gives you information or perhaps mis-information. We suffer from a glut of this kind of dramatized. selectively dramatized pieces of fact, hand-picked items of news. In this age of mass communication people are given the impression that they know what is going on. Well, the genuine word in the expression "mass communication" is mass. The second term, communication. is mis-leading. And we don't know what is really going on. What we get from the mass media are the shadows of what is happening. Even the highly qualified experts, students of these questions, don't necessarily or inevitably know what is going on. So what we are exposed to is an immense system of distraction leading to a sense of frustrated intensity and helplessness in the face of all these overwhelming events which artificially fill us. The news media are certainly not a source of clarity. They do not focus our attention on the true questions. Sward: On the other hand, there are critics who would maintain that the novel is a dead form. How would you answer them? Bellow: Well, all forms are dead until someone revives them. This is true of everything. This is true of religion, which if has no individual character is just there as the corpse of something that used to be. It must be brought back to life by exemplary persons who are able to take possession of it and renew it with their own energies and with their own spirits. Then it comes to life again. We are actually succumbing to an intellectual fashion when we talk about dead this or dead that. It's true that many things die. We ourselves die every instant and are re-born. This happens continuously to us from the moment of birth. We die when we go to sleep and we are born again when we awake in the morning. If by death critics mean death beyond any possibility of resurrection, I don't know. I don't think they really seriously address the question of the death of a form. Sward: Perhaps it's a question of relevancy? Bellow: Well, they can easily dismiss the novel as irrelevant. Depending on how distracted they are and what their need for big daily doses of intensity is. This is a problem that writers have faced for a very long time now. As early as 1830 De Tocqueville was very clear about this. It is the demand in a democracy for ever greater stimulants. This means that the quiet arts have no hope for success in these overdosed times. We are made so hyper by one crisis after another that it is very difficult to obtain the attention of anybody for any purpose. There is a big fight going on, a war of attention being waged in the consciousness of every human being. Everybody wants attention. Television wants it in order to sell commodities. Politicians want it in order to get votes. Partisans of this, that or the other special interest group want it for their own purposes. Lobbyists want it. Ideologists want it. Everybody wants it. So the human consciousness at present is a sort of battlefield. And you know what Tolstoy tells us about battles in War and Peace. Nobody really knows what is going on during a battle. In the midst of this figurative battle someone buttonholes you and says, "You're going to listen to me now." This is really the test of an artist's power, to compel the embattled and the distracted to listen. Nor is it simply a matter of getting ordinary attention. Attention of a certain quality is what you want. It's a matter of detaining the person and saying, "I am talking up to you, not down." Maybe that sort of attention is no longer there. But it seems to be there, because when I publish a book. I get lots of letters from people who have really read it and who tell me how it has stirred them. These readers are much more dependable than the book, reviewers. Sward: You suggested in a recent interview that one cannot write a novel about how power works unless one deals also with the corruption of justice in politics and in the people at the top. What form might this take? Bellow: I don't really know. I don't think American writers have really concerned themselves with these questions in the last two or three generations. I can think of very few American writers who have actually tried to deal with these themes, so there are very few examples of it. Mine is not a popular approach. What has been popular are the intensest kinds of subjectivity, eroticism, if not outright pornography, and violence. And a kind of comedy which I myself have practiced. I have no prescription now for now for how it's to be done. But I think at times it behooves writers as people to think for themselves --for a change. We have been running in packs. Sward: You were born in Quebec. If your family hadn't moved you to Chicago when you were nine, your childhood background would have been roughly similar to that of Mordecai Richler. You might, in other words, have written about Montreal instead of Chicago. Would you care to speculate? Bellow: What's the point in speculating on what didn't happen? I might have died, in which case none of this would have happened. I damn near died in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Ward H, in December 1923, where I was down with pneumonia and peritonitis at the same time, either of these capable of killing me. I must have been strong as a horse. Because I survived all that and came out of it. I was then eight years old, and made it. So, then, how do I know whether I would have been like Mordecai Richler? I really take exception to being lumped together with A.M. Klein and Mordecai Richler as if we were a troika of Jewish writers. I consider myself a Jew and an American who writes books. Sward: During your time in Victoria have you been made aware of Canadian sensitivity to or lack of awareness of literature outside the borders of this country? High school and university English courses now preserve a large chunk of their curriculum for Canadian authors. No doubt that is as it should be. But it also means many students leave university with a minimal knowledge of world literature. Is this an obstacle to the development of writing in this country? Bellow: No, I don't think so. I think it is commendable that Canadians should concern themselves with their own culture and their own literature. I think they ought to recognize the disadvantages under which they labor. They have to disconnect themselves from a most influential super power, influential in every department of life, and the disseminator of things both good and bad, which Canadians very properly think they have the right to choose among and to make judgements about. They should fight for their independence. The question is, what is it that they are going to fight for? What is the strength of their own culture and their own power to resist those influences? The trouble is that most of the mass culture is from the United States and the other advanced and powerful countries. The main influence in Canada when I was a boy was English. Montreal was a very British city and the French had segregated themselves out of it parochially, in their schools, their churches and their communities, so there were not friendly relations between the two cultures. I attended a Protestant school in Montreal until I was nine years old where we read British books and sang God Save the King and recited the Lord's Prayer and all the rest of it. And even in the U.S. when I was a boy, it took me some time to become aware of the uniquely American cultural presence. It became more definite as I grew older. In the United States the British also enjoyed a monopoly over certain branches of culture. So we in America couldn't ignore the English and French influence, and you in Canada can't ignore the American influences. Sward: You won the Nobel prize in literature in 1976. Has winning the prize changed your life or work habits or attitude toward writing in any particular way? Also, has the nature of the Nobel prize itself changed in recent years? Bellow: I am not a student of the prize. I never knew much about it. I accepted it as I accepted other prizes I have been awarded. People exaggerate the PR power of Nobel awards and give them too much importance. It's not the presidency of the United States or the Soviet Union, as some would appear to assume. Nobel prize winners are expected to be for all good things and against all evil. Secondly, although Christianity is not thriving in this secular society, we have carried over its martyrology to our cultural life and then fastened in the course of' things on whoever appears on the horizon as a good candidate for martyrdom. In addition, there's the cliche that if you get the prize, you've shot your wad, which I resist as I've resisted so many other cliches. When T.S. Eliot got the Nobel prize I believe he complained it meant the end of his useful life as a poet. But then it was pointed out to me that Yeats did much of his best work after the award. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel, in this as in other areas. In the Freudian sense, I've been gathered to the fathers and the fathers have to be brought down. And in another sense, I'm subjected to the barrage the aged must endure in all generations: that is, "Down with the Gerontocracy!" I'm just me. Copyright (c) 1984, 1998, 2000, by Robert Sward. This interview originally appeared in "Quill & Quire," Toronto, Canada, June 1982, and was reprinted in ZUZU's Petals Quarterly. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author or his estate.
"In wildfires, the tops or 'crowns' of the trees blast off like miniature cannons, causing firey crowns to become airborne, carrying seeds many hundreds of feet."A Foreseeable Danger in Santa Cruz In view of the foreseeable danger from the flammable, shallow rooted eucalyptus tree, it is now time for Santa Cruz to revise the existing Ordinance so it reflects the reality of conditions in Northern California. On March 5, 1996 my wife was nearly killed by a falling 160 foot tall eucalyptus tree. A few years earlier, the Berkeley/Oakland Hills fire killed over 20 people and caused more than $5 billion damage. Fire officials say the blue gum eucalyptus was a key cause of that blaze and also the fire storm that recently struck Australia. Then there's a San Francisco Chronicle article (Oct. 23, 1991), which pointed out, "Firefighters hate Eucalyptus. Their bark and leaves create kindling like litter. With the smell of smoke still in the air, the city manager got orders to clear out any that already grow on Berkeley public land." Back home, Santa Cruz Fire Marshall Mark Latham says, "blue gum eucalyptus are both a fire hazard and an aggressive plant that overwhelms and displaces native vegetation." Having lived in the area since 1985, this issue has become increasingly alarming. I began doing some of my own research. Here are some facts I discovered: Ornithologist Karen Ritchie writes, "Eucalyptus may be held accountable for killing songbirds. Insectivores are attracted to insects feeding on its gummy flowers, only to have their nares blocked by the resins, eventually causing their demise. A hard cost for today's plummeting neotropical migrant populations." Past President of UCSC Arboretum, Lorna Clark points out, "The present heritage tree description protects the trees which grow the fastest, achieve trunk size the fastest and are by definition the weediest and least desirable for the California landscape." The "Encyclopedia of Australian Plants suitable for cultivation" reports: "Although eucs have proved beneficial... problems have arisen. One is the capacity of some species to dry the soil because of their gigantic demands for water, and another is that certain species have become a tree-weed problem, e.g., in California." "The riparian corridor argument is faulty because riparian corridors are supposed to contain trees and plants indigenous to California, and the euc eliminates them. No riparian corridor should contain a eucalyptus treeÉ They choke out the indigenous [truly] heritage trees and foliage and become the dominant species." --Debra Dixon, Aug. 16, 2000. "When the Boy Scouts started cluster-bombing Marin County with [eucalyptus seedlings], Ansel Adams helped run them out, declaring 'I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, and to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder, and the excellence of eternity." --Audubon Magazine, Jan. 2002. Educating the public will make it less of a political liability for Santa Cruz officials who understand the danger of polarizing well intentioned individuals against homeowners who simply want to protect their homes and ensure the lives of family members. Because it costs as much as $3000. to remove one 160 foot tree, homeowners are unlikely to take on any more expense than is necessary to preserve their lives. Acknowledge this fact and make it easier for both sides to proceed in good faith. The word "Heritage" is misleading and unfairly loads the argument against homeowners endangered by hazardous trees. In any case, there is a foreseeable danger. If city officials deny a property owner's request to remove trees situated on private property, why shouldn't the City assume financial and legal liability for resulting damage to life or property? If the Ordinance is allowed to stand as is, homeowners and their families may literally be burned alive as a "crown fire" causes eucalyptus trees to explode, say fire officials. Temperatures can reach the point where homes disintegrate and the ground beneath them turns to a ceramic like substance. Perhaps the Ordinance could be renamed Hazardous Tree Ordinance or, The Reality Tree Ordinance. Reprinted from [Santa Cruz] GOOD TIMES, February 7, 2002.
Computer-phobic writers, teaching cronies and fans of olde style litmags ask why I have chosen to publish in e-zines like Blue Penny Quarterly; X-Connect; eSCENE; Fiction Online; Gruene Street; Hawk; Realpoetik; Recursive Angel; Transmog & Zero City, to name a few. 1. I publish on the Net and World Wide Web because it's cheap -- e-mail after all is free. 2. It's more efficient -- no SASEs, no International Reply Coupons; fewer trips to the office supply store. 3. It saves time -- I don't have to wait 18 months to hear back and the rejections, when they come, are less annoying because a) I've invested less in the submission process and b) it's easy enough to send the work somewhere else. 4. It gives me the opportunity to improve on what I write and make changes even after publication. Zen Buddhists say First thought, best thought. I say, Think again. 5. It allows for interaction -- timely feedback from fellow writers, editors, publishers, agents, and students. I recently sent a poem to Realpoetik ("rpoetik, the little magazine of the Internet, a moderated listserv..."), got an e-mail acceptance message and saw the poem published, all within 24 hours. Editor Robert Salasin claims he has approximately 1,000 subscribers. All I know is that over the next few days I got more responses ("fine work...", "wish you continued success in Cyberspace...", "would like to use excerpts from A Much-Married Man...") from that single appearance than I got from 30 years of publishing in magazines like The Antioch Review, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Transatlantic Review, etc. Yes, it's a form of instant gratification. Just what the world needs, right? In my opinion, instant gratification has gotten a bad rap. Or maybe I'm late to the game and am just beginning to catch on. Anyway, I write for myself and always have, but I still agree with Whitman: it doesn't hurt to have an audience. I still use pen and pencil to write and revise and turn to my Olympia portable to type envelopes. I'm still doing what I did in my 20s: writing, revising and sending the best work I have to the editors of the journals I admire. Writing is re-writing and I spend just as much time revising now as I ever did. To this day I send poems and stories to traditional print journals and, when the publication appears, sometimes long to remove a line or two or correct a typo or printer's error. A while back The Transatlantic Review published Thousand-Year-Old Fiancee and destroyed the poem, made it meaningless with a record thirteen typographical errors. They never sent me page proofs and, once the poem was printed, there was nothing I could do except rage at the editor, the inattentive, lackadaisical schmuck. Now, when I submit work to an e-journal there is no typographer involved because there is no type to set. And if an error occurs or I change my mind, voila! I can e-mail corrections and see the fix made promptly and at no expense. I like that. Apart from a responsive audience, what's the payoff? Payment used to be in contributor copies. Now with magazines appearing in electronic print, there are no contributor copies to send. Still, a few mainline lit-mags and e-journals do make an effort to pay. In all the years I've been writing, I haven't come close--not one year have I come close--to covering the cost of postage. How much is poetry worth? In 1958, in an effort to determine the dollar value, if any, of my poetry, I engaged in an experiment. A student at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, I sent half a dozen poems to the local phone company as a way of paying my bill. Not only did Ma Bell send them back, but she disconnected my phone. So be it. I'm doing multi-media stuff now combining poetry, fiction and non-fiction with photographs, paintings and--soon--music and the human voice. I'm collaborating with visual artists, computer scientists and other writers. My first computer was an Apple IIe and my first word processing program was Magic Window. Today I use Microsoft Word on a Mac Performa supercharged by my 18-year-old son. How does it all work? I have no idea. I just switch on my modem, gaze into cyberspace and type away. It's still Magic Window to me. "So what's the point?" my partner wants to know. "Isn't this just one big ego trip? Who really reads those e-journals? Do you actually think you're going to sell copies of your book on the Net? What about copyright? How do you know someone isn't going to rip off that new book of yours?" Of course she's right, but I have all those virtual magazines and editors on the Net waiting for me to check in. "Gee, honey, I don't know," I say. "I'm just gonna go upstairs for a moment and check my mail."
In 1952, sailing to Korea, a U.S. Navy librarian for Landing Ship Tank 914, I read T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Ill- educated, a product of Chicago's public school system, I was nineteen years old and, awakened by Whitman, Eliot and Williams, had just begun writing poetry. I was also reading all the books I could get my hands on. Eliot had won the Nobel Prize in 1948 and, curious, I was trying to make sense of poems like Prufrock and The Waste Land. "What do you know about T.S. Eliot?" I asked a young officer who'd been to college and studied English Literature. I knew from earlier conversations that we shared an interest in what he called "modern poetry." A Yeoman Third Class, two weeks at sea and bored, I longed for someone to talk to. "T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but he lives now in England and is studying to become an Englishman," the officer said, tapping tobacco into his pipe. "The 'T.S.' stands for 'tough shit.' You read Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, what one English Prof. called 'the first poem of the modern movement,' and if you don't understand it, 'tough shit.' All I can say is that's some love song." An anthology of poetry open before us, we were sitting in the ship's all- metal, 8-foot by 8-foot library eating baloney sandwiches and drinking coffee. Fortunately, the Captain kept out of sight and life on the slow-moving (8-10 knots) flat-bottomed amphibious ship was unhurried and anything but formal. "Then why does Eliot bother calling it a love song?" I asked, as the ship rolled and the coffee sloshed onto a steel table. The tight metal room smelled like a cross between a diesel engine and a New York deli. "Eliot's being ironic, sailor. Prufrock is the love song of a sexually repressed and horny man who has no one but himself to sing to." Drawing on his pipe, the officer scratched his head. "Like you and I, Mr. Prufrock is a lonely man on his way to a war zone. We're sailing to Korea and we know the truth, don't we? We may never make it back. Prufrock marches like a brave soldier to a British drawing room that, he tells us, may be the death of him. He's a mock heroic figure who sings of mermaids and peaches and drowning. Pointing to lines 129-130, the officer read aloud: "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wakes us and we drown." "Prufrock is also singing because he's a poet. Prufrock is T.S. Eliot and, the truth is, Eliot is so much like Prufrock that he has to distance himself from his creation. That's why he gives the man that pompous name. Did you know 'Tough Shit,' as a young man, sometimes signed himself 'T. Stearns Eliot?' You have to see the humor - the irony - in Prufrock to understand the poem." "I read it, I hear it in my head, but I still don't get it," I confessed. What is Prufrock about?" "'Birth, death and copulation, that's all there is.' That's what Eliot himself says. Of course the poem also touches on aging, social status, and fashion." "Aging and fashion?" I asked. The officer threw back his head and recited: "They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!' My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin." He paused, then went on: "I grow old... I grow old... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." "At the time the poem was written it was fashionable for young men to roll their trousers. In lines 120-121, Thomas Stearns Prufrock is laughing at himself for being middle-aged and vain. "Anyway, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is an interior monologue," said the officer, finishing his balogna sandwich and washing it down with dark rum. Wiping mustard from his mouth, he continued. "The whole thing takes place in J. Alfred Prufrock's head. That's clear, isn't it?" I had read Browning's My Last Duchess and understood about interior monologues. "Listen, sailor: Prufrock thinks about drawing rooms, but he never actually sets foot in one. Am I right?" "Yeah," I said after re-reading the first ten lines. "I think so." "The poem is about what goes through Prufrock's mind on his way to some upper-class drawing room. It's a foggy evening in October, and what Mr. Prufrock really needs is a drink. He's a tightass Victorian, a lonely teetotalling intellectual. Anyone else would forget the toast and marmalade and step into a pub and ask for a pint of beer." Setting down his pipe, the naval officer opened the flask and re-filled our coffee mugs. "Every time I think I know what Prufrock means it turns out to mean something else," I said. "Eliot uses too many symbols. Why doesn't he just say what he means?" "The city - 'the lonely men in shirt sleeves' and the 'one-night cheap hotels' - are masculine," said the officer. "That's what cities are like, aren't they: ugly and oppressive. What's symbolic - or should I say what's obscure - about that?" "Nothing," I said. "That's the easy part - Prufrock walking along like that." "Okay," said the officer. "And in contrast to city streets, you've got the oppressive drawing room which, in Prufrock's mind, is feminine - 'arms that are braceleted and white and bare' and 'the marmalade, the tea,/Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me...?'" Using a pencil, the officer underlined those images in the paperback anthology. "You ever been to a tea party, Sward?" "No, sir, I haven't. Not like Prufrock's." "Well," said the officer, "I have and I have a theory about that 'overwhelming question' Prufrock wants to ask in line 10 - and again in line 93. Twice in the poem we hear about an 'overwhelming question.' What do you think he's getting at with that 'overwhelming question,' sailor?" "Prufrock wants to ask the women what they're doing with their lives, but he's afraid they'll laugh at him," I said. "Guess again, Sward," he said leaning back in his chair, stretching his arms. "What's your theory, sir?" "Sex," said the officer. "On the one hand, it's true, he wants to fit in and play the game because, after all, he's privileged. He belongs in the drawing room with the clever Englishwomen. At the same time he fantasizes. If he could, I think he'd like to shock them. Prufrock longs to put down his dainty porcelain teacup and shout, 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all...'" "Why doesn't he do it?" I asked. "Because Prufrock is convinced no matter what he says he won't reach them. He feels the English gentlewomen he's dealing with are unreachable. He believes his situation is as hopeless as theirs. He's dead and they're dead too. That's why the poem begins with an image of sickness, 'a patient etherized upon a table' and ends with people drowning. Prufrock is tough shit, man." "You said you think there's a connection between Eliot the poet and J. Alfred Prufrock," I said. "Of course there's a connection. Tommy Eliot from St. Louis, Missouri," said the officer. "Try as he will, he doesn't fit in. His English friends call him 'The American' and laugh. Tom Eliot the outsider with his rolled umbrella. T.S. Eliot is a self-conscious, make-believe Englishman and you have to understand that to understand Prufrock. "The poem is dark and funny at the same time. It's filled with humor and Prufrock is capable of laughing at himself. Just read those lines, 'Is it perfume from a dress/that makes me so digress?' "You were talking about Prufrock being sexually attracted to the women. How could that be if he is, as you say, 'dead.'" I asked. "By 'dead' I mean desolate - inwardly barren - godforsaken. Inwardly, spiritually, Prufrock is a desolate creature. He's a moral man, he's a civilized man, but he's also hollow. But there's hope for him. In spite of himself, Prufrock is drawn to women. "Look at line 65. He's attracted and repelled. Prufrock attends these teas, notices the women's' arms 'downed with light brown hair!' and it scares the hell out of him because what he longs to do is to get them onto a drawing room floor or a beach somewhere and bury his face in that same wonderfully tantalizing 'light brown hair'. What do you think of that, sailor?" "I think you're right, sir." "Then tell me this, Mr. Sward: Why doesn't he ask the overwhelming question? Hell, man, maybe it's not sexual. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe what he wants to do is to ask some question like - like what you yourself suggested: 'What's the point in going on living when, in some sense, we're all already dead?'" "I think he doesn't ask the question because he's so repressed, sir. He longs for physical contact, like you say, but he also wants another kind of intimacy, and he's afraid to ask for it and it's making him crazy." "That's right, sailor. He's afraid. Eliot wrote the poem in 1911 when women were beginning to break free." "Break free of what?" I asked. "Of the prim and proper Victorian ideal. Suffragettes, feminists they called themselves. At the time Eliot wrote Prufrock, women in England and America were catching on to the fact that they were disfranchised and had begun fighting for the right to vote - among other things - and for liberation, equality with men. "Of course Prufrock is more prim and proper than the bored, over- civilized women in the poem. And it's ironic, isn't it, that he doesn't understand that the women are one step ahead of him. What you have in Prufrock is a man who tries to reconcile the image of real women with 'light brown hair' on their arms with some ideal, women who are a cross between the goddess Juno and a sweet Victorian maiden." "Prufrock seems to know pretty well what he's feeling," I said. "He's not a liar and he's not a coward. To be honest, sir, I identify with Prufrock. He may try on one mask or another, but he ends up removing the mask and exposing himself..." "Now, about interior monologues: To understand Prufrock you have to understand that most poems have one or more speakers and an audience - implied or otherwise. Let's go back to line 1. Who is this "you and I" Eliot writes about?" "Prufrock is talking to both his inner self and the reader," I said. "How do you interpret the first ten lines?" the officer asked, pointing with his pencil. "'Let us go then, you and I,'" he's saying, let us stroll, somnolent and numb as a sedated patient, through these seedy "half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels...'" "That's it, sailor. And while one might argue that Prufrock 'wakes' at the end of the poem, he is for the most part a ghostly inhabitant of a world that is, for him, a sort of hell. He is like the speaker in the Italian epigraph, from Dante's Inferno, who says, essentially, 'Like you, reader, I'm in purgatory and there is no way out. Nobody ever escapes from this pit and, for that reason, I can speak the truth without fear of ill fame.' "Despairing and sick of heart, Prufrock is a prisoner. Trapped in himself and trapped in society, he attends another and another in an endless series of effete, decorous teas. "In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo." "Do you get it now? Do you see what I mean when I say 'tough shit,'" said the officer. "Yeah, I'm beginning to," I said. "T. S. Eliot's Prufrock has become so much a part of the English language that people who have never read the poem are familiar with phrases like "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" and "I grow old... I grow old.../ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" and "Do I dare to eat a peach?" and "In the room the women come and go..." "Do you get it now? Eliot's irregularly rhymed, 131-line interior monologue has become part of the monologue all of us carry on in our heads. We are all of us, whether we know it or not, love-hungry, sex-crazed soldiers and sailors, brave, bored and lonely. At some level in our hearts, we are all J. Alfred Prufrock, every one of us, and we are all sailing into a war zone from which, as the last line of the poem implies, we will never return." [continued] -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Originally published in Touchstones, American Poets on a Favorite Poem, ed. by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, University Press of New England, 1996. Copyright (C) 1996-97 by Robert Sward. All rights reserved. Reprinted: Bedford Books' Introduction to Literature, 5th edition, 1997-98. Reprinted: Bedford Books' Introduction to Poetry, 2nd edition, 1997-98.
Take #1 Her third eye is strawberry jam has a little iris in it her eyelids are red she's sleepy and the milk has gone down the wrong way. I've just had breakfast with the smallest person in the world. * * * Take #2 Braided blonde hair white and pink barrettes Bette Davis gorgeous I hug her dreamy daughter with no make-up silver skull and crossbones middle ("don't mess with me") finger ring three or four others in each ear rings in her navel rings on her thumbs gentle moonchild "pal" she announces to "Porno for Pyros" formerly the group "Jane's Addiction" "Nothing's Shocking" with Perry Farrell Dave Navarro on guitar and Stephen Perkins on drums "Ain't No Right" they sing she plays it for me loud "Been Caught Stealing" they sing and "Ted Just Admit It" "Every body everybody everybody's-" I hug her Shalimar fruit smell Oil of Olay Wet 'n' Wild lip gloss diamond stud earrings and glitter on her cheeks Hannah Davi -a new name- walk-on in the movie "Day Of Atonement" with Christopher Walken Wan, she's looking wan my dancing girl daughter And a part in a Levitz Furniture ad ("it's work") and a part in an MCI commercial ("Best Friends") breaking in "Brotherhood Of Justice" "Lost Boys" "Private Lessons" a Swiss Alps bar-maid ("classic blonde Gretel") in a Folger's Coffee commercial "Grunge is in" she says visiting Santa Cruz "any Goodwill's around?" * * * Flashback Appearing, "crowning" says the doctor "Hannah" says her mother "the name means 'grace'" Two-year-old drooling as lying on my back I toss her into space and back she falls and back into space again Flawless teeth and perfect smile one blue eye slightly larger than the other her three thousand miles away mother still present as two as one two breathing together we three breathe again as one Hannah O Hannah -Robert Sward
"Beautiful, splendid, magnificent, delightful, charming, appealing," says the dictionary. And that's how I start... But I hear her say, "Make it less glorious and more Gloria." Imperious, composed, skeptical, serene, lustrous, irreverent, she's marked by glory, she attracts glory "Glory," I say, "Glory, Glory." "Is there a hallelujah in there?" she asks, when I read her lines one and two. "Not yet," I say, looking up from my books. She protests, "Writing a poem isn't the same "As really attending to me." "But it's for your birthday," I say. Pouting, playfully cross, "That's the price you pay when your love's a poet." She has chestnut-colored hair, old fashioned Clara Bow lips, moist brown eyes... arms outstretched, head thrown back she glides toward me and into her seventh decade. Her name means "to adore," "to rejoice, to be jubilant, to magnify and honor as in worship, to give or ascribe glory--" my love, O Gloria, I do, I do. - from Four Incarnations