Interview with the poet George Swede
Introduction to George Swede, the Poet:
George Swede is a Canadian poet, psychologist and author of children’s book. He resides in Ontario. A major figure in English-language haiku poetry, George Swede was born in 1940. He has won several notable awards for his poetry that include Museum of Haiku Literature awards in 1983 and 1985. He has authored over 40 books of poetry and stories. George Swede is the co-founder of Haiku Canada which was established in 2007.
Interview with George Swede by Alok Mishra
Alok Mishra: Many thanks for accepting the interview request, sir. Let me start by asking that how Haiku became your form? It’s short and limited, in the terms of length. Please elaborate your liking for Haikus.
George Swede: In December 1975, the editor of a Toronto literary magazine sent me a copy of Modern Japanese Haiku edited by Makoto Ueda (University of Toronto Press, 1976). The editor knew that I wrote short, imagistic poems and thought that my inclinations would give me the right sensitivity to be able to fairly review the anthology for his publication.
The anthology contained the work of twenty Japanese haiku poets who wrote most of their haiku in the 20th century—hence they were “modern” for that time. Their poems had an enormous effect on me insofar as I began to immediately write haiku, publishing my first one in Bonsai in 1977. From then on, the haiku became my foremost interest.
Perhaps childhood had something to do with my predilection for haiku. Let me quote four paragraphs from my chapter in Imagination In Action (Mercury Press, 2007, 56-61):
When my mother and stepfather and I emigrated to Canada from post-WW II Europe, we settled near the village of Oyama, British Columbia for three years. Oyama was named after a Japanese general from the early twentieth century. Prior to WW II, Japanese families came to the region to engage in farming and gave the village its name. But, upon our arrival in 1947 to live with my mother’s parents on their fruit farm, all the Japanese were gone. When Japan entered WW II, practically all Japanese-Canadians were interred in camps with the result that their farms around Oyama were left abandoned, even for years after the war.
One of the empty, but still locked farmhouses, was across the road from that of my grandparents. I recall going by the mailbox with a Japanese name to look in the windows from which I could glimpse furniture and decorations that were of Eastern design. Perhaps this early experience helped to sensitize me subconsciously to Japanese things, and it was not the only one. When I was eight, my family moved to Kamloops, a small city about two hours’ drive away in order for my stepfather to receive treatment for tuberculosis at a sanitarium. During the two-year stay, I became best friends with the two sons of a Japanese dentist and spent much time at their home that was full of things reflecting their heritage. Today, Kamloops has a sister city—Uji, Japan—and, according to the Kamloops city website, the relationship was initiated by the Kamloops Japanese Canadian Association.
My stepfather’s illness was too advanced for successful treatment and when he died in 1950, my mother and I moved to Vancouver, which then already had a large Asian population. During high school, two of my best friends were of Chinese heritage. In hindsight, after strong friendships with Japanese and Chinese Canadians, it was not surprising that at the University of British Columbia I studied Japanese and Chinese history for two years, to go any further, I would have had to learn the Chinese and Japanese languages and decided that psychology was more in line with my abilities,
The connection to things Japanese continued after I graduated with a BA in psychology in 1964 and got married shortly thereafter. Although my first wife and her family were British Canadians, their lives were imbued with Japanese culture. The father was a house-builder, whose homes reflected his strong interest in Japanese design. All were built with interior Zen gardens and I recall with fondness spending time in the lovely one in the middle of the family home.
Alok Mishra: Likewise, sir, you have also championed the form of poetry called Tanka. This also comes from Japan. So, in five lines, how do you try to convey the best messages to the readers?
George Swede: I began writing tanka about ten years after getting involved with haiku. My interest in the form grew as I realized that some haiku could be improved by adding a two-line elaboration about my feelings regarding the subjects of the first three lines.
Alok Mishra: Please tell our readers about Haiku Canada. You have co-founded it. What is the purpose and how much you have done in 9 years?
George Swede: In 1977, I initiated the founding of Haiku Canada with the help of Eric Amann and Betty Drevniok. My feeling was that persons interested in haiku should be able to turn to an organization for information about the form, help with composition, as well as discussion about various theoretical aspects. Haiku Canada is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2017.
Alok Mishra: Sir, you are also known for trying and establishing different forms of micro poetry. You have shortened Haiku and also played with the syllable counts. Do you think the shorter form of poetry is the new thing coming?
George Swede: Initially, I wrote 5-7-5 haiku, as do most others when they start. Then I learned that 17 syllables in Japanese involve fewer words than 17 in English—the Japanese see more syllables in a word than we do. To be more true to the Japanese original, I began to write haiku with fewer words (and thus fewer than 17 syllables). By 1978, I was publishing the occasional haiku with under ten syllables. The best of these, written between 1978 and 2013, have been published in a collection, micro haiku: three to nine syllables (Iņšpress, 2014).
Today, many others also write short-form poetry. Perhaps this is due to the popularity of Twitter, and texting in general, where brevity is encouraged.
Alok Mishra: How do you see your journey as a poet? It has been a long time now. Please share with our readers the twists and turns that your ‘poetic self’ has seen.
George Swede: My journey as a poet began with a few poems in my mid-teens and continued sporadically during my university studies. Anything I wrote had two destinies—being buried in a drawer or being thrown into the trash.
In 1968, I became a school psychologist and discovered that my personality was poorly equipped for giving advice on how to be a better person. During this time, my marriage also fell apart. These two events triggered an outpouring of poems which I read at open readings at various venues around Toronto. The experience of going public with my work helped me see its flaws and I enrolled in a summer course on poetry composition. Soon after, I started publishing in Canadian mainstream literary journals.
Two events gave me the emotional stability I needed to create publishable poems. The first was getting a tenure-track appointment in the psychology department at Ryerson University in 1968. The second occurred in 1970— becoming a life-partner with Anita Krumins, a widow with two toddler sons. We’re still together today and the sons are approaching fifty years of age.
My first two collections were chiefly devoted to short free-verse poems—Unwinding (Missing Link, 1974) and Tell-Tale Feathers (Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978). At this time, I also published my first haiku-only collection, Endless Jigsaw (Three Trees Press, 1978).
My path in poetry took an abrupt turn in 1983. The publisher of Endless Jigsaw suggested that children might like my haiku and other short poems. So, I put together a collection, Tick Bird: Poems for Children (Three Trees Press), which became a hit with reviewers who pointed out that its poems were a refreshing change from the typical rhymed, nonsense that dominated the market at the time. What most of them didn’t know is that the book consisted entirely of poems previously published in adult journals.
This strategy continued for five more collections with occasional additions that were written specifically for the young.
All six books of poetry for children were successful and led to about 2,000 readings in libraries and schools (counting three or four in each visited school). After ten years of juggling my academic career with that of a successful children’s poet, I stopped—the strain had become too much. Around the mid-1990s, I returned to my previous modus operandi—working hard as a member of the psychology department and writing poems on the side. Since my retirement in 2006, I’ve been able to devote more time to writing and other projects, such as editing, reviewing and judging (poetry contests).
Since coming into my life, Anita Krumins has been essential to my writing ambitions—reading drafts, suggesting changes, collaborating. She did all this in addition to her own work as a professor of communication at Ryerson University. After we retired, I agreed to become the editor of Frogpond (Journal of the Haiku Society of America) on one condition—that Anita would be my co-editor. For four years (2008-12), not only did we select the haiku, senryu, rengay, renku, haibun, theoretical articles, and reviews, but also designed the covers, did the layout and negotiated with the printing company to make sure each of our 12 issues came out at the promised time. While not always harmonious, our long relationship has been of immeasurable help to my writing career. I suspect parternerships such as ours are often vital to success, no matter what the endeavor.
Alok Mishra: People talk about literature, writing, poetry, its decline, disappearance of genuine literature and various other things. You have been a Psychologist as well, sir. What will you say about the psychological aspect of poetry and literature on human life? It must have a relation, I think.
George Swede: Writing poetry helped me recover my equilibrium after my stint as a school psychologist and after my divorce. Putting troubling thoughts onto a page diminished their power over me because they were now out of my head and in a metaphorical context that made them interesting rather than threatening.
To function well in this world, we must be able to recognize different frames of reference, that is, to know that what we see depends on where we are standing. Good writers take this relativistic outlook to create layers of meaning that enrich both the writer and the reader.
My academic specialties were the psychology of creativity and the psychology of art.
The findings of these disciplines informed my writing. And, my writing experience enabled me to see the findings in ways that differed from those of psychologists who were not poets or novelists.
Alok Mishra: We do have poets who influence us, in the beginning, for sometimes and maybe for life long. Who are the poets who have inspired you to take on poetry writing?
George Swede: My free-verse poems had many and varied influences. Among the most prominent were Richard Brautigan, Leonard Cohen, e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and W.B. Yeats.
As for haiku influences, again many, but the most singular were Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, Masaoka Shiki and Kaneko Tota.
Alok Mishra: My question to you will be to both the persons in you – the psychologist & the poet. Does writing differ when a non-native English poet writes in English and an English poet writes? What I think is the language native to you comes to you naturally and the foreign language, you perhaps borrow. I would like to have your views on it, sir.
George Swede: I was born in Latvia and learned to speak the language until four years of age.
Then my family moved to Germany and I learned how to speak German. When my family relocated. first to England and then to Canada, I learned English by the age of six. Since then, English has been my chief tongue with Spanish a distant second for the twelve years Anita Krumins, and I had a home in Mexico.
Even though I am hopeless for conversing in German and Latvian, my vocal chords and tongue retain the ability to make the sounds unique to the two languages. Very likely, anything that gets a person beyond being unilingual is an advantage in writing.
Alok Mishra: You have authored more than 50 books. What has kept you going on, sir? What motivates you to write?
George Swede: What keeps me going—still having something to say (perhaps I’m delusional) and a habitual routine. The latter is essential for good productivity.
Alok Mishra: Please tell our readers if you have any book coming in near future.
George Swede: I am in the final stages of preparing a manuscript that combines haiku, tanka and haibun. All the pieces have been previously published over the past six years. Once it is finished, I will look for a publisher.
Alok Mishra: At last, what is your message to the next generation of poets?
George Swede: My advice is simple: keep going until you find your voice and then let it take you where it will.