"I think Montreal poetry of the last 75 years is as impressive as that of New York, London, any city,," says Canadian poet Todd Swift. "It just doesn't get a fair press. Ironically, even the Montreal Gazette has a provincial attitude to its own native sons." Since Swift lives in London, England, and I shuttle between New York and New Haven, we conducted the interview by e-mail. Our internet correspondence was a fitting one considering Swift is an enthusiastic blogger and promoter of poetry through Nthposition, the award-winning web journal, where he is its poetry editor.-- GS
GS: You were born in Montreal and raised in the city of St. Lambert, Quebec. Even though you currently live in London, England, do you consider yourself a Montreal poet?
TS: I consider myself an Anglo-Quebec poet, but more than that, a cosmopolitan poet. I deeply regret the way that poetry reception gets shaped and controlled by national interests, often for marketing and other commercial reasons. I see the English language as one wide field for play.
GS: You’ve also lived in Budapest, Hungary and Paris, France. How does place inform your writing?
TS: Well, I have always felt displaced. Being an Anglophone in Montreal was like being an American in Paris. I grew up loving tales of the exotic and foreign – Maugham, even Orwell. And of course Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I always wanted to be an expatriate. I found Canadian media and culture often smug and confining. I longed to engage with the “wide world”. So, places are always the somewhere I wanted to be – or where I want to be away from.
GS: Your newest collection of poetry, Seaway: New and Selected Poems, has an interesting cover photo of the St. Lawrence Seaway. What is the significance of this photo and of the choice to title your collection Seaway?
TS: My good friend, Etienne Gilfillan, is a London magazine designer who is also from St. Lambert. When I mentioned the title, he researched and found this amazing retro picture. It captures my sense of the Montreal Gothic – to coin a phrase – neo-romantic, retro, nostalgic, yet also ironic, even cool. How Leonard Cohen dresses, for example. The title was selected to place my work in a natural time and place that was also shaped by artifice – that is, the Seaway project is one of those massive manmade transformations that really captures the adventure of Canada – Canada as a fusion of nature and construction.
More to the point, as a kid, I’d see these ships go past, from what I imagined as Russia, and Peru – I lived by a sort of North American Panama Canal. It fed into the dream of travel mentioned above. I wanted to capture that in the title of my book – how my poetry is deeply grounded in childhood, local fantasy and wonderment, but is very adult and international, too.
GS: What are some of the differences between the various poetry scenes you’ve encountered in your travels?
TS: What strikes me about the American scene is how open it is, to difference and to others. Yes, there are poetry wars, but I was always able to talk to various slam, or Language, or new formalist poets, with some sense of mutual respect. In Europe, poetry is far more marginalized than in the English-speaking world – in France, poetry is really an elite cult. What has shocked me about the UK is how much of a tight ship it is – it’s really controlled by about five or six more or less rigid and often arrogant “gate-keepers” who basically despise the experimental wing of modernism; then again, the avant-gardists in the UK are mostly humorless, and follow a strict Marxist line as laid down by Adorno (no pop culture). Postmodernism, in the UK, is a dirty word for most poets. I miss the bonhomie of the Montreal scene.