UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
Interviewer: Virginia Lee in Santa Cruz, California
Published in the University of California, Santa Cruz Student Guide, 1991
Copyright 1991-1998, Robert Sward
Published in Four Incarnations, New and Selected Poems, 1991, Coffee House Press
Reprinted with permission of Robert Sward
INT: How did FOUR INCARNATIONS come to be written?
RS: As the title suggests, 4 INCARNATIONS: POEMS NEW & SELECTED, is a compilation of older poems--long out of print "golden oldies"--and newer pieces, "new releases." It's fair to say I've been working on this book since 1957. FOUR INCARNATIONS is my twelfth collection of poetry. Putnam in England published my first book, UNCLE DOG & OTHER POEMS in 1962. Seven others were published in the 1970s and 80s, but they were not widely distributed.
INT: How literally should one take the title FOUR INCARNATIONS?
RS: It's been said: "It takes several lives to make one person." We are all Phoenixes rising daily from the ashes of our old selves, the ashes of the many lives we have lived in our one lifetime. Yes, I believe we all of us carry within ourselves the potential to live more than one life and to do so in a single lifetime. Of course I'm using the word incarnation metaphorically, but there's also a literal basis in fact for what I'm writing about.
One reviewer wrote that FOUR INCARNATIONS is named for four distinct periods in my writing career "shaped by four marriages and four dramatic changes..." That peculiar use of the word _and_ suggests that those four marriages were something less than dramatic.
A friend, the manager of a local bookstore, says she has lived six lives in one lifetime with "more to come." You might say that to live more than one life in a lifetime is nothing special. It's simply a condition of our time. Bear in mind the fact I'm using FOUR INCARNATIONS in a very different way than Shirley MacLaine uses the word reincarnation.
INT: Where does the title come from?
RS: FOUR INCARNATIONS is named for four distinct periods in my writing career. For purposes of the book, INCARNATION #1 began at age 15. Named corresponding secretary for a Chicago gang of punks and hoodlums, my job was to inform my brother thugs--who carried switchblade knives and stole cars for fun and profit--as to when, where and why we were meeting. I summoned them to meetings and rumbles with rhyming couplets--doggerel.
An example of my switchblade juvenilia:
The Semcoes meet next Thursday night
Koko's. Five bucks dues, Foxman, or fight.
In a sense my life began in Chicago when I started to write poetry--however clumsy and stupid it was.
INCARNATION #2 started with the death of my mother and included a four year stint in the Navy during the Korean War. As ship's librarian, I learned to love books. I was 18 years old and reading everything I could get my hands on. I also began writing love poems to a young woman I knew back in Chicago. Her name was Loreli and she worked in an ice cream parlor.
INCARNATION #3 began in 1966 when I was scheduled to embark on a series of readings--14 poetry readings in a two-week period--and was run over by a speeding MG in Cambridge, Mass. For a period of about 24 hours, I lost my memory. I was an amnesiac. Just as I saw the world fresh while cruising to a war zone, so I now caught a glimpse of what a city like Cambridge can look like when one's inner slate, so to speak, is wiped clean. By the way, I recovered my memory and, head wrapped in bandages, managed to give all the readings as planned.
That experience of amnesia somehow changed my life. Soon after I began to meditate and to do yoga. I traveled to India and lived in a spiritual community. Later, living in Canada, I spent a year teaching yoga to government employees in British Columbia. I've written poems about amnesia and I'm currently working on a novel in which one of the characters is an amnesiac.
INT: Growing up in the U.S., what writers or artists influenced you?
RS: Walt Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS, his vision of America, his use of free verse. The Bible--in particular the rhythms of the Old Testament. Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Earle Birney. Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. Lyric opera (LA BOHEME and MADAME BUTTERFLY, for example). Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture. As a writer, I feel I'm lucky: lucky in being able to follow through on those influences and to continue writing, from my first published book, UNCLE DOG & OTHER POEMS (Putnam & Co., London, 1962) to the present. Someone said luck too is an art form.
INT: What is poetry, Robert?
RS: If I may quote from the Foreword of FOUR INCARNATIONS:
"What is poetry? For me, it's the restrained music of a switchblade knife. It's an amphibious warship magically transformed into a basketball court, and then transformed again into a movie theater showing a film about the life of Joan of Arc. It's the vision of an amnesiac, bleeding from a head injury, witnessing the play of sunlight on a red brick wall."
But I also like what Thomas Nash wrote in 1592:
"Poetry is the honey of all flowers; the quintessence of all sciences... the marrow of wit... the very phrase of angels."
INT: But why write? What's the pay off?
RS: One writes for the love of it. Beyond that, I'm not sure there is a pay off. And I don't see that anything has changed in the last 500 years. In Elizabethan England, Edmund Spenser wrote the following LINES ON HIS PROMISED PENSION:
"I was promised on a time,
To have reason for my rhyme;
From that time unto this season,
I received nor rhyme nor reason."
INT: You're the author of 12 books. You've lived through four incarnations. What is constant in your poetry? Are there any lines or threads of continuity between UNCLE DOG & OTHER POEMS--your first book--and FOUR INCARNATIONS?
RS: Well, Carolyn Kizer has known my work since the 1950s. She published some of my first poems in POETRY NORTHWEST. Carolyn says she saw then, and sees now, an element of playfulness, of humor in the poems and a quality she calls "ingenuous." God knows, when I write, I don't set out to be funny or ingenuous or anything else.
INT: What other lines of continuity are there in your work?
RS: Some reviewers say there's an element of celebration in the books. I hope so. I believe most poems--including satirical poetry--celebrate what the authors are writing about. John Updike says we are on earth to give praise, to pay attention, and to witness our times. When writers give honest praise, pay attention, and witness their times, they celebrate and honor whatever the subject of the poem happens to be: person, place or thing. At the same time, I have no interest in work that is naive or sentimental for its own sake.
INT: How do you like living in Santa Cruz?
RS: Santa Cruz feels more like home than any place I've been since I left the Toronto Islands in 1985. A seaside, retirement, University-type community, it has a fair share of writers, bookstores, restaurants, coffee houses, and movie theaters. I like the people. I love living by the sea. And, speaking as a writer, I find the periodic earthquakes refreshing. They're like a wake-up call. They keep us on edge, keep us from becoming bored or complacent.
Robert Sward's works copyright © to the author.