Robert Sward’s new collection spans a lifetime of dogs, loves, losses and poetry
When asked how his poetry has changed throughout his six-decade writing career, award-winning poet Robert Sward replies, “I haven’t changed. I’m still writing about dogs.”
Indeed, his recently released collection, “New and Selected Poems 1957-2011,” is animated with the various canine companions that have graced Sward’s life. And his voice throughout the collection remains relatively unchanged, with a plainspoken, natural language that draws on the American idiom—as well as a quirky sense of humor.
But in reading the poems of Sward’s 20th book in chronological order, one can sense the maturation of the poet, from a young man musing on love, marriage and writing to a middle-aged man yearning for life passing by—and then, in the poems of his later years, an older man looking back over his life, channeling the voice of his father (a Jewish-Rosicrucian podiatrist), and facing his own immortality.
“At this particular time in my career I’ve got this life’s work,” says Sward. “In a certain way [this recent book] feels like one long poem, one life with these different encounters. When you see them as a whole you can [better] understand each particular poem.”
Sward will read from “New and Selected Poems 1957-2011” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at Capitola Book Cafe. After the reading, he’ll answer questions about his work as well as sign copies of the book.
Though the book comprises poetry from several of Sward’s earlier collections (beginning with his first book, “Uncle Dog and other Poems”), it also includes numerous new poems that are previously unpublished.
A resident of Santa Cruz since 1985, Sward has taught poetry at Monterey Peninsula College, Mt. Madonna College, Cabrillo College, UC Santa Cruz and, before that, at Cornell University and Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He has been both a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow and he was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award. In 2010, Sward’s poem “Inter-species Healing, A Specialty” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Despite decades of publication, teaching and top honors, Sward says he still feels like a beginner. “I truly feel like I start all over again with each poem,” he says. “I’m still in awe of the process.”
When asked how he knows when a subject he encounters will become a poem, he says that sometimes the nugget of a poem will grow slowly within his imagination, whereas other times the poem comes to him all at once, almost fully formed. For example, when his lover said of her Boston terrier, “He is so ugly he is a psalm to ugliness,” Sward recognized a poem right away—and his lover’s comment became the first line of “Clancy the Dog.”
“With the ‘Uncle Dog’ poem, I knew right from the beginning a poem would happen,” remembers Sward. “It just flowed right through to the end. It’s a wonderful thing to be taken over by a subject.”
He says this is one difference between his earlier work and his later work: the poems of his youth came to him more easily.
“In the past, more of the poems came to me all at once,” he says. “I had relatively little anguish about them. I’ve gotten much more heavily into editing. It’s a certain balance between dancing freely and studying carefully each step.”
Still, when the muse does visit him in his eighth decade, she’s something he doesn’t ignore—even in the most inconvenient of times. Once, a line came to Sward while he was swimming laps at a public pool.
“I suddenly got a line I didn’t want to lose,” he laughs. “I waved to the lifeguard to get a pen and paper so I could write.”
She did so, and the line he scratched onto the paper, hand dripping, was “Death is what happens when all you have left is the life that was there all along.”
Though the muse comes in many forms to Sward, one of the most insistent muses in his poetry has been the voices of people in his life—from the wisdom of his father to the cynicism of his mother and the scorn of his grandfather. In “A Prayer for My Mother,” he quotes his grandfather:
“Mourn like a Jew,” Grandfather Max says,
tearing my shirt
from the collar down,
“and when she’s buried, rip out the grass
Expose your heart. Lament for her.”
mother of the inflamed heart
Sward explains that when he hears the voice of his grandfather—or his father or his lover—he becomes that voice, and then he writes. This practice he attributes to his stint in journalism when he wrote feature stories and book reviews for the The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail in the earlier years of his career.
“The practice of listening to different people I interviewed gave me the confidence to carry that voice over to poetry,” says Sward. “There is a natural poetry to the way people speak. I like to get those rhythms into my own work.”
Among the voices he channels most frequently is the dog, an animal who has been a muse for Sward beginning with the first poem he ever published in the 1950s, “Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9.”
Sward describes the effect that dogs have on him as akin to falling in love. “When I see a dog, I feel an impact and it seems to be at a heart level,” he says. “They’re in the moment so there’s always freshness. The dog can articulate things that you absolutely should be hearing.”
In “Inter-Species Healing, A Specialty,” the dog speaks to his master and says:
Problem with you now is you live in the past.
You’ve got one frequency of oscillation,
we’ve got another. You know,
dogs are never “away,” are they? But you, boss,
where are you?
As in many of Sward’s dog poems, the canine has the last word, barking a resounding, “Woof, f*ckin’ woof!”
This dog dialogue illustrates what the poet does best: interspersing heavy subject matter with humor, often poking fun at humanity.
“In a serious subject, the reader is expecting a serious poem,” says Sward. “But humor seems to arise naturally for me. If you look closely, people are very funny.”
Robert Sward will read from “New and Selected Poems 1957-2011,” talk with readers and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information call 462-4415.