Amanda hill

An Interview-Essay On George Swede

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Amanda Hill


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An Interview-Essay On George Swede


George Swede is a distinguished haiku writer as well as a well-known fiction and non-fiction writer. George Swede was born in Riga, Latvia on November 20, 1940. He moved to Canada and has been there since 1947. George Swede has had quite a bit of education in all of his years. He put himself through school by working many various jobs that included salesclerk, bartender, laborer, and even a blaster’s assistant. He went to the University of British Columbia received his B.A. in 1964. He then went on to get his M.A. at Dalhousie University in 1965. In 1967, he moved to Toronto and practiced as a school psychologist until 1968 when his career as the Department Chair of Psychology and the School of Justice Studies began at the Ryerson Polytechnic University, where he still works today. Through distance education, he received his Ph.D. from Greenwich in Australia in creative writing.

George Swede does not focus completely on haiku alone. He also has many works of fiction, non-fiction, and other forms of poetry. He has published in over 125 different periodicals all over the world. He has 29 poetry collections including Almost Unseen, one of the textbooks that are used in Global Haiku, a course at Millikin University. He has also edited over 8 books including Global Haiku Twenty-five Poets World-wide with Dr. Randy Brooks of Millikin University. George Swede’s work has won him over 70 awards and grants. He has also spoken in hundreds of classes, libraries, schools, and universities around the world including Great Britian, Japan, the United States, and Canada.


I conducted an interview with George Swede via email over the topic of haiku. I asked him quite a few questions that I had concerning his haiku, and his thoughts on haiku in general. I first asked Mr. Swede if he had a favorite haiku out of all of his collections; a haiku that really hit close to home, or struck an emotion that he could not forget. He responded that out of over 1200 haiku plus several other kinds of poetry, he could not pick one favorite. He remarked that after writing all of those pieces, that he tends not to look back, but only forward to the pieces that are yet to be written. He said that if the mood struck him right that he would remember a particular haiku, but that that was normal, after all, haiku are poetic memories. He commented that although he does not have one favorite haiku that editors seem to take a very different stance on the matter. The following was one of the editor’s favorites according to Swede:

at the edge of the precipice I become logical

According to Mr. Swede, this piece has been published in thirteen different collections that he knows of so far. This is also one of my favorite pieces, and I will be discussing it in depth in my review of his work.

I wondered how Mr. Swede chose the topics that he did for all of the haiku that he has written over the years. The haiku seem so real and logical to me when I read them. I wondered if he concentrated on that at all or if it was artistic flow that leads to many of his masterpieces. Mr. Swede responded by saying, "Actually, the subjects choose me. My interests are the result of my learning history from birth (or even prebirth)." I couldn’t think of a better way to explain it. True art isn’t chosen by the artist, the artist is chosen by the art.

I also wondered if, being an artist, George Swede ever had to force any ideas for the haiku, or if all the haiku were inspired by a real experience. His explanation described the process of a true haiku artist. He began by saying that, "Most poems arise from a state of readiness for poetic composition." He further explained that this state of readiness comes from years of experience and knowing under what circumstances both mental and emotional that poems are likely to emerge. He also describes that sometimes he doesn’t "feel" like writing but if he sits down with a pencil and a blank piece of paper that the mood will soon follow. He also mentioned that the artistic state of readiness doesn’t always land at the most opportune times. It can for instance, strike while brushing your teeth, driving a car, and almost any other daily activity. He finished this topic by saying, "The main lesson here is that one should always have writing materials in one’s possession."

I asked if Swede’s universal dialect and experiences were purposely placed into his haiku in order to make more people connect with it, or did he write only from his experiences, for the sake of recording his memories for himself. He clarified that most life events are by nature not culture-bound. He said that he rarely worries about whether a poem or particular haiku is going to be relevant or not. By it’s nature, the haiku had to involve real events and circumstances. Sometimes though, he said that he would select a word that is less obscure. He gave an example of a haiku that would involve a rare species of bird. If few people have ever heard the name of the bird, he said that he would then change the name of the bird to something more commonly known to the people that read his haiku.

I had one question, that especially burned in my mind from class, what makes a good haiku? After all the analysis in class, and picking and prodding at different haiku, I thought that this would be the longest answered question. Ironically, it was the shortest. He explained that any haiku is a good haiku as long as it "creates a ripple of association…" If others can connect with it, it is a good haiku. After all, the point of haiku is to convey feelings, memories, and emotions.

When I asked Mr. Swede if he had any insights on haiku, I enjoyed his answer. He responded, "None of which I am aware. But then the writers never fully know what they are saying. Many times I’ve been surprised by what readers see in my work. This pleases me because the poem is operating on another level of which I was unaware when I wrote it." I really enjoyed this response. It brings light to the fact that the creation of the haiku does not end when it is written, it is partly up to the reader to decide if, and what significance the haiku has.

Haiku Reader Responses

The following are some of my favorites of George Swede’s haiku and my responses on them as a reader. The selections that I have chosen are from the book Almost Unseen that was published by Brooks Books in 2000. Now I mind you that this is my opinion on the haiku that I have chosen as my favorites, but after all, I am the reader and make the haiku what it is in my mind; therefore completing the process according to Swede.

Young widow
Asks for another
fortune cookie

This, much like many of Swede’s haiku has a theme and an image so vivid that it takes you there. You can stand as a shadow to his subjects and see what they see and feel what they feel. In this haiku, I can see this young woman that has just lost the love of her life prematurely. She is wearing her heart on her sleeve so to speak. She takes nothing lightly at this moment because everything has become all too real in the recent past. She reads her fortune from a fortune cookie and it says something to the effect of, "love and happiness will follow you down life’s path". It’s a typical fortune cookie filled with hope and ambition. The problem is, she has no hope and no ambition anymore. It has been stripped of her when her lover died. Seeing that fortune cookie only brings the fact that he is not there any closer to the edge of her mind. She asks for another fortune cookie hoping that the next fortune will suit her fancy. Notice in this haiku that he speaks to his audience by grabbing their attention with the first line. The fact that she is a young widow keys the reader in to the poor soul having a tragic life already and now, by being superstitious she is reminded of the pain that she has felt for so long without the one that she loves.

again, the bald barber
cuts my hair
too short

Some of George Swede’s haiku can be classified as senryu such as this one above. In an article by Elizabeth St Jacques, Swede describes that haiku can take on three content categories: nature haiku, human haiku (senryu) and human plus nature haiku (a hybrid). Using his words to guide my judgment, I would classify this as a senryu. It has to deal with a human relationship pf a barber and his customer; at least on the surface. When examined it can be taken much more in depth. The barber is bald. This shows a bit of irony. A barber’s job is to cut a style hair; it seems a bit odd that the one thing that his job has to deal with, he does not have. The haiku also speaks about the relationship between two individuals and the understanding that must come from that relationship. The barber cannot understand or even sympathize with the customer because he will never have to deal with the problem himself. It’s as if the barber does not have any hair, therefore, he is apathetic about cutting anyone else’s hair too short. This senryu is clever and witty on the surface, but much more can be extracted from it on a closer look.

thick fog lifts
unfortunately, I am where
I thought I was

I adore this haiku from the Almost Unseen collection. This is reality. This is a classic example of how Swede’s work can jump past any cultural bound and become truly universal. At one time or another, many if not all of us have felt as if we are walking through a dense fog that we classify as our lives. It seems that everything is droll and nothing is exciting. This is the point that I find myself, as I am sure many others do, dreaming about better things. About far off places, that has a scene of constant happiness and excitement. I find myself dreaming and wishing about this for so long that I don’t’ even notice when the "fog" lifts from my life. However, when I do notice, my dreams seem farther away than they did to begin with. Yes, the fog is gone, but it is just a reminder that you still exist where you are, and not where you dream to be. In the "thick fog" the vision of utopia is easier. It is easier to slip away from reality when it is all a haze that is easy to escape from; it is when that fog lifts that it is harder to imagine excitement in the reality that has just been presented.

after the abortion
she weeds
the garden

This haiku exemplifies the fact that not all haiku are about happy places where the flowers bloom and the bees buzz and the birds sing. Reality is a very real part of Swede’s haiku. Reality, unfortunately at times must consist of harsh times as well. Again, Swede’s ability to create an image in the mind of the reader is unsurpassed. The woman has just experienced a life altering decision and has to deal with the repercussions. She weeds the garden to rid herself of the thoughts. The thoughts of what she did and how she will feel about it, and how she is suppose to feel now. She weeds the garden to rid herself of her thoughts that have become weeds in her mind. She also weeds the garden in order to take her mind away from it; to busy herself. But even a simple task like pulling unwanted weeds from the garden bed can relate in her mind to pulling an unwanted life from this world. This haiku is sad, but the reality is what hurts the most.

at the edge of the precipice I become logical

This is one of my favorite haiku from all of the collections that I have read so far. Again, Swede uses the ‘common theme’ to connect with all people that read his works. Just as someone is getting ready to step over the edge, something happens. Doing what they had planned to do now does not seem like the right thing to do. We have all stepped up to a precipice one in our lives. And no matter how insignificant, at one time, we have all stopped ourselves, or had the blessing of someone stopping us from doing something that we would regret. Proof, that every second, even the next to the last second before a decision, counts.


George Swede’s haiku have inspired many people; and I would definitely be one of them. I have found a new outlet for all of my memories. I have also learned much about how to convey ideas that can be understood by anyone that would happen to come across them. Swede’s universal themes have taught me that many people do go through the same ordeals, only with different details. I like the idea that haiku can keep memories, and share those experiences, good and bad, with the world. Swede’s images are so vivid you feel as if you are standing there next to his subjects partaking in the experience. Any form of art that can make people feel and respond with such deep emotion, and unity of feeling has the power to touch people.

—Amanda Hill


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors