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 blasters 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 Swedes
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 editors
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 couldnt think of a
better way to explain it. True art isnt 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
doesnt "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 doesnt 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 ones possession."
I asked if Swedes 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 its 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 Ive 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
Swedes 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.
Asks for another
This, much like many of Swedes 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 lifes path".
Its 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
Some of George Swedes 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 barbers
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.
Its as if the barber does not have any hair, therefore,
he is apathetic about cutting anyone elses 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 Swedes 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 dont 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
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 Swedes haiku. Reality, unfortunately at times must
consist of harsh times as well. Again, Swedes 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
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 Swedes 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. Swedes 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. Swedes 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.