After almost ten years of writing and publishing short, imagistic free verse, I was asked to review Makoto Ueda’s The Modern Japanese Haiku (University of Toronto Press, 1976) by the editor of The Canadian Book Review Annual. Anticipating strict 5-7-5 observations about nature, I was surprised to find haiku of varying syllable counts, number of lines and, especially, ones that emphasized human joys and travails.
To prepare for writing the review, I searched for information about the form at the University of Toronto Library and readily found volumes by Blyth and Henderson and, unexpectedly, publications by two Torontonians, artist/poet Claire Pratt’s collection, Haiku (self-published, 1965), and poet/editor Eric Amman’s periodicals Haiku (1967-70) and Cicada, (1977-82) as well as his monograph, The Wordless Poem (self-published, 1969). Soon after, I learned of the U.S. periodicals Modern Haiku (1969-), Dragonfly (1972-1984) and Frogpond (1977-) as well as High/Coo Press (1976-) with its eponymous periodical (1976-1982) and realized that the haiku form had a vital existence in North America alongside free verse and other types of poetry.
I began to carry around a notebook and pen at all times ready to capture a significant moment whatever the activity – eating, walking, driving, riding the subway, attending a meeting, lying on the beach or in bed. And soon I started to publish extensively in world-wide haiku journals and anthologies, then eventually in collections with American, Canadian, English, French and Portuguese publishers.
Inevitably, my immersion in haiku led me to its related forms – renga, tanka, and haibun. My interest in the renga never evolved past a few efforts – too many cooks? In tanka I found the opportunity to provide additional details that sometimes could enrich a haiku moment. Involvement with the haibun occurred later when I realized the value of combining prose with poetry.
Mexico and Haibun
My interest in the haibun started in Mexico after my wife, Anita Krumins, and I bought a house in a lakeside village near Guadalajara, which we visited twice a year for 12 years. During our stays we became immersed in the nation’s rich history, culture and customs through reading, travel and socialization with the people in our village as well as those in literary circles whom we came to know through our research into the Mexican haiku (the results of which were published by Modern Haiku in two installments, 2004 and 2005).
Naturally, I started to write about my experiences of life in Mexico, but my free verse and haiku failed to capture the essence of what I wanted to say. Then in 2000, I started to write haibun. What prompted me, I can’t recall, but I do remember that words began to flow effortlessly from one haibun to the next. On reflection, the reason was probably that the form’s combination of prose and haiku enabled me to deal more effectively with the complexity of life in a country very different from Canada.
In 2001, I was invited to give readings in Ireland and took the Mexican haibun with me. They created enough interest that a producer at RTE, Ireland’s public radio, recorded five of them for broadcast, one each weekday morning on the literary program The Quiet Quarter. In 2004, one of my haibun, “La Muerte on TV” appeared in an anthology of work from the show entitled The Quiet Quarter: Anthology of New Irish Writing (the piece was reprinted in Haibun Today, 2012, 6:3).
The Mexico haibun are much longer than the ones I write today. For instance, “La Muerte on TV” has five haiku; a couple of others have six. Now I rarely include more than one.
I am who I was meant to be. It is what it is. The universe is unfolding as it should. Such bromides make me feel better. The fact that they are tautologies doesn’t matter.
a snake asleep
tail to mouth
(Modern Haiku, 2015, 46:3)
My 39th collection, Helices (Red Moon Press, 2016) won the Kanterman Memorial Award for 2017 sponsored by The Haiku Society of America, and my 40th, um mosquito no meu braço (F. Carvalho, trans.), was published in Portugal (Eufeme, 2017).
George Swede is one of the most prolific writers of haibun, haiku and tanka as well as other poetry, fiction and non-fiction genres. Between 2008 and 2012, he served as editor of Frogpond, one of our most prestigious haiku-genre journals. Along with Betty Drevniok and Eric Amann, Swede co-founded Haiku Canada in 1977. An extensive profile can be found on The Writers' Union of Canada website.
Here are some quotes from an interview with Alok Mishra on the Ashvamegh website.
Alok Mishra: At last, what is your message to the next generation of poets?
George Swede: My advice is simple: keep going until you find your voice and then let it take you where it will.
Alok Mishra: You have authored more than 50 books. What has kept you going on, sir? What motivates you to write?
George Swede: What keeps me going—still having something to say (perhaps I’m delusional) and a habitual routine. The latter is essential for good productivity.
Alok Mishra: People talk about literature, writing, poetry, its decline, disappearance of genuine literature and various other things. You have been a Psychologist as well, sir. What will you say about the psychological aspect of poetry and literature on human life? It must have a relation, I think.
George Swede: Writing poetry helped me recover my equilibrium after my stint as a school psychologist and after my divorce. Putting troubling thoughts onto a page diminished their power over me because they were now out of my head and in a metaphorical context that made them interesting rather than threatening.
Swede was also asked to speak to important aspects of his writing career. A response pertinent to all writers has to do with his writing relationship with his partner, Anita Krumins:
George Swede: Since coming into my life, Anita Krumins has been essential to my writing ambitions—reading drafts, suggesting changes, collaborating. She did all this in addition to her own work as a professor of communication at Ryerson University. After we retired, I agreed to become the editor of Frogpond (Journal of the Haiku Society of America) on one condition—that Anita would be my co-editor. For four years (2008-12), not only did we select the haiku, senryu, rengay, renku, haibun, theoretical articles, and reviews, but also designed the covers, did the layout and negotiated with the printing company to make sure each of our 12 issues came out at the promised time. While not always harmonious, our long relationship has been of immeasurable help to my writing career. I suspect partnerships such as ours are often vital to success, no matter what the endeavor.