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October 24, 2002 One hundred poets against the war and on the Internet



Todd Swift

by Barbara Black

Todd Swift is nothing if not ambitious, and when ambition is applied to poetry, possibly the modern world’s most humble calling, look out.

Swift had already established himself as an outstanding and original spoken-word performer by the time he graduated from Concordia in 1993. He went on to live in Hungary for several years and now lives in Paris. Poets have always been transplants — think of James Joyce living in Trieste and Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific islands — but the Internet makes a worldwide literary career easier still.

Now Swift and Val Stevenson, of Nthposition.com, have launched 100 Poets Against the War, an electronic blast at Bush and Blair and others who would attack Iraq. The project started Jan. 20 — Swift is nothing if not precise — by Nthposition.com, and has attracted poets and peace activists from around the world, though mainly the English-speaking world. The anthology is presented online at http://www.nthposition.com as a PDF file.

Among the contributors are George Bowering, Canada’s first and current poet laureate, Charles Berstein, Michael Redhill, Sinead Morrissey, Sarah Maguire and Ruth Fainlight.
Poet John Kinsella has arranged for Salt Publishing, a poetry press based in Australia and the UK, to publish a version in March for $13.95 US, with the profits going to Amnesty International.

This kind of enterprise is nothing new for Swift. He has been writing poems since he was 14, and was published in The Fiddlehead when he was 18. In 1991, he was accepted into the League of Canadian Poets.

In an interview by e-mail from Paris, Swift explained how he makes a living. “Poets don’t earn money directly from selling their poems, unless they win Nobel prizes or have remarkable luck. Almost all mid-career and established poets pay their rent from lecturing, or writing reviews, or reading their poems — indeed, everything but the actual writing of poems itself.

“I manage by working as a freelance writer of TV scripts and articles for journals and newspapers like the National Post, En Route, The Dubliner and Books in Canada.”

As a student, Swift didn’t excel, he admits. “I dropped out for a few years, then was part-time for several years. I graduated with a double major in English and creative writing, but along the way, I was enrolled in political science, too.

“I was Concordia’s top debater for a few years, and ranked ninth in the world on the college debating circuit, so I spent more time on that than my studies, in some cases.”

Swift is obviously thrilled to be in Paris, visiting his fiancée. “Her job chose it for us, but I am naturally not likely to complain. It is, of course, where my hero Ezra Pound made his mark, “discovering” T.S. Eliot and Joyce.

“There’s a newly revived renaissance of English/American expat writing again, so it’s a good time to be here, after the fairly moribund ’80s and ’90s. Having distance from North America, especially at a time of political crisis, is fascinating. Europeans really do have a different perspective on the world and news. I am becoming sympathetic to that view.

“Basically,” he continued, “I have always believed that poets matter, that struggling poets should be encouraged, and that poetry must be truly global in scope and outlook. I believe that my activities as an agent for poetry promotion, and all my other work as writer and performer, have established me as one of the leading literary figures of my generation (the under-40s), and I am very proud of that role. I want to inspire the next generation of writers to continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be a Canadian poet in the 21st century.”