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Friday, 1 January 2010

Swift Report 2000-2009

The decade which has just passed was - arguably - the best and worst of my life. I went from being 33 to 43, a screenwriter with a hundred hours of produced TV to a teacher, and from health to sickness. Along the way, I lived in Budapest, Paris and finally London - all extraordinary cities where I made many friends, and had wonderful experiences. I was married to the love of my life, Sara, and still am. My father died, horribly, of brain cancer. Many other relatives died too: beloved uncles, an aunt, and my maternal grandfather. I became an uncle myself, when Alex was born. Good friends died also, such as Richard and Robert.

This decade, I returned to university and received an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. I became a poetry tutor and university lecturer, first at London Met, then Birkbeck, then Kingston University. I recovered from a car accident (one arm could not move for a year). I became associated via Martin Penny with Oxfam as their poet in residence. And poetry - this past decade saw me edit numerous international anthologies - 100 Poets Against The War, a famous ebook; Short Fuse, a New York book introducing the idea of fusion poetry; the Life Lines CDs, which sold tens of thousands of copies; an Oxfam DVD; and several others, such as Future Welcome and In The Criminal's Cabinet - as well as edited special sections of New American Writing, London Magazine, Jacket and The Manhattan Review. I also co-edited an academic study, with Jason Camlot, Language Acts, on anglophone poetry in Quebec since 1976.

Meanwhile, I published five books of my own poems this decade, three with DC Books in Montreal, then Seaway, a new and selected, from the Irish press Salmon, and a new book, Mainstream Love Hotel, with British press tall lighthouse. I also created the Swifty Lazarus CD with Tom Walsh.

Also, I became interested in using social networks and the Internet to promote poetry communities - something I was a bit of a pioneer in (before the technology was really where it is now) until blogs and tweets completely became the norm - hard to be the man with a megaphone in a town with telephones; cheerleaders aren't needed when the team is already winning. I started this blog five years ago. I edited the poetry at Val Stevenson's Nthposition from 2002 or so until last year, when Rufo Quintavalle took over the reigns. And, with Dan Mitchell, I began the first, and still largest, Poetry Group at Facebook.

During this time I also ran poetry readings in Budapest, Paris and London, and featured hundreds of the best younger and established poets. Poetic highlights of the decade might also include dining at high table at Cambridge with Seamus Heaney and Tamar Yoseloff; interviewing Al Alvarez; and having Les Murray as a houseguest. As well as studying with George Szirtes and Denise Riley, Jon Cook and Clive Scott. I myself read at Oxford and other venues, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair where I was a special guest. I also wrote reviews in The Globe and Mail, Poetry Review, Poetry London, and so on. My poems were selected for inclusion in Starnino's New Canon, Queyras's Open Field, and Bolster's Best Canadian Poems.

By decade's end, completing a PhD, teaching, writing poems, and struggling to break through the stuffy impasses of the poetry worlds, and dealing with many personal sorrows and losses, I became physically and emotionally exhausted.

I survey my decade of fortune and misfortune with some wariness and sadness. I see a young man blessed with enthusiasm, energy, and goodwill, open to many styles and kinds of poetry, who encountered a number of startlingly brutal gatekeepers and impediments. My will was broken over this decade - note the lack of prizes or nominations; for all my efforts, my poetry remains marginal, off-piste. Well, not entirely. I am mentioned in a few books, and a poet wrote an MA thesis on my work, but, frankly, Seaway not getting any published reviews in Canada was a blow.

Attempts to build a counter-stream online alternative to the mainstream, has mainly failed utterly. The net readers do not support each other as well as they should. If they did, more of the anthologies I worked on would have sold. Instead, this decade saw a sad decline into celebrity and marketing, where only the major established publishing houses can really compete, with their large budgets; oddly, and paradoxically, those who use the net do so to get things for free - but what kind of waves are they if only ruled by pirates?

Younger and emerging poets all seek mainstream and establishment kudos (as I guess I do too) and thus few truly excercise the power of the Internet for change and radical transformation of the system of poetic distribution; after all, the main awards still go to books, published on paper. Perhaps the decade of the ebook is upon us? When will new critics emerge, in the UK, with the intelligence of Eliot, Ricks, or Leavis? We have Peter Robinson, Fiona Sampson, and Tim Dooley - but I'd like to see the younger poets become active (and daring) critics too, unafraid of powerhouse shadows. They should learn from Carmine Starnino, who took on Atwood. Why do so few dare to query the facile cronyism at the core of so much UK poetry awardism? Why doesn't Dannie Abse have the Queen's Gold Medal - or Alan Brownjohn?

I sometimes feel as if I have wasted my time on poetry - especially poetry promotion, which bequeathed me sickness and despair. All that has truly afforded me joy in this life has been love. Love of God, love of friends, love of my wife, love of music, of film, of art, of nature. I hope to regain my love of poetry, and get my groove (and mojo) back.

This decade I look forward to becoming a Catholic, completing my PhD, and, with some luck, getting my disease under control with medication. I have a new poetry manuscript that may be published in a few years as well. Other pending projects include the Carcanet anthology of Canadian Verse, edited with Evan Jones. And, I have a book of essays on mid-century poets that, post-PhD, might be worth getting published. Dreams? A child, a novel, health. May this decade bless you.
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