Thursday, September 19, 2013

Khulile Nxumalo: Seeking new ways of saying

Khulile Nxumalo was born in Diepkloof, Soweto, in 1971. He finished school at Waterford Kamhlaba, Swaziland, and went to University of Cape Town, University of Natal and Wits University. His first poetry collection, ten flapping elbows, mama, was published by Deep South in 2004. His second 
collection, fhedzi, was published by Dye Hard Press in 2013. His work has appeared in several literary journals in South Africa, Canada, the UK and the US. Nxumalo has twice won the DALRO award for poetry.  He also participated in the LitNet My Generation project, with his contribution ‘The train goes on coal’.

An extensive interview with Khulile Nxumalo by Alan Finlay was published in New Coin, and is available here.

DH: When did you start writing poetry?

KN: I started writing, playing around with the poetry we were studying in high school. But it was only when I got to university in Cape Town that I really starting engaging and applying myself to the craft. At school it was people like John Donne, Milton, the sonnets of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. I think it was being exposed to poetry other than classical English that ignited interest in trying to write. At university as part of English we studied Eliot, Blake, Frost, ee cummings, Sylvia Plath etc. I also took courses by Prof Kelwyn Sole on Oral Literature and in African Literature, but by then I had been exposed to Okigbo, Soyinka, Jack Mapanje, Sipho Sephamla, Serote, Kgositsile and Mattera.

What poets have been your main influences? What South African poets do you particularly like?

Mongane Serote has been the most impactful influence. I try to read South African poetry widely, mostly in the journals that still exist. The poets I like are too numerous to mention. Also, one tends to be touched or affected by a poem, and it can even be from a lesser-known poet or writer. Seitlhamo Motsapi introduced me to the work of Kamau Brathwaite, and that has been another long-standing line of influence.

In the blurb to your first collection, ten flapping elbows, mama, you wrote:  “I what I call psycho-narration, I try to write beyond the understanding that ‘inside of one’s head’ and ‘the objective world’ are distinct worlds. This is a form I have grown to love more since I started preferring the long poem format that sits on a conversational tone. It’s a multi-vocal way of writing or telling stories in a less authoritative way, a kinda voice democracy in the poem.” For me, the long psycho-narration poems have a montage effect and I am reminded of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Can you tell us more about how you came to psycho-narration? 

The poetry I was trying to write at high school reflected and imitated stuff like rhyming schemes of Petrachan sonnets, and the tight barriers of language in the form. When I started to work in the long form, the writing achieved a conversational tone. In another phrase, the poetry loosened. Psycho-narration is about writing as of you are narrating your own psychology. It becomes interesting when you try to imagine a fluid barrier between the objective and the subjective, in that the stability of the “I” persona becomes affected, and voice takes on more interesting dimensions. Our generation of writers has to contend with a less certain country and world, that is if you are thinking of the post-apartheid era, and that is part of the context that makes for searching for new ways to say things.

I find the voice of your new collection, fhedzi, to be more singular, more unified. There is a sense of one, personal voice.

I think fhedzi is influenced by jazz and other musical rhythms more than ten flapping elbows, mama and that tends to unify how poems are elaborated, and creates unity of emotion. Even though I had set out to write an angry book about the ghost of my absent Venda father, I ended up with material that has a stronger sense of self in it, and I imagine this is what you mean by “personal voice”. I think the strong application that Alan Finlay brought to the editing also makes the book more unified, as we cut out quite a lot of stuff, and we were open to new versions of poems that might have appeared differently at another time.

Going back briefly to the blurb for ten flapping elbows, mama, you wrote: “If we can go beyond rational thought – or even the idea that rational thought is a reflection of reality – then anything can happen.”  Do you still have such a view of the potential of poetry, or has it modified in the past nine years?

Yes I still do. It is not just for poetry but for the act of imagination itself. Some of my concerns at the time of making that statement were from realising that there is richness in that I, for a number of years, had imagined, conceived, created and uttered realities in languages other than English. At the time, discourse analysis and deconstruction were in vogue in literary studies, and I guess some of that filtered into how I theorised about my writing.

Ten flapping elbows, mama contains a “proemdrama” called “Craftin’”, and fhedzi contains the choreo-poem “The Melville Plenoptic”.  These are not plays in the accepted sense, and not quite dramatic poems either. What is your experience with the theatre? 

Well, you will not believe, but I acted in plays like Noddy, Pinocchio, Aladdin as part of Johannesburg Children’s Theatre. That was at the time when experiments of integration between black children in the townships and white kids in the suburbs were increasingly taking place. Almost around the time of the scrapping of the Group Areas Act. I developed a deep interest in the theatre from then, and went to see a lot of plays at the Market Theatre. Currently I am studying for a master’s in dramatic arts, where as part of my practical examination I will stage a piece that is a mixture of both “Craftin’” and “The Melville Plenoptic”.

You have also done some work in film I remember seeing a short documentary about Staffrider  that you made with artist Tracey Rose. Have you ever been involved in music?

I listen to music ‒ all kinds really. I do wish I had learnt to play the cello. I mess around on the guitar, for the simple three-chord type of tunes. Before working at the SABC, I was directing documentaries. Among others, I directed a documentary following the daughter of Credo Mutwa in a search to find out why their house was burnt in 1976, and collaborated with Tracey Rose as part of the Chimurenga Digital library where I reminisce about the time when the Market Precinct was buzzing with activity, and poetry and writing were driven by COSAW initiatives, while bemoaning that I never got a chance to be published in Staffrider.

What is your opinion of contemporary South African poetry? Are you optimistic about the future of poetry in South Africa?

I think the journals must continue to exist for South African poetry to maintain a sense of being alive. That is how I have also kept going in between collections. I think we need a radio programme that focuses on poetry,that could also have a digital existence. I am optimistic as most of the poets, even those from the generations older than us, still continue to publish. I remember the last issue of Kotaz where Mxolisi Nyezwa focused on a number of poems in isiXhosa. As a country with so many languages, these must be reflected in the written and published poetry.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Erik Vatne: In service to the poem

Photo: Dylan Thompson
Erik Vatne is a poet, visual artist and publisher born in the US. He was educated at the Barnstable Academy, Bard College (BA), and Trinity College Dublin (MA). His books of poetry include Endings (Round Lake Press, 1991), Cartographies of Silence (Station Hill Press, 2009), Don Scotus on his Sickbed (Burning Apple Press, 2011), XXIII Epistles (Graffiti Kolkata, India, 2011), Mormon Heroin (Burning Apple Press, 2012) and the trilogy Words in Search of a  Meaning (Burning Apple Press, 2012). He has lived in Mexico, Norway, Iceland, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Ireland. He divides his time between New Jersey, US and Dublin, Ireland. 

DH: Music plays a big part in your life – you often post music clips on your Facebook page, and there are references to music throughout your writing. In Words in Search of a Meaning, for example, there is a prose poem about Freddy Mercury and another poem is dedicated to Ian Curtis. In the notes to Mormon Heroin, you include additional poems which you call ‘bonus tracks’.

EV: Yes, music is important. When I began using FB I used the medium as a public online Commonplace Book that would include music/video/art/poetry, etc.  My dream job, since I was a kid, was to be a late-night music DJ so I guess it’s my way of playing late-night DJ when I post songs and lyrics. Even as a child of two or three, my parents said I was listening to the lyrics of songs and they were always equally important as the music; whereas I noticed this wasn’t the case for many of my friends. I don’t think most poets of our generation talk about this enough. For our generation rock lyrics were our first ‘poetry’… Or were the fault lines/maps that eventually lead to poetry… In my case, it was Bob Dylan, arguably one of America’s finest poets; so the simple answer is music is vitally important to my life and work … In Pater’s words, “All art aspires to the conditions of music”.

I constructed Mormon Heroin as a rock opera … Whether I succeed or fail I don’t know but besides the Epistles it’s the work I am most proud of. Even if I know it fails in places I am happy I was able to release a ‘director’s cut’ of the book. There is some interest from another publisher in bringing out a selection of the poems called Strategies of Desire the title of one of the poems.  

One of my teen heroes Pete Townsend’s Quadrophenia and Pink Floyd’s The Wall served as templates for the book, which is why I include so many notes; as well as bonus tracks, which I thought was an interesting idea and was a private nod to my ex-wife and her thinking my rock/music geek obsession with remastered albums and liner notes, etc was endearing.

This brings me back to my childhood, when buying a much anticipated album was a big event one I was happy to read Patti Smith write about in Just Kids halcyon pre-teen and teen days spent not just listening to an album over and over but reading the liner notes and looking at photos etc was, for our generation, a magical experience.  Finally, maybe I’m just talking about my experience, but I feel many poets of our generation that I’ve met and grew up on rock music are frustrated rock stars because we know how much pop and rock music arguably drained the universal creative energy from the poem-source; so I'm always thinking and feeling musically when I compose poems.

Some of your poetry – I am thinking particularly of Mormon Heroin – comes across as ‘confessional’. You have written about the collapse of your marriage, hospitalisation for breakdowns, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton have been hailed as ‘confessional poets’, but would you also regard your work as confessional? I imagine you would reject the categorisation. 

Yes, I would reject the categorisation of ‘confessional’ poet. This is a term created by critics to define and label what they considered ‘new’ trends in contemporary American poetry. What I find ironic is that in the cases of some of our most ‘confessional’ poets, like Bukowski and Ginsberg
for example, Ginsberg’s ‘Ego Confession’ or ‘Please Master’, you can’t get more confessional then that  we don’t call them ‘confessional’ poets. I mean, was the Renaissance poet George Gascoigne a confessional poet? I think one could make that argument; he’s one of my favorite poets and a bigger influence on The Epistles than Ted Berrigan even though I owe a big debt to Frank O’Hara for opening up my work to be able to write a book like Mormon Heroin, etc and, yes, Berrigan is also important because I often employ a cut and paste method in my writing practice; but I didn’t really get into Berrigan until I began writing The Epistles; if anything; I would say the Epistles owe more to Kerouac and Shakespeare and visual artists like Rauschenberg and Basquiat.

The confessional poets I know well are John Berryman, and specifically Robert Lowell. At one time Plath was an important poet to me and Arial remains one of the most important works of the latter half of the 20th century; but I haven’t really looked at her work in years. Ted Hughes, and not Plath, was one of my earliest influences and I imitated him for years when I was a teenager but I didn’t have the experience or maturity to process the archetypes and symbols I received in dreams and visions as Hughes did so brilliantly. As for Sexton, I have to admit I never cared for her work, but I should read her again.

With regard to Mormon Heroin, you’re correct that it contains a wider selection of autobiographical or, if one likes, ‘confessional’ poems:  those poems are quite direct, naked and raw, but that’s only a part of the larger apocalyptic vision of book that’s ultimately about technology. Specifically, the collective madness of technology that could also lead to the human machine breaking down and succumbing to our over medicated society.

To give one short example from Mormon Heroin; in the poem, ‘Descending Minor Thirds (Orpheus in The Underworld)’ I write, “America is a self-medicated system/ Organism/ On an eternal IV drip/ Shuffling down the hall/ In hospital gown/ Satori...” In this regard the personal pronoun or speaker becomes a microcosm that mirrors the shadow side of the collective unconscious of American neurosis. On a personal note I’d like to mention that I haven’t had a drink or illegal drug in 20 years, but I believe all drugs, including heroin, should be decriminalised. 

Many of your poems employ a short line. Some  – such as in Cartographies of Silence – are short in length, while others go onto several pages. Stylistically your work reminds me at times of Robert Creeley, but you have indicated your discomfort with the term ‘minimalism’.

I perceive my work as a poet is to be a conduit in service to the poem. In other words, my responsibility is to get out of the way of the poem and let it speak for itself; to say its own way into the world. Keep in mind Cartographies was composed in 1995-1996 and Mormon Heroin over ten years later. I often struggle with my tendency towards boredom and restlessness and the fear of repeating myself. In short, I have a restless mind and imagination and that’s why disparate influences which would include everything from one-word poems, concrete poetry, to the Romantics and everything in between as long as it speaks to me on a personal level can have an influence on my life and work. I consider my connection to certain poets as serious relationships, love affairs, and marriages; sometimes one-night stands, but for the most part long-term relationships. 

Cartographies of Silence was composed when I was about four years into serious Zen Buddhist study and practice. I had taken Buddhist refuge vows with my son Dylan. Prior to Cartographies I composed a chapbook of poems under a different name that I later destroyed. The reason I did this was because the poetry I was writing at that time began to sound more and more like bad translations from Japanese and Chinese Zen poets. Since then I’ve seen many American poets fall into this trap. Cartographies was a way for me to use a short line and write short epiphany-like poems but for the first time break free from what I felt was a consuming Buddhist influence on my poetry.

It’s interesting you should mention Creeley. I might raise eyebrows by making this statement but I’ve been reading Creeley for at least twenty years and sometimes I love his work and think he’s a genius and other times I think his poetry is just awful. I know Creeley is supposed to have one of the best ‘ears in the business’ as we say, but I seem to have a love/ hate relationship with his work at times. I love his very short, ‘minimalist’ poems but sometimes think his rhyming poems amount to little more than bad doggerel. Perhaps it’s me? It took me many years to truly ‘hear’ a poet like Robert Duncan and when I did it was, as these experiences are, ecstatic.

One thing I do admire about poets like Creeley is that they produced a very large prolific body of work that unmistakably never deviates from their voice. To use a rock example, I once wrote an essay about David Bowie’s obsession with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. It was my thesis that Bowie as shape shifter, chameleon, and actor was always searching for the authentic and that’s what he saw and felt in the music of Reed and Iggy Pop. This is not criticism, especially since I love all three artists and Reed and especially Bowie have been just as important as Blake or Shelley or Borges or Jack Spicer. I tend to be very catholic in my tastes. I always hear my voice in everything I write but there’s no doubt I’m also more of a shape shifter and chameleon in my work, which would explain the many influences and changes of style, form, and content in my poems. This is why almost all of my books are intentionally different. Like Lot, I don’t want to look back.

In Words in Search of a Meaning, many of the poems deal with the issue of language powerful and evocative, but at the same time inadequate and deceptive. This was a problem that deeply preoccupied Artaud most of his life. 

I think you’ve summed up the question that’s behind every poem I write and that is: “What is language?” It doesn’t matter what I write. My obsession with language is always at the forefront of every poem and even painting.  This is where one would find the influence of Wittgenstein as well as my ongoing interest in speech and language disorders. In some ways I envy poets who don’t appear to ever question language, nor do I understand it. I could give you hundreds of examples of what I’m talking about, but at the moment I’m struck by the words of T. S Eliot that have always stayed with me from his poem ‘East Coker’, from Four Quartets: “So here I am, In the middle way, Having had twenty years/ Largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres ./ Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt/  Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure/  Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/  For the thing one no longer has to say, Or the way in which/  One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture/  Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate/  With shabby equipment/  Always deteriorating/  In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion...”

I don’t think we have enough room for me to get into my love for Artaud; but I can say I feel a very deep connection to Artaud’s work and to what I know of the man. As a student of psychology my personal belief is that his work transcends anything found in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and yet no one has written more honestly, brutally and tenderly about various states of mental illness. And yet when I read Artaud I feel I’m reading a man who has complete control and command of the language; as well as a penetrating connection and understanding to his illness and the sickness of language what Burroughs referred to as the ‘language virus’ and the madness of industrial society.  I would direct readers to Clayton Eshleman’s essays and translations of Artaud’s work.

You have referred to your creation of action-poems, or word-paintings. You are also planning to publish a book of photographs. Tell us more about your artwork and its relation to your poetry. 

I owe a debt to who I consider one of the great geniuses of the century, Brion Gysin and my study of his life and work for being a final guide in destroying my ego-identification with myself as a poet. There is something rather preposterous about a grown man engaged in such work; don’t you think? And yet we don’t seem to have a choice; and as Bukowski said, “it’s still the best game going”. It remains a conundrum.

If anything, I consider myself a maker of things, a creator. I’ve constructed my life in a way that keeps me in a continual state of creative flux so that if I’m not writing poems, but have collected texts that lend themselves to paintings, I apply them to paintings. I work, at this stage after all these years almost entirely on instinct, intuition and faith in the process. There is no fear or doubt. If a poem doesn’t work it’s a small loss in the bigger picture; and few will care or notice anyway.

When I’m not painting or writing and need to disengage from those activities I’ll take photographs. This is when photography helps me get distance from language.  Poetry, painting and photography are part of the larger creative stew that is my life.

In the near future I would like to show my paintings and photographs; but I am just now ‘coming out of the closet’ as a visual artist and looking for the right gallery or venue to show my work. This year or next year I will be publishing a selection of my works on paper called The S.B Notebooks as well as a book of photographs called Garage.

Your notes section to Mormon Heroin is quite lengthy. There are also notes to Words in Search of a Meaning but not as much as in Mormon Heroin. I felt that the notes added considerably to the poems. Some people might argue against the use of notes, as they feel poetry should either explain itself or the reader should be free to decide for themselves. I think it depends on how the notes are used, by both writer and reader.

I struggled with this very question. Frankly, I feel notes are not important to the poems and that the poems should speak for themselves. If a poem needs a note to succeed then it has already failed. However, Mormon Heroin was a special and unique project. There are so many arcane and hermetic references in that work so I felt notes were necessary. On a personal level the notes were some of the most fun I’ve had with putting a book together. I feel as obsessive as they were they added a levity at times that helped me cope with the difficult process of putting together such a large collection. The notes are written for anyone who cares to read them but are not necessary but as I mentioned very specifically they were written for my second wife who, if we were together, would have probably asked me those questions. In a way, the notes are a farewell love letter to her memory. Finally, the notes were my secret wink to Eliot’s The Waste Land but I doubt I’ll repeat the experience.

When I look at your books I have three full-length volumes – Cartographies of Silence, Mormon Heroin and Words in Search of a Meaning – and then the two chapbooks, XXIII Epistles and Don Scotus. In the three full-length volumes I had a sense of a trilogy almost, but as you rightly point out, the poems in Mormon Heroin are very different from those in Cartographies and Words… I guess this is related to the history of the writing of the poems, and the history of their being published. For example, in Words…, published last year, there are some poems dating back to the 1980s.

This is a difficult question to answer. I don’t consider the three full-length volumes a trilogy but Words.…is a trilogy in that it contains three full-length books in one collection. For me publishing is a form of exorcism. I don’t feel I can release the poems or books from my body I would even consider it a somatic experience until they are published.

Once a poem or book is published I can move on and let go of it. Words.… contains poems from the '90s I chose to preserve. Unfortunately, for personal reasons, there are long gaps in my publishing history so even though Words.… and Mormon Heroin were published in the same year, 2012, they span twenty years of writing. The impetus for this now is almost the exact opposite of my previous ascetic approach to publishing modelled after Cavafy.  I now feel a greater sense of urgency to publish and exorcise these ghosts from the past and publish almost and the operative word is almost everything I write. I’ll leave the rest to readers, critics and history.

You have been studying psychoanalysis for some years, and you also have made references to teachers such as Krishnamurti, and you have also on occasion quoted from the gospels. I get a sense of searching, a quest. Is it a spiritual quest or a psychoanalytical one? Some might argue that those are the same.  

I’d say yes, they’re quite closely related. I have been a student of Jungian psychology and studied in Zurich but have had to put my studies on hold as I found it impossible to do so much creative work, run the press and continue my studies. I hope to resume them in the future when and if I achieve more balance in my life.

I’ve had many spiritual teachers including Jesus, Buddha, Krishnamurti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Shree Maa and Carl Jung, who I consider very much a surrogate father-figure.  I hesitate to use the term ‘spiritual seeker’ because that suggests that one is looking outside of oneself for what has always been present inside the human and divine heart. However, the search for home or the Odyssey quest is probably the trope that speaks most closely to my personal mythos. At the end of the day, though, I always return to reading poetry as a rite or ceremony that one could say is religious or spiritual.

You started up Burning Apple Press, and three of your books have been issued through to this imprint. Why did you start up your own press? What else besides your own work are you publishing through it?

It’s too bad we’re conducting this interview via email because I laughed when I read your question. The short and simple answer is I started Burning Apple Press because no one would publish a 422-page collection of poetry including 50 pages of notes called Mormon Heroin. A friend suggested I publish it myself and thus Burning Apple Press was born.

I also felt I had more freedom and control over my work and also didn’t have to go through the long waiting process and formalities of a very corrupt and cliquish American poetry publishing scene. I don’t see this more different than bands like Radiohead starting their own labels and putting out their own works. Or say Moby producing his own albums. Once I started Burning Apple Press I realised that it was also an opportunity for me to publish a great deal of my back catalogue but the end game was always to begin publishing beautifully designed and highly professional books that would introduce readers to poets whose work is in on the ‘outside’ of the looking glass.

Burning Apple Press is a labor of love and a non-profit company so we don’t have the resources or staff to publish as many titles as we would like but I hope we continue to grow and flourish in the coming years for exceptional ‘outsider’ artists and poets whose work I admire that have yet to be published.

For example, we just published a collection of poems Selling Heaven by the Irish poet Brendan McCormick, which is available through the publisher and Amazon. We plan on bringing out books of poetry and photography by other artists in the next year or two. I’ll probably only publish one or two more books written in 2007 and 2008 with Burning Apple Press and then resume my search for the right publisher of The Epistles.

I probably sound like a Luddite but I’ve never read an e-book on the computer or any kind of device. I know that many say book publishing is dying or almost dead but nothing can equal the feel and tactile, sensory, experience of holding a book in one’s hand.

  What are you busy with?

I’m an artist that’s always working on multiple projects. So I’m currently working on a collection of paintings which I call my ‘Italian Verb Series’. This is a series of paintings that use found texts from a book of Italian verbs. I just finished the last poem of 120 Epistles which I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years but like Berryman’s inability to stop writing Dream Songs I’ve written over 25 epistles this year even after completing the book. I consider that my life’s work, so I might be writing Epistles until the end of my writing life.

In between these works I continue to take photographs, make abstract paintings and large scale paintings with handwritten or stenciled texts.  I just began writing a new collection of ‘assembled’ poems which are very short and simple based on a textbook I’m studying on ‘Practical Chinese.’  These poems seem to be writing themselves and I am already well into the work and I just started it this month, but the book sat on a shelf for months before it finally ‘spoke’ to me and I took it out and thus the work begins all over again. This book won’t contain any notes.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Haidee Kruger: shaking language out of the furrows of habit

Haidee Kruger is associate professor in the School of Languages at the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University in South Africa. She holds a PhD in translation studies, and is primarily involved in research in descriptive and theoretical translation studies. Her poetry and short stories have been published in, among others, The Common,  New Contrast, New Coin and Green Dragon. Her work also appeared in Beauty Came Grovelling Forward, a selection of South African poetry and prose published on Big Bridge. Her debut collection of poetry, lush: poems for four voices, was published in 2007 by Protea Book House. lush was praised in the judges’ statement for the 2006/2007 Ingrid Jonker Prize as an "innovative volume of poems" that was "a close contender for the prize". The reckless sleeper (Modjaji Books, 2012) is her second collection.

Kruger lives in Vereeniging, with her husband and three children. She has a blog called Messy Things With Words.

DH: This may sound like a very basic question, but why do you write poetry as opposed to other forms? Why poetry?

HK: I wish I could write fiction, simply because so much of my reading life (as a child and an adult) has been shaped by fiction, and I have a very vivid sense of the way a story can open a door straight into another world. The best stories have gaps into which you can insert yourself and live there for a while. And when you come back from the story, you’re altered by it – in subtle ways it changes your relationship with the world in which you actually exist. It’s something I would like to be able to do. I’ve tried short prose forms – but I am hesitant to call them “stories”, because I’ve come to the realisation that my writing impulse is not driven by narrative, at all; my writing impulse is lyrical, in the sense of attempting to pin something very particular down in language. 

Also, for me, the textures, the endless possibilities of language, are a driving force in writing, and I think poetry, by its nature, is the form that allows exploration of this most fully. Language is always two things at once: a social thing which we use to communicate in the world, to convey ideas, to convince people of things, to get what we want; and a personal thing, which sits in our heads and is odd and peculiar and very individual. For language to be a useful social tool, we usually have to make it run in routinised ways, and get rid of some of the more confusing idiosyncracies, so we have consensus about what things mean and the world can keep on working. What poetry allows one to do is to shake language out of the furrows of habit, to see what new meanings emerge if you do unusual things with it. So poetic language is a way of pinioning down some aspect of the singularity of an experience, for yourself and for other people. It is the way that I continue to think about (good) poetry: holding a fascinating, unusual, intriguing language-object in your hands, turning it over, and then having it explode in your face with all kinds of unexpected meanings.

In your first collection, lush, the poems are experimental in form, but the overall structure of the book seems almost retro, with the poems divided into four sections representing four voices, with an opening and closing chorus. It gives the feeling almost of two approaches to poetry operating simultaneously, as in a relationship. Was this intentional? 

I don’t think creating this tension between the freer, quite experimental poems and the almost traditional structure happened intentionally – it’s maybe more of a collateral effect of something else I was trying to achieve. Looking at it now, I think the self-conscious structure, the creation of “voices” for the sections of the book was a way of building in a greater sense of “distance” into the book, as a counterweight to the often very personal poems. It was also an attempt at introducing order as a balance for the experimentalism in the poems themselves, to keep the collection balanced on a tightrope between freedom and constraint, between the very personal inside views of the poems and something more objectively interpreted from the outside. The voices, in this sense, impose a sort of thematic structure on the book, with each of the patron saints representing something of thematic importance in the book. So it is probably an attempt to keep the collection as a whole from flying apart into pieces. 

But maybe there IS something of these two broader approaches to poetry in the tension between the experimental poems and the more conventional structure. I’ve always been fascinated by how form shapes meaning – how restructuring the same experience into a sonnet or into free verse reframes the experience itself. Maybe some of that is in lush – how the macrostructure alters the interpretation of the poems as micro-entities.

Some of your poems remind me of e.e. cummings. What poets have influenced you? 

You’re right about cummings, who I never grow tired of. cummings understood best the idea of making language do new things, sometimes difficult things (for the reader), to chisel away at the accretions of habit in language, and shock the reader into a fresh perception of something. So its not experimentalism for its own sake, but experimentalism in language for the sake of experience. 

The question of influence is a difficult one. I think a lot of my influences are unconscious. William Gibson talks about cultivating a kind of personal “micro-culture”, and I think as a child mine was particularly rich in its indiscriminateness, made up pretty much of whatever I could get my hands on. The pleasure of words; the realisation that you can make language do things to make people feel things I think is something that comes from there. 

More specific influences: I think Eliot is the first poet I read who made me understand that poetry doesn’t offer emotion straight up on a platter – that the emotion is best when it is a hard, careful, pebbly thing that surprises you inside the language. But then I also for a long time loved Ginsberg, who is all about offering emotion up in big straight unashamed helpings. I have been consistently drawn to the poetry of Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton. I am fascinated by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets – Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Ted Greenwald, Robert Grenier. Their emphasis on repossessing the word as word, of experimenting with ways of making meaning that don’t take for granted any of the things we take for granted about language – syntax, sound, pattern, meaning, is something I am drawn to. I recently discovered the work of Marianne Boruch; the way in which she manages to combine a sort of effortless simplicity with the unexpected is something I find creeping into my own more recent work. 

In terms of South African poetry it is perhaps not unsurprisingly the poets who (sometimes) work along more experimental lines who appeal to me most – Kelwyn Sole, Kobus Moolman, Alan Finlay, Genna Gardini, Lesego Rampolokeng, Joan Metelerkamp come to mind immediately. But I also admire poets who perhaps work in a less experimental idiom but manage to distil something very pure from language – I think particularly of Gabeba Baderoon and Rustum Kozain.

You have, like many of us, quite a hectic lifestyle  – teaching at university, being a wife and a mother to three children. How do you find time to write? What are your writing habits?

I have lately had a voyeuristic obsession with writers’ writing habits and workspaces. I am particularly taken with the idea of a writing life – a daily routine structured around writing. But I’m not at the point where I can give up my day job and structure my life around writing; I probably never will be. I wish I could say that I set aside time especially for writing; that it is a craft which I have allocated time to specifically, because all craft must be practised and honed. At the moment, unfortunately, writing is something that happens in the cracks between other things… But it is also the case that when I have something in my head which wants to be written, I can relegate it to the bottom of a to-do list for only so long before it becomes very insistent. And then the writing schedules me, rather than I it.

Throughout history, society has held divergent views of poets  – ranging from regarding them as central, vital players in the community and/or respected dispensers of wisdom to regarding them as outcasts and useless dreamers who do not make any valuable contribution to society. I think at the moment it is very much the second view that is prevalent.  

This is such a complicated issue… In our time, it’s a fine line, isn’t it, between being a central, vital player in the community, and being a kind of commodity – because the kind of personality you project, the kind of poetry you write fits in comfortably with current discourses; fits current needs? There is an interesting take on this by Jeanette Winterson, talking about teaching creative writing: “Print media is shrinking, perhaps disappearing. At the same time, festivals and live events have never been more popular. Every tiny town seems to have a literary festival. Writers are out of the study and on the road – and when they are not entertaining readers they are invited to enlighten would-be writers. The most solitary of pursuits has become communal, organised, live, extrovert and competitive. Is this because writing has become a commodity – "cult cargo", as Val Mcdermid puts it?” 

I think there is something important in this. We live in a society which values visibility, extroversion, the ability to engage and entertain – and I think poets who are inclined, by temperament or by conscious decision, to leverage these qualities do manage to become “respected dispensers of wisdom” (not that I think that poets are any wiser than anybody else…). It also depends on the kind of writing – I think authors who see their role as social and inspirational find themselves naturally drawn to this socially visible role. 

I don’t really know the answer to this question. I know that writers have a very special ability – and I’m going to let Winterson (this time from her biography Why be happy when you could be normal) explain it again (because she does it so much better than I could): “All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.” I think for many readers the recognition of this ability is part of the value or worth that is ascribed to the writer or poet. But this value eventually becomes a commodity, up for sale and fetish, and that’s where things become complicated.

How does your new book, The reckless sleeper, differ from lush? The poems seem to be more personal, such as dealing with the experience of motherhood. 

I don’t think the poems in The reckless sleeper are more or less personal than the poems in lush –what is different is that with The reckless sleeper I have felt more willing to take the risk of letting the personal qualities of the poems simply be, instead of trying to build in the kind of dissociating devices I spoke about earlier. So The reckless sleeper is maybe less deliberately dense, more comfortable in its own linguistic skin than lush. But in many ways the books share a set of concerns: language, the body, desire, love, loss, home. Those unbearably human things.

In what direction to do you see your poetry taking? 

I have no idea – the words in my head fight it out and eventually decide their own direction; I’m just tagging along for the ride. I do know that for me there is a restlessness, in that there are always new ways of saying waiting to be made. But I am beginning to see that often I need to just cede the impulse to control and direct, and let the language do what it wants to do.

What are your views on SA poetry at the moment? As far as publishing is concerned, we are definitely in a pickle – publishers don’t want to publish poetry, the bookstores don’t want to stock it, and people don’t seem to want to read it. 

Yes, I think you are right that poetry (with the possible exception of Afrikaans poetry, maybe) is in a difficult position. I think poetry publishing in South Africa is actually at this point being kept alive by committed, passionate independent publishers like yourself and Colleen Higgs (and others) – who have worked out some pretty effective guerrila tactics to not only keep poetry publishing going, but to try to allow it to develop and expand and include a range of voices. 

Despite these efforts, the market for poetry (in the form of books, or journals, or online subscriptions) is small – there is a very small percentage of South Africans who value written poetry enough to buy poetry books or subscribe to poetry journals. So mainstream publishers are careful, and for preference only publish either well known poets, or poets who have the potential to sell well because their work speaks to a readership’s desire to be entertained, comforted or inspired. Publishing new poetry, or experimental poetry, has been relegated properly to the fringes. Because it won’t sell. And so a kind of impoverishment of poetry publishing sets in… But it is also true that poets have many more outlets than just print – Internet access in South Africa is growing, and most of this growth market access the Internet via their cellphones. So there’s a growing platform for poets there – once one is willing to let go of the traditional attachment to the book. 

To take this back to your earlier question: There is an odd contradiction here, in that clearly (some) poets are idealised to some degree in South African cultural consciousness, but this does not necessarily translate into actual buyers of poetry books. Which leads me to think that maybe it is not the poetry itself that is valued, but what the poet represents in the popular consciousness – a popularly defined role with which I think many poets do not always feel comfortable. 

But I feel one should put this in a larger perspective too: one cannot view these issues as separate from the difficulties that South Africa faces in terms of literacy, reading, education, poverty, etc. These material factors obviously condition the market, so it’s not fair to simply berate readers for not buying books… And while one is at it, one should spare a thought for African-language book publishing, which is (outside the educational sector) miniscule; wholly out of proportion to the potential readership. So the problems are much bigger than people just not buying poetry books…

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kelwyn Sole: Dreaming the everyday

Kelwyn Sole was born in Johannesburg in 1951 and has lived in Windhoek, London and Kanye. He is a professor in the English department of the University of Cape Town. He has published six collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Absent Tongues, was published by Hands-On Books, Cape Town. His work has appeared in many poetry anthologies and literary journals, including Green Dragon.

DH: Your first collection, The Blood of Our Silence, was published by Ravan Press in 1987. It was a very different time politically. I read that back then independent publishers like Ravan had had their phones tapped, mail opened and were subject to police raids. How did you feel about writing back then, compared to now?

KS: I thought, at the time, that liberation would neither mean the end of the need for a critical politics vis-à-vis Government, nor the end of critical utterances from writers. I believed writers should maintain their independence at the same time as they joined in the struggle against apartheid. So I don’t feel the themes in my poetry have hugely changed; or at least the stance I adopt in relation to political questions and politicians. 

At the same time, of course there was danger. The phone-tapping and interception of mail you mention; I experienced both of these. In the early days the technology was such that they still had to physically install the bug within the phone – I became pretty good at finding these. I got death threats in Namibia when I was an activist, and there was police harassment of me from time to time in the 1980s, which were nasty times generally. But my harassment was not about my writing, and was insignificant compared to what some people went through. Mind you, a lot of the actual history of that period is being lost, in the face of the cleaned-up  Governmental versions of those years we’re being fed now ... for instance, who these days remembers the Yeoville Debating Society, set up as a left critique of JODAC? This alternative history is important: it would allow many people to understand the present better.

Two of your earlier collections, Love that is Night and Mirror and Water Gazing show various approaches to poetic form, ranging from fairly traditional four-line stanzas to a more free-form approach, which is what you use most often. It reminds me of the experiments of US poets such as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, but also the British poet Lee Harwood.

The first person whose poetics influenced me was Charles Olson, when I was an undergraduate; and that has remained a source, to some extent, for my poetry since. I think the other members of the Black Mountain School were less influential – I read Creeley at the time, but it’s only now, through an American friend, that I’ve rediscovered him, and understood his gentle, light, occasionally humorous touch. I’ve never liked Duncan much, although I did take to Ed Dorn. In addition, many of the young poets I knew in Jo’burg were into the Beat Poets; and we all read Kerouac. I still remember his injunction, “you can’t fall down a mountain.” Oh yes you can, Jack. 

In retrospect, I was also heavily influenced in the beginning, especially in phrasing and spacing, not only by Olson but by the poets influenced by WC Williams – such as Snyder, Denise Levertov, a couple of others. I also read quite a deal of Black Power poetry for a while, especially Amiri Baraka. But it was Williams’ mixture of poetic and prosaic language that really appealed to me, in terms of what I was trying to do.

As an undergraduate I was in addition taken by Chris Okigbo’s and Tchicaya U Tam’si’s poetry. Looking back now, it was probably more as regards Okigbo’s style than his content; although I am still in awe of U Tam’si. I remember being less drawn to South African poetry, especially the white poets. I had extreme views then, and believed they had left me a legacy I should try to obliterate, rather than build on. I probably should have been more receptive to some of them – Patrick Cullinan, for example, was a fine poet. Mind you, I was an undergraduate still when Mtshali’s and Serote’s first volumes were published, which shook things up considerably. Black Consciousness had a big effect on me, in ways which it would take too long to describe here. It was the subject of my doctoral thesis; I then became friends with Chris van Wyk as well, whose poetry – along with Mafika Gwala’s – I much admired.

I did read and like Lee Harwood, and have recently gone back to him to look at his long poem ‘Long Black Veil’, in terms of a book-length sequence I am writing. But if there was a British influence on me early on, it was most clearly from an anthology called Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain that Penguin put out in 1969. How times, and Penguin, have changed! Weird as it may seem, I’ve also found John Milton’s ability to make a line of poetry refer both backwards and forwards a tremendous model that frees one up: I try and do this quite a lot.

More recently, other poets have been important to me. My first book was heavily influenced by Philip Levine, after Jeremy Cronin had given me a cassette tape of him reading. And, always, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In the 1990s I took him around Cape Town for a day, and was reduced to dribbling fandom. He was great. I’ve recently rediscovered Neruda’s poems about birds and the sea, which, rather than being effusive and vague (which is how I viewed him before) are exact in their knowledge and staggering in their effect.

I believe the best poetry has music running through it; you need an ear to be a poet. As Baraka says, “Poetry is speech musick’d.”  A lot of South African poetry is bad, in my opinion, because the poet concerned has no ear. In response, some of the poets of my generation tended to try and break up traditional English poetic metre and find new forms. Several of us were, and are, into hard jazz – Berold, Ari Sitas, myself, and more recently Seitlhamo Motsapi and Alan Finlay – you can see it in the experimentation that goes on, with breath phrasing and so on.

Your collection Land Dreaming was all prose poems, some of them closer to short fiction that actual poems. What made you want to focus on prose poems during this time? In an interview in New Contrast, you mentioned by influenced by René Char.

I bought a Selected Char when I was quite young, but only read it many years later, and was blown away – and then I immediately knew I wanted to start a project containing prose poems. Before that I had little interest, past tormenting one of my undergraduate poetry tutors by asking “But what about prose poetry?” every time she tried to make a general point. If you know Char, his poetry is regularly set in landscapes but recreates these landscapes with a highly metaphorical, almost surreal, quality; and often cuts through, or off, narrative. Char has an intensity, a compression, an ability to come at subject matter from an oblique angle, that to my mind is the essence of prose poetry as a form.

Having said this, if you look through my collection you’ll see that not all the poems conform to what Char does.‘Staff’, written first, does, for example; but there are also a lot of narrative poems; these days they would be called ‘flash fiction’ I suppose. There are also dialogues, demented monologues, parodies of various kinds of discourse, especially official and media discourse and so on. It’s a mixed bag.

In writing Land Dreaming  I conceived of the idea of using individual poems to create a wider mosaic of poems, partly personal and partly socio-political, within a space – in this case Southern Africa. There was a model I found for this too, despite its very different subject matter: Jacques Réda’s The Ruins of Paris. I’ve travelled widely through South Africa, and a large majority of the poems relate to places I have visited, and I’m trying to be pretty exact, although occasionally I borrowed stories from friends. I wanted to socialise and politicise the landscapes I came up with: they’re full of people talking, thinking, occasionally fighting; but mainly desiring and dreaming, despite at times dire circumstances and lives. Thus, Land Dreaming. There are also people in some poems, however, who are pretty delusional about their reality. This is another version of the title. 

In your new collection, Absent Tongues, we continue to read the familiar themes in your work – a sense of the everyday activity of work and home, as well as surrounding landscapes, but also, of course, a strong awareness of the socioeconomic and political environment in which we live.

About ten years ago I published an article in the British academic journal new formations which argued that the ordinary – the everyday – was suffused with political and economic determinants, especially so in this stage of late capitalism. All our personal and leisure activities are being drawn further into the ambit of finance and commerce: sport is only the most obvious of these. This has always been my view of the everyday – one in concert with Henry Lefebvre’s theory, I suppose. I hope that my poems reflect this.   

Looking back on it, the themes through my six books have remained remarkably similar, without too much intention. To some extent this is to even the case, to be sure, in Land Dreaming. Yet there is one habitual aspect only marginally present in my latest, Absent Tongues. In its original form this manuscript was longer, but I pulled out quite a number of poems. So it’s more in one voice: there’s less of the flat, demotic, slightly mocking tone of voice I sometimes use, and no satires. In this case I thought that a greater usage of my (as it were) ‘poetic’ voice would work better, and give it more coherence.  I’m hoping it will give it a focus and strength to which readers will respond.   

You work in academia. Do you feel that being involved with literature as a living, as you are, makes one necessarily a  more skilled or more perceptive poet? Or can it even make one inhibited? Some great poets have been involved in professions that have had nothing to do with writing – Williams is an obvious example.

I don’t think it will necessarily help one’s poetry, but it could harm it. I tend to agree with Williams in Paterson on this issue: “We go on living, we permit ourselves / to continue – but certainly / not for the university, what they publish / severally or as a group: clerks / got out of hand forgetting for the most part / to whom they are beholden.” But then I come from a generation that got all misty-eyed about Snyder in his firewatch station in a forest, who believed the older poets were stodgy and pompous, who identified with that poem of Neruda’s that acclaims “the poets of our age - / with light clothes and walking shoes.” There’s nothing more depressing than standing in a university bookshop overseas, looking through scores of first volumes by young poets fresh out of creative writing programmes, all more or less the same. I have done a bit of supervision but I have always avoided being in a classroom creative writing situation except once, when I sat in on a class of Martín Espada’s in Amherst. 

But perhaps I’m exaggerating – there are good poets who can come out of this, as well as good teachers: for instance, there’s a wonderful essay by Philip Levine, ‘Mine Own John Berryman’, describing the difference between being taught by Lowell and Berryman. Come to think of it, Sylvia Plath didn’t take to Lowell either... one of my favourite quotes about how teachers can miss the uniqueness of a student can be found in her diary: “How few of my superiors do I respect the opinions of anyhow? Lowell a case in point. How few will see what I am working at, overcoming? How ironic that all my work to overcome my easy poeticisms merely convinces them that I am rough, anti-poetic, unpoetic.”  Enough said. 

What is your view of South African poetry at present? When I look back at the 1990s, there was a tremendous energy in local poetry, and there was an interest in what we were doing. The interest has waned considerably in the past 10 years and at the same time I feel South African poetry has regressed.

I identified quite markedly with some of the more formally experimental, yet still politically suffused poets who emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s – partly because there were so many different styles, voices, opinions. They remain a salutary presence. There was also a greater degree of influence – perhaps it was similarity of intent - between black and white poets, I think, than before or since. Some of the poets who started out in that period are now well-known, such as Cronin, Ingrid de Kok and Lesego Rampolokeng. There are others, though, whose true worth and importance have still not been attended to. I’m thinking of Karen Press, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Joan Metelerkamp, and quite a few others.

I, like you, don’t see quite this adventurous spirit or excitement any more. However, I have recently had cause to look at the South African poetry published in the last two or three years more closely, and it’s not as dismal as I thought. There are a number of younger (relatively speaking) poets who have established a consistent and unique voice, such as Rustum Kozain and Vonani Bila. Gabeba Baderoon and Kobus Moolman are writing with growing power; Kobus is, in my view, possibly the most compelling voice exploring and experimenting with new ways of writing poetry at the moment. I really enjoy watching Creamy Ewok Baggends and the Zimbabwean Comrade Fatso on stage; it seems to me that Genna Gardini, Haidee Kruger and Khadija Heeger have talent that will develop further; and I’ve always liked Kate Kilalea’s poetry – it’s such a pity she’s moved to London.   

There are a number of other interesting new poets coming through, mostly those published by the independent publishers such as Modjaji, Botsotso, Deep South and yourself. I have huge admiration for publishers who are doing this, often on a shoestring budget, usually without any help or attention from the media. All in all, the mainstream publishers and media seem to have little interest in poetry, unless it comes from what they regard as a ‘profile’. They have even less interest in serious or experimental poetry: it’s only the small, independent, shoe-string publishers who are keeping poetry’s head above water, bless them. 

So there are worrying signs. I can best sum this up by repeating something I heard a mainstream publisher say in praise of a book of poetry at a launch recently ... “Each poem is a perfect work of art” ... and then the audience nodded their heads sagely. Ouch. To my mind, such a view of poetry can only be called pre-modernist: modernist and post-modernist movements have thrown such a notion of the poem out of the window. If some South African publishers have this view of poetry, how can we expect to move forward? I am moreover less than full of enthusiasm about the proliferation of Maya Angelou look-alikes around at the moment, on the ‘spoken word’ circuit. At worst it comes far too close to an identity- and self-obsessed Cosmospeak.

It’s a cliché, but nevertheless true, to say that poetry is the easiest genre to do badly, but the most difficult to do well. In the last decade in particular it’s been hugely undervalued – in some cases, in book fairs, it looks like it’s starting to be seen by organisers as a dollop of light relief between the more urgent tasks of selling genre fiction to make money. Have a look: the topics given poets to talk about in panel discussions are sometimes embarrassingly facile. 

What to you is the role of the poet in society, if any, and how do you think society views the role of the poet?

I think the wider South African society at present views poetry as a harmless oddity, only occasionally useful to launch brand names or praise the ‘big men’ – no reference to gender – trundling along our corridors of power. On the other hand, some people take a kind of defensive position, perceiving the poet as a special individual, a prophet and seer. Both of these are wrong, in my opinion.

I think poetry has a variety of roles. Let’s face it, one of these is to entertain. However, poems should also make us think, and, if necessary, make us uncomfortable. I believe readers should be goaded, prodded, and delighted – good poetry does all of these.

Do you think South African writers indulge in self-censorship?

Maybe, but I can’t think of immediate examples. However, I am convinced that there is a form of hidden censorship at the moment. A new hegemony has risen, I believe, taking its cue from the interventions of Ndebele and Sachs many years ago, to cast literature within a seemingly free, but ultimately defined, ambit in society, policed by publishers and reviewers – and it’s certainly far away from anything either Sachs or Ndebele would have wanted, I suspect. Who was the Zen master who said, “to give your cow a wide, open field is the best way to control it?” Everything’s so staid, so conventional, you want to run. In terms of fiction and poetry, I have had a number of young writers come to me and talk about publishers saying to them, off the record, “take out the politics and I’ll publish this.” Though, of course, no one is prepared to have the courage to say it publicly. There’s surely a neurosis about political themes among some publishers and academics, which can only be described as engendered by the fear of a future where the present social and political settlements could be disrupted.  It’s a pity: here, today, such a viewpoint can only serve the powerful and rich, and those who want the future South Africa to be a place where they can be lulled to sleep by literary entertainment in their suburbs. Fat chance!


Photo of Kelwyn Sole: Centre for Creative Arts