Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alan Finlay: Poetry as intervention

Alan Finlay lives in Johannesburg where he works as a writer, researcher and editor on issues of media freedoms and internet rights. His poems have appeared in various journals locally and abroad, and short selections of his poetry have been published by small presses. Over the years he has founded and edited a number of literary publications, including Bleksem and donga (with Paul Wessels). With Arja Salafranca he co-edited a collection of prose and poetry called glass jars among trees (Jacana, 2003). He was editor of New Coin poetry journal from 2003-2007. His latest collection of poems, pushing from the riverbank, is to be published by Dye Hard Press in October 2010.
DH:I see a willingness to take risks in your poetry, to experiment not just with form but with language itself. Notable examples are your chainpoems with Philip Zhuwao, The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain, and two poems – ‘wind& sea’ and ‘poem for béla bartók’ - in your forthcoming collection pushing from the riverbank, particularly stand out. There is a sense of play, but a playfulness that has a serious purpose.
AF:Well I wouldn’t want to make too much of it. I experiment to a point, and there are some interesting experiments going on by other poets: I’m thinking of Aryan Kaganof’s happenings with Zim Ngqawana; or Jaco en Z-dog for that matter – the best performance poetry I’ve seen in years. And then there’s Metelerkamp’s total immersion in the poem, Lesego’s [Rampolokeng] work in theatre, Khulile’s [Nxumalo] proems, etc. I think South African poets have experimented quite a bit in general, and you can see that if you look at some of those journals from the 60s and 70s – never mind the likes of Jensma. There is play in some of my poems – with perspective, with form, associations, sound – a lot of this is part of the unconscious articulation of the poem; the form of the poem emerges in the writing, as does the use of “i” versus “I”, which have different meanings. You cannot force a poem that wants to sway across the page to walk in a straight line. I read somewhere recently that children play seriously. This is an interesting idea – to write with that sense of a child's seriousness when it goes about new things. If I regret anything about the chainpoems with Zhuwao, it’s that I over-edited them, tried to make them say something they weren’t really saying. I would probably like to republish them one day with much more space in between the voices, much more disconnectedness, which would be a lot more experimental. ‘wind& sea’ and ‘béla bartók’ were both an attempt at breaking away from the confinement of the page. I was working with an A2 piece of paper, a bit like an artist, and trying to give myself permission to mark the page however I felt. So the spaces are louder and the lines became more associative – the final version of ‘béla bartók’ should probably be published on a much bigger page than the one in the book.

What poets have influenced you? And contemporary South African poets? Do you read a lot of fiction, and do those writers influence your writing?

The anthology of post-war Eastern and Central European poets called The poetry of survival had a formative effect on me in my 20s and my edition is in tatters from all the reading; so much so that I had to replace it. The poetry resonated with me. It is the historical context, which is immediately interesting, but then the way the poets entered that, with such clarity, and with a range of styles and perspectives that did not seem to be hobbled by a narrow view of what poetry should be. In some ways, looking at it now, the feel of the book reminds me of it all begins, the anthology Robert Berold put out after his work on New Coin in the 90s. And then you just have to read Slavenka Drakulić’s café europa to know in a journalistic kind of way how similar many of our experiences have been in the post-apartheid period, and with the fall of communism. They have produced some wonderful poets: Zbigniew Herbert, Holan, Różewicz, Amichai, Celan, Enzensberger... What was for me critical about the 90s was that I was picking up on the colours and sounds of contemporary South Africa through the poetry, particularly in New Coin, but also from some of the other publications that were emerging at the time; and then the readings, the recordings, the interactions with the poets, which was profound in that it cut right across class and race lines, and connected people with a common interest in poetry. All this was influencing how I was learning to write. It was a period of great imagination for the poets, and I think we probably heard this from each other. New Coin also gave me my first confrontation with the some of the Spanish poets – Hernandez, and others – in those excellent translations by Geoffrey Holiday. These two currents, the Spanish and the Eastern Europeans, seem to carry so much of what is important in 20th century poetry – seem to form the bedrock against which other poetry is heard. Even more so than the Americans. But who have I been reading recently: Nina Cassian, Ponge – the clever Soap from a Paris Review that also has an amazing interview with the later Kerouac (conducted by Berrigan). Alan Dugan, cropped, cynical, in a life giving way, in an originating way; in a way that takes out the trash. Then Dorfman's poems, for obvious reasons – devastating, important when it comes to speaking and voice in this country. What does he say: "But how can I tell their story/ if I was not there?" A lot of the really good writing I have found is in children's books. I am thinking of Jim Eldridge, and, of course, Dahl. But someone like Eldridge, who writes war books, has the most focused and clear voice as a children's author.

In South Africa we obviously hear and read the term ‘black poetry’ a lot. It is probably a legitimate label, since it points to a poetry that is concerned with common experience, a common past and issues of identity, although the approaches to the poetry itself can be very different. But if the term 'white poetry' is used, it sounds absurd. Is there such a thing as 'white poetry' in South Africa? Should we not be striving more and more to talk of an inclusive South African poetry?

This feels like a complex question – and maybe even loaded. I am wary of these sorts of terms when they are used politically to exclude, or short change; so they can be red herrings. On the one hand, you don’t want to deny an analysis of race and ideology, and how this emerges in poems. But I am not sure there is necessarily a coherent ‘white consciousness’ in poetry – it has been quite fragmented, diverse, in tension and argument with itself; ideologically, aesthetically, in a poet’s experience of marginalisation, and so on. How else do you make sense of, I don’t know, Butler, Beiles, Clouts, Cronin, Jensma, Livingstone all living in the same room? And that’s just a klomp white male poets writing in English – and doesn’t take into account what was happening in crazier, wilder spaces, like music. We are a lot more migrant, fragmented, displaced than we acknowledge. I suppose one needs to ask: what do these sorts of descriptions hide? What are they trying to repress? I am not saying that something of a conservative liberal ideology that runs through the poetry, its off-shoots, its shards and fragments that result in a certain kind of ‘taste’ or instruction to would-be poets, is not important to consider. I think it is, because it still seems to filter back into a lot of what goes on in the publishing world and in our media, in the ideas of what’s marketable and what isn’t, in prizes, with the guardians of ‘correct’ English and grammar, of so-called ‘good writing’. Many of them come across as moralists, more than anything else. And there are ingrown and ingrained expectations of neatness. I think we will have reached somewhere when reviews don’t praise a text for being “well written”, or poetry for its absence of “self pity”.

What about the so-called cultural gatekeepers – big publishers, academia, and – to a certain degree – the media. To what degree do they shape perceptions about what genres – and what subjects – there is ‘a demand for’?

This becomes more important if you’ve got nowhere else to go. Now we have the internet, more access to the means of production for small publishers etc. I tend to read outside of the mainstream – on the fringes of the ‘literary machine’, which invites a sociological reading more than anything else. I do pay attention, and I eventually find my way there, in one way or another. But this injunction that we should read read read everything that gets published makes reading too much of a commodity practice for me. Saying that, the circulatory fate is the political fate of the text, as Warner put it. What frightens me is how you can pick up an old journal of, say, American poetry, and there are some brilliant poems in there - yet the name of the poet is hardly recognisable. So where does good poetry go? There are serious dangers of forgetting. Small presses are critical in circumventing this all, and the archive – which is something that interests me more and more. Just look at what your publication on Belies has awakened – people around the world who knew him are now writing richly about what they know. And there is something new that has been added to the Beat archive – much more than just a footnote of Beiles as “basket case”.

You started up Bleksem in 1994, at a time when there was an eruption of small presses and journals in South Africa. Bleksem was sort of unique in its layout – cutting and pasting of manuscripts onto the page. Why did you use this approach?

Bleksem was really quite a little journal – as an idea it had much more potential to grow into something. I sometimes regret not pushing through with it. It reflected what came in my postbox, as editor. It was that and the process of publishing that was foregrounded. You couldn’t do it now – with e-mail, and PCs everywhere – although donga was an attempt to do a similar thing online. Its simplicity, and HTML coding had the hands-on feel of the early internet. Many of the poems sent to Bleksem were handwritten, or typed on manual typewriters, on different kinds of paper; some that reflected the social conditions of the writer. This created a geography of text, something very tangible, concrete. I relied on a photostating machine and a lightbox I took from my grandmother. I grew up amidst printers whirring, and dark rooms, and the red hands of my grandfather as he looked at the plates. Guillotines, and staplers, and envelopes and stamps. It was that that I was also responding to. I was re-appropriating, and upsetting the apple cart on a personal level. I was recreating, cutting and pasting that experience.

You were also editor of one of South Africa’s oldest poetry journals, New Coin, for a few years, and now – unlike in 1994, literary journals in South Africa are battling for their survival. Why do you think that is?

Look, I don’t know. Maybe these journals are more important at particular junctures in our history. The online space has something to do with it, definitely. Poets have more places to go than they did before. Desktop publishing, blogs, they have all made this possible. And this makes a difference to what an editor of a journal receives, how many poems he or she receives, the quality of those poems, and the desire of readers to subscribe, to engage. The internet also gives a sense of an immediate reader – no matter if this sense is problematic. It is funny how access to information implies the death of information. Maybe reinvention is necessary. One of most important online initiatives to emerge recently in South Africa is Hugh Hodge’s plan to put the New Contrast archive online – I don’t know if it’s come to fruition, but if it doesn’t it’s a sign of exactly what is at stake, and the problem. It is a critical idea.

In 2000 you launched what was arguably South Africa’s first online literary journal, donga. What was your motivation for that, and have your thoughts about online publishing now, 10 years later?

I'm not sure how you're defining 'online literary journal' here, but there were obviously others before donga. Even Bleksem had an issue up in 1995. As I say, the New Contrast initiative is important – and New Coin could do a similar thing – never mind putting up something like Quarry. So it’s at the level of archive that a lot could be done online – and this would really free our reading of South African poetry. Ingrid Andersen’s publication Incwadi looks interesting. And Liesl Jobson’s work on compiling Poetry International is getting there – but as an index to South African poetry I think it needs to be opened up much more. Then Chimurenga. Ntone has that rare ability to actually deliver on an idea: and he is very tuned into publishing as an intervention – as a commentary on the act of publishing itself. I’m thinking of those little publications of single essays they’ve put out recently – and what the magazine does. The chimurenga library was a very interesting as an idea – even though I saw none of the post-apartheid journals that were important to me there; Timbila, specifically, in terms of what they were doing, which I think has been such an important publication. But it does feel like a bit of a hiatus. The best journals have responded to something that is not entirely under the editor’s control.

pushing from the riverbank focuses on what you have called ‘the domestic space’…

Did I call it that? I am not sure I like that description. I suppose what it does focus on is the most immediate, intimate space; those who are in it. The ‘home’ is a critical confrontation for me. The echoes are the historical space, which are always there. Then my family, now, and whatever comes after that. We have who we have; and we are those things. We forget easily how things were growing up in the 70s and 80s - how brittle, and uncompromising our parents, our bloodless teachers were. At my primary school, the teachers banged the children’s heads against the wall, the woodwork teacher called us “shithouses”, as he walked around with his cane. I came home with a bandaged hand from fighting - like other kids, there were always the fights. There was no-one to talk to about this. How do the generations recover from that lack and loss of love, from that violence? When do you stop passing this stuff down, consciously, unconsciously? My poems try to intervene. In some ways the place I have selected to work is deliberate, and then necessary. It is a confrontation, a conversation, a ‘non-compliance’, as Winnicott said. Maybe I am trying to save, create, re-create something. Resist further absence. Which is pain, and emptiness. Utter abandonment. So that home, then, becomes a place of intimacy, and that intimacy, a necessary resistance. But there is also something quite objective in the process of speaking personally. The ‘I’ is located in terms of the other, the child, the mother, physically, psychologically, psychically, then beyond that the neighbour, whose wall is always there, in the wrong place, or the world of case studies and conferences, where the only way out seems to be into the physicality of things, the “slapping of wet cement”. A difficulty I have found with my poems is how to balance the personal, which I gravitate towards, with the need to publish. This is one of the reasons this book has taken so long to get out. But I think I am happy I can say what I have said in the end - even if there are cracks showing.