Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ingrid Andersen: The literary shift from print to pixel

Ingrid Andersen was born in Johannesburg, read for a degree in English literature and film and theatre criticism at the University of the Witwatersrand, and is currently completing her master's degree. Her work has been published in poetry journals for 16 years. Excision, her first volume of poetry, was published in 2004 and her second, Piece Work, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. She is the founding editor of Incwadi, a South African journal that explores the interaction between poetry and image. (Photo of the author: Liesl Jobson/BookSA)

DH: About a year or so ago you started up the online poetry journal Incwadi. What was your motivation for starting the journal, and why did you opt for online rather than print?
IA: Getting published is difficult for South African poets, especially for emergent poets. It seems a poet cannot get published without already being published – a Joseph Heller situation.

The realities of the market are that hard-copy journals are expensive to produce and they rely on subscriptions to survive, more so than sales from book stores. There are very few journals out there – most of the journals I grew up reading no longer exist.

For some years, I had been speaking to other poets about my wanting to bring out a journal. I wanted to provide another space where good poetry could be published. Two years ago, I began to speak to friends who were editors of poetry journals, to get an idea of what was involved. I made the financial decision to go online with a simple, quality website. I do the html coding myself, so it costs me two weekends a year, with no overheads other than the cost of bandwidth. The benefit of online is that I can use images as well, and allow them to interact with the poetry – which has fascinating results.

In South Africa we were rather slow to accept online as a legitimate publishing medium. South Africa’s relatively low internet penetration – about 7%-9% of the population – probably has a lot to do with that. Do you think there are other reasons?

It takes time for people to absorb and adapt to change. Think of thirty years ago, when writers struggled to adapt to the new technology and preferred typewriters, tippex and carbon paper to computers.

We’re living in a time where changing technology challenges us to stay relevant almost on a daily basis. Perhaps, yes, we have a lower level of computer internet penetration here in South Africa, but I’ve been speaking to people on the cutting edge of technology who tell me that more and more people now access the internet via their cellphones. South Africa has one of the highest per capita usage of cellphone technology in the world– how do we take this into account?

I know of one writer who is making good use of the medium by writing serialised stories for teenagers. My publisher, Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books, uses social networking very effectively.

I believe that online and digital formats are the future of publishing and will complement hard copy. I’ve just bought a Kindle and now purchase a number of my books in that format. I read my news online on News24 (to save trees) and I’ve made both my books available in digital format on Scribd via Book SA’s editor Ben Williams’ company Little White Bakkie.

Do you think that online publishing plays a role in negating the power of traditional cultural gatekeepers?

Without a doubt. The power the internet gives to the average individual is challenging all sorts of gatekeepers – for better or worse. People can now contribute to reporting by means of cellphone photographs/video and the secrets of politicians are now open for all to see through WikiLeaks; but at the same time, one can also read nauseating hate speak, prejudice and uninformed opinion on online fora and news page comment facilities. And, frankly, that open access is a double-edged sword.

As Kurt Vonnegut has said, “A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions” .

There are writers who say that online publishing or online reviews are not as valid as reviews in print. I would like to challenge that perception: the medium doesn’t affect the validity of the message. As with print, it is the credentials of the reviewer that count.

What is the editorial policy of Incwadi, if any?
Incwadi accepts work from all South African poets and photographers. Work that explores the interaction between word and image is particularly welcome.

If there is a policy, it is that I am resolutely egalitarian: work is accepted on its literary merits alone – with no agendas whatsoever and regardless of whether the poet/photographer is established or not.

You recently had a new poetry collection, Piece Work, published. Not only is it a bigger collection than your previous collection, Excision, but the voice seems stronger and more confident.

The poems in Excision were drawn from poems written over seventeen years. Some of them had been published in journals during that time. The first poem I published was in the last issue of Slug News, before the start of Carapace. It appeared alongside a poem by one G Cummiskey, interestingly. It is interesting to see the evolution of my literary voice in that collection. The progression is visible: over the years, my voice became more sparing, tighter - more succinct, with more focus on the visual.

Over the years, I have interacted with and worked with other poets, which is always helpful to hone and sharpen one’s work. The poems in Piece Work were written later, over a period of four years from 2005 to 2009.

Another difference between the poems in the two collections is, generally, a greater economy of words. Bashō and the Imagists are mentioned as influences.

My poetry has over time grown more visual, terse and lean: words have to work hard – to be functional, to carry power. For me, poetry has the potential to be a visual art form in which one can see through the image or the object to meaning.

Over the years, some of the poetry I have delighted in: Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” and Eliot’s “Preludes”, Sandburg’s “Fog”, just happened to be part of the brief flowering of the Imagist movement.

Recently, I re-read Pound and Hulme’s writings on Imagist Poetry, and felt that familiar jolt of recognition. Here was the muscular, hard-working, visual poetry I strove for – albeit in my own voice.

I had a childhood that was steeped in both music and the visual arts – music concerts/gigs of many kinds, family members and friends who were musicians, visits to art galleries, a house full of art and art books. In particular, I loved the impressionists, for their focus, their vision of the everyday.

For matric French, we had to undertake the painstaking translation into English of the French Romantic poets - Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and others. The sensual richness of the imagery stayed with me. I find Bashō’s work exquisite: minimalist, evocative, moving and thought-provoking. All of these influences have shaped who I am as a poet.

The final poem, or rather section, in the book is a sort of “found poem”. In fact it’s called “Found objects”. What was the genesis of the poem and how did it come together?
As I’ve said, I read my news online. Over the years, I have read stories of lonely people who died and who were not missed: whose bodies were found only years afterwards. It was both deeply sad and macabre - a tremendous indictment on the fragmentation of society. I started filing the stories, as they had huge resonance for me. I felt their story should be told.

I attended an exhibition of photographs of nature at the Grahamstown Festival in 2009, and encountered there EO Wilson’s environmental clarion call and his definition of the term Eremozoic as “the age of loneliness”.

All of a sudden everything fell into place – the stories I had set aside, which connected with similar stories in my own experience. I felt that the news pieces should operate as "found objects", as in the visual arts, with the additional dimension that the bodies, themselves, were also found objects. The poem almost wrote itself after that.

Do you regard yourself as a poet, or as a woman poet? Should this distinction exist? If so, is there a difference between black women poets and white women poets? Does South Africa’s history almost demand such distinctions? Do they serve any evaluative purpose?
I am an individual made up of many characteristics, and being a woman and having a particular skin colour are each only one of those characteristics – I am also South African who lived through the struggle; a community activist; a priest; a mother; a creative artist in different media; middle-class; a poet; a friend; an archer; someone who has experienced a challenging and complex life; someone whose grandmothers were a domestic servant and a taxi driver and whose great-grandmother was a communist; an adult educator; an academic; a lover of music – and I would hope that my poetry reflects that complexity.

I would think that women might not want to be put into some kind of ghetto, as if being a woman is a disability. The present government seems to indicate that mindset in its allocation of ministerial responsibilities.

Globally there has been a decline in people reading poetry. There might be a rise in people attending poetry events but when it comes to reading poetry, it’s a different matter. South Africa is in the same boat. People say they enjoy poetry, but they don’t seem to want to buy collections, to read the words. Also bookstores are becoming more and reluctant to stock poetry. Online publishing vehicles such as Incwadi obviously sidestep this problem. What are your thoughts on this?

It IS encouraging about the rise in attendance at poetry events in South Africa, the shift in the role of the poet as community performer – we are getting back to the oral tradition.

An article a week ago on seems to provide a counter-argument to the view that fewer people are reading poetry, fortunately. Jackie Kay suggests that there is an increase in the number of people buying and reading poetry – quoting Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society who says we are in a “renaissance”. Sales are up. Carol Ann Duffy comments in the article that “poetry is very confident now, and it does feel like it should be a guest at the table”. Perhaps poetry has new interest and meaning in the emergent reading generation?

There seems to be a shift in the trends in reading poetry in South Africa – perhaps the cost of books has limited the purchase of poetry books, perhaps it’s about two generations of people who have been deliberately denied an education, or maybe it’s about the shift to digital.

Certainly, the number of people accessing poetry online has increased. Just this week, Michelle McGrane mentioned that her poetry blog, Peony Moon, has reached 300 000 hits – quite an accomplishment.

I have watched the poetry shelf at my own branch of Exclusive Books in the Midlands, once very supportive of local poetry, dwindle to a handful of the canon of dead poets – a phenomenon to be seen at most of the branches countrywide. We are very thankful for the supportive independent book stores.

What is your view on South African literature as a whole, as well as South African publishing? Where do you see it going into the future?

South African literature has been moving for some time into the complexities and nuances of different genres as we have been finding our own voice as a post-apartheid nation.

I believe this is something to celebrate: the fact that South African literature now DOES have page-turners and is no longer the literary equivalent of castor oil: hard to take, but good for you.

We’re not, however, always quick to adapt to these changes. On Friday 4th February, Albie Sachs is quoted in the press, praising Margie Orford's Daddy's Girl and saying how amazed he was to find that a novel set in Cape Town could be a page-turner.

We now have an international award-winning science fiction novel, new novels licensed for publication overseas, first-rate krimis and best selling chick- and lad-lit, not to mention a comedy novel now made into an international movie. None of them about apartheid.

As I asked in a recent LitNet think piece, why are our books either absent from our own bookstores or mostly relegated to a South African ghetto at the back of the shop as if they were not quite good enough? Where is the chance for South African authors to be shelved alongside their international equivalents by genre? When will a book be able to be chosen on its own merits, only to be discovered to be local?

The question we need to be asking ourselves as readers, writers and publishers is whether this matters to us? We seem to be, judging by reports in our literary media, in a local literary boom. What are we doing about challenging the status quo in the marketing of South African work and finding opportunities for shifts in public perception about our writing?

It’s a matter of choice. It’s a matter of will.

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