Friday, May 13, 2011

Kobus Moolman: Defending the value of poetry

Kobus Moolman has published several collections of poetry, including Time Like Stone, Feet of the Sky, 5 Poetry (with others), Separating the Seas, and most recently, Light and After (Deep South). He has also published two volumes of drama: Blind Voices and Full Circle. He has been awarded the Ingrid Jonker prize for poetry, the PANSA award and the DALRO poetry prize. He lives in Pietermaritzburg and teaches creative writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

DH: Your first book of poems, Time like Stone, was published in 2000 and your latest, Light and After, in 2010. Over the ten years, how do you view your poetry as having progressed?

KM: Phew! Has it progressed? Has it maybe just changed? Has it maybe even stayed the same? The same concerns. The same small patch of earth I’ve walked round and round. The same dry bone I’ve come back to gnaw.

One thing I do think has happened is that I have learnt ‒ am learning ‒ to trust more. To be less obsessed with wanting to know what my poems are about, what they mean, as I write them, to want to know what I am writing about as I write, and just to write. To write and let the words speak. To efface myself. To trust that the words ‒ words, language ‒ have their own in-built system of purpose and beauty and strength. And that the more I allow this natural element within language to speak, rather than trying to force the words to say something deliberately, the stronger will the eventual product be. It is almost like writing with my eyes closed. Like walking with my eyes closed. And only knowing what I wanted to say once I had said it.

Yes, of all the things that might have changed in these ten years, this is it. The overwhelming sense that I don’t know what the hell I am doing. But that it doesn’t matter. That doubt is more important than certainty. That the spaces and the emptiness and the holes in a poem are just as important as the solid and tangible things.

Many of your poems seem to becoming shorter, tighter, and more economical with words – in fact some are like word snapshots, a bit like the short poems of William Carlos Williams. Has he been an influence on your work? What poets have influenced you?

William Carlos Williams has not been such an influence upon me. I have read his work, but only in snatches. This economical style you speak about is probably more the influence of writers like Paul Celan. And Anne Carson, who, although she writes long poems, is always absolutely precise. There is nothing that is not absolutely essential in her lines. Everything counts.

Celan’s apparent obscureness (his difficulty) fascinates me. I come back again and again to his work and always find new experiences. Not new meanings. I don’t know what his poems mean. But there are new worlds of experience, new sensations.

And then there are a whole host of other poets whose work and whose lives have fed and enriched my practice. Locally Karen Press, Tatamkhulu Afrika, Don Maclennan, Joan Metelerkamp and Rob Berold have been huge influences. And internationally it’s Lorca and Nelly Sachs, Ingeborg Bachman, Johannes Bobrowski and Yannis Ritsos, Yehuda Amichai, and Erin Moure, Nicole Brossard and Alberto Rios and Miguel Hernandez. The list goes on. The list changes, and gets updated and revisited.

You live in KwaZulu-Natal, whereas a lot of literary publishing tends to be located more in Johannesburg or Cape Town. There used to be a sort of cultural tension between Johannesburg and Cape Town, which I think has now diminished considerably. Do you think there is still some regionalism in South African writing and publishing? Is regionalism a negative thing, or can it be positive?

Yes, I think there is a kind of regionalism. At least a sense that JHB and Cape Town are where things are happening and that the other centres don’t really exist. Or don’t matter. Or don’t get as much serious attention. But there are also equally other centres of poetic power – like Grahamstown, and Elim (around someone like Vonani Bila). Even Durban – the Durban of Douglas Livingstone and Fernando Pessoa. It is an odd thing, this conglomeration of writers in particular places. And then the sense of egoism and even hubris that builds up there. And it is very, very hard to decide whether one should be part of those centres, be there, sharing, participating. Or not. Whether one can in fact, perhaps not necessarily write, but be published and be recognised and accepted outside those centres. I don’t know the answer. Sometimes I do feel on the periphery. And sometimes not. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. And sometimes the very notion of a centre and a periphery is meaningless. It disappears, and there is just writers. Universal writing.

For 12 years you published a print literary journal, Fidelities, twice a year. How did it start up? Print literary journals now are becoming scarce in South Africa, hardly anyone seems to want to buy them.

The first issue appeared in 1994. It really began like most good things after way too much to drink. A close friend Richard Walne, who sadly died a few years ago, and I were involved in planning an arts festival in Maritzburg. And one night we were sitting around drinking whiskey and he suggested we put together a journal of local poetry for the festival. Well, this was the first edition of Fidelities. We did it together for two years and then Richard moved town, and I just carried on with it. It slowly grew to being more than just local writers, firstly just around KZN, and then nationally. It was really good fun in its heyday. I enjoyed finding all these strange unheard of writers. I enjoyed providing a platform for their work. But eventually a whole lot of negative factors began to tip the scale. I had originally got support from the National Arts Council, and then when this faded I managed to get support from the local city council. And that worked very well for a while. But eventually that too stopped. There were hardly any subscriptions. Some sales, but not enough to support the production costs. So I was eventually funding it myself. And then the time required for the magazine also eventually began to tell. And it ceased being fun. It was like some kind of obligation. And so I eventually let it go. That was in about 2007, I think. Now and then I do miss it. I miss the little community of writers, of likeminded people that congregate around a magazine – Green Dragon has them, New Contrast too. And there is some kind of feeling of closeness, a certain solidarity among them. I like this.

The issue of print publishing  leads onto the issue of online publishing and e-publishing. What is your opinion on this?

I don’t really have an opinion. I don’t unfortunately use online publishing that much – or read material online. I’ve never read a book online. It’s not snobbishness, nor even some kind of Luddite prejudice. I just haven’t got into it. I still like the smell of a book. But I don’t have a problem with online publishing and e-publishing. It’s another resource for people. And that’s fine. It’s just not one that I am comfortable with – from a practical point of view. I don’t know if this question of yours is also meant to probe the future of the book, and of bookshops. And here I would have strong feelings. It is clear that we cannot go back to some kind of mentality pre the Kindle etc. That is reactionary. But like newspapers, and all other print media, books and bookshops are going to have to find some kind of strategy of survival, some niche that they occupy alone, and that they can aggressively sell. I grew up in bookshops. My greatest pleasure in life is to sit on the floor in a bookshop, behind a high shelf, and to make a pile beside me of options: this or that, this or that.

You teach creative writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. What sort of contribution does teaching creative writing at tertiary level make to South African literature?

I don’t know that our job as teachers of writing is necessarily to turn out writers. This might sound odd. I think writing courses – and specially accredited ones that give the student a degree – can give people false hopes; can give them a whole lot of expectations that simply will never be met out there in the big real world. Quite simply not everyone who attends a writing class is a writer. Just as not everyone who studies history is going to be an historian. People study history, and writing, for a whole lot of other reasons than simply wanting to be an historian. Or wanting to be a writer. And this is right. This is good. There are a whole lot of other skills and forms of knowledge that are acquired in the process, apart from a very narrow focus on the demonstration of the ability to be a writer or historian or mathematician, etc. We learn what goes in to making a poem or a novel. We learn what is takes to be able to make a poem. We understand the process. And this is vital in making us better readers; more able to appreciate what other writers have done. So I think this is what writing courses, degrees in writing, can contribute. Apart from just churning out a whole lot of writers – which is unrealistic.

You did some creative writing workshops in prisons back in the late 1990s. What was that like?

Teaching in prisons has taught me a lot about our prejudices towards people, the way we stereotype ‘the criminal’. In most case what really shocked me about standing in front of a class of inmates was actually that there was very little distinction between myself and them. Between them and the warders. In many cases (of course not all) it is often just wrong decisions. And we all make wrong decisions.

And then also teaching in a prison – particularly teaching writing – has really brought home to me the fact that literature is not an elitist activity. That it has got nothing to do with intelligence or cultural sophistication. I have read Wopko Jensma to men and women inside, and they got it! They have understood what Jensma was saying much better than many third- year English students ever have. The inmates felt what Jensma was saying. Many of the inmates were enormously receptive to studying and then writing poetry, precisely because they understood the value of poetry. They understood what poetry could do for them sitting inside. It was and is a vehicle for understanding themselves, for understanding and expressing who they were.

An issue that has been cropping up lately is the question of whether South African readers – and writers – are losing their sense of critical evaluation, for a number of reasons. While I think it is excellent that South Africans are reading and responding positively to local literature, there is a danger than assessment turns into a sort of cheerleading session.

Yes, I think there is something of this ‘cheerleading’ which has descended upon writing here and now. And what alarms me about this is the parochialism and, on the other side, the mediocrity, that is cultivated. Instead of looking inward – at the South African market – we should be looking outward – at the global market. How do our writers compare and compete there? That is for me more interesting that how we compare with each other. And then I also feel writers must be prepared to take greater risks with their forms, their content, with themselves than many South African writers do. We must be prepared to be even slightly ahead of what the reader out there is wanting or expecting. Of course, this is very tricky. We all want our books to sell. And if they do not sell then it is unlikely we will be published again. A vicious cycle! But as writers we must challenge both ourselves and our readers. We must challenge what writing is today, what its conventions are. This is the way that we will stay relevant and new. That we will be able to keep our society on its toes ‒not by placating each other.

To get back to your writing: you have published two volumes of drama – Full Circle and Blind Voices. What has been your experience in writing drama and having your plays performed?

I love writing drama. But I do not like writing for the theatre. I love the sound and the taste of real words in real people’s mouths. But I do not know how to get the plays out there and performed. The latter is so fraught with costs and stuff. I find it very hard to get my plays performed, so much so that I am now just focusing on writing plays that don’t need to be performed. That can simply be read. Is it still a play? I don’t know. I don’t care. I call it a play. And that’s what matters. Writing is for me important. Writing is for me the real and main challenge. I am not good at negotiating with people and doing the whole production thing. Raising the funds etc. I just want to write the thing and then give it over to someone else to do all the rest of the production stuff, and then just let me know when the opening night is. But in most cases, at least in South Africa now, it does not happen like that. We have to write and produce our own work. And I don’t honestly have the psychic energy to do that anymore.

What would you regard as the main challenges facing South African poets now?

Firstly, finding publishers. Publishers who will take on the challenge of solo or even group collections. The magazines are doing a fantastic job. And they themselves are struggling. Battling for subscribers. But they are out there. And they are brave. But the publishers themselves are afraid of poetry. Clearly, as they argue, because it doesn’t sell. And it doesn’t sell – at least not in this country – because nobody reads it. And nobody reads it because they don’t see the significance of it; they don’t value it. It is just fluff, decoration. But after publishers, what we desperately need in this country are people who can distribute and market poetry. This is so critical. It is a real skill. And it is also the main reason that as poets our work isn’t really read. Because people don’t know about it. And they don’t know about it because nobody is going around to the bookshops to promote poetry titles. It is not up to the poets to do this. All of us have done this. But we are not cut out for this. This is not our job. We can barely keep body and soul together enough to write, never mind having to schlep around to bookstores to sell our work. I will gladly pay someone to do this. But there are very few such people in South Africa. Again, the publishers should do this. But my experience – certainly of those who publish poetry – is that despite their sterling efforts they do not have the time or the resources. And so once again poetry falls by the wayside. We can’t really blame the public for not reading poetry, or bookshops for not stocking poetry (there are many out there who do want to), when in actual fact the problem is the marketing and the distribution of poetry books.