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

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dawn Garisch: observing the patterns

Dawn Garisch lives in Cape Town and has had five novels and a collection of poetry published. Three of her novels have been published in the UK. In 2010 her novel Trespass was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize in Africa, and in 2011 her poem Miracle, from her debut collection Difficult Gifts (Modjaji Books) won the EU Sol Plaatjie Poetry Award. A nonfiction work, Eloquent Body, will be published by Modjaji in March. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as New Coin, New Contrast, Carapace and Green Dragon. She runs workshops on writing and creative method, and is a practising medical doctor.

DH: How did you come to writing? Has your profession as a medical doctor influenced on your writing at all?

DG:I have always had an affinity for books and writing – I demanded to be taught to read at a very early age and wrote my first poem at seven. Left to my own devices, I might have become a librarian, but life had other plans for me. My family decided I would do medicine, and I fell in with their ideas. The split I have felt between my calling as a writer, my training as a scientist and my interest in psychology has provided a tension in my life which I have attempted to resolve on the page in my forthcoming nonfiction book Eloquent Body.

A doctor is in a privileged position of having access to intimate details of people’s lives. This has deepened my understanding of human frailties and strengths. In the consulting room I have also been able to observe the patterns we set up for ourselves, and how we often do not act in our own best interests.

Medicine has enabled me to work part-time, and to keep the space open to write.

You are known mainly as a fiction writer. How do you see the relationship between fiction and your poetry, particularly with regards to your approach to the two genres? I am thinking of how Lawrence Durrell said something to the effect that novels are like lorries, but poetry is like an arrow.

I like that! I experience poetry as an instant download, which I then have to work out further on the page, whereas a novel is like finding the end of a thread and following it on down. Both forms ultimately contain the pleasure and the difficulty of trying to solve a problem that lives simultaneously inside myself, out in the world, and on the page; each offering I bring into being is a part-answer to the puzzle of who I am and what the world is about.

What writers have influenced you – fiction as well as poetry?

So many: Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood’s poetry, Joan Metelerkamp, Salman Rushdie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Sharon Olds, Tristan Tzara, Marion Milner, Ivan Vladislavic, Mxolisi Nyezwa - to name a few who changed the way I thought about writing. Who opened doors in my head and my heart. Who gave me permission to experiment.

In your poetry collection Difficult Gifts, there are recurrent images of searching, of journey, of opening and discovery, as well as intimacy.

I write out of disturbances that arrive in my body. Sometimes the disturbance is unbearably beautiful, or it arrives out of enormous difficulty. Writers who have affected or influenced me have written as honestly as possible from an intimate space; they have helped me respect my body as an antenna or radar, and offered a chink through which I could view what is happening beneath consensus or veneer.

If I take a step back and try to see what I have been doing on the page when writing poetry over the years, primarily it has been a medium through which I try to find out what I am feeling and thinking – a discharge of tension which sometimes speaks to other people, and then finds its way into print. I think that underneath many of my poems is a conversation I constantly have with the creative process itself – The Edge, Great Fish, The Proper Use Of Flowers, Making Fire, Difficult Gifts these and others are about what they purport to be, but also about the urge and search for connection with the creative force itself. I see desire, sex, libido, love and creativity on the same continuum – the trajectory that must look elsewhere for completion, the driving spirit behind life itself.

Your poem Miracle, from the collection, won the 2011 EU Sol Plaatje Poetry Award. What is your feeling about literary awards in SA? Do we have enough or too many? Should we have more genre-specific awards?

I feel split about poetry awards. On the one hand it was wonderful to have that acknowledgement, and I am immensely grateful to the European Union for their vision of encouraging diversity of cultural expression by supporting the least valued and possibly most ubiquitous art form: poetry. On the other hand, it did feel uncomfortable to be awarded ‘best poem’. Best collection of poetry is more understandable, and easier to judge, I imagine.

Awards do create a bit of a stir, and they hopefully encourage people to support local writers. We have much more talent in South Africa than people realise. My first drafts of Eloquent Body contained quite a number of quotes and extracts of poems from writers abroad. When we applied for permission, many publishers wanted prohibitive royalties. So I again turned to local poets, and spent weeks reading, trying to find suitable replacements that complemented the text. Although I do regularly read local work, I was astonished by how much truly stunning poetry had escaped my attention. And the local poets were only too willing to let me quote their work in the spirit of collegiality.

What are your thoughts about publishing in SA? A few years ago, when the Kindle first came out, there was a feeling that e-readers would not take off in SA. Now sales are rising...

If e-publishing allows writers to flourish, that is great. Personally, I still like the feel and smell of a real book, and to have tangible old friends sitting on a shelf near me in my study. And as someone pointed out, you cannot lend out a downloaded Kindle book. It is attached to the gizmo. Another said, when all books are virtual, how will we decorate our walls?

Publishing in SA took off after 1994, but now in the recession, I have the impression that it is slowing down again. Both impetuses are perhaps a good thing – initially broadening what South Africans write about and what kind of work was published, and now tightening up, making authors work harder to improve what they are doing.

What do you feel are the main challenges facing writers in SA?

There is much interesting writing coming out of SA; the question is how to get noticed in the great overwhelming sea of mega-publishing. I have the notion that most readers do not hone in on literature or any other art form as a way of finding out what artists are reporting back on. Readers buy newspapers regularly to see what journalists are saying about the day-to-day state of the world; they need to understand that artists are reporting back on the Zeitgeist the themes and spirit of our times. If readers took art in all its forms as seriously as they take the newspapers, they would, to my mind, be better informed. In addition, our writers and artists would attain the recognition they deserve.

What about you busy writing at the moment?   

I am putting the final touches to Eloquent Body, and catching the odd poem when it falls. I have started two novels, both of which intrigue me. One is a reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the biological age, and the other is an exploration of love in all its guises. In both, I am eager to find out what is going to happen next. One of them will have to wait for a year or so in the bottom drawer...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Mxolisi Nyezwa: A new dawn for poetry

Mxolisi Nyezwa was born in 1967 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, where he still lives. He is the author of song trials (Gecko, 2000), New Country (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008) and Malikhanye (Deep South, 2011). His work appeared in the bumper poetry anthology Essential Things (Cosaw, 1992) and has been published in numerous literary journals. He is included in the selection of South African writing, Beauty Came Grovelling Forward, on the US-based literary website Big Bridge. He is the founding editor of Kotaz, a cultural journal.

DH: You were published in the Cosaw anthology Essential Things, in 1992. The sections allocated to each poet were quite big, actually small collections in themselves. You had thirteen poems under the title ‘To Have No Art’. What was your position as a poet back then?

MN: The 80s and 90s were confusing times for many young people in the townships. I had just completed my matric in New Brighton during the most painful and dangerous of times. My school education had proven to me to have been a complete waste of time. The useless piece of paper from the Department of Education and Training, my certificate, stayed for years in one of the old sideboards at home to mock me for my gullible dreams of material or vocational success. In my case the apartheid dream of educating blacks for subservience succeeded. Like a hunted animal I was cornered, gravely concerned about my future, unprepared for the emotional and psychological violence – the steep darkness that was to engulf my life later on – outside the familiar and troubled neighbourhood of New Brighton. So when I wrote my first poems I was creating for myself some distance from this encroaching and awful world of manhood. I was looking for light where I sensed darkness lived, listening for the comforting sounds of words and unaffected spirits. In the 70s Serote had written No baby must weep. He had focused us to see love away from pain and struggle and demonstratively spoke of the maternal instinct in his heroic poem Behold mama, flowers. Under those harsh circumstances of my growing up, poetry became the only accessible language that could talk profoundly and in a way I could relate to about my need for complete meaning, my thirst for direction amid the noisy messages that had been drummed into my ears during my school years. From early on I could not shake off the disturbing feeling that I was in somebody’s crooked plans, that I was fingered, or even that people from somewhere with long, nightmarish dreams were looking for me. I was paranoid. Once, I took all my poems and buried them into a deep hole in our backyard. Amid all these conflicting emotions I arrived at the doors of Cosaw in Korsten, maybe a few weeks or just days before Cosaw closed down. So I was never really part or even that exposed to Cosaw’s culture and activities.  I had submitted my first poetry manuscript to Ravan Press in Joburg. In fact it was from a letter from Ravan Press (Andries Oliphant was their editor) that I first learnt about Cosaw’s existence, and of the plan about Essential Things.

Your first collection, song trials, appeared in 2000 by Gecko. What struck me at the time was the strong sense of bleakness in the poems: there are references to night, darkness, rain, birds, thunder. There seems an atmosphere of desolation and isolation. Already, in the title poem of your Essential Things selection, you had stated ‘I hate the sunshine.’

On their own these references to night, darkness and so on are not exceptional, not in any poetry. It is the context around the imagery that gives the work this other feature of desolation and bleakness.I think therein lies sometimes the value of poetry, because these references are about lived experiences. Experiences that others are being exposed to that none of us may be aware of.

I like to think of my poetry as reflecting the dismal nature of politics and individual existence in the modern society, a reflection on greed and how capitalism and the financial system have devastated people’s lives and cultures without shame. Poetry that identifies this kind of aggression, which is really driven by financial interests as the basis for corruption against human beings, must necessarily be bleak. The poetry must in turn invoke its unique form, impact the usual language extraordinarily, enmeshing flowers, human lives and global manifestations. In so many ways poets are writing to change the world.

In New Country there are indications of a willingness to experiment with form – I am thinking of the long poem 'Sky', which ends with the word ‘rain’ being repeated 88 times, like concrete poetry. There is also the prose piece ‘it is good’, which is a one-paragraph rush without punctuation.

It’s difficult to explain why some poems have to appear in the world the way they do. The challenge for the writer is to stay close to what comes, the primeval music and sound of the poem, its primary bend towards its own unique shape and form, and its own language. Obviously there are always risks involved in this process of transcribing the original voice of creation or composing each new poem. The risks confront all poets. For a poem like ‘Sky’ it was important for me to be expansive in my use of imagery and still maintain movement through the poem. That is what the poem seemed to be saying to me. The poem was taking me everywhere. Its music tugged closely at my arm and pulled me towards desolation and to lonely places, to directions and oppressed geniuses, to bewildered and unfriendly people working under the midday sun. The poem pointed at the whole universe. I saw all manner of things, many lives, some begging to be heard; others that were forgotten and shameless.  I think the last stanza with the long repetition of the image of falling rain tries to celebrate these multiple existences.

What have your poetic influences been? When we were at Poetry Africa together, we chatted quite a bit about the modern Spanish-languages poets, such as Neruda, Lorca and Alberti.  But you were particularly keen on Vallejo. 
I like Neruda for his over-exuberant passion, his huge love for life, his strong desire to reach and name all things. Vallejo’s love walks boldly to us through another door, one we never expected. His devotion to humankind is more fundamental, much more intense, even psychotic. Lorca taught me at a young age the use of imagery. His poem Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias revolutionised my thinking about poetry and its application in human affairs. I’ve always been attracted to writers and poets who wrote as if the entire meaning of their lives dependent on it, on their calling as poets or as writers. I regard Eskia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue as one of the most important books to have been written about South Africa and its people.     

Your new collection, Malikhanye, is centred around the loss of your infant son in 2007. There is obviously an expression of loss in the poems, of being ‘haunted by the life we never had’. There is also a directness I do not see in the earlier poems.

I have a feeling that the more direct my poems become, the greater are the chances that they will lose their power. I must avoid ‘directness’ at all costs as the approach goes against my understanding of how life manifests ordinarily. Life works the same way as death works, applying its innuendos and subtlety. I think the obvious misleads, gives the wrong answers. What becomes crucial is finding new paths, discovering for ourselves new rhythms, new nuances. That becomes important. For a fuller representation of loss in Malikhanye I had the sudden revelation that life complicates and yet simplifies. That even as we begin to think we understand, everything around us explodes or diminishes – all understanding, every organic leaf, every rock, like rain patterns against the sea. Malikhanye was driven by the intense feeling of loss. Everything was out in the open. A mad nanny had left the boy alone to die. There was nothing philosophical about that. The truth was out in the open.

You have lived in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth all your life. How has New Brighton informed your poetry, apart from the obvious coastal imagery? Have you never felt attracted to moving to one of the cities?

I don’t think I have the means to move to any other place, well, maybe, because I have now a wife there can be possibilities. Because I am now learning with a wife that one must be communal in thought and not only think for oneself. You’re now with somebody else, and you’re partners in marriage. This always comes as a surprise. But really I wouldn’t like to move to anywhere else. New Brighton is my home. Poetry found me in this place. I feel very close to my ancestral spirits here. Even when we depart I will always come back here.

In South Africa we are struggling to sell poetry. Few bookstores are interested and poetry is rarely reviewed. Yet some events, such as the recent Melville Poetry Festival, have been very successful, and brought audiences who not only listened attentively to the poetry, but also bought books. Do you think events at which to promote and sell poetry have become more crucial than ever?

Yes, certainly. In fact, in March, with a group of local writers in New Brighton, I’m putting together the Nelson Mandela Bay Book Fair, a small-scale books and exhibitions event to focus our community in Port Elizabeth and around the Eastern Cape on buying and reading books. It is true that bookstores are not interested. I think they have their own issues to deal with, surviving and making a profit. There are just too many factors involved. There are problems in education in our schools, the huge inroads that technology and computers have made into people’s lives, the shortening and narrowing of time and the massive pressure this puts on individual lives, and so on. All of this ultimately marginalises reading and books to a secluded area reserved only for devotees and higher culture. Reading books has been turned into an elitist activity.

For how many years has your cultural journal Kotaz been running?

Kotaz began in 1997 as a quarterly publication, so the magazine has been around for about 14 years. I don’t think I ever saw the publication as a business. I didn’t do a public survey about the need for the magazine, no research about other publishers, had absolutely no idea about distribution and was deeply ignorant about production and other costs. In 1997 I didn't know about funders, I wasn't aware of their addresses and their ethics – that South African funders often behave like a spoiled mistress, that they have extraordinary moods and must be managed or sometimes come at a price. I prowled like an injured animal the UPE University computer labs in Summerstrand for a computer monitor. I invaded higher education, hanging around the corridors waiting for the right time to enter the labs disguised as one of their students to gain access, and use a computer. All this time I had my bag with me filled with manuscripts, poems and texts scribbled on notebooks and on torn paper by writers from the township (some I knew, the majority I didn’t know) to type and save on a floppy disc. These were the humble beginnings of Kotaz. Funding, in dribs and drabs, only came in much later. A few years later I realised I could not sustain my hustling activities at the universities. Saving poetry this way was draining me. My cover was blown when some English Department people at Vista University recognised me from somewhere, and enquired if I was now a student, which I wasn’t.  

The next issue of Kotaz will come out in mid-February, this year. I stopped long time ago pretending that Kotaz is a quarterly publication because I found that the financial challenge of publishing the magazine four times a year was just too much.

What is your experience of obtaining funding for publications in South Africa? Do you find it easy or difficult?

It is a tragic consequence of our new democracy that even poetry has managed to attract the wrong crowds. I suspect that most followers come to poetry for the wrong reasons, to make money, to start a publishing business, to workshop writers, to boost their stardom as celebrities or divas, to get into radio and TV and have their own shows, and so on. Now all this is really harmful to South African literature and is killing our poetry. Even government funding for the arts becomes clouded by all kinds of trends and interests, mostly pretentious and insincere. I think most serious poetry journals and magazines, Kotaz included, are really struggling to get any funding. There are so many hypocrites walking around pretending to stand for poetry and getting large chunks of state funds for it. Again there’s the other problem of the government not taking the arts seriously. I’ve often heard that money earmarked for funding the arts often gets diverted to other departments. 2012 should be another dry year for poetry with the centenary celebrations of the ANC taking place.

To your mind, what are poets in South Africa doing at the moment? 
I think poets are using language to unravel the political myth, to say it was not by promises that we found a thriving democracy. Their language seeks to remind of sacrifices that were made by so many in order that freedom and justice for all could be realised. At the same time poets are speaking against those who constantly yearn for the past, black night that was besieged by black night. I think these are matters that must come out strongly if we think of a new dawn for poetry, a new chapter for South African literature and culture. 

Malikhanye is available from bookstores at a retail price of R95, or direct from Deep South's distributors, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.