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.