Friday, January 18, 2013

Haidee Kruger: Shaking language out of the furrows of habit

Haidee Kruger is associate professor in the School of Languages at the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University in South Africa. She holds a PhD in translation studies, and is primarily involved in research in descriptive and theoretical translation studies. Her poetry and short stories have been published in, among others, The Common,  New Contrast, New Coin and Green Dragon. Her work also appeared in Beauty Came Grovelling Forward, a selection of South African poetry and prose published on Big Bridge. Her debut collection of poetry, lush: poems for four voices, was published in 2007 by Protea Book House. lush was praised in the judges’ statement for the 2006/2007 Ingrid Jonker Prize as an "innovative volume of poems" that was "a close contender for the prize". The reckless sleeper (Modjaji Books, 2012) is her second collection.

Kruger lives in Vereeniging, with her husband and three children. She has a blog called Messy Things With Words.

DH: This may sound like a very basic question, but why do you write poetry as opposed to other forms? Why poetry?

HK: I wish I could write fiction, simply because so much of my reading life (as a child and an adult) has been shaped by fiction, and I have a very vivid sense of the way a story can open a door straight into another world. The best stories have gaps into which you can insert yourself and live there for a while. And when you come back from the story, you’re altered by it – in subtle ways it changes your relationship with the world in which you actually exist. It’s something I would like to be able to do. I’ve tried short prose forms – but I am hesitant to call them “stories”, because I’ve come to the realisation that my writing impulse is not driven by narrative, at all; my writing impulse is lyrical, in the sense of attempting to pin something very particular down in language. 

Also, for me, the textures, the endless possibilities of language, are a driving force in writing, and I think poetry, by its nature, is the form that allows exploration of this most fully. Language is always two things at once: a social thing which we use to communicate in the world, to convey ideas, to convince people of things, to get what we want; and a personal thing, which sits in our heads and is odd and peculiar and very individual. For language to be a useful social tool, we usually have to make it run in routinised ways, and get rid of some of the more confusing idiosyncracies, so we have consensus about what things mean and the world can keep on working. What poetry allows one to do is to shake language out of the furrows of habit, to see what new meanings emerge if you do unusual things with it. So poetic language is a way of pinioning down some aspect of the singularity of an experience, for yourself and for other people. It is the way that I continue to think about (good) poetry: holding a fascinating, unusual, intriguing language-object in your hands, turning it over, and then having it explode in your face with all kinds of unexpected meanings.

In your first collection, lush, the poems are experimental in form, but the overall structure of the book seems almost retro, with the poems divided into four sections representing four voices, with an opening and closing chorus. It gives the feeling almost of two approaches to poetry operating simultaneously, as in a relationship. Was this intentional? 

I don’t think creating this tension between the freer, quite experimental poems and the almost traditional structure happened intentionally – it’s maybe more of a collateral effect of something else I was trying to achieve. Looking at it now, I think the self-conscious structure, the creation of “voices” for the sections of the book was a way of building in a greater sense of “distance” into the book, as a counterweight to the often very personal poems. It was also an attempt at introducing order as a balance for the experimentalism in the poems themselves, to keep the collection balanced on a tightrope between freedom and constraint, between the very personal inside views of the poems and something more objectively interpreted from the outside. The voices, in this sense, impose a sort of thematic structure on the book, with each of the patron saints representing something of thematic importance in the book. So it is probably an attempt to keep the collection as a whole from flying apart into pieces. 

But maybe there IS something of these two broader approaches to poetry in the tension between the experimental poems and the more conventional structure. I’ve always been fascinated by how form shapes meaning – how restructuring the same experience into a sonnet or into free verse reframes the experience itself. Maybe some of that is in lush – how the macrostructure alters the interpretation of the poems as micro-entities.

Some of your poems remind me of e.e. cummings. What poets have influenced you? 

You’re right about cummings, who I never grow tired of. cummings understood best the idea of making language do new things, sometimes difficult things (for the reader), to chisel away at the accretions of habit in language, and shock the reader into a fresh perception of something. So its not experimentalism for its own sake, but experimentalism in language for the sake of experience. 

The question of influence is a difficult one. I think a lot of my influences are unconscious. William Gibson talks about cultivating a kind of personal “micro-culture”, and I think as a child mine was particularly rich in its indiscriminateness, made up pretty much of whatever I could get my hands on. The pleasure of words; the realisation that you can make language do things to make people feel things I think is something that comes from there. 

More specific influences: I think Eliot is the first poet I read who made me understand that poetry doesn’t offer emotion straight up on a platter – that the emotion is best when it is a hard, careful, pebbly thing that surprises you inside the language. But then I also for a long time loved Ginsberg, who is all about offering emotion up in big straight unashamed helpings. I have been consistently drawn to the poetry of Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton. I am fascinated by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets – Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Ted Greenwald, Robert Grenier. Their emphasis on repossessing the word as word, of experimenting with ways of making meaning that don’t take for granted any of the things we take for granted about language – syntax, sound, pattern, meaning, is something I am drawn to. I recently discovered the work of Marianne Boruch; the way in which she manages to combine a sort of effortless simplicity with the unexpected is something I find creeping into my own more recent work. 

In terms of South African poetry it is perhaps not unsurprisingly the poets who (sometimes) work along more experimental lines who appeal to me most – Kelwyn Sole, Kobus Moolman, Alan Finlay, Genna Gardini, Lesego Rampolokeng, Joan Metelerkamp come to mind immediately. But I also admire poets who perhaps work in a less experimental idiom but manage to distil something very pure from language – I think particularly of Gabeba Baderoon and Rustum Kozain.

You have, like many of us, quite a hectic lifestyle  – teaching at university, being a wife and a mother to three children. How do you find time to write? What are your writing habits?

I have lately had a voyeuristic obsession with writers’ writing habits and workspaces. I am particularly taken with the idea of a writing life – a daily routine structured around writing. But I’m not at the point where I can give up my day job and structure my life around writing; I probably never will be. I wish I could say that I set aside time especially for writing; that it is a craft which I have allocated time to specifically, because all craft must be practised and honed. At the moment, unfortunately, writing is something that happens in the cracks between other things… But it is also the case that when I have something in my head which wants to be written, I can relegate it to the bottom of a to-do list for only so long before it becomes very insistent. And then the writing schedules me, rather than I it.

Throughout history, society has held divergent views of poets  – ranging from regarding them as central, vital players in the community and/or respected dispensers of wisdom to regarding them as outcasts and useless dreamers who do not make any valuable contribution to society. I think at the moment it is very much the second view that is prevalent.  

This is such a complicated issue… In our time, it’s a fine line, isn’t it, between being a central, vital player in the community, and being a kind of commodity – because the kind of personality you project, the kind of poetry you write fits in comfortably with current discourses; fits current needs? There is an interesting take on this by Jeanette Winterson, talking about teaching creative writing: “Print media is shrinking, perhaps disappearing. At the same time, festivals and live events have never been more popular. Every tiny town seems to have a literary festival. Writers are out of the study and on the road – and when they are not entertaining readers they are invited to enlighten would-be writers. The most solitary of pursuits has become communal, organised, live, extrovert and competitive. Is this because writing has become a commodity – "cult cargo", as Val Mcdermid puts it?” 

I think there is something important in this. We live in a society which values visibility, extroversion, the ability to engage and entertain – and I think poets who are inclined, by temperament or by conscious decision, to leverage these qualities do manage to become “respected dispensers of wisdom” (not that I think that poets are any wiser than anybody else…). It also depends on the kind of writing – I think authors who see their role as social and inspirational find themselves naturally drawn to this socially visible role. 

I don’t really know the answer to this question. I know that writers have a very special ability – and I’m going to let Winterson (this time from her biography Why be happy when you could be normal) explain it again (because she does it so much better than I could): “All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.” I think for many readers the recognition of this ability is part of the value or worth that is ascribed to the writer or poet. But this value eventually becomes a commodity, up for sale and fetish, and that’s where things become complicated.

How does your new book, The reckless sleeper, differ from lush? The poems seem to be more personal, such as dealing with the experience of motherhood. 

I don’t think the poems in The reckless sleeper are more or less personal than the poems in lush –what is different is that with The reckless sleeper I have felt more willing to take the risk of letting the personal qualities of the poems simply be, instead of trying to build in the kind of dissociating devices I spoke about earlier. So The reckless sleeper is maybe less deliberately dense, more comfortable in its own linguistic skin than lush. But in many ways the books share a set of concerns: language, the body, desire, love, loss, home. Those unbearably human things.

In what direction to do you see your poetry taking? 

I have no idea – the words in my head fight it out and eventually decide their own direction; I’m just tagging along for the ride. I do know that for me there is a restlessness, in that there are always new ways of saying waiting to be made. But I am beginning to see that often I need to just cede the impulse to control and direct, and let the language do what it wants to do.

What are your views on SA poetry at the moment? As far as publishing is concerned, we are definitely in a pickle – publishers don’t want to publish poetry, the bookstores don’t want to stock it, and people don’t seem to want to read it. 

Yes, I think you are right that poetry (with the possible exception of Afrikaans poetry, maybe) is in a difficult position. I think poetry publishing in South Africa is actually at this point being kept alive by committed, passionate independent publishers like yourself and Colleen Higgs (and others) – who have worked out some pretty effective guerrila tactics to not only keep poetry publishing going, but to try to allow it to develop and expand and include a range of voices. 

Despite these efforts, the market for poetry (in the form of books, or journals, or online subscriptions) is small – there is a very small percentage of South Africans who value written poetry enough to buy poetry books or subscribe to poetry journals. So mainstream publishers are careful, and for preference only publish either well known poets, or poets who have the potential to sell well because their work speaks to a readership’s desire to be entertained, comforted or inspired. Publishing new poetry, or experimental poetry, has been relegated properly to the fringes. Because it won’t sell. And so a kind of impoverishment of poetry publishing sets in… But it is also true that poets have many more outlets than just print – Internet access in South Africa is growing, and most of this growth market access the Internet via their cellphones. So there’s a growing platform for poets there – once one is willing to let go of the traditional attachment to the book. 

To take this back to your earlier question: There is an odd contradiction here, in that clearly (some) poets are idealised to some degree in South African cultural consciousness, but this does not necessarily translate into actual buyers of poetry books. Which leads me to think that maybe it is not the poetry itself that is valued, but what the poet represents in the popular consciousness – a popularly defined role with which I think many poets do not always feel comfortable. 

But I feel one should put this in a larger perspective too: one cannot view these issues as separate from the difficulties that South Africa faces in terms of literacy, reading, education, poverty, etc. These material factors obviously condition the market, so it’s not fair to simply berate readers for not buying books… And while one is at it, one should spare a thought for African-language book publishing, which is (outside the educational sector) miniscule; wholly out of proportion to the potential readership. So the problems are much bigger than people just not buying poetry books…