|Joan Metelerkamp reading in Grahamstown, July 2014|
Joan’s eighth collection of poetry, Now the World Takes These Breaths, was published by Modjaji Books in 2014. She was interviewed by Alan Finlay.
AF: I said I would do an interview with you for the Dye Hard Interviews blog. So here are my questions or statements that I hope you find okay-enough to respond to....
JM: Fine – I woke this morning after horrific dreams (I don’t think connected with this) but with a whole long essay worked out with my responses. Now, after doing this and that, mainly house-work and procrastination of other tasks, I’ve forgotten everything! Can’t even remember what track I was on. I think this happens in writing of poems all the time – “it’s okay/ it can go”. Obviously one can’t live with an obsessive anxious holding on to everything. An “irritable reaching after fact and reason” …But unless the poem is made it doesn’t exist (obviously); all those unwritten wonders are NOTHING.
Well, we had this discussion before. I don't think I agree entirely. Sometimes I can feel happy that I “wrote” a poem, but I don't get to write it down. I think that poem exists too. Maybe just for me. It's a bit like playing piano for yourself – there is a sense of audience, even a strong sense of imagined audience, but nothing is getting recorded, and no-one is listening.
For me there really is a distinction between a crafted object, a work that stands, and the composition in the mind. (Maybe this has to do with my being a woman and a materialist! Maybe it feels like this to me because my imaginary audience is so demanding?) And about playing the piano to connect with yourself – isn’t that more like writing a poem and putting it away? Or writing versions of poems? Or reading a poem aloud once and destroying it?
It's really the process that I find reassuring, I think. In a way it reminds me, or re-connects me: I can do this! But yes, the question of audience – or even the complex or neurosis of audience. I was thinking of how to describe your writing, and I thought of a “folding outwards”. You write: “not so much that I've wasted my life but that it unfolds”. I feel like there is a tension in the emotional spaces your poems create, of a letting go, but also of a turning back. Like paper being folded, but outwards. The paper in that sense can go on forever, the “unreaming” can go on forever, even though it is being folded. I think this can also be felt in your style of writing, its strong sense of thinking in the immediate. At the level of narrative, the book is about letting go of your children, your space as a mother, as it was, and who you are left with when that happens.
Yes, though I hope that the book is only “about” the most obvious narrative. Except in the sense of cycle – round and round “about”. There are narrative elements, but the poems make a formal cycle, as in an old ritualistic dance-circle; so this would be the in and out, folding unfolding, forward and back that you pick up. So the “story” is an old old story! It refers back and forward. The folding, relating to death, extinction, is also in the rhinoceros image – “like folded rhinoceros we collapse/ in what’s left of the shade”. Of course, Persephone went to the kingdom of death and back again…in that myth of cycle, which is a central referent in my book, there is the hope that Earth continues, will continue. It’s not just about a journey to individual not being. But this is the central terror – that everything will disappear into nothing. Even the sun dies etc.
Would it have helped knowing it
was all a story as ancient as ever? I forgot
I didn’t know. I still had to live it.
I still had to have it all crushed out.
I still had to find women to turn to, to laugh about it…..
I am curious – thinking of Sharon Olds, and her personal poems about her children or family, and what she said about writing them – how do others in your family receive your poetry? Because you are not the centre of everything, of course, and they have their lives too.
Yes, of course! But the lyric poet very often speaks from her “centre” her own “interior” – her feelings, thoughts are made in poems – it’s how a poet thinks best, isn’t it? Even a novel, although the socio-political, character-based construction that it is, often refers to particular people…I’m thinking much further back than Olds, or before her Plath, but of Virginia Woolf …and now I’m jumping forward again - do you know the Stevie Smith “story of a story”?
No, I don't think so. Can you share it?
I think it may be in her volume Me Again – but basically it’s a story about having written a story based on friends who took umbrage; as far as I remember Stevie Smith said “but this is as true as I can make it even if you don’t feel flattered”... The people closest to me in this book knew that I was writing it for them so I think they were ok with it. They know that part of me, at least, is a poet. Poetry may seem central in the book, but I think the book is also quite clear that it isn’t the only thing that matters! They also know that I know “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle” (Marianne Moore). In other words, I would hope that the book opens out as much as it closes in. I would hope that it might speak to other people, including those close, rather than exposing them.
Yes, I like this idea. This is something I find difficult when it comes to publishing. I want to speak to people close to me, but in a public way. I think your poetry pulls the reader into the personal in such a vigorous way it makes it necessarily public.
This is a complex question of course that I’ve wrestled with. This is what “no wonder” deals with – Woolf’s “angel in the house”, the internal voice that urges her to speak and behave as those around her expect and whom Woolf advises the woman writer to kill... but it’s not only writers who deal with this angel’s voice I was saying... We hurt other people even while we are trying to do what is best for them – everyone does. We hurt those me most love – but surely it’s the definition of psychopathy to try to hurt those you supposedly love? (I don’t see suicide as an aggressive action against anyone, by the way). Also, I don’t believe that old adage “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you”…that’s bullshit in my experience. If you have won the Pulitzer Prize and published many tens of thousands of copies of your books (as Olds has done) does this make a difference? I don’t know.
I suspect with that kind of “publicity”, at some level they will have to reject (or kill) the parent-poet...
I’ll give you a concrete example: at the launch of the book I read the title poem. I was anxious. The poem as you know is about an horrific unnatural natural death. Some of the people involved in that incident were at the launch, but others had already read the book and given me confidence in their responses. I hoped it would be received as a tribute, and it was! What do you do about the earth or sea that swallows those close to you first and then eventually you. Sometimes there is literally nothing to be done. You can only do everything you can do. Sometimes you literally have to save your own life. What can a poem do?
Since your first book you have been negotiating the burdened or “over-weightiness” of the patriarchal voice in poetry, of deciding what was okay, which stopped so much from being written in South African poetry.
Yes. I could go on at great length about this. There are many different approaches – I think we’ve covered a few of the issues. But behind this is the figure of the judge who is also the critic and authority and who says “how could you!” in the voices of the book-club women or “gossip girls” you live amongst, the contemporary “angel in the house”, instead of “how could you” as in the real teacher who looks for new ways or at least ways to break old crippling habits. The negative side; as opposed to the positive prototype. And it goes back to the point about hurting others…well. I’m not an historian nor sociologist nor... jurist nor philosopher nor psychologist…nor scholar! I’d have to go by way of the poet and talk about my own experience/ feelings/ intuitions/ thoughts … If you want another example from the book of wrestling directly with the issue of authority its “Confession”. Is it the poet/speaker who has to “hold her eyes open” however hard this is and “give” and “forgive” and confess” and ask for forgiveness? Or does she say no, the choice (whatever the choice is) is “for giving”.
Do you paint?
I don’t paint. I wish I did.
I though at some point you said you did. Maybe you said you wanted to...
Probably. And this goes back to the first point – you can do a drawing course and come home all fired up seeing horizontals, verticals, diagonals, tripping on the curves and moving lines outside, the colours and planes of the wheat free fields you drive through, experiencing in a new way…but if you don’t make that drawing, where is it? But I suppose I don’t wish it enough to have done it! I did wish to be an actor – but I failed at that – I worked for three years when I was young but I couldn’t take one of the central aspects of acting at the start of a career – sitting around in the dressing-room, and doing very small roles. Also I couldn’t take Pretoria and the performing arts council who employed me, nor, in the early eighties, the alternative world of Joburg and touting myself to an agent. The other “medium” or “form” I’ve flirted with but haven’t cracked at all because I haven’t spent enough time and/or energy on it is the essay. And this also has to do with being scared off of that by academe. Another failed career… another story.
Do you feel South African poets could bring more of other disciplines into their poetry? So poets are busy with poets and words – and someone like Willem Boshoff pulls the carpet from under our feet, because no-one who is a “poet” is looking at concrete or visual poetry – at least not at that level. Why not? Is the idea of being a poet in this country too narrow? Sometimes it feels that the problem lies in poetry as the starting point. Start with another art, and lead into poetry to make poetry alive. I am thinking of a couple of things here, but also a comment Robert [Berold] made about Kobus Moolman's latest book, that he has introduced dramatic elements into it.
I think it probably depends on temperament, and changes of life, don’t you think? I think there are many and varied kinds of poem in South Africa. I don’t know if it’s a matter of where you start, but at some point you have to keep going, practicing poems. If you don’t develop as a poet you may as well stop – and I think that’s more of the issue. What’s the incentive to keep going?
In the last part of the book, I felt a sense of boredom, of you expressing boredom with your poetic project. It might be exhaustion. I am thinking of moments like: “all my lack of clarity. irritability./depressiveness./forgetfulness/what the fuck/ we're ok”. Perhaps this is resignation? To loss, to life. I am thinking here of your mother's suicide too. Of how difficult it must be for someone to leave.
I don’t understand the last part of this comment. Difficult for who to leave? (Are you saying it must be difficult for my daughter to leave because my mother committed suicide? – but then my mother’s mother did too…)
Sorry, Joan. Here I am reading into your work I think...
Well, I think you’re maybe intuiting something important, and anyway we always read from our own lives. But maybe you could spell out exactly what you mean – what specifically in the poem/s are referring to? I think your suggestion is that the very fierce holding of the mother, seen from the daughter’s perspective, could be crippling. Very difficult to leave because of that feeling of responsibility to the mother? Of being the mother’s emotional centre and so it’s scary in case the mother falls apart – ultimately kills herself? I think that’s the shadow of your question, and it is really that shadow that I hope the poem is taking on squarely. That is part of the Demeter/ Persephone myth. In fact it’s the centre of the myth, and of every mother/daughter relationship. But I do think the poem is taking on these issues and coming through to acceptance – (also boredom and exhaustion). The poem “Daughter” maybe clarifies:
Now that I see
how in her own life
she is, in immanence, not about
on the other side of the earth
married to her own life
as only she can be
my daughter –
how could I have loved her
too closely –
how could I ever have loved
my mother too closely.
I’m not saying the poem makes one statement: there is ambiguity about statement and question in the last lines. (The reader will know from, or find out from “No wonder” that the speaker’s mother and grandmother “took the gun …put in their hands and fired it”). That’s if you have to limit the speaker. But there’s ambiguity about who the speaker is – is she daughter or mother? Perhaps both. The poem, like all the others in the sequence/cycle is a sonnet – one of the effects is to set up an expectation of some “conclusion’ to each poem, which is subverted. Now you have it, now you don’t. Of course sons have to leave too, as the Ur poems remind us, and as the poem that follows “Daughter” in my book acknowledges. I mean “Son”. As for exhaustion and boredom – I think they’re fairly typical sensations or feelings for late-fifty-somethings. In my case it certainly does have to do with that eternal question which can’t be separated from a depressive syndrome: what for? In “Burnt Offering” I had to remind myself that isn’t the question, the only real question is “how”. But I think this part of the poem is saying too that what I’m exhausted with is self-admonishment and caring about lack of perfection. It’s boring. So yes I’m depressive forgetful irritable – so what? (– “but now/ even the things that irritate me/I have begun to forget” – for me the poem is also a bit playful and light! )