Friday, February 17, 2017

Kyle Allan: Poetry as physical intensity

Kyle Allan is a poet, performer, writer, recording artist and literary festival organiser living in Himeville in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. He released a CD of poetry, Influences, in 2013 and his debut print collection of poetry, House without walls, was published by Sibali Media in 2016. 

His poems have been published in South African literary journals such as Fidelities, New Coin, New Contrast, Carapace, Kotaz, and Botsotso, and in literary journals in India and the USA.

He has contributed writing to a variety of publications, including the Natal Witness, LitNet, Mindmapsa and potholesandpadkos.

DH: Kyle, I first encountered you a few years ago on Facebook, when you contacted me saying you were planning to start a literary journal. I didn’t know who you were, but at the same time felt that I did know you – I just couldn’t think from where! Where are you from originally, and how did you come to poetry?

KA: I was born at Addington Hospital in Durban in 1987. In the 90s we moved between various places in Durban and the Midlands. From 1999 onwards we were permanently there, living outside Pietermaritzburg, in small towns: Wartburg, New Hanover and Dalton.

My poetry started with encountering the work of Wopko Jensma. It was in October 2002. I was interested in being a writer, perhaps a short story writer and novelist. I was always a voracious reader. However, I had no interest in poetry. I opened a book, A century of South African poetry by Micheal Chapman, which had belonged to my grandmother. In fact, I remember seeing this book, even as a kid in primary school, in my grandparents’ house, and nobody seemed to ever read it. It was one of those books whose role seemed to be to stay there in the bookcase, waiting. Then one day I opened it. The page that opened was near the end, with Jensma’s poems. I read the poems and the words struck me, they came out of the page into me with the way they conveyed life and its actuality. The rhythms and energy of what was being said. From there I read more poems in the book, and it took hold in me, the way a poem is put together, the continual search for what makes it work, it’s like a puzzle but so different, it’s a puzzle that forever comes with new permutations if you are willing to search. I began to write poems, which is what I am still doing fourteen years later. My first published poem appeared in Fidelities in 2005, I wrote it a few months before my sixteenth birthday, and there are a few poems in House without walls that I wrote when I was seventeen. I threw a lot of my teenage poems away, and I always get very irritated when I hear people being embarrassed about their early work. How do you learn to walk? By crawling, first. I am very proud of my crawling. I have never been the kind of person to be embarrassed about my humanity.

There is the influence of the Spanish modernists in your poetry; you have specifically mentioned Vallejo and Lorca. But there is also, of course, the tremendous influence of South African poets, particularly black South African poets, such as Mxolisi Nyezwa, Khulile Nxumalo and Seitlhamo Motsapi. There is also the influence of kwaito − in fact some of your poems have been performed to kwaito.

In my first year of reading poetry, I got any poetry books I could get my hand on, particularly at second-hand stores or book sales. For example, I bought Motsapi’s earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow for only R15 at a book sale because it couldn’t sell. I was 15. I bought two copies of Kobus Moolman’s Feet of the sky, one when it came out, and one two years later. I don’t know why two, maybe I felt bad that they wouldn’t sell, and I thought I could give one as a gift to someone. I ended up losing one copy. I bought an early edition of Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s Sounds of a Cowhide Drum at a second-hand shop. I loaned it to someone and never got it back. I also got the anthology Voices from Within at a second-hand bookstore. In these early days I bought books like The Bavino Sermons (Lesego Rampolokeng), ten flapping elbows, mama (Nxumalo), Rain across a paper field (Robert Berold), the girl who then feared to sleep (Angifi Dladla), Gova (Ike Mboneni Muila), Echo Location (Karen Press), The other city (Stephen Watson), to name just a few titles.

I read a lot of TS Eliot as well, and despite a contemporary drawing away from him, I find him extremely vital and direct as a writer. We mustn’t ever confuse simplicity and directness. The most direct writers are not often simple. I think his weakest poems are the most anthologised. His early poems, also the quatrains, and The Waste Land are all highly potent. Ash Wednesday is popular because it fits into the gentility mode of English poetry. I have struggled with a lot of English poetry because there seems to be so much pressure on English poets not to be too bold, experimental, not be too different. The sin of English poetry is an obsession with a moderate tone. That seeped over into our poetry a lot, and is slowly wearing out. It’s the kind of thing that held back writers such as Campbell and Livingstone. In the past, many of our writers were either writing in the English tradition or trying to react against its influence. To me it’s irrelevant in many ways. I am a South African, but I also feel really like a stranger to all lands, estranged alike from all the surface symbolism of nations. I’m just not into borders and all the attached baggage. I belong to whatever nationality of words remains authentic.

I didn’t get to the French and Spanish poets immediately, so my development was slightly delayed in that way. Then towards 2007/2008 I got books by Rimbaud, Lorca, Rilke, Leonard Cohen, some US writers, the Nigerian poet Uche Nduka, also Ingrid Jonker, Kelwyn Sole, Gabeba Baderoon.  A book with all Dylan’s lyrics. Reading Kafka’s short stories also inspired me. But 2011 was where everything got capped off to a new level when I encountered Vallejo, and it the same time reviewed Malikanye by Nyezwa. Reading the two in combination is what released the energy to write most of the poems in House without walls. Most of them were completed or drafted in November/December 2011.

I drew to kwaito as a teenager. I liked Mapaputsi, Mzekezeke, Zola, Mdu, Brown Dash, Dr Mageu, I liked the way their content tasted of something very grainy, there was a type of static you felt growing in you, the restlessness of the actual. The feeling you have of something breaking open, the way you felt listening to, for example, going slightly off kwaito into hip hop, Skwattakamp “Umoya”. That feeling of wow, what is this? My life could change here. I don’t think I would feel the same way if I had been a teenager now, the type of music coming out, it feels very baroque, it’s baroque kwaito, baroque hip hop, baroque house, full of secondhand emotions and ideas and not the thing itself. There are obviously exceptions.

The job of a poet or singer is not to tell you what to do, but to tell you what is, and by implication what can be. I was also very struck by people like Simphiwe Dana. If I had to nominate any public figure to become the muse, I would nominate her. It’s become a popular trend among many of our intellectuals to criticise her because of the perception she is some kind of a sellout. That’s why I hate celebrity-hood. It’s a form of rape. People think you owe it to them to keep up to their expectations. In reality, as the saying goes, sometimes the best way to serve your age is to betray it.

You place a strong emphasis on poetry performance, on the oral delivery of poetry, and direct engagement with a physical audience. But you also place strong attention to poetry as ‘word on a page’. There has been a lot said and written about page vs. stage poetry for some time now, but of course it does not have to be an either/or scenario.

I am very comfortable in both, though I started from the written word mostly. I wrote for ten years before I really performed live. I wanted to come with something different, plus I am somewhat of either a perfectionist or perhaps self-conscious of errors, I am more self-conscious than people may realise.

I like direct communication. A lot of writers and performers say that, but what they really mean is crowd-pleasing. Rather what I like is to give the audience that moment of spontaneity, of something totally new and different, I want to give them clarity, energy, wakefulness.

The poem is the poem on both stage and page. Obviously in a weaker writer there are vocalisations and gestures and certain emotional appeals that can hide the weakness in the eyes of many. And on the other hand, you can take a really good poem and perform it to an audience that has been bought up to a certain type of poetry and expectation, and it will miss them, they will justify that on intellectual grounds, and the same poem you will perform to a rural high school where English is not a first language and the kids will have that look in their eyes, they will feel it, they won’t say it’s abstract or whatever, they will just say that it’s good.

It’s a human tendency to like to get into packs and share common denominators. I always have been different. I don’t get too close to people, but also I am open to everyone. There are a lot of other writers out there who transcend scenes as well, I must emphasise.

Ideally, there shouldn’t be any page vs. stage situation. Separately both have their limitations, both have their dangers. Just as you can fall into the tendency of writing to please a particular audience, so as a performer you can have a tendency to perform a particular type of poem to please you audience. Both scenes have their cliques and their objects of mediocrity. But art has always been like that. I can see at a glance if a poem on the page grabs me. I can feel if the performer has duende or not. And there are a lot of overhyped performers and writers, and a lot of underrated of the same.

I will repeat − both the written and spoken scene have their cliques. The spoken scene likes to posture itself as all forward thinking and radical, but many in the scene have got their own boxed ways of thinking sometimes, you will hear the pronouncements and legislations of the “this and that scene” and it’s extremely upsetting when people call themselves poets and legislate for others and yet know nothing of Motsapi, Nyezwa, Muila, Dladla and so on. They have created their own little world, carrying on as if poetry started with them.

You can’t win a war using the enemy’s weapon. You have to look at the structures of language. It’s ironic so often that people who project themselves as the most radical in political outlook, are often so conservative artistically. And that’s ultimately a contradiction that reveals itself. Watch in decades to come the real faces come out, see how many bios will get tweaked and rewritten.

And to the written cliques, we have our own “Georgian poets”.

In 2013 you released a poetry CD called influences. How was it put together, what was the poetry on the CD like, and what your experience of releasing such a CD?   

It was a good CD and experience, but I will never record that way again. I will do things organically. It’s also that I like having a large creative control over what I do, and with this album I was signed to a label and there were certain constraints in terms of song length and album length, which was defined according to what is commercially possible. And I understand it’s a business, so they have their own motivations, which is why I know now I must do it my own way totally, no label. That’s why the last creative field I will enter is the film industry, as that is the most expensive to produce, and when I want to make a film, I want to produce it with no compromises.

I will return with everything completely composed, as pieces that have been performed live regularly. With the previous album, basically I would recite a poem and the producer would compose music around that. So we would create work in the studio and months later it would be performed live. And the two producers did a great job. But in future I will do it organically. Live takes of musicians in the studio. I want it to be performed live first then put in the studio.

You were a participant at Poetry Africa in 2014 and have also been active organising poetry festivals of your own – firstly in Swellendam and now in Underberg. Can you tell us more about these events?

What I like about Poetry Africa is how it brings poets from different countries and experiences and backgrounds together, and the unity and encouragement it gives you. I like that it reminds you that we can live a world without borders. I like that it has a strong focus on poets from around the continent.

One night when I performed, I said, "I am representing South Africa, but first and foremost I am representing the USA – United States of Africa".

At the Swellendam events, I hosted mostly poets from Cape Town, people like Croc E Moses, Nazlee Arbee and Ziphozakhe Hlobo, to name a few, along with some diverse local talent. They were predominantly poetry-centred but we accommodated all genres, featuring local hip hop, classical piano, R&B, among others. With my events, the focus will always be poetry, but at the same time I struggle to organise purely poetry events − this is because of my own interest in a diversity of arts and genres, and I have to be true to myself. I greatly enjoyed the town, but for various factors left, including health and lack of opportunities.

In Underberg, I organised the Underberg Himeville Arts Festival in partnership with the Family Literacy Project. We hosted poets such as Muila, Frank Meintjies, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Kwazi Ndlangisa, as well as other writers and theatre and poetry groups and people in the arts and media world, people like Zuki Vutela (known as Zookey), and local talent. There were also regular poetry workshops, where many kids started writing poetry, and began to develop.

Prior to these events, around 2010- 2012, I did a few small-scale events in kwaSwayimane and New Hanover. In future I will do something there again.

My focus in organising these types of festivals is the act of encounter, which is central to the word and all communication. What happens in a good festival is that you establish a place for people to encounter each other in authenticity. Audience encounters a diversity of performers and ideas. Poets encounter musicians, musicians encounter theatre, and so on. Performance poets encounter poets who focus on the written word. They share ideas. Performance poets learn about poetry magazines and meet poets they might never have heard of. Written poets take their work beyond the normal places. It leads to sharing and the discussing of ideas, which is what our society needs. We need more festivals.

Next year I am organising the Inter Fest in Pietermaritzburg. Similar recipe, but adding more interesting conversations.

In 2016 you published your first collection, House without walls, through your imprint Sibali Media.  What was your experience of this? You seem to be managing your own distribution. What has been the attitude of bookstores? Have they been helpful?

I expected it to be difficult, but I have managed to clear without major bookstores, on my own, around a hundred books. I have contacted and spoken to major players, no positive response. I’m also not going to run after them. I think long term we can’t always depend on a relationship with major bookshops if they are not the ones who come to us. A long-term solution could be some type of writer’s cooperative owned bookshops. Obviously the bookshops say poetry doesn’t sell so they have to look at economic realities. Well, let us then be innovative and look at more ways to distribute without them. It’s 2016. I’m brainstorming on this now.

Some people asked why I didn’t just publish electronically. I think the book must come in print first. Anyone can publish electronically. After about April, I will probably put an electronic version of my poems up, or else distribute it to those who cannot for various reasons get the print version. There are many people out there who have immediate priorities than buying books, and I don’t want to create a situation where people are excluded from knowledge. It’s not going to be a lost sale. They were not going to be able to buy anyway. I will probably try and encourage it to be downloaded and distributed heavily among school goers. I have a school that will be teaching with some of my poems this year.

It’s why I also question the obsession of a war against piracy. Piracy wouldn’t exist in this country without there being great economic divides. People buy pirated CDs because they cannot afford genuine CDs. So now, must we criminalise people for being poor? It’s absurd. That’s why I also prefer to be in complete control of my work. So that in future, when I see my work being pirated, I know that the people who read it will benefit. I will never prosecute people for their poverty. We need to recognise the real crime, and act against it.

That is why, writers and artists, if serious about decolonisation, long term need to consider a direct relationship to the public. They also need to consider, particularly musicians, the greed of big music labels. To save the music industry, we need to destroy it first. If you can sell your music direct to the public, you can sell it more affordably. This is the 21st century. We don’t need to depend on middlemen, and neither on big music labels. We can’t speak decolonisation and then walk past this.

Do you have further plans for Sibali Media? You mentioned wanting to start up a literary journal. What are your feelings about publishing poetry in South Africa?

Publishing poetry is not easy in South Africa, but extremely necessary. The publishing of a book is a very potent act of activism in society, not just to the general structure of society, but even in our relationship to other literary endeavours. I think our biggest challenge is to go beyond what we conceive of as “poetry audiences”. Obviously it doesn’t help that many institutions do not buy into this vision, which means we have to be proactive. I want to publish a poetry magazine in the form of a newspaper that should be available for R5. A paper that you will see sold at robots and at taxi ranks and in tearooms. I want all our poets, from spoken and written backgrounds, those from both backgrounds, to reach an audience of thousands. And then poetry will counter the dominance of rhetoric and slogans and facile symbolism of our times.

It’s not difficult to be creative with the book, and its meaning, that it expands beyond the pages and onto the streets, onto walls, on street signs, in our clothing, in everyday things we use, so that this authentic communication is everywhere.

Because poetry also is intensely physical for me, like my skin.

What are the challenges facing South African poetry?

I think every poetry landscape has layers. There are poets and there are poets. Even in some of the best periods of poetry, not everyone will be a poet. There are a lot of poets who may have a few good poems, but only a few who can put a strong oeuvre together.

With regards to the South African poetry scene, it is a scene and many scenes and directions. I spoke earlier of how its important how cross current must meet each other. This is not to be one type of literature, but rather that diversity can flourish but at a high level of excellence. As we know, iron sharpens iron.

There will obviously be more good writers emerging, if they are able to encounter a diversity of work like I encountered, and not be boxed in by a certain teaching of poetry or by becoming controlled by a “scene”.

I also think it a pity that there is still this kind of fear or marginalisation of more dynamic work by those in various establishment roles. You know in a sense you are being marginalised when people use words like experimental, they define you as an otherness to what is assumed as literary normality. But in terms of you yourself as a writer, if you want to write, you will write, whether you get recognition or not, whether people label you or don’t label you. The act of writing is between you and the page ultimately, a time when you are least of all the person society defines you as, a space where you as a writer are free to be completely honest with yourself. In fact, sometimes recognition can be the worst thing for a writer, he then gets absorbed into the bigger society gestalt, when it would be better to be always on the edge of things.

What would be good nevertheless, are more poetry magazines that reach out to a larger amount of people, because this is a counter to all the clich├ęs and slogans and news stories with their subtle salience towards the interests of those in power. I think more South African poetry needs to be in libraries, especially schools libraries. There are a lot of gifted young writers who have been given a start by being able to access a wide range of novels, including novels written in the last decade or so. So we need the same thing for poetry books, everywhere.

The poems 'You have no notebook' and 'Your silent tongue' are from House without walls, which is available at select bookstores in KwaZulu-Natal or directly from Sibali Media at If ordered directly from Sibali Media, the price is R100 including postage and packaging.