8 May 2018

Poéfrika interview with Kelwyn Sole

Kelwyn Sole
Kelwyn Sole
1. Why is poetry the major means of expression for you? Why do you write poems and not caricature politicians, for example?

Occasionally I have written poems that caricature politicians, so I don’t see the tasks as necessarily separate. A simple answer, though, would be that it’s what I’m best at. As far as art is concerned, I’d have preferred to be a dancer or a musician: but I have flat feet, and my ability with piano or drums isn’t great, to say the least.

I think one of the few generally accurate things one could say about poetry is that, from ancient times, it has borne a relationship to music. It’s the one thing on which critics as different as Pound and Amiri Baraka agree (the latter calls poetry ‘speech musick’d’, as I remember). That’s one of the attractions for me: plus the intensity and compactness of expression in a good poem: its reactive chemistry of mood, thought, emotion. I’m struggling here, because I’m not sure I can do adequate justice to this... . Recently I heard a recording of Ferlinghetti reading, where he observes that ‘poetry is the underwear of the soul’. I like that - as well as Carl Sandburg’s remark that poetry is the journal of a sea animal that’s living on land but really wants to fly in the air.

2. Do you work on just one poem at a time, or do you work on several simultaneously?

When I am writing (I write in short intense bursts of a few weeks, then leave it) I work on several simultaneously. Sometimes, in my opinion, it’s better to approach a poem obliquely - if you’re not getting it to work, put it down, do other things unrelated to poetry. The solution will come to you, often when you least expect it.
So for me writing is quite a haphazard process, until such time as I have a book manuscript nearing completion, or I’ve decided something is about ready for journal publication. Then I become more focused.

3. Poets spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, and then perfecting each piece. How do you balance this with family life? Where do you find the time to write?

I’m married but don’t have kids, and my immediate family have not been in South Africa for thirty years. So I don’t have too much family pressure. Yet I don’t have extended periods of time to write, nevertheless. Writing poetry competes for my time, these days, with the other things I have to do - teaching, admin, and producing critical articles, mostly - as well as things I want to do, like going off into obscure places to watch birds (I’ve recently discovered pelagic birding, which is fantastic!), reading, listening to music.

4. I don’t know if you speak other African languages (Afrikaans, Sesotho, etc), but do you read/write poetry in another language besides English?

I have a smattering of languages - some Afrikaans, a little bit of Nama and seTswana (learned through usage, not books). I’ve also studied Spanish up to a point, and at one stage got an M.A. that included a course in isiZulu, which is a bit of a joke in terms of my ability. I can read Afrikaans poetry pretty well, if it’s not too difficult, and have published some translations - Jonker and Gert Vlok Nel – and I can read stumblingly through similar languages like German. I can manage Spanish to some extent, on paper but not verbally: those poets who tend to use simpler Spanish, like Neruda and Lorca. Mostly though I have to resort to translations.

5. What goal do you seek when you write? Awake others? Entertain them? Tell the truth? Why do you write?

Principally to wake them up, bemuse them, jolt them: but not always. If you can do this by entertaining at the same time, so well and good. Hectoring audiences doesn’t work in the long run, as B.C. learned to its cost. I feel strongly that the poet should be exploring or working towards something other than narcissism or parroting praise, and I usually turn away from poetry that simply affirms what the audience already believes, or wants to believe. I suppose, in terms of the question, I am trying to make them see a ‘truth’ that may unsettle theirs; or other truths. I’m more at home trying to come at subjects from an odd angle; or trying to give a viewpoint athwart what exists in the media or in people’s ‘common sense’.

6. I know that you give readings quite a bit. There has been a lot of noise around the performance by Ms Elizabeth Alexander’s of her inaugural poem, ‘Praise Song for the Day’. How did she do?

I think there’s been unfair criticism of this. I liked the first half of the poem, though the "praise song for..." refrain feels clumsy; and as for her performance style … she seemed somewhat overawed by the occasion? It’s interesting that the poem’s got a strongly inclusive Whitmanesque gesture about it: and that now, one and a half centuries on, it’s a black woman who’s doing this.

The poem was partly about the struggle to speak; that’s hugely pertinent, I think. Ideological critiques aside, quite a few of the negative comments in the States seem to display nothing so much as a loss of audience close listening/reading skills under postmodernity. That’s scary! She may have misjudged the situation, but I think she was trying to inject some complexity, some thoughtfulness, some caution, into an event that was geared to the symbolic, and that was riding on an euphoric ‘feel-good’ upsurge. Shades of South Africa!

Poets have above all to avoid being turned into sound-bytes - politicians and big business would love to make us simply another useful ideological tool-cum-commodity that reinforces their programme. I’m sorry, but poetry isn’t about selling shares on television, or what Rampolokeng once called ‘licking the stage clean’. In other words, give her a break!

7. You are to encourage poetry students to write a poem. Please come up with a "writing prompt" out of your own experience, or out of something else, using anything that invades your mind right now. Short and simple.

I’m not good at this, because I’m deeply suspicious of creative writing courses. A teacher in this context can imprint much too much of themselves: and can tend to be more definitive about what is good and bad than they should be. There are good teachers, who avoid this (as Philip Levine’s essay ‘Mine Own John Berryman’ makes clear, for instance). But there are too many people who believe the nonsense they have been taught at South African schools or universities about the correct attitudes and parameters for poetry.

Sometimes a creative writing course will work for a student, but this depends on the chemistry between student and teacher. As for the rest, who wants to sit and listen to some bloated ego impart his or her deathless thoughts about how and why his/her pentameters got picked up by Penguin? My advice to would-be poets would be: get out into the real world, and read other poets.

8. What writers, living or not, have influenced you the most? In what way did they influence you.

There have been lots of influences, both stylistically and in terms of what they say. I liked Robert Graves as a kid, but my first truly modernist model was Okigbo. Early on, I learned a lot formally from W. C. Williams, Levine, Enzensberger, Levertov, some of the Beats, but principally from the poets of the Black Mountain School. I used to teach praise poetry … you can learn a hell of a lot about techniques of ellipsis and parallelism from izibongo. More recently (bizarre as this may sound) Milton’s taught me important things; as well as René Char, and - closer to home - the bubbling pot of experimentation that was New Coin in the 1990s.

I’m tempted to mention those poets whose importance and influence in my view are not really acknowledged at the moment. Who ever talks about Brecht any more? In South Africa, I don’t think Gwala has ever been appreciated enough, or Parenzee: or, these days, Press or Nyezwa.

I’m more definite about artists (not just poets) I have come to admire; where I’ve looked at their context, what they tried to do, in terms of content and form, and then realised how courageous they were, and how much they achieved. Think of what their fields would be like if they hadn’t existed. A whole bunch of musicians spring to mind, stretching from Cecil Taylor to John Fahey; multi-genre figures like Ousmane Sembene; a number of writers and poets. There’s always the fact that poetry in the last century contains the presence and examples of many poets who were both radical thinkers and fine poets. Remembering this cheers me up.

At the same time I worry about the present assumption in this country that the best poems are short expressive lyrics. Well, sure; but too many long poems and poem sequences are ignored, or quickly forgotten; simply because they take more effort to read. For instance, some of the finest achievements of African and diasporic poetry have been along these lines, such as Walcott’s Another Life; Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, Tchicaya U Tam’si’s Epitomé poems. How many of us here have read these?

9. How do you write: drink coffee, wine? Listen to music? Type, scribble? What atmosphere do you feel out of place not writing in?

Coffee. Definitely no alcohol. If there’s music in your poetry, I don’t think you should listen to other music as you write, because it’ll interfere with what you’re hearing inside. I scribble bits and pieces occasionally, but only get serious at the keyboard. The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said in an interview, “When you’re hot, you’re hot” - so if the mood and inspiration surprises you, get it down. Doesn’t matter when or where you are.

10. Here's an on-going poem. Please add to it.

They stood before me that night
With clenched fists and blown pupils,
Shadowed by leafless branches of a cotton tree,
The moon as bright as the moon and no metaphor

For which image can serve? What simile
Makes sense enough? The ghosts that guard
The tree nod yes, though I’ve not said a thing.
One shade uncurls and crooks a bony finger, calling me.

The voices rise up like be-headed trees
I stumble forward fear at my heels
How did this night arrive and where is wisdom’s heed
"Gone my child is your clothes -- face now this thing."

- so strip off your nudity, and learn to be naked.

Kelwyn Sole was born in Johannesburg in 1951, He was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, obtaining his doctorate with a study of the South African Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s. He has worked in Johannesburg, Kanye and Windhoek, and is currently Professor in the English Department at the University of Cape Town, were he teaches contemporary South African literature and 17th century poetry. He was deported from Namibia for political reasons by the South African Government in 1980.

His poetry has been widely published in local and international anthologies and journals, and poems have been translated into French, German, Turkish, Korean and Italian. He has also published many critical articles and polemics, locally and internationally, on aspects of postcolonial literature and culture. His poetry collections are The Blood of Our Silence (Ravan, 1988); Projections in the Past Tense (Ravan, 1992); Love That is Night (Gecko, 1998); Mirror and Water Gazing (UKZN Press, 2001); and Land Dreaming: Prose Poems (UKZN Press, 2006). He has recently completed a new collection, Absent Tongues.

His poetry has won the Olive Schreiner and Sydney Clouts Prizes, was a runner-up for the Noma Award, and has won international merit awards in Scotland and the U.S.A.
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