8 May 2018

Poéfrika Interview with Rustum Kozain

1. In your opinion, are the times we live in good or not for literature? If not, what do you do to "make it"? If so, in what way?

I'm not sure. From a writer's perspective, one's own time is one's own time, meaning, I live now and can't compare, in lived experience, to another time. Having said that, I imagine all times are good for literature from a writer's perspective - all times must have in them the stuff, the grist for the writer's mill. Have the past 20 years then been good for writing, especially for the monkish art of poetry? I think so, especially as we face a world from which it is probably better to withdraw if you're a poet, into your cell or tower, which is exactly where the writing happens.

As to the production side, I don't know. In SA, big publishers publish less poetry, but small independents still have heart and courage to do so. Literature in general seems to be booming - books are published, reviewed etc. Lets forget the lack of space for good reviewing, I guess boom times are interested in quantity. In that sense, it seems a good time for literature, if not perhaps for poetry.

At the same time, people are reading less, or spending reading time on the internet where, in general, the reading experience happens in short, sharp shocks. And it apparently has cognitive results - attention spans get trained down, etc. (And I'm already nervous that this answer is too long). Of course, there are equal amounts of good, long serious reading to be found, but in general, the production tends to the twittering end of the scale. This should be a good time for the short short-story, the short poem. One can become fabulously popular - and quite possibly rich - by inventing trends in this regard - the e-novel in Japan, published via cellphone; there's been some version in SA as well, etc. I am sure someone has already invented the 'twitku'. I think this can work for prose and poetry, but I would still wish to maintain certain guild-like views for poetry because people (readers, potential, aspirant poets) in general tend to think of poetry as a part-time, instant thing: that it amounts to quickly scribbling a few lines and voila, a poem. Twittering before twitter was invented. That sounds perfect for the times and the media. But I mourn the fate of the long poem, when even a sonnet cannot hold the attention. And I mourn what people believe poetry should be in this regard, and it probably impacts on the publishing industry as well, on poetry becoming a stepchild.

So, there's tremendous activity - writers write, publishers publish. It must be good; but there is certainly some not so good aspects, just touched on above.

2. What mistakes did you make when you were just setting out to write?

Oh, all the normal adolescent mistakes all young poets - I am sure - make: too much dependence on adjectives and adverbs, gushing, crazy images (and calling it surrealist). And writing those anguished love poems to the girl who sat next to me in Physics class, many phrases cribbed from the too much Khalil Gibran I was reading as a teenager. Later, I also liked using the word 'history' too often, whether it was history's gaze or history's doubts or history's resolve. And rebelling against poetic tradition without really knowing what I was rebelling against, yet using the word 'history'. Oh, there are many more.

3. Poets spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, and then perfecting each piece. So, where's the money?

The money's everywhere: in the perfectly weighted line, in the soft chime when you happen on an internal rhyme, in finally getting a whole piece equal in temper to that first line that came to you on the train or the mini-bus taxi or while walking to the store. And in the surprise when you find what it is that you wanted to say. That's the money.

4. How long did you work on "This Carting Life"? With hindsight, was that long, short, just right?

It wasn't a book until, like Geoffrey, I gathered what had been accumulating in my folders for a over a decade. Of course, I always wanted to publish in book form, but what I'm trying to say is that I didn't set out to write a 'book' of poetry. I just wrote poetry, published them in magazines, grew envious as peers and elders published yet another book. I just kept on writing poetry and getting a few published here and there. But I just wavered in getting a manuscript together, even after two different publishers (2001) had asked me to consider sending them a manuscript. Eventually, a friend in the US got me to get one together and submitted it to a competition on my behalf, where it won publication (2002) but I once again let it slide. In the meantime, I was still writing new stuff, publishing in magazines and editing, always editing, the existing manuscript. Again, a cousin and friend forced me to get a manuscript together (2004) and she herself (bless her) delivered the manuscript to one of the publishers who had approached me before. By this time, of course, the poems in the manuscript had been through much editing and it was a large manuscript. Several poems had to be dropped.

At the time of publication, the oldest poem in the book was 12 years old, the newest 2 years old. But that was a reflection of the process. One reviewer remarked that it is normal, but not good practise, for writers to want to include everything they have written. I have to agree; yet, there was a biographical impulse to include everything and I'm glad I did it.

The length of time it took is half due to a slack attitude, to not being a disciplined writer, to being a Romantic in that I write when it comes to me. It suits me. So, I have to say that the lengthy process - including not getting the manuscript together - suited that particular book. I also wonder about rushing out books for the sake of getting the next one published; I think that that conscious, deliberate approach can easily lead to rushed, formulaic books, especially in a context where few of us can be truly full-time writers and have to depend on other sources of income. I trust in the material finding its way out.

For example, I've been fretting over a years-long dry spell after This Carting Life. Then poetry coming in bits and pieces, but nothing seemed like enough to base a book on. Now, six years after submitting my first manuscript, I look at my folders and it seems I might have a manuscript in there.

5. A university teacher of mine (Elizabeth, one of the reasons I'm here busting my..., well... my head to try and write) told me that if I ever got a poem published in a reputable magazine, she'd go back and turn my grade into an A+. No matter when that happened. Question: Was that a good or a bad move on her part? Would you do something of the sort if you were a varsity teacher?

Who knows how these motivations work? Wanting to prove yourself is a good dark driving force. I agree with Geoffrey that it can set up the writer for despair, but I also agree with Michelle that if it is a driving force, then it's all good. One of my university teachers suggested that when submitting, start high (prestigious magazine), then work your way down. In that way, you have a way out and forward, towards publication of some sort down the line. If a small mag turns you down, where do you go afterwards? No use in aiming low. It can be as despairing.

And yet, I have to say, that I am happy to have my poems published in a journal that has a small local subscription, and to read at small, local groups, because the money remains in the line of poetry.

As a teacher, though, I wouldn't have (had) that kind of audacity to throw down a challenge like that. I come across many of my past students - many - who outstrip whatever expectations (high or low) I may have had of them. I would have had to change many grades.

6. Where's African poetry at this stage? What structures are in place in southern Africa to help aspiring poets?

Sometimes I despair that there are no structures, sometimes I realise that there may be structures and I just don't know about them (SA does have an arts grants service), and sometimes I despair at the welfarist approach to something like poetry. Yes, I would like to be able to live off my poetry (I live frugally, so it wouldn't cost much), or get a grant from the arts council (if I can just get my applications in on time!), but, even while I am struggling economically, I get irritated by the idea that poets need "support structures". All it takes is pen and paper. Steal a pen, recycle paper. And join a public library.

If support structures mean community, well, start your own. Poetry blogs, for instance, make up self-started communities and support structures. Poéfrika, for instance, didn't need support external to your own needs and drive to become your own and others' support structure.

To aspirant poets I would thus say, steal a pen, recycle the paper, and find friends of similar bent to talk poetry. And there's no easy answer to development - the only way is by trial and error. If, however, you imagine any kind of material support to be your automatic right, then try something else, like Pop Idols.

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. Very short and simple.

This is from a former university teacher: Write a poem about heat, without using any words that directly connote heat or temperature, etc. E.g. while you may use the word 'sun', you can't use the phrase 'the sun burns down'.

8. What position do four-letter words hold in your work? Can a poem be good despite its use of profanity?

Of course it can. Even in general use, profanities are just words, and I laugh at people who use euphemisms for some prudish notion, like saying 'jeepers' when they mean, say, 'Jesus'. 'Jeepers' stands in for 'Jesus', but it means the same, like a synonym. So if you're wanting to say 'jeepers', but don't want to blaspheme, rather use a different word. And we use euphemisms for swear words all the time: 'frigging' instead of 'fucking', etc. We may as well be using the swear word.

Of course there are times when swearing and cursing are bad taste, but I don't think swear words deserve the bad press. We have developed them for very human reasons, and they express the thing only they can express, otherwise we wouldn't have them, they wouldn't exist. And it's naive to pretend they don't exist.

In poetry, swear words for the sake of swear words are of course adolescent and don't work. But they can also be used to push the boundaries (of taste, in this case), which is what good art normally does. But the right to use them should be earned: in other words, the poem should earn the right to the use of swear words in the poem. Like both Michelle and Geoffrey indicated, the poem's qualities do not depend merely on the absence or presence of a swear word.

Secondly, in this regard, I come from a family of auto-mechanics, working class. I grew up with swearing all around me; I don't feel particularly damaged by it. And it's in my vocabulary. It's bound to pop up in my poetry.

And poetry is about everything; it's not about a certain kind of 'poetic' language, nor about 'pure' thoughts expressed in 'pure' language. People who blanch at swear words in poetry probably suffer from a misapprehension about the aesthetics of poetry, and should read some Chaucer.

9. Is there a "right" number of poems per book? How many poems are in "This
Carting Life", and why that number?

I haven't counted the number of poems in the book. I feel the book is the right length for what it does - gathering together poems from a span of over ten years. It's a weighty volume by SA standards, but I hope readers also feel it's the right length for what it says. Also, I favour the long poem, so, page length would be a better way to put it: 100 pages of poetry. 10 pages per year... that seems okay.

I don't know how to quantify the right length for a book, but I do want poetry books to be meaty.

10. Here's an on-going poem. Please write the fourth verse.

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

Rustum Kozain was born, raised and schooled in Paarl, Western Cape and studied English Literature at the University of Cape Town. After ten months on a Fulbright Scholarship in the USA (1994-1995), he returned to UCT where he eventually lectured and taught in the Department of English until 2004.

His debut collection of poetry, This Carting Life, was published in 2005 (Kwela/Snailpress) and collects poetry written over a span of ten years. It was awarded the Ingrid Jonker Prize in 2006 and the Olive Schreiner Prize in 2007. Other prizes include the Thomas Pringle Award (2002) and the Philip Stein Award (1997) for poems published in journals, and a runner-up in the Mondi Award for food journalism (1997).

He has recently compiled and edited an anthology of short stories, South African Short Stories Since 1994, and an anthology of poetry, Voices from all over, both for use in high schools and published by Oxford University Press Southern Africa, 2006.

He now lives in Cape Town and works as a freelance editor and writer.

Rustum Kozain


Michelle said...

"The money's everywhere: in the perfectly weighted line, in the soft chime when you happen on an internal rhyme, in finally getting a whole piece equal in temper to that first line that came to you on the train or the mini-bus taxi or while walking to the store. And in the surprise when you find what it is that you wanted to say. That's the money."

Bravo, Rustum.

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Thank you, Reathabile, for introducing me and the rest of us to this fascinating poet.

I like his honesty when he said he "grew envious as peers and elders published yet another book."
That, certainly, is another motivating factor.

I hope to read more.


Isobel said...

Yes, Michelle, exactly the lines I want to quote. Right on the money. Nice one, Rustum.

Rethabile said...

Michelle, Geoffrey, Isobel,
Thank you, for Rustum.

Crafty Green Poet said...

excellent interview, thanks for posting.

Rethabile said...

Hi Juliet. Cheers.

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