Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alan Finlay: Poetry as intervention

Alan Finlay lives in Johannesburg where he works as a writer, researcher and editor on issues of media freedoms and internet rights. His poems have appeared in various journals locally and abroad, and short selections of his poetry have been published by small presses. Over the years he has founded and edited a number of literary publications, including Bleksem and donga (with Paul Wessels). With Arja Salafranca he co-edited a collection of prose and poetry called glass jars among trees (Jacana, 2003). He was editor of New Coin poetry journal from 2003-2007. His latest collection of poems, pushing from the riverbank, is to be published by Dye Hard Press in October 2010.
DH:I see a willingness to take risks in your poetry, to experiment not just with form but with language itself. Notable examples are your chainpoems with Philip Zhuwao, The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain, and two poems – ‘wind& sea’ and ‘poem for béla bartók’ - in your forthcoming collection pushing from the riverbank, particularly stand out. There is a sense of play, but a playfulness that has a serious purpose.
AF:Well I wouldn’t want to make too much of it. I experiment to a point, and there are some interesting experiments going on by other poets: I’m thinking of Aryan Kaganof’s happenings with Zim Ngqawana; or Jaco en Z-dog for that matter – the best performance poetry I’ve seen in years. And then there’s Metelerkamp’s total immersion in the poem, Lesego’s [Rampolokeng] work in theatre, Khulile’s [Nxumalo] proems, etc. I think South African poets have experimented quite a bit in general, and you can see that if you look at some of those journals from the 60s and 70s – never mind the likes of Jensma. There is play in some of my poems – with perspective, with form, associations, sound – a lot of this is part of the unconscious articulation of the poem; the form of the poem emerges in the writing, as does the use of “i” versus “I”, which have different meanings. You cannot force a poem that wants to sway across the page to walk in a straight line. I read somewhere recently that children play seriously. This is an interesting idea – to write with that sense of a child's seriousness when it goes about new things. If I regret anything about the chainpoems with Zhuwao, it’s that I over-edited them, tried to make them say something they weren’t really saying. I would probably like to republish them one day with much more space in between the voices, much more disconnectedness, which would be a lot more experimental. ‘wind& sea’ and ‘béla bartók’ were both an attempt at breaking away from the confinement of the page. I was working with an A2 piece of paper, a bit like an artist, and trying to give myself permission to mark the page however I felt. So the spaces are louder and the lines became more associative – the final version of ‘béla bartók’ should probably be published on a much bigger page than the one in the book.

What poets have influenced you? And contemporary South African poets? Do you read a lot of fiction, and do those writers influence your writing?

The anthology of post-war Eastern and Central European poets called The poetry of survival had a formative effect on me in my 20s and my edition is in tatters from all the reading; so much so that I had to replace it. The poetry resonated with me. It is the historical context, which is immediately interesting, but then the way the poets entered that, with such clarity, and with a range of styles and perspectives that did not seem to be hobbled by a narrow view of what poetry should be. In some ways, looking at it now, the feel of the book reminds me of it all begins, the anthology Robert Berold put out after his work on New Coin in the 90s. And then you just have to read Slavenka Drakulić’s café europa to know in a journalistic kind of way how similar many of our experiences have been in the post-apartheid period, and with the fall of communism. They have produced some wonderful poets: Zbigniew Herbert, Holan, Różewicz, Amichai, Celan, Enzensberger... What was for me critical about the 90s was that I was picking up on the colours and sounds of contemporary South Africa through the poetry, particularly in New Coin, but also from some of the other publications that were emerging at the time; and then the readings, the recordings, the interactions with the poets, which was profound in that it cut right across class and race lines, and connected people with a common interest in poetry. All this was influencing how I was learning to write. It was a period of great imagination for the poets, and I think we probably heard this from each other. New Coin also gave me my first confrontation with the some of the Spanish poets – Hernandez, and others – in those excellent translations by Geoffrey Holiday. These two currents, the Spanish and the Eastern Europeans, seem to carry so much of what is important in 20th century poetry – seem to form the bedrock against which other poetry is heard. Even more so than the Americans. But who have I been reading recently: Nina Cassian, Ponge – the clever Soap from a Paris Review that also has an amazing interview with the later Kerouac (conducted by Berrigan). Alan Dugan, cropped, cynical, in a life giving way, in an originating way; in a way that takes out the trash. Then Dorfman's poems, for obvious reasons – devastating, important when it comes to speaking and voice in this country. What does he say: "But how can I tell their story/ if I was not there?" A lot of the really good writing I have found is in children's books. I am thinking of Jim Eldridge, and, of course, Dahl. But someone like Eldridge, who writes war books, has the most focused and clear voice as a children's author.

In South Africa we obviously hear and read the term ‘black poetry’ a lot. It is probably a legitimate label, since it points to a poetry that is concerned with common experience, a common past and issues of identity, although the approaches to the poetry itself can be very different. But if the term 'white poetry' is used, it sounds absurd. Is there such a thing as 'white poetry' in South Africa? Should we not be striving more and more to talk of an inclusive South African poetry?

This feels like a complex question – and maybe even loaded. I am wary of these sorts of terms when they are used politically to exclude, or short change; so they can be red herrings. On the one hand, you don’t want to deny an analysis of race and ideology, and how this emerges in poems. But I am not sure there is necessarily a coherent ‘white consciousness’ in poetry – it has been quite fragmented, diverse, in tension and argument with itself; ideologically, aesthetically, in a poet’s experience of marginalisation, and so on. How else do you make sense of, I don’t know, Butler, Beiles, Clouts, Cronin, Jensma, Livingstone all living in the same room? And that’s just a klomp white male poets writing in English – and doesn’t take into account what was happening in crazier, wilder spaces, like music. We are a lot more migrant, fragmented, displaced than we acknowledge. I suppose one needs to ask: what do these sorts of descriptions hide? What are they trying to repress? I am not saying that something of a conservative liberal ideology that runs through the poetry, its off-shoots, its shards and fragments that result in a certain kind of ‘taste’ or instruction to would-be poets, is not important to consider. I think it is, because it still seems to filter back into a lot of what goes on in the publishing world and in our media, in the ideas of what’s marketable and what isn’t, in prizes, with the guardians of ‘correct’ English and grammar, of so-called ‘good writing’. Many of them come across as moralists, more than anything else. And there are ingrown and ingrained expectations of neatness. I think we will have reached somewhere when reviews don’t praise a text for being “well written”, or poetry for its absence of “self pity”.

What about the so-called cultural gatekeepers – big publishers, academia, and – to a certain degree – the media. To what degree do they shape perceptions about what genres – and what subjects – there is ‘a demand for’?

This becomes more important if you’ve got nowhere else to go. Now we have the internet, more access to the means of production for small publishers etc. I tend to read outside of the mainstream – on the fringes of the ‘literary machine’, which invites a sociological reading more than anything else. I do pay attention, and I eventually find my way there, in one way or another. But this injunction that we should read read read everything that gets published makes reading too much of a commodity practice for me. Saying that, the circulatory fate is the political fate of the text, as Warner put it. What frightens me is how you can pick up an old journal of, say, American poetry, and there are some brilliant poems in there - yet the name of the poet is hardly recognisable. So where does good poetry go? There are serious dangers of forgetting. Small presses are critical in circumventing this all, and the archive – which is something that interests me more and more. Just look at what your publication on Belies has awakened – people around the world who knew him are now writing richly about what they know. And there is something new that has been added to the Beat archive – much more than just a footnote of Beiles as “basket case”.

You started up Bleksem in 1994, at a time when there was an eruption of small presses and journals in South Africa. Bleksem was sort of unique in its layout – cutting and pasting of manuscripts onto the page. Why did you use this approach?

Bleksem was really quite a little journal – as an idea it had much more potential to grow into something. I sometimes regret not pushing through with it. It reflected what came in my postbox, as editor. It was that and the process of publishing that was foregrounded. You couldn’t do it now – with e-mail, and PCs everywhere – although donga was an attempt to do a similar thing online. Its simplicity, and HTML coding had the hands-on feel of the early internet. Many of the poems sent to Bleksem were handwritten, or typed on manual typewriters, on different kinds of paper; some that reflected the social conditions of the writer. This created a geography of text, something very tangible, concrete. I relied on a photostating machine and a lightbox I took from my grandmother. I grew up amidst printers whirring, and dark rooms, and the red hands of my grandfather as he looked at the plates. Guillotines, and staplers, and envelopes and stamps. It was that that I was also responding to. I was re-appropriating, and upsetting the apple cart on a personal level. I was recreating, cutting and pasting that experience.

You were also editor of one of South Africa’s oldest poetry journals, New Coin, for a few years, and now – unlike in 1994, literary journals in South Africa are battling for their survival. Why do you think that is?

Look, I don’t know. Maybe these journals are more important at particular junctures in our history. The online space has something to do with it, definitely. Poets have more places to go than they did before. Desktop publishing, blogs, they have all made this possible. And this makes a difference to what an editor of a journal receives, how many poems he or she receives, the quality of those poems, and the desire of readers to subscribe, to engage. The internet also gives a sense of an immediate reader – no matter if this sense is problematic. It is funny how access to information implies the death of information. Maybe reinvention is necessary. One of most important online initiatives to emerge recently in South Africa is Hugh Hodge’s plan to put the New Contrast archive online – I don’t know if it’s come to fruition, but if it doesn’t it’s a sign of exactly what is at stake, and the problem. It is a critical idea.

In 2000 you launched what was arguably South Africa’s first online literary journal, donga. What was your motivation for that, and have your thoughts about online publishing now, 10 years later?

I'm not sure how you're defining 'online literary journal' here, but there were obviously others before donga. Even Bleksem had an issue up in 1995. As I say, the New Contrast initiative is important – and New Coin could do a similar thing – never mind putting up something like Quarry. So it’s at the level of archive that a lot could be done online – and this would really free our reading of South African poetry. Ingrid Andersen’s publication Incwadi looks interesting. And Liesl Jobson’s work on compiling Poetry International is getting there – but as an index to South African poetry I think it needs to be opened up much more. Then Chimurenga. Ntone has that rare ability to actually deliver on an idea: and he is very tuned into publishing as an intervention – as a commentary on the act of publishing itself. I’m thinking of those little publications of single essays they’ve put out recently – and what the magazine does. The chimurenga library was a very interesting as an idea – even though I saw none of the post-apartheid journals that were important to me there; Timbila, specifically, in terms of what they were doing, which I think has been such an important publication. But it does feel like a bit of a hiatus. The best journals have responded to something that is not entirely under the editor’s control.

pushing from the riverbank focuses on what you have called ‘the domestic space’…

Did I call it that? I am not sure I like that description. I suppose what it does focus on is the most immediate, intimate space; those who are in it. The ‘home’ is a critical confrontation for me. The echoes are the historical space, which are always there. Then my family, now, and whatever comes after that. We have who we have; and we are those things. We forget easily how things were growing up in the 70s and 80s - how brittle, and uncompromising our parents, our bloodless teachers were. At my primary school, the teachers banged the children’s heads against the wall, the woodwork teacher called us “shithouses”, as he walked around with his cane. I came home with a bandaged hand from fighting - like other kids, there were always the fights. There was no-one to talk to about this. How do the generations recover from that lack and loss of love, from that violence? When do you stop passing this stuff down, consciously, unconsciously? My poems try to intervene. In some ways the place I have selected to work is deliberate, and then necessary. It is a confrontation, a conversation, a ‘non-compliance’, as Winnicott said. Maybe I am trying to save, create, re-create something. Resist further absence. Which is pain, and emptiness. Utter abandonment. So that home, then, becomes a place of intimacy, and that intimacy, a necessary resistance. But there is also something quite objective in the process of speaking personally. The ‘I’ is located in terms of the other, the child, the mother, physically, psychologically, psychically, then beyond that the neighbour, whose wall is always there, in the wrong place, or the world of case studies and conferences, where the only way out seems to be into the physicality of things, the “slapping of wet cement”. A difficulty I have found with my poems is how to balance the personal, which I gravitate towards, with the need to publish. This is one of the reasons this book has taken so long to get out. But I think I am happy I can say what I have said in the end - even if there are cracks showing.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Arja Salafranca: Embracing short fiction

Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A life stripped of illusions, winner of the 1994 Sanlam Award, and The Fire in Which we Burn, which was published by Dye Hard Press. Her collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was recently published by Modjaji Books. She edits the Sunday Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of the 2009/2010 Dalro Award for her poem, 'Steak', published in New Coin. You can visit her blog here.

DH: Short fiction has been referred to as a sort of poor relation of the novel. What are your thoughts on that, and why do you prefer short fiction over the novel?
AS: I think short fiction is certainly the “poor relation” to the novel, but only in the way it is perceived by the majority of publishers, readers and booksellers. The majority, not all, otherwise we would have no collections by single authors out there at all! It’s been all a bit of a catch 22 – with stories not selling in significant volumes, publishers seem to have cut back on publishing collections by single authors in the last ten, fifteen years. In addition, magazines from the late 1980s onward stopped publishing short fiction, which they used to do quite regularly. So stories became quite marginalised, off the radar as a genre. Instead, in this country, we saw interest in South African novels peaking, as well as in nonfiction works.

There has been a rise in the number of short fiction collections and anthologies published in SA recently – do you think the tide is turning?
Yes, thankfully the tide is turning, albeit slowly. I wrote a piece for The Star in 2008, titled The short story renaissance in which I asked a number of writers, booksellers and publishers for their views. The assumption, generally, was that there was a bit of a shift. For a start, some magazine had began publishing stories again, or running competitions for short stories, bringing them back into the public eye. This year we’ve seen a “flood” of short stories – I call it a flood, because compared to the amount being published in previous years, this is a delightful amount. There was Home Away, an anthology edited by Louis Greenberg, which has done very well; Modjaji Books has published two volumes of stories, my own, as well as Meg Vandermerve’s This Place I call Home, and The Bed Book of Short Stories, David Medalie has a collection out, Ivan Vladislavic’s early short stories have been reissued, and Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Homing has just been released. Usually we see a single volume every couple of years by a single author, so I think stories are receiving more prominence now. They are being published again – and that’s the first step to getting readers.

There’s still a long way to go, of course – we need to demand their prominence as readers and writers. We need to ask more magazines to publish them; we need to buy more collections, ask booksellers to stock them, or shop online. We need to read and buy short story collections – for lovers of short stories that’s not a huge ask, of course. But some readers are a little afraid of reading short fiction, whether it’s because it’s not a familiar read, as poetry isn’t, or whether that “quick fix” offered by stories isn’t seen as satisfactory. We need to write stories that draw readers in, and very importantly, as writers, we need to read short stories and read widely. As I said before, if you can’t find volumes of stories in your bookshop, go online, there are collections and anthologies out there that don’t make it to our South African shelves. Go explore.

We tend to refer more to short fiction these days rather than short stories. Why is that?

I’m not quite sure. I still use these terms in interchangeably, but the terms “short stories” may be regarded as limiting, a short story must be X no of words etc, whereas short fiction is more open, it can be anything, just not a novel, I suppose.

What short fiction writers have influenced you and why? Are you more influenced by contemporary short fiction writers than by more classic writers of the genre, such as Hemingway, Chekhov, DH Lawrence or Katherine Mansfield?
I’m definitely influenced by more contemporary writers. Although I wrote some short stories starting at eleven, and into my teens, I really fell in love with short stories in my first year at university. I was studying African and English literature and both introduced me to a wide variety of South African writers – from Pauline Smith to Nadine Gordimer. I read all of Gordimer’s short fiction, I read Margaret Atwood. I love the US writer Lorrie Moore’s witty, sharp, clever short fiction, she remains one of my favourites. I read a wide variety of short fiction – from local stories published in local journals and some of the local anthologies that have been brought out over the years, from Oshun’s three volumes of short fiction by women writers, to those collected from the Caine Prize published by Jacana yearly, to that great American series, The Best American series...they publish volumes of stories every years, chosen from American magazines. There’s also the Best American travel, essays and other genres, which I read. I love anthologies, that’s how I often get introduced to other writers, and then search out their individual collections.

What is the inspiration for your short fiction? Most of it seems autobiographical, and they also touch on issues that are relevant to contemporary South Africa, such as immigration and crime.
I do plumb my own autobiography – and I’m not alone here. Simone de Beauvoir famously used her own life as the basis for so much of her fiction and she in turn defended herself by referring to War and Peace and Tolstoy’s reliance on real-life characters.

I sometimes start with an image or a faint story I have heard and transform that into fiction. Sometimes I take episodes of my life, situations, happenings and they become short fiction. Sometimes the stories are wholly imagined: ‘A man sits in a Johannesburg Park’ about emigration, began with the image of a man sitting on bench in a park taking his dog for a run the day before he is to leave the country with his family, which is an entirely imagined piece.

I do touch on crime and emigration – as these are facts of life in our country. Crime often leads to emigration, unfortunately, too. I don’t consciously set out to depict the ways in which crime has impacted on us, or the way emigration has crept into all our lives in various ways, but it enters as most of my stories are set in this country. It’s part of us, if we choose to live here.

Anais Nin was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, resulting in some very in-depth character studies in her fiction. Has psychoanalysis had an influence in your own work?
I majored in psychology, as well as African Literature as part of my undergraduate degree at Wits. For a very brief time I even considered taking it further, becoming a psychologist. I am still interested in what motivates people, in their foibles, in their scars and in why so often people remain mired in patterns they can't break out of. I’m more interested in motivations and dramas, and tend to read more widely and watch more TV and movies in which the characters drive the storyline rather than plot, so people are certainly an interest. I think that interest is naturally part of my writing. As for whether the practice of therapy has directly influenced my work, I’m not sure. I’m writing a series of novellas for my MA in Creative Writing at Wits university and one of these may be a study of the therapeutic relationship, so perhaps that will be an influence.

You are also a poet, and have had two collections of poems published. To what degree does your poetry inform your short fiction and vice versa?
Does it inform my fiction? I’m not sure. I’m very drawn to short forms – I love essays, for example, I love reading short stories, of course. But I do love longer works: novels, biographies, nonfiction works, for example. My fiction gives me the space to explore themes that poetry can't; similarly some experiences or subjects are expressed as poems, they can't be stories or anything else. I’m not sure that each influence each other, but everything in life influences everything else, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the influence, but it’s there.

What are your views on the situation of poetry publishing in South Africa?
It’s in the doldrums as far as publishing collections goes. It’s “easy” enough to have poems published in literary journals, but it’s hard to get a volume published these days. Same old catch 22 – publishers aren’t publishing, readers aren’t buying. And so we go back to publishers not publishing ... there are some exceptions. Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books is leading the way and is publishing a vast amount of poetry collections. Then Leon de Kock’s Bodyhood has just been brought out by Umuzi. But, at the moment, it’s a huge struggle to get poetry out there. Another prominent poet, who has had a number of collections published and is widely known and well regarded, can't get local publishers to look at her latest volume. I find that unbelievably sad and tragic.

You are also very focused on creative nonfiction, another genre that seems to be marginalised in SA. What is creative nonfiction, and why do you think it is marginalised?
Creative nonfiction uses techniques of fiction to tell a story – but it goes beyond that. In trying to describe this, I return often to Jo Anne Beard’s piece 'Werner', originally published in the US journal Tin House. It’s about Werner, an ordinary man, who returns to his apartment building after work and wakes in the middle of the night to find that the building is on fire. Beard’s piece is a fast-moving, dripping account of that incident. It reads like a thriller. It’s an alive, moving piece of writing – and that’s what creative nonfiction sets out to do. It’s not about dry boring facts presented in a dry boring way.

For another “definition” here’s Lee Gutkind’s description of it. Gutkind is considered the “guru” of the form. In 1973 he was the first to teach it in an American university, and started up the journal Creative Nonfiction twenty years later in 1993.

He writes in the forward essay to In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction: “Of course I am a creative nonfiction writer, 'creative' being indicative of the style in which nonfiction is written so as to make it more dramatic and compelling. We embrace many of the techniques of the fiction writer, including dialogue, description, plot, intimacy and specificity of detail, characterisation, point of view; except, because it is nonfiction – and this is the difference – it is true.”

It has been said that fiction in South Africa tends to be dominated by women – do you agree with this, and if so, why is this?
I don’t think that it is dominated by women – we have some fine male writers producing novels. I think that’s a misconception: what we have now are more women writing and having novels published.

What contemporary South African writers do you admire and why?
I look forward to new short story collections by Nadine Gordimer. I’ve recently started reading the Afrikaans writer Ingrid Winterbach in translation, and I admire Damon Galgut’s spare, bleak vision. On the nonfiction front I love what Ndumiso Ngcobo achieved in his sharp essays in his book, Some of my Best Friends are White, and Don Pinnock’s travel and nature-related essays are a real treat and deserve wide readership.

What are your thoughts on ebooks? It’s an approach to publishing that South Africans seem to be resisting.

And no wonder! The speed of our internet as well as the reliability or lack of are real factors in preventing this uptake. Also there is this perception that ebooks aren’t real – you’re not published till you’re between the covers so to speak. Overseas this perception is changing and I think we might catch up.

How do you see short fiction going in the future?

I hope that the short story renaissance discussed earlier really does take off and that we see more and more collections and anthologies appearing. I hope more magazines and Sunday supplements embrace the form and start publishing fiction as part of their offerings (as they do in England) and I hope that the genre achieves more prominence and gains in readership. I’d love to start a short story festival in South Africa and introduce even more readers to the delights of the form - which can be as satisfactory to read as a novel or a nonfiction work.
The Thin Line is available at bookstores countrywide in SA. You can also buy a copy online from Kalahari.net, Loot, Exclusive Books and Amazon.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Vonani Bila:No brand-puppet poet



Producing poetry that is infused with a sense of social and political commitment may seem like a throw-back to the apartheid era for some, but for poet, editor, publisher and community activist Vonani Bila, the urgent need for poets — and all writers — to address social injustice remains as strong as ever.

Bila, whose fourth poetry collection, Handsome Jita, was recently published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, was born in 1972 at Shirley Village in the Elim area of Limpopo, into a family of eight children.

He says his parents instilled in him an appreciation of music and narrative.

“My father was a gifted singer and composer,” says Bila. “He even used to play the timbila (a finger harp that is associated with the Vatsonga, Vacopi and Machangani of Mozambique, where the Bilas originally come from).

“My mother didn’t attend any formal schooling, but she’s indisputably a living historian with an astute and impeccable memory of family and social history. My mother tells intelligent and humorous tales to her grandchildren with great passion. It is from her that I inherited the narrative command evident in my poetry.”

But he is deeply aware of the conditions of poverty and injustice into which he was born. His great-grandfather fought in the Second World War but, “like most blacks who served in the army, he got virtually nothing, except that his name got engraved on the walls of Elim Hospital”.

“My father died after working at Elim Hospital for almost 30 years, earning a paltry R300 a month at the time of his death.”

Bila went to Lemana High School, one of the reputable public schools in Elim, he says, but he had to walk 14km to get there.

He was 21 when his first poem was published. At the time, Bila was a student at Tivumbeni College of Education, where he earned the reputation of being a public poet. His involvement at the time with nongovernmental organisations such as the Akanani Rural Development Association sharpened his political views.

“It motivated me to want to join Umkhonto weSizwe in 1989. I took my passport, but when my father died, I couldn’t proceed with my plans. I guess a certain anger that is in my poetry is that of a guerrilla who fires with poetry rather than with an AK47.”

His first collection of poems, No Free Sleeping, with Donald Parenzee and Alan Finlay, was published in 1998 by Botsotso. He was impressed with the way in which Botsotso got him involved in the production, and this inspired him to start up his own poetry publishing venture, the Timbila Poetry Project, which has published collections by poets such as Goodenough Mashego, Makhosazana Xaba and Mbongeni Khumalo.

Bila has also published two of his own titles — In the Name of Amandla and Magicstan Fires — as well as an annual poetry journal, Timbila. He has also released a CD of his poetry, Dahl Street, Pietersburg.

Bila emphasises the value of the spoken word, and of the benefits of being able to listen to poetry. “If a poet can project their poetry well through their voice on CD and on stage, then they can easily communicate the feeling of the poem to a large number of people who wouldn’t necessarily have access to the book, given that poetry books are not widely distributed in shops.

“But SA needs books as much as we need CDs, printed T-shirts and posters bearing poems. When we explore new technology such as the internet, we must always remember there are millions of South Africans who don’t have access to that medium.

“SA’s illiteracy levels are shocking and for that reason, we will always need books.”

But despite this emphasis on the need to reach a wide audience, Bila does not see himself as a public poet.

“I am a poet who comments on life around and about me,” he says. “Yes, I confront the reader with stories of shame, degradation, retrenched workers, prostitutes in substandard conditions, the unemployed and beggars — these are stories few dare to tell with honesty, love and compassion. Instead they sensationalise them and further dehumanise these people.

“This sordid reality I feel nobody, especially poets, should be ignoring. Of course, there is a price one can pay heavily for raising such embarrassing questions of the government’s failure to take care of the poor.

“Where I come from, poverty hits you straight in the face and you wonder what changes (Jacob) Zuma or (Thabo) Mbeki or the African National Congress (ANC) will effect to improve the lives of the poor. All I see is politicians accumulating wealth, buying farms, sitting on several companies as directors, fixing tenders for their relatives.

“I comment on all these matters, not because it’s sexy to do so, nor because every angry young poet feels the ANC has sold out. I do so because I am a patriot. I care about finding the roots of social and political problems we are facing.

“Poetry is not a hobby for me. It’s a lifelong commitment, and I can only be true to myself when I express that which I believe in, without being a propagandist.”

Apart from disappointment over the government’s lack of service delivery, Bila is also troubled by the fact that the spectre of apartheid has not yet disappeared and that incidents of racist attacks are rife in SA’s rural areas.

“I am antiracist,” he says. “I come from a province rife with racism. White farmers chop off a farm worker’s head, throw him into a river, and say he was bitten by a crocodile. They mistake black people for dogs and baboons.”

His poetry has won him recognition overseas and he has been invited to countries such as Belgium, Sweden, Holland and Brazil. But one particular overseas trip was harrowing: last year, when arriving at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya to attend the World Economic Summit, he was detained for three hours for allegedly travelling on an out-of-date passport.

“It was a nasty experience,” he says, but also points to a lack of solidarity among writers in SA.“If poets were organised, they would have spoken out against the Kenyan government’s trampling on my rights. But a writer could die in prison without other writers saying a word.”

Bila is encouraged that Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile is now SA’s poet laureate and hopes there will now be some dynamism in the country’s literary development.He also says poetry would be better known if schools were studying local poets.

“Most schools exclude poetry. What is commonplace in the school and varsity arena are proponents of British and American modernism such as TS Eliot.

“With the exception of black consciousness-inspired poetry of the ’70s, those who teach poetry pretend there’s a desert between 1980 and now.”

Bila, however, takes a critical view of work being produced by younger South African poets.

“They slam, and in their slam jam there’s little poetry. They mimic some of the worst US thugs and choose to ignore rich and unusual voices. To generalise is not fair, but those who appear to have become celebrities, whether (that status is) self-constructed or acquired, are worshipped by the youth because their faces are visible on TV and from time to time they are invited to perform at government and corporate functions.

“Some poets are happy to be commissioned to write about brands and labels; I’m not such a clown. They demand to perform at government functions, and they are paid good money. You’ll hear so and so was in Cuba, attending a writers’ conference. How they get there is through connections.”

But thankfully for South African poetry, Bila is no performing puppet and nobody’s clown.

(First published in The Weekender 12 January, 2008)

Philip Hammial: Outsider poet and artist


Philip Hammial was born in the US and emigrated to Australia in 1972. Two of his 20 collections of poetry have been shortlisted for a New South Wales Premier’s Award. He is also a sculptor and the director of The Australian Collection of Outsider Art.

DH:You were born in Detroit, but after graduating from university you travelled the world for 10 years then settled in Australia. It was a very different time and world travel seemed a lot easier to do. It was part of the whole counterculture scene. How did you relate to that, and why did you choose Australia in which to settle?

PH:At 12 I decided I wanted to see the world, this after reading the adventures of Colin Glencannon, Scot engineer on a tramp freighter; Richard Haliburton’s adventures & hearing Lowell Thomas’ radio reports on his trip into Tibet on foot shortly after the end of the Second World War. So when I graduated from high school I decided to get a job on a salt-water freighter only to discover I was too young. Telling a visiting uncle about this problem, he suggested I join the US Navy, which I did, the next day. Three years (1954-57) in the engine rooms of two ships, it was a great beginning.

I then went to college (university later) & spent two summers hitchhiking around Europe, staying in youth hostels & cheap pensions & reading the collected works of Nietzsche. My third trip (with my first wife) lasted two years. We went around the world for US$1000 each, $500 a year. The US dollar was very strong, & there were black markets in Turkey, Pakistan and India. Anyway, I’ve managed to travel in 74 countries for a total of 10 years – India (4 times), Tibet (twice), China (4 times), much of Africa.

I left the US for the last time in 1969 for two reasons; to travel & because I was totally disgusted with the domestic security & foreign policies of the US government &, needless to say, still am. After living in Bali for a year (money almost gone & not possible to again renew our visas) we flipped a coin – Japan or Australia – to see where we would go to work. Tails, we arrived in Australia on tourist visas in 1972 with $100 between us.

A predictable question: when did you start writing and why? I’m curious about your work in sculpture. You said this started up when you had a broken leg and was stuck at home. Why sculpture and not other visual art forms?

Having had a successful career as a juvenile delinquent and three years in the navy (where I came to the realisation that I was a pig-ignorant fool & probably headed for prison) I managed, in spite of my poor high school grades, to get admitted to a small college in Michigan. It was there, thanks to some inspiring teachers, that I started writing poetry, plays, short stories & a novel as well as painting & playing a sax. Couldn’t do it all, so eventually settled on poetry & sculpture. Yes, the broken leg, in three pieces. In plaster from one foot to armpits & taking painkillers, I was too groggy to write poetry. A compulsive creator, what to do? One day my mates loaded me into my Plymouth sedan & took me to a tip where, with me pointing to objects, they filled the boot, then spread all of those wonderful bits & pieces over a big table in the basement of our house in San Francisco. Hobbling around on crutches, three or four months later I had 40 pieces of sculpture. Not sure why sculpture, probably because I discovered I’m not much of a painter. Also, like poetry, I can make a piece of sculpture in one hit – an hour or two & it’s done.

You started up Island Press in the middle 1970s – what is your experience of publishing in Australia? What is the attitude of commercial publishers towards poetry?

Publishing poetry in Australia is a mug’s game. One would have thought after all these years that I’d have smartened up & done something worthwhile. I think I finally have – no plans for any further publications. Since the time of Bob Hawk, both Labour & the Liberals have been cutting funding to the arts, with poetry right at the bottom of everyone’s priorities. In any case only a handful of Australians read poetry. Most of my friends are visual artists & musicians & only two or three of them have poetry books on their bookshelves. What hope for the rest of the population?

I’d guess that only one in ten thousand homes would have even a single volume of poetry tucked away on a bookshelf.

We’re a nation of sports spectators. With four or five exceptions, finding a book of Australian poetry in a Sydney bookshop is like finding a needle in a haystack. If, as a person from a small poetry press (not a bona fide rep), I walk into a bookshop in Sydney with books to sell I’ll be out the door before you can say Jack Robinson. Island Press had a distributor for three years. That distributor was worse than useless & took a 65% cut. In the whole of Australia there are, as far as I know, only four distributors that will touch poetry, all of them useless. The large Australian publishers no longer publish poetry; there’s no money in it.

What are your feelings about literary journals in SA that you have seen? What are literary journals like in Australia?

I’ve only seen Green Dragon & Carapace. As I know that you & Gus are publishing on a shoestring you have my sympathy & respect. Literary journals in Australia cover the whole range from elegant to awful, from journals with very good writing to very bad writing. The big academic journals keep battling on. Most of the small magazines have gone under for the reasons listed above, many of them only lasting for one or two issues. To get funding for a magazine from the Literature Board one must prove that one has at least 500 (if I remember correctly) subscribers, a very difficult if not impossible task.

Many small publications in SA are dependent on funding of some sort, whether public or corporate funding. Corporate funding can be a bit dodgy as the companies are likely to want marketing leverage, which risks interfering with the publisher’s integrity. However, obtaining government funding isn’t always that easy, either. What is the situation with regards to funding in Australia?

I can’t think of a poetry publisher who would even think of approaching the private sector for funding. It would be a waste of time. Australian companies aren’t known for their generosity. A few support sports, but the arts ... It’s possible to get subsidies for poetry from the Literature Board of the Australia Council if one has a good track record. Island has received several subsidies over the years, from AUS$500 to $2500 per title for up to four titles. Today it costs about $2300 to publish 500 copies of a good quality 80-page book with a two- or three-colour cover. A book of poetry now costs about $20. Why would anyone buy 80 pages of poetry when one can have a 300-page novel for the same price? As I said above, the federal government only just supports the arts (the Australia Council) & most of that funding goes to the Opera House. Poetry gets the crumbs. By way of contrast, the government of France devotes 4-point something of its annual budget to the arts. Australia? – less than 1%.

A concern in SA is the issue of poetry audiences – how poetry should be shared with an audience. Poetry performance is popular, with the emphasis on active engagement with a physical audience – not the same as publishing a book of poems and hoping someone will read it. You have had texts set to music by Australian world musician Colin Offord; in a sense, this is like poetry returning to its origin, with its basis in song, not as words on the page.

I’m all for getting poetry out to an audience by any means – performance, books, CDs. But Australian poetry audiences, unlike audiences I’ve experienced in Durban, Tokyo, Paris, NYC and Quebec, are usually small, very small, & lazy. To get through to them one must spoon-feed them pabulum. And don’t expect any feedback, positive or negative, after a reading. Much too cool & sophisticated. Australian poets are terminated by indifference. As for performance poetry in Australia: the few performances I’ve seen have been by testosterone-driven adolescents, not my cup of tea.

Your poetry shows the influence of surrealism, and the blurbs on your books usually refer to the influence, but you have said to me you dislike the label, because in Australia the critics use it as an excuse to classify surrealist, or surrealist-inspired, work as outdated. I’m not sure if the situation is different anywhere else in the world, but at the same time it also hints as an establishment conspiracy against any work that is prepared to take risks with language and challenge the status quo.

I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories; but, yes, I dislike the label because (A) surrealism as a movement was officially disbanded in 1967, (B) I don’t practice automatic writing or play surrealist games & (C) it allows my poetry to be dismissed – don’t read Hammial; he’s a surrealist, i.e., difficult, incomprehensible. Australians, like most people, are deeply conservative. And so are most of our poets. We’re still basically a colony. We still kowtow to the Queen of England. We still suffer from the Great Cringe (if it comes from overseas it’s better) and the Tall Poppy Syndrome (stick your head up above the crowd & it will be cut off).This may explain why 98% of Australian poetry is derivative, based occasionally on a British model & usually on a US model – Iowa, Black Mountain, NY, New Lyric, L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E, etc. Our poets, especially the males who fear ridicule from their mates, play it safe, very safe. Where is the excitement, the journey, the sense of adventure? Not here. Also, for whatever reasons – the old copyright laws, high cost of books, lack of information – only a handful of Australian poets have done any in-depth reading in the original or in translation of poets who write in languages other than English.

Your poetry is often a collage of elements: bits of autobiography, word play, but also social comment and political criticism. Your poetry clearly engages with the world around you, dealing with your concerns about the environment, violence, abuse of power and political manipulation. What is your approach when writing?

As a young poet I wrote most of my poems in what might be described as a deep trance, much thrashing about, 20 to 30 poems in one one-hour session. Now, in my dotage, I’m lucky to get two poems from a light trance. In any case, most of my poetry comes from the unconscious or, if that term is problematical, from the subconscious. There’s little or no conscious input. The social commentary, autobiographical bits, word play, etc. simply come up with the rest of the material. That said, most of my prose poems are consciously made, usually in two or three minutes.

A few years back you published a book of prose poems, Swan Song. You use the prose-poem form fairly often, but it tends to be somewhat neglected these days. In various respects I feel there is more freedom in the writing of prose poetry, less of a concern with structure and form that one deals with in verse poetry.

Prose poems are much in evidence in Europe, Latin America, North America, Japan and Australia. I don’t concern myself with structure. It simply happens. I’ve been writing for so long that the poems come out finished in whatever form they need to take.

You formed, with Anthony Mannix, the Australian Collection of Outsider Art, and have organised exhibitions throughout the world. What has drawn you to outsider art? I have noted both you and Mannix have quoted Henri Michaux: “He who hides his madman dies voiceless.”

We have organised 26 exhibitions & only in France, Germany, Belgium, the US & Australia. Contemporary mainstream art the world over all looks to me as though it was produced by the same three or four art school clones. Outsider Art/Art Brut on the other hand speaks to me powerfully. It intoxicates me. It doesn’t cringe. It’s not derivative. It doesn’t care if it’s accepted. It simply is because its makers are compelled to make it. Having worked in a psych hospital, become close friends with several “mad” artists and studied the productions of the “insane” for many years I think I have a fair notion of what it’s about. With respect to poetry: for me most English language mainstream poetry is too sane, too controlled, too predictable, too entrenched in “ordinary” reality, too concerned with craft, too polished.

What about aboriginal art? Has that had an influence on your work?

Not at all.

You came to SA in 2000, to read at the Poetry Africa event in Durban. What were your responses to SA? What did you feel about SA socially and culturally?

As I was only in Durban & only there for ten days my responses would be hopelessly superficial. Instead, let me tell you about my response to the Poetry Africa festival itself. It was wonderful, one of the best experiences of my life. Peter Rorvik & his staff deserve our utmost praise & support. The events were in great venues, very well organised, started on time, employed sate-of-the-art technology ... And what beautiful audiences. People arrived on time, didn’t make noise, listened to the poetry, were very respectful, gave feedback at the end of the readings & even bought books. What more could a poet want? And what an excellent idea – to take poets to schools, rich & poor, to a prison & to a street kids’ refuge.I’m still in touch with some poets I met at Poetry Africa 2000. US Poet Laureate Rita Dove & her husband Fred stayed overnight at our place in the Blue Mountains on a recent trip to Australia. I’ve had letters from Thomas Tidholm (Sweden), Susan Kigali (Uganda), Peter Kantor (Hungary), & Benjamin Zephaniah (UK) & have traded a couple of books with Kelwyn Sole. I often wonder how Otis Fink is going. He was doing good but potentially dangerous work. And Eric Hadebe, where are you? I’d love to hear from you.A poetry festival like Poetry Africa has never happened in Australia & probably never will. Our pathetic Sydney Poetry Festival, which only happens every other year, only had a budget last year of AUS$30 000 & only drew an audience of about 200 over a three-day weekend. And the Sydney Writers Festival is all about money, about promoting trendy, flavour-of-the-month books. Poetry is ignored, a few poets, always the same poets, being invited to sit on a few panels.

What are your feelings about the future of poetry, and of poetry publishing, in Australia?

When I arrived in Australia in 1972 the future of poetry/ poetry publishing was bleak. It still is.

(First published in the fifth issue of Green Dragon in 2007)