Kelwyn Sole was born in Johannesburg in 1951 and has lived in Windhoek, London and Kanye. He is a professor in the English department of the University of Cape Town. He has published six collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Absent Tongues, was published by Hands-On Books, Cape Town. His work has appeared in many poetry anthologies and literary journals, including Green Dragon.
DH: Your first collection, The Blood of Our Silence, was published by Ravan Press in 1987. It was a very different time politically. I read that back then independent publishers like Ravan had had their phones tapped, mail opened and were subject to police raids. How did you feel about writing back then, compared to now?
KS: I thought, at the time, that liberation would neither mean the end of the need for a critical politics vis-à-vis Government, nor the end of critical utterances from writers. I believed writers should maintain their independence at the same time as they joined in the struggle against apartheid. So I don’t feel the themes in my poetry have hugely changed; or at least the stance I adopt in relation to political questions and politicians.
At the same time, of course there was danger. The phone-tapping and interception of mail you mention; I experienced both of these. In the early days the technology was such that they still had to physically install the bug within the phone – I became pretty good at finding these. I got death threats in Namibia when I was an activist, and there was police harassment of me from time to time in the 1980s, which were nasty times generally. But my harassment was not about my writing, and was insignificant compared to what some people went through. Mind you, a lot of the actual history of that period is being lost, in the face of the cleaned-up Governmental versions of those years we’re being fed now ... for instance, who these days remembers the Yeoville Debating Society, set up as a left critique of JODAC? This alternative history is important: it would allow many people to understand the present better.
Two of your earlier collections, Love that is Night and Mirror and Water Gazing show various approaches to poetic form, ranging from fairly traditional four-line stanzas to a more free-form approach, which is what you use most often. It reminds me of the experiments of US poets such as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, but also the British poet Lee Harwood.
The first person whose poetics influenced me was Charles Olson, when I was an undergraduate; and that has remained a source, to some extent, for my poetry since. I think the other members of the Black Mountain School were less influential – I read Creeley at the time, but it’s only now, through an American friend, that I’ve rediscovered him, and understood his gentle, light, occasionally humorous touch. I’ve never liked Duncan much, although I did take to Ed Dorn. In addition, many of the young poets I knew in Jo’burg were into the Beat Poets; and we all read Kerouac. I still remember his injunction, “you can’t fall down a mountain.” Oh yes you can, Jack.
In retrospect, I was also heavily influenced in the beginning, especially in phrasing and spacing, not only by Olson but by the poets influenced by WC Williams – such as Snyder, Denise Levertov, a couple of others. I also read quite a deal of Black Power poetry for a while, especially Amiri Baraka. But it was Williams’ mixture of poetic and prosaic language that really appealed to me, in terms of what I was trying to do.
As an undergraduate I was in addition taken by Chris Okigbo’s and Tchicaya U Tam’si’s poetry. Looking back now, it was probably more as regards Okigbo’s style than his content; although I am still in awe of U Tam’si. I remember being less drawn to South African poetry, especially the white poets. I had extreme views then, and believed they had left me a legacy I should try to obliterate, rather than build on. I probably should have been more receptive to some of them – Patrick Cullinan, for example, was a fine poet. Mind you, I was an undergraduate still when Mtshali’s and Serote’s first volumes were published, which shook things up considerably. Black Consciousness had a big effect on me, in ways which it would take too long to describe here. It was the subject of my doctoral thesis; I then became friends with Chris van Wyk as well, whose poetry – along with Mafika Gwala’s – I much admired.
I did read and like Lee Harwood, and have recently gone back to him to look at his long poem ‘Long Black Veil’, in terms of a book-length sequence I am writing. But if there was a British influence on me early on, it was most clearly from an anthology called Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain that Penguin put out in 1969. How times, and Penguin, have changed! Weird as it may seem, I’ve also found John Milton’s ability to make a line of poetry refer both backwards and forwards a tremendous model that frees one up: I try and do this quite a lot.
More recently, other poets have been important to me. My first book was heavily influenced by Philip Levine, after Jeremy Cronin had given me a cassette tape of him reading. And, always, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In the 1990s I took him around Cape Town for a day, and was reduced to dribbling fandom. He was great. I’ve recently rediscovered Neruda’s poems about birds and the sea, which, rather than being effusive and vague (which is how I viewed him before) are exact in their knowledge and staggering in their effect.
I believe the best poetry has music running through it; you need an ear to be a poet. As Baraka says, “Poetry is speech musick’d.” A lot of South African poetry is bad, in my opinion, because the poet concerned has no ear. In response, some of the poets of my generation tended to try and break up traditional English poetic metre and find new forms. Several of us were, and are, into hard jazz – Berold, Ari Sitas, myself, and more recently Seitlhamo Motsapi and Alan Finlay – you can see it in the experimentation that goes on, with breath phrasing and so on.
Your collection Land Dreaming was all prose poems, some of them closer to short fiction that actual poems. What made you want to focus on prose poems during this time? In an interview in New Contrast, you mentioned by influenced by René Char.
I bought a Selected Char when I was quite young, but only read it many years later, and was blown away – and then I immediately knew I wanted to start a project containing prose poems. Before that I had little interest, past tormenting one of my undergraduate poetry tutors by asking “But what about prose poetry?” every time she tried to make a general point. If you know Char, his poetry is regularly set in landscapes but recreates these landscapes with a highly metaphorical, almost surreal, quality; and often cuts through, or off, narrative. Char has an intensity, a compression, an ability to come at subject matter from an oblique angle, that to my mind is the essence of prose poetry as a form.
Having said this, if you look through my collection you’ll see that not all the poems conform to what Char does.‘Staff’, written first, does, for example; but there are also a lot of narrative poems; these days they would be called ‘flash fiction’ I suppose. There are also dialogues, demented monologues, parodies of various kinds of discourse, especially official and media discourse and so on. It’s a mixed bag.
In writing Land Dreaming I conceived of the idea of using individual poems to create a wider mosaic of poems, partly personal and partly socio-political, within a space – in this case Southern Africa. There was a model I found for this too, despite its very different subject matter: Jacques Réda’s The Ruins of Paris. I’ve travelled widely through South Africa, and a large majority of the poems relate to places I have visited, and I’m trying to be pretty exact, although occasionally I borrowed stories from friends. I wanted to socialise and politicise the landscapes I came up with: they’re full of people talking, thinking, occasionally fighting; but mainly desiring and dreaming, despite at times dire circumstances and lives. Thus, Land Dreaming. There are also people in some poems, however, who are pretty delusional about their reality. This is another version of the title.
In your new collection, Absent Tongues, we continue to read the familiar themes in your work – a sense of the everyday activity of work and home, as well as surrounding landscapes, but also, of course, a strong awareness of the socioeconomic and political environment in which we live.
About ten years ago I published an article in the British academic journal new formations which argued that the ordinary – the everyday – was suffused with political and economic determinants, especially so in this stage of late capitalism. All our personal and leisure activities are being drawn further into the ambit of finance and commerce: sport is only the most obvious of these. This has always been my view of the everyday – one in concert with Henry Lefebvre’s theory, I suppose. I hope that my poems reflect this.
Looking back on it, the themes through my six books have remained remarkably similar, without too much intention. To some extent this is to even the case, to be sure, in Land Dreaming. Yet there is one habitual aspect only marginally present in my latest, Absent Tongues. In its original form this manuscript was longer, but I pulled out quite a number of poems. So it’s more in one voice: there’s less of the flat, demotic, slightly mocking tone of voice I sometimes use, and no satires. In this case I thought that a greater usage of my (as it were) ‘poetic’ voice would work better, and give it more coherence. I’m hoping it will give it a focus and strength to which readers will respond.
You work in academia. Do you feel that being involved with literature as a living, as you are, makes one necessarily a more skilled or more perceptive poet? Or can it even make one inhibited? Some great poets have been involved in professions that have had nothing to do with writing – Williams is an obvious example.
I don’t think it will necessarily help one’s poetry, but it could harm it. I tend to agree with Williams in Paterson on this issue: “We go on living, we permit ourselves / to continue – but certainly / not for the university, what they publish / severally or as a group: clerks / got out of hand forgetting for the most part / to whom they are beholden.” But then I come from a generation that got all misty-eyed about Snyder in his firewatch station in a forest, who believed the older poets were stodgy and pompous, who identified with that poem of Neruda’s that acclaims “the poets of our age - / with light clothes and walking shoes.” There’s nothing more depressing than standing in a university bookshop overseas, looking through scores of first volumes by young poets fresh out of creative writing programmes, all more or less the same. I have done a bit of supervision but I have always avoided being in a classroom creative writing situation except once, when I sat in on a class of Martín Espada’s in Amherst.
But perhaps I’m exaggerating – there are good poets who can come out of this, as well as good teachers: for instance, there’s a wonderful essay by Philip Levine, ‘Mine Own John Berryman’, describing the difference between being taught by Lowell and Berryman. Come to think of it, Sylvia Plath didn’t take to Lowell either... one of my favourite quotes about how teachers can miss the uniqueness of a student can be found in her diary: “How few of my superiors do I respect the opinions of anyhow? Lowell a case in point. How few will see what I am working at, overcoming? How ironic that all my work to overcome my easy poeticisms merely convinces them that I am rough, anti-poetic, unpoetic.” Enough said.
What is your view of South African poetry at present? When I look back at the 1990s, there was a tremendous energy in local poetry, and there was an interest in what we were doing. The interest has waned considerably in the past 10 years and at the same time I feel South African poetry has regressed.
I identified quite markedly with some of the more formally experimental, yet still politically suffused poets who emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s – partly because there were so many different styles, voices, opinions. They remain a salutary presence. There was also a greater degree of influence – perhaps it was similarity of intent - between black and white poets, I think, than before or since. Some of the poets who started out in that period are now well-known, such as Cronin, Ingrid de Kok and Lesego Rampolokeng. There are others, though, whose true worth and importance have still not been attended to. I’m thinking of Karen Press, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Joan Metelerkamp, and quite a few others.
I, like you, don’t see quite this adventurous spirit or excitement any more. However, I have recently had cause to look at the South African poetry published in the last two or three years more closely, and it’s not as dismal as I thought. There are a number of younger (relatively speaking) poets who have established a consistent and unique voice, such as Rustum Kozain and Vonani Bila. Gabeba Baderoon and Kobus Moolman are writing with growing power; Kobus is, in my view, possibly the most compelling voice exploring and experimenting with new ways of writing poetry at the moment. I really enjoy watching Creamy Ewok Baggends and the Zimbabwean Comrade Fatso on stage; it seems to me that Genna Gardini, Haidee Kruger and Khadija Heeger have talent that will develop further; and I’ve always liked Kate Kilalea’s poetry – it’s such a pity she’s moved to London.
There are a number of other interesting new poets coming through, mostly those published by the independent publishers such as Modjaji, Botsotso, Deep South and yourself. I have huge admiration for publishers who are doing this, often on a shoestring budget, usually without any help or attention from the media. All in all, the mainstream publishers and media seem to have little interest in poetry, unless it comes from what they regard as a ‘profile’. They have even less interest in serious or experimental poetry: it’s only the small, independent, shoe-string publishers who are keeping poetry’s head above water, bless them.
So there are worrying signs. I can best sum this up by repeating something I heard a mainstream publisher say in praise of a book of poetry at a launch recently ... “Each poem is a perfect work of art” ... and then the audience nodded their heads sagely. Ouch. To my mind, such a view of poetry can only be called pre-modernist: modernist and post-modernist movements have thrown such a notion of the poem out of the window. If some South African publishers have this view of poetry, how can we expect to move forward? I am moreover less than full of enthusiasm about the proliferation of Maya Angelou look-alikes around at the moment, on the ‘spoken word’ circuit. At worst it comes far too close to an identity- and self-obsessed Cosmospeak.
It’s a cliché, but nevertheless true, to say that poetry is the easiest genre to do badly, but the most difficult to do well. In the last decade in particular it’s been hugely undervalued – in some cases, in book fairs, it looks like it’s starting to be seen by organisers as a dollop of light relief between the more urgent tasks of selling genre fiction to make money. Have a look: the topics given poets to talk about in panel discussions are sometimes embarrassingly facile.
What to you is the role of the poet in society, if any, and how do you think society views the role of the poet?
I think the wider South African society at present views poetry as a harmless oddity, only occasionally useful to launch brand names or praise the ‘big men’ – no reference to gender – trundling along our corridors of power. On the other hand, some people take a kind of defensive position, perceiving the poet as a special individual, a prophet and seer. Both of these are wrong, in my opinion.
I think poetry has a variety of roles. Let’s face it, one of these is to entertain. However, poems should also make us think, and, if necessary, make us uncomfortable. I believe readers should be goaded, prodded, and delighted – good poetry does all of these.
Do you think South African writers indulge in self-censorship?
Maybe, but I can’t think of immediate examples. However, I am convinced that there is a form of hidden censorship at the moment. A new hegemony has risen, I believe, taking its cue from the interventions of Ndebele and Sachs many years ago, to cast literature within a seemingly free, but ultimately defined, ambit in society, policed by publishers and reviewers – and it’s certainly far away from anything either Sachs or Ndebele would have wanted, I suspect. Who was the Zen master who said, “to give your cow a wide, open field is the best way to control it?” Everything’s so staid, so conventional, you want to run. In terms of fiction and poetry, I have had a number of young writers come to me and talk about publishers saying to them, off the record, “take out the politics and I’ll publish this.” Though, of course, no one is prepared to have the courage to say it publicly. There’s surely a neurosis about political themes among some publishers and academics, which can only be described as engendered by the fear of a future where the present social and political settlements could be disrupted. It’s a pity: here, today, such a viewpoint can only serve the powerful and rich, and those who want the future South Africa to be a place where they can be lulled to sleep by literary entertainment in their suburbs. Fat chance!
Photo of Kelwyn Sole: Centre for Creative Arts
Photo of Kelwyn Sole: Centre for Creative Arts