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Digging in the suitcase like Pandora opening her box
Michelle McGrane in conversation with Deborah Steinmair
Deborah Steinmair was born in Groblersdal and grew up in Pretoria. She was awarded a BA (majoring in English and Drama) with Drama honours. She has been employed as an assistant to a travelling puppeteer, an English lecturer at the University of the North, Afrikaans books editor at kalahari.net and SêNet webmaster. Currently she freelances as a copywriter, editor, proofreader, web designer and writer. A See-through Suitcase , Deborah’s debut poetry collection in English, was published in 2003 by Genugtig. Her English poetry has been published in New Contrast and Carapace . Deborah currently lives in Rosebank, Cape Town with her eldest daughter. Her youngest daughter lives with her parents on a farm near Pretoria.
Deborah, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
My parents are artists. My father left teaching to sculpt full-time when I was in primary school and my mom was always at home, albeit in her own world: painting, doing pottery, batik, potato print, tie and dye. Those were the sixties. She was a bit of a beauty, with long straight hair like Joan Baez or Jill Kirkland. She played the guitar and sang. In a sense we lived like gypsies: there was a festive buzz to the days, we were always either waiting for a cheque or spending it. I was ill-prepared for the “real world”, for corporate ladders, budgets and income tax forms. My twin brothers are two years older than me; my sister is four years younger. I was the ham in the sandwich, a quiet, bookish child, a worrywart given to obsessive-compulsive behaviour and introspection, a bit of a Charlie Brown.
What did you read as a child? Who were your childhood fictional heroes and heroines?
The first English book I ever read was Caroline and her kettle named Maud. This was soon after I started reading. I was determined to figure out the non-phonetic riddle that was English. I could recite that book page by page, in a heavy Afrikaans accent. I devoured Enid Blyton from Noddy to The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. My heart belonged to Anne of Green Gables and Freckles of the Limberlost. I was really soppy and wept copiously over the misfortunes and small triumphs of Little Women. Alice in Wonderland puzzled and fascinated me. Jane Eyre incited a revolutionary fervour against the injustices of a cruel world. Of course, I also read all the Afrikaans stuff, but there was never enough. Still in primary school I tackled the raunchily romantic Angelique by Sergeanne Golon as well as the odd Mills & Boon, Barbara Cartland, Mary Renault, Joy Packer, Wilbur Smith. I would break out in a panic if there wasn’t a book in my field of vision at any given time.
While growing up, what did you believe about your future?
I had a vague notion that I would become famous and rich by accident. So far it hasn’t happened. I dreamed of changing the world by striking at people’s hearts, by making them sit up and FEEL. I still have that dream.
As a child, were you aware of apartheid and segregation?
Yes, in a vague way. I remember an overall sense of helplessness, of having no say in my destiny, not even in what was spread on my school sandwich. That was the way we were brought up in those days. It’s so difficult to speak about apartheid. It sounds so preposterous to say I didn’t know what was going on, but of course the media kept most of it away from us. Daily injustices were plain to see, of course, such as segregated parks and the woman who cleaned our house washing and eating in the back yard. It’s so easy to say, now: I always noticed people for who they were regardless of their station in life or the colour of their skin, but of course poets do see beneath the surface to a certain extent. I will admit that there was a time when I was brainwashed and almost bought the whole Communist/Black/Red/Yellow Danger thing. I can’t claim to have been very politically conscious, alas. But injustice did sadden me.
At what age did you start to write poems? What drew you to poetry?
I started writing poems as soon as I could write, at five. My mother used to read to us a lot, stories and poems. I could get high on rhythm and rhyme. My first efforts were rhyming couplets with a strong moral leaning, like American sitcoms.
Which poets have inspired and influenced you?
When I was very young, every poet I read inspired me deeply: Wordsworth, Shelley, Christina Rosetti, William Blake, Edward Lear. Later William B Yeats, TS Eliot, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Anna Achmatova, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, Yevtoshenko, Breyten Breytenbach, Wilma Stockenström, Petra Müller, Henning Pieterse, Jeanne Goosen, Stefan Bouwer, TT Cloete, e e cummings, WH Auden and many more.
You write a fortnightly column on LitNet in Afrikaans called “Fratsgolf”, which you've described as "throwing all my toys out of the cot in public" and "a long therapy session". Does writing about the dark parts of the human psyche require a special act of courage? How difficult is it for you to dig deeply into the painful experiences of your life and how liberating is it to release them?
Not difficult at all, I found after I started digging in the suitcase that I’d kept shut for so many years. It’s a huge relief; there is the dizzying thrill of exhibitionism – more rashness than courage is required. It is a kind of revenge, I suppose, like Pandora opening her box and unleashing all those goggas.
You have two daughters. Has being a mother made you feel differently about yourself? How do you juggle the demands of motherhood and writing?
I am not a good mother in any conventional sense. My daughters seem to raise themselves. As a child I often felt stifled, inhibited, cramped. I have decided to give them rope. It’s too early to say if this decision was founded in over-reaction or intuitive wisdom. Being a mother has made me forgive my own mother – no, more than that – venerate her. It’s a lonely job calling for superhuman bravery.
Anne Sexton said, "Those moments before a poem comes, when the heightened awareness comes over you, and you realise a poem is buried there somewhere, you prepare yourself. I run around, you know, kind of skipping around the house, marvellous elation. It's as though I could fly, almost, and I get very tense before I've told the truth – hard. Then I sit down at the desk and get going with it." Do you experience this sense of 'heightened awareness' before you sit down to write?
Yes, I wake up feeling slightly out of focus, like the guy in a coffee ad who hasn’t had his first cuppa. The world seems dizzyingly bright, every word resonates with meaning, every street name has a hidden message, I can’t concentrate on spreadsheets, I cry at the drop of a hat. I feel skinless.
In The Journey Out, Rosalind Brackenbury says, "Starting to write something begins with the pinprick of an idea, far back in the mind, that grows until it seems to have filled all the available space." Do you find poems come from ideas rather than from images and lines? Is a poem an immediate creation for you, or do you put poems away in a drawer and return to rework them months later?
All of the above. I have had a first line dictated to me by a voice in my inner ear, a metaphor that kept me awake at night, an idea that took root on the highway. A poem is never an immediate creation, but once it arrives at my door I have to invite it in and make it comfortable on the sofa, otherwise it turns on its heels. Once it lands in a drawer, it is lost. I can never find anything in my drawers.
In The Lady Scribbler, Carole Satyamurti comments that "writing a poem seems to involve a simultaneous opening up and a reaching inwards – like an intense form of day-dreaming – a state a bit like madness". What do you feel when you're in the act of writing a poem?
Madness, yes indeed. A focus that is intense as well as fuzzy. It is both dogged and fragile. A vacuum cleaner can shatter it, can swallow up a whole poem. It is like trying to piece together a dream. You can almost remember it and have to fill in the blanks.
What part of a poem is usually the most challenging for you?
Definitely the last line. I like to go out with a bang. A friend of mine writes beautiful poems, but there is never a strong ending. When he reads them at open mikes, people never applaud, because nobody knows that the poem is finished. I’ve told him to deliver the last line with a flourish at least, but he just mumbles it.
How do you decide the length of a line? Does it have to do with the way it looks on the page or how many syllables there are in it?
It has to do with instinct and I’m sure I don’t always get it right. It has to feel right. The editor of my book of poetry complained that I don’t always get the metre right, but when I read my poems aloud they do make sense the way they do in my head, even though I’m by no means good at speech and drama.
Are there people with whom you feel comfortable sharing your work when it's in draft form, people you can use as sounding boards?
Not really. Of course I do always show a new poem to friends and lovers and am sometimes discouraged by a thoughtless remark. For many years (about twenty) I never showed my poems to anyone. When I did start reading them at open mikes, I found that I received a creative injection. Poems have to be heard.
What do you like most about your own writing? What are your favourite poems?
For some reason, the poems I wrote about my ex-husband’s dysfunctional childhood. He was (he’s still alive, but has found religion and settled into more or less respectable middle age) such a tortured, beautiful creature when I married him. I had a huge Messiah complex and was going to redeem him. Of course I didn’t succeed and I didn’t get an equitable settlement either, being constitutionally unable to fight for money, but I did gain almost an entire book of poetry from the experiment. Maybe it’s just a convenient cop-out, a form of denial, of not facing your own pain while giving voice to the pain of another.
Do you abandon some poems because they don't meet your standards? Do you sometimes think that it may be the last time you write a poem?
Oh definitely. I often turn on my darlings. I’m easily discouraged and ready to believe that poet my foot, I’m just a pisseur de copie, to quote Muriel Spark in A far cry from Kensington.
Have you found that being a woman and an artist have presented you with any particular problems? As a woman poet, have you ever struggled to be taken seriously?
Not really. I find men really get into my ex-husband’s adolescent angst when I read from my poetry. Now that you mention it, there was an ancient hurt, deeply buried now. When I wrote my first poem, “Dankie Moeder” (Thank You, Mother) at five, my brothers accused me of plagiarism, saying they’d read that very poem in a book recently. Quite a compliment, now that I think about it.
Are there advantages to being a woman and a writer currently in South Africa?
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never felt particularly womanly or manly, I’ve always felt like a person. I didn’t feel like a poet before I came to Cape Town and found out that people would sit down and listen to what I wrote.
Genugtig brought out your debut collection of poetry, A See-through Suitcase. How would you describe the collection and how did its fabulous title come to you?
It’s confessional poetry in the tradition of Sylvia Plath, I suppose. It’s intensely personal, but often deals with other people’s crises as opposed to my own. The fabulous title was a gift from my mentor, Jeanne Goosen, who said (in Afrikaans) that writing poetry was like lugging around a transparent suitcase.
When collating this volume, how did you decide which poems to include? Did you work with an editor?
I sent a lot of poems and a very strict Afrikaans-speaking editor pruned away half of them, hence the thin volume. My motherboard crashed soon afterwards, so the ones that didn’t make it truly got away, are lost for all eternity.
Some of the poems in the volume are about your ex-husband and his life. Did you write them during your marriage or was it the intense emotional upheaval of divorce that forged them?
Most of them were written while we were married. I have an uncanny ability to stay in the moment and not allow an iota of pain to pass me by. No emotion recollected in tranquillity for me. I wrote them while I was still trying to complete the jigsaw puzzle of his past and save him.
What prompted you to write your “internet dating” poems, “Remote Caress, Proximity” and “The Web”?
The most enjoyable love affair of my life, an intense three-year long-distance relationship with a clever, tortured, sensitive, sexy, unhandsome married Latin American well past middle age. He lives in Germany. We wrote rambling emails two or three times a day and met once or twice a year, briefly.
In the first stanza of “Rebel Lost” you write,
Do you ever feel that you could have been born at the wrong time and place? That you could, perhaps, have been a hippie ... part of the revolutionary “Love Generation”?
In a way, I was there. I was very small, of course, but I was born old. I watched the Love Generation from the sidelines: my parents and their wild friends. They were a bit too old, of course, and a lot tamer than the folk that converged on Woodstock, but my ex-husband, who is eleven years my senior, was a bona fide hippie years before I met him and I loved him for it. Leonard Cohen put it so beautifully: “A great generosity prevailed in those doomed decades.”
Have the musicians, writers and philosophers from the Sixties influenced you creatively?
Oh, undoubtedly, especially Leonard Cohen. Also Janis Ian, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, Jack Kerouac, Ingrid Jonker and many others.
Where has A See-through Suitcase been distributed and how could one get hold of a copy?
Apparently not many bookshops would stock it. There were a few copies in Clarke’s Bookshop, I think. It used to be on www.kalahari.net, but not any more. Nowadays it can only be ordered from www.genugtig.com.
What feeling would you like readers to experience after reading your collection? Are you happy with the reviews and the public response you've received for the book?
I was very happy with the reviews and public response. They were most generous. The sales, however, were not.
I would like readers to face their pain, to find a high, clear and resounding note in it, to distil beauty from their worst mistakes and most embarrassing indiscretions. To feel alive.
Are your recent poems as closely connected to the past as the poems in this collection?
No, somehow my recent poems are more about my life now. Maybe they need to mature in oak first. If I can ever find them again in the drawers …
Has your understanding of South African poetry and the direction it is taking changed over the past few years?
It has, since I started hanging out at poetry readings. I am amazed at the amount of raw as well as sophisticated talent all around. Hearing people read their poetry is very inspiring. It restores one’s faith in the weight of words.
Could you name five books which have made a difference to your life?
Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow; Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; Unexplained laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis and Touch the water, touch the wind by Amos Oz.
What are you reading at the moment?
Emma Brown by Clare Boylan, an unfinished Charlotte Brontë manuscript quite elegantly and authentically completed by Clare Boylan.
What is your opinion of the standard of book reviewing in South Africa?
I think the standard is quite high, although often, especially in Afrikaans, the pool is rather small and polluted. Reviewers are themselves writers as well as academics, there is a lot of politics involved, and objectivity remains a distant ideal.
Tell me about your involvement in the production of the book on the life of Afrikaans film director Jans Rautenbach.
The wonderful and wacky Nagtegaals, owners of Genugtig, received an excellent manuscript from Prof Martin Botha of UCT film school, a critical analysis of the movies of Jans Rautenbach. He made those visionary movies in the seventies and eighties, eg Katrina, about love across the racial divide. They decided to publish a plush coffee-table book with lots of glossy stills from the films. They felt it needed something more, more background about the person. It was decided that I would interview him at length and pen down his memoirs. So in a way I was a ghost-writer. He is a wonderful raconteur and I had a lot of audio material to work with, great sound bites. I organised and rearranged them, added a bridging paragraph here and there, paraphrased some utterances and that was it. The process was very enjoyable. So the book will consist of two parts, with two covers, depending on which side you happen to pick up.
Do you have any plans to write a novel?
Don’t we all? I have started two and lost heart midway through. Maybe I am a poet after all. I don’t know if I’m long-winded enough to sustain the momentum for a novel. But I still harbour aspirations and literary pretensions.
In your literary career, what has been your greatest reward so far?
When people have said that my poems have inspired them to start writing.
Five poems selected from Deborah Steinmair's poetry collection, A See-Through Suitcase, (ISBN 0-9584604-1-8):
He stayed angry for a decade or more
I came of age in the early eighties
And, maybe, most of all
He was hungry on the street, shop-lifted to eat
Now he mostly stays home at night
I walk softly through the landscape of your scars
In your mother's eyes I read your history
but you're the one who got away
The long, long coat
You left at seventeen in a long leather coat like a Rolling Stone
I flew there hoping to bring home your heart
Companion of childhood closer than a sister
Freda sat at night on a rooftop in Bloemfontein
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