"The need to confront social madness in art is as necessary as it is for art to express the religious instinct, or our desire to create beauty"
Michelle McGrane in conversation with Allan Kolski Horwitz
Allan Kolski Horwitz was born in Vryburg in 1952. He grew up in Cape Town, where he studied political philosophy and literature. Between 1974 and 1985 he lived in the Middle East, Europe and North America, returning to South Africa in 1986.
He is a member of the Botsotso Jesters and Botsotso Publishing. Established in 1994, Botsotso publishes an annual literary magazine and books of contemporary South African writing, as well as organising poetry and art performances.
Allan's first book of poems, Call from the Free State, was published in 1979. Substantial selections of his poetry have been included in Essential Things (COSAW, 1992), We Jive like This and Dirty Washing (Botsotso), and Throbbing Ink (Timbila, 2003). His fiction has been included in two collections: Unity in Flight (2001) and Un/common Ground (2002). His latest collection of poems is Saving Water (2005).
Allan, where does the surname Kolski Horwitz originate?
Kolski is my mother's maiden name; its origin is Polish-Jewish. Today, apart from my brother and sister, and our children, there are no other bearers of this name - my mother's family was murdered by the Nazis. Horwitz is a Czech-Jewish name, with more ancient Spanish antecedents.
Who do you consider to be your greatest creative influences?
Are you referring to other writers? Teachers? Critics? "Soul" brothers and sisters? I'll stick with artists in general, because encountering the work of another artist to the extent that one's own life and work are profoundly affected is a rare and wonderful experience. It is also not an easy thing to comment on, because the various phases of one's own life, one's own changing needs and sensibilities, obviously play a part in the setting up of the chemistry. Having said that: Brecht, Borges, Blake, the Hebrew Bible, the Iliad, Dylan, Beethoven, John Lennon, Shakespeare, Fuentes, Camus, Mahfouz, Rumi, Neruda, Freud, James Baldwin, Kenneth Rexroth, Karl Marx, Picasso, Mayakovsky … More?
Having named the masters and mistresses, becoming an acolyte is not the same as being an uncritical admirer. For example, as a 20-year-old I was intoxicated by Pound's early poetry, its classical yet austerely modern sensuality, but I was not ignorant of his rambling craziness (as expressed by both the Cantos and his racism). Despite reservations, one can greatly appreciate and be affected by an aspect of an artist's work - and reject others.
When did you start writing poetry?
I began writing as a boy, but that period was stiff and pedantic. In my twenties an extreme emotional experience broke the inhibitions - another's loss of sanity pushed me beyond my own language controls; the torrent erupted in grief and perplexity, with a hunger to find the means to understand and save. Those poems were very spontaneous, almost desperate. But now, the key thing for me is that a poem should be more than an idea or an emotion - it should be a well-worked and subtle composite of images, associations, rhythms and forms. "Perfecting" a poem requires patience and care. That is a large part of the satisfaction in writing - the refining, the playing with possibility, till an inner logic and clarity emerges, is sharpened.
How did growing up in a country with a policy of apartheid inform your writing and what you chose to write about?
Apartheid South Africa had a massive impact on me. Being the child of a Holocaust survivor was certainly as formative. Awareness of history was an inseparable part of my childhood, as well as a realisation that ignoring the reality of another's oppression is shameful.
Listening to my mother's history, and learning about the concentration camps, I internalised that one cannot hide or run away from mass events and movements - they find one out. And evil is both individual and collective. As such, the implications, and the manifestations of evil (and the suffering it causes), are a critical theme in all art - as they are in life.
Waking up each day to segregated South Africa was obviously a violation. How could one remain silent, or pretend obliviousness, to such extreme cruelty? The arguments about political writing being tedious, being stilted, are irrelevant insofar as the need to confront social madness in art is as necessary as it is for art to express the religious instinct, or our desire to create beauty.
But I reject pontification and dogmatising - they are both dishonest and ineffective. As an artist I do want to influence people to be sensitive to the roots of social issues as well as the more personal, unique circumstances that drive people's lives, but I do not want to propagandise or present crude simplifications.
Kathleen Raine wrote, "Poetry is not an end in itself but in the service of life; of what use are poems, or any other works of art, unless to enable human lives to be lived with insight of a deeper kind …" How effective do you think the arts are as a medium to propagate social change?
I agree with Kathleen Raine that art-making should be inspired by a desire to broaden, deepen, our sense of life. As such, art is not an end in itself. But art does not only have to be an agent for social change, certainly not in a narrow sense. In some respects, making and appreciating art is like making bread, or tables, or computers. It is one facet of living, but it is an aspect that is critical - because art-making is intrinsically tied to the expression of the spirit of living, and creates relationships between the various aspects of our lives, including that of celebrating "beauty and truth" and that of expressing emotion, and testing reason. And it does this in ways that no other human activity can achieve.
On the other hand, there is the joy of the creator, a very private and solitary joy, beyond utility and beyond criticism. It is the joy of meditation, the joy of energy in flight. And the making can stop at that if the creator wants to keep it entirely private and shielded from the public domain.
I write because of an inner drive; the social or public impact is, at that stage, entirely secondary, although publication is important to me. Art-making is often about self-discovery. However, as human beings we have the ability to empathise, to seek out and encompass the lives of others, and to seek to comprehend the unfamiliar. And because of this, the journey to one's own truth is often through another's experience.
Your short story "Courageous and Steadfast", from the anthology Unity in Flight, was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. What is the Caine Prize?
The Caine Prize is an annual prize awarded for short fiction written by Africans. It was originally set up with a bequest from the family of Michael Caine, a corporate figure in a British multinational company with interests in Africa, mainly agricultural plantations. As far as I know, he is also credited with setting up the Booker Prize. Recently other philanthropies have taken over the funding - for example, the Oppenheimer Memorial Fund. The prize was initiated five years ago and is run from London and awarded in Oxford. Five finalists are selected from work published in books, magazines or the electronic media from all over Africa - but mainly the Anglophone countries. Each year there is also a workshop for the finalists and other younger writers from Africa. An anthology of the work produced at the workshop is published. Several South Africans have been shortlisted but none has yet won.
Focusing on short fiction, a genre that is very developed in South Africa, and in Africa in general, but largely neglected by publishers (and readers, it must be said), it is one of the few prizes for short fiction still operating internationally. The prize money is considerable - $15 000. The attention that it draws to one's work is also useful! All in all, it is a very worthwhile initiative that deserves more attention. However, these positive features notwithstanding, and the excellence of the winning (and most of the shortlisted) stories, there are other factors that must be mentioned.
The first is an obvious one and perhaps not worth raising, as the dynamics of African dependency are well known - the funding and organisation comes from wealthy European patrons whose fortunes were made in Africa, and whose basis was inescapably tied to exploitation and dispossession. The degrees of such exploitation vary but the general premise remains valid. That someone as corrupt as Brett Kebble performed this role in South Africa is a recent and shocking example.
The second issue is more fundamental. If the object of prizes is to stimulate creators, and to honour and make known their work, and if the object of this manifestation of European patronage is to recognise and develop African literary talent, why is the Caine Prize not based in and awarded in Africa? Let's say in Lagos or Accra or Jo'burg. And why are the scholarships that are often secured for winning writers not for African universities rather than British ones? Why should these writers be taken away to finish writing their novels (or other projects), when they could do so in their home countries, still connected to their societies, still able to be active in the literary lives of their societies?
The publicity that winning the prize generates is important, the financial boost it gives to African writers is valuable - but why are the judges, their multicultural make-up notwithstanding, drawn almost exclusively from British universities?
In other words, the Caine Prize should become a true expression of African sensibility and not another example of the metropolitan defining Africa and then creating dependency. This change, of course, depends on Africans seizing the initiative - and whether that is possible at this stage is, sadly, doubtful.
However, despite such pessimism, there is one positive example to follow: that of the newly established European Union prize for unpublished novels. This prize is based in South Africa and the judges all live in South Africa. So even though the funding comes from Europe, it is a locally controlled cultural institution.
Allan, you have also written a collection of short stories entitled Un/common Ground. Tell me a little about the book.
Un/common Ground is a collection of stories I began writing in the mid 1990s. It represents my exploration of the times, as well as interpretations of the experiences of others - the many "others" in our fragmented and diverse society. As such, you could say they are studies in transposition during a time of transition. I was also trying to break free of rigid forms of fiction. That led to many experiments.
The stories move between the different layers of consciousness that dominate our lives; almost all function on both a personal and a wider social level. So whether they are about drug dealers, political activists, muti murderers or visionaries, they cross many boundaries.
The book is illustrated by Patrick Rorke - an artist who has collaborated with the Botsotso Jesters. We try to juxtapose the word and the visual image and Patrick has a good feel for literature. His work is sensual and emotive. I think the illustrations are a fine addition to the stories.
I enjoy writing fiction almost as much as I enjoy writing poems. The differences are challenging, the processes of apprenticeship equally demanding, and certainly up to now, equally rewarding.
What are you working on at the moment?
A collection of very short pieces of fiction that I call "dream parables". In addition, poems that come at all times …
Are you currently a full-time writer or do you have another job?
I am involved in several worker organisations dealing with social benefits, housing, education and art. In this capacity I am both a "commissar" and an entrepreneur - an anarchist in socialist clothing!
Do you ever find yourself limited by time constraints, frustrated because you are juggling numerous obligations, and cannot devote adequate time to your writing?
Absolutely. Writing time is time to be fought for! The midnight oil …
What are you reading at the moment?
The short stories of John Auerbach and Ghassan Kanafani - a fascinating contrast, as the one is Israeli, the other Palestinian. As well as various South African literary magazines like Green Dragon, Carapace and Fidelities. I am also reading a collection of poems selected by Dylan Thomas.
Basil Bunting wrote, "Poetry, like music, is to be heard." Paul Hyland wrote, "Poets aren't always good performers, but their renderings are the nearest you can get to hearing the poem with the ear that wrote it." How important is the oral culture and tradition to you?
Very. I became involved in poetry performance because a rigid division between the spoken and the read in poetry is quite unnecessary. Poetry is dramatic - even when it is contemplative. Overly intellectualised poetry is usually lifeless, the rhythm of speech and song squeezed out by cleverness. Which is not to say that all poems will have the widest appeal when performed. Some need to be read quietly with a minimum of distraction. A performance should encompass a wide range of styles and moods. But the material cannot be esoteric - it must make an immediate impact.
In contemporary South Africa there are many different poetic traditions. The old colonial orthodoxy is largely defeated. But not all academics appreciate this. The universities are still too closed and the arts media too narrow in what they report on.
With regard to the local "spoken word" movement, there are many venues and an enthusiastic audience. But a danger is the uncritical adoption of hip-hop, rap/rasta styles. South African youth should not swallow black American or Caribbean culture as blindly as colonial youth once swallowed their imperial models. Particularly because we are still a society with highly original potential.
Can you tell me about the Botsotso Jesters?
Siphiwe ka Ngwenya, Ike Mboneni Muila and I are currently the members. We perform our own poems and ones written collectively. Our styles are quite distinct, but I think complementary.
Botsotso magazine celebrated its tenth anniversary last year and has grown from strength to strength since it first appeared as an insert in the New Nation weekly newspaper in 1994. How did the magazine come about and how was the editorial board established?
We wanted to take poetry and short fiction to a mass readership/audience, and in that time the "alternative" press was a real social force and far more open to creativity. New Nation had a readership of some 70 000 people. Having a monthly insert meant reaching a larger readership than any literary magazine could achieve. The response was very positive; contributions came from all over the country. Sadly, no newspaper will now consider such a literary supplement. They all cite the costs, as if that is the main factor - I think the growing tabloidisation of our media is really responsible. Sensation rather than substance seems to sell better.
The editorial board was formed quite spontaneously out of the performance group - a fairly effortless transition.
Allan, what does Botsotso mean and why was it chosen as the name for a magazine representing contemporary South African culture?
Isabella Motadinyane came up with the name. It means "tight trousers", almost like bell-bottoms, that were once popular in Soweto. There is also the association with tsotsis, gangsters and pickpockets. So Botsotso signifies the streetwise and the subversive, although some of the material we publish is less adventurous - we aim for a wide spectrum of experience as well as multilingualism.
Isabella was a member of both the Botsotso Jesters and the editorial board of Botsotso. She passed away in 2003, but in the work she left us she emerges as a woman who was larger than life, a consummate artist who was never going to keep quiet about the injustices she saw around her …
We were very, very sad when Isabella died. She was sick for many months; it was terrible to witness her decline. She was a consummate performer - poet and singer - and made a massive contribution to the intensity and quality of our work. We have not been able to replace her - and the lack of a female voice is a drawback. Her work was very personal and yet made its social comment in a powerful and unique way. We will probably issue a compilation of her poems.
Last year's Botsotso - the thirteenth issue - is the biggest and brightest edition produced yet. How has it been received publicly?
In general, it has been received very well - except for a review written by Joan Meterlerkamp in The Sunday Independent. Joan felt that the material was largely Stalinist and misogynist.
I mention this attack because we were very mystified. Firstly, that she could come to such a conclusion - there are pieces by over 70 different writers/poets covering the widest possible range of tones and positions; almost half are women and a large number are ideologically on the anti-Stalinist left. It is therefore factually and imaginatively untrue to say that their writing is dishonest and trite and, moreover, denigrates and denies women.
Secondly, because she expresses the view that South Africa needs a magazine like Botsotso - one that publishes a wide range of genres and artists - but then bemoans the "fact" that the Botsotso editorial policy is too vague, too inclusive, too uncritical when it comes to quality. On this score she claimed that much of the work is half-baked expressionism and not fully developed - between the lines, that we practise tokenism.
Now this seems to be the old protecting of "standards" argument that Stephen Watson (and Lionel Abrahams, to an extent) propounded with such bitterness in the 1980s and early '90s - the period when anti-apartheid themes dominated magazines like Staffrider and were rejected quite blindly by the literary establishment on that basis.
To be sure, many poems, stories and essays in Botsotso have political content, or settings, but to describe them as Stalinist is a gross distortion. So what frightens Meterlerkamp about Botsotso? The new subject matter - poems and stories about the townships, about love and sex (gay and hetero), about corruption, about the transition from racism to democracy?
What we are left with is Meterlerkamp resurrecting an old and stale battle. We have challenged her to respond, but she has not taken up the challenge. So readers of The Sunday Independent were left in the dark, left with a serious misrepresentation and, one is tempted to say, a malicious one.
Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote, "African poetry, true African poetry, is never written in any language outside the African's mother tongue." Do you agree with this statement?
No. The European languages are now intrinsically part of Africa - indeed, they have become the lingua francas of the whole world. "African poetry", meaning poetry written by Africans about Africa, can be written in any language. What counts is the authenticity of voice, of experience. Indigenous African languages should be supported, but I cannot see this struggle gaining ground in the face of the overwhelming use of English and French by African writers. That is excluding the Arab north which is grounded in its mother tongue. The real question is what form of English, or French?
South African English must raise its head confidently - we must use our colloquialisms and syntax with natural conviction, we must open up "serious literature" to them so that we can express our reality effectively. Only in this way will we develop a national literature that is at the same time universal. Trying to maintain the fiction of "English" English in our society is counterproductive and dishonest.
What can we look forward to in Botsotso 14?
Another grand mix masala of poetry, fiction, essays and graphics!
How can people go about submitting work to and/or ordering copies of the magazine?
We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does Botsotso Publishing have any recent titles out in bookshops?
We have just published three new books of poetry: Isis X (an anthology of 12 women poets and 4 photographers), Soulfire Experience (Siphiwe ka Ngwenya) and Saving Water (my own work). We are still finalising a list of new titles for 2006.
Two poems selected from Allan Kolski Horwitz's most recent poetry collection, Saving Water:
Today in Port Alfred
In the parking lot
I ate in a restaurant
I watched the waters roll
I paid for my breakfast
At Bhekapansi Pan
Very still and quiet
we (humans) coming in
when the sun passes its zenith
day shows we can climb
a brown bird with long legs
warthog rolls in the mud
I feel you beside me and want
the warthog rolls
you touch my leg
green snake with a small rodent in its mouth
I press deeper
dry stillness of the waterhole
out of time
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