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"Risking Absurdity": poetry, plays, porn & St Petersburg

Michelle McGrane talks to Anton Krueger

AR Krueger completed his MA through UNISA in 1999 and is currently working on a doctorate in new South African theatre at the University of Pretoria. His published work includes plays, poems, short stories and academic essays, as well as reviews on books, theatre and film.

Under the auspices of Post Punk Productions, Anton has written nine plays, including In the Blue Beaker - a comedy about suicide, The Velvet City, Vanessa & the Vanguard, Tsafendas and Mediocrity. The plays have been nominated for numerous awards, and Tsafendas (previously Living in Strange Lands) was nominated for two FNB Vita Awards in 2002 for best script and best actor. In the same year the play won three SANCTA awards.

Krueger's plays have been performed at the University of Pretoria; the University of the Witwatersrand; the Grahamstown National Arts Festival; the Klein Karoo Kunstefees (KKNK), Oudtshoorn; the Hello Darling festival; The State Theatre, Pretoria; Teatro de Diego Riviera, Puerto Monnt, Chile; Teatro San Martin, Caracas, Venezuela; the Baxter Theatre, Sanlam Auditorium, Cape Town; Innibos festival, Nelspruit; and the Princess Grace Theatre, Monaco.

From 1998 to 2003 Krueger was a member of the Pretoria-based performance poetry group BekGeveg, which performed at the main festivals of the KKNK (2001) and at Aardklop (2003). Anton teaches in the Department of English at the University of Pretoria. After two years as the English poetry page editor, he has now moved to the portfolio of OpStage editor for LitNet.

Anton, what were you passionate about at sixteen?

hmm ... sixteen ... let me think ... that would have been 1987 ... so i would have been at the end of a miserable year at pretoria boys high ... i left to go to pro arte, so i guess i was becoming interested in theatre and so on ... but i can't recall being overly passionate about anything in particular ... i'd never had a girlfriend and i didn't play any sports ... i remember being overwhelmed by all the different organisations and societies available at boys high, so i started one called the "society for the sake of society", where everybody was designated an important-sounding title and got to carry a card of affiliation around, though we never really did anything, and nothing ever happened as such ... ja, so i suppose the short answer to your question would be "not much" ...

How important is poetry to you?

...on the one hand, it's very important, because it's part of my livelihood ... i mean teaching poetry is one of the things i do at UP ... and i also make a little money from litnet each month as gatekeeper of the english poetry page ... so, you know, i suppose it's important in that sense ...

...on the other hand ... i get turned off by this complete devotion to and worship of poetry as if it's some kind of esoteric sacred order ... maybe it's the elitist romanticist model that puts me in a pickle ... whatever ... i don't know ... i think of classical anthologies and academic texts on poetry as a kind of quaint, somewhat archaic tradition ... like origami ... personally i find them very interesting, if only in terms of their historical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, spiritual or scientific information ... but let's face it, in terms of distribution and impact, our only hope is oral poetry - poetry that's fleeting, that's embodied by the moment of performance ...

...i suppose there are laudable journals about which get distributed amongst a few hundred people in the coterie ... probably fewer people buy books of poetry than students who study them ... tens of thousands of students a year STUDY POETRY, which, surely, should imply some kind of commitment, or true interest ... but if only a few hundred volumes a year are sold, what does this mean? ... who's reading poetry? ... well, i suppose that, for the most part, the people who are reading new poetry are other poets and aspirants ... i don't know ...

...but don't get me wrong - i love poetry ... only this morning i was momentarily spellbound in the middle of a lecture by an absolutely lovely turn of phrase in a roy campbell poem ...

Do you think there are instances where finding language, naming things, can be counterproductive rather than creative?

... finding language ... hmmm, that's an interesting turn of phrase ... i suppose we all find language around us ... since we're thrown into it ... language is all around us ... "naming things" sounds active, you know, as if we have a choice in the matter ... whereas "finding language" sounds passive, as if the language presents itself to us ... though i suppose one would have to look for it ... hmmm ... counterproductive vs creative ... creation is a product ...

... i think that, ultimately, what it boils down to for me is that i have no idea what your question means ...

You previously mentioned oral or performance poetry. Do you think that, like music, poetry is to be heard? Do you prefer listening to a poem being read by its creator rather than reading it on the page in a collection, for example?

...definitely, i think the group dynamic and the interaction between audience and poet is a far more exciting form of engagement than the quiet solitary scrutiny of a page ... i wonder if it's really possible to be as reclusive as the romantics were ... we're bombarded by information and receive constant communication from all over, so it's hard to remain separate from the world today ... i think the recent resurgence of performance poetry (from the dadaists, to the beats, to urban voices) is at the same time very modern, as well as, of course, ancient, since the performance of poetry, the oral tradition, is possibly the oldest form of art, which may even predate cave paintings, though, of course, it's impossible to know for sure ...

...i don't know when last i actually sat and read through a book of poems on my own ... i'm sure it can be a very rewarding experience, but it does strike me as somewhat sterile, like reading sheet music and imagining the melodies in your head ...

...of course there are great visual poems, and poems which rely on the eye, but - to get back to your question - yes, i prefer the aural reception of poems, and the creation of a community which a performance instigates ...

And performing your own work? You have a background in theatre. Does it help? Do you still get nervous?

...yes, i do still occasionally perform ... we recently had a function at brooklyn mall in honour of joan hambidge, and there was a unisa poetry day a few months back ... but this year has been quieter in general ... last year we were reading at midrand graduate institute, the horror cafι, carfax, tequila sunrise in hatfield ... and before that the bekgeveg thing was still going ...

...and yes i get very nervous ... it's absolutely terrifying, and the moments before standing up i'm berating myself for having gotten myself into this situation ... but if it goes well it's a great release and a good reading can be energising ... and, of course, a lot of fun ...

I'd like to hear more about the BekGeveg poets.

...there's this wild master of ceremonies, demos takoulas, who fires up the crowd with his energetic antics ... the audience suggest a theme and then the two opposing poets (from the two teams of three each - die versvreters and the bekbrekers) have two minutes in which to find a poem from their respective collections which ties in with that theme ... meanwhile two other poets from the teams are given another topic by the audience and they have ten minutes in which to come up with a poem from scratch ... after each delivery the audience judges the readings by holding up numbers (as in the classic high-diving scenario) which are tallied together for the total score ... it's a very high-energy show and invariably great fun ... we've probably had over fifty slams in total; though, as i say, it's kind of died away during the last year or so, although there has been a recent motion to revive them ...

...i was thinking again about your first question as to the "importance" of poetry ... on the one hand i'm wary of elevating it to some sort of supreme transcendental and ultimate art form, so I may well have sounded a touch cynical about it ... perhaps i should clarify: i may not believe it's the most important thing in the world, but I do consider poetry to be a great deal more worthwhile and valuable than many other activities, like building cars, or digging platinum out of the earth, for example ... or creating insurance policies, or advertising, or journalism, or politics ... and so on ...

Who was the first poet that made an impact on you and why did he/she have an impact?

...the first poet ... i can't remember my first contact with poetry ... i mean, i can't remember not knowing of its existence ... i don't know if i ever read any poetry before i started writing it myself ... i remember penning dark little verses when i was a kid and my father kind of mocking their pseudo-serious deportment ... so i didn't show him any more verses after that ... i honestly can't say ...

...i can tell you who the last poet was to make an impact on me ... a few months ago i suddenly became aware of how astonishing e e cummings really is ... i mean, i've always known about him, but suddenly i looked at his poems and thought what the fuck - this is amazing stuff ... i've also been very impressed by aryan kaganof's verses ... his bitter humour and original turns of phrase are often quite startling ...

Do you think there is a growing market in South Africa for groundbreaking, counter-culture publications?

...sure, i feel that since '94, artists have had a license to present more personal, strange, esoteric work ... i'm speaking in terms of work which is critically acclaimed here, and which might "last" (for whatever that's worth) ... mainstream entertainment will always pull in the rands, if we're going to be speaking in terms of a "market" ... in fact, the greatest marketplace for creativity is the marketplace which creates markets, namely advertising ... so if you really want to profit from your quirky ideas, that's really the "market" to shoot for ...

...ok, but to get back to performance poetry, i reckon that's where it's at - the poetry that's going to "survive" (but again - why should anything last? why not give it all up at every moment?) will do so because of its entertainment value, and not because of its preciousness ...

...sorry, another garbled answer, but there it is ... let me pose a question to you now ... what do you think, michelle - do you think poetry is important? ... should it be encouraged? ... what good does it do?

Poetry is important to me because it's an intrinsic component of my daily existence, Anton. I certainly don't think it should be shoved down anyone's throat, but I think it should be available, accessible, to people who are interested in reading, writing and learning more about it. What good does it do? I think that's very subjective. In personal terms, if I had to put it in a nutshell, I would say it connects me. It connects me to the world and, for me, that's a good thing.

Talking about the accessibility of poetry, what do you think of the line-up for Poetry Africa in Durban this year?

... the line-up looks great ... the tibetan poet looks interesting, though i'd be wary of being in the same room as him should he pull out one of those femur bone trumpets ...

Tell me what literary character you would most like to meet?

... my first impulse is mr thoth in pynchon's the crying of lot 49, but i can't really imagine any of his characters existing outside the page ... and i'm not sure i'd fit into the book, it's so thin ... elizabeth costello would also be interesting to meet ... i always think i'd treat her better than her son and the others ... but i'll go with jim dixon from lucky jim by kingsley amis, because he seems a nice solid, well-rounded character with whom one could sit and have a drink or two ...

Which books have you been unable to finish?

... i was able to finish neither ulysses nor the lord of the rings ... i've just started a new translation of war and peace last night (i kid you not), though it's unlikely i'll get to the end of the 1600th page ... the only book i've ever thrown away is the fountain head ... well, that's not exactly true, i tore out the eight pages or so of the main character's trial speech at the end and chucked the rest ...

Bookmark or page-fold?

... usually it's an attempt at memory (if i can't remember having reading something, then maybe i should read that part again), or a mad scramble for any available object as marker, often another book ... maybe one already bulging from another book as marker in its pages already ... i don't think i've ever folded a page to keep my mark, though this is not necessarily out of respect for the material manifestation of books, as such ... for example, i'm not averse to tearing out pages that i like, or pictures ... and i'm always writing in other people's books and back-chatting the author, or the previous reader's comments ... hmm...my friends don't always seem to appreciate the value of the comments i write in their books ...

What else are you reading at the moment?

i recently reviewed jenna jameson's autobiography, how to make love like a porn star, which i did alongside a new bio on mae west ... so i looked at the two good-time girls together ... then i've also just read don delillo's libra and coetzee's slow man and have just started oryx & crake by margaret atwood...

I don't know many writers who have more than a fleeting interest in erotica as a literary genre. Generally, people I've spoken to are under the impression that writing erotica presents no challenge or that erotica is not a genre to be taken seriously. It is, perhaps, easy to write about sex, but difficult to write good erotica. For me, there's a distinction between the two. What are your thoughts?

... at one point i was very interested in the subject and considered attempting a masters degree on it ... so i accumulated a fair number of books in and on the genre ... i think i was interested in the way in which a text could interact with a body ... in that a piece of writing, words, could actually have a tangible physical effect on a person ... so i was kind of curious about that ...

...but i suppose that, in a way, the people you've been speaking to are right, in that it can get boring, but this is not the specific problem of the erotica genre, but rather with "genre" per se ... as soon as you realise what the setup is it gets boring ... so if you know that it's the hero's job to deactivate the bomb, or to throw the ring into the volcano, and you realise that it's very likely they'll overcome whatever obstacles are placed in their way ... then the story becomes about as interesting as a plot about a plumber who's come to fix the pipes ...

...so really, i don't know ... the only kind of titillating novel i've read right through is the carnal prayer mat by li yu, a medieval cautionary tale ... that and guillaume apollinaire's book on the rake - I forget what it's called - but the fact remains that it's difficult to maintain sustained interest if the purpose of the book is the sex ... it's difficult to go anywhere else after that's happened, you know?

Do you think that porn is popular because the viewer imagines him/herself overlooked in the act of looking? The viewer is "untouchable", in a comfort zone and removed from reality; it's a form of escapism. Do you think porn is a classic, albeit extreme, example of the way cinema works in that it takes the idea of voyeurism and pushes it to the limits?

... wow … well there's a can of worms for you … i'm not exactly sure how it works … the excitement of porn is probably related to the impermissibility of the actions … and the fact that we wear clothes …

...i wonder what would happen to the industry if they ever did go mainstream … i think it would go into fast decline … i mean, a friend of mine knew someone who worked for one of these magazines and she was saying the last thing he wanted to see when he got home from work was another naked lady … you know the system will reverse itself at some point … i think the only reason sex is still to a large extent such a "mystery", or a "thrill", is that there are still so many taboos associated with it …

...okay, i haven't answered your question at all … yes, i do in some way agree … that a voyeuristic urge to see into society (or a person or situation) is definitely at the heart of much of this … and, of course, it's a ruse, it's an illusion about the way the world works, as if the observer is separate from what she observes …

In 2001 you performed your short play, Mediocrity, at the Princess Grace Theatre in Monaco. It has also been performed by two schools in South Africa, and by an amateur group at Jesus College in Cambridge last year. It recently made the finals for the RAU inter-hostel competition. Tell me about the play - what is it about?

... well, it's a kind of comic (i mean in terms of it being cartoon-like) in that there are all these exaggerated characters ... even our props were huge … there's this dull person kenaf, who's hounded by his wife, bullied by a brute and then scared half to death by his doctor: he learns he's going to die, freaks out, splashes out, everything changes; then at the end we find out the doctor got the diagnosis mixed up with somebody else's … we used really beautiful music, from death and the maiden and the like, so i think that was quite a contrast to the silly story …

The Princess Grace Theatre sounds marvellously regal. Was the experience different from performing on a South African stage to a South African audience? Did you have time to look around Monaco, meet the locals, soak up the ambience?

... we were there as part of the mondial du theatre, an international festival of amateur theatre, so there were workshops and seminars and all sorts of interesting things by wonderful directors and teachers from all over ... meeting the other troupes was also an enriching experience … the theatre was very regal, yes, with a lighting rig the likes of which i'd never seen before and have never seen since … the festival was sponsored by the late prince rainier, though we didn't meet him … we did meet one of the princesses, though … what are their names again? ... maybe Caroline? ... and the mayor and so on … there was this crazy south african millionairess who was, i think, the wife of the barlows tycoon, who took us out a bit and tried to impress us with her flash jewels and fine foods, though we ended up having little to say to her … it's a very weird place, there are cameras everywhere and any hobo found is immediately evicted … there are also paradoxes, in that everyone's fabulously well-off though all the quarters are pretty cramped … it's very secure, but at the same time there's no privacy ... it feels like everyone and everything is on display ...

Living in Strange Lands, another of your plays, was nominated for the FNB-Vita in the categories of best script and best actor. Tell me a little about that script.

... well, that's a long story ... the play was later titled (for marketing reasons, though i disagreed with the decision) to tsafendas … it's about the guy who assassinated verwoerd in 1966 ...

i spent a year in the government archives and looking up old newspapers at university libraries and interviewing people ... though, ultimately, most of the facts come from three sources: the commission of enquiry into the assassination (including transcripts of interviews with psychologists … a very thorough document) ... liza key's footage for her documentary, and henk van woerden's biography mondvol glas ...

unfortunately, there was a bit of a ruckus, because anthony sher subsequently bought the rights to van woerden's book and wrote his own play, I.D. ... but then when he wanted to perform it here people said it had already been done ... the publishers were out for blood and sir sher's agent tried to stop us from performing the play at the baxter last year ...

it was a very awkward situation, because obviously van woerden did do a lot of research and we did use some of the facts he'd unearthed ... but facts aren't copyright ... and the style and speculations surrounding the event were, we felt, completely original ... we did correspond with van woerden, and we did try to make some sort of deal to acknowledge his contribution ... at one point his publishers agreed on an arrangement, but they wouldn't budge on two conditions: that the play not be published, and that it not be performed anywhere outside of south africa ... well, we didn't think this was fair, since it remains an original creative piece, even if it does incorporate some of the facts van woerden discovered, so we said no, this wasn't acceptable ...

when it came to the crunch last year, dalro (dramatic and artistic licensing rights organisation) backed us up and said that there hadn't been any infringement … so hopefully the matter has now been settled ... it has been performed overseas since and was published in new york ... and we still perform it occasionally (this year we did it three times: for a human rights conference at UP; learning from history at the harris synagogue; and for the unisa festival of languages) ...

Are you working on a new script at the moment, Anton?

... recently i've been working with some friends on a comedy sketch show called mind your head ... we already have about a season's worth of scripts and are negotiating with a production company at the moment ... we're hoping to have a pilot done by january ... i'm very excited about it and think it's going to be a great show ...

Do you have a secret cultural penchant?

... a secret penchant? ... hmmm ... i don't think i'm very secretive about it at all really ... i'm interested in culture, sure … from chinese, to indian to aztec ... in many ways it seems silly to focus on only "south african" culture or even "western" or "african" culture ... culture is so often tied to identity and people use it to give themselves a sense of affiliation, but these, for me, are generally negative affiliations in that they're exclusive; the same with nationalism, or pride in one's own ethnic traditions and what not ...

i just saw a comment in a newspaper made by one of the many fascist student organisations here at the university of pretoria, where someone said you need to know where you come from to know who you are ... it was something like "believe in your god. believe in your people. believe in yourself" ... but are these three beliefs compatible? ... if you believe in your people, then can you still believe in yourself? ... i wonder ... i don't know ... it seems like a flimsy source of identity to me ... for one, because, in a way, the culture we're born into and what we're exposed to initially is arbitrary, you know? ... so why base everything on that? ... why not base who you are on your potential to transform and the possibility of becoming something different, something new?

i agree with reza de wet and marthinus basson's umbrage at the idea of "afrikaans" arts festivals ... why not just have arts festivals? ... why must they be tied to some notion of exclusivity? ... is it possible to be an english-speaking afrikaner, for example? ... anyway, i don't mean to bash afrikaners here, because i do love the afrikaans people ... my wife is afrikaans and so are most of my friends and i love their humour and loyalty and intelligence … it's just that i feel these afrikaner solidarity movements are really having a very negative effect on the south african balance and they're making it very difficult for others to accept them, because many of them are fervently resisting any kind of assimilation ...

anyway, to get back to what i was saying earlier ... on one level i'm fascinated by all the bizarre, diverse and peculiar cultures that have sprouted all over the world, but i wouldn't like to subscribe to or align myself with any particular one ... in terms of mass culture, i'm afraid i probably am a bit of a snob ... i mean, i know a lot of people watch soap operas and listen to danny k and love leon schuster, but i don't seem to know any of them personally...

In terms of fine art, who are your favourite artists?

...there are so many things going on, i'm constantly amazed by people's originality and inventiveness ... i'm regularly blown away by astonishing shows ... the best show i've been to this year was probably wim botha's ... other names i'm liking at the moment include the rev brendan powell smith and his brick testament (http://www.thebricktestament.com/) and the mexican surrealist remedios varo (http://www.iupui.edu/~lmena1/varo.html).

Which painting most corresponds with your vision of yourself?

bordando el manto terrestre by varo, which i discovered in pynchon's the crying of lot 49 … check it out at http://www.elsewherestudio.com/images/rv008.jpg.

I believe you were in Russia last year. What vivid memories remain of your trip?

... i'm afraid that's going to take another seven pages ... fortunately, I did write a photo essay on the trip (of around seven pages) which appeared in the "authenticity" issue of itch last year ... so i suggest that anyone who's desperate to know the answer to this question order a back copy from mehita at http://www.itch.co.za.

Could we wrap up with the two poems that ended your essay (6 unwritten essays and two poems on two cities in two weeks in russia)?


st petersburg

this stone still fresh from
                  dostoevsky's tomb
                           in the necropolis
                                    in leningrad,

& with a slightly different taste
                     still on my tongue,

        still in my ears the deep sighs
                          of a people who do not
                                  like to compromise,
                                           and who haven't,
                                                     yet, much, ever …

       aztec, roman-esque
                         standing delicate
                                   & dali-esque,

       palatial elephant on stilts,
                         upon the precipice of the many broken bones
                                                      sunk into this swampland …


on the walls of
stanislavski's shrine
to civilization,

cracks blossom,

from the strains of
the construction
next door.

LitNet: 15 November 2005

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