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Raw materials and poetry making

Michelle McGrane in conversation with Karen Press

Karen Press was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1956. She has worked as a teacher of mathematics and English and with a range of progressive education projects, and has also written textbooks and other education materials in the fields of mathematics, science, economics and English, as well as children's stories, a film script, and stories for newly literate adults. In 1987 she co-founded The Buchu Books Publishing Collective. She has published seven collections of poetry and her poems have been included in anthologies in South Africa, France, Austria, the UK and the USA.

Her poetry has also appeared in the anthologies Siren Songs (ed Nohra Moerat, BLAC, 1989), I Qabane Labantu (eds Ampie Coetzee and Hein Willemse, Taurus, 1989), Breaking the Silence (ed Cecily Lockett, Ad Donker, 1991), Like a House on Fire (COSAW, 1994), The Heart in Exile (eds Tromp and De Kock, Penguin, 1996), My African World (ed Robin Malan, David Philip, 1996), Somewhere I Have Never Travelled (ed Terrill Nicolay, Heinemann), The Lava of This Land (ed Dennis Hirson, Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 1997), Running Towards Us: New Writing from South Africa (Heinemann USA, 2000) and It All Begins (ed Robert Berold, University of Natal Press, 2002); and in the magazines Staffrider, New Coin, Upstream, New Contrast, Stir, Botsotso, Slug, Boston Review, The Kalahari Review, Bleksem, Wasafiri, Poetry salvaged from Corey's, New Letters, PN Review, West Coast Line and Illuminations.

Karen currently works as a freelance editor and writer, and is an associate of the national advice service for South African writers, The Writers' Network. Her recent poetry collection, The Little Museum of Working Life (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press), was launched at Poetry Africa 2004.

Karen, how old were you when you wrote your first poem? Were there any poets who influenced and inspired you when you started writing?

When I was eight years old I wrote a poem about a snowdrop for a Std 1 class competition. I don't think I'd ever seen a real snowdrop, but I did somehow seem to know how to get the rhythm and rhyme of a few stanzas right. After that I didn't write poetry until I was in high school, and didn't publish anything until many years later. I learned an enormous amount about how poems work from my Afrikaans teacher and the modern Afrikaans poetry that we studied - at some level what I learned in those classes during my last two years at school still remains my fundamental point of reference for the crafting of poems.

Do you find that the poetry of certain cultures resonates for you more than the poetry of other cultures?

I tend to think more in terms of the poetry of different languages than of "cultures" - culture in any part of the world is never static, or monolithic, and I don't like the kind of fixed boundaries implied by the term. I definitely find the poetry I read in translation from non-Anglophone countries more stimulating, and I think that may be because of its thematic content, but also its different aesthetics - I gravitate towards a combination of spareness, simplicity of line, and lyrical intensity and metaphorical richness - the ways in which some poets combine the quietest inner lyricism with a language for naming forces in the public world. The poetry I find least resonant is the English lyric poetry of Britain - there are usually far too many words relative to the subject matter, and a kind of inward-looking aesthetic and thematic preoccupation that doesn't stimulate any of my senses.

How much of your poetic process is about inner interpretation, creating meaning and deeper understanding of your own reality?

I'm not sure if I understand the question well. It may be that many of my poems are read as statements about a world outside my "own reality", but every one of them is fed at least partly by an inner emotional reality and a need to "make meaning" - to create shapes out of the raw material of the world (which of course includes my own experiences of the world) that have a certain form and coherence.

I've been giving thought to the artistic concept of inspiration, the concept of the Muse. It defies definition and remains elusive. Do you believe in the concept of a Muse, in whatever form? Can you define what it is for you?

Laplace said that "God" was not a hypothesis he had ever felt any need to make. I think I can say the same thing about the idea of "inspiration" or a "Muse". Where does an idea for anything come from? Allowing the mind to throw up images (which are always nodes for diverse trajectories of meaning that come together with enough energy to take on the form of something visible); thinking hard about ideas and real-world processes until you understand them in some way; taking note of the feelings or thoughts that preoccupy you, and using these as raw material for a deliberate act of shaping a text - maybe some people would call that inspiration.

Aldous Huxley once wrote, "I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark." I imagine being a highly regarded poet in South Africa comes with a certain amount of attention, demands on your time. Do you find the interest of strangers - other poets, writers and interviewers - intrusive? Is it ever difficult to maintain a low profile and concentrate on the most important thing, the writing?

Your question contains a generous compliment but certainly doesn't reflect how I'd define myself or my work. At one level it's very nice to be told by someone that they've liked something you've written - it's like an undeserved kiss on the top of the head that a child gets from a passing adult when it was just playing quietly on its own. At another level it's just very strange to relate the work of making the poetry - which, as you imply, happens in a very solitary place - to the fact that other people want to talk about it. I think poets, writers, are very different in this regard: some people thrive on the attention, they need it to make sense of what they're doing. Others would write even if they were the last person on earth, because the process of making meaning is as normal to them as breathing, and not something done so that other people can watch it happen. I suppose I belong in this second category.

I actually think about your question in another way - it seems now that people who write are expected to take part in an ongoing public conversation about being writers, to give interviews, readings, workshops, to have views on the writerly career and to express these publicly. It's not because any writer is particularly important that this seems to happen; it seems rather to express an assumption that anyone who is a writer is making a public declaration about being part of a community of writers who all need to share their experiences with one another and constantly encourage other people to join them. This makes sense in a context where people who dream of becoming writers are being encouraged to "express themselves freely" in front of other people - but that's not really what being a writer is about. It makes less sense for people who take the discipline and exploratory aesthetic work of writing seriously, and need to be allowed to do this with full concentration and freedom, without having to offer a running commentary on themselves as they do the actual writing work. I've been interviewed by people who clearly had never read my work; and questions in interviews are almost never about the poems themselves. Then it seems as if, as well as doing the very hard work of making meaning in the poem, you also need to do another performance job - "Myself as Poet". Some people like to perform that role; I'm not one of them.

And then, there's the simplest answer to your question: the one intractable obstacle to concentrating on the writing itself is the need to earn a living doing something else. Compared with this, the kind attention of other poets, writers and interviewers is as harmless as a few gentle raindrops compared with a daily tsunami warning. A society that wants to be kind to writers should simply allocate one writer to every millionaire, on the understanding that the millionaire must pay the writer's basic subsistence costs the way he or she would take care of an indigent aunt.

Your poetry is a strong combination of the personal and the political, and writing a poem and publishing it involve two very different processes and realities. Do you ever feel vulnerable - exposed a little more than you would like - in a poem once it is out of your hands and out in the world?

No - because I make very conscious choices about what goes out into the world and what doesn't. I agree absolutely that writing and publishing are processes with quite separate dynamics and meanings attached. At the moment I'm finding it harder and harder to explain to myself why I would want to publish what I write.

You took part in Poetry Africa 2004, where your collection The Little Museum of Working Life was launched. Can you tell me something about your Poetry Africa experience?

I had a great time there. I loved being part of such a rich aesthetic celebration; I loved the fact that there was music of many different styles, and dramatically intense performance poetry, and that a space was also made for poetry like mine, very much quieter and in fact not good value at all in performance. There are sometimes commentaries on contemporary poetry that make very crude distinctions between poetry "on the page" and poetry on offer at slams and other performance events. It's true that there are some real differences of technique and style, but the assumption in the commentaries is often that performance poets aren't interested in complexity of form and language, and put all their energy into their dramatic stance on the stage. What I saw over and over in Durban was the seriousness of the performance poets when it comes to working on the texts themselves, the respect they give to the writing process, the way they listened to those of us who have none of their performance skills. I learned a lot from some of these poets about ways to extend my own aesthetics - and also learned that I'll simply never be able to work an audience the way some of them can. And the thing that struck me most about some of the newer generation of South African poets is that they're asking really complex political and social questions in their poems - often in much richer ways than the so-called "protest poets" of the 1980s.

Out of the participants in Durban, who stood out for you?

I'd rather not pick favourites!

What prompted you to establish The Buchu Books Publishing Collective in 1987? Is it still in existence?

Buchu Books was a response to the lack of publishing opportunities for progressive and radical authors - at the time there were only a few small left publishers, and they tended to line up with one or other sectarian tendency of the broad liberation movement, so that authors who didn't explicitly affiliate to a political organisation weren't given much publishing space. The group that started Buchu Books really believed that to be a cultural radical you have to encourage a multiplicity of voices, including those that don't directly reflect your own aesthetic or theoretical point of view. We made a little more space for writers than there already was, within the limits of our resources. Buchu stopped doing its own publishing and distribution in 1993, after our donors told us we'd have to take our chances in the commercial marketplace because in the new South Africa consumer capitalism should govern cultural production. We still exist as a publishing entity, and now lend our support to occasional publishing initiatives that wouldn't find easy support within the commercial environment.

You're also an associate of the national advice service for South African writers, The Writers' Network. What services does the network provide for local writers? How can writers contact the network for advice?

The Writers' Network is now run within the broader embrace of the advice and support services offered by the Centre for the Book in Cape Town. It exists to give writers information about all aspects of the writing process, such as how to make sense of a contract, how to find or start a supportive writing group, how to take your first draft manuscript through an editing process, and so on. The best way for writers to find the Network is to go to www.thewritersnetwork.org or www.centreforthebook.org.za, where they'll find an archive of useful advice sheets as well as information on current events. Or they can contact the Centre for the Book at 021-4232669 and find out how to get help with their particular queries.

Karen, would you like to see more publishing opportunities available to women, particularly in languages other than English and Afrikaans?

The simple answer is yes. But quite honestly, I don't think women in this country need any special opportunities once they get to the stage of having something to publish. Where women struggle more is in finding the time, the physical space and the self-confidence to do the writing itself. For all the reasons we know well, to do with patriarchal domestic structures and the relatively low economic status of women, these issues will continue to be more problematic for women than for men for a long time to come. But the question of limited publishing opportunities for other languages affects all writers, not only women; and it's very much tied to the lack of a reading public for new literature in the indigenous languages. Which leads one to the role of libraries, school curricula, television and radio in inspiring interest in works published in languages other than English and Afrikaans. It's not a matter of saying "the publishers should Ö" - the publishers have tried often to develop series in indigenous languages, and have found few takers.

In the eighties you co-produced Emergency Declarations, a collection of "found writings", with Ingrid de Kok. What was the motivation behind the volume?

Apartheid ideology produced a language that was full of absurdity - an absurd worldview enacted through absurd laws, nomenclature, ways of describing and constructing realities. In the period of states of emergency during the 1980s this absurdist discourse reached new levels of intensity as the authorities in their various guises, and the petty apparatchiks who enacted their policies, were under increasing pressure to fit the conflicts and heightened tensions of the period into the straitjackets of their "legitimate language" for naming what was happening. It was impossible not to be struck by the insanity of what was being said, written, printed in newspapers, uttered by politicians - and equally impossible not to be struck by the fact that the people making these statements did not (or could not afford to) notice the madness of their logic. Ingrid de Kok and I, like many poets with a heightened inner receiver for public language, collected some of these examples of public language and printed them in a small booklet - I think we wanted to make people look again at the official ways of describing the world we were all living in by isolating these extracts and "framing" them as poems. It was a way of saying, "Look at what we're expected to accept as reasonable statements about the world - how can any sane human being share meaning with people who think and speak this way?"

Carcanet Press in the United Kingdom is a well-established poetry publisher which has comprehensive and diverse lists of modern and classic poetry in English and in translation. You currently have two volumes published by Carcanet, Home (2000) and The Canary's Songbook (2005). Can you tell me a little about the themes that the poems in these two volumes reflect?

Well, Home is largely about ways of understanding what it can mean to have a sense of a home, and what it means to be emotionally hungry when your life is so governed by the basic material hungers of poverty; and Canary's Songbook is about a lot of different things: the way we all, as human beings, seem to be amenable to corruption (which perhaps suggests that corruption is natural, is an organic part of being human); the way we all have ancestors, and sometimes what they have taught us isn't as useful as what we learn ourselves, or maybe they've taught us how to be the imperfect people we are; the way I make different kinds of sense of the links between European and African realities, as they exist simultaneously. Sometimes books seem to be focused on a pre-chosen set of themes when in fact the links between poems appear evident only after they're all put into the same volume - because they all came out of the same head, I suppose.

Have you found the publication and marketing of your British publications markedly different from the publication and marketing of South African collections?

I can't really say, because I'm not aware on a daily basis of what Carcanet does to market its publications in the UK. On the surface there are many similarities - in both countries poetry is a very slow seller; I think my publishers in both places have yet to make any money from my books. I have the feeling that foreign poets, unless they're Brodsky or Neruda or other luminaries of that sort, make very little impact on the British poetry-reading audience.

Did the editor and staff at Carcanet keep you updated and involved in the process of bringing the volumes out?

Yes. It was a slow process, with both books: the manuscript of Canary's Songbook was accepted for publication at the end of November 2002, and placed on the publishing schedule to come out in early 2005, which is what happened. Once the book went into production I had a very happy interaction with the Carcanet editor, thanks to e-mail and an unusually efficient postal service.

What did the launches of your books in England entail?

There were no launches! If I'd been resident in the UK I know that Carcanet would have helped me to find opportunities for readings and other public events, but I don't think everyone there has the same "one book one launch" approach to life as South African publishers now seem to have - or as South African authors now seem to expect.

Are Carcanet publications available in South Africa?

Yes, but in a limited way - I've never seen my Carcanet books in Exclusive Books or Wordsworth. I know that Clarke's Bookshop in Cape Town and Adam's Campus Bookshop in Durban make a point of stocking them.

Out of your seven published collections, do you have a favourite, one that is particularly precious to you?

Not really - I'm still half in love with Canary's Songbook, but that's because it's my most recent publication, I suppose. Certain poems mean a lot to me, across the books, for reasons that don't bear articulating.

How do you feel about reading your work to audiences?

I've learned to accept that many people love hearing poetry read aloud, and I do it with that in mind - but silence is my natural mode, even though I write with a very live ear for the voice rhythms of the lines. I find it hard to listen to poetry read aloud, unless I already know it well from reading it - my mind can't absorb the detail of a poem that way. I think you hear more of, and react more intensely to, work that you apprehend in silence.

Okay, that's the polite answer. The other answer is that I place reading my work in public somewhere between root canal treatment and airport transit lounges on the scale of pleasant experiences.

It seems poetry reviewing is essentially confined to academic environs in this country. What do you think about the frequency and general standard of poetry reviewing in South African newspapers?

They usually tell you a lot about the reviewer's enthusiasms and personal feelings about poetry, and very little about what the poetry is doing that might be (in)significant aesthetically, or how it speaks to the bigger world of contemporary literature and cultural production generally.

Have you read any books over the last year that have had a powerful impact on you?

I discovered Haruki Murakami and read about ten of his books in a row, so I guess you can call that a powerful impact. And I've just read General Romeo Dallaire's account of his tour of duty in Rwanda - a book that makes you want to kill yourself, after you've killed every professional diplomat on the planet. Another powerful encounter.

Karen, you've written a film script. The process must have been completely different from writing poetry or, for example, children's stories. Did you enjoy it? Is it something you would like to do again?

I enjoyed it very much, because there are rules! You work with really interesting structural constraints, and the fewer words you use, the better - it's wonderful to invent a scene in which you can just write "long moonlit landscape shot" as an instruction, instead of having to find your own verbal way of creating a perfect moonlit landscape.

Is the film going to be produced?

I very much doubt it. I wrote the script a long time ago, and never heard from the film company after they'd optioned it.

Do you have any plans to write a novel?

Absolutely not. I'm eternally grateful that there are people who can write novels for me to read, but the thought of having to produce so many words makes me ill. I've often spent long periods working on plot structures and character sketches and all the preparatory stages of a novel, and eventually written it out in full as a very short poem.

You've travelled to many different countries in the world. Is there a favourite place you like to visit? Is there anywhere else in the world you would consider living?

I've travelled to a few places often, because I have friends or other connections there - I hate touristic travel and increasingly want to confine my journeys to places where I can work or where I am visiting people I know. The tourist industry has made it almost impossible for anyone to be a traveller - in the sense of a semi-invisible visitor who stands quietly on the margins of normal life in a foreign place. If you travel now, you're immediately recognisable as a client of a whole nest of local enterprises just waiting to perform a marketable version of their lives for you. Basically I'd consider living anywhere with a Mediterranean climate, an ocean within walking distance, and a healthy respect for fruit and vegetables.

What does feminism mean to you? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you think there is a need for feminism in the society in which we live?

I think some of my poems may be read as expressions of forms of feminist awareness. And I wonder whether you'd ask a male poet the same question.

Do you think enough is being done in South Africa to provide support for AIDS victims, their families and orphans? Is the government doing enough?

No. And no.

I find myself overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and frustration when I listen to news broadcasts and read local papers. There are violent crimes being committed daily in South Africa and perpetrators seem to be getting younger and younger. Do you think violence is escalating? What does the individual do about it?

I imagine each individual has to answer that question for him- or herself. I don't think I can pontificate about this. Humans are animals, and animals under stress tend to behave in ways that damage themselves and one another. Trying to live a life that doesn't depend for its happiness on the suffering of other people - that's a challenge we all fail to meet on a daily basis, isn't it?

What is the best thing about living in South Africa at the moment, for you?

Watching a nation invent itself is interesting: it's good to live in a place where the lines of force that govern (and stimulate) people's lives are so easily visible.

Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring writers and poets?

I think anyone who seriously wants to write doesn't need external encouragement. It's taken me a very long time to be able to recognise my own writing processes, and to find pleasure as well as pain in the stages of confusion and incoherence they involve. The main thing I've learned is that you're writing only when you're writing, not when you're "Being a Writer" for other people. And one day I'd like someone to explain to me why we always talk about "writers and poets", instead of just writers.

Thank you for your time, Karen.

LitNet: 08 November 2005

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