Michelle McGrane in conversation with Marí Peté
Marí Peté was born in 1964 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. Marí writes in English and Afrikaans - her bilingual poetry collection begin was published by umSinsi Press (Durban) in 2002. Her work has been published in journals such as Fidelities, Botsotso and Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, on LitNet, and in the book Collaborations - a Book of South African Art and Poetry.
Michelle McGrane: Marí, tell me about your formative influences.
Marí Peté: When I was a teenager in the seventies, Antjie Krog's early works had a major influence. When I was twelve I knew her debut collection Dogter van Jefta off by heart. A few years on, Wilma Stockenström's earthy writing had strong appeal - Die Kremetartekspedisie, for example. In 1987 I moved from mainstream studies at the University of Pretoria to do Honours at the Department of Afrikaans-Nederlands at the (then) University of Natal. During this stormy time for Afrikaans I became part of a small group of detribalised Afrikaner intellectuals and my mind truly exploded … We studied radical socio-linguistic theories, Hennie Aucamp's political cabarets (Slegs vir Almal, for example), Breytenbach's Zen Buddhist works, and various literary theories, like Umberto Eco's semiotics and Jacques Derrida's post-modernist philosophies.
Storytelling gives us a link with our past, our ancestors, and our culture. Stories tell us where we come from; they're part of our heritage. Has Afrikaans culture and tradition influenced your poetic style?
Very much so - I began to write in English only some five years ago. To me poetry is, amongst other things, about connecting and remembering. I was raised in a circle of siblings and cousins on the farms and vlaktes of the Highveld, and although I have been living in an English-speaking world for a long time, that controversial connection with the land, with family and "die taal" is part of what defines me as poet.
Do you feel more attention should be paid to translating South African poetry into other official languages in order to make it accessible to a wider spectrum of readers?
Yes, of course, although a rather rare creative skill is required to create a well-translated poem. Says Antjie Krog in Down To My Last Skin: "The biggest loss in translated poetry is the sound of the original language, a key element that completely disappears when a work is translated into an unrelated language …The translator of poetry has several choices: either to stay as close as possible to the meaning of the original poem, hoping that the translation will create its own internal rhythm, or to search for equally rich sounds and rhythms in the language of the translation and risk introducing new resonances of meaning; or to create a 'version' of the original that is in many respects a new poem."
Which local writers inspire you?
Isabel Allende says, "Books don't happen in my mind, they happen somewhere in my belly." Currently some of my favourite South African poets whose works have this concrete quality are Dorian Haarhoff, André Letoit (Koos Kombuis), Zandra Bezuidenhout, Ike Muila, Charl Fregona, Rene Stevenson, Giselle Turner.
"This is not the age of information./ This is the time of loaves and fishes./ People are hungry./ One good word/ is bread for a thousand" (David Whyte). Tell me about The Poets' Soup Kitchen you host at your home on Saturday evenings from time to time. What inspired the idea?
It is about enjoying a relaxed "kuier" with like-minded souls on Saturday evenings, very much about dialogue. I invite two or three guest poets to talk about their work. Anyone is welcome to attend. We serve slow food - my neighbour makes some soup, sandwiches and pudding, my husband pours the wine. There is a charge to cover our costs. Mostly small enough to be intimate, with exceptions, like when Kobus Moolman, winner of the Ingrid Jonker award, was our guest poet, and patrons poured over the verandah and sat on the stairs to hear him reading his moving works.
You moved from Gauteng to Durban some years ago. What kind of relationship do you have with eThekwini?
With my having lived here for nearly twenty years, Durban holds a very special place in my heart. I have written numerous poems about various aspects of life in Durban, but here is a quote from one of my most recent poems, "eThekwini":
God cools His lips, rests His feet
So, what inspired the poem?
The poem was a commission, written in response to a stunning psychedelic banner made from waste materials, beads and things local, titled "Durban Hot Summer Nights". The banner was made by members of the Umcebo Trust, directed by Robin Opperman, who is head of Art and Technology at the Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Handicapped. Umcebo means "treasure" in isiZulu. The trust is a non-profit organisation which develops the artistic skills of people with special needs. The participants, often stigmatised in their own communities, become empowered when their goods are sold and they begin to bring home an income. (Visit http://home.telkomsa.net/tabby/.)
Marí, you're also involved in a project called The KwaZulu-Natal Literary Map. Tell me a little about it.
It involves a website intended for tourists, students and researchers. I got involved in it through research collaboration with Prof Graham Stewart from DIT. The map connects authors whose lives or work are tied in some significant way to specific places in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The KwaZulu-Natal Literary Map is part of the NRF-funded "Literary Tourism in KwaZulu-Natal" project under the leadership of Prof Lindy Stiebel. (Visit http://literature.kzn.org.za/lit/.)
And then you're the poetry co-ordinator for Art for Humanity's project called Women artists and poets for children's rights. Who are Art for Humanity and what are the aims and objectives of the project?
Art for Humanity has initiated a number of campaigns involving well-known and emerging artists who create art around various issues. The two most recent projects have been around the topics of HIV and Human Rights. Some of the original artworks are now housed in the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva. ClearChannel received a BASA award in April 2005 for flighting the billboards of the HIV Break the Silence project. Art for Humanity's director is Jan Jordaan.
With the Women for Children project the idea is to promote collaboration between a visual artist and a poet, for each to produce a work informed by the other on the topic of children's rights - so that the end product reflects a creative dialogue. The poem and artwork are then displayed together on a billboard outdoors. Billboards are being flighted all over Southern Africa. The works will also form part of a catalogue and a printed portfolio. We envisage a minimum of 25 billboards, hopefully a lot more, depending on funding. The portfolio will consist of a limited edition of original fine art prints and poems. The portfolio, apart from being marketed to raise funds to support the advocacy campaign associated with this initiative, will also form the basis for the advocacy campaign. The advocacy programme will be launched on 20 November 2005, World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse, at the Durban Art Gallery. We are planning more extensive publicity in Johannesburg during an event in 2006.
A further purpose of the project is for the art and poetry to become part of our cultural heritage. Jan and I talk about "allemansgoed" (everyone's stuff) - to move art and poetry from the ivory towers into daily life. This is especially achieved with the billboards that appear outdoors in public places such as bus ranks and clinics. We aim for each poem to be translated into another South African language. The billboards will be displayed in pedestrian areas where that language is spoken. So far we have received translations of Nise Malange's poem into isiZulu, Karen Press's poem into Xhosa and Setswana, and Zandra Bezuidenhout's Afrikaans poem into English. Some of the other poets are Gabeba Baderoon, Khosi Xaba, Arja Salafranca and Malika Ndlovu. And then of course there is your important poem "The Private Eucharist", Michelle, focused on teenage eating disorders. (Visit http://www.afh.org.za/.)
Marí, how do you see writing and receiving poems bringing about social responsibility?
I can't say it any better than Pablo Neruda - this is a quote from his Nobel Prize lecture:
The poet is not a "little god". No, he is not a "little god". He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind's products: bread, truth, wine, dreams. If the poet joins this never-completed struggle to extend to the hands of each and all his part of his undertaking, his effort and his tenderness to the daily work of all people, then the poet must take part, the poet will take part, in the sweat, in the bread, in the wine, in the whole dream of humanity. Only in this indispensable way of being ordinary people shall we give back to poetry the mighty breadth which has been pared away from it little by little in every epoch, just as we ourselves have been whittled down in every epoch.
Women for Children is poetry by adults, about children's rights. But what about poetry by children? You used to be a school teacher …
I recently became involved in two poetry competitions for children. The Douglas Livingstone competition for grades 8 to 12 in KZN has run for 23 years. The competition is the initiative of Mary Johnstone, head teacher of Westville Girls High. Ms Johnstone gave this background during last year's prize giving:
The competition was inaugurated in 1982 when Douglas Livingstone spoke of the need for a creative writing competition. Whilst encouraging to young writers, Douglas always emphasised the need for rigour and discipline - that writing was a craft which was demanding and exacting. He was emphasising the hours of dedicated reworking being a poet demands - the loneliness and angst any serious writer must accept. The competition was named after him in recognition of his inspiration for its birth, his role as mentor and guide in its development and as a tribute to a great South African poet who had an empathy for young poets.The other annual competition I am involved in is for pupils of all the Crawford Schools. It is co-ordinated by Charles Wiggill, who teaches at Crawford Preparatory in Umbilo. With the kind of energy Charles infuses in education in the broadest sense, this competition is likely to become a long-term opportunity for learners to develop their creative skills.
The author Elizabeth Stone said, "Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." You have a daughter. Has motherhood changed you?
Pregnancy, birth and the first few days of my child's life were profoundly spiritual and sensual - I felt like a cross between the Mother Mary and a Spice Girl. This exhilaration was followed by a few scary years of sleep-deprived deconstruction and reconstruction of self. Now that my daughter has turned seven, most of my mothering moments are filled with a calm joy - watching her make me a salad decorated with petals and grated chocolate, or writing her first poem.
If there's one thing you could impart to your daughter that she'd carry with her for the rest of her life, what would it be?
There are a few, one of them captured by Mary Oliver in the ending of her poem "Wild Geese":
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,I wish for her to live in a way that honours this connection - with people, with our beautiful and fragile planet, with God.
Who are the women you admire?
To mention two: my publisher Felicity Keats from umSinsi Press, for chutzpah, faith in poets, and trust in the Universe, and my mother, for being an embodiment of patience, compassion and generosity.
And the men …?
I am a great fan of Richard Branson! He pursues his dreams with such passion and humour. Mark Shuttleworth has similar admirable qualities.
In Erica Jong's novel, How to Save Your Own Life, she wrote: "Books go out into the world, travel mysteriously from hand to hand, and somehow find their way to the people who need them at the times when they need them …" Which books have appeared in your life when you most needed them?
Amongst others, Huisgenoot se Wenresepte (Huisgenoot's Winning Recipes), when I was in search of a fool-proof recipe for pancakes on a rainy day in England!
What are you currently reading, Marí?
Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera - highly recommended. As The Observer puts it, it is about time, love, age, memory, death, chaos, passion and the spirit of place.
From 1992 to 1993 you and your husband lived at Wolfson College in Cambridge, England. You've written some evocative poetry based on your Cambridge experience. How would you describe this time in your life? Has it influenced your writing?
1993, the year before South Africa's first democratic elections, was a special time, and being so far away from home, we experienced it very intensely. As a result a number of my poems took on a socio-political flavour - "by die dood van Chris Hani", for example. Living in Cambridge was also a mind-blowing intellectual adventure - listening to friends arguing late into the night about what Wittgenstein really meant, or whether Watson and Crick really did discover the double helix in the Eagle pub, or cycling past Stephen Hawking on the streets. Living through four seasons in Cambridge was also an intensely sensuous experience. While Steve was a student, sweating it out in the library, I spent lots of time frolicking in the Grantchester Meadows next to the river Cam, just as the neo-pagans Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf had done.
In her essay "The Lady Scribbler" Carole Satyamurti wrote: "I think it is the nature of poetry that the process of sharing it brings people into a relation of intimacy greater than is the case with other kinds of writing." Do you agree with this and do you belong to a group of poets?
I draw energy from conversations with like-minded poets. I attend monthly meetings of the Live Poets Society as often as I can. We meet every last Tuesday of the month at 6 pm at the Point Yacht Club. Brett Beilles is the convenor. There are also other poetry groups in Durban, such as the Nowadayz Poets and Rose Mokhosi's Young Basadzis.
"Umgeni Road", published in the recent edition of Botsotso, is a departure from your usual style. What prompted the creation of this poem?
About a year ago, Allan Horwitz and Ike Muila from Botsotso stayed over at our home. In the morning on their way back to Jozi we drove in convoy through Umgeni Road - they were in search of a car radio repair shop. Being newly under the influence of their style, isicamtho (tsotsitaal poetry), I began to see the shop names, bumper stickers and graffiti with new eyes, and so I wrote this two-page poem while driving in the morning traffic. When I got to work I emailed the poem to Allan and he published it in Botsotso.
How many years did it take to write the poems contained in your collection begin? Can you describe the book's themes briefly?
The poems span a period of twenty years. The book is about cycles in the natural and human world. Beginning is birth. But it also implies ending, and beginning again (rebirth). I introduce the last section, Yin Yang, with a quote from poet Stanley Kunitz: "Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes." There is also a state in between endings and beginnings. In Tibetan Buddhism that place is called the "bardo". In the Native American tradition it is called "the crack between the two worlds". During that time in my life, I often found myself in the crack between the two worlds.
And hence, on the back cover, Prof Dorian Haarhoff comments that you "write in the crack between two languages - English and Afrikaans"… Marí, how can we get hold of a copy of your poetry collection?
An excerpt from the book and purchase details appear on http://olc.dit.ac.za/MariPete/begin.
Another quote you use in your book is by Rabbi Leah Novik: "This Goddess who shines on us as we study sacred texts is found in redwood groves and apple orchards. She is coming to us in the wind and the water; in the ocean and the mountains." Much of your poetry is informed by an earthy delight in the natural world. The poem "wedding", for example, reads like a love poem to Africa …
I wrote that poem during a four-day hike through the Umfolozi wilderness area. So yes, I guess on the first level the poem is a kind of love poem to Africa. The second layer has to do with the marriage of anima and animus, yin and yang, darkness and light.
Where do spirituality and poetry converge for you? How has poetry contributed to your inner explorations, your personal journey?
For me writing poetry is fed by a continual internal dialogue with the Creative Force. Producing poetry that is alive and convincing also has something to do with an ability to tolerate ambiguity. In The Writer's Voice Dorian Haarhoff quotes Terry Eagleton: "Ideology is a kind of contemporary mythology, a realm that has purged itself of ambiguity and alternative possibility." And, "Major myths seek to understand part of the mystery of existence through story. They accept their fictionality. And in doing so they release their truths … Major myths live by metaphor." Part of my journey through writing is to live with "questions loved in locked rooms", as Rilke puts it in Letters to a Young Poet. Something to do with a yearning ... Mary Oliver refers to this in her Poetry Handbook:
Negative capability is not a contemporary concept, but a phrase originating with Keats. His idea was, simply but momentously, that the poet should be a kind of negative force - that only by remaining himself negative, or in some way empty, is the poet able to fill himself with an understanding of, or sympathy for, or empathy with, the subject of his poem. Here is a passage (from a letter to his brothers) in which he discusses it: "... Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - ..."
LitNet: 16 August 2005
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