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Demanding the impossible - an interview with Gary Cummiskey

Michelle McGrane

Gary Cummiskey was born in England in 1963. He emigrated to South Africa with his parents in 1969, and returned to England in 1973. He came back to South Africa in 1983.

He is the author of several collections of poetry, including When Apollinaire Died (Firfield Press, 1996), Head (with Roy Blumenthal - Dye Hard Press, 1998), and Reigning Gloves (Dye Hard Press, 2000). He has published his poetry extensively in local journals, and has written cultural commentary and book reviews for the South African media. He founded Dye Hard Press in 1994 and is the editor of the literary journal Green Dragon.

Michelle McGrane: Cummiskey … it's an unusual surname. From where does it originate?

Gary Cummiskey: The name is Irish in origin and is derived from MacCummiscaigh. My paternal grandfather was from Ireland; both my parents were born in Scotland.

Gary, how did your family end up in South Africa?

My father was a carpenter and in the late 1960s the building industry in SA was booming, so we came here. I was six and we returned four years later when I was ten. My father tried to get various businesses going here, but he wasn't very good at it, and they all flopped.

During your childhood, how did your family relationships and surroundings impact on you?

Well, I had all sorts of influences in my childhood, probably too many to mention. But one factor connected with my childhood was that we tended to follow my father wherever he worked, thus being constantly uprooted and moved from one school to another. This created a sense of alienation from any fixed identity in respect of nationality, culture or belief system. I've always been a bit of an outsider; I've never run with the pack. But I don't regard it as a handicap; I regard it as an advantage.

After having returned to England when you were ten years old, you came back to South Africa in 1983. Did you feel at the time that South Africa was a country where you wanted to build a life for yourself? Why did you decide not to stay in England?

By that time my mother and sisters were back in SA, my parents had got divorced and my father lived in Germany. After leaving school at 16, and not being particularly interested in anything, I worked at a shoe factory but was fired after six weeks because I spent most of my time in the toilets reading Proust. Later I worked for a year at a steel company that was on the verge of closing down. Nobody was very motivated and I used to sit around most of the day reading Rimbaud or Dostoyevsky at my desk. I went to Germany for a while, then back to England hanging around doing odd jobs, getting nowhere fast. My mother paid for my airfare out here and I started working within a fortnight.

Did anyone in your family encourage you to read as a child?

No. I was rather backward when it came to English at school (my maths was very good, though). I had to go for extra English lessons because my reading and writing were so bad. Now my maths is atrocious.

When did you start reading poetry and how old were you when you started writing?

From about the age of ten I developed a passion for history, and I was fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots. So when I was about 11, I wrote a short story about her, and then started writing all sorts of historical essays, about the Russian revolution, the world wars etc. I kept them all in a file. At about 14 I started to read Shakespeare, or at least I tried to, but it was his historical plays that I was interested in. Then studying Greek history got me into reading the Ancient Greek dramatists, also the philosophers. About the same time we had to write a poem for our English class that was inspired by our listening to Fleetwood Mac's instrumental track, "Albatross". So I went home that night and wrote a sonnet about a dying albatross. And so it followed on.

So, were there any particular poets who influenced and inspired you initially?

Yes, Shakespeare, Keats, Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth. I was quite a little classicist and wrote long rambling odes to Greek gods and goddesses. A short while later, though, an uncle of mine introduced me to 20th-century literature: the modernists such as Joyce, Lawrence, Faulkner, Pound, Eliot and Huxley, as well as the Beats - Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti. He also got me into that great poet of the jukebox, Bob Dylan, as well as Donovan, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and modern jazz.

Did poetry start off as a hobby or did you always have the ambition to make a career out of it one way or another?

I guess at first it was a hobby, but by the age of 16 I was convinced I could make a job of it, like someone would pay me a salary for writing poems. I also wrote some awful folk songs and bought a guitar. I wanted to be another Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan.

Okay, what is poetry to you and why do you write, Gary?

I take the surrealist view of poetry as a weapon, a magician's wand, not to create false worlds or dupe people, but to transform this world. Poetry is a means of change and liberation. Of course people will scoff at that, since poetry these days is considered silly and effeminate, at best a sort of game, an entertainment, like some poetry slams. There is the age-old argument that poetry has no relation to life because people do not think in poetic diction or whatever. But this is because most people view language as simply a means of conducting social transactions, to live cohesively in an orderly, "civilised" society. But this is only one aspect of language, the superficial aspect - it's the language of everyday communication, advertising and the media. But language operates on other levels too, and can be used differently. Words are mantras, words of power, keys to open doors in the mind. But this doesn't mean that poetry should be some esoteric code for a small elite - far from it. It can still employ everyday words and imagery, but if those words and images are used in new ways, if they themselves can be liberated from their superficial context, they can become agents in revealing a whole new perception, and experience, of reality.

Why do I write? Why do I breathe or think or eat? Because I have to. It's an integral part of me.

I think with poetry, as with life, people don't always know when they're being lied to, but they know when they're being told the truth. How important is your truth to you in your poetry?

Truth is all-important. A true poet is concerned with truth and does not pander to political, social or religious programmes. Just recently, here in Johannesburg, Lesego Rampolokeng was led off the stage by security at a Freedom Day celebration - he wasn't toeing the party line. Entertainers for hire might toe the line, but not true poets. However, telling the truth in a poem does not mean that you have to produce an immediately accessible message. Sometimes, but not always, "easy" poems that are grasped at first reading or hearing are nothing more than bland communications.

Gary, you describe yourself as a surrealist. In your terms, what is a surrealist? And why surrealism?

I thought that I was a surrealist at one time, but now I regard myself as being inspired by surrealism rather than as a surrealist per se. I have always been more attracted to the surrealist spirit rather than surrealist doctrine. Surrealists, strictly speaking, are people, whether writers, artists, performers - or not even creative artists at all - who accept and live the philosophy of surrealism to the full. That is very difficult these days, as surrealism demands complete freedom from ties such as jobs and having to earn a living. A lot of the original surrealists lived, at least for a while, on inherited incomes. It is very unusual these days for someone to be in that favourable situation. Surrealism is, as I said in a piece that I wrote about a surrealist art exhibition in London, which appeared on www.donga.co.za, "a permanent revolution aimed at the transformation of life, its principal weapons being magic, poetry (visual, verbal or written), eroticism and revolt. Backed up with an unyielding belief in the omnipotence of liberty, dreams and desire, surrealism wages an uncompromising war against a paltry existence based on enslavement, bigotry and sham, as well as the abuse of money and power by corporate capitalism, religion, military and state."

Do you believe in the artistic concept of The Muse? And what guise would she take in human form?

Yes, I do, because inspiration, the Muse, hits me at unusual times. Sometimes I beg her to come and visit me, but she never does when I do that. She comes on her own terms. How would she appear in human form? I think of her as a beautiful sexy blonde in white.

Okay, what's the one kind of subject matter that you find you can't write enough of? And why?

I don't follow any particular subject matter. Whatever comes, comes.

Ideally, what would you like your readers to get out of reading your poetry?

That they be liberated from their mental chains and be free to help others to be free and to transform the world. Failing that, that they at least get some enjoyment from the work.

Can you tell me what it feels like to be a white, forty-something male poet living in "the New South Africa"?

I don't ever see myself as a white, forty-something male poet in the new SA, so the question never crosses my mind. I am a poet. I am not representative of any age or race or gender group.

Some of your work consists of "cut-ups". Can you explain what a cut-up is and the process involved in creating one?

Cut-ups were more or less invented by the Dadaists. They took a newspaper or magazine, cut up the pages, rearranged them and transcribed what new messages arose. In the late 1950s, Brion Gysin, Bill Burroughs, Gregory Corso and SA Beat poet Sinclair Beiles collaborated on a book of cut-ups called Minutes To Go, which sort of caught on to various degrees. I have cut up magazine or newspaper articles, taken headlines or phrases and strung them together, to create startling images and messages, startling poems. Life doesn't take place on a linear plane, as we often believe it does, but on multiple levels of experience simultaneously and in various directions. Cut-ups can capture that. But I feel now that I have done enough in that line; I don't wish to continue, at least not for the time being.

How many collections of poetry have you personally produced?

About seven small collections, not big ones, no more than about 20 poems each.

As far as prose and other writing genres are concerned, are you working on anything?

No. I'm too busy with Dye Hard Press projects.

Your latest poetry collection, Bog Docks, is about to be released. Can you tell me a little about the collection?

It is a collection of 28 poems from about 2000 to 2003. It is a mixture of cut-ups, surreal dream narratives and prose poems. Most of the poems have appeared in journals, either in print or online.

I think the title Bog Docks is intriguing and evocative. Why did you choose it?

It's a title of one of the poems in the collection. I was stuck for a title and poet Alan Finlay selected it. It's a challenging, illogical phrase, which is its beauty. Years ago I published a small, short-lived poetry journal called Atio. People thought it was Latin and tried to find out what it meant. It didn't mean anything. I'd been trying to figure out the name for the journal and when I was out one lunchtime I walked past a sign for First National Bank and the letters that struck me were A, T, I, O from the word National. That's where the name came from.

After Bog Docks, what's your next project?

I'm going to be guest editing an issue of Gus Ferguson's poetry journal Carapace, and getting out the third issue of my own poetry and prose journal, Green Dragon. There is the ongoing Dye Hard Press newsletter. I also have three other provisional projects in the pipeline: two collections of poetry by other poets, plus a book of prose.

Bog Docks will presumably be available through Dye Hard Press (DHP) and at various well-stocked bookshops. Can you name some of the stores at which readers can find copies of DHP publications?

At most major bookstores countrywide, such as Exclusive Books.

Gary, how do you define your role as publisher of DHP? And what are your primary aims?

The original aim of DHP was to bring out cheaply-produced collections of poetry, mainly by new poets, that could be distributed cheaply or even free, as the early DHP publications were. It was a way of getting poetry out there - the bigger publishers did not want to take a risk on publishing work by new poets. Since then I have scraped my hands and skinned my knees, and improved the presentation of my publications, and they are sold in bookstores nationwide. My primary aim is still to support poetry and poetry publishing in South Africa. I like to publish innovative poetry, not traditional poetry. I am focused on publishing quality poetry, and not necessarily just by new poets.

Tell me about the poets that DHP has published.

Well, I have published well-established poets such as Gus Ferguson and, more recently, writers such as Alan Finlay and Arja Salafranca. In the past I published collections by promising poets who are no longer writing. It's sad to see promising writers dismiss their flowering gift as a sort of delayed-adolescent thing and then put it all behind them. It can be a frustrating thing for a publisher, putting a lot of energy and time into producing a collection by a new poet, and once it is out, they decide they don't want to be a poet anymore and aren't even interested in the collection anymore. A few years back I received a letter from a schoolteacher, of all things, who wrote: "I am now 33, but still keen on writing poetry"!

All right, how does one go about ordering one of your books or any of the books that have been published by DHP?

They can be ordered directly from Dye Hard Press at P O Box 783211, Sandton 2146, or through better bookstores nationwide.

DHP is currently producing an informative newsletter that is being received very positively. What are your aims with the newsletter and how can interested parties apply to have their names added to the mailing list?

The Dye Hard Press newsletter is aimed at addressing challenges for independent publishers, such as promotion, production and distribution. Independent publishers don't have the resources that commercial publishers have, which can be off-putting to a lot of potential publishers out there. My aim is to show that you can still produce quality productions relatively cheaply, and market them. The response so far has been most encouraging. People interested in receiving the DHP newsletter can email dyehardpress@iafrica.com.

Can you give me your thoughts on the way you see the poetry scene in South Africa currently developing?

I am very excited about the direction of poetry in SA. The 1990s was a very transitional period not only for the country as a whole, but also for SA literature. We were living in a period of the "rainbow nation", while all around us crime was rampant, unemployment rising, and people were leaving the country on a large scale. In various ways, in literature, people were on tiptoes - the catch phrase was "political correctness". JM Coetzee dropped a bombshell with his novel Disgrace, which people regarded as racist because he portrayed some black characters negatively, overlooking the fact that he also portrayed some white characters very negatively. It was a courageous work. A lot of people were, and still are, engaged in self-censorship. But that is now changing: people are openly pointing out that if our leaders cannot take criticism, then they are not operating democratically and so what happened to the democratic ideals that our constitution is based on? Writers are also dropping the political obsessions of the past, no longer focusing so much on socio-economic or political issues. It's okay now to write about personal relationships and not be accused of ignoring the injustice around you. Young black poets are looking at the new South Africa through their own eyes, not their parents', and responding to the challenges that face them. We are beginning to realise the diversity of life, its complexity and richness, not just the narrow political equations.

On a more personal level, would you elaborate on the way art and music have had an effect on your work?

I am tremendously influenced by art, especially modern art, particularly the surrealists and the abstract expressionists. Art is non-verbal and employs a universal language that we can all relate to. An artist whose work really excites me is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 in the late 1980s. I wrote a poem about him, which appears in Bog Docks.

I love music - classical, folk, jazz and rock. There is a lot of poetry in folk, blues and rock. Look at the lyrics of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Crosby, Stills and Nash, also John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon. Some poets, such as Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure, wrote and sang songs, some more successful than others. I think Ginsberg's singing was awful.

You're an ardent admirer of the Beat poets. Why the Beats?

In terms of the historical context, the Beats were rebelling against the Cold War-era, conservative, sterile sensibility in life, as well as the rigidity of the Anglo-American New Criticism in poetry, which basically regarded poetry as a production divorced from its author's personality and from the times in which it was produced. It was becoming a product of the academies. The Beats brought poetry into the open, produced poetry that was a living force, not words crucified on a page, something to be read only by scholars and professors. As a lifestyle, the Beat thing, like hippiedom, was not sustainable, but their influence on literature has been enormous. On The Road has already entered the canon of modern classics.

Who, for you, is the definitive Beat? And why?

Bob Kaufman. Kaufman was a very little known African-American Beat; he produced only three collections in his lifetime, and had nothing to do with the publication of any of them. He wouldn't even write his poems down - they were often spontaneous oral productions, but with rich, deep imagery - it wasn't like street poetry. His wife wrote them down and organised the publication of his first two books. By that time - the mid-1960s - Kaufman had taken a Buddhist vow of silence. He was often beaten up by the cops, had a terrible drug problem, was institutionalised, given shock therapy, and imprisoned. He never become "famous" like Ginsberg, but was highly regarded in France, while almost ignored him in his native US. A lot of people put that down to racism. In France he was called "the black Rimbaud".

The Beats are notorious for their alcoholism, drug abuse and unorthodox sexual practices. Do you think their fuck-it-all attitude may be the reason young people are attracted to them, that it's the glamorous, eccentric element of non-conformity they aspire to, as opposed to their actual art and what they were trying to say to the world?

I think so. A lot of teenagers who had posters of Ginsberg on their walls in the 1960s probably hadn't read his poetry. I am sure a lot of people were attracted to hippiedom purely because of the drugs and free sex thing. Look at what happened to the Haight district in San Francisco. It started out as a peace-lovin' haven for flower children but within a year was filled with criminals and hard-drug dealers.

Tell me a little about writers who have inspired you, other than the Beats.

Well, the surrealists, of course, and also some of the post-Beat writers, such as Claude Pelieu. I also respond to a lot of local writers and poets, like Seitlhamo Motsapi - I find myself constantly returning to his work.

What book has made the most difference to your life and why?

A book called The Penguin Book of English and American Surrealist Poetry, which I discovered when I was 14. It was my introduction to surrealism. I didn't know what the hell it was, but the cover looked weird and it hit me like a freight train and I have never looked back. The odd thing is that the anthology is misleading: there are a lot of poets in there who had nothing even remotely to do with surrealism, and Breton would have turned in his grave to see them included. The editor was obviously clueless.

Gary, what are your views on erotica? Do you read it and do you think it should be classed as a literary genre?

Yes, I do read erotica, at least the classics, such as The Story of O, Venus in Furs, The Image, The Story of the Eye. I have read a lot of De Sade. His work is revolutionary and disturbing, but certainly not arousing. All these titles treat eroticism as a life-changing - sometimes life-threatening - experience, disturbing, as well as socially disruptive. They are also well written by serious, dedicated authors who were probing human psychology and behaviour as well as being serious about their craft. I think that erotica, as opposed to blatant pornography, should be regarded as a very serious, respected genre.

What are your views on pornography?

I find it boring. To my mind, pornography, as opposed to erotica, is bland and blatant. It's just repetitive blow-by-blow accounts of fucking and sucking. I wouldn't waste my time or money buying a porn magazine; I wouldn't waste my time watching a porn film. I saw one or two ages ago; they seemed predictable and boring. Porn is a sort of commercialised parody of erotica. What is more shocking? A 1 000-page novel with fucking on every page, or a 50-page essay defending a sexual taboo, such as incest? Probably the second. Porn - at least legal porn - focuses on what is acceptable to society, which, to a degree, both channels and limits our fantasies. Porn does not challenge, it merely entertains. I do, however, strongly condemn child porn, or any other form that involves people performing acts against their will.

And feminism … what are your views on feminism?

I am all for it! But feminist concerns differ from era to era, culture to culture. Historically, South Africa has been a deeply entrenched, white-male dominated society, so there is quite a bit of adjustment to be done. But I think a problem does occur when women model themselves on men instead of remaining true to their femininity.

What would your ideal job be?

To turn Dye Hard Press into a full-time publishing business with a full-time income.

How do you deal with the paradox of working daily in an office environment and having to pursue your poetry, your passion, in whatever spare time you have left available to you?

As you get older it is something that you grudgingly come to accept. It's very frustrating, but what else is one supposed to do? If someone is prepared to support me financially while I write, they are more than welcome to contact me!

I think it's so easy to become a product of the society we live in. Do you ever find yourself consciously rebelling against that to retain a sense of individuality?

Constantly. It is an ongoing battle. Society demands an unthinking zombie-like mentality and I have never been into that. But at the same time, some people who have rebelled outright, to the full, have destroyed themselves in the process. One has to find a constructive form of rebellion.

Tell me how you let your hair down.

I love to have a few beers or some wine, and listen to music.

What's the biggest misconception about you?

That I am Polish.

Tell me one thing that has never been written about you and that people don't know about you.

I pick my nose.

What is your ultimate truth?

That human beings can be free, respect each other, and live in harmony.

As you get older, have you found yourself mellowing to a certain extent?

Definitely. In my 20s I went through the whole romantic self-destructive trip. Live life on the edge, you know. Then one day you realise that you ARE destroying yourself and there is nothing romantic or creative about it. You have to find a balance. Even Baudelaire pointed out that great poetry is the result of discipline and solitude, not debauchery.

Do you feel you come from a confident place within yourself? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I feel I can confront anything, sometimes the world scares me and I want to run away.

When do you trust your own judgement versus that of the people around you?

When there is a risk that I, and not they, will lose out by making a certain decision. People are quick to give advice when they are not going to be affected by a wrong decision.

So, what are your thoughts on marriage?

I wanted to be married once; I almost did get married. But now, I dunno, I am not sure if it is necessary. If you are happy in a relationship, why create a legal complication?

… And children?

At one time I really wanted to have a child, and conceptually, I guess I still do - always wanted a daughter. But practically, from a time point of view - and children need quality time - I am not too sure. I hardly find time for myself these days, let alone for a child.

Do you fear the future?

Well, the world is turning into a scary place, what with US military-corporate imperialism, suicide bombers, the ongoing problems in the Middle East, starvation, poverty, AIDS, civil wars. It's truly frightening. Generally, though, I am optimistic, even though it's hard at times.

What do you know for sure?


How do you define yourself spiritually?

Well, in terms of spiritual beliefs, I am very close to Buddhism, but I don't regard myself as a Buddhist. I refuse to follow any one path to enlightenment.

If you had the choice to live anywhere in the world, where would you live, and why?

In the south of France, because Lawrence Durrell wrote so beautifully about it.

What is your dream for yourself?

To be a successful publisher and a recognised poet.

Gary, what makes you happy?

Lots of things: getting things done, being loved, being recognised, getting ahead.

If you had to choose a favourite literary quote, what would it be?

Well, a favourite motto of mine for years has been one that was formulated by some surrealists during the events of May 1968 in Paris: "Be realistic - demand the impossible."

LitNet: January 2005

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