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Publisher, poet and playwright

Kobus Moolman is interviewed by Michelle McGrane

Kobus MoolmanKobus Moolman was born and educated in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. He is a poet, playwright, educator and editor who is passionate about the possibilities inherent in "the Word" to transform the ordinary into the extra-ordinary. Moolman has worked as an English teacher and as a sub-editor at The Witness (formerly The Natal Witness). He was also the education officer at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, and currently teaches creative writing in the Department of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

In 2004 Moolman was awarded the Jury Prize at the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA) Festival of New Writing for his play Full Circle. The play will be produced by PANSA and the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, after which it will go on national tour. Moolman is also the recipient of the BBC African Radio Theatre Award (1987) and the Macmillan Southern African Playwriting Award (1991), and in 2003 he was a finalist in the BBC African Performance radio drama competition. His winning play was produced for the BBC World Service. In the same year it was read at the Moscow Theatre Festival of New Writing. In 1998 he was awarded the Helen Martins Fellowship, which enabled him to spend a month in the Karoo village of Nieu-Bethesda working on his debut collection of poetry, Time like Stone,, for which he was awarded the 2001 Ingrid Jonker Prize. In 2001 he brought out a joint collection with four other poets, 5 Poetry, published by Botsotso Publishers. Brevitas Publishers published his second anthology of poetry, Feet of the Sky, in 2003. His poems, journal extracts, short stories and reviews have been published in collections and journals in South Africa and abroad. Moolman is the editor of the annual poetry journal Fidelities, and actively promotes and helps develop the work of aspirant writers and artists.

Michelle McGrane: Kobus, you were born and educated in Pietermaritzburg. Over the years, what do you regard as the most significant change that has taken place in the city?

Kobus Moolman: So many changes. Good and bad. The loss of really good bookshops is terrible. But the fact that the city can now be remade in the image of all South Africans is great. Generally, though, for me it's just a city and I don't attach too much value to it. I'm more interested in other things. I try not to get stuck on where I am, rather on what I'm doing there. I realise that now I'm never going to be able ever to say one thing without qualifying it with something else. I just don't have those kinds of answers. I have only uncertainty, doubt, this and that. Not or that.

Were your parents a big part of your life growing up?

Of course. And I can't even begin to find the words right now to enumerate the ways. It would feel like some kind of disservice to them if I were to, anyway. I would rather want to evoke them, their influence (both positive and negative, as with all our parents), in some other manner, in words that have more complexity, more ambiguity than the small answers I am making up here.

How old were you when you wrote your first poem and what inspired it?

I'm not sure how old I was. It was in Standard 6. Grade 8. So I must have been around twelve, perhaps. It was a long poem called "The Eagle". Actually it was a homework assignment set by my then English teacher, someone who played a tremendous formative role in my early writing life. The poem itself for me is pretty unexciting. But I still remember the feeling, or mixture of feelings, that went through me as I sat on my bed with my back against the bedroom wall and wrote the poem. Those feelings - that strange conglomeration of triumph, excitement and dread - have lived with me all these years; and I hope that I always feel them when writing.

Okay, I'm interested in human catalysts, the kind who wander into your life, or perhaps just accidentally wander through your space, and who leave completely unchanged by you, but somehow, by their presence or words or actions, they change you profoundly. I'd like to hear about a catalyst experience you've had.

Whoa! I'm not sure about this one. Of course, I mentioned the English teacher who first got me writing, way back in Standard 6. He also fired me up about reading. But then I also know that it's not necessarily the people who direct themselves to our "literary" side who actually make a difference, but those who affect our whole flesh, our whole hearts. And those we betray, those we forget - or cannot forget. All those people who come in and out of our lives like wandering, migratory birds. That pass. That perhaps we do not even see. But dream up. Yes. Those without names. Not the named ones. Not the ones whose names appear on letters and envelopes at the bottom of a drawer. But those who appear between the pages of a book. Experiences we dare not retell, because they are like the ancient name of God, or a curse.

It is always unease, disquiet, dislocation that prompt me to stop what I am otherwise doing and … and … open my notebook.

Is there any particular book that has made a great difference to your life?

Really difficult to pinpoint one. For some inexplicable reason Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf meant a lot to me when I was younger. But then I am also an absolute Dostoyevskyholic. I struggle to find such a ruthless vision amongst contemporary writers. Beckett comes close - in his own way. Coetzee, in his own beautifully stark way, is also similar.

Which poets have influenced you?

Ah! So many. So many that still continue to. If I were to list them, I would run the risk of offending the spirits of those whom I inevitably would forget. But the list would certainly include people like DH Lawrence, Wopko Jensma, Anna Akhmatova, Maria Tsvetayeva, the wonderful Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, that astonishing Miguel Hernandez, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, the enigmatic Fernando Pessoa; locally Robert Berold, Joan Metelerkamp, Ingrid de Kok, Karen Press, Kelwyn Sole, Mxolisi Nyezwa and recently Don Maclennan.

Do you think that poetry, by its very nature, places the poet outside the modern herd, just as shamans found themselves a step apart from the tribe?

Oh dear! The poet! How can I speak for the poet? Part of me thinks I can and I should. Because I know what a profound effect upon my life and writing the words of other writers has been - those writers who speak about writing. But on the other hand, I am also loath to make pronouncements in the name of poetry. To put the business of making poetry into words which are not themselves words that make up a poem. This for me is a struggle. A real struggle. Because no one really wants to be elliptical. This can too easily become a pose. But I do know and I do feel on my skin the terror of the literary quotation, the epithet that comes to define and confine all we are as writers (and human beings).

What primary role do you see poets playing in society?

Again, as above. But also significantly different. Because so often we hear of poets needing to be teachers, prophets, healers, etc. No! How can I swear at my audience if I have to be a teacher? How can I offend, disturb, challenge my reader if I always have to be concerned with giving them positive messages that build them up and make them feel better about themselves? A poet is so much more. He or she is these things. But also not. There. I cannot find any other way to answer these questions, except again to hover over the answer, to hesitate in front of it, to pause. Because for me, in the pause, in the hesitation, lies the power and the energy of that which we do not know, that which is greater and smaller at the same time, that which is before and present and beyond all at once. And if I were to name, to define it, as in an answer, a quotation, an explanation, then immediately it would be rendered meaningless. Because the meaning always spills over and exceeds that which is seeking it.

You were invited to participate in Poetry Africa 2004. Tell me a little about the experience.

It was wonderful to see hundreds of people turning up to support poetry in all its weird and wonderful manifestations, and especially so many young people. It's deeply encouraging and bodes well for the future of writing.

Out of the participants at Poetry Africa 2004, who really stood out for you?

The work of Karen Press is, as always, exceptionally well crafted and meticulous. Her new collection, The Little Museum of Working Life (which I edited for the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press), is incredibly evocative. I also really enjoyed meeting and getting to know the rap poet Thumi. I found his work strong and exciting.

But I think my favourite was the small poet from Indonesia who always wore the same green cap and hardly spoke to anyone else, mainly because he did not understand English. His name was Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, and he recited his poems (more like prayers) in a deep, growling voice that was in itself a musical instrument. His poems were, fortunately, translated (badly, according to him), but they had a power and a life-force that went way beyond their words!

You're currently completing your MA degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, researching the poetry produced by a group of inmates from the Pietermaritzburg New Prison. How is it going?

It's finished. And it was very well received, thankfully. In fact, I've been encouraged to publish it. But this will have to wait for a while. In the meantime, though, I just want to thank and pay tribute to the three writers whose work formed the core of my research: Bheki Mkhize, Sipho Mkhize and Bhek'themba Mbhele. Without them there would, in fact, have been no project.

The titles of both your poetry collections, Time like Stone and Feet of the Sky, contain nature imagery. How important is the natural world in your poetry?

I'm not a great or knowledgeable naturalist, but I do believe that the non-human world, the world without us, has been around long before us and will continue long after us. We are not that important at all. We have to come back to a proper sense of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things. The earth can so very easily exist without us (in fact, it can exist far better without us), but we cannot exist without it. So, yes, in that way the natural world is important to my work.

In a world that increasingly cares more about image than about art, how do you manage to stay true to your craft?

By closing my eyes. By being silent. By never ceasing to want.

In addition to writing poetry, you write radio and stage scripts, short stories, journal extracts and reviews. How do these other forms of writing affect your poetry? Is it difficult to keep your hand in so many different forms, or do they feed off one another?

I find that I enjoy writing scripts immensely. They give me an entirely different satisfaction to writing poetry or journals. Writing a play is, for me, more of a physical feeling than poetry. A script must reveal the body and the words of a human being. It cannot be abstract. It must be corporeal. It must be tangible. I like that. It is much less of a mental or imaginative process than poetry.

What I would like - and I know I cannot force it; it must happen of its own accord - is to find the same degree of physicality, of texture in my poetry as I have in my plays.

Last year you were one of five finalists, and finally the winner, of the PANSA award for your script Full Circle at their Festival of Reading of New Writing in Cape Town. Are you working towards a full-scale production of Full Circle?

Absolutely. The play will be produced by the National Arts Festival and PANSA. It will open on the main stage of the Grahamstown Festival in July this year. The world première, in fact, is on 4 July at 2 pm. It's directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith and stars Michael Richard, Anna van Rooyen, Hannes Brummer and Samson Khumalo.

It's not an easy play - far from it. So I don't know how audiences are going to react. It's very strong. Very dark. Violent, even. But at the same time immensely lyrical.

Kobus, you work full-time. Do you find you have to be very disciplined about setting aside time for writing on a regular basis?

Yes and no. But what else is there to do, actually? I do not own a television. I do not go to clubs or such. The evenings and the early mornings are therefore pretty much my own.

What part of your job do you most look forward to?

Interacting with young, fresh, adventurous and hungry minds.

What do you see for yourself in the next five years?

Seeking to write stronger and stronger work. What else is there? And finally coming to a sense of peace with myself.

How can we get hold of copies of Time like Stone and Feet of the Sky?

Firstly, through bookshops. Then on the internet. And if this fails, then the respective publishers: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and Brevitas Publishers.

You are the editor of Fidelities, the only literary journal published in KwaZulu-Natal. Tell me more about it.

I don't know what there is to say. It's probably a miracle. Every year I threaten within myself to end it, and every year I get material that I do not know how to turn my back on.

What inspired the name Fidelities?

A bottle of Jack Daniels late at night between myself and my friend, Richard Walne.

If I'm not mistaken, this will be the twelfth year Fidelities has been in production. Did you ever imagine it would become such a fixture in your life?

Never ever ever.

How can people submit work to and/or order copies of Fidelities?

By sending no more than six carefully chosen (whether typed or handwritten does not matter) to: PO Box 22451, Southgate, Pietermaritzburg, 3200.

Contributors MUST send a stamped self-addressed envelope so that I can correspond with them.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Give it up now. While you still can. No, seriously, get a life first. How can you write if you've got nothing to write about? And no way of working out for yourself what it is that you want to write about? So live! Experience. Feel. Think. Do. And while you're doing all of this, read. Read and think and feel and do. And get yourself a cheap hardcover exercise book, and a pencil. And don't ever, ever, be separated from them.

LitNet treats you to a previously unseen poem by Kobus Moolman:

Ballad of a Soft Man

soft man slumped
into a corner
of the sky

opaque sky, distracted
by sand and stones
scraping against sun;

the broken shell
of a wind
see-sawing across
a glass eye;

soft man slumped
into a corner
of the sky

leaking stray birds
and stuffing.

LitNet: 21 June 2005

Did you enjoy this interview? Have your say! Send your comments to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page. Or submit your own poetry to Anton Krueger for consideration.

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