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"Literature enables you to examine your life"

Michelle McGrane interviews Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog was born in the Free State in 1952. She completed a BA degree at the University of the Orange Free State, a Masters degree in Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria and a Teacher's Diploma at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

Krog's first collection of poetry, Dogter van Jefta (1970), was followed by further collections, including two books of verse for children and the English collection Down to my last skin (2000), which won the inaugural 2000 FNB Vita Poetry Award. She became well known as one of the SABC radio journalists who reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the mid-nineties. Prose publications include Country of my Skull (1998), about the TRC, and A Change of Tongue (2003).

Antjie has received a number of awards and prizes for poetry, journalism and translation. For her journalistic work she won the Pringle Award and the Foreign Correspondent Award. She has received the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award and was honoured by the Hiroshima Peace Foundation. Her works have been translated into English, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Arabic.

Body Bereft (2006), Antjie Krog's second collection of poetry in English, has been translated from the Afrikaans collection Verweerskrif; both were recently published by Umuzi, Random House's South African imprint.

Krog is married to architect John Samuel. They have four children and live in Cape Town, where she is a Professor Extraordinary at the University of the Western Cape. 

Antjie, to what do you attribute your drive and self-belief?

I do not think I have drive. I don't think anybody with drive would choose poetry. I've been writing poetry for nearly 36 years now (a volume every four or five years), 25 of those years for a handful of Afrikaans poetry readers only. Most things happen organically to me out of a basic need to earn money to raise and educate our children, but also to buy time to write poetry that does not make money. Country of my Skull bought time to write an Afrikaans volume after several years, as well as to translate poetry from the indigenous African languages into Afrikaans. A Change of Tongue bought time to write Verweerskrif and a volume of fairy poems for children.   

At different ages one reads and is influenced by diverse poets. Can you compare the poets who influenced you when you wrote Dogter van Jefta with the poets who influenced your later English collections, Down to my last skin and Body Bereft?

Because my English collections are translations from the Afrikaans, they are not influenced by sources other than the Afrikaans, which includes an English influence. Like the poetry of most poets who do not write in English, mine has always been influenced by a “double stream”: on the one hand, we read our own language, our own poets, in order to forge our voices from them (which is why one's advice to young poets is always: read, read, read – in order to push boundaries in our language, we need to be intimately acquainted with the poetry of our language); but, on the other hand, we also read English poetry simply because we love it, because it is being taught to us and because it gives us access to other worlds.    

I also read Dutch poetry and novels, and since visiting the Netherlands after the lifting of the cultural boycott, I have found it a wonderfully refreshing extension into European and Eastern literature without any Anglo-Saxon interference. There is also a very interesting tension between Afrikaans and Dutch that awakens my ears; often there are words that Afrikaans does not use, yet one has a memory of them. 

Does the poetry of certain languages resonate more for you than the poetry of other languages?

I would say that it is poetry that resonates and not necessarily language. The Dutch brought out a CD two years ago with the best poetry read at Poetry International and I was wiped out by the “sound” of Brodsky and Amichai, the sheer power of Claus, the sounds of Chinese poetry; and recently I heard some Balinese poems. It's what poetry does: slipping into the shimmering body of scales so that the poet’s hook can find it. 

But it's important to remember that it is sometimes necessary to be familiar with the tradition and history behind a particular literature to do justice to it. I remember listening to Mzwake Mbuli repeating a line from one of his poems after he came out of prison: “I, who am a genius”, and the student crowd just went mad. And I was thinking, why was that flat and self-inflated sentence working in this way? During a discussion the next day one of the students put it as follows: “I, who am a genius” is a cliché for whites because in their minds they have moved themselves far beyond that statement. When Mzwake says it, he is not talking about himself, he is talking about us (blacks) and it just bursts the imagination. 

The spotless white page, the pen moving across paper … in the act of writing a poem, what transformations occur physically, mentally, and emotionally, for you?

For poetry the process has to be as tentative as possible, has to avoid  any notion of permanence or importance. I write with a pencil, lightly, without really moving, as if it is merely an extension of my skin. It is during this phase that every “abnormality” (like the over-awareness of my senses) in myself becomes “normality”, becomes indispensable. In contrast to when I was younger, I also need “untainted”, uncluttered time. My house has become a business, a boarding house, a place of study, and I find that I have to go away now to find enough long stretches of space in which to concentrate properly. Sometimes I write poems around an idea, like the Lady Anne Barnard epic, or a philosophical analysis about the so-called Jerusalem people – a group of Afrikaners who thought they could pack their wagons and trek to the New Jerusalem and were unable to make a metaphysical jump in their heads. (When they found a river flowing north, they called it the Nile, and the town nearby Nylstroom.) All the years I believed that a poet should stick to her territory and not become side-tracked by moving into fiction, drama, essays etc. This would enrich the poetry with one’s longing to do something dramatic, something like a narrative, etc. But I broke this rule with Country of my Skull. This had two consequences: from an English perspective it seemed as if I had fallen from nowhere as an SABC nobody from the new South African sky; from an Afrikaans point of view, I never really dealt with the TRC in Afrikaans poetry. So, I’m sort of incomplete in English prose as well as in Afrikaans poetry. A Change of Tongue was published later in Afrikaans, so that helped a lot.       

In your poem “writing ode”, from Body Bereft, you describe how "one gropes through the groundless dark/ to find one's voice/ to hear the sound of a poem/ the line that softly splutters from somewhere". What of the days and nights when the voice cannot be found, when the sound of a line remains obstinately, irretrievably out of hearing? Have there been moments when you've wondered whether you would write another poem?

That is why poets are so insecure. It took me nearly twenty years of publishing before I comfortably called myself a poet. Even now I find I cannot fill in the word Poet under Occupation on a form. Maybe being a poet isn’t an occupation. But the point is, poets cannot go and sit like prose writers and write on a daily basis and by the end of a year there'll most likely be some usable text. Poetry has an element that cannot be planned, or thought up, or achieved through diligence or intellect. And after every volume one is convinced that one is going to die, because one has absolutely no further use and anyway one will never be able to write anything ever again. But it is often helpful to work on previous work and unfinished poems blessed with a beginning.    

Gertrude Stein said, "I write for myself and strangers." How aware of the reader are you when you write a poem? Do you think prose, generally, is a more reader-focused genre?

There is no reader when I write a poem, only the poem that wants to be written. It dictates every action. It demands to take risks, it cares nothing about anybody (least of all about me), it demands complete loyalty.

My two prose works were written on request of Random House. So there was a language demand which very much brought in an audience which I had no idea of. I think that writing it originally in Afrikaans helped me to stay with an authentic tone, whereas trying to speak to an audience that I didn't really know could have killed both books.

The response to the two English books was so phenomenal that I have to believe that it was due to the fact that they were prose, or English, or had an Afrikaans undertow, or simply the theme, or maybe a combination 

In her essay entitled “Starting Fiction” Carol Rumens wrote, "I think a would-be writer should think very carefully before deciding also to be a mother. A writer does not only need a place to write in: she needs a sense of autonomy, the freedom to pursue experience. In general, wives and mothers in our society lack this privilege. Feeding your own children and feeding your writing are rarely compatible." Do you agree with this? How have you reconciled your roles as wife, mother and daughter with your responsibilities to yourself as a writer?

Firstly, one has one life. It would be pathetic to try and keep it pure and bare in the hope of writing The Big Poem. In my book, The Big Poem compensates for nothing. Being embedded in a full-blooded life could enrich what one has to say; the feeding of your children could feed the writing. In those countries with opportunities, if the feeding of the children destroys the writing, then one should also accept the possibility that one perhaps did not have enough to say anyway. 

Secondly, to accept as the only choice the one that Rumens formulates, is to buy into that very male either/or notion. Male writers never had to “give up” penis, balls and beards – they turned it into the very essence of their writing. They never chose between a family and writing – they turned their singularity into the only category. Why do we assume that to be a good writer we have to be like them? Why do we assume that an epic poem about heroism or the loneliness of choice can be part of the canon, but a short poem about childbirth cannot? 

But, of course, we’re talking about something else here: the single-mindedness needed to produce a work of art and the dedicated perseverance to build a career on writing poetry. In this I find compromise, hybridity (interesting that the spell check does not know the word hybridity!), ambivalence and helpful skills. Why do I think that one's family teaches one this? The older I get, the more I am convinced that woman writers somehow have learned to manage their egos far more successfully than most of the male writers around. 

In Down to my last skin your poem “marital psalm” contains the lines: "do our children successfully in respectable schools have to see/ how their friends read about their mother's splashing cunt/ and their father's perished cock/ I mean my wife/ jesus! somewhere a man's got to draw the line." Sharon Olds talks about "the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal" in terms of writing about people in our lives; it's something many poets have to confront at one time or other in their work. How does your family accommodate the intensely personal nature of some of your poems? 

They don't. They give me hell. But they all write – so I’m sure the “empires” are going to write back! At times my husband wants to establish a Society for the Written About!

I’m joking. It's only when you live with a writer, like I have lived with my mother, that one realises the impossibility of truth. I can describe my navel in a million ways, but it's only when the aspects of my navel start to overlap with yours that the poem can talk to you. So, however personal it sounds, it is carefully selected, not by the intellect, but by the poetic sensibility, to resonate. So my children and husband immediately realise that it's not about them. Parts of them, which are like those of others, are being put together around something that wants to be said. 

Despite contemporary culture's obsession with youth, physical attractiveness and celebrity status, two subjects you've written about in Body Bereft are menopause and ageing. For me, some of the poems resonate deeply with a quote by Gloria Anzualdua: "I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with my ashes, to fashion my own gods from my entrails." There is a strong voice in these poems declaring independence, insisting on the right to self-determination, the right to "translate disintegration" and to address taboo subjects. Would you comment further?

What a beautiful quote! I deeply believe that poetry can say everything. It complexified and deepened my ability to love another human being; it opened me up to see injustice as if it was underlined in red, to be aware of community, of being young etc. I also need to grow old in poetry, to describe the sagging seams with affection, to find the words to love someone that I have lived with for thirty years – not as symbols or metaphors, but as blunt, untransformed body.

Promoting, interpreting and analysing one's own work is a very different process from writing poetry. What do you find challenging about the publicity, launches, readings and interviews involved in the promotion of a new collection?

I find launches terrible and terrifying. That's why I loved the launch by Umuzi in March/April. We were six writers and it just sort of made it so much easier, and even fun. What happened to the “good old days” when I would open a parcel in Kroonstad and my new volume would fall out … the first time I would see it in print, the first time I would see the cover, and that would be that? An agent in Berlin told me that a publishing house had enquired about how “marketable” I am. I was surprised. What does that mean? And precisely what is a writer's responsibility towards a publisher?    

In a society which increasingly cares more about image than about art, how do you deal with being a national literary figure? Is it difficult at times to maintain perspective, to focus on what is important, the writing?

I don't see myself as a national literary figure. I see myself as an Afrikaans poet who uses translation to access South African English literature, because it is there that we meet and hear and respond to one another in this country. It is in this English literature that I find other writers like myself – translating themselves all the time in order to be with an imagined community. So, in many ways, I don’t see English as “belonging” to a particular group, or its use being under the guardianship of some. Our national language is bad English, somebody said to me. Be that as it may, that's the language in which all South Africans can, for the first time, talk as (un)equals to one another.

What are your thoughts on literary prizes?

My experience in Afrikaans literature has taught me that prizes often say more about who is on the panel, how old / what colour / what gender they are, who won last year, what kind of statement they want to make now, etc, than about quality. But prizes are invaluable in two respects: they help the sale of the book and, monetarily, they buy writing time. It's a pity that poetry prizes are so few and far between.

But let me say it: to win a prize is bliss! Let me also say, I have a bit of a problem with literary prizes that are treated like an Oscar evening or a beauty contest. All the finalists have to be there and then drumming, lights and TV cameras announce names from the runners-up. And then you have to behave like a celebrity. Look “marketable” and/or “win-able”. You have to look blissfully happy that someone else has won. But if you win, then you have to be absolutely overwhelmed while at the same time saying something very deep and quotable for the newspapers to use the next morning. It breaks my heart to see somebody in tears after winning, but then pulling out a hefty speech. I wonder how many speeches were burning in other pockets. Can’t they simply tell you, then you can go because you're really glad that person is winning, or you can prepare a proper response instead of a fantasy? I mean, for God’s sake: we write precisely because we cannot talk.     

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley wrote: "Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he or she has been born. The beneficiary in as much as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people's experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness." How important is the role of translation in South African literature? Should more time and resources be spent on improving translation skills and translating works in English into the other official South African languages and vice versa?

Huxley is so right. I was fortunate to be born into a language that had a young yet solid literature. It had publishing houses, newspapers and other media reviewing books, readers reading it, etc. I could function in totality in that language. I could live in a house in it, I could study maths in it, I could go to university in it, and I could analyse and relate to my complete world in it. So, being part of the ruling white community, I could start out in total confidence and became the kind of poet I could be. The problem was that one felt oneself part of a community other than the ruling white one. And to access that community, translation was, thank God, a wonderful tool.

So, I am passionate about translation. I believe that it is crucial for people in a country with such a divided, separated past to translate one another in order to begin to form some kind of coherent and undominated consciousness. I keep on being surprised at how uninterested we are generally about translation. I have never been at any event where the praise poet was interpreted simultaneously. What does that say? That we don’t actually care what is being said? Or that we know it is not really “good”? Every year books appear in Afrikaans of which I think, my God, this should be translated, because nobody has had access to this before. Translation and good editing for those who do not work in their mother tongue are crucial tools if we really want to understand where and how we live. 

In your experience, what are the limitations of translation particular to poetry?

One loses the sound.

Do writers have social responsibilities? Should they play the roles of witnesses and conscience keepers?

Writers are feeding their children. How and when they are doing it, where the food comes from, how hard or easy it is, all of that will influence their writing.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing writers in southern Africa today?

What fascinates me is how a white prose writer could imagine him- or herself black. I think black writers can imagine themselves white, just as women writers can imagine themselves as men. But it took many decades of texts written by women before men could convincingly imagine themselves female. Do we have enough texts that we can say, yes, I as a white can now imagine myself black?

In February this year you were involved in launching the Spier Poetry Festival, a new open-air Poetry Festival held on the Spier Estate in Cape Town. What do you particularly like about the concept of an outdoors festival? Were the poets on the programme well received and supported?

I often attend poetry festivals where the older people sit in an air-conditioned hall and listen to the “respected” poets, while outside the young ones are listening to rock lyrics. Or everybody sits at the university and listens to a “respected” poet, but down the street others are tapping to rap. I want young ones to hear beautiful poetry read from a page and I want older people to experience something of the energy of the younger ones. I want us to cross over into many languages without being shut out. In this I find the Dutch and Belgians extremely helpful. They speak three to four languages, they translate as a matter of course, and their poets are sympathetic to translation: most of them have developed a style of delivering poetry as part of translation.

At the end of the Spier festival somebody said to me, “Do you know, for the first time in my life, I had a sense of place tonight.”  That remark made all of it worth it.

Why are literary festivals and book fairs important?

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” Literature enables you to examine your life. Festivals and book fairs introduce people to books. 

What are you reading at the moment?
I've just finished the delightful Imraan Coovadia book Green-eyed Thieves and Ivan Vladislavič’s Portrait with Keys. The first gave me access to part of a community that I do not know well and the latter is one of the best books about us, here and now, that you could read. 


Body Bereft by Antjie Krog (ISBN 0-4152-0012-2) is published by Umuzi, and can be purchased from all good bookstores.


Body bereft
ISBN: 1415200122
Format: Softcover
Click here to buy this book from
ISBN: 1415200122
Formaat: Softcover
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LitNet: 23 August 2006

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