Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Coming to the party on poetry

Towards the end of September, The Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal organised the 12th Poetry Africa International Festival in Durban. About 26 poets and performers were invited from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, Mayotte, the Netherlands and the US to provide a showcase of poetic and cultural diversity, with approaches and styles ranging from written-word poetry to rap and hip-hop.

The main venue for the festival was the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, which has 400 seats, which for most of the five nights there were well filled. However, when taking into account the overall activities of the festival – which included visits to university campuses, schools and performances in public places – the organisers estimate the audience to have been about 4 000.

These numbers seem to go against the claim by many publishers and booksellers that there is no market for poetry in South Africa, but I say “seem” because there are those critics who feel that what is being showcased at Poetry Africa these days “isn’t really poetry”. In the past few years Poetry Africa has shifted its emphasis from written-word poetry to spoken word, and two of the performers this year – hip-hop trio Godessa and Jitsvinger – were definitely more singers/musicians than poets. And besides, detractors may ask, what effect does all this have on poetry readership?

For most of the festival there was a bookstall in the theatre foyer run by independent bookstore Adams Campus Bookshop, and for manager Cedric Sissing the effect of the festival was clear: for the five nights that the stall was open, he sold more poetry collections than the store would normally do in a year.

Revenue for units (books, CDs and DVDs) sold at the festival for the past three years was R24 288 in 2006, R27 366 in 2007 (a 12, 67% increase) and this year R21 013 (a 21,23% decrease).

Sissing says that while this year’s decrease can be directly attributed the sharp rise in the cost of living in South Africa, the increase in last year’s revenue is attributed to sales of books and DVDs by the Hindi Kenyan poet Shailja Patel. About 50 units of her work sold over the period.

This year the top book sellers were Megan Hall’s Fourth Child – winner of this year’s Ingrid Jonker poetry prize and published by independent Modjaji Books – which sold 19 copies, followed by Mxolisi Nyezwa’s New Country, published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, which sold 16 copies. Both of the books were launched at the festival. In third place were various titles by US rap poet Carlos Gomez, who sold 14 books and five CDs.

Of the total 108 South African units sold this year, 86 were books, with the remaining 22 being CDs.

Granted, these figures aren’t exactly earth-shattering, and Gomez told me that in the US, where he often gives performances at schools and colleges, he usually sells about 20-30 units a night.

But for Sissing the figures are a clear indication that in South Africa the sale of poetry collections has to be event- rather than retail-driven.

“Take, for example, the work of Patel,” he says. “She sold 50 units last year when she was a featured poet, but sold no copies during the year at the shop. Three copies of her work were sold at the festival this year, even though she was not featured.”

And on the subject of whether the shift in emphasis to spoken word is having any kind of effect on poetry readership, Sissing says, “It’s difficult to prove this on paper, but in the past five years, since the rise of spoken-word poetry, there’s no doubt that the spoken- word poets lift the patrons’ passion, thereby influencing them to buy more poetry. Not just spoken word, but also written word.”

And, as the figures show, book sales are still far ahead of CDs, so it is clear that written-word poetry is not in any immediate danger of extinction.

But in a nutshell what South African poets and publishers need to do is to organise more events. We need more readings, more launches, more workshops and definitely more festivals such as Poetry Africa.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Glumlazi by Pravasan Pillay

Glumlazi is a first collection by Durban poet Pravasan Pillay, published by new small press Tearoom Books. A beautiful little debut volume, these SMS-like poems range from two to seven lines each. Two of them are as follows:

House was the grenade
Mama was the pin


Down the tunnels
where the lights are always on
there are still shadows

Available at R40 including postage. For order information, contact or

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Ted Joans: in search of the marvellous

On May 7 2003, the 74-year-old African-American beat poet and artist Ted Joans was discovered dead in his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is believed Joans, who was seriously ill with diabetes, had been dead for almost three weeks. The irony that such a gregarious man as Joans should have died alone has been commented on. Yet despite being one of the most colourful, energetic and prolific members of the beat generation, Joans was also probably one of the least known.

Born Theodore Jones in 1928 in Cairo, Illinois, (he later changed the surname to differentiate from the more common spelling) his parents were show people who worked on a Mississippi riverboat. In 1943 his father was murdered by white workers during the Detroit race riots. It was also about this time that he discovered surrealism, which, as he wrote years later, he chose as a weapon to defend himself against ‘abject vicissitudes’ of a racist society.

After graduating from the University of Indiana with a Fine Arts degree in 1951, Joans moved to New York where he settled in the Greenwich Village scene of artists, poets, coffee bars and jazz. He once shared a room with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and learned to play the trumpet. By the middle of the decade he had become part of the emerging beat scene, participating in public poetry readings with writers and poets such as Diane di Prima, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as fellow African-Americans Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) and Bob Kaufman.

His first poetry collections were published in the late 1950s. After the failure of his first marriage and feeling that the beat scene had become too commercialised, however, Joans set off for France in the first of a series of extensive travels that would also take him to north Africa, Holland, Germany, England and even South Africa. Wherever he went, Joans became immersed in a fervent activity of writing, painting and public reading, dividing regular residences between Timbuktu, Amsterdam and New York.

When Joans visited South Africa in 1994 he gave readings at the Windybrow Theatre in Hillbrow and at Kippies Jazz Club in Newtown. I remember being struck by his warmth and ageing grace, although he hadn’t lost any of his occasional ribald humour. His insistence that poets should focus on ‘writing the poem’, rather feeling restricted by formalist constraints, was true to the spontaneous spirit of jazz and surrealism. His vibrant, charismatic performance reminded me that poetry is a shared, living experience; not words buried alive in a book.

In almost 40 years, Joans published as many titles, the majority of them in small limited editions now out of print. Most probably the only collections still readily available are those published by Calder & Boyers in the early 1970s, A Black Pow-Wow of Jazz Poems and Afrodisia, as well as two recent selected volumes, Teducation (Coffee House Press) and Our Thang (Exstatis Editions), which also featured drawings by Joan’s companion, artist Laura Corsiglia.

Joans’ poetry is influenced by Langston Hughes, André Breton, his fellow beat poets and jazz. It is characterised predominantly by colloquial expressions of black consciousness, revolutionary pride and eroticism. Believing that any revolution based purely on political change was futile, Joans emphasised that liberation was also required from ‘self-inflicted oppressions’, particularly those related to sex. His goal was, as with Breton, ‘human emancipation’.

Although surrealism plays a somewhat marginal a role in his poetry, it is clearly expressed in his art, particularly his collages, which are reminiscent of Max Ernst. "Jazz is my religion," he once said, "and surrealism is my point of view.”

Despite Joans’ numerous publications, he nevertheless remained less known than some of his contemporaries, less anthologised, and certainly less cash flush. Yet for the man who regarded the rhino as his totem animal, he was, as he wrote to writer Jack Foley, "..never in the rat race, only the rhino race in search of the marvellous".

(Published in Sunday Independent, May 2003)

Friday, 19 December 2008

Aujourd’hui est leur Créateur - Dionysos Andronis

Ce nouveau recueil de poèmes de Gary Cummiskey a comme titre une phrase du peintre américain Robert Rauschenberg. La quotidienneté serait le sujet du recueil (le mot « Aujourd’hui » est le premier du titre), mais ce serait une quotidienneté transformée poétiquement. L’univers des reportages télé (surtout dans le poème central « Et nous voyons ») est un premier point d’inspiration de ce recueil vital et significatif de l’auteur. La poésie de Cummiskey, à travers son pessimisme et sa tension existentielle, devient un champ libre de réflexion et de Création humaine, comme le dernier mot du titre aimerait nous le rappeler. Chacun de nous peut apporter sa pierre de construction de cet édifice solide d’une poésie humaine, fragile, simple et baignée dans l’immédiat et les inattendus pour la plupart involontaires de la vie quotidienne.

A travers la sensation du macabre et du danger évident dans la vie quotidienne (l’exemple le plus caractéristique serait le dernier poème « Café du coin » où le propriétaire se fait tuer en secret et loin des yeux des clients) et du thème de la chasse quotidienne (le deuxième poème « Le rêve d’un rat » est caractéristique où l’on témoigne de cette chasse entre chat et rat dans notre domicile), Cummiskey nous livre un recueil qui nous concerne tous directement. C’est un recueil écrit d’après les visions et les angoisses de tous les jours mais dans la tête d’un observateur serein et calme qui est le poète lui-même. Il est observateur seulement parce qu’il sait très bien que son imagination offrira un produit artistique différent et meilleur mais s’inspirant de toutes ces situations affligeantes et grotesques de tous les jours. Ce sera une vision « noire » (au sens artistique du terme) aux antipodes des souhaits initiaux.

Café du coin

Je t’amène
au café du coin.
Il est vide
ainsi nous glissons derrière le comptoir
et nous commençons à baiser.
quand nous remontons à l’étage
nous voyons le propriétaire allongé
près de la porte, mort.

(Op.cit. page 25, traduit par Dionysos Andronis)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Ave Maria, the tragic opera diva

Maria is a fat little girl born in New York City in 1923. Her parents are Greek immigrants, George and Evangelia Kalogeropoulos. George is a pharmacist with a host of mistresses and Evangelia is entrenched in the role of self-sacrificing, unappreciated wife and mother. At an early age, Maria is manipulated into a singing career by Evangelia; her ambitions to be a dentist are ignored. To Evangelia, singing will lead to success. Success means money and money leads to happiness.

Little Maria’s emotional needs are not taken into consideration. She feels robbed of her childhood and of a mother’s unconditional love. She has no friends, she believes she is ugly, and her only solace is in excessive eating. Later she will say there should be laws against treating children in such a manner: ‘A child treated like this grows old before its time.’ As she grows into adulthood, Maria’s resentment against Evangelia will be extremely bitter. At one point she will say: ‘The only time I’ll want to see my fucking mother is when she’s lying in her box, and then it’s to make sure she’s dead.’

The Wall Street Crash results in George losing his pharmacy business, and he takes a low-paid job selling pharmaceuticals. Money problems intensify the already tense domestic scene, so Evangelia takes Maria and her sister Jackie to Athens. It is cheaper to live there and the money George sends over enables Maria to study at the Athens Conservatory.

In 1940 Maria makes her public debut in Boccaccio and will have her first success two years later with Tosca at the Athens Opera. She will also perform in Fidelio, Tiefland and Cavalleria Rusticana. But Maria also performs for the occupying troops, accepting food from Italian and German admirers. When Greece is liberated, her contract with the Athens Opera is not renewed. Civil war follows soon after and Maria returns to America.

But Athens is far away from New York, and no one is impressed with her successes in another country. Maria is disheartened, eats pizza and cheeseburgers and puts on weight. When she is offered leading roles in Fidelio and Madame Butterfly, she turns them down. The artist in her does not want to perform Fidelio translated into English and she feels she is too fat to play the teenage, fragile Butterfly.

Luckily she impresses Verona Festival artistic director Giovanni Zenatello, who recruits her for the leading role in La Gioconda. Before sailing for Verona, Maria will, after much indecision, sign a contract with Edward Bagarozy, stipulating that he will be her sole promotional agent for 10 years, in return for 10% of her gross earnings for that period.

While in Verona, Maria meets an opera-loving industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a man in his mid-fifties. But he will listen to her, console her, reassure her and protect her: a father figure almost 30 years her senior. She moves on to Venice, performs I Puritani, achieves success, becomes the talk of Italy. When she performs I Verpri Siciliani at La Scala, the adulation is triumphant. The public figure La Callas is born.

She also undertakes the first of many performances in the leading role of Norma. But performing Norma is stressful, demanding a mastery of trills and scales, substantial breath control for long melodies, with flowing lyricism alternating with dramatic emotional outbursts. It is a substantial challenge for Maria’s voice, but she is determined to meet that challenge, and will do so repeatedly, performing the role 90 times in eight countries throughout her career. Her final stage performance in 1965 is Norma. Exhausted by the end of second act, she is not able to change into her final costume, and collapses afterwards.

Norma – the Druidic priestess who tragically forsakes her holy vows and falls in love with a Roman proconsul, is the embodiment of the conflict between public roles and responsibilities and private emotional needs. Behind the public La Callas there remains a little girl who craves for a conventional, private existence.

A few months later she marries Menehgini, despite his family’s objections. “ They thought I had come to Italy to marry a rich man,” she will later complain.

Indeed, with the public praise, there also comes much criticism – particularly of her voice. It is too harsh, too unrefined. It is not classical, not quite beautiful. Once, during an ovation, a bunch of radishes is thrown at her feet. Where Maria expects praise, instead reviews are instead lukewarm. Her moods are volatile and her temper explosive.

Maria does not just convey music through her voice, but also through her body. Some will regard her as a powerful actress. She is, almost by genetic intuition, in touch with the ancient spirit of tragedy. On one occasion, before a performance, she is found on the floor of her changing room summoning the Greek gods for strength and for guidance.

During the early 1950s Maria travels and performs in Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Covent Garden in London. She is worshipped, adored, becomes an international celebrity. She signs a recording contact with EMI. She undergoes substantial weight loss, dropping by twenty-eight kilos within two years. An elegant, Doric figure emerges and her beauty is widely admired.

When in Mexico she also meets Evangelia for the last time. Evangelia will complain afterwards that Maria treats her like a distant relative. One night, though, Maria breaks down in tears, crying that she wants children, that she wants to be a normal woman. Evangelia comforts her, but when she arrives to visit Maria in the morning, she is pushed away. “ I’m not a child anymore!’ Maria says harshly.

In 1955, the first traumatic legal wrangle occurs: Baragozy – who has not had contact with Maria for several years, is demanding his fees, totally $300 000; Maria maintains Baragozy had done nothing for her career and refuses payment. When she is handed a summons by a court marshal after a triumphant performance of Madame Butterfly in Chicago, a newspaper photographer snaps Maria’s vicious expression. “I will not be sued!” she yells. “ I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me!” The case is settled out of court two years later.

Worse still, Evangelia, now divorced from George and struggling financially, writes to Maria requesting a regular income for her and sister Jackie. Maria’s response is that her mother can go find a job. Is this what she sacrificed everything for, Evangelia asks Time magazine, in an article that portrays Maria as an ungrateful daughter and a spoiled, temperamental, heartless prima donna.

Two years later, at a performance of Norma in Rome, which is attended by Italy’s president, Maria’s voice gives out; she can barely whisper. It is rumoured Maria has been at a nightclub until the early hours, drinking champagne. Maria wants to cancel, but there no stand-by performer. So she goes on stage, but by the end of the first act, the audience begins to jeers. The experience is humiliating and she makes an exit through the back door.

Soon Maria begins what she will later call her ‘nine-year meaningless sacrifice’. She falls in love with Greek multimillionaire Aristotle Onassis, who at the time is married. Maria goes through divorce proceedings and so does Onassis, but despite Maria’s hopes, they will never marry. Nevertheless, Maria is happy. At the age of thirty-six she has found not only what seems to be true love. And, as Franco Zeffirelli will later point out: ‘It was a definite sexual passion.’

But the stress of her divorce and the public attention takes its toll. Maria is suffering from exhaustion. At a Covent Garden performance of Luica, her voice strains and she almost breaks down. Later she will say: “ It is not my voice that is sick, it is my nerves.” She will also develop sinus problems, which will make singing extremely difficult and painful.

From now on, her opera performances will reduce dramatically, from 28 in the year before she meets Onassis to 15 over the next seven years. She enjoys a period of ease amid luxury yachts and private jets. She has become the woman that part of her has wanted to be, not a public figure committed to her art. “ I don’t want to sing any more,” she says. “ I want to live, just like a normal woman, with children, a home, a dog.” To many she has not only given up her career and her voice, but also her gift to the world.

Her admirers' resentment is expressed when she performs Medea in 1961. Her voice is losing its power and the audience begin hissing. When, in the opera, Medea denounces Jason as ‘Crudel!’ (“Cruel man!”), Maria addresses this directly to the public, angrily waving her fist at them, singing: ‘Ho dato tutto a te’ ( “I gave everything to you!”.) The audience bursts into applause. Ironically, a few years later, these words could well be addressed to Onassis.

Onassis, who had no love for opera, has cruel, insensitive streaks. He mocks Maria: ‘What do you have? Nothing. You just have a whistle in your throat that no longer works.’ When Maria discovers she is pregnant, Onassis is unenthusiastic and Maria has an abortion.

In 1965 she will give her final operatic performance as Norma. She collapses unconsciousness the moment the curtain goes down. There will still be concerts and recordings but her musical career is effectively over.

So too, within a few years, is her relationship with Onassis, as he marries the widowed Jackie Kennedy. Onassis does not even inform Maria of his intentions. Maria is broken, almost destroyed, and almost a decade of barbiturate dependence will follow.

Still she takes up an offer to play the lead in Pasolini’s move Medea. Medea: the sorceress who helped Jason win the Golden Fleece, only to be discarded by him in favour of another. In resentment, anger and jealousy, Medea murders his royal betrothed and kills their own children. Critics say it is a role made for Maria. Unfortunately, the movie is a flop.

Maria still regards Onassis as the most important love of her life, and continues to see him as the multibillionaire begins to realise his marriage to the extravagant Kennedy has been a mistake. But Maria and Onassis’s relationship will not be rekindled. In 1970 Maria is rushed to hospital with a drug overdose; speculation is that it is attempted suicide.

In the early 1970s Maria gives a series of master classes with opera students in New York and embarks on a concert tour with former colleague Guiseppe di Stenfano. But her voice has lost its strength. Some of the audiences are disappointed, but the majority continue to adore her, and each performance concludes with applause, gratitude and love.

Onasis dies in 1975, a few months after Maria’s final concert, in Japan. Without his existence, she feels life is devoid of meaning. The past is dead and there is no future. Maria withdraws, living behind closed doors in her Paris apartment, going out only to walk her dogs. It is an enclosed world of despair.

On 16 September 1977 Maria experiences a sharp pain in her side. She collapses and is put to bed. A doctor is called; she dies before he arrives.

Maria is cremated and her remains kept at the Pere Lachise cemetery in Paris. Later they will be returned to Greece and her ashes scattered over the Aegean Sea.

The popularity of La Callas does not wane after her death; in fact it increases. But behind the public figure - the loved and adored singer, as well as the stormy and unpredictable prima donna – there remains a woman who wants nothing more than a calm, uneventful, conventional life. But she is constantly torn, like Norma, between her sense of public role and private emotional needs. But as both public and private lives collapse, she finds nothing but Medea’s pain, anguish and emptiness.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, July 2004)

Monday, 08 December 2008

Sylvia Plath: The enigma of posthumous fame

For many years I disliked their poetry. His poetry – filled with cold, bleak landscapes, hawks in the rain, battered cats, and predatory fish hiding in ponds deep as England – gave me a taste I imagined as being similar to frozen mud. Her poetry – with its intricate imagery of birth, death, flowers, trees and bees – seemed too restricted, constrained, and laboured (is it true she wrote with an open Thesaurus at her side?)

It’s difficult to believe they were married. On the surface, despite their shared literary activities, they didn’t seem suited, almost from two different worlds.

Sylvia must have been impossible to live with, or even to have around. As a child, on hearing of her father’s death, she announced: ‘I’ll never speak to God again!’ A stubborn, angry, refusal, born out of shock and disbelief; acceptable perhaps in a child, yet the same attitude seems to have continued into her adulthood: a sense of betrayal, a demand that things go her way, that all events and people adhere to her wants and needs. And when the universe would not adhere to her wishes, she withdrew into rejection and depression, casting friends aside, highlighting how they let her down, how they failed to live up to her expectations, just as both God and her father had betrayed her. Shortly after his death, she demanded that her mother Aurelia sign a pledge not to remarry. Aurelia, still in her early thirties, adhered, but this wasn’t enough to satisfy Sylvia. Later she would attack her mother precisely for signing it. With Sylvia, one has the impression you could never win.

But such contrariness was not simply that of a spoiled child. Sylvia’s psyche was in a near-continual state of torment, hurt, fear and instability. Throughout school and university she did her utmost to conform, to fit in, to be popular. She tried to be the model student and the model daughter. She insisted on perfection, for herself and for others. She dyed her hair blonde, had several boyfriends, each of them initially satisfying her need for a father figure, the strong, ever-reliant God, unwavering and invincible; the man who would never fail her, but inevitably they would – and then it was they who were to blame. As one of her biographers, Ronald Hayman, remarked: ‘She was good at making friends, and she was good at losing them’.

In 1953, shortly after spending a month as guest editor of Mademoiselle, Sylvia told Aurelia: ‘The world is so rotten, I want to die! I Let’s die together!’ Her mother’s response was to place her in an institution where she was subjected to electric shock treatment, later to be recounted in her prose work, The Bell Jar. Perhaps understandably, Aurelia also soon found herself on Sylvia’s betrayal list. On returning home, Sylvia attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills (‘At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you.’) but was rescued in time.

Nevertheless, Sylvia managed to win a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge in England, where in 1956 she met up with the young Ted Hughes at a party. Their first meeting was aggressively physical – he ripped off her hair band and kissed her, while she bit his cheek so hard that it bled. Ted was now Sylvia’s God, the tremendously strong masculine father figure who would be unwavering, dedicated and unfailing. She insisted on remaining at his side for years, rarely separated from him for more than a few hours at a time.

Within a few months they married, but even while on honeymoon in Spain, it became clear to Sylvia that the marriage would not be as ideal as she imagined it would be. Ted had untidy habits, leaving clothing and papers lying all over the place; she was fanatical about cleanliness. Tension rose. He even hit her on occasions. Ted’s family didn’t warm to Sylvia too well either, particularly his sister Olwyn. Sylvia was also ill at ease in English literary circles.

Despite all, she remained dedicated to him (‘Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face…’) She typed up his manuscripts and sent his poems off to literary journals with promptness and devotion. She was determined to make him known as a great poet. When his first collection, Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957 and won a major literary prize, her faith in him seemed vindicated.

In the meantime, they travelled to the US where Sylvia taught at Smith University. She worked hard at her own poetry but her attempts to find her voice remained frustrating. Worse still, one day she caught Ted in what seemed like a hurried termination of an amorous encounter (later Ted maintained he had bumped into the woman only seconds earlier and had simply chatted to her). Soon after, the couple returned to England, mainly at Ted’s insistence.

After a brief period in London and the birth of their daughter Frieda, they moved to a house in a village in Devon. Sylvia was initially ecstatic about the move. Ted was becoming an increasing well known and respected poet among the English literary establishment, and her own first book, The Colossus and other Poems, was published in 1960.

But the optimism and calm was short lived. A miscarriage, financial pressures and increasing frustration over the isolation of the village sent Sylvia into a depression. When Ted’s affair with the seductive Assia Wevill was uncovered, tension reached new heights. Even the birth of their son Nicolas could not save the marriage. They separated at Sylvia’s insistence.

Left alone with two small children in the village, Sylvia’s powerful poetic voice burst forth in many of the Ariel poems, such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Fever 103’, ‘Poppies in July’ and ‘Sheep in Fog’ each of them revealing her sense of anger, betrayal, loss and inner torment, taking her ‘through to a heaven,/ starless and fatherless, a dark water.’

She took sleeping pills to ward off insomnia, but by dawn they would have worn off and she was unable to get back to sleep, and so remained awake until it was time to tend to the children. A friend suggested she use this time to write, and so The Bell Jar was written.

Leaving Devon, Sylvia moved to a flat in London, desperately trying to make a new life for herself and the children. But at the height of a freezing winter, depression, illness, despair and financial worries overtook her. On February 11, 1963, she committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven (‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’) She had carefully sealed off the children’s bedrooms to ensure they would be safe from inhalation. A few weeks earlier The Bell Jar had been published anonymously and she had prepared Ariel for publication.

After her death – and the arrival of posthumous fame – the debate about the reasons for Sylvia’s suicide began to emerge, as well as often bitter battles between pro-Plath and pro-Hughes supporters.

While acting as editor of Sylvia’s works and ensuring their publication, Ted’s editing was regarded by some as over-zealous. When Ariel was published in 1965, he removed about 14 poems that touched on their collapsing marriage. These poems were only included in a later edition.

When Sylvia’s journals were published in 1982, Ted admitted to deleting passages, though oddly enough included some unflattering entries, including those referring to his beating her. However he also stated that one volume of her journals had ‘disappeared’ and admitted to destroying another (‘I did not want her children to have read it,’ he said.)

When A Alvarez included a chapter on Sylvia in his book The Savage God – a work that brought Sylvia’s tragic life to the public – Ted tried to halt its publication. This was the beginning of several legal wrangles regarding publications on Sylvia’s life.

While Ted’s grief over Sylvia’s death was certainly genuine, his actions suggest an increasingly public figure eager to hide any shortcomings in his personal life. When Assia committed suicide in 1967 – also by gassing herself and killing her and Ted’s son Shura at the same time – Ted’s life became even more emotionally strained. Some people had felt that both Ted and his family had laid the blame for Sylvia’s suicide at Assia’s feet.

Bewildering to many was Ted’s decision to make his sister Olwyn the agent for Sylvia’s estate, especially considering the antipathy that had existed between the two women. While Olwyn had told some that she had always acknowledged Sylvia’s poetic gift, she had also, according to Hayman, called her ‘a famous poetess Grace Kelly dream who descended on Yorkshire. Bloody cheek. An American student with a couple of poems in magazines.’ When Anne Stevenson published her biography of Sylvia, Bitter Fame, in 1989, presenting very much a pro-Hughes slant, it emerged that the book was effectively co-authored by Olwyn, particularly the final chapters.

Eventually, in Birthday Letters, published in 1998 shortly before his death, Ted spoke openly about his life with Sylvia. The book is filled with warm, sad and painful memories (‘Remember how we picked the daffodils? Nobody else remembers, but I remember’), devoted to the woman who was caught in her ‘tortured, crying / suffocating self’, a woman he felt to be ‘locked/ Into some chamber gasping for oxygen/ Where I could not find you, or really know you,/ Let alone understand you.’

So who was Sylvia? Was she, as Anne Stevenson called her, ‘a martyr mainly to the recurrent psychodrama that staged itself within the bell jar of her tragically wounded personality’, a self-destructive woman who wrote: ‘Dying/is an art…/I do it exceptionally well’, an explosive and unpredictable neurotic woman ‘terrified by this dark thing’ deep within her?

Or has the truth of the final months of Sylvia’s tragic life been sacrificed to the interests of a respected poet laureate and his protective, dedicated sister?

It is unlikely the full story will ever emerge.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 2004)

Friday, 05 December 2008

Timbila 6

The sixth issue of literary journal Timbila has just been published. Edited by Vonani Bila and Mark Waller, it contains poetry (and a bit of prose) by writers such as David wa Maahlamela, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Michelle McGrane, Kobus Moolman, Goodenough Mashego, Gary Cummiskey,Vonani Bila, Mark Waller, Alan Finlay, Liesl Jobson, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Mxolisi Nyezwa,Mpho Ramaano, Mzi Mahola, and Mzwandile Matiwana. 300 pages, R160 per copy. Contact to order.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The dream continues...

Review of Bread, Philip Hammial, Black Pepper, Victoria, Australia, 2000.

Open this collection of surreal poems and witness an array of sardonic humour and a relentless assault on an objective, consumerist-driven reality. Hammial - as poet and outsider artist - takes a step away from the mainstream and follows his own path, a refreshing stance even for much contemporary surrealist poetry, which suffers from an insistence on clinging to tradition.

Hammial’s work combines a streetwise irreverence with an intellectual sharp-wittedness, yet nevertheless retains an elusive quality that is difficult to pinpoint.

Some of the poems have a collage-like character, containing dream images running into each other with narratives either being disrupted or operating on several levels simultaneously. In the opening poem ‘Autumnal’, we discover:

only crime: he refused to meet The Season
head-on, would only from the side, as do sea chariots
when they menace - bathers in flight, run straight
into the arms of a gang on the beach, bikers
kneeling on sand - Let us pray...

In ‘Correspondence’ the dream continues with a party full of complete strangers, a cyanide capsule and the recurrently haunting phrase ‘Their nourishment comes from elsewhere’. In another poem, ‘Floating’, the poet watches various corpses floating by and overcomes the temptation to become a corpse himself, ‘to go floating off, destination / unknown, without a care in the world’.

In a couple of poems, disconnected phrases are brought together to build up a logic of their own:

Wear bibs for sex.
Have gladiola manners.
Give vent to the patter of paterfamilias.
Are please when camels kneel..


From literal mud he crawled to run with literal dogs in.
The time it takes to tow a mother.
Hooded emissaries bring out their tubes for a blow.
At which point the hunting starts to complain...


In ‘Me, Myself, No Other’ various personalities burst out all at once, revealing an angry schizophrenia insisting on its singularity of identity:

& myself, no
other who, coming among strangers,
can understand their language as if
it was my own, their discourse
of dead horses, of empire, of excrement
& tedium...

This is the sickness of an insane society utterly convinced of its sanity. Eventually though, as the poem concludes, it is an insanity that ‘will place on the lips/of each of my comrades a kiss/of betrayal’.

The exposure of a self-deluded society and the abuse of power by governments continues in other poems, such as ‘Not me, him’, ‘Bread’, ‘Heads of State’ and ‘Law’. Christianity comes under particular attack, whether tacitly or explicitly, as in the satirical short poem ‘Last Supper’:

On twelve plates twelve pills.
Pink pills on green plates.
A thumbs up from the host means to swallow.
Eleven do, with wine to wash it down.
One refuses. Demands & gets
on a pink plate a green pill.

Hammial is not shy in his assaults, neither is he afraid to display ‘sick’ humour as in ‘Custodians’, ‘What to Say’ or in ‘Problems/Solutions’: ‘Judges eradicate damsel distress./ Grade rape from one to five.’ Hammial is always provocative, but our complacent psyches - often unable to question the flimsiest of deceptions - are in need of a good shake up.

Some of the best poems in this collection are a series of prose poems that could be categorised as scripts for surrealist happenings. ‘Problems/Solutions’ recommends: ‘Set fire to your toothpaste’ while others are more elaborate:

Call the spirits of the dead. When they arrive, complaining about the poor treatment that they had from their relatives when they were alive, put brown paper bags over their heads &, as though applauding, pop them.


Hammial is not a poet for everyone, and certainly not for those with their heads in the sand. Most of his poems demand several readings and if they are occasionally shocking, they are nevertheless always thought-provoking and enjoyable.

(Previously unpublished)

Monday, 24 November 2008

Mega-merger for publishing in southern Africa

September has been an eventful month for the big guns of the South African publishing industry. The main news was the announcement of the merger between Random House SA and Struik Publishing, the case for which had been sitting with the Competition Commission since April.
The new company – called Random House Struik – is 50.1% owned by New Holland Publishing SA, with the balance held by the Random House Group in London. New Holland Publishing SA is fully owned by South African media group Avusa. Prior to the merger, Avusa had held 24% in Random House SA.

The new company aims to publish more than 1000 titles a year – that’s about 83 titles a month to be pumped into the market. About half of the books produced will be local titles, mainly nonfiction from the Struik, Oshun and Zebra Press imprints. Random House SA’s imprint Umuzi will continue to publish fiction and nonfiction, and though the Random House Group’s international network, local writers would be able to enjoy wider exposure.

The Random House Group will supply the balance of the output by providing Random House Struik with titles by internationally renowned authors such as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Dan Brown and Bill Bryson.

In a podcast with Sunday Times books editor Tymon Smith, the newly merged company’s managing director, Stephen Johnson, highlighted that the various local imprints would be retained and that the distinct sales teams for the imprints would also be kept in place. If anything, he felt that autonomy of the imprints should be promoted more than ever before. There was also no aim to change the editorial policies of the units.

In the interview, Johnson also said that the merger would allow the combined entities to look deeper into the issue of digital publishing, especially publishing via mobile phones. He went further to say that the company would be looking into distribution overall, examining innovative ways in which to reach audiences. While in no way wishing to downplay the role of retailers – who are, as he pointed out, the ones who provide a publisher’s bread and butter – he felt that the traditional retail booksellers’ model in South Africa had “a sense of the moribund”.

I contacted Johnson to ask if he could elaborate on what he had in mind and whether he was looking towards a greater shift to online selling rather than through physical retailers. He replied that while there was no clear strategy in place at the moment, digital platforms would certainly be examined and that the company would soon be aggressively looking at new possibilities of distribution – in a nutshell, how the company would be able to make its books more widely available to readers.

This is exciting stuff, and it will be interesting to see what develops. However, another industry player says that he is sceptical of such ideas, since within the South African market it is unlikely that – in the short term, at least – publishers will be able to wean hoards of book readers away from the traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Another interesting piece of news in September was that The Mandela Rhodes Foundation had purchased a 25.1% stake in Oxford University Press SA, thus cementing a black economic empowerment deal with one of the top publishing houses in the country. The foundation says that it will use its dividends to fund scholarships at Oxford University and hopes to support 100 scholars a year by 2012.

It makes you wonder whether there will be soon be any more empowerment deals for the industry.

(First published in The Bookseller, September 2008)

Friday, 21 November 2008

Rich imagery and a sense of place

Review of All The Days, Robert Berold, Deep South, and Never, Bernat Kruger,Deep South

ALL the Days is Robert Berold’s fourth collection of poetry, and it is written with striking clarity and lucidity of language.

The poems display an awareness of the fleetingness of time, of the transitory nature of life and approaching old age: all embraced by Berold with a calm, Taoist-like wisdom — there is a quote from Lao Tsu at the beginning of one poem and another is titled The Book of Changes.

These themes reveal themselves immediately, as in the first poem, The Water Running, which traces constant movement and change: “the water running in the gullies/the hoopoe bobbing flying off abruptly/the sky full of leftover rain/… the bakkie loaded up for town/the pipes and ditches swollen with water”.

The second poem, Half-light, shows a traditional Chinese influence in its brevity and simple description of a rural landscape: “morning half-light, meeting/two foxes on the farm road, crossing the railway line, turning/to the white moon”.

Most of the poems display a strong sense of place, whether it be the rural landscape of Eastern Cape, Johannesburg or even China, where Berold taught English for a year .

A few poems in the collection are lighthearted, such as Why I am not an Engineer; the sound poem Two Cats; and Proposal, where Berold writes that he is “becoming an extension of my computer/… I’m wired up the world. I can communicate with china, it’s only/a six hour time difference. It’s the cultural time difference/that makes it difficult, and the fact that their rivers are toxic”.

But even in Berold’s lightheartedness there is an intimate warmth that shines through, as in To my Room, the place where he has “spent three thousand nights in your arms./You have absorbed my snoring and my dreams”.

The strongest poems are those that deal with the past and trace the poet’s history, as in Written on my Father’s Birthday, Sweetpeas, My Bakkie, To myself at 20, or Journey, where the poet visits “Hillbrow. Wanderers Street./Taxi-blasted chickens stand in cages./I was born there. Florence Nightingale Hospital./It used to be a dreamy flatland of pensioners/and nurses”.

The powerful narrative, Visit to my Mother, highlights the difficulties in trying to maintain relations with an older, more politically conservative generation.

Never is Bernat Kruger’s debut collection of poetry . Like Berold, Kruger’s work shows a strong awareness of the natural world, as well as geography, as is evident in poems such as Marienthal, Groblersdal, Limpopo and Iowa.

But there is also an awareness of an inner world, and the interplay between the two realities, as well as the vapid, transitory nature of the physical world, as in the title poem, which describes the poet stopping his car “to wade the knee-deep air-light fluff, this/curious relic left by a burst of rain lasting less than a/minute”.

Kruger’s world is characterised by precise, intricate, detailed description, as in the first poem, 20cm, which begins: “A morning mist leaving colours in blue tint/20cm from a window and any of my movements force/my left shoulder against glass”.

Several poems deal with travelling through SA’s rural areas, of farming co-ops and agricultural produce, as in the poem Iowa, which describes being “in the real world, heading for Wesselsbron — heading/for a crop meeting. Maize. Corn …”

There is also a strong awareness of the inherent political conservatism of the landscape — particularly in the poem Limpopo, which describes how the poet and a friend get lost and find themselves in an informal settlement.

Kruger’s intricate, rich imagery is sometimes difficult and few of the poems can be grasped initially; they demand a second reading.

For all the apparent natural description, there is a dreamlike sense of elusiveness and illusion, of another, interior-world reality peeping through.

Having followed Kruger’s work in literary journals over the past few years, I had expected something more substantial than Never’s 50 pages.

Published in The Weekender, November 22, 2008.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

"Something was coming out of my throat..."

"The morning I got up to begin this book I coughed. Something was coming out of my throat: it was strangling me. I broke the thread which held it and yanked it out. I went back to bed and said: I have just spat out my heart.
"There is an instrument called the quena made of human bones. It owes its origin to the worship of an Indian for his mistress. When she died he made a flute out of her bones. The quena has a more penetrating more haunting sound than the ordinary flute.
"Those who write know the process. I thought of it as I was spitting out my heart.
"Only I do not wait for my love to die."

Anais Nin, House of Incest, Peter Owen, 1978.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Blogs can bring a fresh alternative perspective

They often ignore traditional market-related views and can provide a platform for passionate individual opinions, writes Gary Cummiskey

THE past five years have witnessed a surge in print book publishing in SA, while focus on internet publishing has not been so prominent, mainly because of low internet access in the country which is only at about 6%-7%. There have however been some forays into online literary publishing, and blogs in particular offer scope.

Poet and publisher Goodenough Mashego, in Shatale, Mpumalanga, is the creator of Kasiekulture, which offers some often cheeky and humorous commentary by Mashego and others on literary, cultural and sociopolitical issues. Mashego says Kasiekulture was started in 2006 as a new medium to promote “alternative literature, arts in the periphery and cultural activities in the fringes”.

The Kagablog is the brainchild of filmmaker, novelist and poet Aryan Kaganof, in Cape Town. More of an online literary and arts journal than a commentary blog, such as Kasiekulture, the Kagablog has numerous contributors from various countries. It usually has several daily postings, including music, film, visual art, poetry, fiction, criticism and photography.

Kaganof says: “I started up the Kagablog in late 2005. I was interested in creating a forum for writers, poets, artists, academics and digital explorers of all persuasions to present work. This forum would, unlike the mass media as we know it, not be market-driven, either in the sense of its content always relating to new product, or in the sense of having to pander to the consideration of what the readership wants.

“I invited contributors whose work I admired, respected, believed in and or loved. Once in as a contributor there is no editorial censorship. In this way too, the blog works very differently from market-driven mass media.”

Mashego says he gets huge satisfaction from posting material by other writers and cultural practitioners.

“While I still post lots of my thoughts and my understanding of what's going on, what makes Kasiekulture different from many blogs is that I do post material from other people as long as it's in line with what I'm doing. It could easily have been an online magazine in the sense of a website, but that route for me has been exhausted and is not that cost-effective. I have reviewed most mainstream books, films in the fringes, alternative music, cultural festivals and heritage sites and commentated on literary issues.”

An advantage of online publishing is, of course, that one can the ability to monitor readership through a hit counter, and, depending on the quality of the software used, obtain fairly comprehensive geographic information about visitors.

Mashego says: “I have an average of 56 visitors on a good day. Per month it would definitely be more than 1500 visits. Most of those who visit from SA access the internet from their workplaces. Most of my readers are white, given that I have more visitors from the US and Europe than Africa. In the US it seems most of the visitors are seem black, given the comments I get when I hit at people such as Molefi Kete Asante and some rappers. Locals love light-hearted opinions and political commentaries.”

Kaganof says his hit-rate can vary quite dramatically. “For instance, from November last year to February this year, the blog was getting more than 250000 hits per a month. But then when I moved to Sweden for five months from March it dropped off a bit as I was unable to give the blog as much attention as I usually would.“About half the readership is located in geographical SA, but there are a lot of hits from the US and from the Netherlands.”

Neither of the initiatives receive sponsorship. Kaganof says the Kagablog is a labour of love.

Mashego says, “I don't think the Google Adsense strategy works. They say you apply and they post content-related ads. Yeah, they are content-related and they appear on my blog but I still have to see the money. The trick here is that as a blogger you can't really monitor if anyone clicked on the ad, which means you depend on them to tell you that you have made a few dollars or not. I'm still waiting for a big local advertiser with a soft spot for art and culture.”

There is also the issue of SA’s low internet penetration, which raises the question of the feasibility of online publishing aimed at local audiences, but as Kaganof says, 6%-7% is better than nothing at all, and it is growing.

Mashego says, “Blogs are feasible. The penetration of the source might be very low but the information carried on these blogs reaches more people. That is why I think they have a role to play. The shortfall is just that print has not seen the importance of collaborating with blogs to help them cover the whole country. Also, newspapers should realise that if they browsed blogs they could find material to syndicate on their newspapers and pay the blogger.”

A criticism that has been made against of the blog concept is that it skips the editorial process usually involved in print or broadcast media, thereby allowing a situation where anyone can become a published writer. In SA particularly some people do not regard them as having any value.

Mashego says, “They should be taken seriously. Some time back I posted a comment after the AIDS-related death of a kwaito artist and a journalist quoted it on her tribute to the artist. This means somebody saw the seriousness of the blog and its content. We might not have reached a point where we are an alternative to print, but given that most newspaper websites carry the same stories you find in print, blogs should be regarded by South African audiences as an alternative. For example, if there is a rugby or soccer game that finishes after 9pm a blogger is likely to post the story before print or television media, which have broadcasting time frames or print deadlines. Blogs don't have that. Acceptance is gradually coming, once people realise the staleness of stuff they read in newspapers and see on TV.

“Blogs can also be incentives for people to read books. There are books I have reviewed on Kasiekulture and then I got mail from readers asking me how they could buy copies. Some inquiries came from libraries wanting to have those the titles on their shelves.”

Kaganof takes a harder, more critical view of whether blogs are taken seriously in SA.

“The only things taken seriously in SA are drinking and sport. I cannot allow myself to be contained by the mediocre opinions of the market. What matters is that I take blogs seriously, that the contributors and the readership takes them seriously.
“Look at the print publishing industry: too many books are published and thrown out into the marketplace in the hope that something sticks. It's just a huge jumble sale out there, and it is exhausting for readers to keep up with it all. And that's why people retreat, they turn inwards, they find refuge in the classics, in what they already know, because it is impossible to read through all the books that are thrown at them.

“The blogging phenomenon is something entirely different. It's a distinct medium of its own. If anything, I think blogs stimulate people to buy books because they give readers access to so many fresh critical voices who are writing from a position of passion rather than the established critical voices who write from jaded positions of power and assumed authority.”

First published in Business Day's books and publishing supplement, November 15, 2008

Spotlight on the resurgence of women poets

However, it is no easy ride and the challenges remain, writes Gary Cummiskey

Despite poetry being regarded as a marginalised genre internationally, the past 14 years has seen an increase in the number of poetry collections published in SA, and particularly a rise in number of volumes by women poets.

Arja Salafranca, author of A Life Stripped of Illusions and The Fire in Which we Burn, says: "It is difficult to pinpoint why there has been a rise in the number of women poets, “but more women are writing today than ever before in SA — whether it’s poetry, short fiction or novels. Perhaps women are finally feeling freed and empowered enough to devote time to their writing”.

Haidee Kruger, author of Lush: a poem for four voices, says: “The growth in the number of women poets being published probably corresponds to the general growth of the book industry in SA, though this growth is more centred in the genres of fiction and trade nonfiction. I have a sense of expansion and diversification in the South African book market and I think the increasing number of more women poets being published is part of this.”

Joan Metelerkamp, author of several poetry collections including Requiem and Carrying the Fire, takes a more backward glance into history, and sees it as being more of an issue of power, with many unanswered questions.

“It has as much to do with the history of the various languages in this country as with the politics of publishing and reading. Why were there many strong Afrikaans women poets published before 1980? Was it just paternalism — Afrikaners had a culture of looking after their women? And after 1948, when it was the language of power? Why did anyone still bother about poetry?”

Makhosazana Xaba, author of These Hands and Tongues of their Mothers, recently published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, says: “Men were the familiar, men had sold poetry, so men got published. When isolated publishers here and there started taking the risk publishing women, others began to feel the risk was lessening.”

Metelerkamp says: “The fact that the publishing industry was dominated by men is no surprise: every institution all over the world used to be dominated by men.”

Kruger says that “possibly there may still be a lingering perception among some that ‘serious literature’ is, by and large, written by men, while women pen chicklit and children’s books. But how prevalent this kind of perception is, I don’t know”.

Salafranca, however, feels it also involves traditional views on gender roles. “I think writing, for a long time, has been regarded as a thing that men do. Men had studies, shut the door, said to the wife and the kids that they were busy writing and this was accepted. Now women are perhaps doing the same. So they are writing — whether it is poetry or other genres.”

Megan Hall, whose debut collection Fourth Child, published by Modjaji Books, recently won the Ingrid Jonker poetry prize, disagrees that poetry has historically been regarded historically as a genre for men, but admits: “I remember reading somewhere that women who wrote under gender-neutral names were more likely to be published than those who wrote under names that were clearly those of women. I haven't tested this out myself.”

But do women poets see themselves as different from men poets?

Salafranca says, “No, we are not fundamentally different. We’re all human. Perhaps, though, I have tackled more ‘feminine’ topics than men would approach.” A poem of mine, On the Morning of my Period, published in The Fire in Which we Burn, would certainly not really be written by a man, although men have often imagined themselves into women’s lives. But I have many poems that don’t ‘show’ or reveal my gender.”

Kruger says, “I think of myself as a poet and not as a woman poet. It is striking how often a female poet will be described as a woman, female or, to my horror, lady poet, whereas you don’t often come across descriptions of ‘the male poet Breyten Breytenbach’. There is an odd suggestion in this that the female poet is an aberration from the norm (which is the male poet) and as such needs to be qualified. I am wary of the motivations behind distinctions. This too easily leads one into gross oversimplification. Having said that, though, the fact that I am a woman does play a profound and complex role in my writing.”

Metelerkamp says: “I do differ from poets who are men, but then I also differ from women, even from women poets whose work looks similar.”

Hall says that “different poets differ from one another in different ways. I think there are other differences that are at least as interesting as those to do with gender”.

Since 1994 there has also been an increase in the number of literary journals and independent presses in SA, and women’s poetry is certainly gaining greater coverage and exposure. A few years ago, for example, independent publisher Botsotso published Isis X, an anthology of poems and photography by South African women, including Salafranca and Xaba.

Colleen Higgs, poet and founder of independent press of Modjaji Books, which focuses on women’s writing, says: “Poetry is always a bit of an a misfit genre and activity and I don't see adequate coverage as an external issue. Poetry is unlikely to be headline news. It is a marginal activity. It is up to poets and poetry publishers to find ways of getting get coverage.

“I think we have to do things for ourselves; and not wait for some more appropriate other to do things for us. So women need to get into independent publishing, we need to claim poetry editorships; we need to see that we have power.”

Xaba says there is not yet adequate coverage of women poets in SA, but feels that “there is a growing opening of space, a growing understanding that women poets are worthy to be published, a growing acceptance that there are very good women poets in this country.”

Hall says she is curious about what percentage women actually occupy in the various new avenues of publication. “When I was working on New Contrast I did not factor gender into my choices at all. I don't know whether the end result was balanced or not.”

However, Salafranca asks why this wider coverage for women should be an issue. “Can’t we just publish good poetry, whatever the gender of the poet? Literary journals have sometimes devoted issues to women’s writing – the most recent edition of Wordsetc celebrated women’s writing, for instance. But generally I feel women’s poetry is getting adequate attention in journals.”

Previously many women poets responded more to overseas poets than local ones, although this is obviously changing.

Salafranca says, “I love the poetry of South African Eva Bezwoda Royston. Her work was intensely personal — about her psychological experiences, for instances. She was a bold, different, fresh voice and that speaks to and inspires me. As does the confessional, skilled work of Anne Sexton. Today, I am impressed by various local poets, both men and women.”

For Higgs, the poet who has influenced her the most is Adrienne Rich. “I love her voice, her sensibility, her quiet courage, her consisAdd Imagetent position on the side of telling the truth, especially when it isn't popular or comfortable. However I love the work of a great many poets: Raymond Carver, Nazim Hikmet, Joan Metelerkamp, Karen Press, Megan Hall, Ingrid de Kok, Yehuda Amichai, TS Eliot, Sharon Olds, Wislawa Sjmborska.”

Kruger says, “There are many active South African women writers who whom I admire, and who are inspirational in their very diverse talents: Joan Metelerkamp, Gabeba Baderoon, Napo Masheane, Finuala Dowling, Ingrid de Kok, Karen Press, Lebo Mashile, Antjie Krog and Isobel Dixon, to name a few. However, in terms of my own development as a writer, up to now, I think that, with the possible exception of Afrikaans writers such as Krog and Ingrid Jonker, it is mostly British and American poets who have influenced me. But I find myself increasingly turning to South African and other African poets.”

Says Hall: “I'm certainly moved by writing by other South Africans and southern Africans, both men and women, and intrigued and educated and encouraged too. The same goes for writers from overseas, although the biggies for me include Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Tony Harrison. I am trying to read some of the younger wave.”

While there is undoubtedly tremendous enthusiasm about the increase in the number of women poets being published and the widening opportunities, there are, however, challenges, mainly about reaching audiences.

“It’s about getting published, finding readers and reaching readers,getting readers to buy books, getting published” says Higgs. Kruger agrees, but points out that this is a challenge facing all poets, irrespective of gender.

Xaba feel that there is a definite need to boost the number of women poets published. “While there is a growth in women’s voices it’s still in its infancy. I would like to see publishers focusing more and more on women in order to undercover talent I know exists and is waiting to be exposed to the reading public.

"The financial support that exists for poets is minimal. Writers of any kind need time out and space to focus solely on their art. Writing residencies need to become commonplace within SA, and they need to be accessible. And they need to be friendly to women.”

For Salafranca the main challenge for women poets is getting published. “There are so few publishers willing to take on collections. People don’t buy them, so it’s an uphill battle to get them out into the world.

“Some presses do publish poetry, but they are few and far between. It remains a marginalised genre, an unpopular choice for local readers who prefer reading novels to poetry or short stories. Local readers are now reading local novels in droves, because we have moved beyond apartheid literature with its messages and heavy emphasis on guilt. We have seen a renaissance of novels by local authors.”

But Hall also brings in a reminder says that a huge challenge for poets in SA “would be things like having the leisure to write, or the energy and determination to force the leisure or time to appear” We also need reasonable access to writers of different persuasions, both local and international,” and Metelerkamp also emphasises the need for poets to keep writing, which is often a challenge in itself, especially in view of poetry’s marginalised position.

First published in Business Day's supplement on books and publishing November 15,2008.

Friday, 07 November 2008

Taylor Rain is Dirty Girl in Velvet - Dionysos Andronis

Ce nouveau court métrage de Aryan Kaganof est un bijou précieux et allégorique de 11 minutes et 32 secondes. Dans ce film il y a d’abord la poésie sous la forme de vers en train de se composer et puis il y a la poésie du corps féminin, un thème favori chez Kaganof. Le poète honoré est Gary Cummiskey, un des plus prometteurs de sa génération en Afrique du Sud. La poésie du corps féminin appartient à Taylor Rain, une performeuse d’exception, qui nous offre son corps photogénique et radieux.

Le film est divisé en quatre parties. À la première partie un écran noir de deux minutes sert comme point d’anticipation. Vous verrez pourquoi un peu plus tard dans le texte.

Les poèmes en train de s’écrire de Gary Cummiskey arrivent à la deuxième partie et ils sont accompagnés par une musique improvisée du groupe Matmos. Même si on n’arrive pas à saisir les poèmes en entier, puisqu’ils défilent mots à mots et en vitesse sur l’écran, une sensation de palpitation est déclenchée qui devient esthétique et sensuelle. Les mots ne sont pas des simples lettres mais des porteurs de charge émotionnelle. La palpitation est accentuée par le son d’une machine à écrire en off qui sert comme une deuxième musique angoissante. On a le pressentiment que quelque chose se prépare. Cette partie dure six minutes.

À la troisième partie l’actante Taylor Rain commence à se masturber devant l’objectif. Elle caresse ses parties vaginales et anales. Cette fois les poésies de Gary Cummiskey défilent au milieu de l’écran. Elles deviennent les vrais protagonistes en premier plan et l’actante un très beau motif secondaire qui sert à multiplier la richesse et l’interaction entre les thèmes. Un petit ours blanc est assis prêt de la belle jeune fille. Il sert comme un élément d’explication. Trois minutes est la durée de cette partie significative.

L’inscription «Yes, that’s Velvet » (Oui, c’est du velours) vient à la quatrième et dernière partie qui dure 32 secondes. C’est une conclusion heureuse et courte d’une grâce exemplaire. Le fond de l’écran est noir pour être en accord avec l’image du début. Le velours artificiel du petit ourson - jouet serait une métaphore du faux de cette deuxième poésie corporelle dans le film. La vérité est du coté des mots et de la poésie écrite. Le corps est beau, très beau même, mais les vers écrits sont l’élément le plus vivant de notre vie humaine.

First published on

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

New country - Mxolisi Nyezwa

This is a second collection from the excellent Eastern Cape poet Mxolisi Nyezwa. As the blurb says, Nyezwa's work is lyrical and deeply expressionistis, and register the intuitiveness of Nyezwa's vision of his land and his life. Nyezwa has carved for himself a voice and a style that is entirely his own and unlike any other South African poet before him.

One of the poems reads:

this little girl

this little girl

outside kfc

in njoli road

asking me for food

could not tell me

why the moon

tore her heart

and wrung her body

like a spell.

New country is published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and is available in bookstores countrywide.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Reality and Magic

“Everyday life is surrealistic, made of miracles, weird and inexplicable events. There is no borderline between reality and magic.” Alejandro Jodorowsky

Monday, 13 October 2008

Pravasan Pillay reviews April in the Moon-Sun (2 years late, but still…)

Gary Cummiskey’s cut-up prose pamphlet April in the Moon-Sun (2006, Dye Hard Press) opens with the following quote from artist and originator (along with long-time collaborator William S. Burroughs) of cut-ups, Brion Gysin: “If you want to challenge and change fate…cut up words.” Read more here

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Poetry Africa 2008: Burst into life

An International Poetry Festival takes place in South Africa once a year, with Poets from all around the globe. This included the Netherlands, South Africa, Mozambique, USA and many more. The event stretches over a week, but unfortunately I could only make it to the finale (October, 4th). The Finale that took place at the BAT Centre (a local centre of creative arts and music) was a huge success. I was honored to read there at the event. I represented a local poetry club called Live Poets Society (LiPS)...
Read more here from

Tuesday, 07 October 2008

Poetry Africa: Boisterous Finale

In all the boisterous excitement you’d have forgiven the wry 2008 Poetry Africa delegate Anton Krueger (dressed in sporty red gangster fatigues) for thinking Durban’s BAT Centre dealt with “rehabilitating wild animals” - as all the discerning reserve of the preceding days at the festival viewing took an energised turn for the spirited during Saturday’s finale...Read more here.
Photo courtesy of Centre for the Creative Arts at
Book SA

Words put poet in motion - Kgomotso Moncho

Gary Cummiskey has published several collections of poetry, including Reigning Gloves, The Secret Hour, Lost in a World, Visitations and When Apollinaire Died, to name but a few.

He also owns his own independent publishing company, Dye Hard Press. Born in England in 1963, he first came to SA in 1969 and has lived in SA since 1983, and is based in Joburg.

What is your view of the local poetry scene?

It's exciting, as there is a huge amount of poetry being produced at the moment. But a big problem is diminishing readership, and so many publishers are not keen on publishing poetry because it is viewed as being too much of a financial risk.

There is also the attention given to a lot of spoken word, hip-hop-type poetry. Spoken word poetry is important and I support it, but a problem in SA is that it is becoming standardised and predictable. There is too much emphasis on quality of delivery and form, rather than on quality of content.

We are also seeing trends involving the commodification of poetry and the celebritisation of the poet. Some poets are becoming marketing brands, are encouraged to become marketing brands, and those who resist this trend, or who do not fit the mould, risk being ignored.

You consider yourself to be "a bit of an outsider". How so?

Well, I was born in England, but moved to SA when I was 6, and we tended to move around a lot because of my father's work, always moving schools, changing environments . I then went back to England when I was 10, but never really felt at ease or at home there. I returned to SA when I was 20, and was in England for a short while again in 2001/2002.I met one or two poets in London, but I felt an immense cultural chasm between us. It was as if we were talking a different language. I have never felt that I have actually belonged to a certain culture or certain values. I have always been a bit of a lone wolf, an outsider, yes. But I see it as an advantage.

How would you describe your poetry?

I take a surrealist approach to poetry. Surrealism has been a tremendous influence on my work and thinking since I was 15 and read a book of surrealist poetry.I see poetry as part of life: it is there in the supermarkets and shopping malls, in dreams and overheard conversations, in taxi ranks and soccer stadiums, in beer cans and empty streets. It is not something to be composed in the study by academics.

Last night
By Gary Cummiskey

Last night, feeling suicidal,
I leapt over the balcony
And landed flat on my back
In the garden below,
Almost squashing a snoozing cat.
Lying there, I looked up
At the sky and saw how empty
It was, apart from a few
Insignificant stars.
Now I know I am immortal.

(First published in The Star Tonight, October 7, 2008)

Sunday, 05 October 2008

Gary Cummiskey at the Poetry Africa International Festival

Courtesy: Monica Rorvik

Poet or Publisher? Janet van Eeden meets Gary Cummiskey

The 12th Poetry Africa International Poetry Festival takes place in Durban from the 29 September to 4 October 2008. One of the featured poets is Gary Cummiskey. I asked Gary a few questions about his writing, as well as his publishing through his press, Dye Hard Press...Read more here

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Writing, madness and anarchy

"Writing for (Artaud) wasn't a means of modifying or falsifying experience through the medium of language, it was the chace to communicate directly with his sense of outrage. It was a form of primal anarchy. If we all communicated without the selective process of language identifying with thought, the world would be reinvented."

"Madness is the perogative term that capitalism applies to vision."

"Literature died when it became a saleable commoditiy."

Jeremy Reed, Chasing Black Rainbows: a novel based on the life of Artaud, Peter Owen, 1994

Friday, 26 September 2008

Creating magic through poetry

Gary Cummiskey is one of the featured poets at the 12th Poetry Africa International Poetry Festival in Durban which runs from September 29 to October 4. Janet van Eeden asked him a few questions about writing and publishing.

Is your desire to write a need to change history, or make a mark on the world in some way?

The first thing I ever wrote was a short story about Mary, Queen of Scots, and after I had written it I felt I had achieved some major accomplishment. There is a definite sense of magic involved in the creative process. And yes, also probably a wish to leave a mark on the world. I have always been struck by some lines by the South African poet Wopko Jensma, from his poem spanner in the what?works, which read: i hope to leave some evidence/that i inhabited this world/that i sensed my situation/that i created something/out of my situation..

You have also become a publisher and have been remarkably resilient in the fickle world of South African literature. How did Dye Hard Press start?

I started up Dye Hard Press in 1994. Like a lot of poets, I was frustrated back then by the lack of publishing outlets. There were only New Coin, New Contrast, Slug News and Staffrider, which was on its last legs. I wanted to start up a literary journal but was initially put off by the financial outlay needed. Gus Ferguson’s maverick Slug News was a good example. It wasn’t printed but photocopied, and he laid it out himself in his lunch hour. So I realised I could produce one myself, cheaply. It was doomed from the start. I didn’t know the first thing about publishing and nobody knew me. So I figured a solution might be to publish a small collection of my work, and distribute it for free. I put together a collection: The Secret Hour. Roy Blumenthal suggested that I create an imprint name too and so I created Dye Hard Press. I then published Alan Finlay’s collection, Burning Aloes, and things continued from there. Sun Belly Press published a small pamphlet of my poems back in 1996, called City, and that same year Gus Ferguson published my collection When Apollinaire Died. Apart from that, all my other collections have been published through Dye Hard Press.

Do you see yourself as a poet or a publisher?

I see myself as a poet-writer first and a publisher second. Last year, at the Cape Town Book Fair, two people expressed surprise that I was a writer. I admit it was of some concern that my work as a publisher was apparently eclipsing my work as a poet. I might stop publishing at any moment, but I would never stop writing.

What sorts of work do you publish?

Dye Hard Press has to date published mainly poetry, and recently Kobus Moolman’s play Full Circle. Through my literary journal Green Dragon I also publish short fiction and creative non-fiction.

What is the future for poetry in South Africa? Is it relevant at all to the majority of people or is it only ever in the foreground at events such as Poetry Africa?

The future of poetry in South Africa is a challenge, to put it mildly. Throughout the world poetry is becoming a marginalised genre, but even more so in South Africa. Yet when I started up Dye Hard Press in the nineties there was an intense creative energy around and people were interested in the poetry we put out.

But that has changed. There is a fair amount of interest, particularly among the youth, in spoken word, hip-hop-type poetry. In one way this is a good thing. It’s certainly supporting the concept of spoken word poetry. At the same time, a lot of the poetry is becoming standardised, unoriginal and predictable.

But events such as Poetry Africa really help.

Schools should teach more contemporary local poetry and then people will not grow up thinking poetry is something that they cannot relate to. Book readers should make a point of reading contemporary South African poetry too or subscribe to a literary journal.

What are your personal ambitions as a poet, writer and publisher?

I want to explore more genres in my writing. I’ve started writing short fiction and there is also a novel floating around in my head. I also want to publish fiction through Dye Hard Press.

(First published in The Witness, September 26, 2008)

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Stories put to the text

South Africa faces the challenge of boosting a book-reading culture, but because new books are expensive, access to libraries in rural areas is limited and internet penetration is low, the task at times seems overwhelming. However, 80% of South Africans own a mobile phone, and an innovative concept launched in July looks set to bring short fiction to the masses via their handsets...Read more here

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A short review of Today is their Creator from Pravasan Pillay

The short twenty-five pages of Gary Cummiskey’s poetry collection Today is their Creator are the best I’ve read in a while. The poems in these pages disrupt both the meanings of words and their relation to reality and also, and most crucially, for me at least, the overly precious poetic register that dominates local verse. Cummiskey’s devices (deadpan lines, surreal word combinations, absurd contexts) are admirably cold but the ideas and emotions being piped through these devices are as hot as hell. This is a difficult art to master and Cummiskey, like Burroughs before him, does it exceedingly well. File under essential.

(First published here on