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

Where else is there to go?

"But principally my theme is one I have explored in my own life and through the personae I have adopted in two previous novels, Isidore and When The Whip Comes Down, which is belief in the poet as one who changes the universe and risks everything by this undertaking. It is not a romantic ideal that the poetry sacrifices his life to madness, it is often the truth. Artaud savaged the status quo through the powers of his imagination, and this novel looks towards the creation of a world in which imagination becomes reality. Where else is there to go?"

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

Saturday, 20 September 2008

No flash in the pan, this fiction

Review of 100 Papers, Liesl Jobson, Botsotso Publishing, Out of the Wreckage, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Botsotso Publishing, Botsotso 15: Jozi Spoken Word Special Edition

Flash fiction — essentially a very short story, which can range from about 10 lines to four pages — might be regarded as the ideal kind of genre for our rushed, fast-paced times. But it is as ancient as Aesop, and was practised by writers such as Anton Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway.

South African Liesl Jobson has just published her debut volume, 100 Papers, which consists of 100 prose poems and flash fiction pieces. The opening piece in her collection, Shopping List, sets the tone for many of the other stories with its strong sense of the understated, of what is not being said, of unspoken and unresolved tensions.

It also introduces the theme of relationships, motherhood and loneliness, although some of the stories are fairly lighthearted, such as How the Oreo Stole Christmas and Bridgework.

And, not surprisingly, considering Jobson’s career as a bassoonist, many of them feature orchestral musicians, such as Bassoon Lesson, Perfect Timing, Zebra Breath, and She Cannot Love Her Own Air.

Notable flash fiction pieces in the collection are Litter-Bugs, Spider Salad, Bump, Saviour, Cell, My Mother’s Diary, Vessel and Green Socks, White Lies.

But the strongest items are the prose poems, such as Naysayers, A Hundred Times a Day, In the Biscuits, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, The Corner of My Eye, and Under My SAPS Star, though sometimes the distinction between the very short flash fictions and the prose poems are not so clear, such as with Cell — a mere 17 lines and clearly a narrative — and Vessel, which is one-and-a-half pages but reads like a prose poem.

This is a welcomed debut volume. A slight problem is the fact that the strongest pieces are mainly in the second half.

Botsotso editor Allan Kolski Horwitz’s Out of the Wreckage is also a collection of very short fiction, predominantly a series of “dream parables” involving a male character named Abel.
They are surreal tales which the blurb says consist of “the dream-like; the waking fantasy; the reverie; the parable that instructs; the story that informs … the dream that saves the dreamer”.

Like Jobson’s volume, most of the pieces are not longer than three to four pages, and one piece, Excursion, is only 19 lines. Some are more conventional short-story narratives, two of which — Blue and Ashford — appeared in a previous Botsotso anthology of short fiction, Unity in Flight.

The collection starts off promisingly with The President, a powerful, all-too-familiar story of a despot determined to hold onto power while his country goes to ruin.

Despite the dream-like atmosphere throughout the volume, the realities of a contemporary violent society are sometimes not too far away — one of the pieces is called War Time.

While some of the other dream parables are strong — such as Discover, The Dog, Accidents, Out of the Wreckage, The Festival and She Was Taken Captive — the most rewarding pieces are the more conventional stories, such as The Tap Plant, A Faraway Shopping Centre, Four Seasons, Gerhard, Blue, Ashford, Mystery in the Cottage and She Whom I Love.

The concept of the dream narrative is fascinating, but the overall feeling with Out of the Wreckage is that of overkill. If the number of dream parables had been reduced, or if there were more conventional stories to create a balance, the book might have been more effective.

The 15th issue of literary journal Botsotso is a special edition, with about half of its 200 pages selections of material presented at the first Jozi Spoken Word festival, which took place over four days at Wits University last year.

There is commentary from critics such as Anthea Buys and Darryl Accone and papers on Who Makes or Breaks the Canon? by James Ogude and Rosemary Gray, which were originally part of a panel discussion at the festival.

There are poems by Angifi Dladla, Hugh Lewin, Mak Manaka, Ike Mboneni Muila, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya, Peter Horn, Mphutlane wa Bofelo and Dennis Brutus, as well as short fiction by Achmat Dangor, Horwitz and Jobson.

The second section contains new work ranging from short fiction by Zukiswa Wanner, Jean-Francois Kouadio, Hlengiwe Mnguni and Arja Salafranca, to poetry from Alan Finlay, Brent Meersman, Elizabeth Trew and Dave Stevens.

The volume is illustrated throughout with a powerful graphics series called Xnau by Garth Erasmus, which are the result of flame on paper and show mysterious black and white shapes suggesting figures or skeleton-like bones.

In SA, where literary journals are scarce and constantly struggling for survival, it is encouraging to see Botsotso not only still publishing, but also growing stronger and publishing such rewarding, innovative and imaginative work.

(First published in The Weekender September 20, 2008)

Monday, 08 September 2008

Poetry Africa International Festival 2008

29 September to 4 October promises to be a stirring week of words, rhymes, performance and ideas, as the 12th Poetry Africa international poetry festival ignites Durban with over twenty poets from around South Africa , Africa , and the world. Hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Creative Arts, Poetry Africa's intensive week-long programme kicks off with a pre-festival showcase of Durban poets at The Workshop Shopping Centre's Amphitheatre on 28 September at 11h00. The showcase forms part of the Imagine Africa initiative which seeks to create platforms for challenging stereotypical ideas of Africa and imagining a better continent. The week encompasses introductory performances by the full lineup of participating poets at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on opening night 29 September, and will thereafter feature 5 poets every evening, through to 3 October, before the rousing Festival Finale at the BAT Centre on 4 October.

The as-always diverse selection of poetic voices, styles, forms, and cultures includes the finely-tuned verse of teacher, photojournalist and activist Kole Ade-Odutola ( Nigeria ). Ade-Odutola's celebrated second collection of poetry The Poet Bled is dedicated to Ken Saro Wiwa, the author and environmental activist who was killed in 1995 by the Nigerian military junta. The lineup from Africa also includes Angolan Nástio Mosquito, a provocative artist, performer, and poet whose often satirical work will be accompanied by South African musicians. Kenyan Bantu Mwaura's laconic poetry is principally concerned with examining the African continent, its politics, its history and its place in the international arena. Nassuf Djailani, from the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte , is the author of two poetry collections rich in humor and tenderness. The multi-talented Rogério Manjate ( Mozambique ) recently won the Best Short Film Award at the 29th Durban International Film Festival and looks set to again wow Durban audiences with his distinct and humane voice. Legendary Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo – whose music is now banned in Zimbabwe – has been making his captivating Chimurenga music for over thirty years. His incendiary songs, patterned on ancient mbira rhythms and injected with a contemporary sensibility, are particularly relevant given the current political impasse to the north of our borders. Mapfumo will be supported by the guitarist and two mbira players from his group Blacks Unlimited. Mapfumo will also perform in special post-festival events in Johannesburg organised by African Synergy Book Café.

The as always strong South African presence this year includes Megan Hall, winner of the 2008 Ingrid Jonker Prize for her debut collection Fourth Child. Hall is a poet of startlingly vividness and – somewhat paradoxically – control and will launch Fourth Child, published by Modjaji Books, during the festival. Other launches include: Invitation To A Voyage (Protea Book House) edited by respected scholar and poet Stephen Gray. The collection features French-language poetry of the Indian Ocean African islands and is a wonderful introduction to the lesser-known but rich literature of the region. Prolific independent publishers Botsotso launch an amazing five new publications including one by top Durban poet Mphutlane wa Bofelo. UKZN Press will launch the second collection of Mxolisi Nyezwa entitled, New Country . Nyezwa is also a participant this year and has long been an acclaimed in local poetry circles for his powerful and difficult-to-classify lyrical poems. The festival this year offers an emphasis on performance and the spoken word, reflecting the growing diversity of poetic expression.

Sisters Tereska and Laverne Muishond call themselves !Bushwomen and infuse their poetry with song and dance to create a stage performance that is filled with energy and passion. Jitsvinger (a.k.a Quintin Goliath) is one of South Africa`s fastest rising hip-hop artists and delivers his conscious rhymes in an urgent and unique meter. Joining the Poetry Africa lineup this year is the trailblazing South African hip hop crew Godessa, comprising E.J. von Lyrik, Burnie, and Shameema Williams, whose poetry and music combination makes them some of the most relevant voices in the country.

Anton Krueger is an award-winning playwright and poet and brings to Poetry Africa his humanistic yet slightly view-askance verse. Andrea Dondolo, renowned for her role in the award-winning sitcom Stokvel , is also a skilled praise singer who is bound to captivate Durban audiences. Mak Manaka's sensitive and lucid poetry has seen him become a sought after performer at local and international events. Powerful, fresh and blessed with an enviable stage presence, poet and musician Ntsiki Mazwai also goes by her clan name, MaMiya. Her style of fusing her inspirational poems with beats resulted in the immensely popular single “Uwrongo”. Independent press hero Gary Cummiskey is the founder and editor of Dye Hard Press, which specialises in publishing South African poetry, and in his own poetry, spread over numerous collections, shows a deft hand at balancing the avant garde and the poetic.

Masoja Msiza is the brains behind the popular Lentswe Poetry Project on SABC 2 and his poetry focuses, in a non-didactic manner, on social concerns. Rounding up the South African component is the poetry collective Basadzi Voices, which comprises Shameeyaa neo waMolefe, Phomelelo Mamampi Machika, Busi Gqulu and Xoli Vilakazi. Basadzi Voices through their projects – which include a successful poetry anthology published in 2006 by UKZN Press – aim to represent the many voices, often silenced, of young women across South Africa . A special component of the festival is the Durban Poetry Showcase, which takes place at the Festival Finale at the BAT Centre. This platform showcases the collaborative talents of poets from leading poetry collectives in the city, including: Live Poets Society, Keen Artists, Nowadayz Poets, Poets Corner, and Pour a Tree.

The international presence at Poetry Africa includes the evocative, finessed verse of Dutch poet Marjolijn van Heemstra and American Carlos Gomez, a leading voice at the forefront of the oral poetry movement who has been described by critics as a “truth-telling visionary” and a “lyrical prophet”. Gomez also co-starred in Spike Lee's hit film Inside Man alongside Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, while his first poetry album was named Spoken Word Album of the Year at the 2006 Los Angeles Music Awards .

The festival also includes special readings that will commemorate the life, work and struggle of Mahmoud Darwish, the respected and celebrated Palestinian poet who died in August this year. The readings form part of an internationally coordinated effort to honour this great artist and man. Saturday, 4 October sees a full day of activities at the BAT Centre, which includes poetry workshops, open mic opportunities, the Durban SlamJam with Sakhile Shabalala, Lexikon, Ngonyama, and American slammers, Kesed Ragin and Tahani Salah, all culminating with the Festival Finale on Saturday night.

Apart from the evening performances at the Sneddon and the BAT, a packed daily programme includes performances, seminars, workshops, poetry competitions, and school roadshows.

The full programme of activities, plus participant bios and photos, is available on to 031-2602506

Saturday, 06 September 2008

Tuesday, 02 September 2008