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)