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 consistent 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.