Monday 30 June 2008

Contemporary South African poetry: at risk of being silenced

This piece originally appeared as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 11 and covered a panel discussion on contemporary South African poetry which took place at the first Cape Town Book Fair in 2006.
I think the issues raised are still relevant, if not more so.


At the 2006 Cape Town Book Fair, a panel discussion was held in which the situation of contemporary South African poetry and publishing was debated. The members of the panel were PR Anderson, Hale Tsehlana, Arja Salafranca, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Vonani Bila and Kelwyn Sole. The discussion was chaired by Helen Moffet.

PR Anderson kicked off by stating that commercial publishers in South Africa are reluctant to publish poetry, regarding the market for the genre as being ‘illusionary’. He said that as most poetry in South Africa these days is read in schools, the focus should be on how best to communicate poetry to this market. Electronic publishing via the internet was one means he suggested.

While I agree with Anderson’s basic premise – that commercial publishers regard the poetry market in South Africa as being illusionary – I question a few issues. Firstly, it is important to consider that commercial publishers would define a market as a financial equation (a profitable return over costs) as opposed to defining a market as a potentially receptive audience. I can understand the position of commercial publishers (considering that while they are in the business of publishing books, their primary objective is to provide shareholders with a return on investment) but it is regrettable Anderson did not mention the role of local independent publishers in getting poetry out to readers.

Secondly, by offering an argument about poetry being mainly read in schools, we risk running into a mindset whereby poetry is regarded as little more than a scholarly learning exercise.

Next, Allan Kolski Horwitz took us back to 1974, when a similar poetry panel discussion was held in Cape Town. Back then, the panel consisted solely of white males, and while one or two papers focused on poetry in a societal context (such as one on ‘Poetry and Africa’ by Douglas Livingstone) the majority tended to focus on topics such as ‘Satire in the poetry of Roy Campbell’ or ‘Satire in the poetry of Thomas Pringle’. In a nutshell: poetry as a topic for academic study, rather than as an activity intrinsic to the political, cultural and socioeconomic environment in which it is created.

Happily, Horwitz noted, we have moved on from there, as poetry of the 1980s-1990s can testify. However, in the past few years, there has a reactionary swing back to the notion of poetry divorced from the environment in which it is created, an academic-based poetry that tends to shy away from everyday topics such as crime, injustice, poverty and sex. Horwitz cited a title by Botsotso Publishing, Isis X, an anthology of poems and photographs by contemporary South African women. The anthology received an extremely negative review in The Sunday Times by a woman critic who regarded the anthology as an unfortunate by-product of the ‘new democracy’ that allows everyone to become a poet. The contributors were dismissed as performance poets (though none of the poets in the anthology could be classified as performance poets), adolescent and sex-obsessed. Clearly, the ‘new right-wing reactionaries’, as Horwitz calls them, regard sex as a topic unfit for poetry.

The contributions of the two women panellists were brief. Hale Tsehlana emphasised the need for women poets to publish their work, and Arja Salafranca endorsed Horwitz’s view of a reactionary tendency against a poetry that deals with everyday issues. Salafranca’s collection The fire in which we burn was attacked by a woman reviewer who objected to a personal poetry that dealt with issues such as relationships, sex and menstruation.

Kelwyn Sole also endorsed Horwitz’s views, but added a further dimension. For Sole, South African poetry is equally in danger from commoditisation. Recently we have witnessed an increase in government-sponsored poetry competitions dealing with issues such as HIV/Aids, and it seems government has recognised the value of poetry as a means of getting its message across. Furthermore, a poem criticising government policy would not be likely to win a government-sponsored competition. Poetry in SA is in danger of becoming a marketing tool of those in power.

I agree with Sole, but it is not only government that has caught onto the value of poetry – corporates have also leapt on the bandwagon. In an earlier newsletter on funding, I highlighted the danger of receiving corporate sponsorship for poetry publishing. After all, a corporate is hardly likely to wish to sponsor poetry that, for example, attacks the abuses of corporate capitalism.

Vonani Bila stated that as a black poet he is expected to sing the praises of the new regime. He has been criticised for writing poems that deal with crime, joblessness and poverty. He is expected not to criticise the government for failing to deliver on its promises. As Bila pointed out in the poetry journal New Coin, if the current government were to adopt the same totalitarian stance as the Nationalist Party, he and several other contemporary black poets would find themselves in prison.

Between the extremes of a reactionary mindset that views poetry as being divorced from the realities of everyday life and a mindset that views poetry as a marketing tool, true poetry – a poetry that is concerned with truth telling and engages with the environment in which it is created – is at risk of being silenced.

Gary Cummiskey
© 2006

Saturday 28 June 2008

Friday 20 June 2008

A chronology of the most important events in his life: a review of Today is their Creator

Aryan Kaganof writes: "It starts with the cover. Nicola Deane has described it as 'rough, edgy and seductive'. And that’s a perfect description of the kind of verse assembled by Gary Cummiskey in the 26 pages of Today is their Creator" ...Read more here

Train - Kalk Bay


Tuesday 17 June 2008

The 9th Letter: a review of Today is Their Creator

Goodenough Mashego writes: "Dye Hard Press founder and poet of serious note Gary Cummiskey writes about 'minister's daughter stoned on crack', then moves on to write about 'so we slip down behind the counter/ and start to fuck', then jumps and writes about '...we watch the girl in the backroom sticking a knitting needle up her hole'. All in one book, titled Today is Their Creator"...Read more here

At Kalk Bay, Cape Town


Monday 16 June 2008

Cape Town Book Fair - Day 3

The wind was strong in Cape Town today, and I felt almost carried along as I walked down to the convention centre about 9.30am. With its being Youth Day, a public holiday, visitors started arriving in vast numbers from about 10am, and throughout the day the aisles were packed – very much like last year’s fair... Read more here

Sunday 15 June 2008

Cape Town Book Fair - Day 2

It has been a cold and overcast day in Cape Town and as I arrived at the book fair about 9.30am there were only a few visitors around. By about noon the numbers had swelled and by 4pm the aisles were very busy, and at least one ATM in the convention centre had run out of cash. But overall there has been a feeling that the fair has so far been quieter than last year, though one exhibitor did say this was preferable to last year's frenzy...Read more here

Saturday 14 June 2008

Cape Town Book Fair - Day 1

On arriving at the book fair at about 10am, my initial impression was that it was quiet with not too many visitors compared to previous years. After about two hours, however, the masses had flocked in and come lunch time I once again ended up sitting on a staircase with my tray balanced on my lap. And the trend is that the fair will become even busier on Sunday and Monday (a public holiday in South Africa)...Read more here

Friday 13 June 2008

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Cape Town - return to the fair

It’s that time of the year again, when publishers, writers and readers converge on the Cape Town Convention Centre for the annual Cape Town Book Fair. Now in its third year, the event – in partnership with the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the Frankfurt Book Fair – looks set for another whirlwind four days of exhibitions and discussion forums from 14th to 17th June...Read more here

Wednesday 04 June 2008

Clearing up some myths about publishing

Starting up your own small publishing venture can be a rewarding process (though admittedly rarely financially rewarding). It requires dedication, is very much a labour of love and requires that you input quite a bit of your spare time.

However, there are a number of misperceptions about publishing that could easily lead to disappointment, frustration and (sometimes heavy) financial loss if you are not aware of the realities surrounding the bookselling market or opportunities available to you.

Some of these misperceptions, or myths, are as follows:

1. To start up a publishing venture, you have to create a company, complete with administration staff, layout and editorial staff, launch a website, and engage in extensive marketing. Starting up a publishing press in such a manner may result in some initial high-profile exposure, but it can just as easily quickly fizzle out into financial failure. From a financial perspective, publishing can be a risky business: the book-buying public can be fickle and income streams can be slow. Such overheads as listed above could easily sink an aspiring publishing venue. So keep the operation small and simple.

2. To publish a book, you have to print about 2 000 copies. Traditional litho printing works on a basis of higher volumes/lower costs. The less number of copies required, the more expensive it is to print. But if you chose a digital printer, who works on a print-on-demand basis, you would be able to print lower numbers of books on an as-and-when basis. Instead of printing 2 000, you can print 200 copies, and once they are sold, print another 200. This approach has substantially reduced costs and is invaluable to a small publisher. Should you want to print more than 500 copies in one shot, however, it is wise to go the litho route, since it is at above 500 copies that higher volumes/lower costs kick in.

3. An ISBN for a book guarantees sales. Some aspiring publishers and authors see the acquisition of an ISBN as the “key” to ensuring book sales, since an ISBN is seen as the “stamp” of professionalism. An ISBN certainly assists in making a publication seem more professional and more easily identifiable by book buyers, but does not guarantee bookstore orders or sales.

4. You need a barcode to get a book into bookstores. This is also incorrect. Again, a barcode makes a publication seem more professional, but it is not essential to ensure bookstore orders. However, as bookstores are becoming increasingly sticky about purchases, I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next few years or so barcodes do become a requirement.

5. Launches guarantee a book’s success. The purpose of a book launch is to promote the publication of a book, but they do not guarantee success. About a year or so, the publication of a local sportsman’s autobiography was launched countrywide with great fanfare. The book flopped. Some launches can easily become nothing more than a party (free booze and food!) for an author’s friends and family.

6. The media will give a positive review of my book. Books editors on newspapers and magazines are often allocated some of the smallest spaces in the publication and are further restricted by ever-diminishing budgets and lack of advertising revenue. As such, they cannot review everything and probably wouldn’t do so even if they had the space. Books editors are not obligated to review a book and they are not obligated to ensure it gets a good review. They are not your unpaid marketing manager.

7. The bookstores will buy my book because they support local literature. We often have illusions about bookstores. We think they support literature, whether local or international. We think they support literacy and local publishing. But bookstores are retail operations out to make a profit. They will not buy a book to support local publishing or literature – they will buy it only if they think it will sell.

8. The public will buy my book. The reading public is fickle and unpredictable, and anything can happen. One novel by a certain writer can be a bestseller and the second novel flop as readers move onto some other author or interest. Until recently, the South African reading public (including authors) have tended to have a poor opinion of local literature. They would willingly spend R250 on a book by an overseas author but hesitate to spend R80 on a book by a local writer. It’s a hangover from a colonial mindset that many in South Africa still have. Thankfully this has started to change.

(Originally published as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 13)