Gary Cummiskey, the editor of New Coin asked several people to write about the state of SA poetry as they see it. One of the people he asked was me. So here’s my take, I urge those of you who are interested in poetry in South Africa or in the world at large to subscribe to New Coin and in particular to order this copy from the ISEA.
The other participants in The State of South African Poetry: A Symposium are Mxolisi Nyezwa, Kobus Moolman, Kelwyn Sole, Dashen Naicker; Raphael d’Abdon, Lesego Rampolokeng, Colleen Higgs, Denis Hirson, Haidee Kruger, and Allan Kolski Horwitz.
As the publisher of Modjaji Books I don’t want to discuss the state of South African poetry at a macro level. What I want to do is to invite you to look at the Modjaji Books and Hands-On Books poetry lists. As of the 30 June 2014 we have published 27 new collections of poetry. All of these titles can be seen on our website www.modjajibooks.co.za where you will see the range, depth and variety of voices that we have published since 2007. Our very first title was a poetry collection, Megan Hall’s Fourth Child; it went on to win the Ingrid Jonker prize in 2008. Since then Beverly Rycroft was also awarded the Ingrid Jonker prize in 2012 for her collection, missing. We have had our poets receive other prizes and honours. Phillippa Yaa de Villiers won the 2011 SALA poetry prize and she is the Commonwealth Poet for 2014.
However, what I’m most proud of is that Modjaji Books has continued to publish and sell collections of poetry in a tumultuous and uncertain period in publishing and in a time of economic downturn globally. The rewards that poets receive for writing their poems and publishing collections are not monetary, but rather the same rewards that poets have enjoyed for centuries, the sense that there are readers who are hungry for their words, their images, the articulation of something that speaks to others. The unexpected emails and letters, the selection of a poem to be studied in schools, the invitation to read, the look on the face of someone in an audience listening to the poet read – these are some of the small, rich rewards for poets, apart from the making of the poem itself.
One of the threads I’ve tried to pick up in publishing collections has been to push the publishing boundaries of language and identity. For example Life in Translation by Azila Talit Reisenberger, Bare & Breaking by Karin Schimke, and Beyond the Delivery Room by Khadija Heeger – all feature poems in more than one language and in different varieties of language.
Another thread has been to interrogate ‘what is poetry’, for example, in Malika Ndlovu’s book – Invisible Earthquake: a woman’s journey through stillbirth – a book of poems, journal entries, essays and resource lists.
Investing time and money into publishing poetry is a somewhat odd enterprise, it is not at all rewarding financially, but somehow it seems necessary for me to do this work. Part of why I started Modjaji Books in 2007 was to claim space for voices that would not otherwise be published, and the voices that particularly concerned me were the voices of women. I will not go into a long argument explaining what I mean, those who know what I mean, know already. Those who don’t can go and research this and read about the feminist politics of publishing argued by much more sophisticated and scholarly writers. I saw that something needed to be done, so I have tried to do it, and I will continue to do this as long as I am able.
It is strange to me that something like poetry is such a contested space, but it is. And so I find it important to enter that space and open doors which were firmly shut. And if it wasn’t for Modjaji I fear many of those doors would still be firmly shut.