Joan Metelerkamp is an award-winning South African poet with several collections published by Modjaji. In this interview from Conversations with Writers, published way back in 2009, she talks, among other things, about the vacuum that exists on the South Africa poetry scene.
Do you write everyday?
For periods I have written every day, but not recently. In theory, I’ve wanted to. But I tell myself that fallow periods, periods of waiting, also happen. I don’t like it, and also I think the more out of a rhythm I get the worse the not-writing becomes. I lose heart in my own process, and doubt my own task. (My own poems remind me of this tension between simply “being” and “making”). The less energy I have, the less I seem to generate.
It’s not only that I’m impatient but I like rhythm and structure… of course I like most the ecstatic moments of “fine delight that fathers thought” and find it hard to be “the widow of an insight lost”.
In the past, writing has begun at any time on scraps of paper or notes… it’s sometimes proceeded by sitting down at my table, usually after breakfast, and giving up by lunch time.
How many books have you written so far?
I’ve written seven.
Burnt Offering, 2009, Modjaji.
Carrying the Fire, 2005, substancebooks. It’s a three part sequence of poems, followed by a fourth, prose, short-story like, part. It’s about love, desire, art, poems… it’s like Jacob wrestling with the angel, or (the image of the last section) a mutual seduction between Mary and the angel…
Requiem, 2003, Deep South. This sequence is structured by the requiem mass — I had in mind the many musical versions, not just the liturgical. It was written after my mother’s suicide.
Floating Islands, 2001, Mokoro. This is a long narrative but also dramatic sequence of poems; each poem written from the perspective of one of three main characters — a 60 something mother living in Knysna, and her two grown daughters: one a potter living in Bristol, and one an English academic teaching in Durban. It’s also something of an essay or discussion about Ruth Miller and Dorothy Wordsworth. It’s an experiment in forms since many of the single poems take specific fixed-form shape.
Into the Day Breaking, 2000, Gecko. A collection of lyrical and discursive poems, some quite long, some short; most written after our move from Durban to this area in the Southern Cape.
Stone No More, 1995, Gecko. poems
Towing The Line, 1992, Carrefour. poems
How long did it take you to write Burnt Offering?
My latest book, Burnt Offering, took four years to write. It has a central sequence of poems based on the work of the alchemists, the various stages or processes in their chemical experiments. I take that Jungian view of alchemy being a metaphor for work on the psyche, so also a metaphor for any “task”: the task of becoming what one chooses and works at becoming.
It was published this June by Modjaji Books in Cape Town. I didn’t really choose the publisher, it was more a question of what was possible. Modjaji is a new independent publisher of women’s writing, and fortunately Colleen Higgs agreed to publish my manuscript. She’s taken the risk on poetry which few publishers are prepared to do.
Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into the book?
Finding the structure for the middle section was difficult; throwing away reams of material that came to nothing was also hard; working through the humiliation and despair the central section starts with was difficult… the anxiety that the whole book might not see the light of day, or that, like Carrying the Fire, it wouldn’t be distributed was the next difficulty.
I dealt with the difficulties by dealing with them — I haven’t got an answer to this!
Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?
I liked writing the last twenty-page poem the most; by then I had a commitment from Colleen Higgs to publish the book, so although I was faintly anxious she might not want to include it, as it developed I became more certain that it was the appropriate end poem for the volume.
The poem involved going away with my daughter for two weeks to the low-veld, just outside the Kruger Park. She worked on a philosophy thesis and I began the poem — it was a marvelous time and, at the risk of sounding pretentious, something of a transformative experience — the writing and the journey and the writing afterwards.
What sets Burnt Offering apart from other things you’ve written?
The second poem is a long meditation on poetry called “points on poems”. It’s a playful, sometimes silly, sometimes catty, essay — it does shift tone from point to point; I think it stands out as something new for me.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Keeping going; believing I may be a poet.
When did you start writing?
Like most poets, no doubt, I started writing soon after I could physically do cursive writing — which is to say I wrote the first “verse” (or one I still have a vague memory of) when I was about nine years old.
I wrote off and on through my school years, but I only decided that poetry was my calling after I had already been at university for four years and then had had a short-lived three year career as an actor; and also after I had accumulated 10 unpublished short stories. (I didn’t ever try to have these stories published though I did read some of them to various members of my family — my brothers and my mother).
It was only after I had done some stints of teaching at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and was married, and had two young children, and was in the last re-writing of a master’s thesis on the poetry of Ruth Miller, that I began to re-shape and put together what would become my first volume of poems.
What happened was that I saw an advertisement for the SANLAM literary award — which in the 90’s were prizes given every three years for volumes of poetry: one of which was for a debut collection. (I don’t know if these prizes still exist).
I decided it was worth entering the competition simply because it was an incentive to get the poems together into what I hoped might be publishable shape. (I had read the occasional poem at an English department conference before this, and had had at least one poem published in a feminist journal called Stir, and one in Lionel Abrahams’ journal Sesame, but I hadn’t had the courage really to send my work out).
Very fortunately I was a joint winner of the prize and my first collection was published, together with the collections of the other two winners by the long-since defunct Carrefour Press. So it wasn’t really an independent first “book”; but it was enough to boost my confidence hugely, and from then on I started sending out new poems, particularly to New Coin.
How would you describe the writing you are doing?
At the moment, I’m really struggling to write anything at all. I’m waiting for the next poems: I’ve got some vague ideas about them, I’ve got hundreds of jottings, I’ve got two full note-books, but I’m a bit lost.
I’ve just told you about winning that first prize, and, to continue the story, I was lucky enough to win the Sydney Clouts prize for the central poem in my second volume. That helped to affirm the sense that I hadn’t just published a one-off first book.
I needed a sense of external validation to write more; but after a while, and as the years passed and I’d been the editor of New Coin, and then a judge of precisely such prizes (I’ve judged the Ingrid Jonker and DALRO prizes), and I began to get more sense of how the networks and politics of this tiny group of poets and readers of poems functions in South Africa, I began to have a quite different feeling about recognition and affirmation.
What we lack completely in this country is any critique of poetry: even within the institutions which supposedly support it (like universities — admittedly I’ve been out of an academic world for twelve years, but even in the late 90s poetry was being squashed right out of English department syllabi and from what I gather it’s not better now). The press is ridiculous when it comes to careful and considered critique, and to get someone to write a review for a poetry journal is an up-hill struggle second to none. I’ve tried!
So South Africa is not a country which fosters or cares for the kind of poetry I’m interested in: in that asphyxiating atmosphere it’s very difficult to keep going: in a vacuum of any debate about poetry or poetics. If “form” is spoken about at all, it is spoken about as opposed to “free verse” or “performance” poetry… There is almost no published discussion on the hows and whys of what makes specific poems or specific bodies of poetry in specific places work. So it’s difficult to feel that you’re developing or reaching anyone.
Which brings me to:
Who is your target audience?
I’m in total contradiction about this: I could say paradox if I were kinder to myself, perhaps.
On the one hand, I think it’s impossible to write for an audience — as soon as you do that (remember [W. B.] Yeats?) you write rhetoric instead of poetry.
On the other hand, without any sense of connection with an audience, without some sense that there are anonymous readers or listeners out there, I find it extremely hard to write at all. Without the sense that one’s poems are somehow collective, what is the impetus to keep making artifacts? Even though I lead a fairly hermit-like life, I’m not a Jesuit priest (I’m thinking of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins who chose not to publish) nor do I have the extraordinary and constantly developing sense of self, nor the technical proficiency, nor the strength and faith in posthumous publication, of Emily Dickinson.
I wish for my work to be meaningful for, to resonate with, someone else — who that is, I don’t know! I have to remind myself how similar our dreams are — I’m speaking literally, our literal night-time dreams, so, since poems come from a similar place why shouldn’t they find resonance with someone.
Which authors influenced you most?
At the moment I’m reading contemporary American poetry, so I suppose this will have an influence… this year I’ve read the most amazing works — Campbell Mcgrath, C. D. Wright, Sharon Olds, W. S. Merwin…
but the old influences are still there.
There’ve been different influences at different times, all of which have something to do with what writing I’m doing (or not doing!). [Percy Bysshe] Shelley, [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, [John] Keats…
[Walt] Whitman, [Thomas] Hardy, Hopkins, Yeats, [D. H.] Lawrence…
Stevie Smith; Dorothy Wordsworth; Ruth Miller…
then local contemporary poets: Lesego Rampolokeng (for the clamour of his music and extraordinary bending of language to his own needs), Mxolisi Nyezwa (for the other-end-of the-scale kind of music: his dream-like images, his vison), Robert Berold (for his precision, the intense narrative within image, the way metaphor explodes — expands and contracts: now you see it, now you don’t)…
[Elizabeth] Bishop, [Muriel] Rukeyser, [Amy] Clampitt, [Adrienne Cecile] Rich…
and on to contemporary American poets I’m exploring now.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
I write from myself, and I also have, though this might change, always written about the immediate: the process of writing itself has often been part of the “subject”.
I don’t know how I would write if not from personal crisis or self questioning.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
If by “concerns” you mean issues that I tackle in the poems themselves, I would say: existential questions. Balancing futility and simply being; the choice of a life task and the sense that it has been given; fear of meaninglessness and the attempt to make meaning; who I am, am I on the “right” path, where I fit in in my country and its history, my family, the world!
… how I deal with these concerns is as the specifics dictate! I don’t know — I ask the questions, I look for the answers, the poem sometimes shows me I’m asking something else, really, and most often that I can’t find any answer…
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
The challenge is to keep going. What will be (Yeats again) “the singing master of my soul”?
My challenge is real conversation about poems; but also to silence the real critical voices (and I’m not here talking about careful poetic critique) which have urged me not to publish, or have said that my poems give back nothing to “South Africa”, or that the real value is in meditative silence and acceptance rather than wrestling through language, or that my work is too convoluted, involuted, self-in-turning…
In fact the only challenge that matters is the recurrent one — what form will the next poem find, how will I do it? The challenge is to stop asking “why” and to find an answer to “how… this exact issue comes up in a poem in my last collection.