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Author: Mandy de Waal|

09 September 2008 01:49

Society needs poets

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Gabeba Baderoon on poetry, life, loss and the meaning of a singular, perfect moment of recognition.

When you listen to Gabeba Baderoon reading poetry there is fragility in her voice. Lightness and luminosity. But her poems - while luminous - are anything but fragile. They reach right past the soul of life into the guts of what it is to live, laying bare those things we do not want to hear, even less linger on. Meditations on grief, loss and death that peel away layers of protection to reveal our collective vulnerability. Baderoon makes this palatable because of her craft - the way in which she makes the most difficult things accessible through beauty. As poetry they gently settle like epiphanies within the reader's being.

A literature scholar who stumbled into writing poetry nine years ago, Baderoon says that poetry is "something which has made me extraordinarily happy and yet has never become easy.  Just today I was looking at the proof of a poem that will appear in a journal later this month and the sheer mystery of language kept me reading and rereading the poem for hours." A local poet who now lives in the US, Baderoon has delivered three collections of poetry - The Dream in the Next Body (Kwela/Snailpress, 2005), The Museum of Ordinary Life (DaimlerChrysler, 2005) and A hundred silences (Kwela/Snailpress, 2006). The winner of the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry, The Dream in the Next Body was named a Notable Book by the Sunday Independent, while A hundred silences was short-listed for both the University of Johannesburg Prize and the Olive Schreiner Prize.

What is poetry?

Poetry is language used so malleably and beautifully that it cuts through cynicism, distraction and forgetting to create a singular, perfect moment of recognition.  I read a poem by Robert Hass about the end of a marriage in which the speaker is moving into a new house and while carrying boxes between his car and this empty, waiting place, he suddenly realizes his wedding ring is no longer on his finger.  He spends the rest of the poem frantically searching and failing to find it, and trying not to grasp the message of what he has lost.  Reading the lines, my heart clutched at the finality of that loss, and my fingers touched my own ring.  That physical sense of recognition, when you are the person whose epiphany is being revealed, is poetry.

How did you become a poet?

In 1999 while I was on a three-month fellowship in the US, which I knew would be a brief and precious time away from my usual busy life, I took a beginner's class in poetry, and my life changed.  The class was filled people who needed poetry to do things for them -  further their education, bring a little beauty into their lives, teach them to write to someone just beyond reach, like the woman in the class whose boyfriend was in jail.  I learned that poetry can do those things.

Is poetry transformative?

Yes, because it requires only the poet and language to reach the innermost part of someone else.    

Can poetry change the world?

Changing the world is easier to grasp when we realize that it's our view of the world.  I think poetry can change this, for instance, on an intimate scale - we turn to words with power, as we find in poetry or prayer, when we're bereft or moved.  Poetry also works on a grand scale, as Nelson Mandela showed when he read Ingrid Jonker's "Die Kind" at his inauguration, or when Dennis Brutus wrote the often beautiful Letters to Martha about his time in prison, or when Khosi Xaba writes an exquisite song of praise to all our forebears in Tongues of Their Mothers.

Is the best poetry alive, does it almost have a life unto itself?

Yes, as all art does.  Good poetry contains an unmissable spark of energy - and it can never emerge from a formula or laziness on the part of the writer.  Nothing is as fragile and demanding as writing, I find.  In nine years it hasn't become any less hard for me, or less rewarding.

You say that "poetry is undemocratic" because it "hits you in the chest". What do you mean by this?

I mean that the power of poetry is direct and does not hold back.  It is not neat and measured.  Humans have always used language to create the possibility of connection among ourselves, and of wholeness within us.  Our survival - whether from loneliness or danger - is made possible by language.

Can anyone be a poet?

Anyone who opens themselves to language is capable of poetry.  If you listen to people talk, you hear poetry all the time.  The way people tell jokes, recount stories or gossip is filled with constant nuggets of beautiful language.  Sometimes I'm content just listening to all of that.  To become a poet who harnesses that living, beautiful language is harder work, however.  It means thinking about language, being alert to it, respecting it and working happily for hours and months at it.  It's great if you can take a class, but most good poets have never done that.  They just pay attention to language, read other poets and work at their craft all the time.

What is the role of a poet in society?

Society needs poets for many reasons.  Poets are there for ceremony, for protest and for solace.  Poetry is there for pleasure, for being alone, for sharing, for the unique pleasure of feeling words flare luminously into your memory and stay there forever.

Do we need to encourage poets and poetry - is this important to our society?

Yes.  Poetry is one of the great arts, and South Africa has an extraordinary richness of great poets.  Poetry can be encouraged simply by people taking pleasure in it, reading it, listening to it, not as a rare exception but as an ordinary part of life.  When one thinks of buying a birthday gift, for instance, or something to give to your host when you've been invited to dinner, consider a book of poetry.  To make poetry an ordinary pleasure would be wonderful. There is also the more glamorous and public side to the question: prizes and awards. The arts as a whole deserve to be nourished and supported in our society, but the awards for poetry are smaller than for novels and non-fiction.  There is no Sunday Times Prize for Poetry, for instance.  In fact, aside from the Ingrid Jonker Prize for debut collections, there is no annual award for poetry in South Africa.  Given the quality of the work that is published every year, this is a sad absence.  We need more ardent and visible support for poetry. 

Love and loss - are they related, do they sleep in the same bed? What is their relation to each other?

I believe that love should be enjoyed ecstatically without awaiting the shadow of loss.  At the same time, the cycle of human life means that love is a little haunted by the sense of an ending, whether by death or because we human beings can be fragile and changeable.  Poetry and the other arts deal with these human realities, despite our desire for clarity and simplicity.  Great art always helps us deal with these ancient human questions.  That's why we've made art for thousands of years.    

What can love and loss teach us?

Love and its loss can teach us empathy with others - and how to be fuller human beings by our capacity to learn from our mistakes and tragedies.

Local literature is experiencing a renaissance - why do you think this is?

An enormous energy was released by our political transformation in 1994, and this is being manifested in every realm of our society, from politics to sport to the arts.  So the creative energies are simply manifesting themselves alongside all the others.  It has been a long-earned and therefore sustained expansion.  The range of writing, music, film, comedy and visual art is hugely exciting.  The arts are not only flourishing but doing so in bold  and original ways.  The number of world-class artists, writers and musicians South Africa has produced is breath-taking.  The audience at home recognizes this as well, and this is immensely gratifying.  

How do you write poetry - what process do you follow?

The morning is my time for writing.  As soon as I wake up, I try always to write in my creative journal.  The morning is a fresh, unencumbered time, filled with memories, dreams, the quiet, and gradually the sounds of the outside world waking up.  As I wake up very early, I can write for hours or for five minutes, depending on whether I have other commitments.  My journal becomes the basis for my poems.  This can mean that a poem can take years to write, as the pieces from different journals eventually become shaped into poems.

Which poets inspire you and why?

I love reading all kinds of poetry.  Poets themselves inspire me through their work.  Fortunately, it's not necessary to know the writers themselves except in the profound way that emerges in their words.  So it is the poems that inspire me.  Nonetheless, the human being behind those words can become a friend and a model by their generosity and integrity.  I've been honoured to meet such writers.  Years ago, long before he became the Poet Laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile was kind enough to read my work and respond with great warmth and encouragement.  Ingrid de Kok similarly, often without telling me, would act as a kind of fairy godmother by passing on my poems to editors, or recommending me for a poetry reading.  Rustum Kozain is another poet I admire intensely - I think he has been touched by the poetic gods, he is so gifted.  Poets whose work has moved and delighted me include Makhosazana Xaba, whose Tongues of Their Mothers is just out and Gus Ferguson, who is both poet and guardian angel of many other writers as an editor and publisher.  The South African literary scene is abundantly blessed with excellent writers.  I recommend that you wander into bookstores like Clarkes, Book Lounge and Kalk Bay books in Cape Town, Adams in Durban, Xarras and Boekehuis in Joburg, or Exclusive's anywhere and give yourself the intense pleasure of discovering the great range of contemporary writers.  If you don't find the books you are looking for in the South African section of the store you visit, ask about them.  This will give the bookstores the necessary encouragement to stock the authors who are writing about our contemporary realities.

If the audience should take the time to reach just one poem - which should it be?

I recently discovered "What he thought", a poem about courage, love and what poetry makes possible, and loved it.  On reading it, I felt a huge sense of empathy and clarity, despite all the differences between me and the speaker, and between me and the hero of this aching story.  That is what poetry can do.  

If our readers go into a book store which four books of poetry should they look out for?

It's difficult to choose so few books!  Here is my attempt, though.

'Old Photographs' and 'The Pen,' both poems from A hundred silences, Kwela/Snailpress, Cape Town, 2006 with kind permission from Gabeba Baderoon.

Old photographs

On my desk is a photograph of you
taken by the woman who loved you then.

In some photos her shadow falls
in the foreground.  In this one,
her body is not that far from yours.

Did you hold your head that way
because she loved it? 

She is not invisible, not
my enemy, nor even the past. 
I think I love the things she loved.

Of all your old photographs, I wanted
this one for its becoming.  I think
you were starting to turn your head a little,
your eyes looking slightly to the side.

Was this the beginning of leaving?


The pen

Three days before my father died
I lost the silver pen with my name on it,
a twenty-first birthday gift from my aunt
I'd kept for almost ten years.

That day, supervising students in Khayelitsha
putting up a netball hoop, I came home
to ask to borrow his tools.
We walked round the garage and I ticked
off the ladder, drill, nails and screwdriver on my list,
and he suggested I add a hammer and level.
Somewhere between stacking and loading
the car, I lost my pen without even noticing
it had slipped from my hand.

When I went home late that day,
I negotiated with loss as I always do,
not going back to the garage to look for the pen
in case it wasn't there,
to keep its absence incomplete
so it could come back one day.

In three days
the impossible sequence of death.

I went back
over everything we'd said that day
and the years when we didn't speak
and the reconciliation, almost wordless,
when we walked towards each other with our eyes down
and wept while we hugged.

The night he died
I felt the completeness of loss,
of absence without negotiation,
and yet what was still there,
that moving towards each other,
without looking.

Topics: Gabeba Baderoon, reading, poetry, The Dream in the Next Body, The Museum of Ordinary Life, A hundred silences

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