Ivan Vladislavic, Anne Kellas
| ABSA Chain: Ivan Vladislavic in conversation with Anne Kellas
- By inviting you to join this chain, I have defined you as a "South African writer", although you have been away for nearly twenty years. Is your acceptance a tacit endorsement of my definition? Is that how you would describe yourself?
Yes, unequivocally. If it is given to me. I am proud to be defined as a South African writer. A writer is always in some sense stateless, but my inner, writer self is South African and even if I lived outside the country for a hundred years I would still identify myself that way. Living here in Tasmania, as soon as I open my mouth I'm identifiably an uitlander. It's not a matter of having the right papers. I recall one Saturday morning when the Showcase of Tasmanian Poetry I had compiled was reviewed in the paper. The Showcase is on The Write Stuff website, which my husband Giles Hugo and I have had online for ten years. I suddenly felt uncomfortable in a "showcase of Tasmanian poetry" and took my own entry in the showcase offline. Then I put it back, then took it offline, then put it back. I just did not feel I belonged in that pigeonhole. It was a horrible moment. It's a matter of feeling at odds, displaced. It happened again when I appeared in a Tasmanian anthology and went to the launch - I felt suddenly very foreign among the native-born Tasmanian writers. I frequently feel foreign here. Then again, my British poet friend Carolyn Finlay, a native Tasmanian, called her first book Foreigner ... She's lived in Cheltenham for at least as long as I've lived here. We exchange ambivalences about "place" whenever she visits here. (Ah, interesting, you see, I have called her a British poet ...) I seldom call myself an Australian poet/Tasmanian poet/woman poet; "a poet based in Hobart" maybe feels more comfortable. And being on LitNet, thank you, I am delighted, and honoured, to be here. It makes it feel more permissible for me to describe myself as a South African writer. As it did when I was asked to be in the 1994 COSAW anthology, Like a House on Fire. I only ever saw that anthology once briefly, on a return trip to see my mom. I went out one night to meet up with people from the old writing group that Lionel Abrahams had gathered for me to catch up with. Remember? I think you drove me there. I've never been able to get hold of a copy, alas.
- In one of the early poems you wrote in Tasmania, you expressed a "livid fear" of forgetting your past. But I imagine that looking back made it more difficult for you to root yourself in your new territory, a process also dealt with in your work. Lionel Abrahams remarked that you had "made homesickness your home". How have you managed this tension between remembering and forgetting over the years?
The tension is a creative one and out of it comes the poetry. Here, in "the new country" as I think it is called sometimes, one gets rewarded for forgetting, not for remembering. I recall pitching up at an Australian friend's house in 1986, two babies in tow. My new friend said, "OK come in, but just don't talk about South Africa ..." Some South Africans here have shut the door firmly on their past. I cannot understand that. When I have gone back, and walked into JH's flat in Yeoville for instance, where the writing group met sometimes on a Saturday afternoon, there was her Paul Klee poster on the wall and the picture window with its view on to a willow tree and lawn, and her dusky pink armchairs - I was catapulted back in time and I burst into tears at the fact that my world could be so intact still ... And when I get back here again, I am anaesthetised by the new. But my soul is there, unchanged. I've woken here at dawn in tears because in a dream I'm about to catch the plane back to Hobart and am saying goodbye again to my brother and his family, and I don't want to leave. I never really wanted to leave. One of our sons, when he was little, asked me once, "Mum, what is an aunt?" One loses everything emigrating, and people, close family, eventually give up on the contact.
Now, to put this in terms of writing: when I was leaving, Lionel Abrahams said to me no, you should not go, because if you leave, you will lose the very thing that feeds your poetry, and he quoted me some words from Es'kia Mphalele. I don't have the exact quote, but it is something like, "The self-exiled suffers more than loss of self or context; your words become imageless, and only the idea remains." Those words, all these years, have been like a large road sign for me: I write to keep the images. That's in essence what I try to do with my writing. Maybe to the extent that I have managed this, it's because my poems often come from my dreams, and my dreams are in my homeland, and that imagery is what my psyche's made from. (I have another poster, this time a tangible one, designed by Australian poet Richard Tipping; all it says is, "Danger: Postmodernism doesn't give a flying duck ..." That appealed to me a lot during a scary period when my poems shrank to single words ("Wind poem: Leaf"). I had reached the tipping point where "... only the idea remains".
- Rereading Poems from Mt Moono and Isolated States today, I was struck by a couple of qualities that seem to be connected. There is something dreamlike, and often nightmarish, just below the surface in your most domestic poems. An item of furniture or the view from a suburban window suddenly becomes threatening or horrifying. There is also a particularly hard sense of materiality: the poems are full of metallic substructures breaking through surfaces; they are weighted with iron, stone, cement. Could you say something about these qualities?
Interesting, I had never noticed that until now. My father worked at Scaw Metals, near Katlehong in Gauteng, and as a little girl I used to stand in the dark foundry and watch the workers prod the red-hot snaking molten metal into shape. My father built an incredible garden in Germiston's Park Hill Gardens, and hauled massive rocks in from the veld with his trailer and crowbar, and created a place of serenity and beauty that I loved. He taught me to mix cement, build brick walls. To get beyond the personal, I suppose those elements are also part of a machinery of war, and the dread of imminent war is something I write about. Maybe I am a bit of a surrealist, maybe what you're seeing is some kind of hardening of oneself (like wearing a "gunship hat") that's necessary if you are going to survive transplanting yourself into another soil and keep your identity. I like looking into the ordinary, everyday world and finding symbols, intuitions. We inhabit constructed spaces dominated by something grey and faceless that seeks to crush us. We live in a time of chaos, fear, the unwinding of our civilisation. (Well, not here in Hobart, which is a kind of heaven really, in limbo.) The cities we live in are often cold constructs inimical to the human spirit; and the ordinary world collapses very easily, the poetry breaks down into prose, connections break. So yes, the iron, stone, cement, these things moor me to my own reality.
- When you and Giles Hugo first moved to Australia, I remember how amazed you were by the supportive publishing environment you found there. I felt rather envious at the time. Does the picture still look so positive with hindsight? What's it like to write and publish in your situation?
My view, as both a writer and a person working in the publishing industry, is given below, and I have spent hours trying to make it interesting for a reader in South Africa and to tone it down for any Australian readers who might stumble across it online, but I urge you to also read the opinions of two top publishers on the state of publishing and the fate of fiction in Australia, in conversation on the ABC, our national broadcaster, at: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/bwriting/stories/s1252776.htm.
The system of federal and state-based funding here in Australia has been generous to artists, to writers, thanks to a forward-thinking prime minister here in the '70s, Gough Whitlam. The Australia Council Literature Board is being "restructured" now, however, and in this economically rationalist culture of ours, things are more fragile. Gone are the days when a writer got a grant on the strength of the photograph he sent to the Board showing his empty fridge. These days we're all risk-assessed, audience- and output-oriented in our project-planned processes ...
Everyone's very focused on getting this kind of federal or state funding, because it is a road to getting published. I often think if there were also some means of independent, non-government sponsorship for writers and publishers, that would make an interesting change to our literary world. I've seen the results of such sponsorship of small literary projects here and the outcomes are really interesting in terms of quality and innovation - and success. The problem is, we do not have a strong philanthropic sector in Australia.
Writers here take competitions and being published in journals very seriously and there is a fair amount of healthy rivalry. A lot of writers earn money running workshops on writing, and writing books on writing, and like other countries, Australia's tertiary institutions have discovered the golden egg of adding "creative writing courses" to their curricula. So more and more new writers are emerging all the time. I think last year there were something like 500 graduates from creative writing classes in Melbourne alone. I ask myself: How will all these new writers find their way into print? And the answer has to be: they won't.
Because there's a bottleneck at the door of publishers, another growth industry emerges - self-publishing, and, to a tiny extent, partnership publishing, which all adds to the flood of new work. Downstream a bit, that flood is either viewed with trepidation ("the slush pile's growing") or with delight ("there must be a pony!"), but either way, you need publishers to provide the filtering process in terms of what they decide to accept for publication, and I know from living at close quarters with a book reviewer that their decisions are often rather strange (endless novels about middle-class seduction in suburbia?). Sometimes one can trace bad decisions to a state funding body's terms and conditions (while they leave a journal editor free to chose which authors to accept, a book publisher, in some states, has to submit a list of authors for the funding body to select from). Add to this the fact that many of the independent literary publishers are themselves literati, a bias towards publishing friends comes into play. Poets review other poets, and poets' books are mostly bought by other poets. Interestingly enough, a brand new journal (Reid magazine) has just hit the streets here in Hobart, deliberately labelling itself as non-literary in an effort to rescue stories from what the editor calls the marginalisation of fiction by the literary establishment. The University of Queensland Press (publisher of Peter Carey) has recently bailed out of literary publishing altogether and says it will now focus on academic texts. In the end, in bookshops the Australian book-buying public, which is very sophisticated, is being trained to be even more discriminating by having to pick through a rather strange mix of material. Which might in the end improve matters as, some time or other, publishers will have to get the message that it matters a lot what their goals are, what they aim for and whom they choose to publish - and how hard they try to market their authors. We can't depend on reviewers doing the filtering work or quality assessment in Australia - there are too few good reviewers, let alone literary critics; reviews of poetry have all but vanished from the pages of the press. Anyhow, the book-buying public stopped buying poetry ages ago. So why don't we all just give up? To write and publish here, as a poet, I think you have to keep your writing at arm's length from any thoughts of publishing or you'd never write, you'd be paralysed with despair.
Recently I have come to believe that a good interim answer - for poetry - is chapbooks. There's a flavour of the samizdat press about a chapbook - it can allow good work to be aired, it's independent, and by its very nature, it circulates. There's a mini-anthology chapbook series here in Hobart, RePUBlic Readings, and another chapbook anthology series called Blue Giraffe is about to come out. Its editor is a bit like Lionel Abrahams in terms of editorial firmness. (Blue Giraffe, Purple Renoster ... things "have their continuance", as Lionel said ... )
Starting up my own small outfit, Roaring Forties Press, has made me realise that to be a publisher you need the instincts of a gambler and an actuary combined in one. It's been the most exciting thing I've done in years. As for online publishing, that's always been my love - as a publisher but not so much as a writer. The Write Stuff has been going for ten years now, and last year someone kind gave us money to use on the website as we wished, so we used it to start an annual national poetry competition and short story competition and the response was very good. I do all the work in my free time and I think I must be mad because I could be writing and entering competitions instead. It's what I call "a money losing venture". I think that it is mostly that kind of personal enthusiasm that keeps our literary culture as fired up as it is.
Our state is home to several literary magazines: Island magazine here is about to celebrate its 100th issue; Ralph Wessman's small magazine Famous Reporter is now up to issue 30; and a purely poetry journal, Windfall, is in the pipeline. That's not bad for something from a state of less than half a million people. We also have at least ten small presses here. Most of them have a writer - mostly poets - at the steering wheel. (You could push the car analogy quite far: the benefits of car pooling, high costs of fuel consumption, road maps, driving in circles ... ) Tasmania is an island, and that's a barrier to many things. However, that said, Tasmania is a supportive place for artists of all kinds - some call it the Dublin of the South. It's beautiful and laid-back, a place where people "bake their own curtains and weave their own bread", to quote Australian short story writer Frank Moorhouse. One has to resist the debilitating habit of comparing one's work - or rate of publication - with that of the other 40 plus poets on this small island ... There are said to be more writers per capita here than in any other state in Australia; even if that's an urban myth it sometimes feels that way. But I do not say this to inspire envy. More is not always more. I think I do my best writing in an isolated state, and I do my best writing with my mind elsewhere, and the beauty and peace here I have always regarded as what I pit myself against: the temptation to drown in beauty and forget where I came from.
- You are one of the many writers who were nurtured and inspired by Lionel Abrahams. He wrote an introduction (in verse) to Mt Moono, and there is a poem addressed to him in Isolated States. How did this long-distance mentoring work and what did it mean to you?
Nurtured and inspired, yes indeed. The contact I've had with Lionel, right from the mid-70s when I first met him through Giles, and began to go to the weekend meetings of the writing group, and later, after coming here, through letters and email, has meant everything to me as a writer. When he died last year I realised I'd never entertained for a moment the thought that he might not always be around. I shall miss him. That night I mentioned in question 1, that was the last time I saw Lionel. There was nothing formal in terms of any mentorship - it was haphazard and mostly consisted of conversations. I'd phone him out of the blue from Australia. His kind of mentoring was unique, a kind of fortifying critique. For years at a time we were not in touch. I sent him Isolated States after it was published here in 2001, and without being asked, he emailed me a "report" in reply, in which he itemised all the poems he liked, and for each of the ones that did not work for him, he gave brief comments. I wished I'd sent him the manuscript before publication, but I had not wanted to burden him.
My most recent contact with him was over his last collection of poetry, Chaos Theory of the Heart, which is being published as we speak by Jacana Media in Johannesburg in association with my own Roaring Forties Press. Years ago, Lionel gave me a few of the poems in that collection to put on to our website, The Write Stuff, and I later approached Jacana Media and offered to help co-publish Chaos Theory of the Heart. So at last it's coming out both in South Africa and in Australia, hopefully in time for the anniversary of his death in May. It's a great pity that he died before seeing this project come to fruition, but I believe he was pleased to know he would be published here. Giles has designed the cover for both editions, and it has been one of the most important contributions we feel we have been able, or rather, privileged, to make. I plan to launch it both here in Hobart and in Melbourne. Actually, the poem in Mt Moono was originally an aerogram letter he wrote to me in response to some stray poems I'd sent him, and my publisher thought it would make a good "introduction to the author". I used it recently as a CV when I submitted an entry for the anthology of two hundred years of Tasmanian poetry - A River of Verse - and strangely enough, it's ended up here in there too - the editor chose to include it even though Lionel lived in Africa! I think that's part of the chaos theory of his heart: Lionel's voice speaks to poets everywhere.
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