Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Art of Poetry: A Conversation with Kobus Moolman

Review by Dike Okoro

This conversation has been ongoing but was completed on September 29, 2019, in Western Cape, South Africa. I have known Kobus Moolman since 2009. I reviewed his award-winning book of poems, A Book of Rooms (Deep South 2014) for Eclectica Magazine. I have followed his work and believe he is a one of the finest poets writing today. I feel this interview will introduce him and his work to the West and the poetry community in the United States.

Kobus Moolman was born in Pietermaritzburg. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape and lives with his wife in the Riebeek Valley. He has published seven collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and edited a collection of poetry, prose, and art by South African writers living with disabilities. He has won numerous local and international awards for his work, including most recently the 2015 Glenna Luschei Award for African Poetry for his collection A Book of Rooms. His poems and stories reveal his growing focus on the body and on issues of disability. He is particularly concerned about investigating the relationship between the non-normative body (and alterity) and experimental textual practices that challenge generic boundaries. He was guest editor of the first special issue of a South African journal dedicated entirely to the teaching of creating writing, Current Writing. His first collection of short fiction, The Swimming Lesson and other stories, was published in 2018. He has recently edited a special issue on contemporary South African poetry for the American journal Illuminations.


DO     Where did you grow up?

KM     I grew up in a working class suburb in the city of Pietermaritzburg, which is the capital city of the province of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa.

DO     When did you first start writing poems or think that you might want to be a poet?

KM     I first began writing poems at school. I think I was in Grade seven. I was about twelve. I certainly did not think then that I would or could become a writer. I think I first wanted to be a game ranger. It has taken me a very, very long time to think of myself as a poet. What is a poet? I don't know. Even after I published my first book in 1999 (Time like Stone) and won a prestigious local prize for it, I still did not think of myself as a poet. I was merely someone who also wrote poetry. It is only recently, slowly, that I have begun to identify myself to myself as a poet.

DO     Can you describe your writing process? And when I ask this, I mean not just the nuts and bolts of when and where and for how long you work when you sit down to write, but also the less tangible parts of the process: how you get an idea and turn it into a poem on the page.

KM     My writing process is largely a tightrope walk, a terrible, flawed balancing act between my academic life (as a professor/teacher of creative writing) and my personal space as a writer. Writing for me is always about listening—listening to and listening out for something that happens inside. And this always requires stillness. Not necessarily the physical absence of sound (I can and often do write in a noisy pub or coffee shop), but a stillness inside myself. A space made by itself inside me, a space set aside for its own self on the inside. And unfortunately my academic pressures have begun to intrude on my inner quiet. I can't hear the voices anymore. I fear I haven't really answered your question. But the bottom line is writing a poem for me is about listening to and listening out for the poem. There!

DO     Your work is very personal, but at the same time it situates you as a South African in a certain time and place, and it's interesting to me how these voices overlap in your work. When you write, are you conscious of this, or does the personal automatically bring you to the larger concerns?

KM     I am glad that the two forces—the personal and the public—can be heard in my work. And that they don't cancel each other out. Both are extremely important. No writer lives and works in a vacuum. We are all embedded in society, in social and economic relations. And our own position in terms of these relations is critical. Particularly so as a South African, as a white male South African. But the really interesting thing is that I have discovered how my writing can work from the deeply personal—the specificity of myself as a disabled man—and still reach into community, into sharedness and fellowship, which is very important for me.

DO     You teach at University of Western Cape now. Can you describe what your poetry classroom is like, how you run it, and what you bring to it from your own work?

KM     I have two main aims in the teaching process: how to help writers make their work more of what it (the piece) wants to be, and how to help them become their own critics/editors/self-evaluators. All writers develop a strong sense of personal evaluation, a method of looking at their own work and developing it through intense and vigorous judgment. The classroom is one place where a writing teacher can help a budding writer grow this skill. And from my own work, I bring a sense of blindness, a sense of ignorance, of failure even. Of always needing to start over. To begin with a blank slate or blank piece of paper, to never trust talent or inspiration. To always question oneself.

DO     When you teach less-experienced students, those who are just starting to write poetry, is the workshop more structured?

KM     Not necessarily. Maybe. But my central departure point with those who are just starting to write poetry is crucially to dispel this myth that poetry is somehow something "poetic," that poetry is elevated language. It is not. It must be as basic and as elemental as blood and bread.

DO     You have published six books of poetry to date. Which of your books challenged you to work harder in the composition process and why?

KM     Probably A Book of Rooms. Because it appears to be so very personal, even autobiographical. Because it appears to be so personally revealing. Which of course it isn't. And this is where my challenge came in. How to work it both inwards and outwards at the same time, so that it speaks to your earlier question about the personal and the public and also to the so-called real and the fictive.

DO     You have a significant position now—you won the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry Award in 2015, you've won several other awards, and you're a professor of creative writing. How do you feel about your position? Does it become more difficult to write when you win awards and gain recognition?

KM     Writing is just generally difficult. Wasn't it Thomas Mann who said, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people"? I still feel I am in some beginner's class. I still feel I don't know what I am doing. And maybe that is good. It helps me to keep re-discovering new things, keep pushing my work, never resting, never being satisfied. But this is a very hard way to work. That state of being in doubt and uncertainty and even terror is not easy to live inside.

DO     You once stated during an interview, "For me, my works don't come from me, they come through me. What is on the other side of me, I don't know." How would you say this personal view of your work might help your reader to understand the creative process involved in your writing (poems)?

KM     I have no special insights into my own work. I am dumbfounded in front of my own work, just as I am dumbfounded in front of a work by Mark Rothko or the music of Arvo Pärt. And I do not say this lightly. It is serious. Deadly serious. And involves an almost superhuman (for me at least) act of trust, and surrender. And yet, interestingly, if I turn the equation around, I can also argue that reading poetry—not just my work—all poetry, involves this kind of surrender. Not surrender of one's intellect or will or responsibility. But rolling them all into one and then adding blindness: the idea of a blind dog following its nose only. This is how I write. How I read other work. How I live, even. It makes me ill. But I am simply not able to do otherwise.

DO     How much of your poetry is influenced by the spiritual realm?

KM     All and none. Everything and nothing. The bottom line is that I know there is something out there—in the dark and in the wind.

DO     Talk to me a little bit more about your view of poetry's social value.

KM     There is so much. But recently I have been meditating on poetry's creation of stillness and silence, of space to be clearly open and honest with oneself and the world. How a poem slows everything down and forces you to tell the truth to yourself about yourself and your relation to others.

DO     Your poetry reflects a broad range of interests: art, theater, history, biography, etc. Did you ever consider following another path?

KM     No. I did work for 13 years in an art gallery as art educator. But I got other people in to do the practical side. I can't even draw a straight line with a ruler. But I love looking and then talking about what I see and helping other people to see as well. I have also written for theater and worked as a dramaturg. But as I have got older, I find I prefer working on my own, and that logically you can't do it in theater.

DO     In an interview published in the Paris Review in 1971, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda stated the following: "Naturally. The life of a poet must be reflected in his poetry. That is the law of the art and a law of life." Do you agree with this view? And if you don't, could you state your reasons?

KM     What did JM Coetzee say? Something to this effect: "All fiction is autobiography. And all autobiography is storytelling." So the line dividing self or reality or actuality from art is very fine and very porous. But that is by no means a limitation. It is the opposite in fact. It is a release. It allows me to lie about the truth. Or, better, to lie when telling the truth.

DO     You have written in multiple genres. Do you approach the creative process in each the same way?

KM     I think so. Personally, I do not really distinguish inside myself between the different genres. Poems can come out looking like short stories or even like a play. So it is not the genre per se that draws me. But what I can do with it.

DO     What kinds of books do you read?

KM     A whole range. From fiction to biography to history and documentary work. I just love reading. And my taste, or should I say tastes, keep changing and growing as I get older.

DO     Who are the poets you like most and why?

KM     Ah, so many. But here is a very very short list: Mxolisi Nyezwa, Alan Finlay, Mangaliso Buzani, Alejandra Pizarnik, Anne Carson, Emily Berry, Ada Limon, CD Wright, Erin Moure, Joan Metelerkamp, Karen Press, Louise Gluck, Hiromi Ito, Ariana Reines, Kelwyn Sole, Claudia Rankine, Sindiswa Busuku, Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Tomas Transtromer, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Cesar Vallejo, Rethabile Masilo.

And why? Well, because they make me think differently about language. They make me feel again.

DO     Could you comment on your intense affection for nature?

KM     Because of my disability, I am not able to engage with nature on an active and physical level. Walking is difficult. But I do love to sit and observe. I suppose it is about trying to find that which is not human. That which does not carry our stain or scent or taste. That which actually does not need us for its existence. It is a lesson in how to bring balance and perspective back into our lives.

DO     There are symbols in your poetry which recur, and they always take the form of the sea, the sky, the wind, of fish, of birds, fire... Are they always appearing as a matter of material presence?

KM     Such symbols, as you call them, are more than symbols. I know why you do call them symbols. But strictly speaking they are not. They are the thing and at the very same time they are not the thing. And only poetry for me can do that. To defy the Newtonian Laws of Physics and allow two things, two objects, to be in exactly the same place at exactly the same time. So stones, for example, occur over and over in my work. And they are real stones I sit upon and touch. But they are also—without turning into metaphors—something other, something else. Something that does not require them to give up their stone-ness in order to mean or signify. So it's not about transcendence. It's all immanent.

DO     If I were to periodize your poetry books, would you say there are phases so far?

KM     Perhaps. No doubt. The first three books—Time like Stone, Feet of the Sky, and Separating the Seas—could all more or less be bracketed together. Then I see Light and After as some kind of transition. A bridge between the first three books and my later interest in the body, in experimental poetics, and the links between these two ideas which comes out strongly in Left Over and in Book of Rooms.

DO     I want to ask about your relation to art. I know you spent some time at a residency for artists where you met the African American artist Fahamu Pecou and subsequently dedicated a poem to him in one of your books (Light and After). How does that experience with other artists bear on your poetry? Do you notice a sort of influence on your views of poetry after working with actors in theatre groups?

KM     I love collaborations. I love the cross-over between disciplines. Often I find that if I'm stuck in my writing, then I might pick up a book of art—I collect them—and then I'll just page through images by Marlene Dumas or Zanele Muholi or Frank Auerbach. And they will release something in me. It was the same as when I was on that artists and writers residency you mentioned. And I got to collaborate with Fahamu Pecou on two of his lithographs (I provided the text). Well, I'd been struggling to find a new direction for my work. I just couldn't find the right language that could allow the body to speak, for example. To speak the body. And then during that residency, I remember one afternoon all the poems from my cycle Anatomy just came out. In one sitting. And that was because my language had shifted inside me. I had learnt a new language. A visual language. And that had changed the way I thought and felt about my own words.

DO     What advice would you give to young poets?

KM     Live and write from your hunger. From your wanting. Desire is all important for a writer. How much do you want this thing? Not in a narrow, egotistical, and self-aggrandizing manner. And not about being better than others. As in a competition. But deep down, what does this thing really mean to you? How much does it mean to you? Because you are going to need that need when you get rejected, when you feel dry, when your works are not working, when you have to get up yet again and face the torment of the blank page with the blank mind.

DO     What were your literary influences?

KM     Oh, so many. But in the very beginning it was DH Lawrence. And Samuel Beckett. And Breyten Breytenbach. Lawrence has kind of faded from the scene for me. (Although I do still come back to his poetry now and again.) But Beckett remains. And will remain.

DO     What are you working on now?

KM     A new collection of poetry, including pieces written since moving to the Western Cape three years ago. I also very recently just did a chapbook of poems inspired by time spent on my mother-in-law's sheep farm in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. Featuring pen drawings by the lovely young Durban writer, Shubnum Khan. The chapbook is called All and Everything, published by Uhlanga Press.


Editor Note: Thinking about buying The Swimming Lesson and other stories or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!