Thursday, October 19, 2017

Interview | Joan Hambidge in conversation with Beverly Rycroft (2017)

  • Reflect on the importance of the Ingrid Jonker prize on your career.
The Jonker prize was, first of all, affirming. I was new to the craft-work (though not the writing), of poetry, and felt shy about publishing. Four years later, I feel I have learned much more about the craft (there were things in missing I would change now, if I could). But, primarily, the IJ prize encouraged me to keep reading and learning. And gave me the confidence to continue writing. It’s easy to forget how terrifying it is to start submitting poems for public scrutiny.

  • Your title A Private Audience versus your working-title Spring Tide .
The theme of the sea, its moodiness and fluctuations, was picked up by Ben Grib, who illustrated the book. This despite us (Dryad Press and myself) having changed the title to A Private Audience by the time he received the manuscript. I was delighted Ben chose the imagery he did. The eponymous poem of the working-title Spring Tide looks at resistance and change through the extended metaphor of a tidal pool. From both personal and political aspects this felt like an apt title for the collection. But ultimately, A Private Audience, (taken from the last poem of the collection) signals more complexity and depth for me. It marks what Emily Dickinson refers to as the “hallowed” nature of what we enter when we approach poetry. Carol Anne Duffy says poetry is like a prayer. Beneath the “prayers” in this collection I hope readers will discover the sea in both its turmoil and serenity.

  • Your poems centre on a private relationship with your family. Do you see this as a “betrayal” ?
I’m glad you asked this. I’m often questioned as to how I can write about such “personal” subjects. And I suppose there is a sense in which speaking about private relationships could be seen as a betrayal. (Though in this era of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, it’s pretty difficult to keep secrets.)

Ultimately, it’s irrelevant to me whether something (or everything) in a poem really happened or not. Readers wishing to follow this route must draw their own conclusions. My chief concern is with the common humanity emanating from the individual situation that propels a poem. “Out of the quarrels with ourselves, “ Yeats wrote, “we make poetry.” I hope the particular situations and “quarrels” I use as a starting-point, have been crafted into something more universal.

If I don’t tap the inner wall of the secret, the unspeakable, the scary and sublime, I may as well not write poetry. My father – around whom many of the poems in this collection are centred, and to whom it’s dedicated – was a deeply complex man. His saving grace was that he was broad-minded enough to own to his imperfections. This was a tone he set for his family. I hope readers will find a rounded, conflicting, puzzling and ultimately compassionate picture of humanity (not just one human being) in them.

  • List of your favourite poets
This fluctuates and expands, but here are some on the permanent list:
Emily Dickinson
Louise Glück
Philip Levine
Les Murray
Seamus Heaney
Sylvia Plath
Elizabeth Bishop

  • How do you see the SA literary scene ?
Exciting. Enlivening. The advantage of having so many languages in this country is the spectrum of rich and fresh ideas, themes and imagery it provides. From the more established English and Afrikaans poets, to Nathan Trantraal and Ronelda Kamfer’s Kaaps collections, to writers in Xhosa and Zulu etc., there are some fascinating voices.

Afrikaans poetry, I’ve recently discovered, is involved in some lively collections and debates. It’s refreshing to see people become so passionate about poetry. Until now, I’d read mostly English poems or translations. I’ve rediscovered the privilege of reading another language. I’m also (very slowly) honing up my Xhosa to get to the point where I can read that more easily. At this stage, even translations are revelatory.

There are some dynamic new voices emerging. I’m looking forward to reading Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, as I’ve watched her recite “Water” on YouTube. I think she’s someone to watch.

If I have qualms, it’s about the craft of poetry often taking second place to the speediness of publication. Sometimes I’ll read a debut poet with an exciting new voice, but feel that a little more editing and crafting could have turned what remains a good collection, into something sensational.

Presses like Modjadji, Uhlanga and Dryad evince the passion for poetry in this country, and for finding new voices. Poetry is a tough sell, but these publishers refuse to be doused by cynicism, and are injecting new life into the project.

As an aside: I remain saddened that someone like Gus Ferguson, who put so much of his life (and savings) into poetry, remains unacknowledged by the larger public. Gus has been such a generous mentor to many poets, and his own works are no less skilled for their being so humorous. In my eyes, he should be declared a National Treasure.