Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Interview | Joan Hambidge talks to Tony Ullyatt (2018)

1. Reflect on the poetry of Douglas Livingstone and the title of your volume:

A harmless passion, surely,
an unobtrusive vice
this waiting game of making
small books of verse.

Douglas Livingstone

These are the last four lines of Douglas’s thin volume, A Rosary of Bone. I was taken by the notion of writing poetry as, variously, a passion, a vice, and a game, all aimed at making small collections of verse. Whichever noun one might prefer, all three approaches are harmless to other people. I am reminded of Auden’s assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen.” In using the word, “vice” in my title, I construe it more as a bad habit rather than as something wicked or evil. And, of course, having published my first poems in the mid-1970s, but having my debut volume published in 2018, there has been considerable waiting! In essence, then, I think these lines encapsulate my poetry-writing career.

As far as Douglas’s poetry is concerned, I have an enormous respect and admiration for its achievement, not least for its exemplary diversity in subject, style, form, and technical skill. Despite some critics’ views that he was no more than a “veld-and-vlei” poet, I believe he remains one of South Africa’s major poets in English.   

2. I see a strong influence of W.H. Auden on your poetry with the references to Icarus and suffering ("About suffering they were never wrong ...". Is this an "unobtrusive" influence or a relevant intertext?

Musée des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I doubt if it’s unobtrusive, and it is certainly an influence. I encountered Auden’s poetry while I was doing an MA at Auckland University in 1966. William Carlos Williams was also a part of the syllabus, a particularly important part, not least because he, too, had written about Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, albeit very differently. More than three decades later, these two poems, Brueghel’s painting, and the Icarus Myth especially would become a major concern of my research. They would also prove catalytic creatively, inspiring some of the poems included in An Unobtrusive Vice.

The myth itself has become something of a harmless passion because it offers so many possibilities to readers. For me, Icarus ceases to be a boy disobeying his father and getting his proper punishment but rather the young rebel daring to risk and challenge, who is, in the words of e.e. cummings, not afraid “to dare to answer ‘no’”, and perhaps dying early for it. He epitomises what the 1960s, the Beat poets, Britain’s Angry Young Men, and Woodstock were all about. As a student in the 1960s, I readily identified with that intellectual counter-culture in many ways.

3. You refer to Joseph Campbell:

‘Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted
as biography, history, or science, it is killed.’

Joseph Campbell

Is this true of poetry as well?

The iconic Campbell could be quite flamboyant at times in his enthusiasm! I suspect he was warning us about the possibility of losing myth as myth when we try, as some have done, to metamorphose it into history or science, et cetera. I believe that his warning has considerable pertinence to poetry as well.

4. You write sonnets and SENRYU, a darker form of the haiku. You play with different forms. What are the implications of a form for the meaning of a poem?

We can lose a poem’s meaning in a welter of technical trickery, which may well be impressive in a superficial sense but is little more than that. Concrete poetry is a little like that. There can be an after-taste of “So what?” Technical flamboyance can never be a substitute for authentic meaning.

Poems must have some sense of architecture holding their various elements together to the benefit of the meaning. Whether that structure is overt, as in the case of the haiku and the sonnet, or covert, as in free verse, doesn’t matter as long as it is there. What irks me is sloppy, usually undisciplined writing masquerading as “free verse”. Free verse requires as much structuring as a haiku or sonnet, if not more.

Douglas Livingstone said about the sonnet: “It tests skill with word choice – monosyllabic, polysyllabic, alliteration, assonance. It tests rhythmic control with variety – the end-stopped line or run-on line. It tests rhyming capabilities – full, half, internal. If we were to put all who claim to be poets to such a test, we’d soon identify the poseurs.” I suspect the results might be quite revealing! Or mortifying!

Another value of trying to master the technical aspects of poetry’s established forms is that, one way or another, they all have prescribed endings. Many aspiring free-verse poets write well beyond their text’s proper end. In The ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound said, in his usual melange of languages, “Dicten = Condensare”, which says it all.    

5. I really love your poems on your "family romance". Was it difficult to write these portraits? They could also be read as self-portraits: "The Government as Biographer". Comment.

It was challenging. First, we went to India when I was seven years old. My parents both came from families that didn’t talk or discuss matters. And they behaved similarly. As the only child, I was usually presented with a fait accomplit, concisely phrased: “Anthony, we’re going to India.” My parents didn’t include me in any discussion of their plans, and that held true right through their lives. For example, I never knew when or how my parents met. It was not the sort of thing I could ask. But then my father had no idea what his grandfather’s Christian name was. And I have no idea why my father kept taking his wife and child overseas.

Wherever we went – India, Sudan, Kenya – one or other grandparent died in England. We never attended any of their funerals. But I had photographs and sketchy recollections of them. I also have a cousin living in England who has been able to fill me in or set me right in factual matters. I have grown to understand that the families on both sides were fucked up in multiple ways. And I wanted to capture some of that abnormality in lives masquerading as normal. I suppose it was a way of trying to nurture some prosthetic roots for myself, too. I have always been the Other, the Outsider, l’étranger as far as local populations and local languages were concerned, and consequently aware of a deep-seated feeling of being what Wallace Stevens calls “a most inappropriate man / In a most unpropitious place”, with a concomitant longing to feel “at home” at least somewhere.

6. You are a master of irony and satire. Is this only true of more mature poets?

Twixt and between

lies in the distance
between the eyes
and the desire

lies in the distance
between the eyes
and the error

I think satire is more raucous than irony. The poem, “The Bloemfontein Sunday Blues” is, or at least is meant to be read as, a satire. Giving the poem its subtitle, “A Satire”, is satirical in itself, of course. In the main, it is probably better suited to the rebellious younger self. Satire usually focuses on issues, major or minor, in the outside world, and is inclined towards the public and the political. Irony tends towards reflection on both internal and external realities, at a more personal level. It is one of the means by which we come to understand our lives and what happens to us. A developed sense of maturity as well as a significant body of experience certainly helps to comprehend, and write about, life’s ironies.

7. You annotate a poem by Breytenbach. Is this postmodernism-in-action?

In the last two lines of “Ars Poetica”, Archibald MacLeish asserts: “A poem should not mean/But be.” Breytenbach’s brief poem seemed to be countering that notion with the idea that the meaning of the poem is the poem itself. It prompted two responses for me. The first was that Breytenbach’s poem seemed to strike at the heart of what poetry writing’s function is all about: to mean. The question arising immediately thereafter – for me at least – was:  For whom? So the annotations are an attempt at answering that question for me as the poet and for me as the reader.

I suppose the poem’s self-consciousness might be said to exemplify postmodernism-in-action. And its intertextuality.

8. You write exquisite poems of painters and paintings, for instance, on Judith Mason. How do you see the so-called ekphrastic poem?

Believe it or not, I wrote the poems on Judith Mason’s paintings in the mid-1970s, as responses to my first encounters with them and, later, the artist herself, albeit briefly. It was almost three decades later before I learnt what the process was called!

Perhaps part of that interest lies in the fact that my father was an unfulfilled, above-average artist whose visual skills I wanted to emulate, but couldn’t. So when the Archive for Research into Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) began a Poetry Portal devoted to ekphrastic poetry, I began submitting poems. They presented an artwork to readers every quarter. Ultimately, I published eighteen poems from the end of 2012 until the first issue of 2017 until they changed their Poetry Portal format.

The ekphrastic process, with a poem as its outcome, fascinates me. I look at an artwork and wonder why it is evoking – perhaps “provoking” is a better word?  - the responses I experience. Why should the depiction of a veil remind me of the mantillas I bought in Pamplona in 1961? I’m intrigued by the psychological machinations the mind gets up to when it is confronted by an artwork of some kind.

The essential challenge of the process lies how the viewer-poet’s responses to the visual may be transmedialised into the verbal. Some recent ekphrasic poems have little or nothing to with its original exclusively descriptive purpose, while the viewer-poet’s responses may have equally little to do with the subject of the artwork.

Ultimately, the question is whether an ekphrastic poem can exist without its companion artwork.

9. Comment:

Poetry is a piece of very private history
which unobtrusively lets us
into the secrets of a man’s life.

Henry David Thoreau

I think Thoreau’s words pick up on Livingstone’s words which we spoke about earlier, while focusing on the place of autobiography in one’s poems. I’m one of those who believe that an individual’s written output, in whatever genres, is always autobiographical to some extent or another. I mention this because it exemplifies the so-called “reveal or conceal” dilemma that poets face frequently, a dilemma made more complex by any intimate materials that they might want to explore poetically. Like writing about one’s family, one’s relationships or divorces, one’s illnesses. Putting one’s private life into a public arena, even the small one of poetry readership, is a matter of subtlety and cautious courage. I’m thinking here of Beverly Rycroft’s first collection, for instance, or the work of Jane Kenyon.

Some poets adopt an in-your-face, stuff-the-consequences approach, perhaps because they have no wish to compromise their truth, no matter how brash or hurtful, for any sort of harmony, domestic or otherwise. For my part, however, I feel that writers have an ethical responsibility not to malign those with whom they have shared private lives at one time or another. I’m thinking here of the brouhaha surrounding Robert Lowell’s volume, The Dolphin (1973). It earned him a good deal of negative criticism, not only because he quoted from his ex-wife’s private letters, which some critics regarded as a questionable practice in itself, but also because he had actually altered their content, which his friend, Elizabeth Bishop, called “infinite mischief” as it was “violating a trust”. She tells him quite unequivocally: “art just isn’t worth that much.”

For me, sensitive readers will always be able to detect the secrets of a poet’s life as much by what his poems do not say as by what they do, and by what they avoid writing about rather than by the overt subjects of their poems. Generally speaking, the issue of autobiography in poetry is less about facts, accuracy, and historical verifiability, and more about a sense of authenticity through which the poet adds something genuine and, in some way, familiar (even if imagined) to the boundless reservoir of human experience.

10. You are a well-known translator of Afrikaans poetry. How do you see the position of Afrikaans poetry?

I believe that Afrikaans has produced an incredibly impressive body of poetry, and has established a strong tradition as a consequence. I am always astounded by the number of collections of Afrikaans poetry that are published annually. And I would say categorically that there can never be enough good poetry published. Of course, that places emphasis on the word, “good”, putting the responsibility for quality control on publishers. Unfortunately, they may well be tempted to publish mediocre manuscripts for a variety of reasons other than quality. My wife and I come across some of these lesser works when we are looking for translation material. The responsibility for the critical negativity that such average publications and their poets receive must sit squarely with publishers and their manuscript readers. In the rush for ingenuity or experimentation, superficial cleverness is often acclaimed at the expense of serious craftsmanship. And I see this as a possible danger for Afrikaans poetry.