Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Interview | Brian Walter in conversation with Joan Hambidge

1.     Please comment on the following in the epithaph: Page [49]

All great minds have bound themselves to some form of mechanical toil to obtain greater mastery of thought. Spinosa ground glasses for spectacles; Bayle counted the tiles on the roof; Montesquieu gardened. 

Honoré de Balzac, ‘Modeste Mignon’ in Collected Works of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) (Hastings: Delphi Classics, 2014)

2.     Do you think poetry requires the same kind of discipline?

Yes, I do, although of course I use this semi-ironically. I cannot associate my haphazard, uncertain ways with “great minds” and “greater mastery of thought”, so in my poem I glimpse at Robert Herrick’s “A sweet disorder in the dress / Kindles in clothes a wantonness” from his “Delight in Disorder”, a type of “non-mastery”: 

The garden is marginal
and, like my thoughts, half trained
and bewildered into some hope
of sweet disorder.

His poem reads:

Delight in Disorder 

A sweet disorder in the dress 
Kindles in clothes a wantonness; 
A lawn about the shoulders thrown 
Into a fine distraction; 
An erring lace, which here and there 
Enthrals the crimson stomacher; 
A cuff neglectful, and thereby 
Ribands to flow confusedly; 
A winning wave, deserving note, 
In the tempestuous petticoat; 
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie 
I see a wild civility: 
Do more bewitch me, than when art 
Is too precise in every part. 

Also, Scorpio is a star-sign, my own. So the scorpion that stings the gardener is a disruption of the discipline, a more chthonic self that arrives and interrupts, taking us from mind-work, and the harvest goddesses, back to the “earth gods”. 

But despite that disruption, the work, the discipline the experience of it, is I think important. When I was studying, I found academic discipline gave rise to side-projects of poetry, my garden gives rise to poems, and ways of thought. Gardening brings an awareness of seasons, of time, of patience, of food, of alchemy. So it’s better than counting tiles, I think.

What I like about the Balzac quote, also, is that the thinkers he mentions were all progressive in their fields. Also, it’s nice to squeeze him in here, because Balzac is an observer of society, and you will find him in the garden at the Rodin museum, mentioned in the text.

3.     Explain your title:  why allegories? Does this refer to the quest of everyman?

Yes, it is a type of “everyman” quest. The basic quest alluded to in this collection is a journey to the place of death (and, like Dante’s, back again).

I take the title from an earlier work of mine: Baakens, referring to the Baakens Valley in PE. In conception this was a Dantesque visit to the underworld, and in one of the poems, the speaker says to the guide-figure:

I glance at you
for explanation, but you step quietly up,

musing on those old years when you left
the sacred heart of South End, to walk here.
I follow, sure that there must be something 
in these telling allegories of our everyday.

So, yes: it is a quest I have in mind, an allegorical journey. There’s a seeking for meaning in everyday events, trying to find the patterns, the bigger stories, what things mean.

I’m also thinking of James Joyce, and his sense of epiphanies. 

And, for myself as writer, the attempt to find some meaning, actual or imaginative poetic meaning, in the world around us, its imagery. It becomes a way of reflecting.

4.     Water has a symbolic meaning in your poetry? How does this relate to Wilma Stockenström’s notion of “the wisdom of water”?

It’s interesting that you ask about water, because it’s as if you have picked up the other side of where I think of myself.

I always think of my muse, in her female form, as Shakespeare’s mistress: “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground;” or, in a male form, Seamus Heaney’s “Antaeus”: “Girdered with root and rock / I am cradled in the dark that wombed me . . .”.  It’s that earthiness. But what is the ground without water. I think it’s in that relationship that your question catches me. As spirit to matter, water to soil.

Just thinking back, through this collection, I can pick out four instances where water has an allegorical function:

a.      In the section on wells, there is a looking into the earth, the darkness, the past; and the African wells, the practicality, the memories, the joy, the kindness and wisdom of Plaatje.

b.     In the dead-lands of Guadeloupe are the swamps, which Wallcott uses as a dread symbol of nothingness.

c.      Then there is the sterility of drought, death, the lack of inspiration, (Keats’ sedge withered from the lake, where no birds sing – the wasteland).

d.     This last can be contrasted with the fertile sea in the second poem of the collection, “Quest”, where time nests and spawns and swims with the “twisting seals”.

But Wilma Stockenstöm: I can’t claim her as a direct influence. However, reading “Die Pan”: “Spieël van water met oumansbaard / wat links aangee wat ek regs uithaal”! When the Palm Wine Drinkard gets to the place of the dead he finds that the Deads walk backwards, in a type of reverse image of ourselves. And in this Narcissus-like inversion, changing the righthandedness into a more sinister left, we have the reflection and self-othering that makes this allegorical journey, the looking for meaning in the quicksilver complexity of reality.

5.     Rosehips, egrets, genets … you create an interesting concrete landscape. Comment.

While I was teaching at Fort Hare, and learning to write, my mentors were Cathal Lagan, Norman Morrissey and Basil Somhlahlo (who were the founding members of the Ecca group), and each gave me something different. I think Basil touched me with the essential politics of Africa, Cathal with imagery and imagination, a sense of life’s journey, but Norman Morrissey was a personification of observation and fascination with the minute details of nature.

I’d of course picked up a lot from my zoologist brother Gimme Walter, but Norman worked the observation into verse, comment, augury, allegory – the taking of what you see, and reading it into the context of one’s life and times.

Once, in the eighties, those writing about the natural world had their poems easily dismissed as “irrelevant”. Now the natural world, and our relationship with it, has become a political touchstone.

I think this interest of mine is part of that earth-water thing, too.

6.     You use intellectual words, for instance “deconstruct” and “anti-epiphany” – what is the significance? Or how does it impact on the interpretation of the poem?

I don’t think of my poems as intellectual. I tend to work more through “earthy” images than refined thought, but I do hope that if you scratch them, some levels of thought might seep out.

The anti-epiphany: well, the “epiphany” is a Joycean word, and perhaps ties in with the meaning one seeks in the “allegories”, the making sense of the everyday events around us, the moment of clarity, or revelation. But in the poem alluded to, the speaker walks into the night from the room of a lover, and smack into a beam of light. That would seem to be a revelation . . . ironically, it’s not a divine sign reflecting the love, but an army searchlight, probing the apartheid townships, and the little rainbow above the beam: perhaps a comment on what students today call “rainbowism”. So that it is an “anti-epiphany”. This word might help the reader with the reading: but I think the images are more important, and should lead the reader.

With “deconstruction”: this word from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, to tease out the relationship between text and meaning. He read texts looking for elements running counter to the intended or obvious meanings or to the structure of a particular text. Thus deconstruction shows that language in a text and in itself is complex, that the meaning relationships are unstable, or even impossible. Thus, when one writes one thing, it might be read as indicative of something different: we might think of Stockenström seeing herself handing something across with her right hand, while she is also reflected as more sinisterly taking with her left. In one poem where I use the word “deconstruct”, it is history which “reads” the esse proprium of the narrator from a point of view different from his own.

Eyes upon me, all history
watches. The eyes behind the glass
see right through – deconstruct – me
till I become but figurative myself,

alone, with a pale face, walking dead 
roads amongst the slave-fields
of sugar cane and forts: where my living flesh 
– whatever I do or say or become –
is but someone else’s allegory.

Or, in the poem “Meditation Lesson” where class is asked to write down the things they love, invoking all sorts of feelings and attachments, and the teacher has the class members crunch up the pages and throw them away, making the words into objects of a different narrative:

When we were done –
from heart and fond recall

our most precious things,
self satisfied –

she had us scrunch the page
and chuck our notes away:
gone, at once 

– to make a metaphor
of time’s fell work
on every thing you love.

I don’t seek to be “philosophical” but hope the words help a reading of the poems.

7.     The paradoxes of distance – (41): you travel to other spaces … (France, for instance). A form of ostranenie to comprehend your world better?

Yes: that defamiliarization makes me think of Stockenström again, her “Spieël van water”, where the defamiliarity makes you look again at the familiar. It’s that recognition, and the difference. From my poems we have:


This looks so like Nigeria,
he says. And it does, and does not:

our grasp of things spins upside down

This sense of inversion, the ostranenie, is drawn from the core mystical journey to the town of the deads: Amos Tutuola writes, and I’ve used this as an epigraph: “He told us that both white and black deads were living in the Deads’ Town, not a single alive was there at all. Because everything that they were doing there was incorrect to alives and everything that all alives were doing was incorrect to deads too.

There is, as is typical of mythologies of the underworld, a judgement implicit here, as “white and black deads” live together in Deads Town. What does that say about our world? What does that say about the “growing grey townships” in the poem “Kestrel”?

8.     There are references to divination and the third eye – poetry as fortune telling. Comment.

For all the sense of augury, divination, seeing, interpreting of epiphanies, or the allegories of the text, I think, the core of my thinking as I’ve grown older is a sense of mystery, a sense of uncertainty.

But it is a looking into, a seeing of the mystery and complexity, that are important – the danger of a single narrative, or more profoundly, Keats’s sense of negative capability.

At the other side of the far-seeing third eye is the retreating tip of the leggevaan’s tail: that thing of which you are unconscious (that you might need a mirror, or water, to see). 

And the thing walks by, a symbol of ourselves, our reptile past, of the tasting of the earth, of our childhood encounters, of a knowledge we have not yet attained, of knowing, and also unknowing: but where does that leave the viewer?

For all our scientific, historical, political, economic, environmental knowledge – for when have we known more about things – we know so little about ourselves, of our contribution to problems, of any possible or practical solutions.

So the divination is there, the spelling: but it is also, I hope, made complex, where meaning is like quicksilver.

9.     I love the likkewaan poem (22). Please comment on the meaning of the word! (Eat your heart out, Tennessee Williams.)

The leggevaans I grew up with were in the Baakens Valley, or on the commonage, around Alice when I was at Fort Hare. The water monitor, they retreated to dams when scared, and could go thumping past one, making for the water, when the felt uncertain. They could grow to a good length, and were quite frightening when thundering down to the water, after hiding still and hoping you’d just go away.

The reptile has an association with the earth (as in DH Lawrence), the underworld, that amphibious link with water, the levels of a different sort of knowing.

But I loved the fact that when a proof reading friend of mine, Lynn Howse, queried my spelling of the word, and I checked it in the wonderful Oxford Dictionary of South African English, it noted, as the epigraph has it, that neither pronunciation nor spelling had been standardized. That, in itself, cast a spell for me, and moved us into issues of language and knowing; of the fact that the French article has become part of our noun, and so on. And the iguana I was watching was in Guadeloupe. The word “iguana” itself comes from the native American languages: “iwana” being Arawak and Carib, shifting to l’iguana, to Likkevaan. There’s a colonial narrative there, in itself. 

10.   And the two writers Derek Walcott and Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (London: Faber and Faber, 1985) are they guides? 

I like the idea of “guides”, as it picks up on the Dante journey through the under-world, where Virgil is the guide: the poet, leading the poet.

The Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola wrote texts that were both lauded and criticized for their – and I want to use the word very tentatively – “naïve” style. “Tentatively”, because the deep structure is where the text makes the hair rise. If, as suspected, there are oral roots to this story, and it goes back into the depths of that tradition, one finds the links to Egyptian mythology, Homer, Virgil, the New Testament, Dante. 

I taught “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” when I was at Fort Hare. In fact, I was criticized by a colleague for teaching the text, as he felt it reflected badly on African writers. Other Africanists praise the text (as did an early reviewer, Dylan Thomas!). In defence of it, I felt I’d like to write on it, explore it, when I had time. Then, it was “academic paper” type of writing I was thinking of. Instead it became the allegorical framework for this set of poems. Like Dante’s trip to the underworld, the Drinkard makes his way to a place of the dead. He can’t restore his dead palm-wine tapster, but he carries back the knowledge of the journey.

In my own poems, the first section reflects this deeper allegory, with a visit to a place of the dead in a graveyard in Gaudeloupe: perhaps the other poems are glimpses of this structure.

Walcott was different for me. I have been reading him more as a fellow pilgrim who has travelled the way before (a guide in that sense), especially in terms of his imagery of the Caribbean, and his sense of the human condition, his link to Africa, the slave history, his stirring of the pot of English literature from a place that is distant and different. 

Seamus Heaney says about him: “As a writer, Derek is more an amicable than an ironic figure,” contrasting that with the ironies in his person: “There were obvious parallels between the cultural and political situation in St Lucia in the second half of the twentieth century and the situation in Ireland in the first half. I both places the writers were furnished with two languages, the vernacular of the home and the idiom of the school, and the choice between them had political implications. (Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’Driscoll. 2008, New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 342.)

I relate to him because he talks to me.  He wrote a lot, and I still have a lot of his work to read.