Thursday, March 12, 2020

Interview | Oliver Findlay Price – Catalien (2020)

1. Please explain the title.

It's made up of two words – “cat” and “alien”. Anyone who has lived with a cat knows that this is the most personal of domestic animals. He or she treats us as some kind of superfeline companion, inferior in sensing presences, and sometimes in need of comforting and sympathy. I use the cat as metaphor for us humans, and preserve her idiosyncrasies to highlight human behaviour – as in “Academy Cat”. The other idea running through the collection, “alien”, is autobiographical. When I was barely out of the archaic level of consciousness of early childhood the family broke up. Harbouring a fractured personality, alien in a strange world, I ask the existentialist question, “Why anything at all? Why not just nothing?” and implicitly conclude nothing is normal. Everything, abnormal. All behaviour, not only mine, is underscored by a quest for normality, for safety. This collection uncovers the quest.

2. A current trend in philosophy reflects on animals and identity. To name a few titles for instance S. Baker's Picturing the beast. Animals, identity and representation and Derrida's The animal that therefore I am and C.P. Freeman Embracing humanimality: Deconstructing the human/animal dichotomy. What are your views?

I think the individual animal should be central to our ethics, as is the individual human in a liberal democratic setting. J. M. Coetzee comments that the environmentalist values eco-systems above individual animals. This is a gross flaw in  narrow rationalist thinking. The natural human response to animals is kindness – hence the keeping of pets. So children have to be taught that it's okay to kill and eat animals. I had an uncle who, when he learned at seven where bacon came from, gave up eating meat for the rest of his life. He became a professor of philosophy. Coetzee, through his main character in Lives of Animals, states that experiment on animals is “anthropocentric” and “imbecile”.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida wonders what the cat sees and thinks when it follows him into the bathroom and sees this naked man. He ponders, am I, like the cat, an animal? Is the cat, like me, a person? The self is not autonomous – its heteronomous other is not necessarily human. The scene with the cat evokes the fluidity of identity (a masculine fear). Language is proof of our inability to know the world outside of our own projects, outside of our own autobiographical efforts, and not proof of our understanding of the world. Therefore our assumptions about animals are flawed – for example, Heidegger says animals know the world only as “utility”. On fraudulent grounds humans define themselves in opposition to animals – so claiming superiority.

3. You see the poet as “alien” – does the writing of poetry imply making things strange (ostranenie) as Sklovsky stated?

I see everything as strange; that anything exists at all is strange. It may take poets or philosophers to see this. “Seeing” is not “making”, but seeing, we bring to the conscious human world the preciousness of all things – they could so easily not be. With awareness comes vision – change of heart. We uncover vision with subtlety, under cover of the warp of our words. I do not choose the literary device, “defamiliarizarion”, but out of my fractured experience my poetic project often coincides with its method.

4. In “Territorial Cat” – to name an example – you allow the cat to speak. How did this occur?

Territorial Cat

Landlord of seven erven,
all inhabited, four by humans,
one by a Dalmatian sheepdog
where I trespass during her sleep,
the rest by two passing feral cats
whom I see off with fearsome efficiency,
a grey mongoose who claims right of way
which I tolerate diplomatically,
then lizards and mice who
pay rental with their lives.

Birds I leave alone – I know
my limitations – a flutter of wings is poor reward,
a mouthful of feathers no reward at all.

I roll on my back for Jack, the border collie,
then slip home through my private gate
for supper of tinned sardines
before a night on the stars.

An uncalculated example of “ostranenie”. Like humans, the cat is a territorial animal. If it had the gift of speech this is what it might say … and I give it the human vision of a solitary night on the stars.

5. In “Everything Is Miracle” you conclude: "The Spring morning opens in booming silence." Why does poetry often deal with silence?    

As phenomenon, silence is layered. We seek it, peal off the layers and discover it has sound, which points, at its core, to complete absence of phenomena – our destiny. But the quest is exhilirating, the outcome unknown.

6. As an English South African poet I detect Afrikaans words: jonkmanskas, trek (etcetera) – do you read Afrikaans at all?

I think the two languages enrich each other. “Jonkmanskas” cannot be translated – it would lose its identity. I translated a Toon van den Heever poem ("Wis Uit!") which appeared in Stanzas 4, June 2016. I find Julia Kramer's poetry very exciting. It rings with passion and the wilderness. Yes, I do read Afrikaans (with a dictionary nearby).

7. I admire the following poem. Please explain to us:

The Kidney of Rhetoric

The normality of humanity
is a bloodied heart and
mathematic head.

Can humans be humane?
Adjective to a miscreant noun
delicately nourished on slivered livers,

minced thigh stuffed in tubes of gut,
screaming butchered knees 
and severed ligaments?

What a destiny!
To be normal.

The word “kidney” also means temperament, or nature. The poem is about the interior body parts of animals, and the astonishingly atrocious use we make of them as food, even delicacies, which we have changed through a strange perversion of our minds into a normal practice.

8. In some poems you play with form. Please reflect on the importance of form for you.

In this collection I use the villanelle and the sonnet. I like the challenges of keeping the tone conversational and to the point, within the structure, and of displaying the form, its rhymes and rhythms, its repetitions, to the enhancement of the story told.

9. The significance of the biblical references?

In “Original Sin” I parody the literalist reading of the Genesis story, still pervasive in some quarters of Christian practice (though many Christians have moved beyond the mythic level of consciousness into rational and post-rational levels). The poem is designed to unlock adherence to an essentially foolish and destructive explanation for the phenomenal reality of human experience. Humour and the rhymed sonnet sharpen the satire.

© Joan Hambidge