Posted on | March 9, 2016 | No Comments
All children are poets at heart. Some are lucky, like me, and grow up close to nature. They carry with them forever the images that later inspire words. I grew up in a city on the edge of a nature reserve. We kept a half drum of dried mealies in the shed and my mother grew a patch of lucerne at the back of our terraced garden for the animals that came down to our fence. Today that would be frowned upon, considered meddling with Nature. But then it gave me a sense of responsibility, of caring for something – a sense of wonderment above all, as those blue-grey tongues of the Eland delicately licked the treats from my small hands. The reserve was one of the few “koppies” or flat-topped hills on the plains of the Free State. As there were no predators, I was allowed to climb the big tree on our side of the fence and let myself down along a low-hanging branch into the veld on the other side – into another world.
During the summer holidays we went camping in the Tsitsikamma forest on the Eastern Cape coast. I slept in a tent under huge trees, heard rain drops on the canvas and lay in bed listening to tree frogs calling. There were hundreds of fireflies in the forest at night. I never felt scared – except when a stray donkey popped his head into my tent one night. There were no friends or siblings to capture my attention during those holidays – my sister was thirteen years older and already at university. My father had beautiful hands – and the knack of grabbing a fly mid-flight. Most mornings we walked hand-in-hand to feed flies to the big yellow-and-blue orb spider who sat in the centre of a magnificent web. I became aware of bird song and the sound of the wind in high trees. But when I close my eyes now, what I see is the light – filtered through the forest canopy – lucent shades of green, a sacred space. And I smell the fecund smell of damp earth, leaf mulch and rotting wood. A little further away was the ocean and the clear amber-coloured water of Nature’s Valley’s river and lagoon. Sun and salt turned my skin a smooth almond brown very quickly.
On some weekends there were visits to farms where in the dry season, the wind would moan forlornly through bluegum trees and the nights would be bitterly cold. There were cats in front of the coal stove and little black girls to play with. They wore coloured glass beads around their slim necks. I envied those beads. Inadvertently, I scared them one evening when, in the lamp-lit bedroom, I brushed my hair and sparks of static electricity flew. Behind me in the mirror I saw mistrust in their eyes– they were no longer keen to play with me after that.
I remember another holiday spent on the coast of KwaZulu Natal. I was in awe: banana trees, Frangipani, Hibiscus and waving palm fronds stirred up feelings I had not known before. As we drove into the city centre of Durban, I saw the most beautiful human being I had hitherto seen – a young Indian woman in a sari of unimaginable colour crossed the road in front of our car. In the hotel there were smartly dressed waiters – dark-skinned men with shiny sleeked-back hair. I was smitten and I wanted answers. I was told that in the province where we lived, Indians were only allowed to pass through; they were not allowed to spend even one night. Why? And what happened if their car broke down? I was incensed, furious about the unfairness of it all and by the exclusion of these people from my world. The Indian market swamped my senses with colours, sounds and aromas – fabrics, silver, strange music, strange languages, noise, incense, curry and spices. I wrapped up these exotic images and took them home to spread out in splendour at the feet of my friends – in my mother tongue Afrikaans and in my newly acquired English (with a Canadian accent picked up from the little girls who were visiting their grandparents next door). I loved the new words and the new sounds and could not understand why my parents would fall about laughing.
My response to this rich world was to draw, to lose myself in colour. Although those first attempts always fell short of my young heart’s expectations, I was hooked and I kept at it. Today I am a visual artist. But I am also a poet. Before I studied Fine Art, I studied French and English literature and became a high school language teacher. I married a German speaking man. I took in translation work when my children were small. I lived in four languages and walked through the doors they opened into a wonderfully varied world. I can write endlessly about love, marriage and motherhood, about dark and desperate episodes in my life and how these themes drip steadily through the filter of my work, but I would not do them justice within the confines of an essay. Poetry collections are piled on my bedside table. I have learnt from other poets; their work has sustained me through difficult times, kept me company through lonely times, made me laugh, made me cry. Those whose work I love and who have inspired me, are too many to mention here.
The sharing of fears, feelings and ideas through poetry brings about a sense of risk and of vulnerability which I suppose all poets struggle with, but I cannot imagine my life without it – the thrill and satisfaction of painting with words, the feeling that something extraordinary, something inexplicable is happening while I work on a poem. Something I feel reluctant to take credit for. So I can talk about the crafting of poetry in as far as I master that, I can list the anthologies and the literary magazines my poems appear in, but do these things make me a poet? I don’t really know.
I do know that on some days the old imposter syndrome makes me think: who am I to call myself a poet? But then I remember that little girl in the forest. Perhaps she was a poet long before she even knew what the word meant. I owe her gratitude.
(This essay was written by Annette Snyckers. More about Annette can be found here: Annette Snyckers)
Posted on | February 28, 2016 | No Comments
Why did I pursue this idea of being a poet? A woman poet? What is a poet? What is a woman? Both of those words (Woman. Poet.) invoke different ideals and meanings – it depends on who you ask, on who asks the question.
I read a tweet recently that said (I am paraphrasing) you can’t gender label yourself ‘woman’ unless you embody the characteristic of always caring for someone else before yourself. The person tweeting was making the point that woman are generally socialised in this way. Is this what characterises a woman?
The answer is an emphatic no. By defining women (or men) in a particular way is to box them in. This leads to generalised simplistic thinking: if you are a women you must love shopping and spa treatments and the colour pink. (I am not arguing that there are not feminine or masculine ways of being – but these are rooted in energies and are NOT gender specific).
Our definition of what it means to be a woman is rooted in a patriarchy that doesn’t believe women’s voices, women’s bodies and women’s issues are topics that are important in serious literature. Look at the backlash that occurred when Sarah Howe won the TS Eliot prize in 2015 and the furore that the publication of a poem titled ‘Breasts’ (Kutti Revathi) created in Tamil in 2010.
There are many woman writers who define themselves by their craft of writing only and have eschewed the label of woman writer. They want to be seen as a writer only. Many women have published as men – George Eliot and the Bronte sisters are examples of this – so that their work will be taken seriously. Many women writers choose to publish under genderless names or use initials only.
Why then do I claim the title of women writer? Or more specifically woman poet? I claim this title because my poetic voice arises out of the roles that I play or have played in life: woman, friend, lover, wife, daughter, aunt, writer, poet, worker, seeker. My poems are about identity and experiences as a woman – because that it how I have been gendered and this is where my experiences come from.
I write about romantic relationships: falling in love, falling out of love, being in love from a woman’s perspective. I write about women’s bodies and their experiences of sex. I write to examine reality and also to create a space for woman’s voices that may not have been heard. My voice is a woman’s voice.
When I read my more risqué poetry to an audience I am called ‘brave’. I am taken aback when people say this – because I don’t know how to write any differently. I don’t know how to have a different voice. Am I seen as ‘brave’ because women are not expected to be raunchy? or express sexual desire?
I wrote my first poem in my head when I was about nine or ten, skipping down the road. ‘And it was at that age …/ poetry arrived in search of me’ as Neruda says in his poem Poetry. I didn’t take my poetry seriously until I was in my thirties and living in London. Everyday I was confronted with advertisements for the London Poetry School (now called simply The Poetry School). My inner voice said to me ‘if you don’t start taking your poetry seriously now you never will’ (After that first skipping poem I started a journal at 15 and continued to write poetry but never showed it to anyone).
Since then and with strong female encouragement and support I have published two collections, published in various journals and anthologies – the latest called Hallelujah for 50ft Women (Bloodaxe Books) – which is a celebration of women writing about female bodies. Every poem I have published is a result of hard work – working hard at my craft as a poet and working hard at getting my work out there into the world
The question I now ask myself is – how do I continue to write poetry and call myself a poet? A woman poet? I write these words down and they feel strange. I am middle-aged and instead of feeling more settled I feel more distant from my own life and also from the world around me. What is next?
Maureen Murdock in The Heroine’s Journey (1990: Shambhala) believes that women’s current role in the world is ‘to heal the split that tells us that our knowings, wishes, and desires are not as important nor as valid as those of the dominant male culture’.
Jeanette Winterson adds to this when she says ‘why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself? ‘*
The truth is feminism is needed more than ever. We need women’s voices. We need their stories. As Claire Vaye Watkins says ‘Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better’. **
* Why be happy when you could be normal (2011: Jonathan Cape)
** ”On Pandering” http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/41314/on-pandering.html
P.S. Also read Margie Orford’s piece on The Tyranny of Biology Needs to Change
Posted on | August 24, 2015 | No Comments
I don’t know much about Dorothy Parker’s poetry – I only know her essays (and her wit)- but her Wikipedia entry lists her as a poet first: Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967) was an American poet…
Here is a wonderful interview with her in Paris Review
I am delighted by this short poem – particularly the sixth line ‘Nor read erotic poetry’. I think that ‘nor write’ should be added!
More of her poems can be found on Poetry Foundation
Interview by Dorothy Parker
The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints …
So far, I’ve had no complaints.
Posted on | August 24, 2015 | No Comments
Since the beginning of August I have posted a series of blogs on my Bookslive blog of recommended books written by women. The recommendations mostly come from South African women writers.
A summary of the third week of recommendations can be found here: #readwomen #womenwriters Week Three
All the books that are recommended during the month of August can be found on this Goodreads list: Recommended Reads by Women Writers August 2015
Posted on | August 18, 2015 | No Comments
I like poems that are short, that are quick to delivery their message/insight. The poem this week is not a short poem – which surprises me – but it is a poem that tells us a story about Swan’s Island, and I like stories. To call this poem only a story though is to simplify its theme and ideas.
From the beginning of the poem there is a sense of the island and the narrator being cut off: ‘the island is dark’, ‘the radio crackles with static’, ‘my one-room cabin’ and ‘my disembodied voice’.
The aloneness of the narrator is highlighted through all the individual actions: ‘I rise’, ‘I swim’, ‘I wonder’, ‘I feel’ and the question ‘where am I?’ and the answer ‘I answer myself’.
In the second stanza we learn that every day on the island feels like Sunday and in the third stanza we are introduced to the lobstermen who bring post and warn of adverse weather. But we never meet them – the narrator waves at them and they blow their foghorn.
Later in the poem the narrator confirms for us that the island is place of surreal experiences: ‘If I think of anything here,/ it’s the peculiar way/ the sea gets into everything’.
The last stanza takes us away from Swan’s Island and to a fantasy of island hopping in giant leaps, ‘A world/ existing side by side with yours’.
In the end though ‘The waking dream’s intact-/ the world continues not to change,/ and staying the same, changes us.’
Here is a link to Elizabeth Spires page on Poetry Foundation: Elizabeth Spires where you will find more information about Spires and more of her poems
Letter From Swan’s Island – Elizabeth Spires
The island’s dark tonight.
The radio crackles with static, news
of a blackout, the voice
coming through first loud, then soft,
as if a storm were moving
to cut all lifelines off. My one-room
cabin has a bed, a table, a chair.
Living this way, I understand better
that scene by an anonymous
illuminator: a row of monks
eating at a rough table, diagonals
of light slicing across the room
to fall, as if by accident,
on their simple meal. The black
and white tiles on the floor
a symbol of the formal repetitions
of the simplest life, or maybe
an oblique allusion to a paradox
of theology: the complementary nature
of good and evil. Is evil possible here
where everyone lives so individually
and nature appears to be neutral
toward everything but itself?
Some mornings I wake too suddenly,
the light on the wall
brilliant and unfamiliar, and wonder
for a moment, where am I?
I answer myself, my disembodied voice
high and far off
like what I imagine saints and martyrs
heard in moments of ecstasy: Swan’s Island.
Lightheaded, I rise, make coffee,
settling into the simple ceremony
of another morning. Outside the sea birds
pick the clam flats clean, fly off,
returning late in the afternoon
looking for more to scavenge.
Good days, I swim in the quarry,
sun myself on the rocks, and plan
a diary. One entry: I feel
this place to be a rough approximation
of heaven, the heaven of the lost …
But then I wonder if a diary
would be superfluous and put it off.
Days pass here, weeks slip away,
and even when it isn’t,
it seems to be Sunday,
irreal, subdued, the queer, slowed-down
feeling of late afternoon
spreading through the hours
of an entire day. Impersonal, yet benign,
the sun rains indiscriminately down
on everything, instead of singling out
particular objects, so that
even the rocks out by the tide line,
normally gray-brown, become heightened,
false, and I have to turn away.
Sometimes the lobstermen wave to me.
I must seem frivolous to them,
an outsider, with my pants rolled up
to the knees, standing knee-deep in water,
a shell or rock in my hands.
We have a code. I wave a white
handkerchief above my head,
they blow their foghorns back.
Once means the mail’s in,
twice, a storm by afternoon,
three times, the weather
will clear by evening.
But really, after a month
in a place like this, there’s no use
to wonder why the sea does this or that,
what time it is, or whether
the approaching storm will be a bad one.
If I think of anything here,
it’s the peculiar way
the sea gets into everything,
softening the crackers I seal
in an airtight jar, rotting the armchair
where I sit in the evening,
looking into the evening’s afterlight.
It smells peculiar, damp,
as if it had been tossed overboard
from a dory, thought better of,
and hastily retrieved.
I have a fantasy: to walk on water.
Not eastward, the Atlantic far out
scares me, but long, island-hopping
giant steps up and down
the coast the way as a child
I’d make my “two-legged” compass
walk the map. Walking to school
a thousand winter mornings,
I imagined each thought, each step,
an exercise in good and evil;
or, after confession, I’d cup
my hands around my breath,
saved for an hour, knowing I’d sin
again, the scars on my soul
whitening like the scars on my hands
where I burnt them on the stove.
Swan’s Island. A world
existing side by side with yours,
where love struggles to perfect
itself, and finally perfect,
finds it has no object.
The waking dream’s intact-
the world continues not to change,
and staying the same, changes us.
Posted on | August 16, 2015 | No Comments
Since the beginning of August I have posted a series of blogs on my Bookslive blog of recommended books written by women. The recommendations have come from South African women writers.
A summary of the second week of recommendations can be found here: #readwomen #womenwriters Week Two
All the books that are recommended during the month of August can be found on this Goodreads list: Recommended Reads by Women Writers August 2015
Posted on | August 13, 2015 | No Comments
I learnt a new poetry word this week: anaphora.
Anaphora is the ‘repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect.’ More about anaphora can be found on the poetryfoundation.org website.
‘Untitled’ by Anna Moschovakis is a poem that uses anaphora throughout the poem. She repeats ‘I can’t’ and ‘I can’t remember’ from the beginning of the poem a number of times. Later in the poem ‘I’d like’, ’I seem’ and ‘I don’t’ are repeated.
Moschovakis’ use of anaphora emphasises the uncertainy of the I in the poem – the uncertainty which is shown to the reader in the first line: ‘I can’t remember what it is I’m supposed to be doing’.
The poem also takes us through a journey, although an oblique one – at the end the I ’would be abstract/ with an inscrutable ending’. In other words the I would be something specific but not something exact or completely readable.
Here is a link to the Poetry Society of America where Moschovakis talks about her poetry: Anna Moschovakis
Untitled by Anna Moschovakis
I can’t remember what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
I can’t think of anything but lists I’ve made, lists I’ve broken
the spirit of. It’s always a fine time for breaking
things, like plastic forks and poetic trends.
It’s a damn good morning to imitate the world.
But I can’t remember what imitation is
or the difference between it and flattery
or an adage and an aphorism.
I’d better go back to school
he said, performing a gesture to alterity.
I can’t remember if alterity
has negative connotations
or is just another way of kicking
myself out the door. I’d like to try being
a man for once. I’d like to wear chaps and have it
be obscene instead of pornography. I can never remember
what I think of pornography when it isn’t in my
face. I wish I could be inanimate,
banged-up and appreciated
for all my surface qualities
without ethics getting in the way. I seem to remember
being ethical. I seem to act along some kind of line
albeit a kinky one. I wonder when kinky became
pornographic and whether that aspect is
subtractable. I don’t remember my grammar
rules. I don’t think English is very good
for a certain kind of inventioning. I gather
some readers don’t like being
confronted with the language in every word.
I want to be a word. I would be abstract
with an inscrutable ending.
Posted on | August 8, 2015 | No Comments
Since the beginning of August I have been posting a series of blogs on my Bookslive blog of recommended books written by women. The recommendations have come from South African women writers.
A summary of these recommendations can be found here: kerryhammerton.bookslive.co.za
Posted on | August 7, 2015 | No Comments
Karen Solie’s poetry is gritty and written with a directness and a clear eye on human life and failings. Her work full of interesting detail, including descriptions of landscape and people. When reading her poetry there is a sense of calm, of not being hurried, and, yet, at the same time there is an undertow of ‘something’. I am always inspired to write when reading her poetry.
This poem ‘The Road In is Not the Same Road Out’ comes from a collection with the same title. The poem , for me, is about the breakup of a relationship or about getting older when the ‘we’ in the poem is the narrator and the narrators younger self – or it could simply be the story of travel and a roadtrip. This is one of the reasons why I love poetry - there are a myriad of interpretations and each of them right.
More about Solie and other poems can be found on the Poetry International Website
The Road In is Not the Same Road Out by Karen Solie
The perspective is unfamiliar.
We hadn’t looked back going in,
and lingered too long
at the viewpoint. It was a prime-of-life
experience. Many things we know
by their effects: void in the rock
that the river may advance, void
in the river that the fish may advance,
helicopter in the canyon
like a fly in a jar, a mote in the eye,
a wandering cause. It grew dark,
a shift change and a shift
in protocol. To the surface of the road
a trail rose, then a path to the surface
of the trail. The desert
sent its loose rock up to see.
An inaudible catastrophic orchestra
is tuning, we feel it in the air
driven before it, as a pressure
on the brain. In the day
separate rays fall so thickly
from their source we cannot perceive
the gaps between them. But night
is absolute, uniform and self-
derived, the formerly irrelevant
brought to bear, the progress
of its native creatures unimpeded.
We have a plan between us, and then
we have our own. Land of the five
corners, the silent partner, 500 dollars
down, no questions, the rental car
stops at the highway intersection, a filthy
violent storm under the hood. It yields
to traffic from both directions.
It appears it could go either way.
Posted on | August 4, 2015 | No Comments
Sometimes it is difficult to put into words why I like a poem. This is one of those poems. Its language is sparse and the rhymes make it a poem easy to read, but the emotions and sentiment of the poem are not inconsequential. It is a poem that had despair and yet in the end the heart does want to keep on beating.
More about Sinead Morrisey and her poetry can be found on the Poetry International website.
Driving Alone on a Snowy Evening by Sinead Morrissey
There is no reason that I know
To go on waking, eating, so
I turn the urgent wipers off
And watch the screen sift up with snow.
They’ll conjure emptiness, despair,
Disease in the wings, a failed career.
Those inward, ticking moments when
The seduction of stopping obliterates fear.
The car purrs on. I do not brake.
The choice of crash I leave to fate.
A tree, a bridge, a railway line.
Behind the brightness dark shapes wait.
The snow and ceiling kiss, then meet.
The view’s as white as a winding sheet.
The heart still beats repeat repeat.
The heart still beats repeat repeat.