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Charl-Pierre Naudé

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On poetry, neurosis and the revolution that got posted: interview with New Coin

New Coin, Vol 43 no 2This interview with Alan Finlay first appeared in New Coin Vol 43, No 2, December 2007.

My sole intention in what I said was to stir debate, or better, to engender critical – lateralminded – thought. Not reproach. We, Alan and myself, challenged assumptions – and by implication, some well-meaning people in the literary sphere, who have nothing other than good intentions. But alas, we also know what roads are paved with those. “Good intentions” is South Africa’s middle name – and always was …


Charl-Pierre Naudé grew up mainly in East London, where he wrote matric. Went on to study philosophy at Stellenbosch University; drifted among addresses to circumvent army call-up for some years in the eighties. Got nabbed eventually. Came to Johannesburg. Became a journalist, reporting mainly on arts and culture. First publication: (Afrikaans poetry) Die Nomadiese Oomblik (The Nomadic Instant) (1995)(Ingrid Jonker Prize), followed by In die geheim van die dag (2005) (M-Net prize, Protea Prize). The English version of In die geheim van die dag has now appeared as Against the light (Protea) and a Dutch translation has been completed, titled Tegen het licht.

Alan Finlay [AF]: My first question: You began your reading last night by saying that with your ‘translations’ you had actually written two versions of the same book. As you see it, these aren’t translations, but new poems — not your poems in English, but your English poems. Most translators will say that what they create is a new poem, but you seem to be asserting something stronger? For instance: you spoke about a parallel process of writing that you “won’t do again soon”, where both the English and Afrikaans versions of the poems were written almost simultaneously. It was clearly a taxing process. So, my second question: Why bother?

Charl-Pierre Naudé [CPN]: Your second question first: why bother? Because I love both languages! I grew up with both of them. And I want to pay tribute to the language of my mom, and my American grandmother. They are both passed away now. So there is also a personal agenda here. I do believe, though, that the English and the Afrikaans versions remain close to each other. So they fall between ‘transcriptions’, ‘reworkings’ and ‘translation’. An example: the endings of the poems ‘Two thieves’ and ‘Twee diewe’ – about the paranoid guy who opens his front door convinced that the woman and her little daughter who asks him for a leaf from his “silver tree”, is a decoy for a robbery. He then realises with shame how his own fear dehumanised him:

    Nobody attacked me. Nothing else happened.
    They robbed me blind, those two thieves.

    Niemand het my aangeval nie. Niks meer het gebeur nie.
    Daardie twee diewe het my kaal gestroop.

Even though it was a difficult process, this type of ‘spoken language’ poem is still easier to render in another language than poems written in the more condensed, tighter tradition of poetic prosody. “Condensed”, I said? Already a wrong word, because the ‘condensed’ in my type of poetry just lies on another level – not on the technical level so much, as on the imaginary.

[AF]: What do you mean by ‘spoken language’ poem?

[CPN:] I mean poems that try to stay close to the cadences of language, the way it is spoken in everyday life. When people speak, they don’t think of the texture and the sounds of the language, they think of what they want to say. The Anglo-Saxon tradition in our colony is very, very conservative; yet we teeter on the brinks of new chasms of imagination every day, because of who and what we are. And I don’t think we are always thankful enough to the gods of our daunting experience. The American critic J.D. McClatchy states in his anthology, The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, that you get two types of inspiration in poetry: the “invented” and the “received”. The first works primarily with the “technical apparatus and rhythmical instincts (of a language) … the whole echo chamber of a (particular) tradition. These are the hardest (poems) for a translation to catch”. This is what he says about the second type of inspiration: “The second inspiration is the ‘received’. Hegel thought that the true medium of poetry is not words but ‘poetic ideas’. … (The poem) as a manifestation of an invisible poem, written in a language beyond languages. Such invisible poems reveal themselves less in the actual lines of a poem than in the figures those lines conjure up.” The Afrikaans tradition, being part of the Anglo-Saxon, as well as the British tradition, historically worked with the first type of inspiration, the “echo chamber”. My poems clearly work more with the second type, “the received”. McClatchy goes on to say that such poems translate more easily than the first because the original poem itself is, in a way, a ‘translation’ – of an “invisible original”. This distinction of McClatchy’s is also the fundamental difference in the poetic tradition of Europe versus that of the English. The Americans have long caught up with both inspirations. We still need to put them on a par, but this is happening. Not that sound is unimportant to me. It is supremely important, just in a more muted way. Also, because of the nature of Afrikaans, you have to take into account the barrage of consonants, otherwise it works against you. Take the first line of the poems ‘The visitor’ and ‘Die besoeker’:

    It’s on forgettable days that the world gets made,

    Dis op vergeetbare dae dat die wêreld gemaak word,

You can see that sound is equally important to me in both languages, but it stays in the background.

[AF]: That’s an interesting way of putting it – and I think offers some account of the different ‘readings’ of English poetry in South Africa. But you have said a lot. Why does Afrikaans poetry come from what you identify as the British tradition – the echo chamber? I thought its heritage was European? I mean, modernism seemed to be accepted into the Afrikaans canon decades before its English counterpart.

[CPN]: Both the Afrikaans and the English mainstream tradition in South Africa comes out of the broad Anglo-Saxon tradition, because the Dutch literature, that gave Afrikaans literature its early models, is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon in nature, in my opinion, just like the English. That equates to the ‘echo chamber’ inspiration, as far as poetry is concerned. (It is only in recent decades that the Dutch literary tradition has linked up with other outside influences, very successfully, it seems.) Afrikaans culture is historically more diverse, though. And so, at some stage its literature would start showing this, which it has – to its benefit. The early Afrikaans poets wanted to be emulators of Dutch, but the ‘generic memory’ of Afrikaans is as much French as it is Malaysian and German and San. So it simply ‘failed’ gloriously at trying so hard to be Dutch. And later ‘failed’ gloriously again at trying (unconsciously) to be English. Take the French part of that ‘historic/generic memory’. I think it was Laurens van der Post who once very accurately pointed out that a large percentage of Afrikaans people with Dutch and German surnames, were second-order Huguenots – people who changed their names to ones that would make them Dutch or German, and then after two generations left and came to South Africa or went to America. I would agree with that. That ‘French’ part is much larger in this community, in a subconscious way, than the minority number of French names would allow for. Which could account for the fact that Afrikaans poetry has exhibited more of a surrealist and elliptical propensity than its English counterpart. Those two characteristics, to mention only two, are very un-Anglo-Saxon, they are more often found among French-, Mediterranean-, and Iberian-infused literatures. So yes, Afrikaans literature has been better equipped to assimilated modernism, and even post-modernism, than the English one in South Africa. But both critical traditions seem to have been more or less equally conservative at its centre – tar-brushing very royally most things as ‘other’ outside of the missionary position of imagination – which I equate with Anglo-Saxon in this context. The Anglo-Saxon had originally been the coloniser, and nothing about a coloniser is ever MORE readily imitated than his arrogance and his conservatism. This is evident in literary practice as well. And why would this be so? Surely because conservatism means order, and order means power – to those who have imparted it, and to those who inherit it. So Afrikaans culture has (maybe unconsciously) emulated English models as I said – but was too heterogenous in nature to do so exclusively.

[AF]: Are you surprised that the conservatism still exists?

[CPN]: No, not at all. Because of the uncertainty of our transforming society, and, in a sense, the erosion of values that has occurred rather than an evolution of values. There are two strains that have become very vocal: the conservative strain, and the ‘pro-transformation’ strain. These two strains, and their groupings, are in a tug-of-war with one another. About the second strain I speak further on. The first group has really become an irritating bunch in these times. They see themselves as the sole guardians of values that are “getting lost”. Alas! Their stilted vision is the clearest sign available of the erosion of values, of arrested evolution!

[AF]: There is a sense of fragmented perspectives on South African poetry which seems more dilated now than before – or maybe it’s just coming to the surface, like a bad neurosis. No-one agrees on much, and everyone’s talking different languages. Critics puff themselves up while reading poetry for what it isn’t rather than what it is; intentions are presumed, belittled – all in the name of ‘robust criticism’. At times the misreadings are deliberate; at others, the blindspots petrifying. You use the word “daunting”. Sometimes it is as if we have no appreciation of how daunted we have been by our history. What apartheid did to us is still surfacing; this history is still being written, and so are all our ideas about it, in poems. Yet the cultural space often feels like it is being shut down; whether by ‘the market’, the imprints of our egos, or our single-minded desire to have ‘arrived’. Sometimes it feels as if our older poets – those who want to be the madalas of poetry – have failed us. It is a sad state of affairs. What do you make of the slew of prizes, and events like the Poetry Africa festival? Do you think they sometimes achieve the opposite of what they intend? You have won several awards; but you know that these all play into the politics of poetry – who’s in and who’s out….

[CPN]: I don’t see English in this country as the possession of the conservatism that we both refer to above, as little as I see Afrikaans as its possession. In the nineties (and in prose now) there was/is maybe as much seed for innovation, for difference sown in our local English literature, as in Afrikaans in several preceding decades.

What you say about fragmented perspectives is true. I think the reason behind this is a mixture of our polyglot composition and our particular post-revolutionary situation. These two facts might not be negative: one can harness them very, very positively.

Positive and negative trends are present at the same time, and vie against each other. But for lack of space, and for the sake of a little healthy morbidity, may we focus on the negative trends? For instance, at present in our country, myth is widely regarded as more important than fact. The government of our day bears out this message in almost everything it does and says. Of course, the apartheid government did exactly the same. But there is a difference: that attitude today is not felt on an everyday level as being a travesty; it is espoused as the way to go. It is seen as honest by many! This attitude filters through to cultural organisers, who run the risk of adopting the same false confidence, which amounts to: what is, need not be, if you can change it enough in your mind.

Or if you ignore it in favour of what you desire.

AND if you can get someone with enough money to help you promote your myth, well, what is real does not stand a chance. Never in the history of mankind has money been more powerful. A second unspoken fact, that is noticed by every aware subconscious that exists, and denied perpetually, is that social engineering in South Africa has always worked. Powermongers and reborn democrats will speak out against it, but push them into a corner, and they will resort to it. This is because they know their history – the history of South Africa. And that history clearly shows: social engineering has worked in South Africa. Why on earth would those with ‘good intentions’ give up on this successful method? The more urgent and indignant their moral impulse, their ‘good intentions’, the more they are going to resort to social engineering! And the more they do. A silent partner in this collusion is the unsophisticated, naive nature of the South African populace in general. My question is: how can one, with factors like these being pervasive, read reality with a degree of integrity? How can you read literature with integrity? To what extent might our making of literature be part of this? I think we should consider the possibility of at least the industry part of our literature being more a part of this negative trend, than not. Add to the above factors the power of the market, and our social architects can sell any crap as worthy, and stop anything worthy in its tracks – if they should choose to. Of course, creating myth is central to art, a part of changing life, but not the type that creates a mythical existence. One of the reasons this myth-making attitude I speak of might be so much stronger than the will to read reality the way it ‘actually exists’ (I’ll use inverted commas just to show that I DO know this statement sounds problematic on a philosophic level) is because our very revolution, the supposed seed of a new collective being, is a myth! It never happened! We are at the fundamental level the offspring of myth, not reality. We are like horribly neurotic creatures evading the injunction to therapy.

In the light of this, lets look at what I call cultural organisers. These would include publishers and the organisers of festivals, whatever. How sure can we be that these people, who are often of the apparatchik order of political being, will promote, or even publish, even notice, work that really challenges assumptions? It is my opinion that often they do not look for new writers, they look for new role models, who can promote a society that pre-exists in their heads. And if some of these role models happen to be good writers, well, might that not be accident?

Come on, you might say, have we ever had this many critical-minded writers in the history of South Africa? Surely, these people are not lackeys of any government or myth? The anger against the present order is at a peak, especially among the culturally minded…

I would say, well, yes, and no. Yes, the tide might be turning. Hooray. But no. It might also get re-absorbed into this myth-making. Because opposing the myth must go deeper than just opposing some surface lies of the present. The problem lies with how we have come to approach history and how we project into the future: the problem seems to me more fundamental. We are presently projecting with a disregard for the factual, for the real, for the unwelcome contingencies of our heritage. And the postmodern death of the ‘fact’ in the wider world, well that certainly doesn’t help OUR little neurosis. Of course ‘top’ isn’t top, and ‘bottom’ isn’t bottom. But ask anyone suffering from inner-ear imbalance, and they would tell you these poles DO exist!

The balance between what actually IS, and what we want in its place, that balance is disregarded in order to mythologise ourselves out of the real. Instead of mythologising ourselves INTO the real. (You mythologise from the bottom up, for God’s sake, not from the top to bottom!)

The politics of our present situation is very odd. The buzzword is ‘openness’, as my title poem says, yet I sense mechanisms of exclusion at work all around me, also challenging one another. Now I just want to remind you that I don’t think the full picture is this bleak; I am referring to the negative trends that co-exist with the positive ones. You speak of prizes. These do much to engender awareness. But they walk a tightrope and are also open to misguidance. Prizes should not be trusted blindly. The fact that there are many, should be seen as a positive development. As long as the same people don’t award them!! So you see, it is my conviction that South Africa is procedurally mostly close to being a fuck up. And I see little awareness about the necessity for good procedure. It is not an idea that makes it good, it is how you plot to realise that idea that will eventually make it good or bad. I think at the heart of this all is a harmful assumption that there must be one reality, a shared reality. There need not be. “Simunye, we are one”: If there is an evil thought at the bottom of this mythologising neurosis of ours, it is that. One reality: the apparatchik’s heaven.

You mentioned Poetry Africa. I have read at Poetry International, Rotterdam, and at the Spier Festival, among others. Poetry Africa and Poetry International Rotterdam, as well as Poetry International London, are now under one umbrella. The Spier Festival and Winternacthten in The Netherlands are also under one umbrella, and according to indications, the fledgling Franschhoek Literary festival, might also be drawn in under this umbrella. All these festivals seem to share organisers, who bring with them selection criteria. What is worrying about this? What worries me is that this might amount to a control over literary expression. This means that contingent ideas of what is good or relevant in poetry, no matter how informed – and often they are not – will get dished up as the universal truth. Remember, with the current – and quite sudden – death of poetry magazines all over the world due to sponsors investing in money rather than imagination, the festival has become the most important exhibition case for poetry. So, if a poet does not like, say, the executive head or Poetry London, or she/he does not like you, then you might forget about reaching your audience through any of these channels. It is procedurally fucked up. We must speak out against this type of thing. Indeed, the tendency towards managerial conglomeration has more checks and balances in the Euro and English context. But how does it impact on us political virgins in Africa? Badly, very badly, I say. Here it simply reads: top to bottom arts control rules, okay. I am playing devil’s advocate, to some extent. But we should all do this more often without fear of ridicule … You can see why, partly, my book is called ‘Against the light’? In an email to me yesterday, after I mentioned to him that these festivals are coming to be run by the same people, a foremost exile Afrikaans poet told me Spier – which under Antjie Krog has done exemplary work in promoting poetry in South Africa ­- has more than enough money to keep itself separate, and that he thinks it is an urge to prescribe that unfolds that ugly umbrella of ‘unity’, more than any financial or managerial concern. This need to project a wished-for reality above any other contingency wants to see the correct choices being made, wants to promote the correct voices, the right morality – all predetermined, before any book even gets read (if they get read at all!). And one of the guiding principles for correctness in our present set-up is the principle of representivity. A piece of writing, moreover, a writer (!) must be “representative”. Now this is a good principle, understandably popular, if you think where we come from, where the world comes from. But for this principle (or any other one) not to be corrupted, you have to remain mindful of the particular pitfalls that come with it. Are we? The main pitfall of “representivity” is that it is, at the end of the day, geared towards the common, even the common good, and the common is naturally poised against that “uniqueness” that we refer to as “art”. The common is naturally at loggerheads with excellence. Therefore, if the principle of representivity is not very, very carefully managed, it will lead away from art, not towards it.

[AF]: I must say I struggle with notions of ‘art’ and its separateness from society. But I would like to get back to your idea of myth-making. Something of this is captured in your book, which is concerned with the sometimes radical switch between metaphor/reality and dream/actuality; how the intensity of the South African experience flickers almost imperceptibly between these two – it is hard to know what to believe. It can feel as if we live in a state of heightened psychological disturbance. And this has aesthetic implications which are far-reaching for me. Your new book is not about the “missionary position” of the imagination, as you put it….

[CPN:] The main problem with the ‘missionary position’ of imagination is not itself, but that it tends to deny other positions. But yes, I think I work with a rather elliptical imagination. I think there is a philosophical bent to my poems; I approach thoughts as objects, and try to look at them from different angles. A reviewer used the word “conceits”. I think it is apt. A reality is presented, and then turned on its head. I wanted to create a fallible voice, a voice to set up for a fall, a sudden fall – towards insight, maybe acceptance – which normally comes at the end of the poem. The switch between reality and dream: well we stand on shifting sands in our post-revolution that never got posted. And this is enough reason for a state of heightened psychological disturbance.

[AF]: On the one hand you seem to want to nail meaning down. Sometimes in aphorisms: for instance, the first line of ‘The visitor’: “It’s on forgettable days that the world gets made” — or “how the present fits into eternity/is an ever burning question” (from ‘Tangible intangible’). This feels like a tendency to contain or control things. Sometimes I think this comes out in a particular kind of voice, or register, in some of the poems. The opposite is the “realm of spectres” (in ‘Vampires’), where little is certain, and reality takes on an hallucinatory quality. This quality is ‘of the other’; it is the Griqua ghost, or the thieves who weren’t thieves, or a particular place, moment, event, where the moment of perception is childlike, as in your mother’s experience in the opening poem: “a little girl/in a very big world, that stretched out endlessly” (‘A time of enchantment’). Your best love poems, for me, are where this often disquieting sense is explored. The story of the encounter in ‘The visitor’ for instance (not really love, nevertheless) or ‘Ancestral ground’. These two perspectives play out on several fronts: the personal, the social, the interpersonal, past and present etc. But the latter seems to win out in your book, the “secrets of daylight”…

[CPN]: The quoted first lines of both poems state a broad metaphysical observation, something that a run-of-the-mill above-average person might sometimes think of, I think. This concern then gets embodiment in the personal physical realm of a personal narrative that follows. The first lines are therefore an extrapolation of what follows, either to be deconstructed later on, or not. (It doesn’t happen with the first lines of ‘The visitor’, as far as I can see.) The line “how the present fits into eternity” is deconstructed in the sense that it actually becomes a poem about recent political memory and the possibility of redemption within that context, not about eternity. The machination of how exactly that redemption is possible is arrived at in highly personal terms, that of making sense of a love relationship that had passed because of (implied by the poem) failings on the narrator’s side. The real trick that the poem attempts, and which is one of the main themes of the book, is to impart a real, tangible feeling to the reader of how past time and present time can be made to be felt simultaneously present, outside of causality, in actuality. How the dead can be made present. The reader must key into the ‘conceit’ that plays out in order to have this experience. (By “conceit” I mean turning the normal way of thinking on its head through a sleight of hand. This happens at the end of the poem.) Some of the lines are aphoristic, yes, but I definitely think I have an ironic approach to aphorisms. Aphorisms need not be alienating; it will depend on who is the reader. And they can never control. They are inherently tragic, and even ludicrous. But they get resorted to in life every so often.

[AF]: I do want to say that surely this tension between control/lack of control, disorder/order etc. is exactly what makes your poetry interesting right now at this juncture in our history?

[CPN]: That is definitely something that I attempted: to portray psychological/political disintegration, or getting close to it. And showing the desperation of trying to find the reins. A binary opposition that springs to mind here, is Nietzsche’s metaphor in Birth of the tragedy , of there being two impulses in the creative urge: the Apollonian, and the Dionysian, named after the god of Beauty and Measure, and the god of Intoxication and Chaos respectively. The one imparts shape and calm, the other chaos and impulsiveness.

[AF]: Your book is published by Protea, who also published the Afrikaans version. Protea is a new publisher of English poetry, although it’s had one of the best poetry selections on offer in its bookshop in the country for some time. How do you see its new role as English poetry publisher?

[CPN]: I am very glad that Protea in a short time became a relatively powerful publisher in the country. It remains worrying that so many imprints gather under single umbrellas. I think Nicol Stassen, the executive head of Protea, and his team have done more for the future of the independent-minded voice – the only voice that has a right to be a voice in literature, in my opinion – in this country than many a transformation agency. I see the role of Protea as, for the moment, still being a revolutionary role. But they have their shortcomings; for instance, bad distribution.

[AF]: Together with Gabeba Baderoon you are going to Belgium for a month. Tell me more about that?

[CPN]: It is a part of a Flemish government-sponsored bi-national project called E-POS II, that we were part of last year. This year is the round-up of the project – which includes Kim Berman, the artist – in the form of a lecture tour. We will talk about what we tried to achieve. My hosts organised me an abode in the PEN flat in Antwerp. The idea was cross-pollination – among the individual artists, genres, languages, countries. Belgians and South Africans took part. I stayed in the Belgian countryside for a couple of weeks at an artist’s retreat before this. I was very fortunate. It is amazing to see how a country like Belgium treats its artists. They have their standards, and if you fit in with that, you are looked after and allowed to create art, whether you get rich or not. I love coming back here, though. Everything I want to write about is here. But the situation, my own situation as a writer, a poet, security-wise, is hair-raising. Crazy. Crazy, enticing place. The E-POS project is scheduled to visit the Book Festival of Pretoria University as well as the Woordfees at Stellenbosch early in March 2008.

[AF]: You’ve also recently edited ‘My Ousie is ‘n blom’, a new anthology of Afrikaans poetry, which sold out…

[CPN:] Yes. The title poem was written by a rastafarian from the township Soekmekaar outside Pretoria. “Ousie” in this sense means girlfriend.

[AF]: And that is has sold out? What does that tell you about poetry in South Africa?

[CPN:] It sold out, yes. It says that poetry anthologies do and can sell. Especially one that says “this is new”. That pitch actually zooms right in on the insecurity of the South African reading market. I thought: well, let it work for me, for once … Ho ho. And that book had Gus Ferguson behind it, which helps. Concerning selling: this is less true of solo anthologies. That same insecurity that sold my group anthology is the one that might err on the wrong side when it comes to an individual volume. It is an urge that mainly sticks to the more ‘known names’ or ones that are ‘pre-approved’ as ‘new’. And the bookshops collude with this, because money and sentiment and personal connections already back certain voices. It is the most difficult time, maybe ever, to be a writer in South Africa. Because where we knew before we were dealing with an outright monster, that same monster has now pitched in disguise at a fancy dress party called ‘democracy’. Yet I should be thankful for much, including a publisher who published a volume in two different languages! That is expense! That is love. Thank you. And to you also, Alan, for this opportunity to speak to you. (And for New Coin for having published some of these poems in earlier versions, even before they were published in Afrikaans.)

[AF]: Thanks Charl.


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