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Colleen Higgs

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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Judging poetry

Recently I was asked to be the judge for 2013 DALRO prize for poems published in New Coin in 2012. I hesitated because I am not sure about the idea of choosing the best poem, and I am aware of how subjective I am in what I like and respond to. Two things swayed me, the first was that why not allow my aesthetic to be the one that gets to decide? And secondly, in recent years I have tried to follow the advice, I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do”.

Here are my conclusions, written up in the citation below, after I spent time carefully reading the poems in question several times.

New Coin DALRO prize for 2012 issues

As Harry Owen said of the last DALRO prize, it is a subjective exercise for one person to choose the “best” or winning” poems. The poems I have chosen are the ones that I like best now in April/May 2012; these poems speak to me. This includes how they speak, I prefer shorter poems mostly, and I like poems that surprise and/or delight me, in voice, use of words and language, images, and craft.

First prize – “The Pot” by Genna Gardini
Second Prize – Village Potter’s Wife by Jim Pascual Agustin
Third prize – – “on a June day that I spent on the beach with two children” by Megan Tennant

I like the singularity of “The Pot”, the strangeness, the sharp decisive ending. Genna Gardini’s voice is playful and witty, and while easy to read and follow, further layers of meaning and association rise from the poem, the more times I read it. Her voice is strong and somewhat triumphant here, although there is humour and a slight sense of self ridicule.

“Village Potter’s Wife” is a short, striking poem, full of painful contrasts. At the heart of the poem is the joyful creation of pots, measured against death, destruction, grinding poverty. The poet manages to say a great deal about the life of this woman in three quick brush strokes, and to evoke deep sorrow and loss in this reader.

I like the particularity and ordinariness of “on a June day that I spent on the beach with two children”, the vivid and telling detail and the way the first stanza speaks to the second, and the combination of joy and bleakness, passion and ennui.

I also liked these poems very much:

All three of the poems by Deidre Byrne in Vol 48, no 1.
“How I make love” by David Wa Maahlamela
“Pretoria” and “voice” by Marike Beyers
“The 1st psalm for my dead ghetto” by Adorn Ka Mashigo
A man stabs a woman by Adriaan Coetzee
“spoon” by Elme Vivier
“Galaxies” by Jeannie Wallace McKeown
“Baby”by Thabo Jijane

» read article

The interview

For Short Story Day Africa 2013, here’s my take:

Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

I like to turn back
it’s a compulsion
to look back with longing and regret.

I’ve been a writer since I was eight
but mostly too afraid to admit it

What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? (No cheating and saying something that makes you sound like the intelligensia).

Most Saturday afternoons she finds herself alone, reading the Weekly Mail from cover to cover, ironing, or listlessly reading a novel on her unmade bed as though her imagination stretches no further than reading.

Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?

My eyes die of hunger
as I make up my life
look for forgiveness, dream onward

my face is sour, her face is hungry
for a cup of tea, for enlightenment
I’d choke her, make a stew of her carcass if I could

she has no name, she hurts all over
her teeth bleed, her memory hurts like logic
her life hurts like liquor, like broken dinner plate

If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?

How I miss your arm
and red fly music.

Here dust tastes like a man
who appears unexpectedly in the distance.

Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?

blue Boadicea riding a chariot
naked into battle
heroic and foolish

Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?

Whisper your name to me
I’ll tell you mine in return
get drunk with me
and let’s feel no remorse

If against, are you for any other mind altering drug?

being happy is not a thread or a quilt or a road
it’s like bees buzzing on a hot afternoon
separately, then disappearing

Our adult competition theme if Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?

It’s easier to travel by foot.
People take time to greet each other.
The only food is mealie meal and vegetables.
It’s a poor country.

What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?

Will you love me forever?
Will I love you beyond your death?
Will you die before me?

If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?

I’d like to polish the words of your poems with beeswax,
hold them close to my nose, sniff them like fresh washing, like an early peach.

If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?

Women of all shapes and sizes and races have bruises on their faces. Once or twice I’ve wanted to say something, but what? I see you?

What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

Lying isn’t always bad, but mostly it isn’t good
for the digestion, it’s like white sugar
or mixing your drinks

If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?

My mother is slowly forgetting her life
Who she is and what holds her together.
She forgets more each day
as though forgetting were a job.

What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?

The extra wors with the Sunrise breakfast – vocabulary of intimacy?

You always remember too much of what doesn’t really matter to anyone but you.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?

The past was too bright, too hot, too white
What’s left over, left behind
is a long piece of string

Have you ever written naked?

You asked me if we’d closed the gate.
I would remember if I had closed it, the memory would be in my body
the metal cold on my hands, the heaviness of the gate.

Does writing sex scenes make you blush?

Your body is heavy. I ache and long to go to sleep. That is how it is between us.

Who would play you in the film of your life?

The room is full of moths, beautiful velvety ones.

If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?

Sometimes we sit on the couch and watch the lava lamp.
It’s not like watching TV

What do you consider your best piece of work to date?

I vow to do it better
not to hesitate to bring a child downstream
like gold floating in
a bowl
or a cup

What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?

sticking all the bits together, painstakingly gluing each piece in the dark.

As a poet, many of the questions weren’t relevant, so I decided to answer with lines from my poems and a couple from short stories.

Halfborn Woman by modjajibooks

Lava Lamp Poems
Looking for Trouble

Book details

eBook options – Download now!

eBook options – Download now!

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A personal tribute Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich died last week, now you see her name on the internet and it says, “Adrienne Rich 1929 – 2012″. A great poet has died. She’s left a legacy of poems and prose and the example of a life well lived, an engaged life, someone who walked her talk. If you google her name, you will find out all the facts that are known about her, the books she wrote and had published, the prizes and honours she received, the ones she declined or shared and so on.


Every drought-resistant plant has its own story
each had to learn to live
with less and less water, each would have loved

to laze in long soft rains, in the quiet drip
after the thunderstorm
each could do without deprivation

but where drought is epic then there must be some
who persist, not by species betrayal
but by changing themselves

minutely, by a constant study
of the price of continuity
a steady bargain with the way things are

From “The desert as a garden of paradise’ by Adrienne Rich

I want to tell you something of what she meant to me. In 1989, I was a high school English teacher, doing my English Honours degree part time, at what was then RAU (now the University of Johannesburg). In the Poetry course we did, Jenny Addleson introduced us to Adrienne Rich; I felt my inner world shift, subtly, deeply, dramatically. She articulated so clearly and exquisitely thoughts I barely knew I harboured, feelings I was disturbed by. I began to realise that things were not as they seemed. There was more choice, and it had to be actively claimed. More than anything I had read before I began to really understand the impact and effect of patriarchy.

I went on to read as much of her work I could lay my hands on.

My long paper was on her prose and poetry in general with a detailed examination of three poems, all classic Rich. “Diving into the Wreck”, “The Burning of Paper instead of Children”, and From an “Old House in America”.

Some of Rich’s ideas, principles and poetic strategies that have stayed with me all these years:

Her identifying and validating the ‘invisible’ work that women do that recreates the world endlessly and that is perceived by patriarchal society as trivial and insignificant – have a look at a poem like “Natural Resources” to see how she describes this:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Her memorialising of and rehabilitating women who have done important work, such as suffragettes, anti-slavery activists, early women doctors. In some poems she just lists the names of women, in the way that one sees names on war memorials. It is partly a futile exercise, but better than the alternative, which is silence. She also acknowledged the isolation women often feel as they do their work, and she encouraged women to connect with each other to militate against this isolation. For Rich, part of her work as a feminist scholar and writer was to be a cultural archeologist.

She highlighted the multiple ways (that continue today in 2012) in which women’s writing and scholarship is mocked, trivialised, treated as the exception that proves the rule. The style and content of their work is criticised as too personal and not about important enough issues (see the chick lit debates that have raged on BooksLive and the Vida Lit statistics about women in literary magazines, the number of reviews that women writers get and so on).

Some of the stylistic tactics that Rich employs in her poetry is to avoid “quasi-liturgical” diction which evokes awe and reverence in the reader. She re-enters older or existing texts and re-visions them from new perspectives. She points out opportunities for choosing, in other words resisting being a victim, and recovering agency.

Rich’s use of punctuation and textual layout as a way of referring to the half-said, the silences and the other layers of meaning.

She had a definite political agenda in her poetry. She didn’t want her work to be elitist, and she struggled with the idea of “poetry as language and poetry as a kind of action, probing, burning, stripping, placing itself in dialogue with others out beyond the individual self” (Blood, Bread and Poetry).

I titled my first collection of poems Halfborn Woman, as a way of acknowledging her influence on me. I realise that my desire to start Modjaji Books, my commitment to feminism, my desire to publish the writings of southern African women writers who might not otherwise have a chance to get their writing published, all of this can be linked back to my connection to the powerful mind and writings and example of Adrienne Rich. Her brilliant articulations of what poetry is about and why it is necessary have been one of the strong encouragements I’ve felt to continue publishing poetry, and to allow a range of women’s voices the opportunity to be heard.

She continually paid tribute to women she saw as foremothers, I want to pay tribute to her too. It has been gratifying for me to see how many people were also deeply touched and influenced by her and how widespread the discussion and tributes to Adrienne Rich have been since she died.

Today’s UK Guardian has Eve Ensler and Jackie Kay paying tribute

“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political. This touch is political.”

I must have read and reread those particular words from Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Blue Ghazals” thousands of times, as if the repetition would somehow dissolve the lines drawn between the personal and political, the singular and the collective, the private and the public, the body and the earth.

Ms Magazine reminds us that her writings were a call to action, needed now more than ever

Last week we lost feminist foremother Adrienne Rich, to whom we owe boundless gratitude. Her poetry and prose guided many of us through the “anger and tenderness” of motherhood, helped us challenge countless “unexamined assumptions” and promised us that “we’re not simply trapped in the present… we can make … history with many others.”

There is much more I could say, but for now this will have to be enough.

» read article

Review of Lava Lamp Poems in latest Scrutiny 2

The December 2011 edition of Scrutiny 2, the UNISA literary journal, includes a review of Lava Lamp Poems by Deidre Byrne. As reviews of poetry are few and far between, it is thrilling to get a review, and even more thrilling to have one by a reviewer who ‘gets’ your work and takes the time and space to write about it as fully as Byrne has done.

Almost the first aspect of the volume to strike the reader is its profound South African-ness. For example, “the comfort of parquet” lists a series of iconic places in Johannesburg that the speaker misses, including “the Market Theatre, Jamesons, Kippies, Rumours, Scandalos / the Black Sun” (17), and each of them conjures, for the reader who is literate in Johannesburg landscape and culture, a particular, unique shade of feeling that is skilfully associated with a period in South African history. This is more than a mere list of places the speaker has visited; each is thoughtfully selected to form a pencil-stroke in a sketch of a period in history that is contrasted with “the too finely tuned / anxiety of all that was going on around / and within me — crushing, brutal, oppressive” (17). The accumulated negatives at the end of the line form a powerful contrast with the remembered ease of the speaker’s past precisely because of the poet’s care in choosing the spaces she mentions.

For the full review click here

Lava Lamp Poems

Book details

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Lynette Paterson on Lava Lamp Poems at the Grahamstown launch

As some of you know, Ingrid Andersen and I had a Grahamstown launch of our books, >Piece Work and Lava Lamp Poems during the Festival. NELM kindly hosted the event and I loved the evening. My friend, Lynette Paterson, introduced me and my poems, and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers did the honours for Ingrid.

It was wonderful for to hear Lynette speak about my work at NELM. I felt as though I was basking in warmth and light; and that the best of me is truly seen by her. I couldn’t take it all in, so I asked her if she would send me what she said, which she did and she gave me permission to publish her introduction. So here it is.

Launch of Lava Lamp Poems by Colleen Higgs, at NELM, 7 July 2011

Lava Lamp Poems is Colleen Higgs’ second collection of poems, published by Hands-On Books. Halfborn Woman was launched in this same venue in 2004.

First I want to pay tribute to Colleen for her hands-on involvement with writing and books – her own and others’. As a writing teacher in Grahamstown, the manager of community publishing at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town,
and the founding director of Modjaji Books, she has consistently turned her hand to the task of nurturing writers and writing, and latterly, women writers in particular. Modjaji has published 27 titles (and counting) in its first four years, with already several prize nominations and winners among them. Colleen’s vision and enterprising spirit are remarkable and inspirational.

In the midst of this, Colleen pursues her own life and her own art, and now brings us her second collection. Colleen’s personal life is the ground of her art. The chatter of her daughter; the silence of her partner; memories of others she has loved; places that have shaped her – these are the sources of her poems, and progressively they unfold an ever more fully born woman. From a high balcony in Troyeville, the girl with the pert new haircut and the “finely tuned anxiety” (17) sees into the far, firework-illuminated distance, but cannot discern the precipice she is on (20). The mother on the living-room couch with her small daughter watches the lamp in the darkened room, and discerns the meaning of present, past and future with a “slowed down, profound” wisdom that rises and sinks like the warm yellow wax in the lava lamp (47).

Perhaps more than anything, what the writer of this collection discerns is how short is the journey between the long-boned, smooth-skinned child, and the grandmother whose baggy skin is glimpsed as the faded blue nighty rides up her thighs. “You can’t pretend it won’t happen to you.”(12) “The birds have all gone, the river is fuller / the days are shorter, the rain is coming. My life will end. I’ve seen it now.” (39)

From such epiphanies, memories and workaday incidents, the poet examines who she is. The child asleep in bed with her pushes against her with her legs, as if to launch herself: “as if you’re eager to push away. I am your ground.” (40) The poet ‘pushes against’ each memory, each incident, testing, risking, launching. She writes to find her own ground.

And she writes against forgetfulness, towards wholeness. “My mother is slowly forgetting her life, / who she is and what holds her together. … I want to / remember enough to follow the pebbles all the way / back into the dark forest.” (30) (Incidentally, the presence of fairy tales lends both charm and a searing incisiveness to the collection – as is the way with fairy tales.)

While the life-content of her poems is processed in the writing, and the form is carefully crafted, Colleen’s poems tend not to have answers, points of arrival, or definitive conclusions. In form and content, the poems swell, undulate, “bubble and loop” (47). Like the yellow wax in the lamp, they rise and fall as the density of thought and feeling freely changes. On the whole they have the viscous quality of real lava – which may be why the flow of the prose poem is a favoured form. But even when form congeals into a surface crust, the inner fluid is restless, moving, seeking, asking – and sometimes shocking the reader (and probably the writer herself) with a hiss of steam as it encounters something unexpected: “sometimes I feel I could even slap strangers, / for no apparent reason” (9).

I’ve said nothing about the more ‘public’ sequence entitled, Notes from a New Country, in which the writer very tentatively, and humorously, ‘pushes against’ a new order of things, testing, looking to find new ground. Perhaps we can prevail upon her to include an extract in her reading.

It is with pleasure that I present Colleen Higgs and invite her to read from Lava Lamp Poems.

Lynette Paterson

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Book Launch: Lava Lamp Poems by Colleen Higgs

Lava Lamp Poems: Colleen Higgs: Colleen HiggsYou are invited to come along to the launch of Lava Lamp Poems by Colleen Higgs. Finuala Dowling will introduce the poet and her work. There will be a short reading from the collection.

Finuala Dowling says this about Lava Lamp Poems:

The poems in Lava Lamp are compelling: at once conversational and uncanny. Colleen Higgs tells the truth but tells it slant, insisting on the singularity of everything that is familiar — domesticity, marriage, motherhood, family. The sequence of poems set in Johannesburg is captivating.”

(Finuala Dowling is the author of What Poets Need, I Flying, Notes from the Dementia Ward and Flyleaf. Dowling has also recently won the Olive Schreiner prize for ‘Notes’ and she received the Ingrid Jonker prize for I Flying.)

And Fiona Snyckers says this

Alternating between the most economical of free verse and the most elastic of prose-poetry, Higgs shows a dazzling facility with both mediums. Her poems reach into the past, isolating long-gone moments and imbue them with talismanic significance. Personal history is rendered as a series of cultural artefacts, as distinct and recognisable as the eponymous lava lamp. But even as the past is forced to stand still and submit to scrutiny, it’s meaning remains fluid and elusive.

Humour runs through the collection like a glowing thread – from the gentle and affectionate ‘an ode to Perry’ to the utterly female satire of ‘on wanting a washing machine’ and ‘where these things lead’, to the dark undertow of ‘blaming Lulu’ and the bitter pill of ‘excuses’. Humour is used to evoke a wry smile, or in the case of ‘excuses’ a grimace of recognition.”

(Fiona Snyckers is author of Trinity Rising and Trinity on Air.)

Event Details

  • Date: Thursday, 20 January 2011
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: The Book Lounge, Corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets, Cape Town
  • Guest Speaker: Finuala Dowling
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of Leopard’s Leap wine and a snack
  • RSVP: The Book Lounge,, 021 462 2425

Book Details

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“Waar was jy?” remembering and making sense of the past

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about memoir for Rapport Boeke. It was translated into Afrikaans. Here is the English version for those of you who might have missed the Rapport.

The autobiographies of Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir entranced me as a young woman, they encouraged me to envision a different kind of life for myself because were women who were courageous, confident breakers of barriers.

We have been so divided, so separated from each other in South Africa, we want to know who we are living with and what their lives are like, have been like. We want to find out how others survived and how they have made sense of their lives. So we turn eagerly to biographies, “I read South African biographies because so much of our history is hidden; I want to better understand what happened,” says one reader. Another asserts, “Some of my all-time favourite books are memoirs, they connect us across space and time. They bring history kicking into the present. They represent our best efforts and our failures at dealing with the Big Questions: how we deal with race and sex and death and love and faith. They have a truth that transcends anything we make up.”

Lynn Carneson’s moving book about her parents, Fred and Sarah The Red in the Rainbow is her way of paying tribute to her parents, and to the painful lives they endured in participating in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. This kind of biography acts as a marker or memorial, ‘the lives of my brave parents shall not go unnoticed.’

Ronnie Kasrils’ book, The Unlikely Secret Agent is a long love letter to his late wife, Eleanor, which also works as a memorial to her. He tells the story of her arrest, detention without trial and escape from custody in 1963. The story is told simply, yet passionately and Kasrils refers to himself as Ronnie, the story is written in the third person about himself and Eleanor. This book and Carneson’s fill in some of the missing story about white people who were an essential part of the struggle against apartheid and reveal the price they paid for their commitment.

Many South African writers have played with the form and come up with something that is not exactly what we think of when we think of autobiography or memoir; they are not straightforward chronologies. In Native Nostalgia, for example, Jacob Dlamini writes the story of the Katlehong he grew up in, such that the township becomes the main character. He writes of the community and mores of this community, his own life and those of his close neighbours and family. But he also analyses wider trends, like the role of radio stations, and language, nuanced class identities within Kathlehong. As the blurb says, it is “part-history, part-memoir, part-meditation, and part-ethnography.” He explores the role of Afrikaans in Katlehong “…it was the language of colloquial expressions and …there is a deeper sense in which Afrikaans was (and is) the language of black nostalgia.” Dlamini goes on to refer to the phrase, “Waar was jy?”, a question to be asked about any number of cultural icons and references.

Antjie Krog weaves other stories into her own or her story into that of others, most recently in Begging to be Black, she weaves the story of Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho together with her account of a particularly frightening period in her own life in Kroonstad when she got involved in a situation, that was dangerous to herself and her family as well as to her own sense of morality.

In a panel at the Cape Town Book Fair this year, Sindiwe Magona and Jane Katjavivi, discussed their experiences of writing autobiographically. Magona said she wished she could write To My Children’s Children again, as there were many things she left out and glossed over too quickly when she iwrote it twenty years ago. As a publisher I would encourage her to write more. Katjajvivi explained that she started out writing a novel, but soon realised that if she wrote about the women she wanted to write about they would be recognisable as themselves to a Windhoek audience. So she decided to ‘tell the truth’ and set about writing accurate and detailed accounts of the lives of particular women who are her friends. She then realised that she was also writing about herself and her own life. For Katjavivi, the writing of Undisciplined Heart became a journey of discovery of what exactly it was that she was really writing about.

For the writers of autobiography they have chance for a second reading of experience, with consciousness added. Memory allows an objectivity which helps reveal the patterns of a particular life. Even though biographical writing is ‘true’, there is a fictionalisation: episodes and themes are selected and others left out. The description of the patterns in a particular life are interpreted by the biographer. Certain incidents stand for many other similar experiences or incidents. In well written biographies, the reader will be left with a clear sense of the life and times of the person, of his/her preoccupations, concerns, and the feeling tone will be accurate. As readers we get a privileged insight into the times and people who lived through those times, through their own autobiographical writings and through the writings of their biographers.

A small, tender memoir like Malika Ndlovu’s Invisible Earthquake tells us what it was like for her to experience the stillbirth of her baby girl. We are taken by the hand into her grief psychosis, and brought out of it on the other side. These books, some of which describe great pain, terrible suffering are medicinal to us readers, we find out that you do survive, and we learn again about the resilience of the human spirit and the courage of those amongst whom we live, often unaware of the challenges in their lives.

Helen Brain, author of Here Be Lions, says, “We write memoirs to be heard. To give our stories significance.” Sometimes there is a price to pay in ‘telling the truth’ of their particular story. Brain says, “[It caused] a complete breakdown of relationships with my family. Because I used my real name, and it was an ugly story, it impacted hugely on my family, who didn’t want me to publish it. I did it because perpetrators of sexual violence in families invariably get away with it, while the victim is forced to carry the secret or lose her family’s approval. I said ‘I refuse to carry the secret any longer.’’ In spite of the disruption to her life, she says, “It served as a turning point for me. It was very healing. Also extremely painful.” Brain says she learned “that there are a lot of women out there who have experienced the same, and are hurting.”

Undisciplined Heart

Book details

Begging to be Black

Native Nostalgia

The Unlikely Secret Agent

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a new poem – marriage

Notes from the Dementia WardFinuala Dowling runs a monthly poetry class. Well it’s not a class exactly. You sign up. She sends you exercises. You do them or you don’t. You send in poems. Then on the Saturday afternoon in question from 4 to 6, you sit with about 11 or so other poets and Finuala. She has put all the poems together in a stapled sheaf. According the way she has printed the poems out, Finuala asks someone to read a poem. She then asks a few pertinent questions. Others sometimes join in discussing the poem. Then she moves onto the next poem. Each poet gets a turn to have at least 2, sometimes 3 poems examined in this way. The afternoon is friendly and funny and you come away having learnt a lot about the way poems work, about things like clangers and cliches; shifts in mood and changes in direction and how to accomplish this. In short Finuala is a gifted teacher.

Promptly at 6 Finuala stops the class and offers all of those present a glass of wine. If you get there early you can sit in a chair from which you have a wonderful view of Kalk Bay, the sea, whales, the sky.


Here is a poem I submitted and have edited a little since the class. I wrote it about 18 months ago, edited it before the class, cut out the whole of what was the first stanza.


The birds have all gone, the river is fuller
the days are shorter, and the rain is coming.
My life will end. I’ve seen it now, I’ve seen the face of death.

They came and wheeled your mother away
on a metal trolley. Instead of mohair or cashmere, they
covered your mother with a rough, grey blanket.

I can’t know what you know, how you really feel
I can only surmise from how I see you spend your days
and what you come up with, what you have to show for it all     after all

I’m here, not exactly                waiting. I’m distracted,
busy, reading, preoccupied, thinking, dreaming.
But if you wanted to say something more to me
than paint colour, OSB, plywood, pergola, mast, tiller
screen, decking, boat, weather, wind, supper, diesel prices
I would listen.

Except, this is the way you talk to me of what is in your heart.
My own heart is thickened, hardened against your anguish.
There are gashes in our understandings.
I can’t know what you know.

(last two lines come from a poem by Adrienne Rich)

Book details

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Beauty Came Grovelling Forward

Beauty Came Grovelling Forward: A Selection of South African Poetry and Prose on Big Bridge – Gary Cummiskey guest edited this new edition of the online magazine Big Bridge.
Here’s Gary’s intro:

The work contained in this Big Bridge feature is by no means a wide representation of contemporary South African writing. It is rather a bringing together of some writers whose work I respond to, and there are of course many fine writers whose work is not here. It is therefore not a general “anthology of South African writing”. It is nevertheless hoped this selection will give readers an insight into the diversity of creative voices in South Africa; a diversity that is in part reflective of the multicultural nature of South African society.

The voices range from established names such as Kobus Moolman and Kelwyn Sole, to newer ones such as Neo Molefe Shameeyaa. There is the performance-orientated work of Richard Fox and Mphutlane wa Bofelo, and the socio-political voice of Vonani Bila. There are mavericks such as Aryan Kaganof and Goodenough Mashego, and the subjective lyricism of Alan Finlay and Mxolisi Nyezwa. There are also several women represented: Arja Salafranca, Haidee Kruger, Janet van Eeden, Megan Hall, Colleen Higgs, Makhosazana Xaba and Neo Molefe Shameeyaa.

The short fiction selection is only a handful of pieces, but again it is hoped they will indicate the diversity of short fiction writing in South Africa: from the poetic prose of Haidee Kruger and fantasy of Silke Heiss, to the playfulness of Liesl Jobson. There are the parables of Allan Kolski Horwitz and the exploration of relationships in the realistic work of Colleen Higgs and Arja Salafranca. Pravasan Pillay’s story is a sensitive study of early adolescence while Gary Cummiskey’s surreal horror story touches on issues central to a historically divided society: isolation, the Other, uncertainty and violence.

I’m pleased to have a poem and short story published here and to see Modjaji authors Megan Hall, Arja Salafranca & Makhosazana Xaba (forthcoming); as well as Book SA’s Liesl Jobson featured here.

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The poet and the woodcutter

Green Dragon 6 now out – available from better bookstores and direct from Gary Cummiskey.

I have a prose poem in Issue 6 called – “The poet and the woodcutter”, here it is:

The poet and the woodcutter

The husband invited the younger man into his home, to build more shelves. He was a poet, the older man. He had small hands, rather like bear paws in a children’s book, and nearly as hairy. He could lie on his couch and visualize the new shelves. He couldn’t build them, or not easily and effortlessly. So he gave the younger man a job.

The younger man was down on his luck, between things, living in the forest. He was able-bodied, and had large, tanned, capable hands. He was dangerous because in spite of being down on his luck, he was tall, dark and handsome. He looked like the prince disguised as a woodcutter in a fairy story. He wore a black hat at a jaunty angle, smoked cigarettes that he rolled up himself. Sometimes he drove by on his way to swim at the dam on a borrowed motorcycle. Sometimes when he rode by he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

So, the woodcutter came to make shelves for the poet. The poet’s wife made him cups of tea and tried to think of things to talk to him about. He didn’t chat much but he smiled easily, and made her laugh when he spoke, his tone wry, his words few.

The poet’s wife was also a writer. Of course she couldn’t read her work to the poet, he was a real writer, a serious writer, a poet. He needed silence and he needed to listen to difficult jazz music. He needed to read the work of other serious poets who lived in Germany, Turkey, Israel and Poland – not the ramblings of his own wife.

The poet’s wife took to reading her work to the woodcutter; let’s call him that, the tall, silent, tender-hearted woodcutter. He listened to her poems and stories and she could tell he found them moving from the way his eyes crinkled softly as he listened.

The poet was often away on important business, giving readings, signing books, meeting with other famous writers in big cities here, there and everywhere.

The poet’s wife was often alone in the big house with the new shelves and the tin roof that rustled in the wind. Or she would have been if not for the woodcutter who came round sometimes for a cup of tea, or to listen to her reading. Some days he walked past instead of riding the bike. He stopped and asked her to go with him to the dam for a swim. One particularly hot summer’s evening she went swimming with the woodcutter and decided that she would go and live with him in the forest and become a real writer herself. And so she did.

Green Dragon 6 features lots of other stories and poems by the following:
Alan Finlay, Janet van Eeden, Vonani Bila, Daniel Browde, Ingrid Andersen, Cecilia Ferreria, Kai Lossgott, Gary Cummiskey, Kobus Moolman, David wa Maahlamela, Tania van Schalkwyk, Joop Bersee, Anton Krueger, Gus Ferguson, Mick Raubenheimer, Goodenough Mashego, Aryan Kaganof, Brent Meersman, Kelwyn Sole, Haidee Kruger, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Megan Hall, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Neo Molefe Shameeyaa, Arja Salafranca, The Litchis

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