Michelle McGrane in conversation with Arthur Attwell
Arthur, when you were younger you lived in Amanzimtoti, White River, and Pretoria before you moved to Cape Town. They're all very different locations. During your childhood, how did your surroundings impact on you? Was moving around the country a beneficial experience for you?
I certainly don't remember ever regretting a move to a new place, despite losing friends and familiar places. I think the moving helped me to mythologise the places I'd lived in just before they became irretrievably mundane. For me Amanzimtoti will always have its garden of giant avocado trees, monstrous spiders and occasional green mambas; I will always be riding my BMX through White River's countryside, and spending whole afternoons in its streams and its veld. Had I stayed in any of these places too long, I don't think I would remember them in as magical a way.
Can you remember being aware of apartheid and racial segregation as a child?
Absolutely. I'm sure I was often sheltered from the reality, but not as fiercely as many other kids. It wasn't hard to see something was wrong, and if I asked, my parents were very honest with me about it and didn't try to keep us blissfully ignorant.
You completed your honours degree in English Literature at the University of Cape Town. Your dissertation supervisor was JM Coetzee. What was it like being supervised by a distinguished and world-famous writer?
I was so intimidated by the man that I met with him only three or four times that whole year. I would sit at his desk and begin telling him where I was and what I was working through and what I was reading. And he would just sit there, staring right at me. He would never interrupt or do that little breath-drawing thing people do when they have something to say. So, thinking I hadn't made an actual point yet, that I was just bumbling along vaguely towards something he wanted to hear, I'd just keep talking, trying to reach a conclusion so profound that he would be forced by good faith or astonishment to say something back. Eventually I would just run out of steam and stop. There would be a pause, and he would quietly utter one or two sentences: direct, sharp-witted, and usually incredibly useful. And I'd live off that for months. I don't think he looked forward to our meetings.
You're also a UCT Creative Writing graduate. Was the course very intensive?
I thought so. Anyone can hover their way through an arts course and pass, but if you take yourself very seriously - too seriously in my case - you can make it the hardest, most intensive, most rewarding trudge at a university. I loved every moment of the creative writing courses I did at UCT, but they were also the hardest thing I did. There's nothing quite like the anguish of leaving your lecturer's office with pages of your hard, hard work all spattered and splayed with red ink, especially when you know everything he's said is true.
Tell me about the mathematical formula you've created to make sense of the problem concerning contemporary poetry
That was fun. I had read Gus Ferguson's remark somewhere that for every reader of poetry there are about 732 poets. This, of course, makes life difficult for everybody. I'd been working on economics books for a while, and I decided it would be fun to do what the economists do and put a formula to that assertion. Then I could use the formula to find a solution to the problem Gus had identified. The formula turned out as:
where R is the number of people who choose to read poetry, W is the number of people who write it, and Wn is the number of poems that W write. It's all quite tongue-in-cheek. The full explanation is on my website at www.arthurattwell.com/entries/journal241104.html.
The conclusion, interestingly enough, is that creating more readers is not the solution; the solution is to write fewer poems.
If you were holding a dinner party and could invite seven other poets (famous/obscure/dead/living), who would join you and why?
I would invite Robert Frost, but he wouldn't come because he's too grumpy. Margaret Atwood, because she seems refreshingly down to earth about writing and I could actually talk to her. Emily Saliers (of the Indigo Girls) and Paul Simon, because I think they would do an awesome duet after a few glasses of wine. Douglas Livingstone, because as a marine biologist he could talk about something other than poetry. Gus Ferguson, because he's great company, and I owe him dinner. And Ovid, out of curiosity and to impress the other guests.
You introduce your accomplished poem "My first England" with a quote from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: "Why you want to go to this cold thief place?" Tell me a little about the circumstances that prompted you to write the poem.
That poem kind of gathered in bits over a few years. But it began with my first visit to England, when most of all I was astonished at travelling straight into my childhood storybooks. The landscapes of my childhood literature, almost all English and American, had until then been mysterious and foreign to me. My first arrival in England began a strange process of my having my eyes opened and, simultaneously, having something stolen from my childhood, losing some degree of the fiction (the falsehood) of fiction. For so many years fiction had been fiction not only in its characters and stories but in every detail of its landscapes and social structures. I suspect that's true for many of us who grow up in former colonies. Of course the "cold thief place" can be cold and thieving for many other reasons, different for each of us. In the poem I wanted to explore some of those reasons.
You must have had some extraordinary and unique experiences living in Oxford. Tell me a favourite memory of your life there.
Aside from some dear friends I knew there, it has to be the poetry section in Blackwells, the bookshop on Broad Street. Whew. Meeting Yann Martel is a distant second, and the public library, relative to South African public libraries, is somewhere up there too.
Do you think we need more libraries and increased government funding to encourage literacy among the youth of South Africa?
There's no question that that is a priority even for basic education, let alone for real literacy. Baby steps would be a good start: just getting school libraries going again would go a long way. For some years now only wealthy schools have had school librarians, since - if I understand correctly - those positions are not state-funded at the moment. Many school libraries are badly neglected, but they are the literary frontline, as it were, and need reinvigorating.
Being an avid reader in South Africa is a problem if you don't belong to a library. Often, even if you're a library member, municipal libraries are abysmally stocked. The price of books is exorbitant and locally published books are as expensive as, if not more expensive than, than books published overseas. What is the reason for this?
To answer that question fully I'd need much more of your time. There are many factors that contribute to the cost of books. The biggest factor is the size of the market, which is just too small to achieve the economies of scale you see in British and especially American publishing. A mildly successful novel in Britain will sell five or ten thousand copies. Here that would count as a spectacular best-seller. Like many, I believe dropping VAT on books would make a difference - a fourteen per cent difference, not surprisingly - without doing much to the revenue service's annual collections.
Can you think of any initiatives that South African publishers, universities and corporations could put in place to encourage literacy at a school level and among newly literate adults?
Fund school libraries and new public libraries that people can get to easily. It's got to be the first, most obvious step. The national Department of Education has hinted at encouraging provinces and Section 21 schools to buy literature for learners, but the priority - perhaps understandably - is on science, maths, and language textbooks. They'll get there, even if not as soon as we would like.
What are you currently reading?
I'm enjoying Rustum Kozain's This Carting Life, one of the best poetry collections published in South Africa in years; a few of Penguin's fabulous 70th birthday volumes; and several other books I've started that await my undivided attention. Despite what I said in the Mail & Guardian recently, I still haven't got to the latest Harry Potter. My priorities are all messed up.
What five books have made a difference to your life?
Whew. An actual perceptible difference? The enormous Norton Anthology of Poetry has to be one; I lived off it for years as a student. The Bible, I guess, though that shouldn't betray any particular spiritual allegiances. An illustrated ABC dictionary by Richard Scarry. Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, for starting me along a particular intellectual trajectory. And, ahem, my own book Killing Time, if only because finishing it means I now have to start something new.
In an essay in The Guardian of 6 August 2005 entitled "Black day for the blue pencil", Blake Morrison argues: "Once they were key figures in literary publishing, respected by writers who acknowledged their contribution to shaping books, but editors are now an endangered species." He goes on to comment that the "intensive collaborative process between author and editor no longer exists in Britain" and writes: "A culture that doesn't care about editing is a culture that doesn't care about writing." Owing to the pressures they're under, it seems modern-day editors simply don't have the time to edit. Surely editing is crucial to the publishing process, and most authors benefit from the attention of editors? Isn't editing an art in itself?
I wish I had an answer as in-depth as your question. But, simply, yes, to all your questions. Editing can be done at any level with varying degrees of success; similarly, I can play tennis socially, even quite well - but if you want someone to play a match for money, you don't want me there, you want a pro who's been playing since she was five and has had lots of coaching and nitty-gritty experience. Perhaps Morrison's real gripe is that there is no glory in editing (if there really was once), so it's not surprising no one wants to do it.
In your website journal (www.arthurattwell.com) you made an entry dated 29 August this year, entitled "The sad state of editing", about the challenges which face South African editors. What are the challenges and are there any short-term solutions?
Oh, so many challenges, but it goes back to what I said earlier about libraries and literacy and editors being long-trained pros, and further back to the size of the South African literature market. There are no simple or real short-term solutions. On my website, www.arthurattwell.com/entries/journal290805.html, I was responding to a comment Michele Magwood had made about the entries for the Sunday Times Literary Awards. She'd said the judges were impressed with everything but the editing. Some of my editor friends were livid, but they're superb editors who needn't worry. As a publisher I know that, sadly, not all editors are superb, and the skills shortage is desperate. We could shift the bell-curve of editing quality simply by making it clear that editing is a demanding speciality, not a soft option.
You're somewhat of an ice-hockey fanatic. After browsing through your website I have a basic idea of how the game works, but what are the similarities between a game of hockey and a good poem?
It's not a difficult comparison to draw: both good hockey and good poetry are tough, uncompromising, beautiful, subtle, and intense. The differences between them are incidental, or logistical really. You can't get fit reading a poem, and you can't play hockey in bed. Apart from that sort of problem, literature and sport generally have lots more in common than bookworms and jocks like to admit.
Does the Muse ever arrive in female guise?
Ahem. Actually, not really. I certainly can't write about someone I'm involved with. I'm just too bundled up emotionally to have any sort of perspective at the time. If I'm too close to something when I write about it, my crap detector doesn't work. I end up gushing abstract nouns. No one wants to read someone else's abstract nouns. When I do manage to write something concrete, it's probably by mistake, or a very odd kind of love poem.
Do you belong to a writers' group? Are there fellow poets you feel comfortable sharing "work-in-progress" with?
I don't. I'm scared of those groups. Each to their own, I suppose. I've shared work-in-progress with Stephen Watson, since he was my supervisor, and teacher before that. And Helen Moffett gave me invaluable feedback on the Killing Time manuscript.
Your debut collection of poetry, Killing Time, was recently brought out by Snailpress/UCT. How did you feel when you held a copy of the finished product in your hands for the first time?
It was a beautiful thing, but I was nauseous and terrified by it. I wanted to find a small, dark hole and disappear into it. It took a few days for me to be able to speak about the book. I wasn't expecting that reaction at all. The whole thing felt like a game that had got far too serious.
How would you describe the collection, Arthur, and how did you decide on the title?
I'll let the blurb describe the collection (see www.arthurattwell.com). It was hard enough getting that right. Originally the title was going to be Simple Organisms, which was the title of my MA (Creative Writing) dissertation and a phrase from "Karoo letter, 1900". But we were really stuck for a cover image. Standing in my parents' lounge one evening I saw this photo on the wall of me at seven years of age, and everything just came together, like a puzzle suddenly solving itself in the simplest way. "Killing time", a key poem in the collection, offered the perfect title. I'm almost embarrassed to admit we found the cover image before the title, but there it is.
Where has Killing Time been distributed and how can we get hold of a copy?
Most good bookstores have taken copies, but any bookstore can get it in. Or online at Exclusive Books and kalahari.net.
Do you have any launches or public readings coming up during the remainder of the year?
I'll be speaking at A Touch of Madness in Observatory on 5 December - Hugh Hodge runs a great series of readings there every Monday evening from 8 pm. I keep a note of any forthcoming appearances on by website, like every good megalomaniac.
Who would play you in the Hollywood film version of your life?
Oh, Orlando Bloom, who else?
Are you optimistic about South Africa's future?
Of course. And not in the wishful, in-the-face-of-despair, I'm-a-Happy-Guy kind of way that the word optimism suggests. This is simply a better place than it was yesterday, and the same will be true tomorrow. I don't believe there is any other way to see South Africa. If you're not optimistic, you're not actually living here.
My father's churchyard
LitNet: 18 October 2005
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