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Living, writing, publishing: Michelle McGrane interviews Colleen Higgs

Colleen Higgs was born in 1962. She spent most of her childhood in Lesotho and her adolescent years and young adulthood in Johannesburg. More recently, she lived in Grahamstown for five years. She now lives in Cape Town with her husband and daughter. Colleen has worked as a teacher, a teacher trainer, a materials writer and an academic development lecturer, and is currently programme manager at The Centre for the Book. Her poems have been published in literary magazines over the past fifteen years. Her debut poetry collection, Halfborn Woman (Hands-On Books) was published in 2004.


Colleen, how has your childhood in Lesotho impacted on your life?

I lived there from age four till I was thirteen - formative years. It was a different time and place from now, the late 60s, early 70s. My parents played tennis, my father polo, we spent a lot of time at the "club". There was a lot of drinking and partying. Maseru was filled with foreign aid workers, the Holiday Inn had a casino and there was a bookshop that sold porn. My mother worked at that bookshop for a time. Gambling and pornography were not available in South Africa in those days. I attended the English Medium Prep School and had kids from all over the world in my small class, as well as local Basutho people, most of whose parents were either doctors or politicians. Of course, I didn't realise that this was unusual for that time for a young South African; I only discovered this when I went to boarding school in Bloemfontein from standard 4. I could speak Sesotho, and this has been useful to me in my life, although I've never learnt to read it. Without writing a whole autobiography, I guess that is some of how it impacted on me. It also meant that I was an outsider at high school in Jo'burg, where we moved in the mid-70s - I didn't know anyone from primary school. I changed schools six times before I matriculated.

While you were growing up, what did you believe about your future?

That it would be better to be a grown-up. And it is. I hoped to be a writer, and I am and have been, although so far it has not been my day job.

Books saved my life as a child, because I quickly learnt that the world was bigger and more fabulous than I had experienced, and that there were many different possible lives. I was a passionate, addicted reader and could read before I started school. I wrote plays and stories as a child.

I want to be a fully functioning person who is engaged with the world around her. Being a writer is part of that, part of what I have wanted for myself. Being a writer is partly a way of being in the world, having a particular, almost voyeuristic interest in what is going on. The other part is doing the writing. You aren't a writer if you aren't writing. I remind myself of this when I find long periods going by and I haven't made time to write.

Okay, tell me about teaching?

I taught high school for four years. I loved teaching English, but it was very hard, it's not easy to work in a school. It's also not easy holding the projections that kids have towards anyone who is a teacher. You have to get through all of that first. I taught some amazing people; they weren't that much younger than me. Some of them have gone on to do remarkable things, and that makes me feel honoured that I worked with them while they were in high school. But I don't think that I was cut out to work in a school. There's just something about that environment that doesn't bring out the best in me.

Let's talk about books. What five books have made a difference to your life and why?

Well, there have been many more than five. It's hard to choose five, but here are five for now. I loved Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood; she captures very accurately what I experienced too as a girl, how full of love and malice and cruelty girlfriends were.

I loved Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook. They gave me a sense that as a woman I could have a better life than the one I saw prescribed in magazines or from role models and school. I read those books in my early twenties, and I began to have a clear fantasy of what a literary life might be like.

Raymond Carver's poems and short stories left me awed and still inside. I also loved the fact that he wrote about working-class people and losers, and showed the complexity and frailty of ordinary human life, and in doing that showed the transcendence that is possible

Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, especially the first half … It's a memoir of a young woman who had a severely dysfunctional family. I loved the honesty and humour.

Do you refer to yourself as a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?

Yes, I would say that I am a feminist, even though it isn't the "in thing" to say these days, it sometimes seems to me. Feminism for me means valuing women, and the lives of women, and what women have to deal with in their lives. It also means being aware of power dynamics that operate, and resisting these where possible. I'm envious of young women who have grown up in a post-feminist world, if I can call it that, and who don't have to struggle in the same way as women who are older than me or women of my generation. I think that in our formative years we, my generation, had to cope with roles that hadn't changed yet, but were beginning to change. I have struggled with lots of learned behaviour that hasn't worked well for me, being tentative, timid, lacking in self-confidence and authority. It is not easy to differentiate what has been personal, my personality, my upbringing, and what was more widely applicable to women of my class and race background. And in the end it doesn't matter - as an individual one still has to deal with the particular set of cards that you have been dealt - no matter how you ended up with that particular set.

Colleen, you have a little daughter called Kate. Has being Kate's mother changed you?

I have more admiration for all women who are mothers, because now I know what they're dealing with. It's intensely demanding and calls upon all inner resources. Sometimes it's easy, but it's never "natural". I've also discovered that there's huge pleasure in having a child. I was always afraid of the burden and responsibility that it would be. It is lots of fun and very interesting.

Kate was prem - she came at 29 weeks and had to stay in hospital for over two months before she came home for the first time. That whole journey was very intense and the only way that I managed was one minute at a time, especially in the beginning. The first six months of her life were truly an ordeal. We all came through it, and as with all harrowing experiences, I suppose have grown because of it.

If there is one thing you can impart to your daughter that she'll carry with her the rest of her life, what would it be?

I hope she'll trust herself and believe that she can do what she dreams of. And that she'll know that she is "beloved on the earth", as Raymond Carver said.

The writer Sue Bender says, "Maybe one of these days I'll be able to give myself a gold star for being ordinary, and maybe one of these days I'll give myself a gold star for being extraordinary - for persisting. And maybe one day I won't need to have a gold star at all." Have you learnt to give yourself "gold stars"?

No, I don't think about gold stars, but now that you mention it, I guess I can see the merit in doing it. There are a few things I can see that I have done that could merit gold stars. I always tend to focus on what is undone and still needs to be done, on what is missing or not right. I think this means that I don't take pleasure sometimes in all that is right and good and working and enjoyable.

When you look at your life so far, are you happy with the journey you've travelled over the past four decades?

I don't have too many regrets. Just that it goes so fast. Somehow I've never been prepared for that. I wish I could have got further with my writing sooner. But it is not too late, and I know why it was like that for me.

What's your ultimate truth?

I don't really think in those terms, but I suppose I believe in the idea of doing unto others … the "what goes around comes around" idea. I also think it is important to dream, to be aware of myself and others, and to be kind.


You deal with writers on a daily basis as part of your job. Is the competitiveness in the writing world a necessary thing?

I don't see competitiveness. I see anxiety, desire, dreams, yearning. I see that some people are recognised more than others, and not always for reasons to do with their actual work. But that is life and that is politics, and I think that there is a politics of publishing and recognition. Writers shouldn't lose heart or give up, but should work harder and read as widely as possible.

There are ways of getting better and getting ahead as a writer: universities offer courses and there are lots of informal workshops and courses too.

Can you explain your writing process? Do you write every day? Do you begin with an image, an idea?

I don't write every day. I wish I did, though. I keep a notebook, and write often. I find I have preoccupations, currently as the mother of a daughter who is nearly three - I think about her, I wonder about her, what is going on for her, how she sees the world. It has allowed me access to my own life at that age too. So that is one of my current preoccupations. I think the way that I write is more of a sculptural process. First of all I gather a whole lot of raw material and then within that I find a poem, and whittle away the unnecessary stuff, and find the form that works for this particular poem.

Sometimes I write a poem straight down as though I was taking dictation. In my book Halfborn Woman the poems "evidence", "in retrospect" and "letting go" were written in this way. But that's rare.

Tell me about the poets who've inspired you.

I love Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood. I love Nazim Hikmet, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, ee cummings, Blake, Keats, the Bible, Miroslav Holub, Wislawa Sjimborska, TS Eliot, Raymond Carver, Wopko Jensma, early Serote, inside by Jeremy Cronin. I also particularly like the work of Karen Press, Robert Berold, Ingrid de Kok, Joan Meterlekamp, Mxolisi Nyezwa, all poets working right now in South Africa.

We don't have any bookshops here that have a fabulous selection of poetry. So I find poets in various ways. Friends pass on books that they're reading and enjoying.

There's a lot of complaining about the narcissistic self-indulgence of the confessional school of poets. These days "confessional" seems to be a dirty word, a nasty criticism, in certain literary circles. How do you define "confessional" poetry? Are you a confessional poet?

Now that I don't have to, I don't read literary criticism. I like to read reviews and I like to read original writing, poems, novels, memoirs. I'm interested in people's lives and what they have to say about their lives, or what they don't say. I like gossip. I don't have a clear definition of what confessional poetry is or isn't, although I suppose I've feared that I would be dismissed as a confessional poet, rather than simply identified as one. I think that my range is wider and deeper than confessional. I'm not sure what would make me fit the category. I do write from my own experience, my own observations. I suppose I write about things that might not be easy for those who are the subjects to feel comfortable about. But it was either writing what I felt I had to write or allowing myself to be censored or muffled. I chose to write, to try and tell the "truth" as I see it.

Does poetry serve a therapeutic purpose in your life?

No, it doesn't. I've been in psychotherapy since I was about 27, so that must be 16 years. I get my therapy there. I've had a difficult life in some ways. I lost my father when I was four. Or should I say he lost me. I struggled to get over that. Also, my mother has her own difficulties: she had a tragic start to her life and she's battled with depression and suicidal tendencies all her life. These things are not easy to grow up with, to deal with. So I think I've needed therapy.

Writing for me is about trying to find the words to say something. To be a recorder, but not just to write down the words, to try and capture and recreate the feeling as well. I don't know why I want to do this, but it seems necessary to me.

I can only write about things that are no longer "hot" for me. I need some detachment, some distance, some perspective. There have been times in my life when I was in a crisis to the extent that I couldn't write at all.

How important is writing about ordinary, everyday life to you?

"Ordinary" life is the main source of my inspiration, although I think that nothing is really ordinary, in the pejorative sense of ordinary. The quotidian is full of vibrant life and meaning to me; if it were not so, I guess I too would be suffering from depression. I'm always interested in the quality of light, in what I see before me, and it's never the same. Having a child has reinforced this for me - she's always changing and growing right before my eyes. I can take nothing for granted.

Anne Sexton said in a radio interview that facts "are very unimportant things, there to make you believe in the emotional content in a poem". Robert Lowell similarly admitted to "tinkering with the facts", in order to make dramatic effect. How do you view the factual versus the imaginative in poetry?

I try to tell the truth as I see it. I have debated with other writers I know about telling the truth and about lying, and whether you can tell the truth as a poet and be dishonest in other ways, in your own life.

The main lie is that you can never tell the whole story, you can never tell it all, so what you choose to write about is a way of telling the truth and a way of lying. Maybe the other lie is to pretend you are telling the whole story.

Muriel Rukeyser wrote in her poem "Not To Be Said, Not To Be Thought, Not To Be Spoken":

I'd rather be Muriel
Than be dead and be Ariel.

Do you think people err towards a tendency to romanticise the lives of poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton?

I don't know, I can't speak for others. I've always been interested in Sylvia Plath. I like reading about how she grappled with writing as a way of life. I wish she hadn't killed herself, that she'd been helped, or just hung in a bit harder and longer. I don't think that suicide is romantic.

Sharon Olds talks about "the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal" in terms of writing about people in our lives. Do you share your work with the people you write about?

Yes, I do. And so far they have been okay about what I have written, even if at first it was a little painful. I think that I don't judge others in what I write, but try to write the truth as I see it. So perhaps that's where there's room for the subjects of what I have written about to claim their own space and their own perspective.

But I wonder about my daughter, how she'll feel once she can read and when she's older. Will she be okay that I have written about her? Will it harm her in any way? Change how she feels about herself? I hope that it won't, or certainly not in a harmful way. Andrè, my husband, sometimes says he didn't realise what he was letting himself in for by getting hooked up with a writer. But he wouldn't want to censor me, so long as I am mindful of his privacy too.

Colleen, do you think about your audience when you're writing? Is communication with the reader important to you?

I think of the reader when I am making a poem, but not when I do the original writing. When I first write I'm just trying to get things down, like a court recorder, perhaps. When I make a poem, I shape it, try and figure out what I am saying, and then try to say it as simply and clearly as possible.

Do you find you have to make a conscious effort to create boundaries between your public and private life in your writing?

I don't really understand this question. I only have one life and I hope that I am the same person in the different parts of my life. I'm fortunate in that currently my work is enriched by the fact that I'm a writer too.

You write prose too. Do you prefer writing prose to poetry?

No. I like writing. Different genres have different demands. I enjoy learning to get to grips with the different genres.


You're currently programme manager at The Centre for the Book in Cape Town. How would you define your job?

My job changes, but it's about providing information and linking people in the book world. I have to think of ways of passing on information and interpreting things like publishing for others. The Centre for the Book exists to advocate the importance of reading and writing for all South Africans. We lobby for better libraries for all, and we offer support to emerging writers and new publishers. I manage our website and two e-groups as well.

Can we talk a little about the Community Publishing Project?

The Community Publishing Project offers small grants to writers or writer groups who want to publish their own work. Twice a year we have selection processes. Successful projects receive a small grant and mentoring. I've also written a booklet about small-scale and self-publishing, which is available at R25 from the Centre. This project encourages new voices, all languages, and aims to see more publishing happening on the margins.

What do you see as the role of the Internet in writing and poetry? Do you see it as a threat to book publishing in years to come?

No, I think it could develop new readers and new markets, by making people aware of publications and writers and possibilities that they were not aware of. I think that the more opportunities for publishing in whatever format, the better. I love reading LitNet, which I think is the best of the online zines we have in SA. I'd love to see more appearing, and was sorry to see www.donga.co.za come to an end.

What role do small presses play in poetry publishing in South Africa?

Being published by a small press is the only way that you can have a book of poetry published, until you have achieved some kind of major recognition as a poet. Even then it is unlikely that a large publisher will take you on.

I don't think there are enough small presses. I love the idea of small presses and would love to see more of them, more independent publishers. I think our booksellers are becoming more open to small presses, and they make room for them on their shelves. That is what we are trying to do with the CPP, to get more people (writers) to become publishers so that there is a bigger variety of different voices available. There is a lot of gate-keeping that goes on because a few people have most of the power to say what should be published.

Small presses just need to ensure that the work of their writers is reviewed and receives some kind of marketing recognition. It's also up to the writer. As a writer, you have to take your work seriously and keep sending it out, and you have to accept invitations to read. I don't always find that so easy. We have to be aware that no-one is going to seek us out if we are not writing and putting our work out, for better or for worse.

South African poetry … where do you think it's going?

There are vast numbers of South Africans who write poetry. There are far more writers than readers. And not enough people who read South African poetry. I wish more people would read poetry. There have always been interesting poets, and there still are. Poets have something to contribute to the vision of what life is like here now and what it could be like. Poets tell us something of what the collective dream is, and I think that it is important for us to know that and for future generations to have a record too. There will always be a place for poetry. I can't predict the new formats for publication, the new trends, but the essence of what poetry is, I think there will always be a need for it. A gauge of the soul of the nation, as expressed by dispirited individuals.

Going the self-publishing route must have been a huge learning curve.

It was. I learnt about taking a huge leap of faith. I've been thrilled with the way my book has been received. I broke even, and in fact have been asked to do some other writing work since then, so indirectly I made money. It was an important step in being a writer. I took the self-publishing route because I have encouraged others to do so, and decided that I needed to walk the talk.

I have had a wonderful response from people who've read my book. Many people have written to me about it. I was scared of doing it - wondered if I would be criticised or ignored; and in fact, it's been the opposite. I had one bad review in Die Burger, but several good ones, and all the amazing letters and emails - which I didn't expect.

I suppose I wondered if the self-publishing thing would prejudice readers against my book. Most people have not seemed to notice that part. I tried to have the book look as professional as possible and got Magenta Media to do the book design, and I had a matt laminate on the cover and a thread-sewn binding. I was gratified that my book looks good, like a real book. I think that sometimes self-published books do look as though they are self-published. I don't mind that, because I am interested in all kinds of publications, but I know that it can detract from a book being taken seriously.

What feeling would you like people to walk away with after reading Halfborn Woman?

I hope that they feel as if they have had an enriching experience and that it has made them wonder about their own lives a bit more.

How can we hold of a copy of your poetry collection?

It should still be in bookshops - I know that most Exclusives ordered it. If it isn't you can order it through a bookshop. Blue Weaver is the distributor in case the bookshop hasn't heard of it.

LitNet: 13 April 2005

Did you enjoy this interview? Have your say! Send your comments to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page. Or submit your own poetry to Anton Krueger for consideration.

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