Kobus Moolman Interview

WG: Kobus, you are an accomplished writer both in the field of poetry with Time Like Stone and drama with Blind Voices, as well as being the editor of Fidelities and a teacher of creative writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. That's a pretty impressive resume. Can you talk a little bit about how you first got involved in writing?

KM: How did I first get involved in writing? I think it all started back in High school - in what we in SA call Grade 8, which is the first year of High School. And, as these things often do, it involved a particular teacher. He used to get us to write poems for homework. And I can clearly remember one such assignment. And the poem I wrote for it. The poem was called "The Eagle". It really wasn't anything grand. But what has stuck with me - all these years (I'm 43 now) - is the actual experience of writing that poem; the sensation of sitting on my bed with my back against the bedroom wall and the school exercise book on my lap and just letting the words loook after themselves, of just letting them out, a kind of helter-skelter feeling acros the page. And the intense pleasure that this gave me. An instinctual subconscious pleasure that was unlike any any childhood or adolsecent pleasures. It was profound, it caught me up, possessed me as it were, but it was also great fun.

And then the response of the teacher when I showed the poem to him. His encouragement. Almost understanding. And he then also told me to read more poetry. And gave me names and titles to look up. That's where my lifelong admiration for DH Lawrence comes from. Not someone I read much of now. But a huge influence upon me when I was still young.

It was also at school that I started writing little plays, and then putting them on myself in the school hall during lunch break.

Honestly speaking, I didn't think when I was at school that I could become a writer. I wanted to be a game ranger when I grew up. I wasn't sure how one became a writer. I just thought I would carry on in my spare time. Almost like a hobby. But over the years it has demanded more and more of me. Until the point now where it is not so much a way of seeing myself, as actually a way of being.

WG: I'm struck by your description of your initial experience - both the physical and psychological aspects - with writing. Would you say, at least with regards to poetry, that you still experience some of that same feeling today? What is the process of writing like for you now?

KM: The experience of writing has changed. In many of my early pieces, I simply leapt in. I did not think much about them. They were driven to a large degree by a kind of unmitigated emotionalism. A bath of feeling. And it was this sensation that I actually sought when writing. This led me even (several years later) to write using alcohol or narcotics - just to produce that kind of mindlessness, that sense of abstraction that allows the unconscious to make the imaginative connections so vital for creative writing.

Now, however, so much older, so much more sober (more's the pity), so much more 'experienced' in writing and conscious of the 'rights and wrongs', I find myself considerably more afraid than I ever was before. And this works in both a negative and a positive sense.

On the negative, I do find myself looking over my shoulder sometimes as I write; aware of what the critics or others might think or say. Aware of the market and the fickleness of the public and trying to channel my work through that. This is, as I say, a negative consequence of the fear now surrounding the experience of writing.

But there is also a positive side. And it is this that has been occupying me recently, and fascinating me. And also drawing me in. On the positive side, I feel that a deep fear of writing now is not such a bad thing after all. It produces respect. Writing can never, never be taken for granted. It is so much more than my small circumscribed ego. It possesses an energy and a force that must be respected.

It is also that I am begining to feel how small my powers of articulation are, when measured against the vastness of the silence and the darkness that lies at the edge of language. The light of my few words is so wan that sometimes I do feel weak. Not as if one were overawed by the challenge of trying to achieve something. NO. Because writing is not a competition or a contest. But diminished because there is still so much to be said, and I have hardly scratched the surface at all. Because, like Prufrock, it is always a case of: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all." Because everything I say only makes me more aware of what I have not said, not been able to say, of what is still left unsaid in my words. And it is this enormity, this sense of constant failure, of slipping way, of missing with every single word uttered, that is beginning to occupy me. How to say what I want to say? How to know even what it is I want to say?

Will I ever even be able to say it?

A small voice in me says no. And that though it matters to me, it matters as much as life and death, in the final analysis, maybe the few words I have been able to say are in fact the ones I was meant to say. And that there are no more. For me at least.

WG: Many of your poems, especially those in Separating the Seas, seem almost haiku like -kk very concise and almost entirely devoid of didacticism. Is their a certain style or affect that you strive for? When you sit down to write a poem, what is it that you are trying to accomplish?

KM: Yes, I certainly do want to write without didacticism. I like a pared down type of writing and hence perhaps your haiku analogy. I must admit that I am not a good haiku writer. I do prefer something a bit longer. But there is definitely a similarity in my work with the strict focus and sharp detail of Japanese writing.

I struggle to be able to articuate the way I write. But you could say that I think in visual terms. I am not very good with my hand in terms of drawing, etc. But I have an almost instinctual feel for the language of the eye. In fact, I worked for 13 years in one of this country's major art gallerys as their head of education. I like then to be able to create pictures with words. But these pictures are not Baroque or Realist. Rather they are enormously influenced by 20th century high modernism. By post-impressionism and german expressionism in particular.

I like to create images that have resonance. Almost as in avant-garde film. No narrative, no dialogue, no character to explain, just the visual image that allows the viewer, reader to enter and create their own meaning. I am also rather reticent about metaphor - where something stands for something else. That kind of clear or direct translation between an object, say, and its interpretation is too easy for me, and limiting. I therefore prefer suggestion, innuendo. Of course, sometimes this can lapse into obscurity, and this is the one danger of my way of writing, and something I always need to be looking out for. But for me writing is a way of attempting to say the unsayable, to give sound to silence, light to darkness, voice to the chaos (forgive the grand terms, but I am being serious) so inevitably it must border on the ineffable, on the spaces between the words, on the silences between the images. But here again it is like drawing. Drawing is really an interaction, a relationship between negative and positive spaces, between the white paper and the black mark. My writing is the same.

Does this make some kind of vague sense?

WG: Would you say your conception of writing is something like that of the American imagist poets and William Carlos Williams famous exhortation "no ideas but in things"? Given your philosophy, what advice would you give to beginning poets about their writing?

KM: I would struggle to fit myself into any particular camp. So am reluctant to take on board the description of "Imagist". This is not because I find myself fundamentally differing from them (perhaps the contrary), but purely because I am trying to keep a space around my thinking and feeling that is not too easily or too mechanistically described, categorized and solved. Having said this, though, I will go on to relate just how strongly I do in fact respond to Williams' famous quote: 'not idea, but things'. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Interestingly I am not so well steeped in the work of Williams to cite him as a major influence. I find that I have come to his adage more by the way of the European poets, than the British or American ones. Thus, a German poet like Trakl or Nelly Sachs or Celan, or any one of the wonderful Russians from the thirties and forties, Spanish poets like Lorca and Hernandez and Vallejo, and many of the East Europeans (Milosz), have been incredible forces upon my work precisely because of their ability to work with images. They make the reader see and feel and touch the world anew. And very interestingly they do it in a very oblique way. Almost, one could say, in a kind of surrealism. As if the poet were dreaming of images, not ideas. But - and this is a very important ryder - they do so without abandoning the imperative toward basic human ideas: ideas such as freedom, justice, equality, etc., because as a South African these are very very important 'ideas' to me. And I find that it is precisely the European poets (rather than the British or American) who because of their own recent history of suffering are able to yoke together the two opposing currents of the 'image' and the 'idea'. I am always reminded of what Van den Bruck wrote about the playwright Athol Fugard. He said that Fugard dealt with 'truths the hand can touch'. I love that. That works for me. How to be as concrete and tangible as possible in order that thereby the non-material, the psychological or spiritual can be evoked.

So if I was therefore to give any advice to beginning writers it would simply be to avoid thinking in grand terms. Don't say to yourself right, I want to write a poem about rape or HIV or violence or poverty or love. That does not work. Rather look for the specific. For the concrete. Don't deal in abstracts. A reader can't be moved by an abstract idea about poverty. Focus instead on someone who is poor. Root your ideas in the physical world. But - crucially - avoid at all costs the trap of over-descriptiveness. Just because I say you must write about the world that your five senses can approach, it does not mean that you must drown the page in descriptions. No. Less is always more. Select. Focus.

WG: I would like to change subjects for a moment. One of your plays recently won a competition in KwaZulu-Natal. Can you talk a little about the competition and the play?

KM: Sure. The competition was the Performing Arts Network of South Africa's Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings of New Writing. The play is called Stone Angel . It is a two-hander, for two actresses. It's a kind of ghost play - very broadly, and has been described as intensely lyrical and compelling. It's about a young woman in the present who becomes obsessed with the figure of an angel in a war cemetery commemorating the death of an Afrikaner girl during the Anglo-Boer war. The girl had fallen in love with an English officer, who was subsequently executed for treason. The girl was eventually raped and murdered, ostensibly by a group of British soldiers. (I stress ostensibly.) So the play cuts backwards and forwards between past and present. Between the dead and the living.

The way the competition runs is that there are firstly regional competitions. The winners from these then go forward to the national finals. My play got through the KwaZulu-Natal phase, and then also went on to become joint overall winner of the national competition. I shared first prize with a play from the Cape.

This is, in fact, the second time I have won this award - the most prestigious award for play writing in South Africa. In 2004 I won with my play Full Circle, which subsequently went on to have several very successful runs in South Africa, as well as in London.

Apart from some wonderful prize money, the script will now also receive further funding to go on to have a professional production next year. I hope to have the premiere in Durban in about May next year, and then go on to do some of our major Arts Festivals with it.

WG: Is there anything else that you would like to add in concluding our interview?

KM: I'd like to thank you for engaging me in this process. I am find I am usually quite reluctant to pronounce upon my work. Often feeling that the work itself knows more about its own intentions and life than I do. But I must say that I have enjoyed the conciseness and accuracy of your questions, and that I have to my surprise found that I am able to share something of my own understanding of my work, without taking anything away from its independence and integrity - something I prize very highly.