Kelywn Sole is an award-winning South African poet and Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town. Fellow poet, Jacques Coetzee, interviewed him about his new collection Skin Rafts and his work. This conversation grew out of what was meant to be a brief exchange, possibly for publication on an online blog dedicated to poetry. However, Kelwyn’s responses were more expansive and generous than expected. Afterward, both Jacques and Kelwyn felt that the entire interview should be published.
Jacques: The meanings ascribed to skin are at the centre of so much discourse, both here in South Africa and abroad. With this in mind, would you like to say something about Skin Rafts as a title? Does this collection feel like a new departure, or is it a continuation of older themes and conversations?
Kelwyn: The idea of ‘bobbing on a raft of skin’ first occurred in a poem in a much earlier book of mine: I only realised this while I was doing the final edits on this one. So my attraction to this trope must have been ongoing for a while. I think its meaning is in part about the precariousness and fragility of existence, the fallibility of who we are—the title of my previous book, Walking, Falling, also points in this direction. On one level, the title’s about human existence, about floating over something which can be unknown and frightening … the experience of living, in short. Yet, in my concrete experience I’ve found that being at sea in a small boat is not only frightening but invigorating as well. In this way Skin Rafts is about how just being alive, trying to live, is full of darkness but also light. Fear and joy simultaneously.
In addition, given the history of the land into which I was born, it also has to be about skin, literally. We live in a country which has always been obsessed and prescriptive about who we are, based on appearance. So: identity, skin colour, race. One’s skin is both a thin covering and given enormous weight as a foundational, explanatory cultural and personal principle. But I’ve never been content with this, either in apartheid South Africa or with the reversed racial myths predominant now. What we’re still doing too often, I feel, is just to invert the positive and negative values given to racial stereotypes, rather than question them. Skin Rafts as a title seems fitting because I needed to say something about the wave of identity politics we are experiencing at the moment; and try to relate to, tease out and either agree with or criticise its common assumptions in some of the poems. My view of identity is from the left, but from a group in the left that is ambivalent and critical about some of the more conservative forms of identity politics doing the rounds. Class is downplayed in these versions, consistently. Quite a few of them have been imported into South Africa online from—especially but not only—the United States, and fit neatly into the aspirations and senses of self of the new middle class. In the process, they ignore many of Africa’s own thinkers who wrote about race and class, such as [Amílcar] Cabral and [Samora] Machel, as well as someone like Frantz Fanon, who was scathing about what he called the comprador bourgeoisie.
Hopefully this book, like my previous ones, tries to conceptualise the melange of issues—class, race, gender, region and so on—that have an effect on our lives. But people never just think, breathe and perceive just politics—while politics is a constant issue, I’ve tried to show in poems that other human concerns always impinge on its attempts to straitjacket us into one or the other political conformity. So I’ve also worked on love poetry, landscape poetry, poetry of our everyday experiences and, more recently, my own versions of eco-poetry …. as well as trying to show how poetic form has its own politics.
Jacques: Your poetry tends to steer away from the confessional mode, and this is something you address directly in the opening of ‘My Country’. And yet, in Skin Rafts, you have included some profoundly beautiful poems that clearly reflect your own personal experience. How would you describe the relationship between your writing voices and your personal experience?
Kelwyn: ‘Confessional’ poetry, especially from North America, was a very visible trend when I started reading more widely as an undergraduate in the 1970s. It influenced me to some extent: even now, uneven as he can be, some of John Berryman’s brilliance in his Dream Songs and Sonnets to Chris leaves me in awe; and I think Sylvia Plath’s penetrating formal innovations have been downplayed, maybe due to the over-focus on what she symbolised, in the early analysis of her work. I think, however, that I have been more influenced by a poetry that did not have a predominantly confessional goal. Early on, it was the Black Mountain School that attracted my attention, as well as those poets whose early work shows its influence: especially Charles Olson, but also people like Amiri Baraka and Denise Levertov. I’ve had lots of other influences though. Among these, I found some of the people published in the Penguin Modern European Poets very exciting as models, especially Hans Magnus Enzensberger; as well as African poets such as Okigbo and U Tam’si and one or two of the Black Consciousness poets whom I knew in Jo’burg at the time.
I think most poems weave a poet’s personal experience into the text, in a more or less fictionalised and implicit manner. I think that’s even true of those postmodern variants which try to escape its strictures. So, to answer the other aspect of your question, my personal experience is threaded into my work, although it is never there in an unmediated form, or not at least partly fictionalised.
Jacques: I am particularly moved by your desire to speak of (or for?) “the ugly creatures”, by which I assume you often include human beings among others. What is it about ugliness that fascinates you, and do you think that poetry can (or should) somehow redeem or transform it?
Kelwyn: I think the term ‘ugly’ in that poem you’re talking about relates to my abiding interest in whomever and whatever belongs to what the novelist Thomas Pynchon calls the ‘preterite’, in other words the opposite of the elite … the anti-elite, if I start to imbue the term with my own political purpose. The preterite occurs in many forms throughout history, human as well as the non-human. That’s why in this collection there’s a snake poem; I’ve also written recently about scorpions and suchlike. To me, one of the principal roles of a poet is to try to understand those parts of our surroundings and consciousness that are ill-regarded; to look into the darkest corners of opinion and response. Socially—and in a lot of my critical work—I’ve focused on the marginalised, the downtrodden, the ignored. It’s a contingent, fluid object of concern, because neglect happens in many ways, as do the structures that define and support privilege. In South Africa, these structures have been set in place by centuries of oppression, but are shifting at present quite quickly, I think; hence the emergence of a poem such as ‘Comprador’ in Skin Rafts.
As one who has sometimes been offered and sometimes had to fight for the space to speak and the means to share his viewpoint, I’m fascinated about questions such as: Who cannot speak? What is not being spoken about? Who is speaking on behalf of whom? What does that leave out of purview? Put in academic terms, I’m very sceptical of hegemonies, both old or new: my immediate impulse tends to be iconoclastic. I have an urge to challenge comfortable and self-justifying beliefs. Even before one gets to the actual poems, that’s visible in my book titles—Absent Tongues, The Blood of Our Silence (jazz fans might notice the reworking of some album titles here!). There’s no final resolution possible for such questions and concerns, but that doesn’t alter the need to keep asking them.
Jacques: Is there a particular kind of insight you would like to kindle in the readers of your work, or is uncertainty a better word here? I am thinking of your remark, on Facebook, that only those who have forgotten their names can have a real conversation.
Kelwyn: I’ve always thought that any poetic style, and the aesthetic belief that accompanies it, is always an attempt by the poet to be read in a particular way; even though no one can ever completely succeed in fixing reception as they desire. I am no different. But having said that, I don’t consciously aim at any social group when my writing’s in process. More generally, to be viable to the public in future, I believe South African poets have to learn to straddle as many of our communities in their concerns as possible, even if we’re just writing in English. There are multiple audiences in South Africa. A poem is a bit like a pebble dropped in a pond: if you’re any good, the ripples move outwards into multiple spheres of affect, and resonate with and beyond the local into the global. If it’s a good poem, that is.
If I am attempting to address and influence a particular readership, it’s more in the form and the style of my work: in other words, the techniques I use. I like uncertain and provocative narrators, for a start. At times I use variations of voice and focalisation within, and between, poems. I sometimes try to move between somewhat differing perspectives on my subject matter, as well as experiment with changes of address; again, within and between poems. This is in order to break up what I’d want to call the smoothness of the reading experience. I’m hoping first and foremost to deny readers the tendency to be lulled into believing that they should respond only to art that treads the well-worn paths they’re used to. Secondly, I’m hoping to confound the tendency in our literary culture to slot writers into those stereotyped notions we’ve all been fed by the literary and political apparatchiks as to who we are and, therefore, what we should write about. Not only that, but also our preconceptions about what can be defined quickly, and facilely, as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in poetry and other forms of art. Too often people are still being fed one or the other canon as ‘good’—among conservative white critics, this is the English, especially the British, canon; but it’s not the only one. Our grasp of aesthetics has to become more transnational, I think. Being told what not to say and how not to write is like a red rag to a bull, to me!
In terms of audience, in quite a few poems I’m trying to nudge readers into being surprised, into double-takes, into rethinking and reimagining their own reactions to the subject matter: to get them to think, ‘what was that again?’ This is nothing new—Milton uses it in the way he manipulates lines and meaning in Paradise Lost, for instance. I’m hoping at times to get readers into thinking about the world more dynamically, more acutely. This is also nothing new—it’s one of the goals of metropolitan Modernism, in its earlier more radical phase. In this quest, there are devices I find useful, like the space of the page, unexpected juxtapositions, going off on tangents, finding the unusual but apt image. I don’t like closure in poems, even though I like decisive endings. In my view, an unsettled and unsettling, continuously questing aspect is an integral part of any poetic which wants to call itself socially progressive.
We all inhabit multiple identities. Given my own views and programme, too much of what I’m starting to see in poetry now is a search for some form of true consciousness or bedrock of belonging; coupled with a notion that an individual writer or performer should try and express the views of their own community (however this is defined) without caveats. My concern is that a very particular political discourse and notion of what poetry is have become over-predominant these days and are side-lining other equally interesting forms of poetry expression. There’s a lot of emphasis on expressions of group solidarity, on poetry as a site of healing, on essentialist notions of identity. Which is fine, so long as it doesn’t cancel out poetry’s other possibilities.
Jacques: Birds and other animals are not anthropomorphised in these poems, but there are moments when they seem to point towards other possibilities for being: I am thinking of the shrike with the pauper’s eye, and the imagined speech of the bird in ‘Birding’. Would you like to say more about the way birds in particular speak in these poems? How has bird-watching influenced your work, especially for this collection?
Kelwyn: I do sometimes anthropomorphise animals in poems, but when I do the meanings most often reflect back towards the human. There might be an attempt to see the non-human in a new light, but it must needs resonate in humans. That ‘pauper’s eye’ on the shrike, for example, refers not only to a rapacious bird but also our own impulses towards greed and excess, that which causes hunger and lack for others—the endless recycling of money, power and status that motivates misery. The other example you cite, ‘Birding’, serves a different purpose: the bird is ‘telling’ the birder how little he can understand of a bird’s existence—and those humans include the poem’s readers and, if you think about it, me as I’m writing the poem. I have a weakness for displaying narrative and perceptual conundrums such as this.
It doesn’t mean I, or anyone else, can begin to understand non-human perceptions and intelligence. Not at all. There’s been some interesting scientific work and popular writing, especially recently, on the amount and ways in which animal senses and experiences might exceed and differ from ours. Those which first caught my attention were on whales, octopi, bird migration; but there’s so much more coming out. For instance the most intelligent animal on earth, so far as we know, is a bird—the New Caledonia Crow, a creator and manipulator of tools. Our own Green-backed Heron is a fisherman, dropping flies in the water. At the moment I’m busy reading a book about the culture of whales and dolphins, and ‘culture’ is absolutely the right word to use. It’s time we learned to value our fellow inhabitants on this planet and recognise their age-old wisdoms.
As far as birds are concerned, Alan Finlay asked me a similar question in a recent New Coin interview, and I guess my answer is still in essence the same … it’s a similarity in the process and how one uses one’s mind and actions. In bird watching, you can and must prepare yourself by studying birds by reading, and so on: however, you can do this all you like at home, but you’ll find a lot of the learning happens when you’re out in the veld with binoculars and sore feet … that milieu where there’s no guarantee what will happen—whether there’ll be birds, no birds, or what birds might come into view.
Analogically, in poetry what’s required is not only practising one’s skill in front of the computer or page but also trying to put oneself in a position to experience some of the lives of others. Too many poets these days have to make their living in universities, and even if they travel may forget that the majority of the world lives differently. You have to live differently yourself, from time to time. Moreover, you can’t make the poem come on demand—you rewrite, you let it churn around in your subconscious … and if and when it eventually does pop up (sometimes when you least expect it) it has a maddening tendency to head off in unexpected directions. That’s great!
Put simply: both poem and bird appear on their own terms. They teach you that ego isn’t enough. You need to go deeper, go outside, stay aware of what’s alive around you. And that still doesn’t guarantee any certainty. Both are practices where the unexpected always looms. To me, that’s the exhilaration, how you acquire the craft—not the ‘finished’ poem product, or the new bird sighting ticked. It’s in the very process itself of acquiring skill and knowledge.
Speaking of the increasing interest in my poems relating to eco-politics and the lives of animals, I can say my move to Cape Town and eventual experience of the sea were important. At some point after coming down to the Cape I was galvanised by the social theorists [Peter] Linebaugh and [Marcus] Rediker, who point out that we have to treat oceans as continents rather than the empty spaces between continents: they’re redolent with life and movement, human and otherwise. And shortly after coming across this idea, I went to sea on a small boat for the first time. It’s no surprise that I find this joy I’ve mentioned especially present when I’m pelagic birding, which brings us back to where we started, ‘bobbing on a raft of skin’… .
There’s one thing further. Given how eco-systems work, I’m finding that interest in any one aspect leads you on to others. My interest in snakes, for instance, began because I thought that, well, birders have to move quietly through the veld, so one needs to know what one encounters, whether it’s dangerous or not, how to react in a way that causes least harm. Once you move among the other beings of our natural world, it’s impossible to draw a line and stop wondering or learning. Everything connects to everything else.
Kelwyn Sole was born in Johannesburg and has lived there as well as in Namibia, Botswana, and London. He now lives in Cape Town and is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town. He has won multiple awards for his poetry and critical articles, including the South African Literary Award (SALA), the Olive Schreiner Prize, a DALRO Award, and two Thomas Pringle Awards. His poetry and critical work have been widely anthologised, and he has edited a selection of South African poetry for the U.S. journal The Common. Skin Rafts and other titles by Sole are available through African BooksCollective.
Jacques Coetzee is an award-winning South African poet, and a well-known singer-song writer. Books, including Coetzee's 2022 Ingrid Jonker Prize award-winner An Illuminated Darkness, are available through African Books Collective.
Image: Kelwyn Sole. Photographer: Liesl Jobson.