Michèle Betty and Joan Hambidge
Dryad Press, South Africa
Recently, African Books Collective has grown, adding a wealth of poetry presses from South Africa. Founded in 2016, Dryad Press is one such press. Jatinder Padda speaks to founders and poets in their own right, Michèle Betty and Joan Hambidge.
JP: When did you establish Dryad Press, and what was your initial motivation? How did you come to work with Joan Hambidge?
MB: I completed my masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town towards the end of 2015 under the mentorship of Joan Hambidge. I was, at the time, the poetry editor of New Contrast: South African Literary Journal (SALJ). Both Joan and myself were dismayed at the lack of opportunity for English-language poets in South Africa to reach publication. We wanted to start a press that would offer deserving writing and poets an opportunity to see their work reach publication. It was for this reason that we started Dryad Press, towards the end of 2016. It is a literary collaboration between myself and Joan, dedicated to the promotion and publication of South African poetry. Our website www.dryadpress.co.za offers information on our poets and publications, a blog, and a local bookstore.
JP: How has the poetry scene evolved in South Africa since you first got involved?
JH: There is more focused poetry, due to creative writing courses. Poets also tend to be more aware of the American and British traditions due to the Internet and the global village.
MB: My sense over the last five years is that there has been a resurgence of interest in poetry. There are several South African poetry journals that are receiving support from a myriad of writers and readers and there are many literary festivals that support and encourage poetry. However, attendance of the poetry slots at these festivals is still poor and it is an aspect to work on because if we can fill the seats, the organisers will be encouraged to offer better venues and more opportunities for poets to read at the festivals. There are also more dedicated independent poetry publication companies that have sprouted over the last few years to fill the space left by the big publishing houses who have diminished poetry publications due to the poor economic viability of publishing poetry. This in itself is encouraging.
JP: Broadly, are there common themes that you come across from new and established poets?
JH: There is greater awareness of the South African condition, but simultaneously poetry on the landscape of poetry, for instance Michèle Betty’s Metaphysical Balm and P.R. Anderson’s In A Free State.
JP: Is there a great variety in poetic practices in the submissions you receive?
MB: I find that many of the submissions we receive lack the added benefit of formal verse. Most writing is submitted in free verse with little or no attention paid to form. I like, in reviewing manuscripts, to see, at the least some attempt at writing in different forms – sonnets, villanelles, quatrains, haiku, even couplets – these are the staples of poetry and evidence of technical skill, dedication to the practice of writing poetry, sensitivity, and respect to the challenges that writing formal poetry pose. Tony Ullyatt’s collection An Unobtrusive Vice (Dryad, 2017) contains an elegant sequence of sonnets that were one of the reasons we accepted his manuscript for publication. In many cases, it is only once a poet masters form that s/he can move to free verse with confidence and have the requisite impact.
JP: Who/what do you regard as an influence on contemporary poets?
JH: The greater poetry tradition. It seems that English-language South African poets tend to write for a wider audience.
MB: Many English-speaking South African poets still look to the traditional UK and USA poets for influence and justifiably so – Eliot/Plath/Hughes/Auden or more recently Heaney/Bidart/Duffy/Carson/Rich. However, there is a wealth of South African poetry that we can draw on for inspiration. Dryad Press has started a blog on ‘Forgotten South African Poets’ and currently has features on Ruth Miller, Douglas Livingstone, and Wopko Jensma with Arthur Nortjie forthcoming. These are some of the local South African poets that have certainly influenced my own writing.
JP: Your website says that you look for literature with “the ability … to defamiliarise. Poetry that surprises, not only in form and technique, but also in its ability to enable us to reflect on our experiences in the world in a new way”. With this in mind, who are your ‘ones to watch’, coming up through the southern African or South African poetry scene?
MB: The South African poetry scene is a difficult arena to operate in, particularly in the field of English-language poetry. The Afrikaans poetry scene is vibrant and compelling. There are several Afrikaans publishing houses that offer poets an opportunity to reach publication. In addition, there are websites dedicated to new work, literary critics (like Joan Hambidge) who review and comment on new texts, and a variety of critics and academics dedicated to nurturing the Afrikaans poetry market and keeping it interesting and relevant. Jolyn Philps, Pieter Odendaal, and the Afrikaans Poetry Editor at SALJ, Juanita Louw, are relatively new Afrikaans poets whose work offers compelling, fresh new insights into social and political issues – and in Louw’s case, in the use of form. In English poetry, the scene is different. There are fewer opportunities to reach publication, a much smaller market, fewer reading opportunities, and a relatively staid critical arena. P.R. Anderson is the recent winner of the2018 Thomas Pringle Prize, and his new collection is unique, compelling and one to watch out for.
JP: You both wear a variety of hats – academic, editorial, poetic – how do you juggle the competing demands?
MB: Although I do juggle many different hats in the form of editing, publishing, and writing, they are all complementary and, in a sense, part of the same field. My editing as a publisher has made me a better poet. I am more aware of the effect of punctuation in my poetry and how to use the punctuation to the best possible effect. The editing has also assisted my selection process at SALJ. In reviewing submissions, I am acutely aware of punctuation problems that may appear in poems.
Being the editor of SALJ helps me to keep current. I review and consider new poetry every quarter for the journal’s poetry selections, and this helps to keep my selections relevant. It also assists me in reviewing new manuscripts.
Writing my own poetry is the one aspect that is most difficult to control. Finding the time and mental free space to write poetry and to edit and fine-tune my own poems is, for me, the most challenging aspect. It is the one area that is not ‘critical’ or linked to a performance deadline. So it’s the one area where you say “Let me leave this until next week”.
JH: I offer poetry workshops as a professor, write reviews, write poetry – the different discourses feed the process of writing and publishing good poetry.
JP: And finally, do you have thoughts about the place of South African poetry in the wider continental context?
JH: As I’ve said: poetry travels due to the Internet and the global village!
MB: South African poetry has certain key elements that identify it, one of which is that it was, historically, a key element in the struggle against colonisation, segregation, and apartheid. Poets are aware to a greater degree of the entrenched inequality built into the country’s geography. Issues of migration, immigration, racial, social and political issues, and gender constructs are topics that are constantly being grappled with by South African poets who offer authentic and relevant engagement on these issues, not just looking in from the outside but from their very own experience.