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This Sunday, the wonderful Shafinaaz Hassim is interviewing Joanne Hichens about her memoir, Death and the After Parties.
Poetry galore! Family, friends and poetry lovers filled Wordsworth Books Gardens to the brim to celebrate the publication of Small Souls: New and Collected Poems by Stephen Symons.
Stephen was in conversation with Kelwyn Sole, who has been a mentor and friend to Stephen for many years. Here are his notes for the introduction of the event:
Introduction to the launch of Small Souls (Karavan Press) by Stephen Symons | 28th November 2022
I first met Stephen Symons as a Masters student in the English Creative Writing programme at UCT a decade ago.
To quote Neruda, he is an unusual poet, ‘like the poets of our age, in light clothes and walking shoes’ (Pablo Neruda). I haven’t previously met a poet who is not only a sportsman but also someone who could weld, fly a plane, in addition to being a prodigious reader, Stephen is a knowledgeable lover of classical music and fine arts, and an excellent photographer.
In our interactions as his supervisor, I very soon realised that Stephen was already skilled in the lyric form and its formal devices (metaphor, image, extended tropes)
But equally quickly, I realised this designation of ‘lyric poet’ did not give the full story of what he was and is trying to do, nor what his poetry was increasingly to morph into.
He has kept the mastery of the traditional lyric, yes, and – like all good poetry – a 2nd and 3rd reading in these terms reveals gems the reader will have missed the first time around. However, what struck me also was his inquisitiveness and willingness to experiment and extend the lyric form in other directions.
I now understand that his knowledge of music and sensitivity to sound gives him a deftness with rhythm and rhythmic changes. Moreover, as a graphic designer, he is fascinated by the use that can be made of the page as an arena for spatial experiment (how a poem looks) and has worked on several poems which reflect this. Furthermore, he quickly ventured into the prose poem, a realm which abounds in lyrical and narrative possibilities; but a realm where few lyric poets venture, especially in SA.
I think these exciting formal directions he has followed reflect the openness of his own personality. When we worked together, he was prepared to follow, examine and think about every reading or individual poet I suggested to him. At the same time – of course – he was reading and thinking prodigiously on his own. He has an openness to the influence of the new, not from any desire to imitate but rather to see whether anything or anyone he comes across can teach him what may be useful for the further development of his style.
This openness to influence encompasses not only SA poets but also the poets of metropolitan modernism and postmodernism, and those further afield, like modern Arabic poetry.
In summary, for me, the effectivity and reach of his poetry lies not only in his usage of form but also in the number of recurring interests – themes and perspectives – which make his poetry unique.
The titles of his books are instructive here: Questions for the Sea; Small Souls; Landscapes of Light and Loss; and my special favourite, For Everything That is Pointless and Perfect, indicate some of his abiding major interests and perspectives.
Many of his poems revolve around acute observations and musings on the everyday (the quotidian), sometimes little noticed, details of family interaction, suburban experience and life. Poems about marriage, family, children and friends are recurrent and resonate particularly strongly. Among the weight of practicalities as a householder, there is a compelling awareness of the fragility and lightness of being alive on this planet at this time; and the particular anxieties and uncertainties of living in a strife-ridden country, itself part of an increasingly precarious world order.
It is also a poetry stippled with memory and immanence. There are poems filled with the memory of loves, youth, and his fraught time in the military.
As a result, there is a grounding of Stephen’s lyrics in our lives and our contradictions. Our past and present repressions and oppressions in SA leave their trace. I can think of no better concise example of this than a poem which notes how the shadows in a garden ‘leopard-crawl over mossed brick.’ (‘The intricacy of a body in the dark’) – the image has an immediacy but, simultaneously, a reference to the recent military past of this country, which is unforgettable. He writes within a country which, in the words of another poem, “simply wraps bandages” (‘Night drive’) around everything; a country where – to quote another particularly memorable longer poem, fences appear to “give chase” to human movement (‘The fence’). The threat of enclosure, violence, or peer or personal psychological repression and suppression are still with us and tinge his lyrics with their presence, giving them a greater resonance and accuracy.
Stephen’s poems resist restrictions of subject matter and style. He is superb at interweaving the social world of his poems with a more expansive natural world and the lives of the other creatures with which we share the planet. These intrude in poem after poem to advise and admonish us. The non-human is there and interacts willy-nilly with the behaviour (and, one should add, follies) of human beings.
I find references to the sea, and astronomy, in his poems especially powerful and healing.
For me, I find Stephen’s poetry, as a whole, moves exhilaratingly between stillness and flux; the numinous and the prosaic; between the concrete and the abstract; between family gardens and an expanded vision of the sky at nighttime; between the small details and compulsions of our surroundings and the large, philosophical and ontological questions always contained in these. (His poetry aids a reader’s understanding of their interconnectedness). For instance, a poem watches a dying butterfly, ‘paying life’s inevitable invoice / for a weekend / in paradise.” (‘Last afternoon’) Or, elsewhere, a rising wind reminds a banished angel, huddled beneath a streetlight, of flight. (’Beneath a streetlight’)
But even among the strictures we face, as he points out in several poems, “no loss is a perfect amputation/ … / the ghost of the limb lives on’ (‘Nervelines’).
Thus Stephen’s poems are always replete with possibility, with potential, with our human impulses that promote love and life in the midst of everything that besets us. As one poem says:
every outcome is possible – infinite fractions of happiness and hopelessness intent on manufacturing wonder.
(‘A vast undecipherable stillness’)
Those of us who know Stephen are acutely aware “he never takes poetry, or the subject matter he writes about, for granted.” He never adopts the narcissistic self-regard that appears so often these days; instead, in his demeanour and work, he demonstrates the questing humility of serious talent, of a practitioner of the art of the poem: a stance which will, I know, result in much more to emerge from his pen subsequent to this wonderful, life-affirming and skillful collection we have before us tonight.
Professor Kelwyn Sole, Emeritus Professor of English Literature (UCT)
Thank you to Wordsworth Books Gardens, Stephen, Kelwyn and all who were there to welcome this beautiful book into the world!
Last night at Exclusive Books Cavendish: a beautiful evening of poetry and celebration. Melissa was in conversation with Jacques Coetzee. Their exchanges about the craft of poetry were inspiring, and Melissa’s reading of her poetry moved all the hearts present.
Thank you to Melissa, Jacques, Linda and the team at EB Cavendish, and all poetry lovers who attended.
A while back, Jacques also interviewed Melissa for AVBOB Poetry. If you missed the launch of Slaughterhouse, please read the interview below.
Jacques Coetzee – Ingrid Jonker, Olive Schreiner & AVBOB Poetry prize winner and author of An Illuminated Darkness (uHlanga Press, 2020) – interviews Melissa Sussens about her debut collection, Slaughterhouse.
JC: Judging from its title, the catalyst for the poems in your upcoming collection was the year you spent working at a slaughterhouse as part of your compulsory community service after qualifying as a veterinarian. Did you consciously set out to complete a body of work in order to deal with this trauma, or did you slowly realise over time that this was what you were doing?
MS: Writing about the slaughterhouse began with the poem which ended up as one of the winners of the 2020 New Contrast National Poetry Prize. Writing that poem unlocked something for me and I realised that I could write about these niche, specific experiences in a way that could be related to a universal human experience. I think I needed to write about that time in order to process it, but I didn’t expect to get a book out of it.
JC: One of the most striking qualities in your work is its ability to tell stories. Was storytelling an important part of your life growing up? Is this something you think about while writing, or does it come naturally to you?
MS: I have always loved reading and living myself into stories. Discovering that poems could tell stories the way longer pieces of writing do was a magical realisation for me. I want to be a storyteller first. I hope my poems connect with people in ways that are understandable and grounded. I don’t want readers to leave my work feeling they “don’t get it” or that my poems only exist in the clouds.
JC: How did poetry enter your life? Do you remember a particular moment when you knew that poetry was something you wanted to pursue seriously?
MS: My earliest memory of writing poetry was creating rhyming treasure hunt clues as a kid for my younger brother’s birthday party. My first taste of being a “published poet” was as a young teen when I had a few poems published in Teen Zone magazine. As a student I sought out that feeling of connection again and started sharing my writing with friends and then at open mic events (shoutout to Spoken Sessions in Pretoria). But it was only after doing a poetry writing and editing course with American poet, Megan Falley (Poems That Don’t Suck) back in 2018 that I started taking my writing, and more importantly my editing, more seriously.
JC: Another aspect of your work that fascinates me is the attention it pays to form. I am thinking, for instance, of your pantoum about gender-based violence in South Africa, of Slaughterhouse Sestina and Euthanasia Pantoum. Do you enjoy working with difficult forms for their own sake, or is this also partly a way to focus or contain powerful emotions?
MS: I love using forms as tools to unlock my writing. They feel like puzzles to me, especially the sestina, and I love the challenge that provides. I also find it interesting how sometimes a form can allow me to find an angle that I wouldn’t have otherwise found if I was writing free verse.
JC: You write movingly about your work as a vet, risking territory where many writers would become sentimental or cute. I suspect that the success of these poems has something to do with your taking up of alternative personae, like the euthanasia syringe used to dispatch pets who can no longer be treated.
MS: I find persona-type poems very freeing. In writing them I am able to explore or express things in a way that I wouldn’t if I was writing in my own voice. I think they allow me to better imagine a situation from another angle. I am constantly searching for humanity, for connection through my writing.
JC: How easy is it to move between your work as a vet and the space in which your poems arrive?
MS: It varies. When I have a poem prompt or idea in my head I can spend my time at work playing with it in my thoughts or finding inspiration from incidents in my vet life that I can write about. But there are also times when I struggle to switch off my job mindset and focus on my more creative side. I would say I am generally quite elastic though. I spend most of my lunch hours on poetry – writing, editing or reading poems in the middle of my workday.
JC: Slaughterhouse contains piercingly beautiful poems of heartbreak, of innocence lost and regained, and ultimately about domestic happiness. Would you like to say something about the way poetry has helped you to maintain emotional well-being during difficult times? Do you think poetry can provide a kind of exorcism, or be a kind of talisman to help us navigate particularly challenging emotional terrain?
MS: Absolutely. I have experienced loneliness intensely throughout my life. For me poetry is a reminder that I am not alone, a way to connect the outside world with my internal one. Poetry is essential in my emotional processing, both in my personal life and in the hard aspects of my work. By writing these poems I can exorcise some of the negative emotions that would otherwise weigh me down.
JC: Perhaps surprisingly for a collection called Slaughterhouse, one of the greatest pleasures your poems afford is their flashes of humour. I am thinking of poems like The Drive and Blue, which seem to signal tormentedness but are really (for lack of a better word) tragicomic. Does this ring true? Is this quality in your work recognised enough, or do readers tend to miss it?
MS: Thank you so much for saying this! I have tried to bring some dark humour (I love tragicomic as a description of it) to my poems. I don’t think this is something that is recognised by most people. I think I mostly come across as a very serious person, and my poems probably do too. But I absolutely want people to find the humour or lightness within this collection too, to be able to laugh at life’s ironies alongside me.
Artist, academic, writer Kim Gurney visited five different Independent Art Spaces in five different African cities: Nairobi, Accra, Addis Ababa, Cairo and Dar es Salaam. She came back with a changed mind, fresh thinking and some very different outlooks on the future, of art, cities and society in general. The result, a book to change your mind too, called Panya Routes (Motto).
Listen to her interview with Nancy Richards: KIM GURNEY – On ‘Panya Routes’
Book your tickets here:
Melissa Sussens is a queer veterinarian and poet. Her work has appeared in many publications, both locally and internationally, and has been recognised with several accolades. Melissa has performed at the Poetry in McGregor festival, Off The Wall, The Commons and The Red Wheelbarrow, where she also hosts poetry readings. She lives in Cape Town with her wife and their two dogs. Slaughterhouse is her first book.
Sipho Banda was born in Himeville and grew up in Impendle, KwaZulu Natal. He is the author of Vusi’s Visit to Drakensberg Mountain, a children’s book published by Msinsi Press. His first collection of poetry, Ngigabe Ngezakithi, and a drama book, Umoya Wamagagasi, were published in isiZulu by Pelmo Publishers. Most of his poems in A Lonely Crowded Walk, his debut collection in English, reflect his own lonely and crowded walk.
Stephen Symons has published poetry and short-fiction, locally and abroad. His debut collection, Questions for the Sea, received an honourable mention for the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, and was also shortlisted for the 2017 Ingrid Jonker Prize. He is also the author of Spioenkop, Landscapes of Light and Loss and FOR EVERYTHING THAT IS POINTLESS AND PERFECT. Small Souls is a collection of new and collected poems.
Klara du Plessis is an award-winning Canadian South African writer, scholar, and literary curator. Her debut multilingual poetry collection Ekke, recipient of the 2019 Pat Lowther Memorial Award, was published by Palimpsest Press. She is also the author of poetry and essay collections, Hell Light Flesh, Unfurl, and most recently, Skin and Meat Sky. She is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Concordia University and lives in Montreal, Canada.