Born in 1975 in Cape Town, Richard Fox graduated with a BA from the University of Johannesburg, with majors in English and Philosophy. 876, Richard’s poetry collection, is published by Third Word Publishing. His poetry has been published in New Coin, Carapace, Botsotso, Green Dragon, Glass Jars Among Trees (Jacana) and Donga. Richard lives in Melville, Johannesburg, where he is a Bookdealers’ manager and the owner of Tshirt Terrorist.
Richard, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
My grandparents were of Polish, Afrikaans, British and German descent. My mother grew up in Cape Town while my father travelled extensively around southern Africa with his parents before they settled in Cape Town.
As a child I was well-adjusted and inquisitive. Unruly in the manner of most children, perhaps. I have very fond memories of Kraaifontein in the Cape Town southern suburbs.
You’ve lived in Kraaifontein, Durbanville, Belville, Roodepoort and Krugersdorp. During your childhood, how did your surroundings impact on you? Was moving from Cape Town to Johannesburg a beneficial experience?
Kraaifontein was a small suburb. I grew up on Selbourne Street. As children we spent our time jamming between each other’s backyards.
Moving to Johannesburg was huge. It was here that I encountered the veldt. For me it was a revelation. Where we stayed in Roodekranz, one stretch of veldt led to another, eventually to the Roodekranz Botanical Garden, and further to what is now the Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden. Across the fences were endless stretches of untamed grassland and koppies. This is what I remember most from this period, exploring these landscapes. Later, in Krugersdorp, I would walk out beyond the houses, return and write for hours. For all the natural beauty of the Cape, it is the highveldt that captured me.
Was your home full of books? What did you read as a child?
Both my parents read avidly and there were always books around. I spent a lot of time in local libraries. I developed a penchant for horror, science fiction and fantasy. Before that, the usual suspects: The Hardy Boys, Biggles, Willard Price, ghost stories, adventure stories.
Did you enjoy school?
Tremendously. I was a total clown, always getting into trouble. I attended a convent until standard five and have memories of getting caned by the nuns. I enjoyed Science and Maths, but English came naturally to me.
When we came to Jo’burg, I was enrolled in West Ridge High School and honed my skills in anarchy and petty debauchery. In my senior year, I cut loose and came close to being expelled. I did get suspended with a mate. My parents were not impressed.
When did you start writing?
I was 16. We got a household PC. I had written some stuff in longhand before then, but the PC suited me. It was a little 386. After the 386 there was a 486. Then came an old Mitaki laptop, a beauty. It was my father’s old work laptop. It used to shock me slightly if I used it for too long.
Who was your introduction to poetry?
When I was seven, I remember reading a collection of ghost stories. One of the stories featured a quote. I’m sure it was Coleridge:
Here lies the Devil
Ask no other name
Well, but you mean Lord?
Hush! We mean the same.
I must have read it a thousand times, and it’s stayed with me all these years, even if I can’t be sure that it was Coleridge. I haven’t been able to find it again.
Which writers have inspired and influenced you?
Stephen King got me interested in the physical, emotional and psychological act of writing. I was very young, 11, and here was someone who could make a story dance, and his mind was dark. I loved that. Palahniuk is another writer whose work I admire. Hemingway. I always cry when I read Hemingway. There are others. Mark Z. Danielewski. Jeff Noon. Bukowski. Fante.
In the ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound wrote: “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music”. Has music influenced you? Have any musicians influenced you?
My poetry seems to lend itself more to music than to literature. Perhaps it’s my vocal style. I write performance pieces, poems meant for recital. Many musicians have piqued my interest, inspired my work, including Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke and Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
Two musicians deserving particular mention for their influence are Maynard James Keenan of Tool and Michelle Breeze of Fetish. Keenan I’ve never met, Michelle I have, but both came along at the right time and pulled the rug out from under me. Keenan’s lyrics, as a backing, as an accompaniment, scored, if you will, many poems that made their way into 876. At this time, I fell for Michelle Breeze, the front of one of South Africa’s supergroups of the 90’s, whom I met at a Johannesburg gig. Michelle became, for a time, my muse. Or a representation of the muse. I am wary of attaching titles to something I still don’t completely understand, either the concept of a muse, or Michelle’s role as muse during an intensely prolific period.
You studied English and Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. Did university benefit you?
University was crucial to my creative development. Initially, I enrolled for a BSc (Physics) at Wits. It was the wrong move and I lasted five months. I didn’t want to spend every afternoon in a lab doing tickertape experiments. I realised halfway through a Maths lecture that I wanted to write, so I dropped out. RAU, in 1995, with its traditionally Afrikaans campus, its conservative structure, was perfect for a hell-raising hooligan.
Dr Dirk Klopper, the head of the English Department at the time, referred me to Robert Berold, the then editor of New Coin, and my first poem was published in 1997. That was ‘Losst’, followed by one of my favourite poems, ‘Paper boat’.
How do ideas for poems come to you?
I think a poem builds in me. There’s a window period where I know I have to write something. I can feel it working its way loose, in a series of images maybe, or words and thoughts that link together. I don’t always have a clear picture of what the poem is going to be about, but I can feel the presence of something that wishes to be said, that I have experienced. My job is to make sure I am sitting behind the computer during that window of opportunity. Sometimes I sit down without knowing how I am meant to start, and before I know it the poem is complete, and the words seem to have always been written in that particular way. I’m not sure if that makes sense, the poem writing itself and myself getting dragged along, but that’s how it feels.
Would you describe your collection, 876?
876 is part creative footprint (an impression of what I have written over the past ten years), part autopsy (a retrospective look at what I did before I started Tshirt Terrorist). I conceptualised a series of images, a spoofed computer game, with the intention of compiling my first book of verse using these images. Robert Berold received a copy of the design brief and agreed to publish it through Deep South. I couldn’t complete it so ended up settling for the text only version, which became knows as 876. Then, I stopped writing and lost interest in publishing a collection. In the years following, I withdrew 876 from Deep South. I put it aside until 2007, when I felt enough time had passed for me to approach the manuscript from a different angle, hence my feeling that it is something of an autopsy.
What is the numerological significance of the title?
One possible interpretation of 876 is a downward spiral. The concept of spiralling inward on a journey of self discovery. I’ve always been fascinated by numerology and 876 represents a beautiful and pristine sequence of numbers. Beyond that I can’t say. It developed over a number of years for many reasons. There’s too much number theory and magical thinking here for me to accurately pin it down.
How did you go about arranging the poems in the volume?
I started out with a manuscript of 100 poems, to which I added and subtracted pieces. Once I had decided on the poems, I spread the entire collection on the floor of my study over a weekend and I picked up certain poems until I felt I had a couple of segments that seemed to fit. Finally, I gave the whole lot to Eva, my partner. She really helped. I needed a fresh perspective on the poems and their relation to each other.
Can you tell me about the colour plate at the front of the book?
The image is linked to the 876 sequence. It describes a galaxy of stars – a 6 over 9 spiral – with the two ‘numbers’ overlapping, creating a circular middle space occupied by an eye. The image came to me as a drug induced vision. Then, in 2006, I came across the visuals taken by NASA’s Cassini probe of Saturn and I was like: “There’s my eye”. There is a giant storm on Saturn that swirls around the South Pole. The centre of the storm is a huge eye. I heard about the Lucifer Project, a conspiracy theory that states NASA plans to crash their Cassini probe containing a plutonium-based propulsion system through the eye into the planet, detonating the plutonium and igniting Saturn into a Giant Solar Sun. I took the eye and hired an artist to superimpose it over a galaxy design.
Tell me about the process of writing your long poem, ‘PRESS DRUK’.
I had just returned from the 2001 Grahamstown Festival. (I first went to the festival in 1999 when Robert Berold invited me. I had just broken my femur and had written ‘Visitors Welcome’, a poem about my stay in Helen Joseph Hospital. Robert agreed to publish it. He said I should come down to meet some poets. So I went. On the train. On crutches. I had a blast.) In 2001, I took the train down again and it turned out to be a bizarre journey. Grahamstown was great, but it was the train ride that stuck. On my return to Jo’burg I gave it a week then sat down and churned out this eight page monster. There were recommendations from poets and editors that it needed editing, but after writing it in one session where it came out one word at a time, like hammer blows, I found that hard to do. I eventually succumbed and rewrote certain lines about the cop from Noupoort, which were a bit clumsy.
What feelings would you like readers to take away after having read your book?
I would like them to feel they’ve encountered original work, poetry that doesn’t follow a worn, washed-out routine. I want readers to arrive without expectation. How they leave is up to the poetry.
Where has 876 been distributed and how could one get hold of a copy?
876 is distributed by Bacchus Books and available through selective Exclusive Books stores around the country. A few copies are available through Bookdealers of Bedfordview in the Bedford Centre. Thorold’s Books in Harrison Street also has a few copies. Anyone struggling to get hold of it can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do you prepare for a performance?
Preparing for a performance requires a few minutes of quiet. I find a corner of the garden, a field, a deserted corridor, anywhere with no people, and I recite the work repeatedly, in a hurried whisper. During a performance I try to focus on people. Most of the time all I can see are the bright lights. I’m sure I must look headlight struck.
Tell me about Tshirt Terrorist and your t-shirt designs.
I think the t-shirt designs are drawn from the same creative pool as poetry. The ideas, when they come, feel like poems. Multimedia poetry. But it’s so much harder than writing mostly because I outsource the process, directing and managing to get the results I feel best fit my intentions. I’m an agitator. I tend to upset people by twisting things to mean what I want them to. Tshirt Terrorist allows me to continue to be my subversive self while striking out for a broader market than my poetry permitted. I tend to do a lot of work with freelance designers, but the ideas are conceptually my own.
I still write, but less frequently, and with less expectation. I realised I needed to do something else or I would begin to unravel against the lack of certainty in my creative work. In 2003, I ended up in hospital after a particularly nasty motorcycle accident. When I came out I had a rough time of it. I had lost my mode of transport and spent about a year on crutches. If it wasn’t for Eva I’m not sure what I would have done. Eva and I had just moved in together and she pulled me through. I owe much of my success to her ability to hold both of us together during this period. The t-shirt ideas started flowing, a trickle at first, then with more urgency. It’s not as easy as it seems, but I seem to be pointing in the right direction.
You can buy my t-shirts online at www.tshirtterrorist.co.za.