Last night, I read Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2 (Picador, 2007). Larkin wasn’t the most amenable interviewee (he was downright cranky at times), but his answers make for interesting reading.
The interviewer, Robert Phillips, said: “Davison also sees your favourite subjects as failure and weakness”, referring to Peter Davison, an American “poet-critic”.
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”
Similarly, I’ve read reviews in which poets are berated for being “too personal”, for writing about menstruation, menopause, infertility or masturbation. These topics make some people uncomfortable, but surely nothing should be taboo. What is poetry, if not personal? Who are the final arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? It’s subjective, a matter of personal taste. A poem should be judged on merit, on whether it is well written, not on its subject matter. How boring it would be if all poetry toed the line. Vive la différence.
Born in 1944 in Johannesburg, Christopher Hope was educated at Wits University and the University of Natal. He worked as a journalist in South Africa before moving to Paris and then London in 1975.
Hope has published four poetry collections: Whitewashes (1971), Cape Drives (1974), In the Country of the Black Pig (1981) and English Men (1985). He has also written nine works of fiction. His first novel, A Separate Development (1980), was banned in South Africa, but won Britain’s David Higham Prize for Best First Novel. Kruger’s Alp (1984) won the Whitbread Novel Award; Serenity House (1992) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has published four volumes of non-fiction: the autobiographical White Boy Running (1988), Moscow! Moscow! (1990), Signs of the Heart: Love and Death in Languedoc (1999) and Brothers Under the Skin: Travels in Tyranny (2003).
A playwright, broadcaster and journalist, Hope has travelled widely in Russia, Yugoslavia and Southeast Asia. He has written for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The New Yorker and Le Monde. He lives in France and visits South Africa regularly.
In his epic poem “Omeros”, a retelling of the Odyssey in a Caribbean setting, Derek Walcott imagined that his father was named “in love or bitter benediction / … for Warwick. / The Bard’s county”. Warwick Walcott, the offspring of a white plantation-owner from Barbados, was a cultured man who painted, wrote poetry and organised theatrical evenings on the neighbouring island of St Lucia, where he had settled with his family. He died at the age of 34, when his son was just over a year old, on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday.
Born in Pretoria in 1956, Joan Metelerkamp grew up in KwaZulu-Natal. She has published six poetry collections: Towing the Line (Carrefour, 1992), which was awarded the 1991 Sanlam Prize for Literature; Stone No More (Gecko Poetry, 1995); Into the day breaking (Gecko Poetry, 2000); Floating Islands (Mokoro, 2001); Requiem (Deep South, 2003) and, most recently, carrying the fire, published by substancebooks in 2005.
Joan has had individual poems published in major South African poetry anthologies and in various international volumes. She has taken part in festivals and poetry readings locally and overseas, including Poetry Africa in 2005. She has been awarded poetry prizes and judged others, has edited the literary journal New Coin for four years, and has written poetry reviews in academic journals and newspapers.
Previously, she worked as an actress and university teacher. She is a wife, mother, sister and daughter, living on her father’s farm in the Goukamma Valley near Knysna in the Southern Cape.
“I believe one function I have as a poet is to critique both public and private life without fear of being victimised. I can be called an angry poet, not because I want to overthrow the ruling party, but because I am a patriot, I love this country and I have nowhere else to go.”
Born in Cape Town in 1962, Finuala Dowling was the seventh of eight children of radio broadcasters Eve van der Byl and Paddy Dowling. She has lectured at Unisa and worked as a freelance educational materials developer, writer and lecturer. Her short stories have been broadcast on radio and have appeared in several anthologies, winning runner-up prizes in the Cosmopolitan and Commonwealth Broadcasting Association competitions. She won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for her first volume of poetry, I Flying, and was co-winner of the Sanlam Award for poetry in 2003 for her collection, Doo-Wop Girls of the Universe. Her novels, What Poets Needand Flyleaf, are published by Penguin South Africa. Finuala lives in Kalk Bay with her family.
Born in 1977, Dara Horn received her PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. Her first novel, In the Image (2002), was awarded a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. In 2006, The World to Come was published to acclaim. Horn’s work has appeared in many national and international publications, and she has written for Newsweek, Time, The New Republic and the Christian Science Monitor. She has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College, and has lectured at universities and cultural institutions throughout the United States and Canada. She lives with her husband and daughter in New York City.