Ons plaas hierdie onderhoud in aansluiting by Joan Hambidge se reeks artikels “Hoe lees ons?” waarop dit insiggewende kommentaar lewer.
Joan Hambidge (JH)
You dedicate the volume of poetry to your mother. Your poetry navigates the Freudian family romance of loss and childhood experiences. You grew up in Johannesburg studied at Wits.
How does this volume differ from Metaphysical Balm (2017)?
MichMichèlle Betty (MB)
Dark Horse and Metaphysical Balm are on the surface two very different collections, however, if you read the collections carefully, there are common themes relating to liminality and the afterlife. I wrote Metaphysical Balm while reading for my Masters of Art at the University of Cape Town. I was reading extensively at the time in many different areas – poetry, psychoanalysis, sociology, art, music and film – even anthropology where I read a course in Medicine and the Arts. As a consequence, many of the poems in Metaphysical Balm engage with the themes from those books and texts: Jung/Freud and the work of other psychoanalysts, themes from sociology texts by Van Gennep on liminality and religious texts such as the bible. I was considering the notion of what it is to be human in the context of what I was reading. Dark Horse on the other hand is a more considered technical collection in the sense that when I wrote many of the pomes here, I was interested in and working through aspects of writing in form. So many of the poems in Dark Horse, utilise form in some way or another, whether it be unrhymed sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, couplets or a number of other technical devices, which I used in an attempt to ground the poems. These poems operate in a more personal arena than the poems in Metaphysical Balm, and the use of form is a device I turned to in order to achieve detachment from the content, whereas in Metaphysical Balm I employed the objective correlative using the owl to achieve detachment from emotion. However, both collections work with similar themes – a consideration of what it is to be human, the crossing over that each of us face at some point in time. In Dark Horse, the collection goes further and looks at how to come to terms with that crossing over when a person makes a choice to end their own human journey and the effects of that on those left behind.
You started your career as a lawyer and you are currently the publisher of the successful Dryad Press. Please comment on the different roles in your life: poet, publisher, editor …
It is indeed interesting how one’s life evolves. I think that what I do now is the work I was meant to be doing. When I lived in Johannesburg, I worked in investment banking and then later as an attorney in mergers and acquisitions. The nature of that work meant I had less time to connect with my family and two young children and when we moved to the Cape I took a decision to step back from work – a meaningfully difficult choice. However, the break from work resulted in me beginning to write poetry again, and this lead to me back to university to read for my MA. After that, I decided to start a publishing press. It is interesting though, how each aspect of my previous work, built on what I was to do in the future. My legal background assisted me greatly in setting up my business and my many years of drafting and reading complex legal documents, left me with a fine eye for the text. My work in banking helped me to prepare business plans and understand loan transactions, interest rates and tax – all of which I have used in the running of my business. A wise mentor in my legal years once told me that it took him over 20 years to work out what aspect of law he loved and had a natural affinity for – patience and persistence in seeking out what it is that is your calling is required – there is a misperception that one should instinctively know what it is you were meant to be doing but this does not always just come to every person. I feel that I have finally, after many years, arrived at the work that I was meant to be doing. And this is a gift. Hard won over many years.
You were part of a creative writing class at UCT for over 8 years. How would you advise young poets on poetry as a relentless journey. I recall you reading and admiring Eybers. Why?
I found it so interesting on reading a text by the Nobel prize winner in Literature, Louise Glück, how she would have complete blank periods of up to 5 years where she wrote nothing. Yet, over time and with experience, she would begin to write again. And I think this is one of the most valuable lessons in poetry – to keep going. Life and our life experiences are what we write into poetry. But sometimes, our life experience takes time to internalise and we must not fight it but wait patiently for it to resurrect itself when the time is right. Dark Horse is an exploration of events that happened almost two decades ago. I would say to young poets, do not lose heart and when the muse is still, just read, and read and internalise your life experience until it is ready to manifest itself in your writing. Don’t stop writing. And in times when you are unproductive don’t panic – do other things like translation or focus on technique and form to keep you flexible and limber and constantly learning.
Elisabeth Eybers (was born in 1915 and died fairly recently in 2007. She was an Afrikaans female poet in a time when woman did not really feature in the landscape of the traditional Afrikaans male-dominated poetry culture. She read for her BA degree, when she was only 16 in a time when most women did not study and she passed cum laude. There is, in her poetry, a certain animosity towards death which I find interesting. Her earlier poetry takes the form of intimate confessions of a woman and then later moves to a penetrating, objective approach to love, exile and old age. I can relate to much of this. She also had a complex understanding of the woman as poet and the art of writing – “Poësie is ’n eensame besigheid” she wrote– isn’t that exactly right.
Verso, Inversus, Verbatim. What does this mean for you?
Verso is traditionally the left hand side of a page but it can also mean the reverse of something such as a coin or painting. I liked the idea of incorporating the first section of poems under this “title” as the section canvasses poems on childhood and a recollection of childhood. I see one’s childhood as an inescapable other side of one’s life. Your childhood is bound to you – events that occurred in childhood cannot be forgotten and will affect and influence all aspects of your life and character into old age. And in cases where the childhood is enmeshed with trauma, the trauma cannot be avoided in later life but must be confronted. As Freud wrote – events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, and shape our personalities.
In Latin Inversus is the inverted part of a musical composition. It can also mean to invert, or to turn upside down. The poems in this section deal with the immediate aftermath of a suicide experience. They relate to that intense feeling of life before the event, and life after the event- as Hughes deftly puts it: That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous. Suicide does leave one with that overpowering sense that things will never be as they were before. You will forever see and experience things in a new light with a new lens. And your life is essentially inverted. Poems like ‘I Turn a Great Hourglass’ and ‘Zoetrope’ work with this notion of inversion.
Verbatim means, in exactly the same words as were used before. Or it can mean, copied or translated in exactly the same words as were used before. The final section of the collection is the longest. It contains a selection of poems that seek to work with the aftermath of living with a loss of a loved one by their own hand. They are poems that grapple with how to move past that event – a crossing over one could say, from life before the event, to life after the event.
Why does John Berryman play such an important role in your poetry?
Berryman is considered to be a key figure in the “confessional” school of poetry. I read his work extensively while writing this collection and Dark Horse does indeed encompass many poems that fall within the realm of confessional poetry. Berryman’s father committed suicide as did Berryman himself. He says that his father’s mad urge to commit suicide “wiped out my childhood”. Berryman’s ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’ is one of the most stunning poems for me. Robert Lowell described it as one of “the great poems of the age”. It was written following a conversion experience and a response to what Berryman believed was a direct intervention of God in his life. All the quotes that preface the three sections in Dark Horse are from this Berryman poem. Many of the poems in both Metaphysical Balm and Dark Horse, address conversion or spiritual experiences. Berryman was a tormented soul and had lifelong struggles with alcoholism and depression. Dark Horse also addresses aspects relating to addiction. Many people who experience addiction in families have a deeply entrenched sense that they do not want this to happen to them. To my mind, Berryman spent his entire life trying to avoid the same path as his father, but in the end, he could not escape, neither the addiction, nor the compulsion to end his own life. The ultimate fear realised.
Comment on psychic awareness and spirituality in your poetry and the Jungian references.
Both my collections engage with aspects relating to psychic and spiritual awareness. When we talk about psychic awareness there are many diverse and differing conceptions of what this includes, for example clairvoyance, divination, dream telepathy. Many of these ideas and notions have been included in my collections over the years. I view psychic awareness in its various forms as an extra sensory perception or sixth sense and believe strongly in harnessing that sixth sense as a means of living a more authentic life.
I read many of the texts of Carl Jung while reading for my MA at UCT. His theories on personality, the human psyche and dreams, resonate strongly with me. For instance, his notion that one’s dreams help a person engage with problems in life by bringing supressed ideas into consciousness, is one that I use many times over in my poems. Poems such as ‘An Irreverent Calling’, ‘Dream Sequence’ and ‘I Sleep and my Soul Awakens’ and also the poem ‘Premonition’ are harvested from Jung’s dream theory.
I was brought up as Catholic, however, while some of my poems contain references of Catholic ideologies, many of them engage with overarching notions of spirituality, from different religious perspectives. My interest lies mainly in the idea of a spiritual afterlife – how and through which earthly mechanism one chooses to reach that place, is essentially not relevant to my mind. Most of the great religions, embrace similar ideas of: love ones neighbour, be kind, be good, be disciplined and respectful in your dealings with other people.
You write pantoums, villanelles and experiment with form. Comment.
The poems in my first collection, did not utilise form. They were my first series of poems and I worked predominantly in free verse with and from texts that I was reading as part of my MA. Once I moved past that, I began to be interested in the more technical aspects of writing poetry. It is essential for any poet to understand form and to be able to work in form. It adds a deeper dimension to the poems’ content – the content and the form are complimentary. Without an understanding of form, a poet is essentially incomplete. In my study of form, I experimented with many, many diverse forms – one form I have not yet been able to grasp is Tyehimba Jess’s syncopated sonnets that can be read from the top down and from the bottom up. I understand that he gives a course on how to write those and I would certainly sign up for that if it was ever available.
Why the obsession with Vincent van Gogh? Do you regard these poems as ekphrastic poems or postcards from your soul?
My obsession with Vincent van Gogh was a precursor to my writing of Dark Horse. I began reading about him after I received a book of his letters as a gift. I had completed Metaphysical Balm and I wrote over 40 poems on van Gogh, most of which were ekphrastic and can be related directly to one of his paintings and/or to one of his letters to his brother Theo. The letters of Van Gogh should be compulsory reading for any art and literature student. I included only 6 or 7 of these poems in this collection and selected ones that related in theme to the content of Dark Horse.
Please reflect on the impact of illness as metaphor (Susan Sontag) in your poetry. How did you respond to Covid?
Sontag’s text, Illness as Metaphor addresses the fantasies concocted around diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis, which are often regarded as fatal diseases and as such are identified with death. She considers the punitive uses of illness as a figure or metaphor in our culture and ultimately concludes that illness is actually not a metaphor and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is to resist such thinking. Also that the myths surrounding certain diseases add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment – if you demystify the fantasies around cancer, you see it for what it is – just a disease. It is not a curse or punishment, certainly not an embarrassment and it is highly curable. Later, Sontag wrote a sequel applying her theory to the Aids epidemic.
I think that many of Sontag’s notions surrounding cancer can be applied to mental health issues and issues surrounding addiction and suicide, which are taboo and poorly regarded. If we can free ourselves from the punitive fantasies surrounding mental health issues, addiction and suicide, then we can find powerful ways to manage these illnesses.
My experience of Covid was affected predominantly by my brother’s near death experience when he suffered from Covid early on before vaccines were available. He survived 41 days on a ventilator and is currently well and living in Johannesburg. I wrote a series of poems following my brother’s experience with Covid and I included a few of them in this collection. Once again, they do contain a spiritual and liminal aspect. A poem like ‘ Recovery’ was written after I read the powerful book by Walt Whitman Specimen Days, which is essentially a study of the formation of the self through participation in communal and ecological processes. Many people are not aware the Whitman was a compulsive diarist, note-taker and essayist. This book contains Whitman’s intimate observations and reflections on the Civil War but also contains detailed accounts of his recovery following a stroke at the age of 54, which rendered him bed-ridden for two years. The accompanying diary entries are profound and moving depictions of his recovery through the power of nature.
At your sister’s house
several weeks after the funeral,
we congregate for tea
in apparent conciliation.
A self-appointed head of house,
she is seated at the large wingback chair
while everyone scuttles for teaspoons
and butter amid frazzled nerves.
It was there in the lounge,
apologetically peeling and coring
a large red apple that I ran a knife
clean through the centre of my hand.
Blood spurted from this unholy stigma,
sprayed in defiance at your ghost,
dripped onto the tea table,
staining the cake and scones.
It’s bad, I whimpered, it’s bad.
Oh rubbish, said my sister sensibly
as she led me to the bathroom,
my face whitened,
for an overly dramatic mop-up.
Peru is a country transfixed by doors,
artfully constructed entry-ways, crafted
from rectangular slabs of wood, even
in temperament and stature. Doors of pale yellow ochre,
sage or burgundy, carved in intricate block patterns;
simple slats running perpendicular to the floor;
or whole towns with cerulean-blue doors
—an ancient practice inherited from the conquistadors—
always affixed with a wrought-iron bolt,
almost always never open.
The Incas never used doors, only doorways—
mammoth hexagonal structures of interlocking
masonry with no mortar, a duality of aperture
allowing light in and a daring view out;
trapezoid portals blending geometry
and the natural landscape, embracing the solstices,
the moon, the sun and stars. In holy places,
wooden poles were wedged in doorways denoting
no entry—and removed only when nobles
or the sacred stepped over the threshold.