by Rajendra Chetty
This interview, an edited version of the original conducted between the interviewer and the poet in May 2001, provides interesting insight into the writer’s political and literary influences, style and social views. Rajendra Chetty is now Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Sciences at Cape Peninsula University of Technology as well as President of the English Academy of South Africa.
You explore relationships extensively in your poems, especially those with God and society. What is the link between your religion and your poetry?
There is probably a very deep, all-pervasive link. I would say almost everything I write is spiritual in some way. It’s not something I set out to do. It’s part of my nature that reveals itself in my writing.
a spiritual force
expresses itself in my poetry
Is your poetry an expression of your religious commitment?
It is not an expression of religious commitment in the sense that I am trying to create artefacts deliberately for religious purposes – but I do have a commitment to a ‘spiritual force’ that expresses itself in my poetry.
Have techniques of religious poetry permeated your writings? If yes, in what ways?
I am not certain what is meant by ‘techniques of religious poetry’. I do not consciously write ‘religious poetry’ or use any special techniques that may be associated with the writing of religious poetry, but I am conscious of using techniques essential for writing what I consider strong poetry.
For example, you use incantatory techniques?
Indeed, I have used the incantatory technique in poems such as ‘Iqbal, it is winter here still’. So there may well be influences I am not overtly aware of.
Coming back to ‘Iqbal’ and incantatory techniques, was the Qur’an an influence here?
The power of sound is very noticeable in the recitation of the Qur’an. In fact, recently I have learnt that the single most decisive way of changing a person’s consciousness is through sound. I have probably been influenced by the sounds of the Qur’an– and perhaps even more, by the sounds and cadences of spiritual songs and poetry in the Urdu language. As well as influenced in some unknown way (so I have been told) by the Islamic poets of the past.
I’m glad that you have mentioned these interesting influences on your work. Say more about this.
Douglas Livingstone, my poetry-writing mentor, said a long time ago that when he read my work he discovered that ‘each line of the work was subliminally ignited by the ancient great Islamic poets’. He went on to add: “of whose writing he [I] knew surprisingly little’. It would be lovely if this is true and there is a link of some kind to the poets Douglas referred to!
I like good poetry
You mention a few catalysts that led to your insights into social and political issues. How would you define the poet’s role within social and political struggles?
I don’t think that any one kind of person with any particular kind of ability has sole responsibility for transforming the world around him or her. We all have this responsibility and if the poet has words that he can use, well, then it is his responsibility to use them well; and if the musician has music that he can use well for the same purpose, then it is his responsibility to use his music well. There are many kinds of abilities human beings have. All are gifts that should be used to the fullest. So to the extent that the poet is able to see things in society in a particularly meaningful way as a result of his ability, then the poet has a responsibility to comment on what he sees and to try to transform his environment and the world for the better.
Parallels have been drawn between your writings and that of T.S. Eliot, John Donne, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNiece. Are these poets you admire? And who amongst them has had the greatest influence on your own writing?
I am often asked this question.My honest answer is I like good poetry. I cannot think of one poet that I like more than others. When I read a good poem (‘good’ obviously, is subjective), I am moved by it.Incidentally, I like all the poets you have just mentioned!
Apart from Douglas Livingstone, is there any other person who has played a major role in your development as a poet?
Douglas was the major influence. What Douglas taught me, primarily, is that writing poetry is a craft. I had always felt before I met him – and I was quite young when I did – that I had to write a poem ‘perfectly’ the first time I put my thoughts down on paper and if it wasn’t ‘perfect’ then I couldn’t do much about it subsequently – that was it! But Douglas taught me that I needed to work on my poetry, I needed to treat it as an artefact – to shape it, to hone it, to polish it and to make it strong and lasting – and that was a lesson for which I have never stopped being grateful to him. I was really privileged to have met Douglas and to have learnt from him. This influence has stayed with me all my life and can be seen in all my work.
The other person who played a big role early in my writing career was Mike Kirkwood. Mike was more critical of my early work than was Douglas. Douglas liked my work from the very outset, but Mike was almost never happy, was always critical. Perhaps, that was a good thing because I had to work harder to please him. So when Mike finally agreed to publish my first book that for me was a huge sign of having accomplished something worthwhile as a poet. Despite Douglas’ approval, I think I had felt more pleased (relieved!) when Mike finally said ‘yes, I will publish this’ than when I first learnt that Douglas liked my writing – when he said: ‘I wonder what the world is going to do with you.’
Comment on the fact that many of the poems in echoes of my other self are drawn from images of nature.
This is not something I noticed at the time of writing the poems in this collection. I became aware of it after the book was published through reading reviews that pointed this out.
What I like about Iqbal is his huge optimism about human nature – an unquenchable desire to make the world come alive
What was the catalyst for the long poem dedicated to the Islamic poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal?
I was reading a lot of Iqbal at the time. What I like about him is his huge optimism about human nature – an unquenchable desire to make the world come alive. That inspired me. I looked at South Africa and thought how essential his philosophy was for the South African Muslim community. The ‘Iqbal’ poem is perhaps the only poem I have written that is specifically addressed to the Muslim community. I was trying to say in it that we needed to come alive within our country, to actually contribute to it ourselves.
How do you strike a healthy equilibrium between emotions and rationality?
I would like to think it’s a gift in as much as it’s there – supplemented by reading and reflection. I am grateful it’s there – this inner balance.
Are there notes of anger in your first work, for example, in the repetitive hardening imagery in the poem, ‘the most i fear of heavy rain’? When you look back to your first collection, do you see development – a change in your poetry and writing style?
I like this poem a lot. It says more than one imagines it might; it says something, takes you to something else but then brings you back forcefully to the subject. So you almost never know where you’re being led, but you are being led very decisively to the heart of the poem, which is about the removal of people from their homes and their land. It was written at the height of the apartheid regime’s madness. The anger is not ‘shafting’ anger, but the poem certainly is an indictment of apartheid and of those who implemented it. It is a very deep indictment.
Neither my writing style nor the themes I write on have changed – but I would like to think the writing in the second collection was more taut, stronger and deeper, than in the first.
Your second anthology shadows of a sun-darkened land was published in 1984.What is the underlying meaning in ‘the bread i eat is crusted’? A critic referred to it as obscure.
The poem was written at a time of crisis, one of the worst times we were experiencing under the apartheid regime. The fact that I could eat when many others could barely afford to made me feel incredibly guilty. The bread in my hand ‘became crusted’ and started to taste of ‘a labourer’s sweat’ because those who were labouring away so that others could survive were barely able to survive themselves.Eating a slice of bread in these circumstances felt like eating the flesh of those who had laboured in its production.
the poem ‘for fatima meer’ was found to be
a threat to the security of the state!
Do your poems stem from personal experiences? For example, the felt politics of daily life at the time of writing echoes of my other self are accurately expressed in the poem ‘the border’.
is as far
as the black man
who walks alongside you
as your door
against the unwanted knock
I’ll tell you a little bit more about ‘the border’ that not too many people know. It had another stanza at the end, which was cut off because the publisher and I were very afraid of the security police, heightened by the fact that another political poem had been banned. The poem,‘for fatima meer’, published in a magazine, was found to be a threat to the security of the state or something silly like that! So when I published it in the collection, I took out the ‘meer’ in the title as a precaution!
‘the border’ initially concluded with the stanza:
as timol’s death
in vorster square
Ahmed Timol was an anti-apartheid activist who was thrown out of the tenth floor window of John Vorster Square Police Station (and to his death) by the security police. We thought it too provocative to include this stanza in the book version and published the poem without this stanza. We had to.
I tried to combine protest against the politics and oppression
of the time in a way that would make it possible
for the poetry to survive the protest
In your early works, you dealt with the political and social problems of South Africa, but in a different vein to most other protest poets of the 1980’s. Was there any reason for this ‘aloofness’ from the Staffrider poets?
I don’t think that I intended to remain aloof in any way. All I ever wanted was to write good poetry – and Douglas had impressed on me that ‘a good poet is someone who has been dead for a hundred years and one of his works is still read’! I regarded this as a benchmark for all writing I wanted to publish. I took the act of writing very seriously, considered it a privilege and a gift to be able to write. Furthermore, I always wrote from my inner self – tried to understand my own inner self and the inner selves of others. If the country was in trouble, it really meant its people were in trouble. It meant that those who supported apartheid were troubled human beings who lacked knowledge, understanding, generosity,and were full of fear. Therefore, even in my political writing, I looked within the hearts of human beings to find out the underlying causes of oppression, injustice, cruelty, and the forgetting of one’s own humanity and that of others. There are many political poems in my work, but they nearly always also delve into something deeper that I question or probe. .
Can you comment more on this ‘unique’ protest strategy?
In my discussions with Douglas we talked about political poems, which he felt wouldn’t survive. He encouraged me to write about things that would survive. But I didn’t just want to write only about the things that would survive and ignore the political turmoil, which I knew wouldn’t survive – and it’s good that it didn’t survive. So I tried to do both, combine what my heart cried out to do –that is, protest against the politics and oppression of the time – but do so in a way that would make it possible for the poetry to survive the protest –: including by incorporating political protesting otherwise very personal poetry, as well as by writing overt political poetry, but always trying to add a dimension that would allow a poem to live on.
Critics often distinguish between writers who link their works with political activism and those who write about other themes. Do you see poets who did not write against apartheid as being ‘different’, as having had a different ‘poetic constituency’ as such?
I very rarely judge others; if someone did not write about apartheid, then he or she did not. My understanding of spirituality,God and goodness leads me to believe that oppression can never survive – and this helps me greatly. It does not really matter who opposes oppression and who does not. The oppressor has no hope of survival, ultimately. If someone does not fight oppression there are many others who always will. Those who choose not to do so simply lose a spiritual benefit for themselves. I do not consider that they have failed society.
How do you handle the tension between politics and aesthetics in your own writing?
Perhaps a third of my poetry is political poetry. In choosing poems for both echoes and shadows, I have tried to keep this balance.
Many of your poems deal with personal relationships. How do these relationships influence your poetry?
I think it is great to be in love and to look around and see beauty, because in both you are seeing the Divine. So all exposure to beauty and to love brings me close, not only to the person I love, but also, I hope, to the Divine.
There is no alternative for a human being
but to remain optimistic, because life is such a powerful force!
In the following lines, you say: ‘not the yielding of seed to soil/ nor even the delivering of life from seed/ is certain/ but jerusalem shall be free’. Comment on the fact that you remain essentially optimistic in your poems?
There is no alternative for a human being but to remain optimistic, because life is such a powerful force! Much of life’s transformational ability depends on how secure we are within ourselves. I hope the poem reflects my sense of trust in God, in goodness and in the fact that goodness does prevail in the end. Life prevails!
You have implied that the protest must live as long as the poetry. Does this explain the intention behind poems like ‘they call you mister steve biko now you’re dead’, ‘the rain probes with a million eyes’?
Both the Biko poem and the Imam Haroon poem should live on because they give life to and celebrate the lives of those who can no longer do so themselves – those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and to whom we owe a great debt.
What is the relevance of the three components of sea, sky and land in inward moon outward sun?
The sub-headings in the collection are simply a way of grouping poems dealing with different subject matter. I looked for a way of separating them so that the collection would read better. I decided to use sea, sky and land because they flow into each other. ‘Land’ is easy because it relates to poems that deal with issues of the land and other social and political issues. The sea and sky poems deal mainly with the human spirit and love – in a different context – though most of my political poems ultimately are spiritual or love poems. The poet, Steven Watson,suggested this to me. When I started to plan the new book, I selected a quorum of poems that could help make up a complete volume. But because I had not published for 15 years between my second and third collections, I looked for people to read and critique the poems, as I felt had grown rusty in many ways and I wanted to know if I was still ‘a good writer’.
To me two things are absolutely essential in a poem
– unique imagery and good rhythm –
I wanted to be sure I was writing poetry worth publishing. Douglas and Mike were no longer around, so I looked for friends who would assist me. I turned to Eve Horwitz, who had done a review of shadows of the sun-darkened land many years previously. Eve gave me her thoughts on what I had written. Stephen Watson was incredibly helpful, as were Helen Moffett, Michael Green, Mike Chapman and Patrick Cullinan. I really needed help after all the years of dormancy. I benefitted greatly from the criticism I received. It helped me leave out many poems that did not work and finally to come up with a collection, I felt was good.
How would you describe your style of writing?
To me two things are absolutely essential in a poem – unique imagery and good rhythm – the fundamental elements in a good poem. If you ask about things that are unique to me, these would be an ability to get to the essence of things and to crystallize this essence in writing.
Are you essentially a lyrical poet?
Very much so!
Which is your favourite collection and why?
Probably shadows of a sun-darkened land!
Do you forge links with other South African Indian poets or writers?
I have warm links with many writers but I do not have the kind of link where I associate with or stay in contact with them as regularly as I did when I was in Durban. Besides, since coming to Cape Town, my professional work has been extremely demanding!
How have the critics received your poetry?
This becomes really subjective. I think my work has mostly been well received. There have been reviews that have not been completely favourable, but that is to be expected. It would be surprising if everybody thought everything I write is good. I just hope I don’t get to a time when everyone thinks everything I write is bad!
Who do you see as your audience?
I hope everyone who reads, who cares, who feels, who loves – everybody.
What have you been reading recently?
My recent readings are mainly books on spirituality and books on love. I particularly enjoy reading the works of Rumi. Many of the authors I read have a profound understanding of life.
What message do you have for your readers out there?
For anyone who reads poetry – whether it is my work or that of others – it is important that they find poetry they enjoy.
Tell me something about inward moon outward sun, your new book due to be published by the University of Natal Press.
It has been very important to me to get inward moon outward sun published, because this collection closes a chapter in my life. Whether I will write again quite like I have written in the past, I don’t know. We will have to wait for time to show where my writing is headed.
© Rajendra Chetty and Shabbir Banoobhai. All rights reserved.