Friday, March 5, 2010

Rough Rider: An Interview with Gary Cummiskey

Last year Tearoom Books published a chapbook of Gary Cummiskey’s prose poems entitled Romancing the Dead. What follows is an interview between Tearoom Books editor Pravasan Pillay and Cummiskey.

1. Greetings Gary, tell me how you're doing.

I will answer that question when I’m allowed to drink alcohol again.

2. You run Dye Hard Press, one of South Africa's most prominent independent presses and also edit the seminal journal Green Dragon. You’re also a well-established voice in the underground South African poetry scene. I've always thought that the roles you play in Dye Hard and Green Dragon somewhat overshadow your poetry. Is this of concern to you?

Yes, it is concerning at times. I didn’t give it any thought until about three years ago, when at the Cape Town Book Fair two people expressed surprise that I was a writer – they thought I was just a publisher. Also, through writing for The Bookseller in the UK, and writing on publishing and books for the now sadly defunct The Weekender, plus occasionally for Business Day, some people have viewed me as more of a literary journalist, not even a publisher or writer. I guess it happens when you wear a few hats. I dunno whether some writer/poet/publishers in SA such as Allan Kolski Horwitz, Robert Berold, Vonani Bila or Colleen Higgs have had the same experience. But it can be concerning. Like once I was asked to suggest poets to read at a literary event, asking me for names because I publish Green Dragon, but they didn’t actually ask me to read. So yes, it can be frustrating, though the various roles are definitely not at odds with each other in themselves; they are quite complimentary.

3. I needn't have to tell you how much I admire Romancing the Dead, but the prose poem that hits me hardest each time is "Dream Mr. Bean".

Well, talking about what my poems are about, or even worse, what they are supposed to mean, is something I avoid, because generally I don’t even know myself what they mean. Mallarme once said that if his readers could find meaning in his poems then they were doing a better job than him.

4. Where would you situate Romancing the Dead in your body of poetic work?

I would regard it as my best and most powerful collection to date, and I have Tearoom Books to thank for that.

5. Who are some of your influences?

The surrealists and the beats are my main influences, though I am getting edgy about being labelled a surrealist poet or worse, as on one occasion “a beat-type poet”. Labels are handy signifiers I suppose, good signposts, but when they become an end in themselves it is destructive and defeating. Like if someone reads my work and says “I don’t understand it but then it is surrealism”, and then neatly pack it away on a bookshelf, well I don’t want that, I don’t want labels to become an obstacle to engagement between the work and the reader.

6 "A paradox that runs through all of his writing", Kobus Moolman writes of you. "beauty and horror in the same breath; intense lyricism and feverish crudity.” Is this paradox something you consciously strive for? I would ask the same of the deadpan register you employ throughout Romancing.

No, it is definitely not conscious. I guess it is just the way my mind works, or the way poetry works through me, or whatever. It is also probably the surrealist influence at work again.

7. Is there a unifying theme in Romancing?

Well, there is a unifying theme of sex and death running throughout, though that arose organically though the selection of the poems for the collection, rather than conceptually. They just kind of came together like that, an underlying theme throughout. The poems, although all in prose, were written at very different times – like “Blue Just Like The Sky” was written early in 2002, in a notebook in London, and I had forgotten all about it until about two years later. But also, interestingly, when the poems were selected, and I was proofing, I noticed there is sometimes even an overlap, or relationship between some of the images in various poems.

8. In poems such as "Romancing the Dead", "Flight" and "Blue Just Like The Sky" I sense a bit of William Burroughs. On the one hand, the surgeon-like detachment and on the other, the corrosion of causality. The contents are also, at times, quite sexual. It’s a kind of erotica with ice water running through its veins. But what's wonderful, for me, is how - despite the authorial detachment and the narrative breakdown - real and visceral these poems read.

Burroughs has been quite an influence on me and one of my poetry collections, Bog Docks, contains many cut-ups. There is also the cut-up prose sequence April in the Moon-Sun. However “Blue Just Like The Sky” is probably closer to the stream of consciousness automatic writing of the surrealists. Many of the poems in Romancing the Dead have their origins in dreams – “Flight” is the result of a dream, for example. Others were results of hallucinations I experienced while taking some rather hectic sleeping pills; they were the images, the sequences that passed through my mind as I was drifting into a pharmaceutical-induced sleep. “Erotica with ice water running through its veins” – that’s a great phrase! I am very attracted to erotic noir, as were the surrealists. You know, works like de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Justine and Juliette, Bataille’s work, The Story of O, Venus in Furs etc. An eroticism that is almost socially disruptive. Porn, however, doesn’t interest me in the slightest.

9. Who are you conversing with in Romancing?

No one in particular... or maybe I do have someone subconsciously in mind, even over the long period of time over which the poems were written. The exceptions are “Blue Just Like The Sky”, which is about a real woman, real experiences, and also “G-1”, which is the most naked poem in the collection. “G-1” is about my having to identify my sister’s body at a government hospital morgue last year. My sister had been a homeless person for years and died under very tragic, ugly circumstances. It’s a long story but I blamed myself for the circumstances of her death and felt guilt-ridden because I felt I should have done more to help her. And when you have to go and identify someone, particularly when you feel you let them down, and it’s your sister, the person you grew up with, nothing you do or learn or read or believe in helps you in that moment; there’s no training or qualification for it. It is just you and the truth – a reality you can’t escape from, you have to confront it head on. There is no other way around it. Then you realise that everything – your lifestyle, career, books, reading, writing, art, is just a load of lies.

It was only after Romancing’s publication that I realised the poem “Colonial City”, was also probably about my sister – it’s about being on the outside, being shut off, unable to return, exposed to the elements, unable to reintegrate with belonging, when you have lost everything. At first I thought it was about me, about the artist as outsider or some such shit, which it probably is on one level, but then I realised it was about her.

10. How would you define a bad poem?

That is impossible to answer because responses to poetry are often, if not always, subjective. And who is in a position of authority to judge what is good or bad? I suppose however there are some poems that are just so plain awful, badly written or whatever, that there can be no argument. But mainly I am guided by my personal preferences. If a poem does something for me, I regard as good, if it doesn’t do anything for me, I regard it as bad. I don’t think though that it is a matter of form, structure, metre or whatever. I don’t think being able to write poetry according to traditional rules necessarily makes a poem good. Someone who can’t even read or write might be able to create a good poem. Could Homer read or write? He was blind, or at least colour blind.

11. What are your thoughts on contemporary poetry in South Africa?

To answer that would require a book! Well, for a start, I think that in contemporary South Africa it is becoming increasingly important, when we talk about poetry, to distinguish between written-word poetry and spoken-word poetry.

Spoken-word poetry has taken off in South Africa and is immensely popular among the youth. To be a spoken-word poet is, from what I can gather, similar to what being a pop star was in the 1960s – and everyone wanted to be one because it was cool and “sexy”. I am not against spoken-word poetry as such and written-word poets could learn a lot from spoken word, and there are some excellent spoken-word poets, but here in SA, at least among those I have seen and heard, it seems that a lot of it mediocre if not outright bad. Its subject range is limited, and is often narrowly focused on identity or gender politics. It strikes me as a 15-minutes-of-fame thing. It is very much mixed up with the cult of the celebrity, of packaging and consumerism. It is about getting audience applause. Its popularity is also, I feel, a product of the fast-food, instant-gratification society we live in. It doesn’t involve work, reading or writing – it is just a matter of getting up on stage and doing yo’ thing! And if you strike the right note with the audience, who love all those helter-skelter regular or irregular rhymes, then they cheer and you are a success – instant fame – who needs all that shit about writing poems and submitting to literary journals?

There are some excellent written-word poets in South Africa, probably too many to mention here. There are also some excellent performance poets, or poets who have come to be regarded as performance poets, whose poetry works equally well on the page. Guys like Richard Fox or Lesego Rampolokeng. But written-word poetry is hitting a snag with publishing. While in the mid-1990s, when I started being published and started up Dye Hard Press, there was an interest in poetry, especially new poetry. People like Allan Kolski Horwitz, Alan Finlay and I would do readings at Wings, in Braamfontein. The audience responded positively, and there was a real interest in what we were doing, what we were writing and saying. There was a sudden mass of new poetry publications, mainly from small presses. Things were happening, a burst of creativity. But by 2002 or so, a lot of the energy seemed to go, and now, well, shit, hardly anyone seems interested in poetry. It is probably due to a number of factors. But bookstores now are reluctant to stock poetry due to poor sales, and in turn publishers are becoming reluctant to publish poetry. That leaves the small presses, the indies, who battle on, but here a frustrating thing is because of the constraints that small publishers face, limited marketing budgets, hassles with distribution, and of course the bookstores, well, sometimes small presses are not able to get the coverage and sales that poets want.

Small presses, and presses publishing poetry in particular, are in for a tough time. Publishers of poetry are going to have to become more innovative about the way that they market books to generate sales. The sale of poetry is increasingly becoming event-driven, where books are sold at readings etc, because the bookstores, with one or two exceptions, certainly aren’t interested. But South African poets themselves are sometimes a problem, because while we all want to be published, how many of us support other poetry publishers, or buy literary journals? At last year’s Jozi Book Fair, many people came to Dye Hard Press’s stand enquiring about being published, but they wouldn’t even look at the books for sale. I am not suggesting that people spent every spare cent on buying local poetry or journals, but at least do something.

I see I put on my publisher’s hat when answering this question...

12. Draw us a self portrait.