The Poetry of Embodiment: A Dialogue with Kobus Moolman

Kobus Moolman is an award-winning poet and playwright from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He is an Associate Professor at the University of the Western Cape. He holds a PhD in English Studies from UKZN. He is the author of eight collections of poetry; Time like Stone, Feet of the Sky, Anatomy, Tilling the Hard Soil: poetry, prose and art by  South African Writers with Disabilities, Separating the Seas, Light and After, Left Over and A Book of Rooms.

Kobus is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of Ingrid Jonker Prize for 2001, South African Literary award for poetry, Sol Plaatje European Union poetry award, Dramatic and Literary Rights (DALRO) Prize and 2015 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.  He has received fellowships for Mellon Writer Fellowship, Caversham Centre for Writers and Artists and Helen Martins Fellowship. He was special guest of Creative Writing Research Group at the University of Calgary in Canada.  Kobus was the founding editor of the annual KwaZulu-Natal poetry journal, Fidelities, which ran from 1995 until 2007.

Kobus’s author of collection of radio play, Blind Voices, Full Circle, and Soldier Boy of the BBC production and Stone Angel. His plays have been awarded the Jury Prize for Best Script in the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA) Festival of Reading of New Writing, BBC African Radio Theatre Award (1987), Macmillan Southern African Playwriting Award (1991) and Noupoort Reward for Playwriting. He was a finalist in the Amstel Playwright of the Year Award and joint winner of the 2007 NLDTF/PANSA Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings of New Writing. His play has been produced at  the Oval House Theatre in London in 2006. He has adapted Zakes Mda’s the novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, and Gomolemo Mokae’s short story, “Milk and Honey Galore, Honey” for the radio. 

 This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the small, beautiful village of Riebek West, South Africa by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Kobus, your work is haunting and shifting. I think it’s powerful the way that you put the elements or things that we often think do not exist in your poetry, as part of what is possible, of what exists.

Kobus: Thank you. I am much honored. As a writer, you understand that a lot of this stuff doesn’t come easily. It is almost like putting one’s self against one’s self. I have to keep pushing myself deeper and further. But I appreciate what you are saying because it means that the work I am doing is getting across, and that’s important.

Gaamangwe: Yes, I think to be honest and raw the way you are is the ultimate aim for any writer, even if it’s very scary.

Kobus:  Yes, it is very scary. For example the poetry collection, Leftover, took a long time for me to be able to say the kinds of things you find there, because I had to ask myself a lot of really intimate questions. I finally reached a point where I was able to separate the words on the page, from the person that was saying the words. That meant a great deal for me. It’s a complicated relationship. I am not completely separate from the words but I do insist on refusing to read those words as autobiography. Many people that know me very well will say, “Oh Kobus, there is a guy in the poem and he’s got no hair and he walks with a stick, it must be you.” And I will go, “No, it’s not me!” Because if I say it is me that will be to diminish and limit the words. And you, as a black woman, will not be able to access those words. And I cannot as a writer do that. My aim is to make the words as wide as possible. So that you can come in. As you have said to me, you responded to that rawness and to that kind of honesty, and that tells me that I must continue working in this kind of vein, even if it puts me in that difficult and uncomfortable place.

Gaamangwe: I think that’s where we need to be and create from because that uncomfortable place is what tells us a lot about us as human beings, and as a species.

Kobus: I also feel that if one is writing out of a place of comfort, or certainty or feeling comfortable, or knowing what you are doing, that is very, very dangerous. I once read an interview with the British painter, Francis Bacon. If you look at his work it’s incredibly violent painting. He was painting throughout the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. And the interviewer was interviewing the painter about his life, after he had been painting for 40 or 50 years. A long time for him to clearly know what he was doing, and Bacon said, “The moment I approach a canvas and I know what I am going to do, that painting will be a disaster. I have to approach every single canvas as if I have never painted before.”  It’s shocking because he needed to be that open, that exposed with his painting. If he relied on tricks and things that had worked before, and he was going to try to do them in the next painting, then it was going to fail. And he was able to say that. I think the same applies to us as writers.

Gaamangwe: Yes, my experience has been that when I write from that place of discomfort, my work is very honest and very raw but I am still learning to trust and release that to the world.

Kobus: Can I also add that I believe very strongly in the value of form. Despite what we’ve discussed here concerning rawness in writing, I must insist that poetry is a craft. Poetry is not about raw emoting. It is not about pouring your emotions onto the page; getting it all out as it were. Poetry is a making. It involves decisions. And this making, or what we can also call craft, is very critical in writing. In fact the forming of a piece of writing – the putting into form – is what makes that writing art, and not therapy.

Gaamangwe: I am only starting to appreciate and understand that now, and that has led to some of my best work. It’s an evolving thing though. Now, just to pivot slightly, you once said;

“Much of my recent poetry is driven by a personal engagement with the concept of embodiment and particularly two aspects. First, a concern with the interface between the inside and the outside, and secondly, a concern with the non-normative body”.

I am interested to know; what is your notion of embodiment? What are your ideas of the interface between the inside and the outside? And how do you use poetry to explore these concepts?

 Kobus: I suppose in a way this goes back to a writer’s residency I did around 2008/2009. The residency consisted of writers and visual artists, and at some point in the residency, each of the writers were paired with a visual artist and we started collaborating on a project, where the visual artist would work with visual language, while the writer worked with verbal language, and this experience started making me think of language in a different kind of way. I was working with an African American artist called Fahamy Pecou, and I was just watching him work and there was a kind of physicality in the way that he worked. He worked with his material and I started thinking of language in a physical way. I think that language is quite often regarded as abstract and mental and ethereal. So I turned it around for myself, and thought of my poetic language as not being a mental language but actually a language that comes through the body, from the body. And what’s that meant for me, was for me to investigate the relationship between what is inside and what is outside. The inside being I suppose thought, feeling but not just thought and feeling; the inside is also blood, the inside is breath, the inside is flesh. And these things have a concreteness, a corporeality and that became very crucial for me because of my own personal relationship with my body.  A body that I struggle with. In many ways I have had a difficult relationship with my body.  And that made me approach my own writing with a greater gutsy-ness, a gut level rawness. A working with meat kind of thing. There is nothing gentle about a bone. There is nothing ethereal or intellectual about a bone. For me, it’s almost elemental. It’s like fire, like earth. And that grounded me in myself, and then the writing in the self.  Not about the self.  For me, I needed to write much closer to the self that was writing. And not to claim that the self that was writing was not a self that struggled in the body, in the flesh. And out of that struggling in the flesh, came a deeper writing. And it had a resonance that I hadn’t had before in my work. And that rang true for me and started to make me understand things in the way that I hadn’t understood before.

One interesting thing about us human beings, which we can’t get away from, is that we are flesh and blood. We break, we bleed. That is such a commonness to all human beings. Before we get to language and those other distinctions between us, we all share bodies, and we share a common experience of the body. The body’s failures, its joys, its elations, love in the body, disease in the body, we all get sick. And those are the kinds of things that I started to realize that if I can make my writing bodied, and there is no word like that, and so therefore the closest word to that is embodied, that is the correct term, but if I can embody my work basically put it into the body, to ground it in the body then I think it will grow in a different way from the work before that.

Gaamangwe: That is illuminating. I am drawn to what you said about not writing about the self but writing in the self.  

Kobus: Yes, I am not writing about, I am writing from. There are two distinctions here; about and from. About will be limiting.

Gaamangwe: It’s out there.

Kobus: Exactly. It will say this is just me. And then you and anyone else will not be able to enter the work. That for me is not literature. Literature lets in. It lets the world in. If I say this is from, that for me as a writer, allows me to be completely frank and to be in your face and upfront and cruel. Cruel to myself, okay? I do this to myself. I am not doing it to anyone else. It’s all to me. The understanding and the hope is that a reader will be able to come into that. I perform what I call a necessary violence to myself.

Because all of us as human beings, we basically walk around in a block of ice. There is an interesting quote from T.S Elliot; “Humankind cannot bear too much reality”. And we can’t. That is why we have skins. If we didn’t have skins, we would be dead because one of the thing that the skin does is it protects you. But the definitive thing about writing is that it’s got to evade the skin. You have to allow yourself to be infected, to be diseased, to be wounded, and to be sick. You can’t write with a skin.

The South African poet Breyten Breytenbach once said “A poet is a person born without a skin.”  So we enter into the world without any filter between us and the world. And that’s very difficult because we know what it does to us as writers. Mental problems, the psychic and psychological issues as artists that we have because of the fact that basically you see and you hear too much. But we cannot afford to stop doing that.

Gaamangwe: When you said—we cannot bear too much reality, I thought perhaps this is why we forget. Why we lose memory of a lot of things that happen to us but the poet has to go back to those experiences, painful as they are/were, and attempt to remember them, attempt to bring them back from wherever old experiences go.

Kobus: Totally, I agree with you. And of late, I have been working a lot with memory. I think memory is an extremely powerful tool, for any writer to use. We make a mistake in thinking that memory brings back something back as the truth. Memory is actually an act of invention. It is not an act of retrieval. We do not go and get something that is already formed in the past, complete, and bring it into the present like that. That is not how memory works. We invent our memory, we create our memory. It is actually an imaginative process. And as a writer, that is so liberating.

But we make a mistake to think that this means that we are lying, because we all have this desire to tell the truth. Well, what is truth? And that’s a very difficult question to answer. There is truth with a lowercase and Truth with capital. I think in a certain way an art work is a lie that tells the truth. We are ultimately making up stories. Stories are inventions. They don’t exists. They exist because we give them existence. They don’t have existence outside of us, we give them existence. And that is part of our blessing as story-makers.

Gaamangwe: Now I wonder, where do these stories comes from?

Kobus; I don’t want to answer you because I can name it but in a way I should not name it. It must stay for me dark.  It must stay a place of darkness and a place of silence and a place of tremendous origins. For me, my works don’t come from me, they come through me. What is on the other side of me, I don’t know. That is the place of origins. Now we are getting into the spiritual realm, and the realm where one has to be careful of what one is saying because here we are treading on a place where we need to take our shoes off. Because this is stuff you can’t look at with the naked eye.

But that is where my work comes from. It is from a place that is much bigger and deeper and darker and older than me. There I have said it.

Gaamangwe: I understand. I do not think I can be able to answer this myself.

Kobus: Because it’s about my own personal relationship with things that are bigger than me. With the world that is bigger than me, which existed before me and will exist after me. And ultimately that’s where the words come from.

Gaamangwe. That’s powerful. What I found in your poetry is this exploration of the relationship between the body of the human being and the body of the natural world, and the way that they intersect. For example, in your poem, One Version of The Road;

And the sun was behind his head

And it was much later than he thought

And he thought that he had nothing more to say

And he did not know whether he should

And he thought that he would anyway

And the sun was inside his eyes

And he tried to imagine where the day before that day had gone

And it smelled of turpentine

And it smelled of disinfectant

And he cut his finger on its edge

And he sucked it

And for a moment he tasted what was inside him

And then he closed his eyes

And he saw that he was wrong

And there was a shadow of a sky

And it lay across the brown field

And all the doors stood wide open

And the sound of water came out

And he understood that what was inside him

would always make the sound of blood.

I mean how is the sun inside a human eye? How? I find this fascinating and shifting.

Kobus: It does relate to what we were talking about earlier. To do away with, to merge, and to blend that distinction between the inside and the outside. Between the self and the outside world. So the things that happen out in the world do not happen out in the world, they happen at the same time inside, inside the person that is seeing and experiencing those things. It’s about seeing oneself in a greater connectivity, in a greater way of being part of instead of something that’s continually on the outside and separate. In that way, the wind, the forces, other human beings, other human being’s stories and struggles – those are stories that are happening at the same time inside as what is happening outside.

Gaamangwe: That is profound. Nothing is out there, it’s all happening inside us. Often we see ourselves as bodies separate from the world, or the world separate from us. In social sciences, we often speak about the mind and body relationship only focusing on the human being, never entirely integrating the natural world, and landscape.

Kobus: Because the mind is in the body. The mind is not separate from the body. I mean there have been debates about this for thousands of years. But in my work, I treat the mind as a physical thing. I treat thought as physical and I have learnt in my writing to treat thought in a physical way. To hold it, to wrestle with it, and all these are physical metaphors that I am actually using, deliberately so. Because they speak about the way in which thought and feeling are embodied, they happen along our nervous system, along our blood, and all of these things occur in a physical dimension. And I am interested in a way that can have a similar impact, for me as a writer, in writing.

Gaamangwe: That’s quite fascinating because the mainstream understanding of thought is that it is separate from us, something just there, that goes through us or that is somehow in us but completely out of our control. So to perceive thought as something that can be touched, stopped, looked and manipulated. That’s out there. I imagine that’s the kind of stuff the monks are able to do!

Kobus: I think you are right. Some people are able to do that. They are able to control their thoughts. I don’t know if I am at that stage.

Gaamangwe: Eckhart Tolle in his book “The Power of Now” talks about thought like that.  We chronically identify with the thoughts in our minds, and that is why we suffer. Particularly because we think we are not in control of what comes up in our heads. But he says that we can control and choose what we think about. It is much more complex and powerful when he explains it.

I find that your work and your thoughts are gravitating towards this kind of spiritual and ethereal way of looking at things.

Kobus: It does make sense but I want to make a distinction between spirituality and religion. I think you are quite right in your observation about my work. But it’s related to what I was saying earlier. The fundamentals, the ground, the origin of my work lies elsewhere, in the other. Which includes me but is not me. So in many ways it is ultimately a spiritual dimension. For myself as a writer to be able to talk about it, I need to be able to not talk about it. Does that make any sense?

Gaamangwe: Yes, it makes sense but it’s quite fascinating especially for me as a psychology graduate because I am in the business of understanding things. My first instinct is to want to know and pursue the knowledge of everything. Why is it difficult to say it? But I will refrain from being a psychologist in this moment and accept the truth you can offer now in this space.

Kobus: I prefer the darkness to the light. The light shines too harshly. I prefer the night to the day. You can see further in the night. You can see further in the darkness. To shine a light on something that does not allow you to see it. It actually dazzles and blinds you. Light doesn’t illuminate, it blinds you. The darkness lights something up, so I prefer to leave things in the darkness and that’s how I write. I write in the darkness. Obviously not literally.  But to write I have to close my eyes, to see I need to close my eyes.

Gaamangwe: There is a gravitation to the unknown. You find comfort in that which you do not know. That’s brave.

Kobus: Totally, you’ve put it in one word. The unknown.

Gaamangwe: Yes, and typically the unknown, that which is not like the others, is what many run away from. Which brings me to one of your interests, the non-normative body. What is the fascination here?

Kobus: I suppose it’s a fancy scientific term really for difference, and increasingly in the world I am troubled by the fact that we are, on a religious, on an ethnic, on a gender, on a racial, on so many levels, we are becoming more intolerant of each other, and we have a rise in the world of certain ways of thinking, ways of thinking that say that gender needs to operate in a particular line, that there are certain races and genders, and sexual orientations that have dominance and voice. That is a huge worry for me. That we are heading to some kind of place, and it happens on a religious level as well. For example, Christian, male, white, heterosexual, these are all the normative terms. Now this is completely and utterly destructive. And we see its destruction on so many levels. Colonialism, apartheid. And I would have hoped that by the end of the 20th century, leading into the new millennium we will have somehow learnt to put that behind us, but the last few years have shown that, I think we are for whatever reason, humanity wants things in a certain way. I don’t understand people. It troubles me. Look at the way that the world is reacting to immigrants and how this is bringing up suspicion and hatred and distrust. It’s quite alarming. That’s where the seeds of violence and genocide come from. We have seen it on this continent, we have seen in the rest of the world, in the past and in the last hundred years and it’s something that we have not been able to fix.

On a personal level, I have not been able to see my experience of my body fitting into that bigger story of Otherness. And the story of misunderstanding, mistrust and suspicion. Where people project thought on to the other, on that which is different. And because it is different, it is inferior. It’s not seen as the same as, it’s not equal to. And therefore it doesn’t deserve the same right.

Gaamangwe: I have been thinking about that and I am working with the idea that, that which is different, unknown and that which we don’t understand is scary. It makes us feel not in control and it breeds this level of helplessness. And I think that we have a lot of violence coming up because people feel powerless in the spaces and interactions with that which they do not understand.  When something is new or strange and we struggle to understand it, that space between fully understanding and not understanding, makes us feel powerless and at loss with the way to navigate our world. So we come to this space with physical force and try to fight it off or remove it or undermine it, just so we can feel powerful or in control.

Kobus: Yes, I agree, and we also then create barriers. We put up walls between ourselves, where now other people cannot come in. We say this society is for certain kinds of people only. And all of that is a reaction to a world that I suppose in many ways is becoming more confusing and complicated for people and so they respond like that, which is a huge problem.

Gaamangwe: Because at the end of the day, even if we have certain differences, we are mostly the same. We are one but our expression or the way that we show up in the earth space is not particularly or it does not appear the same.

Kobus: The notion of difference is such a thin idea. I think that sameness is much bigger than difference. What makes us human is much bigger than what makes separates us from each other.  We are all part of the human family.

Gaamangwe: Yes, if only we could all come and treat each other from this understanding. Nonetheless, let’s pivot to the last reflection, as someone who uses two forms of writing, how does being a playwright borrow from poetry, and vice versa? And does that enlarges your whole experience as a writer?

Kobus: That’s a very interesting question. I think that I enjoy writing for theatre because I like the sound of words in a human mouth. Theatre is in front of you, it is a physical experience. You sit there and you watch, and listen and hear somebody.  You could probably even, if you are close, get spit in your face. I enjoy thinking about character in those terms.  And so I started to think about the persons in my poems as characters not as the self. And that’s why in a lot of the poems the self is referred to in the third person. He or She. What I am doing there I am actually creating a particular type of character that allows me to think about him in a way that removes myself from the equation. When you are writing for theatre you have to create something that stands outside of yourself because you as the writer will not be standing on stage, I mean you might, but generally it will be an actor. So you’ve got to be able to create it in such a way that it allows an actor to interpret it. So that they can find and define themselves inside it. And the same way that an actor finds themselves in a character, I started thinking of my poetry in that kind of way. That the reader comes in and makes the poem, in the same way that the actor comes in and makes the character. The character is nothing until the actor comes in and gives that character the flesh and thought and feelings. In the same way I started thinking about the reader. The reader comes in and they make the poem.

Recently I started working with fiction and that has been so exciting. For a long time I avoided prose, I didn’t understand prose and I didn’t know how to work with prose. But after a few years, I have published a few, I have been experimenting and I will be publishing my first collection of short stories.

It all comes from my own interest in form. Different ways of approach a particular topic as a writer, whether you approach it as a play or poetry or a short story, these are for me interrelated ways of talking about the same kind of issues we have as human beings.

Gaamangwe: That’s exciting, I can’t wait. This was just brilliant. Thank you.

 Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.


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