Simon van Schalkwyk
Dryad Press, 2021
Lidudumalingani for The JRB: Greetings, Simon. Let’s begin with the boring but necessary biographical: who are you?
Simon van Schalkwyk: A difficult, Delphic question. There are so many ways to respond to the injunction to ‘Know Thyself’, aren’t there? I’m always slightly sceptical about presenting an audience with biographical details. Perhaps this has something to do with the largely autobiographical contours of the poems in Transcontinental Delay, or because a kind of naive mode of autobiography has recently emerged as probably the dominant mode of literary expression both in South Africa and across the world. But I recently learned that I’m sometimes mistaken for a white South African because of my surname, so it may be useful to note that I was born in Wynberg, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1977, and assigned the ‘identity’ of Coloured at birth. I have been working as a lecturer in American and World Literature (whatever that term means) in the English Department at Wits University for the last eight years.
That’s the short answer but, in truth, questions about identity are always vexed, and not just because of our South African context. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about identity, whether it’s claimed or whether categories of identification are conferred. Recall Jacques Lacan’s playful maxim, ‘I is an Other’. There’s always some kind of interpolation, isn’t there? Others call you into being constantly and frequently in ways one might find either pleasantly surprising, totally off-piste, or objectionable. There’s very little to be done about that.
As far as writing is concerned, I’m not sure that I buy the idea that one reveals, expresses, finds or creates oneself through writing. All that’s a bit hackneyed and advertorial in my view. It’s probably closer to the truth to suggest that writing is, for me, a space in which I can play with all sorts of received ideas, assumptions and codes, including but not solely codes of identity. I’m always trying to understand certain codes and conventions, trying to emulate them and then, finally, trying to muddy them up somehow, to render them obscure or to warp them in some way. This is another way of saying that personal experience or memory are really just points of departure for the more interesting process (in my view) of poetic invention.
The JRB: Why poetry?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with my sense that there’s been so many forms of writing that have been gathered and published under the general appellation, ‘poetry’. That’s good, I think—there may be something about the variety of forms that I’m attracted to, even if my own tastes and preferences lean toward more conventionally ‘poetic’ structures. It could also be because I’m frequently mystified by poetry. Most of the time I’m not sure why a piece of writing has presented itself as ‘poetry’, and this puzzlement fuels my curiosity and interest in the form. More certainly, I’m drawn to words—I like poems that introduce me to words that I haven’t yet come across, or to poems that use words in unusual ways. Weird words. But I also like how poems are able to be quite striking and quite strange. There’s an extraordinary poem by Cheswayo Mphanza in Lolwe called ‘Pastoral’ that I found strange and striking in this way. An amazing poem.
The JRB: The book begins in 1977, the year you were born, in September, and ends in 2020. It feels to me that there is an arrangement of time, of thought, of feelings. Talk to me about the division of the book.
Simon van Schalkwyk: The date 1977 was a late inclusion. If I remember correctly, the dating for the first section of the book was originally ( —2001) because I wanted to leave the question of origins or beginnings open-ended. I don’t really think the dates are especially significant. They’re mainly there to indicate the loosely autobiographical, loosely linear progression of the collection from poems written about or around the times indicated in each section.
As for the structure: the book is divided into four sections. Initially this division served the pragmatic purpose of arranging the poems into a temporally progressive order. Other thematic possibilities emerged later. I began to group poems according to place, with the first section collecting poems written during or about the period prior to leaving South Africa for Bristol; the second section gathering pieces about my time in the UK; the third concerned with dedicatory and occasional pieces, and pieces more consciously preoccupied with art and poetry itself; and a fourth section which included more recent pieces about travel.
The problem I faced concerned the final section, which gathered poems emerging from my travels through Argentina, my experience of the #Fallist movement, and my subsequent travels to Sweden and the UK. They didn’t quite fit together tonally.
My solution was to break the third sequence up by interleaving the dedicatory, occasional and ‘art’ poems with the more obscure or hermetic political poems emerging from the #Fallist moment, and to set the travel poems together separately in a fourth and concluding section. I hoped that, on the one hand, the tension between art and politics would animate the third section, and that this tension would cast a shadow over the travel poems collected in the final section. I’m not sure how successful this gambit has been.
The JRB: The first poem, about your grandfather, titled ‘Inner Workings’, feels hugely autobiographical. How does this fit into the larger body of work, and what significance does it serve for the reader to encounter it first, welcoming them almost into the rest of the collection?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I was hesitant about including ‘Inner Workings’ at all. I think it’s significant that it arrives before the first sequence, and that it doesn’t fall under the periods dated in each section. In this sense, it’s a way of marking off one world or time from another. John Berryman has a line in one of his Dream Songs that describes a ‘grave Sienese face a thousand years / would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.’ I think I had something like this in mind when I think about the difference between my grandfather’s world and time and my own: his world seemed to retain some moral core—a Christian one perhaps—that still seemed capable of dignifying his life despite various political, social and personal debasements. I had the idea that this moral commitment stood as a reproach to everything that followed. This is what I mean when I write there that ‘To enter [his] orbit / was to be arraigned by an older world.’ But I also think the poems that follow represent some kind of departure from that sense of being arraigned or called to account for oneself. In that sense, the subsequent sequences also signal their departure from the more strictly autobiographical charge of ‘Inner Workings’. They emerge from personal experience, of course, but I like to think that the poems obscure as much as they appear to reveal, and that they foreground my attempt to caution the reader from trusting too easily any assumption that I’m engaged in any kind of naively autobiographical project.
The JRB: The structuring seems to suggest a chronological arrangement of thoughts, of time, and then between 1977–2001 there is a poem about statues. ‘Somewhere in town, there are colonial statues’, it reads. In those two lines, now that we know of the #Fallist movement, which you may be or may not referencing, there is overlap of time and histories. The question here is simple, when was this poem written? Did you at the time of the #Fallist movement return to this poem, or did it return to you?
Simon van Schalkwyk: This poem, ‘A Question for the South Atlantic Ocean’, is one of my older pieces and it precedes the #Fallist movement by a decade or so. Interestingly, while I did revise poems to fit a loose set of themes (concerning travel, place, or autobiographical occlusion), that particular line was always there and remained unchanged. There are poems that deal (in)directly with #Fallism in section three, and a couple that speak to #Fallism’s concern with colonial statuary (‘The Firs/Foundling’s Island’ is one, ‘Tableaux Vivants’ is another’). But I’m pleased that the poem suggests a link with a #Fallist moment. If anything, it demonstrates that disaffection with colonial statuary is far from original and far from the exclusive preserve of whatever #Fallism meant or came to mean. Of course, this isn’t to discount or undermine the value of #Fallism. But it does suggest that there were prior and different modes for the expression of postcolonial dissent, and that there will be different ways in which potentially political modes of affect will emerge in future.
The JRB: There is a continuing obsession with time, not just in dividing up the poems, but in the poems themselves, can you talk a little bit about that, and how much of that was deliberate, and what in the collection is its purpose?
This is an interesting observation because I hadn’t really noticed the preoccupation with time until you pointed it out. It’s certainly there. I suppose it has something to do with the autobiographical and reflective nature of many of the poems. Even if I try to depart from personal confession toward something else, there’s definitely a sense of looking back and trying to concentrate some personal experience into the more public and, I think, impersonal media of language and poetry. But I also think that time looms like a spectre haunting the idea of travel that runs through the collection: one departs and arrives at a designated time; one arrives late, misses flights, is delayed; one languishes through the dead-time of arriving too soon. I like the idea of the ‘meantime’—the time in-between moments of arrival and departure, moments of action. I think the earlier poems think about time along more prosaically existential lines: you’re running out of time! But the later ones seem more preoccupied with finding pockets of time amid the general chaos of movement, travel, work. The figures in these poems are walkers and malingerers haunting dead-spaces between points of arrival and departure, trying to distract themselves from the inevitable anticipation of whatever will eventually happen.
The JRB: There is an allure to reading poets who read as if they’ve absolutely arrived at the perfect wording. There is that here. Maturity, I have heard it termed. The kind of thing that is expected in dancing, that a dancer needs to lift all of their limbs as if they were a single mass. What’s your process in arriving at the perfect wording? How many times, if you can say, do you write a poem? How long does it take to finish a poem?
Simon van Schalkwyk: That’s kind of you to say. I certainly don’t think that the wording is perfect, but I do revise obsessively. Some pieces may well be overpolished, too neatly finished. I think part of the reason for this is that this collection spans the last fifteen to twenty years and I’ve been working and reworking some of the poems collected here on and off during that time. I revise poems repeatedly and, at times, in ways that do a disservice to first impressions. One of the reasons I decided to finally approach a publisher was because I found that I was struggling to begin anything new—I kept returning to older pieces, spending hours, days, weeks modifying words, lines, stanzas. I have multiple versions of the same poem collected in documents stored in files scattered across different folders, flash-drives, in the cloud. It’s madness. Sometimes I find an older piece and I’m surprised by how much it’s changed. Usually I feel the changes are fine but there have been moments where I see a piece that I’ve revised repeatedly and felt that it turned out worse than the original or worse than earlier revisions. I’m not sure how to decide between the sense that something is ‘better’ or ‘worse’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’—the judgement is more about intuition than analysis. One of the nice things about finally having these poems published is that I can forget about them now and move on.
The JRB: There is a dance here, on different poems, of long sentences, and then short sentences, commas used to effect, to cut through time, tension, scenes. Can you talk about this dance and how you achieved it?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I’ve never thought primarily of poetry in relation to physical movement, or the shapes of poems and the movement between different poetic shapes, so this is an intriguing comment. I think I’m more preoccupied with aural arrangements, how things sound or how sounds happen to fall across lines. As far as the interplay between poems is concerned, I think more in terms of theme and image. But perhaps there is something to be said about shape and, now that I think about it, I actually did attempt to keep all these poems in as uniform a shape as possible. This idea didn’t really pan out for various technical reasons: an internal rhyme here that didn’t sound right, an end-stopped sound there that fell flat, metrical progressions that seemed too mechanical. I agonise over these things, though I do think that I’ve become more relaxed about lineation, and I’m increasingly drawn to longer lines that seem almost to relax into prose. I think I’m naturally drawn to a line that retains what might be called ‘the ghost of an iambic’, and to arranging stanzas according to more conventional shapes such as couplets, tercets, or quatrains. At some point I felt that poems that looked orderly to the point of regimentation would actually stand out in a surprisingly striking way against the more jazzy, vers libre arrangements that (to my admittedly limited perspective) seem to dominate the poetry scene at the moment. Interestingly, the poems with the shortest lines are the ones emerging from my experience of #Fallism: those knotty, jagged, obscure pieces in section three. I feel uncomfortable about them; I don’t think that those pieces (or others relying on indentation or supposedly ‘experimental’ textual effects) are my preferred metier. I am more comfortable working in and against structures that appear to be more formal or conventional.
The JRB: There is a direct confrontation of the past in this collection, not just in confronting colonial statues, but too, the comfort of oceans, the breeze, but too, their own discomfort. What about the past that you keep returning to? Even when one thinks of the past as yesterday, last month, last year.
Simon van Schalkwyk: You’ve picked up on something I tried very hard to achieve, which was to invest what would otherwise be regarded as little more than nostalgic reminiscence with a sense of bathos or, at worst, disaffection. I’m not sure if this indicates a confrontation with memory so much as an attempt to give memory some kind of written form, and then to subject that form to further emendation—a corrective rewriting of memory, if you like. Another way of saying this might be that I try to find ways of rewriting memory in ways that don’t seem mawkish or overly nostalgic, and that I do that by setting memory into some kind of relation with my personal sense of the harder-edged present. I think it’s true that most of us write about what we know. But I think it’s less commonly mentioned that, in doing so, we also write ourselves away from or out of what we know. A lot of the time, I’m not really trying to ‘capture’ some memory of the past than to consider that memory in relation to contemporary contexts or preoccupations. I think that’s interesting: revising one’s narrative about ‘the past’, retrofitting it to accord with one’s present and, hopefully, to open pathways toward different, previously foreclosed, future possibilities. I’m not sure that the poems in this collection quite manage to achieve this, but this sense of regarding personal memories or feelings or memories of feelings impersonally, as if they’re not your own, is something I keep in mind when I write.
The JRB: In ‘Another Man’ and ‘Christmas Steps’ you wrestle with the idea of eternity, even the idea of one’s own immortality, if not unimportance. Tell me a little bit about this, and what, beyond these two poems, beyond this collection, are your thoughts around these ideas.
Simon van Schalkwyk: Yes, the two poems certainly do chime with one another. I positioned them at the end of sections one and two respectively to offer a sense of the continuing mood accompanying moments of departure. This mood has something to do with the ambivalence of being unbeholden to name, place or persons on the one hand and the sense that one is replaceable, disposable on the other.
The JRB: I completely missed this placement of the two poems, yet the effect of a ‘continuing mood’ wasn’t missed. That the connection of the two poems is both part of the ‘editorial structure’ but captures the reader in the same way, without any prior knowledge, is utterly impressive.
Simon van Schalkwyk: Thank you; but I think there’s something to be said for the reader’s part in making the meaning of a poem or a collection. A poem—or any piece of writing, really—is only as good as its readers allow it to be.
The JRB: Movement, as a matter-of-fact action, but also as an ideology, comes up more than once in this collection. What is it about movement that fascinates you?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as someone wholly committed to political or aesthetic movements of any particular kind. Perhaps this has something to do with my understanding of the history of South African poetry, especially the debates that emerged around Black Consciousness poetry and later expressions of committed verse in this country where the boundary between a certain idea of politics and poetry was a site of particularly robust conversation. Kelwyn Sole writes about the disjuncture between the claims made about or on behalf of BC poetry and the potential meanings of the poems themselves. And there’s a much longer history about the writer’s potential to be a clear mouthpiece for more abstract sets of laws, claims, or ideas. WH Auden, for example, was aghast when a US senator whose ideas he found abhorrent extracted a line from one of his poems for use in a speech. Auden’s response was to write poems that didn’t make clear sense. Geoffrey Hill, in a poem about Charles Péguy and Jean Jaurés, writes, ‘Must men stand by what they write / as by their camp-beds or their weaponry / or shell-shocked comrades while they sag and cry?’ I think I’d like to acknowledge the sense of collective excitement associated with aesthetic or political movements, the ability to lay out a plan and get things done. But I think, when it comes to writing, there’s always going to be some disconnection between a movement’s ideals and a writer’s ability to match it without, that is, resorting to the tautology of indulging in the statement or restatement of values laid down by manifesto.
The JRB: There is prose in here, a short story, in this collection. Were you at all concerned about what the collection is and how it may be categorised?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I think you’re referring to ‘Future Scenarios’? If so, I had hoped it would be regarded as a prose poem, mainly because there’s no real plot or character and because it subjects a single scene to variation. Is that what prose poems do? I’m never sure what prose poems are supposed to do! This is a more recent piece and I think it reflects the kind of relaxation of line and idea I was talking about previously. I think whatever poetry is or has been assumed to be has been up in the air for quite a long time now, and that questions concerning what a poem is or isn’t has generally become less meaningful. And, as the recent awards bestowed upon Claudia Rankine’s Citizen suggest, there’s a far greater willingness to regard as ‘poetry’ forms of writing that do not fit easily into other, more conventional, types of category such as ‘play’ or ‘novel’. I think that’s just fine. Having said that, I do think that I still hold to a pretty conventional idea of what a certain kind of poetry is: written, lineated, stanzaic, almost metrical and so on. But that’s a definition I’ve settled on for myself, and it’s a definition that brings with it a set of limitations I’m comfortable with. I know, of course, that there are other forms of poetry—spoken word, permutation, mixed media and so on—I don’t have any problem with these forms claiming to be poetry. I think there’s more than enough room for a wide variety of forms to coexist. But I personally prefer to work in the narrower formal terrain that I’ve opted for.
The JRB: It is a tricky position, isn’t it, to be for form experimentation, but then to think of form experimentation as a thing that too has limits, or at least its own rules. That not everything that is termed poetry is necessarily poetry. I always make the argument that this is, if nothing else, for our own sanity. So that one day we don’t encounter a poem that begins and ends with a question mark and we waste papers arguing for its merits.
Simon van Schalkwyk: Oulipo made fantastic work out of the idea of formal experimentation as formal limitation, as we know. I think experimentation only really makes sense if conventions are set or settled. But I think the days when what was once understood as ‘formal convention’ could still be regarded as hegemonic are long gone. If anything, that hegemony has fragmented or fallen to publishing houses and imprints—I think that’s where one finds certain stylistic and technical demands that might be called conventional. But there are so many different ‘house styles’, so many publishers willing to push the limits of what they’re willing to accept, that I don’t quite see how one goes about challenging convention via ‘experimentation’. All a writer really needs to do, I think, is to find a house willing to host whatever game they wish to play with language. I suppose this is another way of saying that I think experimentation is a response to repression or censorship (and, of course, it’s always possible for writers to invent certain censors or gatekeepers as straw men in order to validate their particular stylistic, aesthetic and political preferences). My concern has more to do with how one experiments when the soft power of the market manages to absorb the shocks of experimentation precisely by diversifying itself to cater to any and all stylistic forms. This is the darker side of the description of a varied market I describe above. I think this problem is really why I’m not too fussed by experimentation—I admire experimental work, of course, but I do think that in many cases it’s still accompanied by grandiose claims for its supposedly shocking, avant-garde or innovative value and, for the reasons just mentioned, I just can’t take that aspect of experimentation—how it tends to brand itself—seriously. I’m not sure how to respond to the problem, but I think it’s useful to acknowledge it.
The JRB: There are a couple of poems here set in the UK, mostly London, Bristol. What’s your connection to those places? And what in the text were you trying to tell, what were you trying to hold on to, what were you trying to remember, to forget?
Simon van Schalkwyk: Memory and forgetting: I think someone—maybe Freud—once suggested that writing something down is tantamount to forgetting because it entails a degree of repression of the chaotic conglomerations of sensory and mnemonic data that we filter into what we call ‘memory’. John Ashbery has a poem titled ‘Saying it to keep it from happening’, which I always felt spoke suggestively to a similar idea: to speak or write is different from whatever has happened or is happening, an ordering, a limitation of, or a way of repressing or excluding the messy actuality of whatever might have occurred.
I read toward an MA in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Bristol University, and lived there for a year or so. The poems emerge from my experiences in the UK at that time, though I think it would be easy to overlook the fact that they focus on moments of travel—short journeys, detours really—to Beaumaris and Caernarfon in Wales, Uxbridge and the M25 in London, Hay-on-Wye. They also focus on other travellers: John Cabot, a Venetian sailor who launched expeditions across the Atlantic from Bristol in search of alternative routes to China, or ‘Ricky’, the neuroscientist from Seoul in ‘Latitudes’, who was really from Mainland China. I travelled to London once and I was bemused by the idea that everyone in that city seemed to be from somewhere else, that they didn’t conform to received ideas of what a Londoner should look like. One always suspects this, of course—that the great metropolitan conurbations of the world should be ‘multicultural,’ but encountering it is another matter entirely. I was fleeced by an Eastern European who seemed to be running a scam in the public toilets in Soho. I write about a Russian poet, Yevtushenko, crossing both the Siberian steppes and zones of literary translation to emerge as a book of selected poems in Hay-on-Wye. So I guess these poems reflect or refract (I wouldn’t say that they celebrate) this sense of being another transient in a place of transients, and the transience of the transient. I find the idea of these disaggregated non- or inoperative communities both liberating and anxiety inducing. There was something about being in England that gave me a sense of my replaceability, my lack of singularity, which was a relief and troubling at the same time. I enjoyed the feeling of being relatively incognito. On the other hand, I felt that there was a troubling sense of the social machine grinding along almost to the point of perfection, and grinding individual people up along with it. As a student at the university I felt this quite keenly: my cohort would be replaced by another; the masses of people in London seemed so readily interchangeable as to seem entirely disposable. There’s a terror in that thought that I’ve tried to navigate, and I’ve tried to work that ambivalence—between a certain idea of freedom understood as relieved isolation and disposability—into the tone of these poems.
The JRB: ‘Transcontinental Delay’ is a poem in the collection, and also the title of the collection. What came first? The poem or the title? Can you expand on the meaning?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I tend to add titles after writing a poem to a certain level of completion, and, as this poem suggests, I sometimes try to draw a word or a line from the poem itself to stand as the title. ‘Transcontinental Delay’ refers to the ‘lag’ that used to accompany transcontinental telephone calls. I’d use a phone card to call home and it would be the most tragicomical experience because there’d be a few seconds delay before whoever I was talking to would be able to hear me, and vice versa. Sometimes, we’d end up speaking at the same time, so that you’d hear this doubled-voice, a confusion of your voice with something they may have said a few seconds prior; at other times there’d just be this weird fuzzy sound, like a chamber of static, because both you and the person you were speaking to had decided not to say anything in case the other had already spoken. One frequently ended up waiting in anticipation for a voice that would never arrive. I like the title because of these ideas: a Babel of clashing words, unintended interruptions, a confusion of meanings on the one hand, anxiously anticipatory silence on the other. It also reminded me of various theories of communication I read about at university. One of these theories called into question the idea that thoughts are transferred fluidly and transparently from person to person via the presumably neutral medium of language. Another noted the evacuation of the author’s voice and intention from the scene of writing, the distance between the time of writing and the time of reception. I think this gap between intention and reception is something I’m always thinking about when I write, and I think it’s a pretty good way of thinking about not just written poetry but any type of utterance. Poetry as a kind of short circuit in the machine of communication. The title speaks to a time before the world became so connected.
The JRB: In what stage of the writing process was this ‘Transcontinental Delay’ poem written? Have you always known that this was the title?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I wrote this poem quite late in the game, when my own fuzzy and probably obscure ideas about what the collection was doing—dealing with delayed meanings, the ambivalent pleasures of isolation, the way words change as they travel from place to place or ear to ear—had begun to crystallise and, with those ideas, the memory from which this poem emerges began to crystallise as well. The title was drawn from the poem rather than initiating the poem.
The JRB: I’m interested in the length of time it takes a writer to write with such clarity, to discard everything that means nothing, only writing what is necessary. How long did it take you to write the poems in the collection? At what age did you write the first poem and what age did you write the last poem? And which between those two poems do you like the best and why?
The earliest poem here is probably ‘Another Man’—I’m not sure now when it was written but I think it was one of the pieces I wrote for one of my undergrad creative writing classes at UCT. The most recent is likely ‘Future Scenarios’, written in the last year or so. I like ‘Transcontinental Delay’ and the travel poems in the final section quite a lot more than the earlier pieces, which are mostly gathered in sections one and two. There’s a pleasing looseness with how the narrative shifts gears in the later pieces. I think they’re far less anxious about just dropping in lines that seem tangential to or disconnected from the primary narrative. Weirdly incongruous yet coherent. I think the first poem that used this technique (which I could probably trace back to Frank O’Hara’s ‘Nocturne’) is a poem like ‘A Question for the South Atlantic Ocean’. I wrote that sometime in between the earliest and latest pieces and I still like how it produces a scene by linking together a series of images connected to each other more by the general context of the place than by any kind of causally related or propulsive narrative.
The JRB: In ‘Preoccupations’, you write about forced removals, which capture a painful history and present in South African politics. I know you were born in Cape Town, though I don’t know where exactly you grew up, and I want to ask, growing up there, how did this affect you?
Simon van Schalkwyk: I’m glad that the poem manages to evoke this: it was partly my intention but also partly not. The poem was actually inspired by a line that I once happened across—’I only like troglodytic homes’ or something to that effect. I still attribute it to a Hungarian writer named János Pilinszky, though I can’t confirm it. It’s also informed, if memory serves, by a detail I came across in one of John Berger’s books, which had to do with forced removals of European peasantry—it may have been from Pig Earth. Many of these allusions, which I initially included as epigraphs or notes, have been lost because of concerns about copyright. But the point is that these details drawn from European history inform my understanding of the local—or maybe that my understanding of local history mediates my engagement with ‘Western’ or European history in some way. And both of these histories inform my understanding of forced removals that continue apace to this very day both here and in almost all parts of the world. I think this kind of layered mediation of histories and allusions, even if they’re buried or erased from the visible textures of the poems, are deliberate. They’re also more common when I try to grapple with more politically personal concerns. Does it deflect attention from urgent immediacies? Does it protect my supposedly fragile psyche from traumas too disturbing to confront? I like to think that it amplifies certain concerns in suggestive ways. I wasn’t directly affected by forced removals though I think my parents were—or maybe my parents’ parents. I grew up in Wynberg, and I went to schools where the students and teachers were mainly Coloured and Muslim. Athlone. I could have grown up in Newlands. My grandmother was from somewhere called ‘German Town’. In any case, anyone living in Cape Town knows about District Six, and anyone living in South Africa should have some sense of the country’s history of forced removals (though of course, there’s no guarantee that history will make much of an impression—one looks at the news in despair).
I’m not sure what the effect all this had on me. I wouldn’t wish to speculate.
The JRB: The protagonist in these poems is a flâneur, be it Cape Town, London, elsewhere, he is traversing universes. What about this protagonist interested you and what did they offer you?
Simon van Schalkwyk: A flâneur, yes. Though I’m very aware of Anne McClintock’s description of the flâneur as a figure that investigated and defined ‘social “types”’ within the urban marketplace that would eventually become the modern metropolis. In this regard, flâneurs participated in what McClintock identifies as ‘the project of the physiologues […] a petty bourgeois genre that […] was also an imperial genre, for the notation of types and specimens was characteristic of the travel ethnographies being written at the time by men who were taking a good look at the marketplace of empire’. This is obviously problematic for someone marked with the memory of racialised systems of identification imprinted by the apartheid state. It’s also troubling to note that these systems of identification have become a casual part of statecraft and control on a global scale, and that it’s entered a phase of biometric and perhaps even genetic surveillance. I think this is partly why there are so few descriptions of actual people in these poems, why bodies emerge as shadows or as personal pronouns. As disembodied voices. This probably also explains why I’ve always found it exceedingly difficult to write prose—the demands of description and naming are immense. At the same time, I do think that these poems are tracking some kind of psychogeographical map of place and person, and that it angles toward attitudes that emerge from the personal, but which are more than merely personal. One of the epigraphs I had to cut because of uncertainties about rights was from Baudelaire’s description of the modern spectator as ‘a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’. I think I tried to stay true to that principle in many of these poems.
- Guest City Editor Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer, and winner of the 2016 Caine Prize. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
- Simon van Schalkwyk works as a lecturer in English literature at Wits University. He also acts as Academic Editor for The JRB. His debut collection of poetry, Transcontinental Delay, is out now from Dryad Press. Follow him on Twitter.