August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Isobel Dixon by Douglas Ward
1. How did you first develop an interest in poetry, and what inspired you to write poetry?
I can’t remember there being a starting point to poetry. It was always there, in nursery rhymes, songs, the Book of Common Prayer – my father was a minister and a science teacher, so I grew up with the cadences of the prayer book and the King James Bible. Hymns too, including one that became part of our South African national anthem, ‘Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika’. My Yorkshire grandfather, who fought in both world wars, would quote swathes of Wilfred Owen and Omar Khayyam and Shakespeare. All that and the many books on the shelves of our household made for fuel enough, but I was also lucky to have good school teachers in English and Afrikaans. In high school it was Afrikaans poets like Antjie Krog and Breyten Breytenbach who seemed to write most urgently about the world I found myself in.
2. How did you get your work recognised? Were there difficulties?
After the odd publication in school and university magazines, the first real step was to sign up for a workshop with South African poet Robert Berold when I went to the Grahamstown Festival of the Arts as an undergraduate. It was the first time that my work was judged by people I didn’t know. After the workshop Robert asked if he could publish ‘Kiewietjie’ and ‘Pearston’ in the journal he edited, New Coin. It felt a momentous step to me. I started writing, completing and sending out poems in a more focused way when I finished studying in Edinburgh and began working in publishing. Maybe it was evading academia, having the example of the writers whose work I represent as an agent, or just that I had more to say by then, but that was when I started to build up a body of work – and rejection slips. One of my proudest possessions is a postcard from the late Alan Ross of the London Magazine, accepting some work – my first British publication.
The breakthrough to a collection came when Gus Ferguson, poet and editor of the South African journal Carapace, suggested I enter the SANLAM poetry competition for a collection by an unpublished poet, which I won with the manuscript of Weather Eye – which Gus then published in his Carapace Books imprint. Another life-changing poet and editor to whom I am very grateful.
3. What poets are you a fan of? Are there any poets you’ve drawn inspiration from?
So many! Surely we draw inspiration from all the poets we love? Here’s an inevitably incomplete list: John Berryman (there’s a veiled tribute to him in my poem ‘So Many Henries’ – I adore his Dream Songs), Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Rodney Jones, Michael Donaghy, Finuala Dowling, Ingrid de Kok, Breyten Breytenbach, Elisabeth Eybers, Eugene Marais (whose nature writing inspired ‘Toktokkie’ and ‘The Inopportune Baboon’).
4. Are there aspects of your life that are particularly influential to your writing?
Like most poets, I’m not picky and am pretty omnivorous about sources. We’re multivalent creatures, latching on to myriad images and ideas. I’m happy to work to kindle whatever opportune spark blows my way. That said, I find myself returning to certain subjects – exploring nature, childhood narratives, and the thrill of cinema.
5. Does it irritate you when someone misinterprets your work?
Yes. Even positive reviewers and readers can get details wrong. I wouldn’t correct readers’ views though, unless there’s some terrible travesty. Let the interpreter be.
6. In the case of ‘Certus Incertus’, can you retrace your thought process when writing? What did you intend to convey?
I don’t like to unravel process, nor explain too much. But I had a terrible stammer as a young girl and the poem was both an exorcism of old embarrassments and a celebration of the written word, which was always something of a salvation to me.
7. What did you aim to achieve through the use of such strong language in your poem ‘Meet My Father’?
I wanted to convey the powerful feelings of helplessness and love felt by those who care for loved ones who are diminished and despairing.
8. What inspired you to write ‘Vision’?
Vivid memories of our family garden, all senses on summer alert, alive to sight and scent. The visual tricks of twilight. At the back of my mind there must have been D. H. Lawrence too. Who knows how these things coalesce?
9. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
Much. I’m not adept at other art forms, but do love to experiment with an interplay of forms, and enjoy setting up collaborations, working with other poets, musicians, and film-makers. Like The Debris Field, our recent multi-poet multi-media show about RMS Titanic, devised and produced with Simon Barraclough and Chris McCabe, with music from Oli Barrett and film by Jack Wake-Walker.
10. Finally, what advice would you give young writers hoping to write poetry?
Read as much poetry as possible, widely and adventurously.
Keep a notebook and raid it regularly. Don’t let those tadpole ideas slip by – you never know what leaping creatures they might become, given time and care. Stretch yourself; sharpen your craft by finding a good workshop or course. It can be immensely useful if you can find a regular group to meet with, though it can be hard finding the right combination You want constructive criticism, not comfortable praise or competitive venom. There are also online options available. Groups are not for everybody, but however you do it, seek feedback that helps you grow.
Read and submit to journals, take rejection in your stride, keep careful records and keep on submitting. Believe in your work, but don’t let your ego lead it.
Poets are different, so do whatever works for you. The only essentials are to keep reading, keep writing.