I am very interested in my work going out of English into other languages that have what I consider to be more stable literary and linguistic histories. In that sense, I am definitely more interested in being a poet of the World – Cosmopolitan in the original sense of the word, instead of an English Poet. Which I couldn’t be, not being, not yet having been, in that native sense, English!
DS: I always complain about the disconnect between American and British poetry, but I think we’re even more disconnected with Australia. What’s happening there, besides Les Murray? Who should we look out for, who do we need?
JM: To answer that question would really require a separate interview … I discovered, when in the US, that my peripheral position in relation to US poetry was – as someone coming from far away – surprisingly up-to-date on US poets. Whereas, as you suggest, they had almost no knowledge of poets from my context. Here I must stress that I don’t simply come from an Australian background; a certain amount of my work has appeared since I have lived in Australia, but my reading and writing is eclectic and the first tradition with which I was familiar was that of Afrikaans poetry, even though it is my second language. There is also a problem for me: the reality that Australian readers remain almost entirely ignorant of most of South African literature, but for a few novelists.
To investigate what’s going on in Australian poetry it would be best to start at Jacket2 magazine – which is pretty well known internationally. There are also the smaller sites in Cordite Poetry Review and Mascara, which give a better sense of what the newest poets are doing. But, really, I feel that to come to terms, as far as is possible, with the central Australian tradition, it would be best to look at some anthologies – a good beginning would be to set John Tranter and Philip Mead’s The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry against Les Murray’s The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse. The overlaps and clashes and absences between those two are genuinely insightful. If you want me to ‘name names’, I would have to say that I am more drawn to the earlier Australian modernists – Judith Wright, Francis Webb and Kenneth Slessor – who set up, in my mind, the dynamic of the contemporary poetry tradition. Of course, the closer we get to the present the more diverse things become with a vast range of poets. Of the slightly older generation who started publishing mostly in the 1970s, these are three whose work I enjoy: Robert Adamson, Antigone Kefala and Robert Gray. Another poet and writer I like, though largely a novelist of an earlier era, and someone who didn’t write very much, is Randolph Stow, who lived much of his life in a kind of self-imposed exile in England.
I must say something about the country of my birth. South African poetry is also largely unknown outside of the country, the two best-known poets being – an interesting fact – Afrikaans: Breyten Breytenbach and Antjie Krog. Both of them are probably known more due to their prose than their poetry. There is an even more diverse world of poetry there than in Australia, of many kinds, and with complex relations to other traditions and languages.
Thinking just of established figures, there is the Zulu poetry of Muzisi Kunene, which has its debts to the Zulu modern poetry of BW Vilakazi; the amazingly synthetic work of Wopko Jensma, who somehow brought together a kind of multi-lingual Afro-American jazz voice á la Harlem Renaissance, certain aspects of experimental German poetry, and an African sensibility owing to his life in Mozambique and Botswana; then there’s Tatamkhulu Afrika, a poet and novelist who encouraged my return to writing about South Africa, a man with a very interesting life story, whose poetry was a return to the possibilities of lyric poetry after the end of Apartheid, and who was a chronicler of great insight during and after that period of transition; and Wilma Stockenström, whose evocative historical novella, Journey to the Baobab Tree, was translated by JM Coetzee. I would also add to this list the Mozambican short-story writer, novelist and poet Mia Couto who, though he writes in Portuguese and is now a well-known figure in the Portuguese world, was early on associated with Jensma in his time in Maputo.
Best for anyone interested to look at the site of Poetry International, which provides a good point of entry, if with the inevitable blind spots – I am included in neither! – for both poetries.
DS: I know your work has been translated into a number of languages. Do you speak other languages? Do you translate from or into any of them?
JM: Yes, there have been translations into European and Asian languages, and one poem each into Farsi and Uzbek. Some of them can be found here on Lyrikline.
This is certainly one of the reasons I hope reincarnation is possible – so that I might return and learn a number of other languages to a good level of proficiency! At school in South Africa I learnt Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Zulu and Latin, only the first of which I have properly retained. I have a smattering, as they say, from travel – Indonesian, Japanese, Portuguese – but the only language I could say I am sufficiently familiar with is Afrikaans. I am able to understand German not too badly, having studied it for a year as an undergraduate; and I was surprised that I was able to read, without much of a problem, a Dutch translation of a book by the Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi, which he kindly sent to me. This all remains a source of embarrassment to me. Hence the dream of a future incarnation.
On this subject, though, I must say that I used to feel ashamed of this. In recent years, I have been thinking that this embarrassment was also a curious one in that it presupposed that I could learn all the languages of the places and literature I am interested in, which is, of course, not the case. My imaginings and journeys exceed the practical. That presumption effaces the presence and activity of the translator. My fondness for translation has always been with me, ever since my earliest days. It’s something to do with the official bilingualism of South Africa and Canada, of seeing two names for things, as if things always have a mirror-image. I remember reading somewhere that this is an African metaphysic: that there is always the thing-itself and its invisible counterpart. I don’t know how true that is.