Where a poem can live – an interview with Kobus Moolman.


I must confess, in the last few years I’ve become very disillusioned by the poetry genre and would have lost all faith in it but for those rare exceptions. Kobus Moolman is one of them. Read “Daily Duty”, his poem that was awarded the Sol Plaatje European Union Award for Poetry this year, at the end of this interview.

CG: The first thing I noticed about your poetry is your keen observation. I know some may say this is true of all writing, but I found the little details which are simultaneously telling and withholding, remarkable. It also makes me wonder about how you start your writing process. Would you tell us more about that?

KM: How I start my writing process? Alertness, I think. Or attentiveness. Attending to, being alert to, several, many things at the same time. Such as the world around me. The observable world. The world of the senses. The world of nouns. But then at the same time – together with the external world – also being alert to the inner . . . what? Not inner world. No. But something that suggests activity, action, happening, movement. The inner movements. Paying extreme attention to these small, domestic, ordinary inner acts. And listening to them. Hearing them. And holding them. Holding them suspended. Not forcing them. Allowing more of the outer now, more of the inner, in. Mixing. Commingling. Combining and re-combining like some kind of language random-combination machine.

CG: In your poem, titled “Daily Duty,” your observation of the woman kept me wanting to make sure you were male. I found it very moving because of its ordinariness, but also because of the feminist undertone (although I realise this may be nothing more than my own reading thereof). Was that your intention?

KM: Your reading is certainly responding to a very definite – even conscious – aspect of the poem. Yes, indeed. What you call its “feminist undertones”. But the poem has a range of levels. Not to say that any one such level is necessarily more deep than any other. More relevant or more accurate. Or even more superficial. They all exist at the same level. At the same time. In the same place. Think Quantum physics. Not Newtonian science. And these other levels allow me as a man to speak through the situation of the woman in the poem in order to say something (some things) about women, and also about men (a man?) who feel themselves in the experience of that woman; not the same as her, but similar. Her then as metaphor also. Or character.

CG: What inspired you to write “Daily Duty” and how do you feel about winning the 2013 Sol Plaatjie European Union Poetry Award for it? Were you surprised or confident, or both perhaps?

KM: “Daily Duty” is actually a poem from a long unpublished collection called Autobiography of Bone, which was originally written as part of my UKZN doctoral thesis. Autobiography is an assemblage of dramatic poems that present themselves through the voices of two characters: He and She. Hence the female perspective in the poem.

I am delighted to have won the award. Writing is a terrible, solitary and introspective process (at least for me), and I continually walk the knife-edge of despair and . . . what would be its opposite? Triumph? But I don’t know if any writer can speak of triumph. You can’t write out of confidence and knowing. There is always for me that sense of, “No, that is not what I wanted to say, that is not it at all.” This is what pushes me on. To try again. “Fail again. Fail better”, as my great inspiration Beckett would say.

CG: If you could have an affair with anyone (forget morals, we won’t hold it against you as this is hypothetical only), who would it be with?

KM: I’ll have to quote from my new collection Left Over:

It is not so much that he is alone.
But that he cannot shake off the feeling
of wanting to be with a stranger.

And she, this stranger, would have dark hair and skin like milky rooibos tea and wear short skirts. Enough.

CG: So what on earth does one do in Pietermaritzburg for fun?

KM: I don’t know. I am very happy leading a quiet, private, life with my wife Julia, in our lovely old Edwardian house with our ducks and chickens.

CG: Who are your three favourite South African poets currently and which poets inspired you to become a poet?

KM: It is unfair to choose just three favourite current writers, because the list keeps changing. But among the many South African poets I admire I would mention Mxolisi Nyezwa, Karen Press, Kelwyn Sole and Rustum Kozain. Oops, that’s four. See?

And then among the poets who inspired me to write I would mention Robert Berold, Joan Metelerkamp and Wopko Jensma. And those are just the South African ones.

CG: I know you write plays as well as poetry. What about these two genres in particular do you like?

KM: I like the fact that drama is the words of a character in the flesh. It is words that exist on the tongue, in the moment, there and then. There is a full-fleshedness of drama that really appeals to me. But the communal aspect of theatre I find difficult. The fact that a play has to be staged, in front of an audience – with all the concomitant issues of production – for it to have its real life. This I find a trial. A poem, however, can live in private. In silence. Obscurely, without another soul in the world to help it have life. That I love. Really.

CG: What is the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

KM: When I was fired from my first ever job, as a teacher at a farm school, for scoring dope from the pupils (not very clever I’ll admit), I told my parents that I’d resigned for health reasons.

CG: Well if they read this, I guess your secret will be out. Do you secretly want to be a novelist (haha!)? (Not that I think all poets want to or should be, but it is the common joke, so I guess I have to ask – you know, for the sake of our readers and all that.)

KM: No, in all honesty I do not want to be a novelist. Not even secretly. I think and I feel and I look at the world as a poet does – even when I’m writing plays or short fiction. But I will say that I do want to write a novel. Yes, that I do want to do. But it will be as a poet.

CG: How long does it take you on average to finish a poem? Do you have a very structured way of working or do some just happen and others take months or even years to complete?

KM: I work all the time on my pieces. Some do happen fairly quickly, an evening or so. Some longer. There is one poem I’d love to finish which is now probably ten years old. I am continually writing in my journal. And then I go through this journal and extract and assemble and cobble together bits and pieces to build new poems or prose poems or flash fiction or whatever.

CG: Do you believe in a deity?

KM: “Deity” is such an odd word. It sounds like something that should have “Made in Hong Kong” stamped on its base. But the short answer to your complex question is yes. I believe in spirit.

CG: What is the silliest or most absurd habit you have but for the life of you just can’t shake?

KM: I greet arbitrary birds by raising my hand. I also turn off dripping taps wherever I find them.

CG: After reading “Daily Duty” and “He Knew He Should Not,” I’m convinced you’re a boy who cries (or am I wrong?). What novel/poem makes you cry the “ugly cry”? Will you describe the scene and tell us why?

KM: Yes, I am terribly moved by beauty. And suffering. Many poems and novels do this to me. But to be honest nothing has moved me as deeply (what you call the “ugly cry”) as walking into the Rothko Room in the Tate Modern. Rotho’s work is just so utterly naked and profound and mystical and terrible and beautiful all at the same time. I was paralysed. Cut to my soul.

CG: Who do you think is the most overrated poet? (Make it a dead one so you don’t get yourself into trouble!)

KM: I’m not really interested in dead overrated poets. It’s the deceased underrated ones I’m concerned about. In South Africa people like Sydney Clouts and Isabella Motadinyane and Ruth Miller and . . .

CG: And finally (yay!), if you were a protester (in danger of going to jail; i.e. a SERIOUS protestor), what would you be protesting against?

KM: Religious chauvinism and intolerance – in any of its manifestations.


Daily Duty
Her head covered.
With reverence.

SHE says: I am blinded by
                          the glare of the which washing – the
                          white sheets and the white pillow cases,
                          the white bedspread and my white
                          underwear, my camisole and my petticoat
                          – on the line in the morning when I hang
                          them out.

                          you can see me in my straw hat and my
                          dark Ray-Ban glasses, in my long-sleeved
                          top, my arms uplifted in the air, my face
                          upturned to the sun.

SHE says: I am pierced by
                          the sharp, the long, the hard bristles of
                          the grass broom, the long-handled grass
                          broom that I bought from the street
                          seller, the broom that descends upon the
                          wooden floor, that comes down out of the
                          blue onto the stoep, the stone steps into
                          the garden, like a wolf upon the fold.

                          you might find me backed into a small
                          corner of a room, or crouched at the
                          bottom of a steep flight of stairs, fending
                          off the fierce bristles of the broom with
                          my bare skin, with my little brittle bones.

SHE says: I am broken by
                          the dry bodies, the old and the hard
                          bodies of the dead geckos and the lizards
                          that lie, crushed and dry, flat and dry as
                          cardboard, crushed by an accidental door,
                          window, door-jamb or lock.

                          you might come upon me on my hands
                          and knees checking the underneath of the
                          front door, the inside of the big bedroom
                          window before I close them and lock
                          them with my padlock and my big key.

SHE says: I am scalded by
                          the steam from the iron that fills the
                          kitchen every night after dinner, after
                          homework, after story-time and prayers,
                          hissing like an engine, like Thomas the
                          Train, spitting in my eyes like his fat red

                          you may think that these are tears, these
                          sharp drops that pack my eyes, that I am
                          unhappy, but actually it is just smoke,
                          just steam from the fire he makes with his

SHE says: I am drowned by
                          the grey aquarium of the kitchen sink,
                          with its long narrow knives, the spoons
                          with one eye on top of their heads, the
                          bulbous soup bowls and flap plates, a
                          school of brightly-coloured cups that
                          swarm all over my fingers and up my
                          arms like greasy little tadpoles.

                          but only if you are lucky, you will find
                          me on my back, with my goggles and my
                          flippers and my plastic gloves, breathing
                          through the whole between by legs.

SHE says: I am choked by
                          the dust that clogs up the vacuum cleaner,
                          that blocks the suction pipe and the filter
                          with fluff and dog hair and flakes of
                          human skin that slough off continually,
                          renewing our shape until one day we are
                          unrecognisably different.

                          you may happen to walk past and assume
                          it is me because I look the same as the
                          person you talk to on the telephone, but
                          oh, oh, on the inside, on the inside its all
                          stuffed pipes and tied tubes and pressure
                          building up, and if you were to suddenly
                          unstop me, why, like a pink balloon I’d
                          fart my way around the room and then
                          psssshhhht go flat.

SHE says: Plug me in.
                          There. Fill me up. Switch me on. Here.
                          And I’ll purr for you like an over-locker.
                          See how I run.
© Kobus Moolman

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