Interview with John Mateer – a home for poetry in the South

‘Written from the rim of the far flung South African diaspora, these poems by John Mateer roll back the tide of forgetting, giving us one glimpse after another of a multifarious and beloved homeland.’  JM Coetzee

This interview refers to a poem African City which can be found here.

Where is your home?

This should be an easy question to answer. Yet, as I formulate what to say, I realize that I don’t have a simple answer. Usually I would prefer not to answer a question like that, but due to the nature of your interest in the South, let me explain some things about my background. When I was a child, in 1977, my parents and I emigrated to Canada. My father found living there difficult, partly for health reasons – he suffered badly from asthma – and partly because he had set up a company in South Africa which seem to have better financial prospects than what he had in Canada. So we returned to Johannesburg, and it was shortly after that that my father started preparing for us to emigrate to Australia. We only left for Australia when I was 17 and had already received my conscription papers. That was in 1989, towards the end of the Emergency period. That was in retrospect exactly the wrong time to go: Mandela was released the year after! When people ask me why our family moved to Australia there is a complex of issues, too many to spell out in this interview. But at the back of them all were concerns about the inequality of that society, and at that time – it is easy to forget – South Africa was a warring state, both within its borders and on the borders with Mozambique, Angola and, to a lesser extent, Botswana. If I ponder why we went to Canada in 1977, I think both of the Soweto Uprising and of South Africa’s invasion of Angola that was only called off because the CIA were afraid it would creating a flash-point between the US and Cuba. That is not all. Being someone whose life was shaped by an awareness of the violence of racism in South Africa, being in Australia, while it is a much more peaceful country, nevertheless leaves me in a state of disquiet; the nature of White Australia’s relationship to the Aboriginal peoples makes me feel that this country itself is, if only on a symbolic level, but I don’t think it is only symbolic, in conflict with itself. Through my art-criticism and certain parts of my poetry I have been confronted with a special kind of silencing that occurs here, a silencing which is concerned to rein-in disruptive discourses or people. The current director of the South Project once told me, after I had described to her a number of the ways my writing, both critical and literary had been hindered here in Australia, that she would really like me to write a book about all the subjects you can’t write about in Australia! So, in answer to your question, I am not sure how at home I can feel here. Perhaps this is a post-traumatic feeling… Sometimes when I think of my father I think of the evening when he was preparing his company-tax and he came to me, I was a young child, and explained that he had paid the same amount of money that a tank cost the army. He was astonished and disgusted. It was only after his death that I found out he had in his youth been involved in liberal – in the good sense! – politics.

As a poet, you seem to place great importance in the public act of reading. Do you write each poem as a test, awaiting the results of its reading?

There is a larger question here, related to the dynamic nature of the poem, of the literary artefact. I stress the event of reading aloud as much as reading privately; both are events, which through their performance have certain histories and practices. In the Western World – if we may include Australia – there is a greater familiarity with the idea of silent reading than with the performance of the voice. This has been changing, but largely this remains true. I see the importance of the “public act of reading”, as you put it, in that it is an event of voicing. Whether this is good for the poem and the poet is open to debate – I suspect it isn’t – but that is a separate and complex issue… But it is this idea of the voice, elemental and vulnerable, a form of “bare life” to use Giorgio Agamben’s term, that is crucial here. It has less to do with the consequence of the nature and meaning of the poem than it has with the existential fact of one’s own presence, and, therefore, the world represented by that presence. That presence can’t fail if it is attended to with the hope of encounter. In a less philosophical sense, the question that must arise in the context of ‘performance’ must be the degree of success of the communication, though that is something, perhaps, not to be gauged, rather experienced.

Is the ‘haunting’ something that is always open a sense of cultural difference, or can it sometimes close cultures off.  How do you avoid the pitfalls of the gothic when composing poems about the South?

Haunting. This experience appears in a number of my poems, poems written in various parts of the world. I am not sure how to respond to the first part of your question, except to say that many people in the West don’t believe in the reality of the spirit-world – though I am sure they are outnumbered by those who do elsewhere! – and so if one speaks about hauntings and spirits and the Ancestors they might simply think these are tropes. I remember once speaking at the Free University Berlin and explaining that to understand certain things about South Africa one needs to acknowledge that the spirit-world and religion, including African-styles of Christianity, play an essential role in many people’s live, and that, for example, Soweto is quite a haunted place. One need not simply believe me: there is a very good book, Madumo: a Man Bewitched by Adam Ashford, on this subject. I also told them that I agree with the photographer Santu Mofokeng when he said that South Africa would have had a civil war with terrible bloodshed had it not being for the calming presence of the African Zionists. The students looked at me with a degree of disbelief, and their professor, in whose class I was ‘ a guest speaker’, somehow made what I had said sound more academically respectable. The reality there, I suppose, is that academia is about studying life not living it. In that sense, it might close off cultural difference. As to the question of the gothic. This is not at all a concern for me because that literary category is one that would be imposed on the kinds of experiences I am talking about and have written about. I hardly think you could accuse Amos Tutuola of being Gothic! If anything, I believe still thinking along those lines, being concerned in that way, shows the extent to which non-Western experiences aren’t accepted as being authentic in themselves.

To what extent is the world of poetry a flat space? Do you feel able to move around as a poetic consciousness in any part of the world, or do you tend to locate yourself in a particular terrain? What would that be?

I am not sure what you might mean by “a flat space”. I sometimes think that when readers look at my body of work, with poems written in many parts of the world, that they imagine I am leading some kind of scattered existence, that what I have been doing is incoherent. Actually, what I have been doing in the last decade or two, is developing a sense of the post-colonial world; by that I mean I have mostly travelled in places that were colonized or responsible for colonization, whether the US or Portugal, Austria or Sri Lanka, and very often within the hemisphere defined by the Portuguese Empire, though I must admit this is far from complete! I see my travelling, since my visit to Sumatra in 1998, as a way of following in the wake – I was going to say footsteps! – of poets and pilgrims, trying to witness the way traffic and commerce produces connections between certain worlds and walls of silence between others. South Africa is the country of my birth and youth, so it has a special meaning here, whereas all the other places I see as places of encounter. One of the problems literary critics seem to have with my work is that is doesn’t suit any of their categories, especially national categories, with the exception of Portugal, where there is a strong tradition of poet-travellers: Luis de Camões, Camilio Pessanha, Rui Knopfli and Gil de Carvalho. One of the reviewers of my book Elsewhere concluded very pessimistically saying that she thought I was – to use a metaphor – at the end of the road, that my work was full of miscommunication and silence. It was an observation inattentive to the mechanisms of certain kinds of silence, how silence can speak in an encounter just as powerfully as the silence of a place can. A Portuguese critic, much more sympathetic to my work, told me what most interested her in my work was the way silences, often as evidence of historical memory, interrupted the everyday, the norms of place. When you ask me about how I might situate myself, I have the feeling that you might be wanting to return to the question of homeliness again… Let me say this: Last weekend I was present at the unveiling of Yagan Memorial Park, a place where, after 177 years, the remains of one of Australia’s legendary Aboriginal figures were laid to rest. There, in that place, and in a few other places around the city of Perth where I am ‘based’, I felt there was a respect for reality of this place, his land, its histories and peoples. It’s at moments like that that I feel a homeliness, though it might not be mine. Elsewhere, at other moments in other places, places that might have been damaged, I often write poems.

Can you recommend a Xhosa poet?

I was going to ask, Why Xhosa? And when you say that, do you mean the language of the ‘ethnic group’, because Xhosa writers might not write in isiXhosa… But there is one whose work I like, who comes immediately to mind, who did write in isiXhosa: St J Page Yako. Let me quote his “The Contraction and Enclosure of the Land”:

Thus spake the heirs of the land
although it is no longer ours.
This land will be folded like a blanket
till it is like the palm of a hand.


John Mateer has published books of poems in Australia and overseas, and a prose travelogue about Indonesia. He has been writer-in-residence in Kyoto, Beijing, Coimbra, Medan and at Ledig House, New York. In 2006 he was a participant at the Iowa International Writing Program. He has given readings in many countries, most recently in Austria at Schloss Leopoldskron/Salzburg Global Seminar as well as at PEN International’s Free the Word festival in London. His latest books are Ex-white/Einmal-Weiss: South African Poems (Klagenfurt: Sisyphus, 2009), The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009 (Fremantle Press, 2010) and Southern Barbarians (Sydney: Giramondo and Lisbon: T41, forthcoming).”

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