Award-winning poet wants to share African stories

2016-02-11 06:00

KOBUS Moolman admits he still cannot quite believe that his latest poetry anthology, A Book of Rooms (Deep South, 2014), has won the African Poetry Book Fund’s 2015 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.

The prize was judged by award-winning poet and scholar Gabeba Baderoon, and for his efforts Moolman, who teaches creative writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, will receive $5 000 (R79 885).

“I still don’t quite understand it, and I am not entirely comfortable with it as a writer,” the Maritzburg-based poet said of his work.

“The honest truth is that I find it difficult to read … I like that personal contact that comes with reading a book to an audience, but I struggle to read A Book of Rooms to an audience.

“It has a jarring rhythm and it was designed that way as I needed it to hold the whole book together.”

Judge Baderoon obviously felt differently and said of reading A Book of Rooms: “Moolman’s poems in this collection are electric, visceral, brilliantly experimental and profoundly moving.”

In A Book of Rooms, each poem is named for and unfolds the world of a specific room: The Room of Spillage, The Room of Maybe, The Room of Green and more.

“In this close reading of spaces, we trace walls, windows, curtains, corners; our attention caught by the cut beneath the door, illumination flaring from glints of memory ...

“Yet if his flesh is betrayed, and his heart breaks into silence and shame, the hole in his heart also opens into speech,” said Baderoon.

Asked how the anthology came about, Moolman says A Book of Rooms was part of a bigger project. “The inception goes back to when I was writing my PhD in creative writing. I wrote a long poem, Autobiography of Bone, and part of that became A Book of Rooms. I tried to publish the whole thing but didn’t have much success, so I started to break it into parts. I chose this section and had to do some tweaking.

“I am so grateful to Robert Berold, from the publishers Deep South in Grahamstown. I see him as a kind of mentor figure who has had an enormous influence on my writing and really helped me with the concept for A Book of Rooms.”

Moolman learnt of his success shortly after returning from Ireland where he was taking part in Double Shot at Books Upstairs, a series of curated poetry readings in Dublin. Asked how the Irish had reacted to the work he had he said he was “flabbergasted”.

“It dips deeply into a particular time and place and carries the mark of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal and Pietermaritzburg in 1970. I name streets, things, objects that exist, which you can look at and touch. A part of me was concerned how that would translate … but I think the more detail you give, the easier you make it to be able to speak to a person from a different place and time. As a teacher I should have known that.”

Moolman is passionate about sharing South African and African stories with the world. “For too long, the voices of the African continent have not been given the same respect as those from other continents,” he said.

“The world is not an Anglo-American one, despite what we have been told. And as a writer I have been fed by the work of writers from Africa, Russia, Scandinavia ... We are all part of global literature.”

It’s a view shared by Kwame Dawes, director of the African Poetry Book Fund who said: “Every time we bring attention to the wonderful poetry being written by African poets today, we are enacting something quite important for African literary arts, and Moolman, whose poetry I have followed for a number of years, is a poet whom more people should know.”

Moolman — the author of seven collections of poetry and several plays, and winner of the Ingrid Jonker award, the Pansa award, the South African Literary award, the Dalro award and the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry award — is now working on a collection of short stories.

“For a long time, I experimented with prose, but was unsure whether I could do it or not. I only finished the book recently … now I just need to find a publisher,” he said.

• The African Poetry Book Fund seeks to celebrate and cultivate the poetic arts of Africa. The Glenna Luschei Prize, funded by literary philanthropist and poet Glenna Luschei, promotes African poetry written in English or in translation by recognising a significant book published each year by an African poet.

The other finalists were Joan Metelerkamp­’s Now the World Takes These Breaths (Modjadji Books, 2014) and Togara Muzanenhamo’s Gumiguru (Carcanet Press, 2014).

• Copies of A Book of Rooms can be purchased online from UKZN Press or Amazon.

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