Sean Christie in Conversation with Amanda Hammar
Poetry International, April 1, 2009
The titles of your poems introduce your themes without, as they say, any playing about … ‘Exile’, ‘Partitioned’, ‘Debris’, ‘Abandoned’. This is not the counsel of Mr. Cogito, the famous mouthpiece employed by Polish poet Zbigniev Herbert to investigate matters related to suffering, exile, loss, death and return: “Create from the matter of suffering / a thing or a person”, Herbert advises in his ‘Mr. Cogito Meditates on Suffering’. ‘Play / with it / of course / play’. Objectifying pain, playing with it – these are two fruitful ways of approaching painful themes, and while they are certainly not prescriptive, poets seeking to explore the difficult themes of loss with an audience need, I believe, to innovate brilliantly in order to keep their poetic voices from disappearing into the general sweeping tides of bad news. Do you agree? How have you sought to engage your intended audience with these themes, in memorable ways? To which poets do you turn for counsel when it comes to the poetry of loss, suffering, exile?
I have to start with speaking about the notion, or assumption, of “intended audience” and/or the intention to engage one … I really can’t claim to write for an intended audience as such. Apart from a brief period in 1990, when I was part of establishing Zimbabwe Women Writers, and we organised public performances in Harare at which I read some of my poems, I have barely shown my poetry to anyone, bar sharing a poem here and there with a few close friends. Occasionally, I’ve written a piece when something in a person’s life has moved me deeply, and I’ve then shared it with that person or people close to him or her (as in death tributes, but not only). In some ways, the poems have, at least as first drafts, “written themselves” because they needed to be written. In saying that, I’m not distancing myself from responsibility for the poems I write, from owning them; or from the fact that conscious craft is part of their making, or rather mostly their remaking or revising.
But I’ll compare this with two other forms of writing I do: a) academic, and b) personal journals. The first is clearly written for an intended audience; both ‘speaking’ with those who have written before me on a certain issue or theme, and with those who will be new readers. It’s part of the job of knowledge production, to engage with audiences. I’ve slowly got used to that. On the other hand, I have written journals since I was about eleven, and this writing presumes and insists on absolutely no audience at all. Poetry may be something that falls somewhere between the two for me; still intimate and partly conversations with myself, but more consciously also in conversation with (mostly symbolic) others. Perhaps akin to writing a very pared-down letter.
You ask me who I turn to for counsel in relation to the themes of loss, suffering and exile. I read a lot of different poetry (and always travel with a poetry book to read), but I don’t specifically seek out poets thematically. Okay, sometimes I’ll be curious (Eavan Boland about “lost lands”, or Walcott about exile), and for a time in my twenties I was looking specifically at/for more overtly political poetry. But basically, and this has been true for a very long time, I’m much more eclectic, more promiscuous you might say, in who I read. Often it’s by chance; a book I pick up in a second-hand bookstore, or following a review I’ve read. The bottom line is that I’m especially drawn to poets who move me with their emotional honesty (Sharon Olds is probably top of my list in terms of writing about relationships to close others and to herself). But emotional honesty also applies to so many other things, other settings, including relationships, absences, ordinary lives, interior and exterior landscapes (Mark Doty, Yehuda Amichai, Jaan Kaplinski, Anne Michaels, Jane Hirshfield, Charles Simic’s prose jottings.)
I am also a sucker for stark simplicity. And for beautifully crafted lines.
Exile poetry tends to explore absence rather than presence, inertia instead of action. In your poem ‘Debris’ you arrange a sequence of Zimbabwean absences to powerful effect. On reading your short biography, however, one does begin to wonder about another kind of absence – your decision not to reference, or compare in any way, your Jewish heritage and experiences of Israel to the Zimbabwe crisis. This strikes me as a pity, because an interplay of images and ideas of the sort you have the potential to initiate is exactly what I miss in contemporary Zimbabwean poetry, which remains somewhat isolated, to say the least. Poetry by Zimbabweans, white or black, would surely be strengthened in much the same way. Do you agree, and if so, what has kept you from attempting a broader yet surely more personal approach to your themes than you have so far?
I’d like to take up the first of two implicit dichotomies you seem to be working with here (and elsewhere): namely, with respect to ‘exile’ poetry (versus home-based). The second dichotomy relates to ‘black’ versus ‘white’ Zimbabwean poetry which I shall return to in my response to your next provocation below. It’s ironic perhaps, that I feel a gut reaction against both kinds of dichotomies, given the ‘fact’ that a) I am currently physically based in Sweden and not Zimbabwe, and b) that I am not black. Perhaps it’s partly the researcher in me that wants to push you in turn to delve a little deeper behind the too-easy either/or-ness of spatial or racial categories.
With regard to the first then, what constitutes ‘exile’ poetry? (Not coming from a literary background, I ask this differently from you, I’m sure.) Is it necessarily always about geographical distance and a sense of exclusion and loss? Loss of what? The past, a particular place, a particular community, the future? These can be/are feelings equally experienced by a wide range of citizens living inside Zimbabwe itself today. One needs to somehow locate these sensibilities, and their varied expressions in poetry and other writing, not merely within a long literary tradition, but also within a very real and changing historical context. Does that then alter one’s reading of what you term ‘exile’ poetry?
I have lived away from Zimbabwe for much of the past twelve years (but always on temporary permits stamped into my Zimbabwe passport). When I left to do doctoral research in Denmark in 1997 (with my research focused on Zimbabwe), it was not out of the desire to leave at all. I had every intention of returning. Yet not doing so in a permanent way since then doesn’t automatically translate into “not being there”. My intellectual, political, professional and much of my emotional life is closely connected to Zimbabwe on an everyday basis, not in a nostalgic sense but by way of an active engagement with what is happening there in the present. So for some reason, while the notion of exile (or not-belonging) has resonance on a certain existential level, I have not adopted the label, nor the notion of diaspora, as a conscious identity. Perhaps this is precisely because it denotes a level of disconnectedness (or ‘inertia’ as you suggest) which is not how I experience my relationship to Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans.
All that being said, I think your point about widening references beyond Zimbabwe itself is an interesting and valid one. It can certainly create important broader connections that help some writing/writers to breathe better. I’m sure that this past decade has altered a great deal in Zimbabwean writing on many levels, given the extent and nature of (often forced) movement outside the country. But that kind of openness to other places/reference points in itself doesn’t necessarily deliver insights or improve an individual’s work. One can have powerful, reflective and evocative poetry (as other writing) that is extremely local, and then more widely cross-referenced pieces that fall terribly flat. It’s what a writer does with his/her material that is so crucial.
But more specifically, your provocation about my Jewish heritage echoes others who’ve queried me on that in different moments. It’s something I’ve thought about but not yet found a sufficiently self-trusting way to write about creatively. Partly it’s been clouded by my being compelled to have a relationship with Israel – to which my parents moved in 1977 and where I also have other close family and many friends – while I have a profound and persistent anger towards the Israeli state for its perpetuation of Palestinian dispossession and destruction. Despite my intellectual separation of myself as a Jew from the Israeli state, it has become increasingly difficult to publicly “come out” as Jewish in certain contexts. But in fact, there was originally another stanza in what became ‘Zimbabwe Lost’ that included a reference to that older Jewish heritage, which provides a certain (complicated) touchstone for me in terms of classic as well as personal themes of displacement, exile, unbelonging:
Hewn from a distant diaspora
I am homed here by the imprints
of red mud and msasas,
wet vlei and flying ants.
Perhaps that more existential ‘Jewish’ homelessness is part of why my attachment to Zimbabwe is “rooted baobab-deep” after all.
As to the question of writing more personally, I have done that explicitly in other poems. Perhaps the need to keep very individual-personal aspects separate from the ‘Zimbabwe’ poems is related to my experiencing Zimbabwe as something much bigger than myself. In fact, my internal definition of Zimbabwe has long been that ‘it’ is (and all Zimbabweans are) ‘my family’. Zimbabwe is my belonging. Rather than it being merely a familiar history and geography, a site of memory or stage and props for my life, it’s ‘the bones of me’. Yet at the same time, with the sustained experience of exile over many years, other places take on meaning too, and such places, and the movement between them and Zimbabwe, become woven into my ever evolving relationship with Zimbabwe itself.
My next question prods issues of white Zimbabwean identity. I’m curious about your use of plural pronouns in your poem ‘The New Nation’. “Our blood spilled; our feet curl; our bruised faces …”
The poem is addressed to one man, presumably Zimbabwe’s President, who you depict as torturer, woman-beater, rapist, and Victor Frankenstein-figure, remaking ‘us’ in his own image. I am interested to know why you have decided to risk speaking for the nation in this way? It seems to me you exploit Mugabe’s widespread unpopularity to suggest a commonality which simply does not, and has never, existed in Zimbabwe. It is a pattern in your poetry to sacrifice the personal in order to maker broader representations. Perhaps you are, like so many, tired of endless race distinctions and the way they direct our lives in Africa? I would feel uncomfortable speculating about this, however. Could you assist me with an explanation for these choices you make in ‘The New Nation’?
I didn’t think about the ‘risk’ as you put it, of speaking ‘for’ the nation when I wrote this piece. Of course I don’t think of Zimbabweans as all the same. In fact one of the gifts of having grown up in a place like Zimbabwe is precisely the experience of close encounters with difference; the normalisation, if you will, of difference. Having lived in Scandinavia now for much of the past twelve years, I am acutely aware of how difficult it is for many ordinary Scandinavians to deal with difference, especially to accept ‘otherness’ coming too close to them. But to return to ‘The New Nation’, the idea of a common ‘us’ in this poem is not intended to dissolve the many layers of difference between Zimbabweans, although on some level it could have been (unconsciously) an attempt to dissolve the black/white boundary – one I rarely feel. (In fact, until recently, when I started doing research on displaced commercial Zimbabwe farmers in Mozambique, white ‘Rhodie’ farmers were my ultimate Other. I’ve since shifted away from that kind of dogmatism, and now include them as part of my Zimbabwe ‘family’!)
The commonality you register is for me a commonality linked to the empathetic sharing of suffering with those who suffer, especially those who feel so directly part of me, as Zimbabweans do. In this, I have to refer to what were for me, as a child growing up in racist Rhodesia, the lessons of Jewish historical suffering. Such suffering was not about producing deepening defensiveness and retreat through fear and smallness, but rather a necessary sensitivity and route to deepening connectedness with the suffering, or just plain humanness, of others. So the ‘our’ness in ‘The New Nation’ is not intended as a conflation of difference into some essentialised sameness of being, but is about shared suffering.
And here I’d like to turn to the second dichotomy you implicitly flag, between black/white poetry or identity (the two seem closely linked in your reflections). I think there are particular moments and spaces when race – just like gender, class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other forms of difference – has real salience politically, economically, socially, personally, and needs to be claimed or marked for its significance. All these identities, and the uneven positionalities in the world that they imply, are profoundly political, but they are also deeply situational. In relation to that, I’d like to argue for a more historicised and complex version of individual or collective identification, and to challenge the generic (or simplified) application of the label ‘black’ or ‘white’ to a body of poetry just because that is one of the characteristics of a particular poet. My whiteness is only one of the ways in which I experience my relationship to Zimbabwe (or myself), and at that, not the primary one. It seems to me that in some of my own writing – as you’ve pointed out yourself – there are resonances with writers who are both black and men. In other cases, no doubt there would be closer associations with other women, black or white, or with women of a certain age, or with white women or men, or with various comrades with whom I share a certain vision of a progressive Zimbabwe.
Reading ‘Debris’, and then ‘Abandoned’, reminded me of some ‘return’ poetry by men like Mungoshi, Karimakewenda, Manawaka and Magadaza. After the end of the war, these poets found that their homes had been irrevocably altered. The poems they wrote about this experience are very much of a spirit with your 2002 pieces.
Compare, for example, the lines “house / too long abandoned / weeds pushing apart / scarred bricks” from your poem ‘Abandoned with Home’ with “Aftermath of an invisible war / A heap of dust and rubble” from Charles Mungoshi’s ‘Home’, or the absences of your ‘Debris’ with these lines from Killiam Mwanaka’s ‘The Return’: “Those trees, dry, leafless and lifeless / No singing of birds / Nothing / No life / As if in a cave / Life has been buried.”
However, where these poets, returning home in the eighties, have attempted to revive their bygone homes in description, you describe: the wrecks of schoolyards, farmyards, a site of physical violence, a ruin which could have belonged to anyone – without setting up a view of how these places once were. I’m intrigued; once again, any attempt to recover your personal Zimbabwe gives way to a kind of poetic reportage. Why have you done this? This pattern of resistance against the personal details of a former life is too strong to simply indicate a quailing before the pain of memory. I suspect you are, after all, ‘playing’ with expectations of Zimbabwean poetry, taking special care to avoid nostalgia, a trait the of the stereotype of the white Zimbabwean expatriate. But how do these poems, some of which echo the impersonal beauty of Stieglitz’s stills, contribute to your aim of speaking out about the Zimbabwe crisis?”
I think I’ve responded to some extent under earlier points, to the question of ‘resisting’ personal details of a former life. I have more to say on that, but first, I’m deeply appreciative of the connections you make with poets like Mwanaka and Mungoshi, and the poems you’ve mentioned (but about which I confess ignorance prior to this), which are rather astonishingly close!
But much as the associations between us may be relevant on some level – especially in relation to themes of loss and retrieval, exile and return, etc. – I think the differences in context and personal positioning are important too. They were writing about return after a violent war, in which so much of their own places and pasts had been physically as well as emotionally destroyed. In addition, poetry written especially in the post-independence moment, as informed as it was by extremely painful losses, was written in a context of hope of recovery, a sense of the possibility of renewal and rebuilding. Perhaps this makes personal mourning, and personal writing, more possible.
Certainly, there have been similar forms of violence and deliberate as well as indirect destruction in Zimbabwe over the past decade, with excesses of suffering which are unspeakable. And yes, beyond the broader empathy I feel, I have also lost people and places that matter deeply to me (and about which I write in more private spaces for now). I began writing my own poems about Zimbabwe as the destruction was (and still is) in full force, and when hope has been much harder to capture. My own stories of loss seem petty by comparison to those enduring what they do in and outside of Zimbabwe. It’s not that I feel my own life is irrelevant or my own pain is invalid. Or that ‘white’ stories, for example, are invalid. But I don’t have the need to express myself in this way in a public sphere right now. Not yet. Perhaps there will be a time later when writing my own story feels important to me, and seems less presumptuous. Or when I want to claim more space for that than just the few stark lines of a poem. For the moment, the current emphasis of my ‘public’ writing about Zimbabwe is primarily within the scholarly/research domain, where I can draw on ‘evidence’ and a certain analytical distance to critique that which I find abhorrent.
Amanda Hammar, Uppsala, March 2009