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The heart can’t be freely bent like the knee

On racism and revolution and the way one’s own poems are politically and poetically anchored in the great course of history. Poetry Talk with poet and publisher Daniela Seel.

Two very different poets who are nonetheless connected in various ways came together in conversation. They both work energetically in a political context that is firmly anchored in their own personal stories. They both write in a style that is vivid, almost scenic. Their poems are direct at a high poetic level. And both are familiar with forms of racism and revolution, how to find a language for what they have experienced, literary self-assertion going far beyond mere subjectivity. The double interview was conducted by Daniela Seel, herself a poet and the publisher of kookbooks.

Daniela Seel: Dear Athena, dear Koleka, I was looking forward to our meeting and talk at this year’s Berlin Poetry Festival. Now we unfortunately have to put up with an e-mail interview.
I want to start with an open question: What is on your minds these days, what would matter to you speaking about here?

Koleka Putuma: This is the calmest I have been. I spent the last 2 – 3 years manically busy and making and doing, and in many ways I’m frustrated by the restrictions and challenges the pandemic has imposed, but I’m also grateful for the ways it has forced me to pause and put my mind to the things I had been meaning to do / have put off for a long time.

Athena Farrokzhad: Like Koleka and many others, I’ve been leading quite a calm life this spring. My preoccupations are not so much my own situation, but the already precarious living conditions of many people around Sweden and the world, that are rapidly worsening because of the pandemic.

DS: Athena, Koleka, both your works are deeply concerned with political subjects, urgent subjects ‒ like racism, immigration policies, colonialist legacies and heritage, feminism, injustice, empowerment ‒ which in these days of global pandemic mode have been all but pushed from political agendas. What is your answer to this, as poets, as activists?

KP: Gender based violence / femicide is a big problem in South Africa. So it has been strange to see or watch updates of how many cases the country has, and to watch those numbers rise, but also to hear and learn that the numbers of domestic abuse and gender based violence have increased significantly since the lockdown was put in place. And because there’s such a huge inequality issue here, the focus has been on the pandemic and economy more than the violence against women and children that has also increased. The other day on the radio I heard that there had been 120 000 calls made in one week, where women rang the national helpline – that being double the usual volume of calls. It’s scary and painful to realise that the pandemic is not the only reason why people are suffering and dying in the country.

AF: Yes, I agree. I think what is clear in any national or global crisis, especially the ones we are told affect everyone the same way (the “we are all in this together”-rhetorics) is the fact that it hits different people differently. Women and LGBTQ-people immediately become targets of the increasing violence, the already poor and often racialized working class lose the little they had etc. At the same time, crisis is also a phenomenon that could lead to rapid change in a positive direction, even if it’s rare. We are seeing the holy principles of the market economy, the things we were told could never change because they were nature or God given, being challenged and sometimes overthrown. On a personal note, it has been interesting for me to observe how people react differently to emergencies. Those of us who are migrants or who have for other reasons grown up in unstable living conditions, are used to the ground being swept away under our feet and know how to operate, at least emotionally, under circumstances like these.

DS: On a more personal note, both your books ‒ Koleka’s “Kollektive Amnestie”, translated by Paul-Henri Campbell, and Athena’s “Bleiweiß”, translated by Clara Sondermann ‒ came out recently, your first books in German, and you would have gone on reading tours through various German cities. Now, live cultural events are almost completely on hold, and it seems unlikely to be back on stages before an audience in at least 2020 at all. What are your thoughts on this pause from the festival circus ‒ regrets, or also a welcome time to recover, reflect and write?

KP: A part of me welcomes the pause. I also think, worldwide, a lot of existing structures need to be rethought and rewired. There was something about all of our previous “normals” that were either not working or only working for a few. And so this pandemic has offered somewhat of a magnifying glass into the issues and struggles of the marginalised / most vulnerable, and this is an opportunity to address those things. 

DS: What things?

KP: Inequality, gender based violence, poverty, and the ways the capitalist system mostly benefits white people, wealthy people and those who benefitted and still benefit from the structures of apartheid and colonialism. 

AF: Yes, I agree. Personally, I like travelling and meeting audiences in new countries. To me, being in conversations with other people about literature it is as important as reading and writing itself. But of course, the field of literature rests upon the same power structures as the rest of the world.

DS: For both of you, the translations have been of your first books, both deal, among other things, with the struggling for emancipation of young women from their family legacies while also holding on to family values and love, but you chose very opposite narrative strategies. In “Bleiweiß”, the daughter is the addressee of a family choir, the whole book-length poem is composed of “my mother said-”, “my father said-”, “my grandmother said-”, “my uncle said-“, “my brother said-“phrases, but does not speak herself; her voice, her stance is in the composition of the whole ‒ quite a radical statement. In “Kollektive Amnesie”, on the other hand, the I-persona empowers herself in speaking up about difficult matters like what it means growing up as the lesbian daughter of a pastor in a homophobic environment. When you think back, how did these narrative strategies develop?

KP: I’m a writer who works or rather who writes over time, and writes in bits and pieces. The poems in the collection accumulated over time, but even with singular poems, sometimes one poem took a while to piece together. My practice as a theatre maker also largely involves collaboration and making stories with other people, so that also influences the way I think about narrative making and narrative sharing. Most of these poems were written and then shared in a performance setting, or written and then developed with an editor or trusted reader. The fact that I am also a poet who performs her work has made me a braver writer, just because I think sharing compels you to be brave and vulnerable, first with yourself and then with others. 

AF: While writing “White Blight”, I was very preoccupied with finding ways of creating space for the experiences of revolution, war, migration, and racism within poetry in general and Swedish poetry in particular. I felt quite lonely back then, since these topics were very unusual in Swedish literature, especially written by a woman. I felt responsible for all the unheard stories and wondered how I should go about to write as many of them as possible. I was concerned with how these experiences could be written in a polyphonic way, since the interesting thing about them is that the same experience can condition the lives of different people in very different ways. For me, the family in the book is a way of showing this plurality, and as a consequence, the book is not so much about the experiences of revolution etc, but rather about how these experiences are negotiated within the framework of intimacy. Rather than a whole story, it is about illustrating the negotiations over narrative. The family in the book also resembles members of a Greek choir, that are not really able to interfere in the story, only comment upon it, like an antique sports commentator. At the same time, the book only consists of an I, since the I is the person attributing lines to the family members, saying: My mother said etc. 

DS: Another common subject is violence. The violence of belief systems, of power, of state, of values. Against bodies, souls, memory. Koleka, you write: “The gospel / is how whiteness breaks into our homes / and brings us to our knees.“ Athena, you write: “My father said: Only when you forgive the one who has turned you in will you know the / meaning of violence“. Why is it so important to negotiate violence in poetry?

KP: I think violence is woven into the fibre of every society, and to talk about the state of our existence and our being – and becoming, is to talk about how we negotiate and dance with all of the violences that we coexist with, be it small or large, personal or public. And sometimes the private and public violences are connected, and we cannot separate ourselves or our lives from it. For me it’s important to write about the violence of colonisation and the impact that it then had, not only on our country, but also on my family. The christianity I was raised in or with would then impact my own understanding around identity and sexuality, and then I would subsequently negotiate those things both in private and public. 

AF: My book consists of many lines that are quite harsh and uttered by the family members to the daughter. The line you quote is one of the harshest. To me, it is an image of the father trying to differentiate between structural violence (which is very real) and actual physical violence. I imagine a political prisoner turning in a comrade during torture. That person is him/herself subjected to torture and in that moment, when she/he experiences the meaning of violence and what it does to a human being, she/he forgives the person who turns her/him in. My book is preoccupied with violence in many senses, colonial violence, linguistic violence etc, and in particular the link between them. 

DS: Koleka, when I read your lines “In our imagination, / we were brown bodies / living like kings in white people’s houses / … / We were ordering desserts we could not pronounce / in accents that were not ours” it reminded me of what Divya Victor elaborated on in both her Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Leslie Scalapino Memorial Lectures (sorry for the lengthy quotes):
“One may observe how the decolonizing subject performs sliding between two prescribed roles—freak performers of a hegemonic alphabet or virtuosic masters of the same—to negotiate against the colonial “sanctions” (an interesting auto-antonym here) to one’s own becoming. Jamaica Kincaid imagines this scene articulated in the reality of decolonization: “[I write] in the only language [we] have in which to speak of this crime …the language of the criminal who committed the crime.6” Indeed, English is an institution in which I am doing the forensic work. I am mopping up the blood and guts to make a body whole—this is an impossible task. (…)”

And: “A poetics then, emerges from these pressures—and responds to these pressures— a poetics of the inappropriate tongue is also a poetics of the appropriated tongue—one that borrows other people’s tongues, tries them on for size, pilfers, loots, happily assimilates, or courageously tests in the live flesh through ventriloquy. The mimicry of the mimic man continues through me, but it is also possible to hear mimicry as mockery— to grin and not bear it anymore. (…) A poetics of ventriloquy acknowledges the extraordinary pleasures and pressures of surviving with inappropriate tongues, with the lived discomfiture— the mismatched seams— of not only borrowed bilingual statuses but also with the reckless suturing of whiteness to the fantasy of a monolingual American idiom.“

So: what is your stance on decolonising language?

KP: This is an ongoing conversation in South Africa right now, well, I guess, globally. There’s the conversation about the need and urgency to preserve our mothertongue and ensure that the pride and knowledge of speaking in your mother’s tongue or “home language’ is something that is instilled in the youth, children, the curriculum etc, and doing so not as a replacement to english but as a given or standard practice – something that just is. There are also questions of what is the role of english in the lives / existences of multilingual speakers or speakers where english is not their first language, what does this english do for the speaker? How does it serve them? and what has it robbed them of – if anything? The concept around the decolonisation of language does not only speak to the doing away with english or deprioritising the ways we are taught or access knowledge in english, or even navigate the world in english – and how those negotiations either aid or compromise our identities and histories, for me, I grapple with those questions and ideas, and also how language can be used to deconstruct meaning, thought, knowledge productions, communication. How can language be used as a weapon and as an armour, what can it do to you? How can it be manipulated and utilised as a tool for protest or disruption or undoing. And as a multilingual speaking somebody whose third language is english, i write most of my texts in English and grapple with these thoughts as I go.  

DS: Athena, this also brings me to your lines “My brother said: The only language you have to condemn the crime is the language of the criminal / and the language of the criminal is a language invented to justify the crime”. Your language migration from Persian to Swedish doesn’t have a similar colonial history ‒ what difficulties do you see and work with?

AF: Yes this is a key line in “White Blight”, attributed to the brother. It is directly inspired by the quote from Jamaica Kincaid that you mention. Her book, A Small Place, which it comes from, is one of my most important reads. I wanted to take it even further and say that sometimes the language doesn’t only belong to the criminal who committed the crime.  Sometimes it’s even worse than that: sometimes languages themselves are actually invented to justify crimes. This as a way of pinpointing the role of art and science in the history of colonialism. While writing the book, I was very preoccupied with the idea of writing poetry in the language of the executioner and the sadness that you are trapped in when trying to create beauty out of something so intimately connected to the oppression you are subjected to. I never really did a language migration, I have lived multilingually all my life. The colonial/racist linguistic context in my case doesn’t so much have to do with the relationship between Persian and Swedish. Rather, it is about the colonial/racist history of Sweden expressed through the Swedish language, the violence and the inclusions/exclusions of the past and present that is upheld partly through language. 

DS: There is a lot of grief and fury in both your poetry too, coming from places you just talked about, and others. But poetry as a place for “emotional labour” is as necessary as it is ambivalent, and still seen differently coming from women (of colour) writers. Koleka, at one point you say: “I write love poems, too, / but / you only want to see my mouth torn open in protest”. – Athena, you once said you are interested in the intimicy that reveals social regimes. Would you agree, Koleka? And how do you get there?

KP: To talk about the personal is to reveal the political, i think. And I think being vulnerable with my own struggles as a queer black woman, is to zoom into the social and economical structures that impact my existence and experiences etc, and those like me.

AF: Yes, I think intimacy a lot of times is a battle field of politics and the other way around. I’ve always been interested in how macro politics shows itself in private situations, behind closed doors.

DS: What about your politics of spirituality? Some of your lines read like (anti-)prayers.

AF: I don’t know much about spirituality outside of language. For me, there is something about the sublimity that poetry (from all different genres) always strives for – that sense of sudden meaning and interconnection – which I think is the closest I will ever come to anything holy. Repetition and rhythm are of course highly connected to this.

DS: Maybe one last question: What do you make of being understood?

KP: I don’t really care much to be understood, not in that way at least. People will always read your poems in the context of their own beliefs and experiences etc, and so the meaning of your work or how people derive meaning is framed with that too. I’m more concerned that the poems prompt a conversation and debate than whether or not they are understood or read as anti-whatever. If people are ignited to have a dialogue – even if its with themselves – then I am satisfied.

AF: I think understanding is a very tricky notion intimately linked with power. What is it to understand? Is there understanding beyond intellectually grasping something? Can a body understand? Who is comprehensible? Who is considered unclear, who has to understand who? I think one of the main reasons for poetical work is that understanding works very differently in a poem than in all other forms of languages. In poetry, I think the key to understanding goes through touching and being touched.

DS: Koleka, Athena, thank you so much for this conversation.

The German Translation of the Poetry Talk is to be found on the German Page.