On Poetry — “White”

I’ve read only one chapter of this book and I’ve had to stop and take a breath and a break. I’ve never read anyone talk about poetry this way, and I’ve never been addressed (Glyn Maxwell brazenly talks to “you” — me!) like this before, as though I am a poet, a fellow poet, a reader of poetry, a person who breathes because of poetry, as though, of course, poetry is the stuff of life.

on-poetry-maxwellSo let’s start at the beginning: this little white book starts with a chapter called “White”. White the page, white the blankness, white the silence. Unlike musicians, says Glyn Maxwell, who write their lyrics against music, the poet writes against the whiteness, the emptiness, the space, the silence. Against this yawning nothingness is the movement of time, the poet  only masters time by mastering that whiteness, and poetry, says Maxwell, surprisingly, is all about the mastery of time (and he does a quick little march through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with three poems to prove it). “Poets are voices upon time,” he says (page 14). Continue reading “On Poetry — “White””

‘This is not an autobiography’

sketch-for-a-self-analysis“Why have I written and, above all, for whom?” asks Pierre Bourdieu in the conclusion to Sketch for a Self-Analysis, and then answers: “Perhaps to discourage biographies and biographers, while providing, as a kind of professional point of honour, the information that I would have liked to find when I tried to understand the writers or artists of the past…” (page 111).

Yes, me too Pierre, I like to know who’s talking to me from the pages of a book, where they grew up, what school they went to, what kind of family, I particularly like to know the struggles they’ve gone through to work out their ideas. Continue reading “‘This is not an autobiography’”

Slow writing (and why it matters)


“Writing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people. It gives pleasure when you communicate with it; when done at all well, it is a source of pleasure to the user. No one is ever going to recommend that we surrender the convenience and speed of electronic communications to pen and paper. Once typed into cyberspace, information remains there for ever, infinitely retrievable by typing a few key words into a search engine. By contrast, handwritten communication can only disappear into an archive, awaiting its transcription into type. Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity. In all sorts of areas of our life, we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort…” Philip Henscher in the conclusion to The Missing Ink. 

Henscher’s book about the loss of handwriting as central to all we do, starts with a lament that he doesn’t know what the handwriting of one of his closest friends looks like, and it ends with the statement in the conclusion above: that we should choose to continue to handwrite because it will — like slow food, like walking, like filling our lives with things we love to do and make — continue to give us much pleasure. Continue reading “Slow writing (and why it matters)”

A little in love with Laurel

When I was doing my PhD, one of the doctoral students in my research programme said to me one day that she was uncomfortable with the kind of academic she felt she was being forced to become. It was a novel thought; I had not stopped to consider that along with the reading, writing and discussing was also an identity formation programme, a subterranean idea of what a doctoral candidate should be, how this person should behave and what she should aspire to.

Since then, I’ve been way more attentive to this idea of an academic identity and how the choices you have to keep on making (get involved in that research group, put an article into that journal, collaborate with that person) shape this identity. And if you sit, as I do, in a department like journalism and media studies, then it’s easy for all the different fields and people you relate to (journalists and editors on the one hand, theorists on the other), to make you feel equally illegitimate no matter who you are talking to at the time!

It can be hard to hold on to your hard-thought through commitments when your identity is on the line.

I’ve been using Laurel Richardson as a bush-clearer, path-maker, sense-giver because of these very dilemmas and difficulties. Richardson is emeritus professor of sociology at Ohio State University where she is in the graduate faculty in women’s studies (so a feminist too; tick). I first encountered her brand of honest trail-blazing in that bible of qualitative research edited by Normal Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln. Continue reading “A little in love with Laurel”

See Mamdani make theory

For awhile (as part of the Mellon-funded research project into Media and Citizenship) whenever I have to think about citizenship theoretically in an African context I’ve been turning to Mahmood Mamdani’s wonderful book Citizen and Subject.

CitizentorefugeeAfter a year of working on this project (see our blog and my post  Speaking from the South) I’ve read a lot on citizenship, migrancy, refugees, minorities, rights, democratic regimes, etc, and still his voice — among all this wealth of information and theory — is the one that speaks loudest when I have to figure out how to approach what’s going on in South Africa today.

His idea that the colonial-imperial project lives on in the postcolonial African democracies today and gives us “bifurcated” states with two sets of political identity — actual citizenship for an elite and subject positions for all the rest, is a powerful and useful one. Continue reading “See Mamdani make theory”

Hello Oulipism

I’m not a fiendishly-addicted word games person (not much of a Scrabble fan, but do like Dictionary and games that involve invention and quite a bit of clever cheating) but I am a person who is very suspicious of the way writers talk about inspiration, their muses and the way their characters take over their writing, so Oulipism — which is brand new to me but maybe not to you — holds quite a bit of interest for me.


A while ago, on a trawl for books for my book club, I happened to buy Georges Perec’s A Void (an entire novel written without the letter e, first in French and called La Disparition and then translated into English) and found it to be great fun — not a single book clubber agreed and the book remained in the club unread until I retired it. It was, however, a curiosity until I encountered a piece by Paul Grimstad in the London Review of Books (Vol 34 No 23, 6 December 2012) about Oulipism as a writing movement started, of course, in France. Continue reading “Hello Oulipism”

Crossing time, crossing genres, feeling nostalgic

Because I teach a class in long form journalism (my term for literary journalism or creative nonfiction) to final-year writing and editing students in the journalism school at Rhodes University, I’m always on the lookout for academic writing on the form, or for new experiments with it. So I was delighted to come across the recent Safundi edition, edited by Rita Barnard, devoted to commentary on South Africa’s publishing boom in nonfiction. I was persuaded to read a whole lot of South African writers I’ve not paid much attention to before, among them the wonderful Rob Nixon (Dreambirds), Bloke Modisane (Blame me on History) and Jacob Dlamini (Native Nostalgia). Continue reading “Crossing time, crossing genres, feeling nostalgic”

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