The gifts of Sea Point

She writes textbooks for a living and composes poems about Sea Point. Karen Press speaks to Jane Rosenthal

Poet Karen Press, who currently writes science and maths textbooks for a living, has lived in Sea Point for much of her life. Characteristically, she has had some dialogue with herself on what most folk would just take for granted, and her new book of poems comes out of this questioning.

Echo Location: A Guide to Sea Point for Residents and Visitors began to take shape in the early Nineties, with a “preoccupation with what it means to have a home, and whether the land is yours or whether you are the land”. At some point she looked at Sea Point and decided, “This is a job that would be fun to do.”

>From there, it became “a self-perpetuating process”, a process which she attributes in part to externals: “I kept getting new gifts. Sea Point gives you gifts. You walk out onto the street and there’s another new poem - just lands in your lap.” Not everyone knows this, however, and Press’s receptiveness to these “new poems” gives a new slant to the word “gifted”.

Not that it is as simple as that. She says of her working method that it begins with a germ of an idea, sometimes put away for months before being reworked. “Often poems are steps to the real poem.”

The title of the book reflects the fact that many poems resulted from echoes within herself of current preoccupations, of different voices speaking to each other. For example the poem Twinkle Twinkle Little Star came out of a conjunction of reading Albert Einstein and a story about a little girl taken hang-gliding. And of course, there is no way, really, to explain how a poem gets written, this one for example:

Her watery legs led him deeper.

“Alida,” he cried. “Don’t.

I’m supposed to arrest you.”

“Oh yes,” her voice reached back.

“Do you think I chose to be here ?”

Her laugh was a child’s laugh at the very moment when she is very tired and about to start crying.

All the poems relate to Sea Point, reflecting the seaboard suburb well-known to residents, dog-walkers and joggers, simultaneously bringing it all into sharper focus. Two strands of meta-text encircle the poems: snippets of street talk/bergie commentary, and an ongoing, “disrupting every kind of activity”, business about food, represented by menus which march relentlessly across the foot of each page, becoming increasingly hilarious and surreal.

The poems themselves contain many layers and implied narratives, such as Alida’s story, which threads through several poems, leaving the reader free to interpret; they are simultaneously light and accessible and rather deeply serious. They touch on the lives and histories and myths of all Sea Point’s past and present inhabitants; this place, which seems to have no history, is full of ghosts, “a narrative a bit like the mists, wandering through the streets “. Only the poems themselves will give you the true flavour of this book.

Commenting on the juxtaposition of the two final poems, one light and one serious, Press says: “Sea Point just begs you to be completely mindless and trivial and forget your metaphysical thoughts and all your speculations on the meaning of life, but at the same time it’s this place that condenses all these issues.” For example, Alida’s story is “to do with the success that’s also an accumulation of unhappiness, survival that’s an accumulation of your own pain”.

Press agrees that the line “We were exempt from politics” is one that applied to her when growing up in Sea Point. But she “never bought into any of the identities of `good white/bad white’”. She takes a far longer view and the poems make a circle that starts with the extraordinary, which evokes the timeless antiquity of the rocks and shingle, and “returns to the sea in Seaworthy, able to take the soundings of this original home [the sea] because of the accumulated echoes and ghost voices, that have presented themselves in the poems.”

Press plans now to “cruise for the next 40 years”, but she may attend to the matter of starting a movement to bring back the Sea Point (sea front) Wimpy with its view of the sea, good writing tables, and supply of coffee.

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