In other registers

Feminist scholar Gabeba Baderoon is the debut winner of the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry. She grew up in Crawford, Athlone and attended Livingstone High School in Claremont. She studied English at the University of Cape Town, earning a doctorate with a thesis on the way Islam is portrayed in South African media and art.

Baderoon’s initiation into poetry occurred during a fellowship in the United States in 1999.
She contributed to the South Africa Day cele-brations in Stuttgart, Germany, this year. Joan Hambidge, chairperson of the DaimlerChrysler Award jury, said Baderoon’s work “tackles a wide range of themes, astutely shifting the focus from the outside to the inside”. 

Describe yourself in a sentence.

I’m an academic who’s surprised herself by doing the unexpected, trusting her creative side and resisting the habit of earnestness — this has led me to poetry, and the most lusciously productive and affirming experience of my life. Oh, and laughing a lot (though that’s two sentences).

Describe your book in a sentence.

You tempt me to write a single but Joycean sentence. Written over five years, The Dream in the Next Body contains poems about love, about war, about “the subtle map of the bed”. The poems recount the secrets that people reveal through their gestures, silences and mistakes — and the book’s themes include the “art of leaving”, the architecture of mosques, and what people offer each other through the things they do not say, “silence to lean their bodies against”.

Describe your ideal reader.

I hope the kind of people who would never think of reading poetry and, on encountering my work, are startled and delighted; and the ones who do, and feel they were right.

What was the originating idea for the book?

I was a student of poetry who had to put together an end‑of-year collection, so the initial impetus was terror and the conviction that I’d fail. I submitted a portfolio to my professor with the hope that the poems would fool him by creating a sense of vertiginous recognition. I passed because, apparently, that’s what poems should do. Now, whenever I read from the book, I realise that poetry is a technology for revealing, but also exceeding, such compulsions and desires.

Describe the process of writing and publishing the book. How long did it take?

While I was studying at the University of Sheffield, I enrolled in a poetry class with Sean O’Brien at Sheffield Hallam University nearby and read fantastically good poetry, and talked about it and wrote a poem every week. The discipline and laughter of the class moved something in me. After that, again while finishing my thesis, I studied with Robin Becker, the wonderful American poet and gifted teacher, at Pennsylvania State University. With Robin I learned about the subtle magic that comes from practising the formal craft of writing, and also that poetry is like factory labour of a kind. Turn up for a certain number of hours per day, work with integrity, develop your skills and something good will happen. In addition to my professors, I also sent the class manuscript to my friends Keorapetse Kgositsile and Ingrid de Kok, who acted as my guardian angels and sent it to Kwela. There I worked with the wondrous Annari van der Merwe and Gus Ferguson and brought the book exquisitely into being with Nelleke de Jager. For me, poetry is a very indirect art. I write every morning in my journal, as close to first thing after I open my eyes as I can. Sometimes these entries become poems immediately, as though transcribed, sometimes they need much more living with and close attention before becoming what they need to be.

Name some writers who have inspired you, and (briefly) tell us why or how.

Keorapetse and Ingrid are also formidable poets in whose footsteps I try to walk. Keorapetse has written the great lines that articulate South Africa’s pain and beauties. In Ingrid’s work I admire its profound feeling wrought through delicate observation. Two other poets who come to mind are Rustum Kozain and Vonani Bila. I’ve been lucky enough to have an office down the corridor from Rustum and the path between our doors became happily well-trodden as I imbibed his dark coffee and startlingly good poetry, with its spareness and unmatched sense of place. Vonani’s poetry I want to say out loud and feel its grounded, incantatory power along with everybody else. I also love the work of Hanif Kureishi and the humour and jaw-dropping verve with which he reinvented English writing. Then there are people who are not writers who inspire me — the tailors and carpenters and builders and cooks in Cape Town who have given it its shape and longevity and its unique identity. That kind of work has surrounded me all my life and conveys a philosophy of beauty and integrity that I draw on in my writing.

What are you reading at the moment?

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of re-reading Rustum Kozain’s This Carting Life (Kwela, forthcoming 2005) and Robert Berold’s anthology It All Begins (Gecko, 2003), because I gave a lecture on South African poetry last week. Over the weekend, on the recommendation of a writer of children’s literature, I bought a book for my godson and decided to read it first to see if it’s suitable. I found myself neither able to put it down nor to give it to him (yet). The book is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.

Do you write by hand or use a typewriter or computer?

I almost always start a poem writing by hand, and once it’s safely on a piece of paper I move to the computer. Of course, having lost my share of them, I know a piece of paper is not safe, but neither is a computer, since I have the same regrets about not backing up as everyone else. But then, perhaps safety is not the thing. And I live in fear of being too systematic about my writing. At school I learned to write with a fountain pen, and about 10 years ago I went back to using one. My journal writing is very free-flowing and undirected and a fountain pen is perfect for that.

What is the purpose of poetry?

It’s to use language in its other registers, beyond making shopping lists (though Wallace Stevens demonstrates the artistry that can come from a note on the fridge) or persuasion or lying. In turn, poetry makes you more honest than you might want, and articulates what is otherwise possible only through screaming or silence.

Is there anything you wish to add?

People are comfortable with simplicity, so with anything new they tend to focus on the most recognisable things. Part of being a writer is stretching our view of reality into less familiar, less comfortable parts. When people hear that, in addition to being a poet, I’m a Muslim feminist scholar, they think they’re in territory they recognise. And then they read the work. People who have read the poems tell me about the pleasure of a different kind of recognition.

The Dream in the Next Body is published by Kwela and Snailpress. Go to Baderoon’s website,, for more information

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