Monday, 9 January 2012

An interview with Isobel Dixon

I met Isobel Dixon at the London launch of Sidekick Books wonderful Birdbook I last summer - her Upupa Epops (you're all such keen birders that you don't need me to tell you what species that's the scientific name of, do you?) is one of the volume's highlights, for me, and a good taster for the superb collection in which it appears, The Tempest Prognosticator

She was born in Umtata, South Africa, and came to Scotland to study in 1993. She works in London as a literary agent, representing a range of clients, including many prominent South African writers. Her work is included in publications like The Paris Review, The Guardian, Penguin’s Poems for Love, The Forward Book of Poetry and The Best of British Poetry 2011. Her first collection Weather Eye won South Africa’s Sanlam and Olive Schreiner Prizes. Her second collection A Fold in the Map was published in the UK by Salt and in South Africa by Jacana, and The Tempest Prognosticator, is published in the UK by Salt and in South Africa by Random House’s Umuzi imprint. It’s been described as “a virtuoso collection” by J M Coetzee and an “ingenious carousel of a book” by David Morley.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this collection was the vividly African flavour of many of the poems, both in subject matter and in the language used. How often do you get back to South Africa, and do you find that an essential spark to your creativity?

I’m glad you can feel Africa in it, even though there’s a wider ranger of themes and settings than in the more overtly homesick and family-focused A Fold in the Map. There’s a lot more London, Yorkshire, England in The Tempest Prognosticator, partly reflecting how long I’ve lived and worked on this island. But South Africa remains essential to my life and writing. I go back twice a year, for publishing work and to see family and friends, and just to be at home in the Karoo for a while. My mother still lives in the house where I and my sisters grew up, and this old house and my home town Graaff-Reinet remain crucial places for me.  I was thinking of it as I wrote as a harbour or dry dock and the phrase ‘refreshment station’ keeps popping into my mind – what the Dutch East India Company called the settlement at the Cape, a place for sailors to pick up fresh water and fruit and vegetables on their long sea journeys. A way to prevent emotional scurvy, perhaps…!

Strangely, I don’t write a lot when I’m back in the Cape (both Western and Eastern), because there is so much else to pack into the days, but I do take a lot of notes, jotting down ideas all the time. The long drives between towns, through my country’s glorious landscapes, are also fruitful thinking times, and some poems invariably emerge after I leave, sometimes even on the return flight. Aeroplanes and trains seem to be essential to my writing too…A virtue of frequent necessity perhaps. 

Just a word, too, about your writing processes. The Tempest Prognosticator holds together very well as a themed collection, but was equally enjoyable to dip in and out of. Was it a case of writing ‘occasional’ poems that started to cohere around a central point?

Some of the poems in The Tempest Prognosticator have travelled a long way, several pre-dating my previous collection A Fold in the Map.

In both A Fold in the Map and The Tempest Prognosticator I have some poems that were first published in my South African debut collection Weather Eye, which is no longer in print, though you can find the odd copy on the web. Weather Eye was never widely distributed outside South Africa and while it was a very important book for me, as all first books are to their creators, I wanted to give some of those early poems a new life in a new context. When I came to put together the manuscript for my second collection  I realised that there were narrative family poems like Plenty and the title poem Weather Eye which fitted well into the divided shape of  what became my first UK publication A Fold in the Map – where the first half mainly looks back to childhood and my country of birth, often from the vantage point of the UK; and where the second half traces my father’s illness and death, that terrible journey we made together as a family, coping with the process of loss. While I was writing constantly, out of my own need, when my father first became seriously ill, I had no intention of publishing the resulting poems, not till later when my mother and sisters had read them, and they’d grown to form some narrative arc of their own. But I didn’t want a collection that was just about grief, I wanted to show some of the fullness too, more of the light, and so the two halves took shape together.

So there were many poems I’d already written by the time A Fold in the Map was published that just weren’t right for the form and tone of that collection, and I knew I would use them in another very different collection later. Poems like Vision, the opening poem of The Tempest Prognosticator, which appeared in The Wolf  in 2004, or Days of Miracle and Wonder which was in The Paris Review the same year.

The poems of The Tempest Prognosticator are poems that spring from many interlinked concerns and fascinations – like the South African natural scientist and poet Eugene Marais, whose writing inspired Toktokkie and The Inopportune Baboon, and perhaps some more work to come. There are poems that spring from love of travel, art, film, and a fascination with aspects of the quirkiness of life and human inventiveness, as in the title poem, about a Victorian device which used leeches to predict storms. Maybe because I grew up in an extremely dry part of the world where everyone is a sky-watcher and rain-measurer, I am also a little obsessed with ideas of the weather…

So the new collection jettisons family in favour of animals – but that’s not to say I’ve switched my concerns completely, the collection is just a different beast for a different season. I am slowly writing a series of poems about my mother too, but that’s for some time ahead. 

There’s a veritable bestiary in there, too. I liked the balance struck between exact description of animals, birds, even insects, and their metaphorical use. Is that something that’s always been a part of your poetry?

I was once asked at a reading if I wrote so much about animals and insects because I don’t like people… But I think (hope) the human is very present in even the most creaturely of The Tempest Prognosticator poems.

But yes, nature, the creatures, have always been a part of the writing. Again because it’s all always been, completely naturally, part of my life. We ran quite wild as kids, in wide open but safe spaces, far from the city. A big garden at the back of our own house, a small town in a horsehoe of (mostly dry) river, surrounded by the Karoo plains and mountains. Every holiday spent on my uncle’s farm, involved in the daily work. Two of my sisters live on a farm, one of my sisters is a painter who does a lot of Karoo landscapes, and we all love walking, the African outdoors, the wildlife. The eldest and youngest have just been on a tent safari holiday in Botswana together and I’m feeling very envious (though I like to keep a whole lot further away from the crocs and hippos than my adventurous heroine, Mary Kingsley of Beetle, Fish & Fetish, did…). I think the first rambling free verse poem I wrote as a kid was about the Karoo and drought…And the natural world is just so rich and present, a realm of endless fascination, and the more you learn, as well as observe personally, the more amazing it all seems. Much as I love London, I often need to get away from the relentlessly urban, both in reality and in imagination.

So the idea of a tapestry made of spider silk, as in Silking the Spider, was irresistible, or the confluence of nature and art, the making and remaking of Damien Hirst’s pickled shark in Requiem. It’s why I love Eugene Marais’s writing in The Soul of the Ape and The Soul of the White Ant, groundbreaking work and writing from a tragic life. It’s why I was drawn to Mary Kingsley’s brilliant and witty observations of the West African jungle, which I plundered for Beetle, Fish & Fetish, or Robert Byron’s odd, funny and moving anecdote about an over-affectionate wild boar in The Road to Oxiana, which I recast in The Poor Wild Boar Who Went Too Far. These last two poems were both written as part of a commission for The Travel Bookshop (now sadly closed) in 2010.

Which links to to your ‘occasional poems’ question earlier. For this, as with several of the themed group projects that led to poems in the collection (like the Pink Floyd and English Counties nights), I was involved in initiating and organising the event. So along with Simon Barraclough and Richard Price, I spent several happy hours in the Travel Bookshop, with more fantastic source material than I could mine in a year. Other poems also came from commissions for books or events: Mountain War Time for Roddy Lumsden’s 50 States event, and Upupa Epops and A Parliament of Gulls, written for Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone’s lovely Birdbook I, a chance I’ll admit I seized on with gull-like greed. I’d never set up or take up a commission that didn’t chime with something I wanted to write, but I do like the creative pressure that comes from writing to a certain theme, and of course, a deadline.

A final note on ‘the bestiary’ is that for the South African launch of The Tempest Prognosticator my sister Janet organised an art exhibition in her gallery, ArtKaroo, in Oudtshoorn, where two South African artists, Leanette Botha and Susqya Williams, produced visual interpretations of some of the poems.  It was fascinating to see their vision of the creatures –  the boars, zebras, lizards, baboons, orang-utans, camels, toktokkies, ostriches and more taking vigorous and colourful shape off the page. You can see a selection here.

Following on from that, is your first collection, Weather Eye, still available anywhere?

Only here and there on the web and from second hand dealers – as mentioned before, there are Weather Eye traces in A Fold in the Map and The Tempest Prognosticator, though there are poems that are published solely in the debut book. I only have a few copies left myself.

Other highlights for me were some absolutely exquisite short poems – A Mess Of Vinegar, Only Adapt, Paradox and valentine among them. I occasionally suspect that such shorter pieces get a bit undervalued in contemporary British poetry – do you think that’s the case?

Thank you, that’s wonderful to hear. I’m a fan of the short poem myself – not just the subtlety of the haiku, but also short sharp shocks of poems. Emily Dickinson’s brilliance in her spare dashed lines, Les Murray’s Poems the Size of Photographs, and so many more.

There’s talk of a return of greater appreciation for the short story, the essay, the novella, perhaps because we are not so restricted by the bound format and read our texts in so many ways these days, including the web and Kindles and Kobos, and all the devices still being developed and named. Maybe it’s that way with the short poem too – though it’s never been out of favour with readers, I believe, despite not being seen as substantial enough to win poetry prizes when up against longer work, and not published as much in journals. It’s great to see Magma launch their new short poem prize, for poems of up to 10 lines. Penguin’s Poems for Love anthology, edited by Laura Barber, includes a very short two-liner poem of mine, truce (not yet in a collection). Perhaps love (and hate) poems, in the tradition of Catullus’s Odi et Amo are perfect for that short, sharp, shock treatment…

Finally, I wonder how your day job as a literary agent affects your poetry, if at all?

I’m lucky to have a completely absorbing passion for my professional life, a job where no two days, or books, or authors, are alike. It is pretty full-on though, and work and private life aren’t very boundaried. The poetry weaves its way between this, in early mornings, late nights, weekends between manuscript reading. I’m never without a notebook and various pens (nothing worse than being on an overnight flight when your only pen’s just erupted.) My own writer clients are a great example in their focus, dedication and hard work.

Commissions and joint projects do help to keep the poetry from being completely swamped by my job. The rigour of a deadline’s very useful here. So I’m working on a production for this year’s centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, along with poets Chris McCabe and Simon Barraclough, musician and composer Oliver Barrett, and film-maker Jack Wake-Walker. I will be following that with an art and poetry project with Scottish artist Douglas Robertson. More weather, and more creatures, in view with those two…. 

To buy The Tempest Prognosticator, click here.

Three poems from The Tempest Prognosticator

Upupa Epops

Scarce passage migrant regular enough to skim the south
of this glib outcrop with your pied and pinkish now-and-then
but still, erratic flitter on the wing, old vaudevillean,
knowing that you’ll cause a flutter on the wires.

A prophet less respected in those backyard days
you poked about our frazzled lawn, a dandy priest.
Familiarity and all the blah it breeds.
Who knew, so dapper in your black-barred

cinnamon-cum-chestnut raiment, you’d turn out to be,
back home, a smelly nester of the first degree?
The sins fine feathers and a rather natty crest can hide.
Oop-oop-oops, indeed.

Your Giant St Helena Ancestor went dodo,
long before Napoleon and the Giant Earwig did.
But still you pop up here and there, to stride and plunge
that beaky scythe, delving the underworld for breakfast –

spiders easy over, ant lions sunny side up,
a take-out gogga, kriek or two to feed the brood.
You foul your hidden clutch of milky-blue. Tree-caved,
surviving critters shit at probing eyes, and hiss like snakes.

Only Adapt

Observe the sand gazelle
who with a shrinking heart
survives the drought –
an admirable desert art,
this making small, a skill
that we who doubt
the seasonal largesse
must learn as well.


There’s no telling what
will make the heart leap, frog-
like, landing with a soggy plop.
Love startles, makes a mockery
of us, and yet we lie awake
at night and croak and croak for it.

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