From Rimbaud to Verne
Ari Sitas has just published two volumes of poetry: Rough Music (Deep South) which is a selection of his poetry from 1989 to now. And From Around the World in Eighty Days-the India Section (UNISA Press). He was also one of the initiators of Insurrections-A Musical Dialogue Between Indian and African Artists which featured his words and the words of Pitika Ntuli, Malika Ndlovu, Vivek Narayanan and Sabitha Satchi. The ensemble’s work and the CD (published by the University of the Western Cape) were one of the highlights of Poetry Africa in 2013 in Durban and 2014 in Cape Town.
There was talk of Ari Sitas moving from Marx to Gandhi recently but I think they got it wrong. You seem to be preoccupied by French-related themes: from Arthur Rimbaud to Jules Verne! Where does that come from? A move from your epic, Slave Trades to 80 Days Around the World, the India Section!
Oh the talk about Gandhi and Marx was about my Ethic of Reconciliation. It was Yunus Momaniat who saw that in my work, writing for the Mail and Guardian.
But to get to your question:
I have always been a sucker for French-tinged literature. I suppose it is part of my unconscious, raised in colonial Cyprus within an extended family whose links to Beirut and Cairo and to the French language was seen as a mark of distinction and where English was a mark of drudgery you are bound to develop biases. It helped that Arthur Rimbaud left a mark on the island on his way to Ethiopia and I suppose alongside Cesaire he has been a defining influence.
It also helped that in those heady years of Johannesburg, my friend Costas Joakimidis and I spent endless hours reading and intoning around the Drunken Boat and Season in Hell- always in translation. We were weird, my mother was kind enough to translate Sartre’s Black Orpheus into English were my first encounter with the poets of negritude occurred and then soon enough there was the great Penguin translation of Cesaire’s Return with an intro by Mazisi Kunene. My Slave Trades was an engagement with and against Rimbaud.
But honestly Ari, from Rimbaud to Verne?
There is a sense of derision in your question: of all the things, from Rimbaud to Verne? Well yes. They were contemporaries but unlike Rimbaud’s work, Verne’s was popular. We all have some idea of 80 Days through the silver screen and through illustrated classics! Phileas Fogg could have been on the same ship from Port Said to Aden. And, in both narratives there are these magnificent women- the Ethiopian one that Rimbaud almost married but who proved to unassimilable for his taste (ok was he “bi” was he “gay”, keep the explorations flowing) and the Indian (ok Parsee) one that Fogg had to save from Sati. For me Verne was an entry into the narrative of a shrinking world and a peculiar globalization. It started from me asking my students to trace in detail 80 days around the world in Durban!
80 Days around the world- the India section is different from Slave Trades. 80 Days is more quirky and it is my sense of saying thank you to hundreds of wonderful Indians who made me feel at home there. It is a piece of crazy fiction. A secret theme that threads both works is musical. But to go back to your question, no, I respect Verne but he is not a defining influence like Rimbaud was.
It gets worse with you still. I see that your latest work is titled the Vespa Diaries! So we move from the steamships of the azure and topaz seas to a bloody Italian motorbike!
From the steamship to a Vespa! You crack me up. OK, OK. Unlike what you think, a Vespa is a profound symbol of enchantment and desire. Please read Umerto Eco on its semiotics. You will not find Harold Bloom on the Harley Davidson or Cheziburo Oe on the Kawasaki. But do read Eco on the Vespa. Furthermore, I imported my Vespa from India where it has been manufactured there for decades, it is a Bajaj. How do you expect me to travel through South Africa? I have read many white South African novelists and poets whose perception of the country is of the erudite man (usually) driving past and observing misery, alienation and dissonance through the car window. Vespa Diaries teasing Che Guevara by the way is an attempt to be impressionistic and conversational. I am connected enough to find people to talk to everywhere. But then Marikana happened in midstream. So my maps had to change. The tone had to change. My anger was deafening.
In a recent creative gathering Breytenbach alluded to you and your poetry as hard to categorize; I will put it to you. It does not deal with the questions most other poets worry about in SA.
Why should anyone share or be interested in my concerns? I agree, I am a bad brand. I am neither Afrikaans nor English and as you can see Afro-Cypriots break the mind. Where do you place them? At the corner cafe on Claim street, by Lolly Jackson’s tombstone, by a Halloumi salad? Or is it behind the counter at Stephen Gray’s Apollo Café? They were not part of a boarding school in the Midlands or at Sacs; little card dealers they were, pimps, cargo handlers we were, they/we are not even proper Greeks, we were colonial subjects of the Queen. And then again, by some natural blunder I am not black either so I could be extended some patronage by Poetry Inc. I am totally out of joint. And yet, somehow totally connected to the upsurge we call home. I also cannot stand any form of patronage.
But you are in all the recent anthologies of South African poetry- Berold, Hirson, Chapman and the one Sole put together, you are part of the contemporary Bafana Squad
That’s why the squad is doing so badly. I am usually on the left wing. I played left wing recently in the Paris Biennale, there were quite a few of us there and our coach was Dennis Hirson. We scored quite a few own goals but it was good to catch up with many and I had a mean time debating aesthetics with Alain Badiou and Florence Pizzottu. Badiou is a Platonist Maoist who believes in the idea of beauty, I do believe in the power of the arts but Eurocentric universals scare me. Had lovely conversations with Rob Berold, Gabeeba Balderoon, Karen Press and Kgositsile. There was also a book launch of Hirson’s new anthology where quite a few of us showed our footwork to a Cape Town public. Yes, there are a few people who do think highly about some of my work.
There is a lot of travel in your work. Apart from the RDP poems- you have taken us to Ethiopia , India and whizzing around in South Africa-an Odyssey without Odysseus?
Odysseus and Homer are very much there in Slave Trades, but so was Pindar and Kavafis. Rimbaud could be mistaken for Phileas Fogg in the India travels. Let me make one thing clear. I do not admire what poets do with their superficial accounts of their visits to foreign lands- airports, sites, streets, name dropping, tourism disguised as art. Very few write a Grecian Urn or know how to slouch towards Byzantium in their accounts and apart from Breytenbach give me one who has written about a sojourn north of the Limpopo. We do not travel there!!!
Slave Trades took seven years to complete, 8o Days took four years, Vespa is taking an aeon-you have to really read poetry, feel the space, listen to how people talk and what they say, engage with the politics, understand rites of passage, fall in and out of love with their foibles, discipline your imagination and still be an outsider. How can you write about India? You can’t unless you struggle with plenty ghosts.
80 Days follows the Fogg itinerary- Arabian Sea, Mumbai, Pune, inland, cheat a little, find elephant but go to Delhi instead, off then to Allahabad, Varanasi, Bihar, Kolkata and out, to nowhere. Save Aouda who in the 21st century could never follow you to London but you end up going nowhere. This allows for experience, reading, moods and tensions to be crafted in a new way. Like Saramago I had to say what if I were a Phileas Fogg, I would need a Passepartout, I interacted with a lot of Congolese and Senegalese in my search for a Passepartout for my Durban script, so I borrowed one and reconstructed her as if she were from London, and since I started writing dangerous heteronormative lines, she couldn’t be a “he”. Sorted…now where do we find an elephant? Part colonial clown, foreigner but also a friend and an insider, I loved the confusion. Then came wonderful friendships and interactions with Indian artists, writers, students, activists and musicians-part of the idea was for all of us to travel together by train and do a poem-film-musical like Bollywood had never seen.
By then I was involved with poets, composers and musicians from both our countries working on what became the Insurrecttions oratorio, so they mooted the idea of a musical version. Karen Press read the first draft and was adamant this was not just a poetry book. Aami Atmaja, a wonderful and rather anarchic fine artist from Kerala went ahead and sketched along as if she was me, responding to the images and created a wonderful dimension to the book. Then, Hetta Pieterse from UNISA Press who was interested in the project insisted that we had an audio. Well we have one and it had to be a local trope meeting the Indian soundscape. Since it could not be a dhow, Dean Henning commandeered the boat and whoever was available added sounds- Sumangala Damodaran, Pritam Ghosal, Jurgen Brauninger, Malika Ndlovu, Mark Van Niekerk, Sazi Dlamini etc. So here you have what it takes to travel.
The dozen people who read it so far, have enjoyed it. I hope to increase its readership to thirty.
I will put it to you this way: Slave Trades is your Iliad, 80 Days your Odyssey and Vespa Diaries is your Kazantzakis version of the Odyssey. Odysseus comes home and finds that after he killed the suitors and re-united with Penelope he gets existentially so bored and homeless tthat he launches off into the unknown and South Africa.
No. The mold will not work. I despise Kazantzakis’ Odyssey. Its vision of Africa is racist. My version, starts from Durban and follows the tracts of Ethiopianism and the meanings of it via Bambatha and Shembe, and then via Gandhi and Gwala to India. I Return to Durban, move to Cape Town gets restless there and I hit the road with a Vespa. I am adlibbing don’t take it down.
So I was right about the trope shift from steamships and the railway to a motorbike? Can we ever expect an aeroplane?
No. Only if I am the pilot or the co-pilot.
What are your local influences?
It is hard to say. Robert Berold pointed something to me that made me think hard. As he was reading and editing Rough Music he noticed how much I used the hyphen in my lines instead of commas or full stops. I realized after thinking hard about it that I use it as a syncopation, a breathing break, a hint that a shift is happening which is my total debt to oral poetry. This is by now so much in my subconscious that it defines my craft-work. So roll over Homer, here come Kunene, Qabula and their rhythms and blues.
I am attracted to musicality and sound obviously, so when I read Seihlamo Motsapi and some of Rampolokeng’s lines, I smile in full recognition. I also like the alienated voicings of someone like Arthur Nortje and Breyten Breytenbach (especially hearing him in Afrikkaans). Don’t get me started I like lots of contemporary poets who also happen to be my friends. Let me say, I prefer visceral poems that are about our bodies, about the cruel nature that survives us and stalks our dreams and our daily industrial and city grime.
To turn to poetry and music…Everyone who has listened to the Insurrections Ensemble or watched the performances live has appreciated the sheer freshness of it all and the way the instruments voices and words blended. As one of the founders of the project, what was the original intention, what was it about?
Do not ask me! Ask anyone in the project about what its meaning was beyond just being a “dialogue” that Sumangala Damodaran and I imagined and started in Delhi in 2008. I think you will get a similar answer: the art and the excitement was in the journey. By the time it was inaugurated at the Fugard in Cape Town in late 2012, there were about a dozen top notch musos and lyricists and poets involved. This was one bloody serious journey.
I am rather worried when someone answers by intimating a “journey”- can you not be more specific?
This journey is serious because people devoted inordinate hours to something that had no precedent. And such people who committed to this madness were not just good poets or music-makers, they were also thinkers and iconoclasts. Take someone like Sumangala: she is a classically trained diva, a curator of traditions of resistance singing in India, an author of a book on people’s music and aesthetics…and a radical economist. Take Brydon Bolton, he is not just one of the best double-bassists around, he is a composer, part of South Africa’s new music fraternity, at home in jazz and in the KZN Philharmornic Orchestra. I can go on about each one from Jurgen Brauninger to Tina Schouw and her sensitive renderings of the spiritual loss of our times, from Neo Muyanga and of course to Sazi Dlamini, the avant-garde Nguni neo-traditionalist, instrument maker, musicologist with a PhD on the Blue Notes and the exile avant-garde.
The heart of the project was and is about the beauty and pain of crafting something together that resonates across the Indian Ocean. We thought we could do it, we did it, The language is as ancient as an African lament or the Bhairav raga or as modern as the micro-tones between the traditions that we can explore with the fretless strings of the ensemble. The sessions were as expansive as the art of improvisation and as disciplined as the art of song demands. Add to that the language of the lyric with its defiance against the world’s wrongs and you start getting a sense of what it meant.
So people just trusted each other and the rest was history?
To achieve that was not easy: it was also about the craft of listening, understanding and giving to each other from deep but different forms of training whether in music or poetry. We had to get beyond the usual slapdash “fusion” stuff, or the World Music electro mulch or the ever-so trendy Multikulti cliche. But such a journey can be narcissistic, solipsistic and forget about the listener and the people out there whom we are trying to reach. It is easy when a sarod player like Pritam Ghosal meets Sazi or Neo, they can dialogue and improvise for weeks. The greatest in jazz started becoming that…narcissistic… and soon enough, collective improvisations like in Coltrane’s Ascension take us to a borderline beyond which, chaos looms. As creative people we might appreciate the passionate atonality of sound but we also share the ominous responsibility to our real or imagined audience to not only communicate but to take them a tad further. This is out of respect of our audience’s acuities and its desire to connect with what we do.
There is disbelief and amazement. Audiences are used to watching a mix of “traditional” Indian and African, a bit of gumboot here, a bit of tabla there; Ravi Shankar has crossed boundaries and so have the Beatles; Hindustani Ragas have often met the Flamenco.
What they had to listen to though in the Insurrections project was serious composition in and through scales that made sense to very able composers across the divide. The words were easier to deal with as they all circled around the sense of disquiet in nature and in people about the current period of outrage and indignation. On our side there was Malika Ndlovu, Pitika Ntuli and I. On the India-side there was Vivek Narayanan and Sabitha Satchi. We wrote, edited, c-wrote, altered and had our hearts broken by the composers. Musically, one is listening to the possibility of dialogue based at first on fretless instruments (the Zulu bow, the cello, the sarod and the double-bass) which can find the in-between notes restricted by frets or piano keys. Then, the rest followed. Audiences have loved both the seriousness and the exuberance of the music.
So Mayihlome at the Homecoming Centre is the next phase? And are there new songs or re-workings of the old?
There are some changes in personnel; Ahsan Ali’s sarangi is a necessary progression from the wonderful cello work of Tapan Mullick, who cannot be with the ensemble anymore. Brydon’s double-bass and bow will pick up some of the sonority of the cello, but the sarangi and its phrasing will take us in a new dimension closer to the emotion of minor notes. Words cannot describe what this instrument does and how it connects the Indian subcontinent to the East Coast of Africa and surprise, surprise to Madagascar.
Also, although Neo Muyanga is composing for Mayihlome, he cannot be part of the performances at the Homecoming Centre. His voice and guitar will be missed. We decided not to look for a guitarist as such but for a multi-intsrumentalist to augment Dlamini’s bows. Enter Ze Maria: he is a Mozambican maestro who plays anything from bows, saxes, guitar and strings. Finally, we lost Malika Ndlovu for this round. She endorsed Mbali Vilakazi, a great young performer and poet who will stir things up. Perhaps we can convince Malika to participate in the performances if she is around.
Mayihlome started with me sending Vivek, Sabitha, Mbali, Pryia and others some lines.
Le me lie to you:
Your mother has gone to shops far away
and the buses are broken
and granny's camel is limp
the firecrackers you hear are for eid
and the hole in my heart is to let the spring flowers in
please let me lie to you child,
I am just a helpless father..etc
Vivek, Mbali,and Sabitha added, improvised, changed its gender. Without saying so, it was a collective response to the bombings in Gaza. I also drafted two or three other poem/lyrics which were enhanced, cut and changed. Mbali drafted three or four. I had a beginning of a libretto a dialogue between a woman’s voice and Mayakovsky’s Cloud in Trousers. They grabbed some of the lines for a Sazi Dlamini composition. I drafted another but was seen to be inappropriate:
“After the blasts I made a piano of my ribcage and danced the trees to war they lit them up with napalm fire but their roots rose up to claw and the mess was so heart-wrenching that I forgot how sore it was to be split apart and to know that I had a body once a body not so long ago but my fingers kept dancing the ribcage keys and my music danced more trees to the war”
You do interact, use and create with visual artists too? Isn’t that a fact?
Oh I do. William Kentridge gave me some amazing work for my books- Tropical Scars, Slave Trades, Ethic of Reconnciliation. He and I go way back. Omar Badsha, Tiki Phungula, Paul Sibisi, Andrew Vester, Aami Atmaja, Elmarie Costandius, Pitika Ntuli, Arts for Humanity will auction a poem I did which has been paired off with Gavin Younge’s work. I walked through Pitika Ntuli’s Marikana sculptures reading, he filmed it and I know trouble is brewing. I participated with Wally Serote, Gavin Anderson and others on helping conceptualise what Pitika’s provocation around a“reconciliation” sculpture should be. I don’t just take I give back whenever I can.
I might work with some artists on the Vespa Diaries. My friend Jeeva Rajgopaul wants to ride on the Vespa with me, it will be dangerous, we might get stuck in a pub in Beaufort West.
What is next?
I finished an essay on Badsha’s photography; and a talk I gave on Mao’s little red book; I and Astrid Von Kotze are working on some children’s stories and I am to read in Delhi in January or February. I hope I have more Vespa Diaries poems ready and an animated map to trace my journey for an Indian audience. I have drafted some rough lyrics for Sumangala Damodaran’s Heer project that she is working on-some ancient blues.
Do you still see your work as political art?
I see myself as belonging to a community of socialist artists, thinkers and practicioners. I am not here to deconstruct the world, I am here to help create a new one.