Poets Talk: 5 Questions with Abigail George

Abigail George

Konya Shamsrumi: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Is it a lot of hard work or easy?

Abigail George: Writing is never easy for me. Sometimes it brings up memories that I really, really don’t want to go through again. A lot of my memories are painful. I mean I had a happy childhood and I worship my dad, but after those years it really was quite difficult for me to adjust. I begin in longhand in exercise book, scribbler or black Croxley notebook. Sometimes I make notes. Sometimes I throw myself into the poem. I write it out. This helps give shape to the poem. Sometimes it is a long process from book to computer. Sometimes I go straight to the computer, write all my ideas down and the poem begins there. There’s no process for me, just preparation, hours of rehearsal-time. I know I am born to be a poet. This is my art. This is how I communicate with the world. You don’t always get what you want, when you write a poem but it always changes you in some way, and that kind of transformation stays with you.

On the blank slate, the virgin screen I drown all my sorrows there. Are most of my poems sad, I don’t know? Are they more opinion-based? Is it confessional-writing? I just know that they are relevant. The prevalent theme is illness (mental illness). I can spend a day, hours on a poem or twenty minutes. When they come back from an editor, either I send them out immediately after a thorough read-through or I edit them line by line ‘like a surgeon’. They always find a home. They just always find a home. They never go back into a drawer never to be seen again by the world. I have to find a home for them. Hard work never hurt anyone. Poets work just as hard as anyone else. Poets are perfectionists just as much as anyone else. It is the hardest thing in the world, most difficult to write a poem and to me the most rewarding. There are times when I distance myself from it, that’s when I can’t cope with the world around me.

I was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder in my early twenties and of course this has impacted my writing. Also I must have my green tea or coffee. I rarely eat when I’m writing.

Sometimes my cat keeps me company. (Tawny Fawny) he sleeps, I work. And slowly the poem comes into existence. That’s the wonderful thing about this. The pain that I’ve internalised, the loneliness, the isolation, the rejections from poetry editors from all over the world, that global space is worth it in the end, and has its own reward at the end of the day or nightfall. I work for a few hours in the morning. When I am depressed I have to be more patient with myself, and listen to my emotional, mental, and physical needs. I have to realise my own limitations. Goal and the meaning of that goal is important to me. I have been writing poems for such a long time and understand that I’m not just writing for me anymore.

So the key for me is to act towards responsibility, to accept the idea of accountability, being aware of what is happening in a political sense. The news scares me, and so does this shift towards sexual violence, and the fact that sexual violence towards children is not consensual sex. So, how do I write about that, right? How do I write about chronic illness, feminism, respect, and gender-based equality, neglect, abandonment issues, to me that is all confessional writing, holding, and with-holding? There’s a growing power in sexual violence. Writing is instrumental in being therapy-based for me. I think a lot of artists have adopted that as preparation for their ‘art’. Like rehearsal for their ‘art’. The past now for me is always filled with despair and hardship. That is my truth. Other poets might have a different truth. So when I write my poetry I go back to every painful experience/moment that I’ve ever had.

And every person that was ever kind to me, because my kind of writing tells me that I’m emotionally damaged, and that it is OK to be damaged in some way. In today’s society everybody is damaged by something. I think of the mental and verbal abuse of my beautiful mother who has her own issues, the lack of close female friendships in my life, the constant presence of my wonderful father in my life. I think of the bipolar, the crushing highs and numbing lows, the depression, crawling under the covers every so now and then in the foetal position, and then I think of the poetry that is like a circle of light inside of me and how far it has brought me to now being the poetry editor at Africanwriter.com and I thank the pain and the kind people because they go together. They saved me. I wouldn’t be the poet I am today if it wasn’t for the pain. To be quite honest with you I never think that I am worthy of love, (that’s the bipolar speaking, the depression raising its ugly-head), but when I write I feel so alive. I don’t think about suicide, or the fact that my mother doesn’t love me when I write.

Konya Shamsrumi: Please describe your sense of identity in this or any possible world in imagery ormetaphor?

Abigail George

Abigail George: What poets have is a kind of universal humanity. We’re conditioned from an early ageto not think of the interconnectedness of the world around us. We’re taught youand you and you, we all come from different cultural backgrounds, differentfaiths, with our own emotional baggage, our own heritage and tradition. We’retaught that we have nothing in common. You’re African but you come from adifferent African country so I have nothing in common with you. I think that isso wrong. There’s so much loss in carrying that kind of despair and heartacheand hardship in that kind of thinking, that passage of thought. We have tobegin to understand how the pen is mightier than the sword, anchor our roots, and study, observe and open our eyes, our own body-language to this world, andto the dimensions and elements beyond. We must stop this play-acting, role-playingon this cultural, global stage. It haunts me with a passion. In my heart, I have a letter of thanks to the people who have been on this journey with me. It is yourjourney that makes your identity. The pain that has carried you, that hasbrought you to the boulder of understanding, the rock of separating therehearsal of life into wakefulness.

And after that climb it brings you to the intimate fact that we must separate psyche and intellect, and this stereotype that plays dangerously into xenophobia, and self-hate. My identity is spiritual first. In this little world of Africa that plays itself out on television screen there’s the hand of war, the spoils of war, and unaware we’re careless with our own lives. There’s shame and exploitation, violation and brutality, circles of sudden violence that shatters the illusion that what we have is normal and safe and perfect and that it offers us emotional and financial security (when it doesn’t). My intent as poet is both spoken and unspoken, for example, my identity is there in prodigious detail, epic myth, Rwandan genocide, international aid to African countries in need of it, and so my identity crawls, it blunders on complaining all the while, vulnerable and stubborn and clumsy introspection written all over it. So, when I describe my sense of identity I must also describe my sense of place, and entitlement, being born to educated parents; a father who was an intellectual, a mother who was an educationalist.

Konya Shamsrumi: If any of your poems could literarily save a person’s life, which poem would it be and can you describe the person whose life you think it would have saved?

Abigail George: Daughters and their fathers

    I brew tea, magic spells inside a

    pot while dad listens to Mozart.

    In Polaroid heaven, wet hair clings

    to my neck. I’m thinking of going

into therapy again in my late thirties.

    I circle the box of cold pizza.

    Put the kettle on again because it

    gives me something to do. Something

    to pass the time. The salt and

    brilliant light of the hours. I think

of the ghost of the day. The darkness

that night yields. The bird (a

    gull or swallow) as it coasts through

    the air. I stare at the fable of

    daughters and their fathers unfolding

    in front of me, forgetting (yes, yea,

    forgetting) that I am not black.

    Forgetting that racist comment

    made by someone like me. Think of

    the woven vision in the earthquake

    inside of me. I’m one of them and

perhaps so are you. One of those tragic

    creatures who can pass for white.

    And I think of my lover’s hands.

My lover’s sensitive hands. How shattered

    and wounded I felt in his presence,

when he didn’t say I love you back.

    He was the sun, moon and stars,

my scars

    and sorrows, my morning tonic.

Now he’s working in film. I remember

    how he took me coffee once, talking,

    talking, talking to New York people. I wonder if

    he still lives in Johannesburg. Maybe

    he’s married now. Maybe he’s happy.

    I want to be loved. I want those reading

    hands. I want the lion instinct of

mystery andmysticism. Solitude has

   even found a way into my bloodstream.

    The darkness came with my father.

So, did the bonemuseum. Museums

    and women. Men named Gus and Hugh.

    They taught me how to brave courage

and sky. Novemberlooks pale.

    I think of the brilliant dead. I think of

    the brilliant living. That dark

    light that dares to linger. I think ofnightfall.

    Mothers and daughters in orbit.

    Grief for my second mother. Grief for

    the woman that I’ve now become.

    The good one who stayed put to

    look after her elderly father. Who gave up

her life. She’sgot the tickets to

a lost countrybut nobody ever speaks of that.

This poem is for all the daughters who have to give up their lives and stay at home and look after an elderly parent. In the beginning I thought I was always missing out on something. Marriage and children, or having a boyfriend who would turn into this dream-husband, but then I remember the sacrifices that both my mother and father made for me, and over time I stopped thinking about what I was missing and accepted the life choice I made. Don’t get me wrong it can feel like a prison, bars at the window, no way of getting out, but I’ve had a happy childhood and a blessed life so far and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It has also made me into the writer and the poet that I am today. All of their love, their joy, their pain, their loneliness is my love, my joy, my pain, my loneliness. Sometimes being a poet makes me feel like an interloper but then I think I’m on fire when writing. I’m philosopher too. It’s ok if all the dreams you had as an adolescent don’t come true. You’ll learn to dream other dreams, build other goals, and love other people. You’ll become wise and realise you’re brave too in ways you never could have imagined. You’ll meet new people. Discover happiness, and your own truth.

Konya Shamsrumi: What does Africa mean to you, as potential or reality?

Abigail George: The spotlight is being turned on in Africa. We’re receiving worldwide attention. I try to think not of the bad, but only the greater good. We have so much good and there is just so much potential. Of course, there is both ‘the’ potential and ‘the’ reality. There is freedom but also war. There is choice but also refugees. Love is complex and the lives we are all living on the continent are complicated, but I am happy that I was born at this time. That I am writing for now. We are all linked to each to other through the fact that we are African. I still think that we are going to learn from all this racism and xenophobia decades from now. It is one of the most difficult lessons that I can’t even begin to fathom. This hater-type of stereotype has marked us all in so many ways. Where does it come from, why do we fail our brothers and sisters from other African countries, and I think more stories, more storytellers will begin to tell their stories in time. Apartheid still has a lot to answer for. It has affected all of us Africans either living on the continent or in exile. I think we’re going to make this potential of us work for us. Africa is in her Renaissance-period right now. Her artists have more than just the potential to create; it is becoming so basic now. The reality that I live by daily is the African Renaissance-reality (a term coined by ex-South African President Thabo Mbeki).

Reality or just the potential for reality does not exist anymore or even co-exist. The word ‘psyche’ is difficult for many to comprehend, for me too and the word ‘identity’ carries powerful images of declarations, the basic mandates that we live by daily. Then there is spirituality, it is what drives our communities, all of our communities across this continent whether we want to admit to that or not. Then there’s the burden of poverty seen night after night flashing on television screens all over the world. And the foundations of touching that pain that we have carried inside of all of us for the longest time has just impacted us so much. It has navigated us through colonialism and what our European fathers and mothers have left behind, guided us on this journey, every life decision and choice that we have made. It hasn’t completely lifted the hunger within us for education. The education empowers, uplifts. I’m a poet so when I think of potential I think often of transformation, creativity, imagination, transcendence, anticipatory nostalgia, and the things I write about the most in my own literary work. I write about love; falling in love, falling out of love, illness, despair and hardship, relationships, the dysfunctionality of family relationships and the bones of the difficult mother-and-daughter relationship, and the prized flesh of the beautiful. But most of all Africa means transcendence to me.

Konya Shamsrumi: Could you share with us one poem you’ve been most impressed or fascinated by? Tell us why and share favourite lines from it.

Abigail George: This poem takes me back to my awkward-skinny years of being a teenager in a Model C school. Over the years I have been most intrigued, impressed, fascinated by the Shakespearian sonnet: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’. Maybe the writer of colour within me began to write because of him. It kissed me in the same way the sea did. It forgave me in the same way my dad did. I just fell in love with this poem. I was 11-years-old or 12. It was a famous love poem, a sonnet by William Shakespeare. He was the first poet I ‘discovered’. It was about love, and that most powerful, powerful aphrodisiac to the system,acceptance. Acceptance of what you look like. I didn’t feel beautiful. Even at 11 I already knew I was different and that my hair made me different, and that the colour of my skin made me different. My dad always used to tell me that I looked as beautiful as Angela Davis. I never knew what she looked like or understood what my father was trying to tell me about my ‘blackness’, mysterious-hair that I wanted to be so, so straight and curls that I wanted to behave but never did.

When I saw a picture of Angela Davis, so Black, and proud and fierce, part of the woman’s movement, a staunch and defiant feminist, as an adult, I finally understood what my father was trying to tell me. And when I saw Michelle Obama being photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, I finally began to feel little by little beautiful and cool for perhaps the first time in my life. It was OK to have hair that you could sometimes pullback into a ponytail and wear drawstring sweatpants even on a weekday if you wanted to. There’s also the divine, the education of form and shape, style and technique of writing behind the images of the words. To me, there’s also the philosophy of love in this sonnet (trans-formative, and transcendent), and the psychology of love in the poem. There’s the promise of love in the poem. It starts out ‘with the marriage of two minds’ and ends with ‘If this be error, and upon me proved,’ and ‘I never writ, nor no man ever loved.’ There are other lines as well.

‘Which alters when it alteration finds,’ It was the love I wanted. Eternal, unconditional, that would never change if something as big a game-changer like illness happened to you. I saw love around me with my own eyes. I saw the great miracle of my parents’ love affair. Whatever my mother endured, I told myself I could endure too. How wrong I was in the end, but the poem gives me a great comfort. I understand now more than ever what Shakespeare meant. I always thought that love was some dream. That it was meant for other people, not for me.

‘Or bends with the remover to remove.’ Instead of now looking for the love of my life, I have more understanding for the relationships in my family. I have the love of a daughter who is now a caregiver. Anything can happen to my dad and I am there to see to his needs. Nothing that happens is too much to handle. And I can deal with it. Nothing can remove the love and respect and admiration I have for my father. Love is just a rehearsal towards self-acceptance, and understanding your own self-worth and your own identity and psyche.

‘Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.’ Doom to me never meantdeath, it meant depression, and all I wanted then as this love-struck teenagerwas someone to accept the manic depression, was someone to accept me for me.Who didn’t want or expect me to change for them. The climb is gone. The climbtowards beauty and attraction, and now I realise that everyone is looking forlove, but it has to first begin within with a kind of self-love andunderstanding.

Pushcart Prize nominated for her fiction “Wash Away My Sins”, Abigail George is an Eastern Cape-based South African blogger at Goodreads, essayist, playwright, poet, and grant, novella and short story writer. Her writing has appeared numerous times in print in South Africa, in various anthologies and online in e-zines based across Africa, Australia, Asia, Canada, Europe, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. She is the author of eight books, including essays, life writing, memoir pieces, novellas, poetry and a self-published story collection. She briefly studied film at the Newtown Film and Television School in Johannesburg.

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