The landing outside Karin Schimke’s compact (and rather covetable) flat in Vredehoek, Cape Town, is a dead giveaway. It happily, and cosily, shrieks: “Book Person Living Here!” Books of all shapes and sizes spill out of the two wooden bookshelves. I am eyeing them enviously when she opens her front door. Yes, they’re hers, she laughs. “I didn’t have space for all my books inside the flat so these live out here!”
To describe her only as a book person is inadequate, though. She’s so much more than that: woman, mother, partner, writer, editor, translator, journalist, book critic … She is also a talented, award-winning and passionate poet whose second volume, Navigate, published by Modjaji Books, is being launched this week. It’s an exciting time.
Since meeting in The Argus newsroom as junior reporters in the early 1990s, our lives have often criss-crossed. For a while after our respective careers took us on different paths, she worked with my husband in newspapers, returning to The Cape Times as a political reporter and then the Books Editor. And at a different time, I worked with her (now former) husband in magazines as group editorial director at Highbury Safika Media. Such is the journalism life.
Now when we meet, we never seem to have enough time to talk about all the things we have in common, our interests, our children (our firstborns, Kate and Oliver, recently matriculated, both with flying colours … #ProudMoms), motherhood, writing, journalism, reading, mutual friends. It’s an endless list. Topping it this time is her life as a poet – and the birth of Navigate.
Poetry, she says, has always been part of her life. In fact, she writes poetry incessantly. It’s in her all the time. In 2014, her passion for this writing form was rewarded when her debut anthology, Bare & Breaking, won the prestigious Ingrid Jonker prize. The poems are impressive. They tell of pleasure and pain. They read beautifully.
The collection was described by the judges as “unapologetically erotic and intimate”. They praised her craft for its elegance, precision and robust aesthetic.
Here, she talks (her delivery is fast and funny) about her life, writing poetry and how Navigate came into being.
On being bitten by the poetry bug: I have always written poetry, even when I was young. Then I became a journalist. When I started working at Newspaper House in Cape Town, I felt I had come home. I loved the madness, the wildness, the discipline. Journalism engendered a work ethic in me which has shaped me. I feel like I live my life according to good journalism ethics. Working hard, becoming resilient, hardy, standing up for principles …. all these things have shaped the professional person I have become. Journalism also shaped my writing: You have to quick and succinct. Poetry is the most succinct form of writing, even though it is also nuanced and subtle.
You mentioned a poetry manifesto? Yes! I am a busy single mother so I have to make time for poetry. How do I write poetry? Well, the initial poem comes very quickly, when I am driving or walking or just being … two words will come to me or I will wake up with something in my head. I do free writing and then I leave it. Now here’s my poetry manifesto: you have to finish your shit. So the initial poem comes quickly but then the real work begins! It takes much longer for the final poem to emerge, to be carefully honed.
On Bare & Breaking: It was exciting putting my first volume together. It was born of that wonderfully useful state: pyn en leiding (pain and suffering). I was going through a very hard time, possibly the worst time in my life, around 2008, and 2009 and 2010 were intense years. I would run, cry and write poetry.
Tell us about Navigate: With Navigate I had to be more considered. One of the things I have been struggling with since Bare & Breaking was published is the state of the world and how that affects the duties of a poet. Can you write about something personal when the world is burning? Does your poetry have to be overtly political? I felt the poems I was writing were not good, so in 2015 I stopped. I was stuck. Then after a while I decided to get going again, and so I started writing poetry every day.
I was looking at themes of belonging and unbelonging: Who am I? Where do I belong? The notion of home. I contemplated the many ways someone belongs.
So the poems in the opening section explore this aspect of home, your rights, your duties. The second section is about change and revolution and is highly political – although people might actually miss it! The final section is about change, about people you love, the feeling of being moved by people. So it’s about passage. These things are all entwined in the 34 poems … I had the most fantastic editor, Kobus Moolman, who was subtle, cautious but very supportive. All in all there were four edits and we chucked out 19 poems without giving them another glance.
On the merits of reading poetry (aloud): I read poetry all the time. And I have recently discovered the New York Times poetry podcasts. Billy Collins is wonderful fun. I also love reading poetry aloud. I am lucky because my partner, who is an architect, is also a poet. I read to him in bed … Elizabeth Bishop, Rita Dove! [In an interview with Litnet she revealed their conversations “often spur me to poetry – or a poetic way of thinking. It feels like a form of play; we toss words and thoughts across the net of our different selves”.] I have a big collection of poetry, [she has 459 volumes of poetry alone and says she’s not sure how that came about] most of them Afrikaans volumes followed by English South African poets. Then there is a sprinkling of German and Dutch and international English poets and about 23 anthologies.
Can you recite any poems by heart? Yes! The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I love the musicality of T.S Eliot. And poems by Robert Hayden … and of course, Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. I always end up doing it for my children. I learnt it for them when they were small.
I really think that learning poetry by heart is a wonderful thing. I learn and recite old poems. You give someone a gift when you recite a poem for them …
At our family Christmas evenings, someone will sing or recite poetry. My daughter, Julia, writes her own music, too, and it does something to the relations in the room, this kind of creating and sharing.
Which poets do you return to time and again? I have loved the poetry of Antjie Krog since I was at school. I admire what she does with language, and the variety of subjects she covers. The volume that turned me towards her poetry was Otters in Bronslaai. It is about early motherhood, and it blew my mind, long before I had my own children. It prepared me for motherhood in a way. I also admire many other South African poets including Sheila Cussons, Thabo Jijana, Mzi Mahola, Finuala Dowling, Fourie Botha, Jolyn Phillips … and I read international poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Ellen Bass, Robert Hayden, Sharon Olds, Nick Laird …
Poetry, however, doesn’t pay the bills. Does this make you sad? Well, writing poetry is not something that you do if you’re very ambitious! And yes, it makes me sad that it doesn’t get enough attention.
A lot of people write poetry … but not a lot of people read it.
I have also been so disillusioned by the fact that journalism as we know it is dying. I could not make a living as a single parent through my journalism. I went through a grieving process and it made me very bitter. I realised I had to change the way I work and now I am mainly an editor – I edit novels – and I am a translator, from English to Afrikaans, and English to German. [Karin’s skillful translation of Flame in the Snow: The love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker into Afrikaans won her the South African Literary Award (SALA) prize for literary translation in 2016.] I also assess manuscripts for publication, and give poetry workshops, mainly for literary festivals. And I still write a little … I miss it a lot.
Thank you so much, Karin! I am so inspired by your poems, and your passion. I loved this poem from the collection:
The first time we went for a walk
We walked all the way to the beach
along the sand into some sort of
cosmological crack where we met
back then before the beginning
and the ends of things and collected milk,
plucked it, fruit-finds, held in the webs
between our fingers, and older things
and things untold and younger,
and then back again to a wooden deck
where a wind rustled and you dusted
sea sand from my toes.
My feet were at home in your lap.
WIN A COPY OF NAVIGATE!
I have one copy of Navigate to give away! To stand a chance of winning it, please leave your name and email address in the comment section below. I would also be grateful if you like Sharon & Co‘s Facebook page. But that’s just an added bonus.
This competition is now closed! The winner is RONEL SHEFFER from Cape Town. Well done, Ronel!