Sumangala Damodaran, author of The Radical Impulse, speaks candidly with her friend Ari Sitas (with whom she has collaborated on a number of musical and academic projects) about his latest collection of poems, The Vespa Diaries published by SAHO Cape Town in late 2018.  

The last poetry book of yours with South African subject matter was RDP Poems- that was in 2004, your next venture had you travelling through India with your 80 Days Around the World-the India Section. Are the Diaries now a mixture between your critical engagement with South Africa and the sense of restless travel that had you lurching through my country from Bombay to Kolkatta?

I don’t know. India was a journey through the unknown, trying to make sense of my overwhelming experience of the place. Here on my Vespa I am travelling through landscapes I have known. I see the book as a tribute to people who are usually seen as a sideshow to the big events of our country. But what I found was that there was a tragic undertow everywhere- a vague tragedy without a script, I tried to create snippets, vignettes out of their everyday rituals…  When my friend Bosman finds in Hoopberg something that might or might not have been the remains of his sweet Rosemary: “I found what looks like a breastbone/where her breasts were supposed to be/and found nothing else nothing that my life needed to see”.  Was Rosemary murdered, or not? We will never know. There is a hint that she might be alive. I try and listen to people carefully and I try to record the tone of their voices and provide hints of their immediate poetic or unpoetic passions and stories. They are l hope well-crafted figurines of clay, they remain with the reader within a cruel landscape and a cruel bigger story that defies them. They are the unimportant people for our media and press and yet, they do matter; at least I strongly believe that they do matter. They are hopefully, intense and impressionist vignettes: and the vignettes pop up in each place to give some dignity to people and subvert common-sense: from Kroonsdadt where an accordion player plays as if he was ordained by the gods, “my he did kroon”! – to the more mainstream jazzist and socialist crowd of Durban and its lore where, “from Johnny Dyani to Commandante Hani/an era ends/ since then it is Money/money, money”.

 I even make the point that the parts are greater than the whole!

Why did you choose a conceit that borders on a joke to make such a serious journey? Is it about your constant sending-up of yourself as a source of insight? Tropical Scars is full of self-irony, sections of your reputedly best book, Slave Trades has doses of self-irony and most definitely playing the post-colonial Phileas Fogg in 80 Days is (excuse the formulation) a serious case in point! And a related question, we can understand you as a modern Don Quixote setting out to rediscover your country but who is your Sancho?

I return un-triumphantly quite alone where I had started, in Cape Town where I declare that I had “prophesised crops” but that he at the end of the journey, “I harvested them alone”.

There is one who rides with me for a while, Etheldreda, a sassy Zimbabwean “foreigner” but even she gives up because my quest is useless and it is it does not have even any obvious use-value; there is another by Klerksdorp who wants to, but I refuse because I am more concerned with carrying a shroud. I carry with me prior poets who animated the landscapes I visited. My pages teem with their references and allusions that haunt each space with prior harvests. There are fascinating women and men creeping in and through the text. In Klerksdorp there is nurse Thembeka in Durban there is this young woman whom he cannot assist to die, even if she is to die of AIDS. It is a bizarre and cruel setting where she pleads as you know, “if you love me you will put the pillow to my face. Tight”. There is Fugard’s Lena still waiting for the proverbial klap in her dream. I hint that there might be a Penelope waiting for my return.

It is the sketchbook of a private journey. Perhaps you are pointing to the book’s core weakness. There is another weakness, that my friend Barbie Schreiner pointed out- my poetic universe of allusions short-change the women poets of the country as I tend to constantly keep the company of men… As for the choice of a Vespa on this long journey of discovery/rediscovery… it is about giving the journey a humorous undertow marked by a little bravado- not quite Che not quite Easy Rider and not a rickety old Putco Bus but a bad copy of the elegant Italian Paggio from India. It still takes me places. It carries me through the Karoo but the imagery makes it disappear because no matter what I ride, Vespa or Rozinante, there are indeed flowers everywhere before “the fierce sun bakes the crust to crust/before the crust gets pockmarked/before the poor/bite off chunks/right off its beauty.”

Here is the nub though: you are celebrated and chastised for being an engaged poet. A reader of this text will be hard-pressed to sum up your politics. I think and many of us think we know your politics and how you view the relationship between politics and art. But in this text, there is a deep gloom throwing a blanket over your country, where is the hope, the alternative?

Has humanity really died at Marikana? Is that what you are alluding to?

I know that my friend Dennis Hirson does not like that line at all. Of course, I do not think that humanity as such has died but at the moment when we were trying to cope with the overwhelming experience of that murderous day, it sounded right.  And so, did the line sound right: that the dead must return to work now that the strike is over.

Then there are my self-confessed Whitmanesque lines: “I am there carting a corpse unsure about the proper placing of the grave/as we roar along eating up landscape /the journey’s bike, a constant pall-bearer of a dream/dragging its shroud - village to city, from avenue to highway and back/through unforgiving seasons, and the deep fog descending on this land”. It doesn’t help that “I gift it flowers!” Not convincing enough: burials are all about flowers!

I think I am being honest despite my use of hyperbolic imagery. I am speaking with some emotion about “this land”. Towards the end of the collection in “And what have you seen my son”, I only offer a side-view but a view alright: Neither by air nor satellite/No panorama/I only bring a side view of this land:/The whole country a big hole/Dug up, prospected, auctioned/Stretching out from Colesberg Koppie to the furthest north/Emptied of guts, sinew, coal and pig iron/So deep a hole that it has lifted up high a new Escarpment/with canyons and granulated slates of reddest rock/And you can’t see the Low of the new Lowveld/So low that only a Bangee Jump from Saxonwold would do”. At that stage I did not know about Saxonwold’s shebeens.

You must understand that the image of the miner, Noki, in a green shroud endures and what endure too are the “green blankets of our shrouded dreams” but there are deeper dreams too that speak of beauty in and through this landscape…In the same poem I struggle to express it but it comes out like this: “a rock art without paintings/Granite boulders, strange rocks squeezing-in a sandy beach/Freed of sugar-cane hugging a brilliant dolphin”. You may say still, “but.. where are the people?” No, I yearn for people. In “Chimes of Freedom” I say this: “And now that Iscor Mittal has stopped extruding the 2-inch bars and the handcuffs have moved from auction to pawnshop to scrap, and the sun has returned to the soul of each tentative flower, I will find my arms once again by the woodpiles my arms cracked like dead branches off my trunk and place them back and offer my wrists to my friends to be held, to be danced”.

Is my vision dystopian? Do I side with the women and the babies in the “Tshwane Nightmare” who are refusing to give birth and the babies in conspiracy refusing to be born because this world, Mzansi is the hell-hole we have made of it, that is my message, isn’t it? All the people I describe are caught in a space of diminishing dreams? Do I also not say, “that the little ontic energies/I describe with untold difficulty /are remnants of a catastrophe that happened/and of many catastrophes to come/what the bow and arrow missed/the drone will tidy up…”?

Yet, I do assert though that soon, sooner, soonest this land is free. My very recoil is resistance, so we resist.