Short review by Janet van Eeden
Talking to a Tree is a beautifully produced hard-cover book filled with pensive poems about the human condition as well as poignant thoughts about what being human actually means. Some of the poems are more political allegory than pure verse, but their impact comes through in the depth of thought behind each creation. AE Ballakisten is one of those rare souls who perceives the world as it is with all its flaws and does whatever is in his power to change it. He uses well-chosen words and a natural gift for storytelling in this collection to create short narratives about issues which are familiar to us all. Dispossession, disempowerment, disillusion with the world and the mindlessness of war are all within this poet’s compass.
While some might say that the verse is simplistic, those who discern the simple ingenuity in what the poet strives to achieve with each poem will recognise their beauty. The parables in the Bible were apparently simple too, yet the depth of their messages remains profound centuries later. This is also one of those rare volumes where the depth of meaning of each poem is enhanced by the reader’s own perceptions. The poem reads the reader, which is the hallmark of true art.
This is a volume I’ll cherish, as the poet’s comments about war and the inhumanity of political ideology and greed make more sense to me than much of what I read today. I’d urge you, readers of LitNet, not only to read the whole interview with the poet below, which is fascinating, but also to purchase a copy of Talking to a Tree. It’s a volume of simple but profound beauty and is worth revisiting often.
Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about your work, AE. I became aware of your work only recently when I discovered Talking to a Tree. You sent this book to me after reading about my film of my brother which exposes a cruel injustice which caused his death in forced conscription in the SADF. Your inscription on the flyleaf said that we should remain “just like a tree … unmoved … in truth” and I was deeply honoured by that. Please could you tell me, and the readers of LitNet, what drives you to have such a profound instinct to expose injustice in all its guises?
My personal mission is “to inspire through my words and deeds, and to enable others to thrive”. It is my hope that my poetry inspires and challenges readers just as I hope that my pursuit of the simple life and my encouragement of people’s dreams inspire those I touch. I seek not just to expose injustice, but to give of myself to help people lift themselves out of those situations. This has been a long journey for me. The part of this journey where I currently stand requires that I start up NGOs as I have, requires me to support others and requires me to dream big about what humanity can rise to. I quit an extremely successful international business career to direct my life towards these goals, so I do it with purpose and meaning.
The poem “After Freedom” offers some insight into my motivation – it describes four freed slaves and what they choose to do with their new freedom. Three of the slaves satisfy their own needs while the fourth returns to free all remaining slaves. We all have known and overcome injustices of different kinds. For me, having known injustice under apartheid and suffering deeply, I have made this choice, not merely to celebrate my own freedom but to seek the freedom from injustice for others, no matter who they are and no matter the injustice. There are many who seem to forget their suffering and injustice and who don’t seem to recognise the suffering of others. I want a freedom where we all can celebrate freedom, not the selective elitist freedom we have in the world today; and to achieve this I know that I have to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
Have you been a writer all your life? What made you decide to write under a pseudonym? How has that changed the public perception of you, if at all?
I’ve kept a diary from the age of fifteen and have been writing poetry since the age of eighteen. I’ve endured an enormous tug of war since my teens – I excelled at maths and science and so was guided to pursue studies and a career where these were valued. I completed degrees in engineering, finance and business at Wits, London Business and MIT. I am a strategy advisor to the financial services sector – I have advised many global firms and many of the CEOs of SA’s top firms. I have served on over 20 boards of companies and investment firms and I lecture in finance and strategy at Wits and UCT. And I’m on my way to Harvard this year to complete an advanced degree in strategy and public policy. But I also have a deep passion for poetry. All through my years of working in finance and strategy in New York, London and Boston, I wrote poetry. So yes, I have always been a writer but I’ve had to live with a tension of satisfying these two gifts and passions.
It is these two “worlds” that I occupy that has led me to write under a pseudonym. The pseudonym offers me a mask behind which I can write in an uncensored way, which is so important as a poet. I try to make this mask as transparent as possible though.
I think the pseudonym is particularly valuable in my business and academic dealings. I believe that my clients, colleagues, students, etc. make a very clear distinction between Athol and AE. I think many CEOs would struggle to accept that they are making major decisions based on the strategic advice of a poet. I would argue that we need more poets in our country’s boardrooms and in government chambers, where greater creativity, vision and passion can be injected into the otherwise sterile and uninspired environments.
In your intriguing poem “Shredders” you refer to a shed where:
At the end of the room, gigantic heaps of books and documents
(bibles, korans, toras and constitutions of warring nations)
at the other end, a little mound of
thin stringy strips of paper. “For every death,
we shred a book and a constitution,” explained the foreman,
a condemned frail man
with a ten thousand year old face
and wintry eyes …
Can you explain to me what exactly these lines mean? I thought at first that the death of each person is like the loss of a book, or a mine of information. Then I rethought this because of the fact that the books being shredded are generally quite dogmatic. What exactly are you saying in this poem?
There are two dramas here which intersect briefly: a soldier in active duty who has a brief moment of conscience and an old protester for peace. The old foreman has a “ten thousand year old face” – a reference to estimates of the age of modern civilisation. He has been protesting peacefully for as long as modern man has lived because history shows us that we have always been killing one another, as described vividly in the poem “Uncle John”. The documents referred to have always been the fundamental reference points from which violence and vast human suffering has been justified; they define good and evil and encourage the elimination of “evil”; they define ally and enemy and encourage the annihilation of “enemy”. So much injustice and suffering stems from actions inspired by these documents; there are so many conflicts today where warring parties each hold a different book in their hands, and so this becomes the “battle of the book” and purported fights for good. The second drama is the young soldier who for a moment allows his humanity to overcome his training, but then caves, and returns to killing, inspired by one of the documents.
I also like the idea of the tangible nature of the protest in the poem. Once we bury our victims we seem to forget about them; having mountains of shredded “holy” books and “peace-loving” constitutions allows us to see the profound scale of our human destruction.
In the poem “The Gentle Art of Terrorism” you use a children’s cartoon to expose the plan behind countries accusing one another of terrorist activities to get what they want. It’s a clever conceit to get across a message about the tactics of the USA and their invasion of Iraq, for one example. By creating a child-like scenario for the setting of the poem, do you mean to say that people are fed this sort of propaganda from the cradle? (I agree, by the way, if so.)
The poem most certainly talks about manipulation of public opinion to further a political goal, but as you suggest, it also alludes to the subtle manipulation that we all suffer from very early ages. Any manipulator knows that power must be hidden, it must be couched. The most successful terrorist knows that he must be perceived as the “good guy”. The most powerful medium of propaganda is what we call “entertainment”, especially movies and television shows. Where else do gender stereotypes come from and beliefs about who the good guys and the bad guys are, and what is just reward for being good and righteous punishment for being bad? News media play a big part, but the material that we feed ourselves and our children does far more harm. We subconsciously define a truth-teller as someone who looks like us or who looks and dresses in a certain way. This is tragic. The moment someone doesn’t fit this description, no matter what they say, we will assume that it is a lie. In its title, the poem describes terrorism as a “gentle art”. Gentle and an art … any political or military strategist knows this. As a poet, I believe that it is my job to shine a light on such issues. In general, the role of the poet is to hold up a mirror to mankind, to reflect back to us our beliefs and actions. In Talking to a Tree I do this and ask, “Is this really how we want to live?” It would be my hope that readers answer a resounding “no” and then do something about it. Am I a social and political activist? you ask. Absolutely!
In “The Law of the Savage” you describe a fictional tale of an extremely strong man who “struts with brilliant arrogance” until an even stronger man comes along and takes him out. He too struts the world until a horde of neglected and hungry savages comes along and destroys even this powerful man. The poem seems to be a rather sad indictment of human nature, that the neglected will turn to violence and destroy whatever seems to be in their way of satisfaction. “Marx’s Lions” seems to reflect a similar point of view. Is this an accurate assessment of your poems? And is this an accurate assessment of your worldview?
History shows us that the human spirit will tolerate only a limited amount of torment and then it will seek to liberate itself. Our world is dominated by suffering and oppression on an astounding scale. Of course people will rise up. It is happening daily around the world and it will continue to happen. The neglected will not behave by “normal” rules, so they will appear as savages.
This is also a statement about the triviality of the concerns of the wealthy and powerful – it can all be taken away in one swipe. In revolutions those in power were often bantering among themselves and did not even recognise the proletariat as a threat until it was too late. We debate poverty and discuss conflict and torture and suffering because we have the luxury to discuss these, while real mothers and fathers and children suffer and die every day. We are worried about job promotions and cosmetic surgery and fashion shows when all around us, in South Africa, Africa and globally, people are having their dignity dissolved. The savages may be the neglected, but the savages may also be a metaphor for the supernatural force that will mete out justice.
Your poems aren’t light and fluffy, nor do they deal with romantic illusions or allusions in any way that I can see. I would say that your poems, in part one especially, are more like political allegory than anything else. Is this a result of your idealistic nature and the reason you dedicate this volume to Nelson Mandela, who is one of the few statesmen who has proved that politics is more about compassionate humanity than scoring political points?
My broader body of work has a wider range than what is presented in this book. However, it always shines a light on the human condition. This means that my poetry celebrates the beauty and joys of our humanity as well as lamenting the ugliness. Talking to a Tree focuses mainly on the latter. I didn’t go looking for these poems, they found me, and as the scribe of the spirit, which all poets are, I wrote them.
I believe deeply that mankind has the solution for every one of our ills. We know it, because the solutions are all extremely obvious – we just lack the will to act. I’m not an idealist in the sense of being a feathery dreamer. I do dream. I dream great dreams for mankind, but I am an active dreamer, since I use my voice and my hands through poetry and other deeds to bring those dreams as close to fruition as I can. We need more dreamers. Nelson Mandela is an active dreamer. He had great dreams for the people of South Africa and was willing to act on his dreams. I dedicate the book to him in the hope that his magic can live on and multiply. Mandela taught us that all people are one people and he taught us about forgiveness by foregoing any right to revenge in the name of justice. Lack of forgiveness and greed – these are the two forces that are eroding our humanity in South Africa and globally.
In the second section you deal with more personal aspects of loss and violation and the depravity of the world. I’ve always said that any person with intelligence has to be depressed by the state of the world – only ignorance can allow bliss. Is there any reason why your disillusionment with the world is so strong?
I agree that only ignorance can allow bliss. Most of us prefer to avoid the ugliness that we ourselves have created and perpetuate actively in some cases and through our apathy in others. A sick society creates sick people, so when we look around at the daily horrors that we experience, instead of shaking our heads in self-righteous disgust we need to realise that we, the everyday ordinary citizens, who are taking more than we need, who think we deserve all that we have, are perpetuating a society that creates the ugliness that we see. I am not disillusioned with the world. I have a strong belief that our fragile world can be strengthened. However, we have seriously lost our way. We thrive on self-interest, greed, competition, aggression, intolerance. These are fed to us in every aspect of our lives, and we feed this to our children. What we need is a new consciousness that we will reach our desires of peace and sustainability only when we live as one humanity in harmony with our living planet. This consciousness is rising and I will continue to use my pen and my small voice to chant this truth.
You mentioned you are going to Harvard during this coming year. Could you tell us how this came about and how your poetry played a role in this wonderful opportunity for you?
Harvard has a degree which attracts senior politicians and development professionals from around the world. I have been privileged to be admitted to this programme. The degree will give me an opportunity to develop my ideas around bringing about tangible social and political change. If my poetry expresses my fears and my dreams for humanity, my time at Harvard will help me develop plans to allay the fears and capture the dreams. I enjoy being surrounded by intelligent people who generate powerful ideas and then get on and make things happen, so I am also going to Harvard to be inspired. While the degree is not explicitly linked to my poetry, it is my journey of discovery, my pursuit of truth and understanding through my poetry that has led me to want to explore this opportunity.
I’m going to quote from your poem in the third section called “World Peace”:
If I draw a circle
and you draw a circle
then I am “us”
and you are “them”
and so we use all our strength and skill
and ingenuity and resources
to kill each other.
If I draw a circle
around both of us,
then we are brothers
and there is only “us”.
I think this is your most inspiring poem and if we implemented this simple way of thinking, war and violence against others would be impossible. How did this poem come to you?
This poem was inspired by my reading of work of Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, who talks about the politics of identity. Pause for a second to consider the conflicts we’ve experienced in our lifetime. Other than driven by greed, these inevitably occur along some dividing line, whether it is race, nationality, religion, language or even ridiculous things like supporting a different football team. I am not seeking to do away with difference. That would be foolish. I’m commenting on how much weight we place on difference, and how difference is often used as the justification for conflict. I find great personal peace in the practise of seeing people as people, not as Muslim or Christian, white or black, capitalist or communist. It is a practice. It doesn’t come easily, because I, too, have been programmed to believe that some are automatically good and others automatically bad based on my classification of them. Desmond Tutu said that all of our humanity is dependent on recognising the humanity in others. This is what the poem talks to and it talks directly to the powerful bonds we feel towards family. In very simple terms, if we saw everyone as family, we certainly would not be causing anyone to suffer the way we currently do.
What is next on the cards for you, AE? Do you have another book on the way or will the trip to Harvard take up most of this year for you?
I am collaborating with the acclaimed composer and conductor Michael Hankinson to produce an oratorio which captures the core message of Talking to a Tree. I will write the libretto and he will compose the music. I am also working on another book which picks up on part three of Talking to a Tree. It will paint further images of what humanity can be. It will talk about hope and meaning, simplicity and sincerity. My year at Harvard will no doubt give birth to many poems. I’m keen to see what shape that poetry will take.
If you could hope for one thought to stay with readers after they have read your collection, what would that be?
WH Auden described his objective in crafting a poem as wanting a reader to say, “I knew that all along; I just didn’t look at it that way” after reading a poem. I’d like readers to have this reaction when they read my poetry because I think I’ve said things that we all know deep down, we just might not have thought of it in the way that I have presented it. I’d like readers to begin to look at the world around them more critically and to actively separate lies from the truth. I hope they will say, “No, this is not how I want to live” and then do something about it.