Janet van Eeden chats to Colleen Higgs about her Lava Lamp Poems

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Title: Lava Lamp Poems
Author: Colleen Higgs
Publisher: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 9781920397258

Review by Janet van Eeden

Reading Lava Lamp Poems left me feeling as if I’d just spent a few hours with a very good friend. This sense of what I can only describe as comfortable satisfaction comes from reading about familiar places: like Yeoville in the eighties and early nineties; familiar times, like the day of the first democratic elections in our country; familiar emotions such as the complexities of motherhood and dealing with death and aging parents; all shot through with the unique perspective of a sensitive and noble woman striving to live as meaningful a life as possible.

Lava Lamp Poems is a delight. Higgs uses the language of her world to create images of familiarity, yes, but pairs these with an almost spiritual awareness of the importance of life and its rituals as we live it.

Higgs uses words eloquently to describe the wellspring of emotions arising from her experiences as a child, as a young adult, as a mother and as a woman. As a writer, her responses are triggered by the slightest event and give rise to perceptions which may escape the masses. From “flying off the handle”:

I’m tethered very lightly, if at all
a horse who only thinks she’s tied,
but every time she starts or gets a fright,
she finds in fact that she is no longer near the handle at all

I’m easily startled, flustered, worried or disturbed
not manageable even to myself,
like a dog who is not quite tame,
I snarl, lose my patience,
sometimes I feel I could even slap strangers,
for no apparent reason.

This poem describes the poet’s ability to see the skull beneath the skin in ordinary events and her duty to give voice to the depth of each moment. It is something she is born with and she has no alternative other than to be honest to her true nature.

In “blaming Lulu”, for example, her child’s thoughtless comments to an old doll give Higgs pause. Does apparently harmless play portend her future role as a mother, the bearer of all the blame?

… her 45 year old inherited doll. Lulu is always the one to blame, she drops and spills and breaks things, she is badly behaved and angry and has mumps and no friends and is left to sleep outside or in the garage as punishment. Poor Lulu, I’m always thinking. I identify with Lulu, she is my old doll, her hair has been badly cut, she has koki scribbles on her body and dirty marks on her face from countless plasters. She is the culprit, the evil one, the bad, hard-hearted girl. She is feral and forgotten, deeply and impossibly loved, even though she is scarred and unfortunate looking. Her limbs and head can be pulled off and put back again.

Lava Lamp Poems is a rich anthology which brings with it the warmth of thick vegetable soup on a cold day, the clarity of a sea breeze on a humid afternoon, and is as comforting as the outline of Table Mountain after a long overseas visit.

Photo by Liesl Jobson from BOOK SA


Q&A with Colleen Higgs

Colleen, you are well known as a publisher, for the wonderful work you do for women writers with your imprint of Modjaji Books. You have also written poetry for many years. Do you see yourself as a publisher first or as a poet first? And is there a conflict of interests between the two?

Thank you for that, Janet. I don’t think in those terms – poet or publisher. The only time I think about how to describe myself is when I write a bio or if someone asks me what I do. I guess the only time I feel as though I’m a poet is when I’m reading a poem to an audience. And sometimes because I am labelled a poet, like in the poem “The Mount Nelson Hotel, 2006” – I found myself in that particular place because I was invited as a poet. However, all I did was eat breakfast and meet some charming elderly women. Perhaps the “being a poet” came later when I wrote about the experience. “Being a poet” is not a self-definition that is straightforward to inhabit.

Publishing, on the other hand, is a job. It is work that is challenging and draws on creativity, judgement, planning, juggling. I like saying “a publisher” when asked what work I do. It feels much closer to my sense of who I am and who I want to be than many of my previous jobs did, where the answer would have been “teacher”, “trainer”, “academic development consultant”, “materials writer”, “librarian”, and so on.

I think that as a writer I bring a perspective to my publishing work that is useful, particularly for a small niche publisher such as Modjaji Books is. I probably wouldn’t have found my way into publishing other than through writing, and understanding how difficult it can be to get one’s work published, what is required from writers. In my work at the Centre for the Book I spent many years grappling with how publishing works here, and I still learn new things every day. I had never worked in publishing until I started my own company. I’ve learnt it all by doing it, asking lots of questions and making many mistakes.

The only conflict of interest is time – I have become extremely busy. I work from home and at times it can be difficult for me to separate the two, and I have to be careful not to allow my work to take over my life. I love my work, and feel that it is perfect for me, and it is part of my life, but I do also have a family and friends and I also need time out and time for myself, and for my writing.

Your poems in the first section have the feel of a memoir of sorts. Did you write them as such, as a sort of collection of impressions and recollections of earlier years? Did the subject matter dictate the form of these poems at all, as they feel like gentler versions of formal poems, with a more relaxed narrative feel to them?

All the poems come from what I have experienced or observed. I imagine the label “confessional poet” is one that would be applicable to me.

Perhaps formally I might be a prose poet, or a prose writer that is interested in poetry, using words and images playfully, trying to get at the heart of an experience, and to put that into words.

Also, the impetus for me to write came as a way of attempting to make sense of my life, of where I found myself. Writing has been a way of talking to myself, allowing the one who sees and feels to explain all of this to the “wiser one”, the deepest self who then reflects back to the writer.

I use a combination of intuition and formal skills in my writing. For example, choosing the title of the collection, Lava Lamp Poems, was an intuitive choice. It comes from the poem “Everything in our House”, which I first called “Lava Lamp”. Now I can see how rich the image of the lava lamp is. It is an object, but there is the association with lava – volcanoes, rage, simmering subterranean intense heat. And the actual lava lamp when lit and looked at in the dark becomes something like clouds can be when you lie on the grass on your back on a summer’s day and look up at clouds and see different creatures or a fire. It’s a way of allowing your imagination a chance to play. Doing that with a child is wonderful. I hope that my poems, at least some of them work, in that way for the reader, that they stimulate her own imagination and memories, and act as a small space where they can play, however briefly. The formal skills come in honing, cutting away extraneous ideas and finding the best word. Here I am helped by various friends, like Colleen Crawford Cousins, Robert Berold and in the case of this collection, Finuala Dowling, whose Saturday afternoon poetry classes I have been fortunate to participate in. Beverly Rycroft also listened to and read some of the poems and gave me her response. Reading the poems out loud at places like Off the Wall, and during the Writers’ Retreat I went to in Uganda a couple of years ago also help me to hear the poems. The writing of the poems is for me, but if they are going to be published then they have to be right for the reader too. Reading aloud to others is a wonderful way of hearing your work yourself, even if the others say nothing. You can hear how they are receiving the poem, and this is invaluable.

I loved the poem on wanting a washing machine”:

She remembers an earlier self, one who vowed never to have a washing machine, or other appliances that were the trappings of late 20th century capitalism. What could she have been thinking of, poor girl? Doing her washing by hand, sitting for hours in a Laundromat, having her mother’s household take care of it? What?

I think this poem strikes so many chords with women of our generation who saw a rare chance to escape the bonds of matrimony and mundanity to which our own mothers succumbed. As a young girl I also had the same desire never to be married or be attached to bourgeois things such as washing machines. So much changes when you have to wash loads of baby things day after day, doesn’t it? Have you made peace with your younger self, who didn’t want the washing machines and accoutrements of settled life, or does that younger self still burst out and rail against these trappings at times? Have we indeed moved on from the way the majority of our mothers lived – in servitude of others? Or do you, as do I, still find it hard to say “No” to the demands of others?

Yes, we have moved, and yet there is much that as a woman I find I still have to struggle against, mostly in myself. It is easy to be the one who will do the washing up, remember that coffee, cereal and toilet paper have to be bought, the animals have to be treated with tick and flea medicine and so on. Or if I find that I am doing those things, I try to choose them, to choose my life, which as an adult seems to entail an endless list of minutiae that has to be attended to.

Now I absolutely love my washing machine. My sister gave it to me as a wedding present, and I have no idea why I resisted washing machines before that. I was 38 when I owned my first washing machine. Before that washing was huge drudgery and a hassle. Now I barely notice it. Strange that I saw the washing machine as a symbol of drudgery, when in fact it is a symbol of freedom from drudgery.

Your poem “fish” also resonated strongly with me. I wrote one called “Making Pancakeswhich talks about performing this mundane act to feed my small boys on the day of my brother’s funeral. Life is full of such strange contradictions, isn’t it? One minute someone is making a fish dish. The next, we are at their funeral:

The day my father died he marinated fish.
White fish steaks, thinly sliced onion rings, and lemon juice.

He died on the golf course ...

A week later, after his funeral, I threw the fish out.

Your mother is also slowly moving into the shadows after a series of strokes. You write about the experience of her disappearing from you in “stroke”. You also write about the loss of your parents in when someone dies”.Do you find you have to redress yourself as a person and as a poet now that your parents are, to all intents and purposes, no longer there? What impact has the loss of your parents had on your work?

Losing my father made me realise that life is short; I suddenly became filled with an urgency that my life was almost over. He died in March 2000, 11 years ago today, and his death was sudden. Although once he was gone, we could see that in fact he had been preparing to die, although he probably did not realise it would be so soon. He was only 64. I was 38. I got married at the end of that year and pregnant at the end of the next and my daughter was born in May 2002. I didn’t realise until my father died that time was running out for me to have children; I was too caught up in the day-to-day-ness of my life.

My father – in fact he was my step-father, but to all intents he was my father – is gone, although I am more aware of him since his death. It is such a mystery, death, and until someone close, like a parent, dies, I don’t think we have any real sense of what it means, how it will feel, what the effect of not having access to him is like. I often miss him deeply, even though when he was alive we weren’t close. He was a buffer between me and my fears and danger; I realised how much I relied on him, his steadfastness, kindness, generosity and stability only once he was gone. I took him for granted.

My mother, on the other hand, has become a bit like a child for me, but not as rewarding. I am responsible for her well-being, as her oldest child. I pay her bills, do her grocery shopping, organise for her to have her beloved cigarettes and Coke. Buy her underwear, clothes and so on. My father left her comfortably off, so it is not a financial burden for me, but it is an enormous responsibility, one that has taken me years to come to terms with. When one has effectively lost one’s parents, you become the older generation. I have become an adult in the past ten years. Before that I was a bit drifty, dreamy, depressed, a thirty-something adolescent, a “Halfborn Woman”. I write about this in the poems “the comfort of parquet”, “1986”, and the shift away from that frame of mind is part of what I am attempting to describe in “Jeppestown, 1994”.

The third section of the anthology deals with your love for your daughter Kate, your marriage and life as you become entangled in the most complicated of relationships as a mother and a wife. I love the phrase you use in the poem “make her breathe/ keep her safe” about your daughter as she incubates for ten weeks as a premature newborn. “I unbutton my heart as I cross the threshold of the neonatal ICU.” Motherhood does that to you – it unbuttons your heart, especially when your child is at risk or is ailing in some way. Someone once said that the minute your children are born you are no longer safe. Their needs become more important than your own, and the risks to them outweigh everything else. The connection between mother and child is strong, obviously, and I’m so glad to hear your daughter spent much of her growing-up time sleeping in your bed. That makes two of us! Motherhood adds a rich seam to your poems in this section. Can you put into words what motherhood has brought to your poetry?

Hmmm. I guess it has brought the same things that it has brought into my life. The sense of loving another deeply, unconditionally, reconnecting with myself as a child, and learning to be a good enough mother to my own inner child as well as to Kate. Also the unexpected for me, which is my daughter’s love of me, reliance on me. When I hear her talking to a friend about me, she says, “My mommy says, or my mommy does …” I realise how she trusts me, how in her eyes I am her ground, the foundation from which she is growing. It humbles me, and makes me determined to try and be worthy of this trust.

I’ve also had the enormous joy of reading to her, going back to books I loved as a child: Winnie the Pooh, The Call of the Wild, The Just So Stories, William, Anne of Green Gables – I read all seven books in the series to Kate. Also the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Noel Streatfield and E Nesbit. And I have found new books that weren’t written or well-known when I was a child, like Harriet the Spy.

Watching Kate grow and trying to understand who she is, what she is going through and what she needs has developed my empathy, and is a work in itself. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to be her mother and live with a child like her. She stretches me and keeps me supple emotionally, and calls forth my best self.

The fourth section of your anthology, entitled “notes from a new country”, deals with your experience of the 1994 elections as well as the post-apartheid realities with all their inconsistencies. “Sarie Marais is sung alongside “Mashini Wami for example, at a function in Centurion. These prose poems feel like documentary pieces where you allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the events, idiosyncratic as they are. Do you agree that sometimes just painting the picture of events is enough, and that there is no need for commentary on them?

Thanks for saying that. Documentary pieces, yes, I think that is what they are. I have often felt that I should be writing down what I am witnessing and these few poems are examples of where I have written down what I have seen or been part of. Unfortunately there are many incredible things I have been part of and/or witnessed that I didn’t write about at the time.

Frequently, though, the ones I did write down started out life as e-mail letters to a very dear friend of mine, Graeme Reid, who now lives in New York. Since 1995 we have not lived in the same place, so we have written to each other. I love his sensibility and his sense of humour, which is dry and offbeat and quirky and steeped in an understanding of our shared past and history. He is my perfect “audience”. I have then taken the e-mail letters and edited them into prose poems, but I think the sense of who they are addressed to is in them. I don’t have to interpret too much, because he gets it. He likes details, specifics, so that is what I aim at trying to give to him, so that he could imagine the scene. The documentary pieces are meant to be deeply affectionate, I love living here and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love all the crazy weirdness, the misunderstandings, the attempts to move forward and patch things up. We have such incredible stories going on everyday that we barely need to resort to fiction.

Colleen, you have published so many women over the past few years of your publications. Do you find that these women inspire you to write more?

I’ve long had an activist streak, particularly activism in respect of women, and publishing the writing of women who probably would otherwise not get published (certainly most of the poetry and the short story collections), appeals to me.

I love listening to women’s stories and I know what is like not to be heard, to hit that glass ceiling, not to be taken seriously, not to take oneself seriously. I think that the project of publishing the work of other women has been a way of giving to others what I have wanted. And this has allowed me to give to myself too. I have given myself the publication of Lava Lamp Poems.

What is next on the cards for you? Can we expect another anthology in a few months’ time, or do we need to wait a little longer?

I do have a collection of short stories that I am hoping to publish this year. Ten stories set in Yeoville in the late 1980s, early 1990s that might have something of a documentary element to them too. But they are also stories, mostly with an element of failed relationships in them. They would go with some of the poems in the first section of Lava Lamp Poems, ones like “From a Balcony”, “My Yeoville”, I guess even “On Wanting a Washing Machine” and “The Poet and the Woodcutter”. The working title is Looking for Trouble, and I hope it will be out in about September. This collection has been pretty much ready for publication since 2006. I want to publish the stories because I think they will resonate with readers who experienced Yeoville or something like it. After that I want to write something quite different, and I feel as though the stories are something I have to get over, get out before I will feel light and clear enough to start my next big project.

One of the things, by the way, that I really enjoy about being an indie/small or even micro-publisher is that one can publish things that don’t fit into what bigger, commercial publishers understand as suitable forms or formats. For example, my collection totals about 30 000 words, which is 10 000 to 15 000 too short for a collection that might even be considered elsewhere. But I have discovered that there are readers who are interested in these different forms. Like Hester se Brood, which is partly a memoir, and partly a book about how to bake wonderful bread and many other things besides.

I also have a feeling that e-books are going to make new forms possible, as one won’t have to print books and try to sell them, and then pulp them if no one wants to read it. Small print runs, such as the ones I do, using a digital printer, where I can print in batches of 50 or even fewer if necessary, have also made taking risks with authors, genres and forms possible for Modjaji Books. 

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