Navigate: an interview with Karin Schimke

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Karin Schimke

Publisher: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 9781928215264

Karin Schimke talks to Naomi Meyer about Karin's new poetry collection, Navigate.

Congratulations on Navigate, Karin. Why this title? To where and from where? A verb, a wish, a command (or none of the above)?

It’s a reminder to myself to be attentive, to move forward carefully, using the markers provided by the landscape. Even when the landscape shifts and changes and rumbles, the markers are still there if you look carefully. When I was younger, I just used to live quite blindly and thoughtlessly. One’s sense of present, past and future is much more hemmed in when one is younger. You just do whatever you’re doing, and have less sense of the bigger picture (for want of a better cliché). But, I think as you get older, you live more carefully and think more broadly about your position in the world.

I recently had to find my way around a foreign city, which made me think again about how navigation is always only approximation and guesswork: the distances in steps are different to the distances as they appear on maps; the tall buildings are landmarks you work your way towards or away from; sometimes, you stumble across something you didn’t know was a landmark until you see it again and think, “I’ve been here before …” or “I am in the vicinity of …”

I have reductionist tendencies. I reduce in order to master, because I am a slow thinker. Yet, every reduction accrues its own ifs and buts. Identity politics is so fascinating to me, because it is both an exercise in “seeing completely” (as in seeing an individual’s many aspects as part of what makes him function in the world in a certain way) and an exercise in futility, because things are always shifting. So little of our identity is fixed, whether experienced from the inside or seen from the outside. For instance, what seems fixed about my identity is that I am a cisgendered, middle-aged white mother, to use the reductionist labelling of identity politics, but this is not the whole picture, nor is it fixed. If I were living in Europe, I would be seen differently and think of myself differently. If my children were dead or adopted or estranged, I would be a different kind of mother. And so on.

Maria Popova recently wrote: “Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds, but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority, along with that of others, for any deviation from the prescribed identity-political correctness. And yet, identity is exclusionary by definition – we are what remains after everything we are not.”

When the discussion of tattoos comes up in the family – as I suspect it often does with teenagers in the house – my argument against it, for myself, has always been that I would not want a tattoo because I feel it would lock me into a particular me from a particular time. But, in which ways do you remain “you” through life, even as you change? What are the unshifting markers of identity? Do they exist?

Anyway, it was these thoughts about moving through life, about identity – which is so much a part of our current political conversation, while it is also always a very private and intimate internal conversation on an individual level – as well as the ongoing project of personal meaning-making that all fed into this title.

Childhood (the father), the life of the immigrant (in all respects, figuratively speaking, too), home, learning to swim, hybrid[-ism]. And these are only some of the themes from Part 1. Is the poetry collection subdivided this way? Should the poems be understood like this? Tell me how the collection was put together.

Karin Schimke (Photo: Paul Reeves)

Initially, I had no idea how the various poems would fit together. What am I trying to say – not in individual poems or a series of poems, but as a whole, now, here, at this point in history and in my life? Once I had done the necessary weeding and chopping and mowing, I started to see what it was that bound it all together, and it was, in a way, “not knowing”, “feeling one’s way forward”, “having more questions than answers”, “figuring it out” that bound it all together: life as a boat whose course one continually monitors and adjusts.

I am not married to the idea of sections in a poetry book, but the poems definitely belonged together in a certain way: the first part has to do with trying to understand how belonging works from the point of view of an immigrant, which ties in with the second part (which was the genesis of this collection), a political querying about how I belong here and how here feels to me now. The third part is more personal and enumerates the various compass points of the individually navigated life, the things that I personally use to understand my own life and its meaning and my own sense that I will never truly know how identity and belonging work.

And inspirations. Is this a word you would use? Or memories, dreams and words from different times, eras, etc, coming together for one particular poem?

I discovered, quite by accident – though it had been staring me in the face – that the questions I wanted to approach about belonging could be explored in the closest example I have of someone grappling with it daily: my father is an immigrant. I wrote the first part of the book furiously over a period of about two weeks: I wanted to imagine his inner world – something none of us has ever had access to – rather than examine my relationship with him. In so doing, our relationship also emerges, and this is important, but it’s not what I had in the Petri dish at the time of writing. It was “belonging” I wanted to examine. So, I have my father to thank if there was particular, direct inspiration going on here.

As for memories, dreams, words … these are the raw materials, and each weighs the same on my inspiration scales.

Change, revolution and self-censorship. Ways to navigate? 

The straitjacket of self-censorship is, without a doubt, this book’s genesis. And, yes, all of these are ways to navigate and all of these have to be navigated.

Where are you, the poet, in your poems?

These poems, which were written in 2015 and 2016, started because of my feeling unnerved by the socio-political world, and not knowing how, sensibly, to respond to it. Everyone (sweeping statement, I know), it seemed to me for the longest time, was decisively angry and absolutely clear and unwavering about what was to be done about everything that was wrong. Writers appeared to me to be particularly confident about their positions on various matters and what ailed the world, and what simple steps were required to set it back on its track. I wished I could feel that sure of myself, but I couldn’t. Either people were confidently indignant, or people were hopeless and despairing, and I was actively resisting being sucked into either of those black holes.

The effect, however, was a paralysing inability to write anything. Every possible thing I thought I should be writing about had a whiff of the fancy-dress party about it: I could don some indignation, put some angry glitter on my eyelids, strap on my play-play sword and stride out to the fight party looking as though I knew precisely what part I was playing. But, I would be caught out eventually. Inauthenticity sits so badly with me. I am not good at it. A little bit of dissembling is a necessary life skill, and I am very bad at it. Very bad.

So, the poet in this collection is quite simply the one who watches and listens.

You are a freelance journalist. I remember you once wrote: “I like things to be right and good, but perfect poetry doesn’t exist. I have a newspaper journalist’s attitude to almost everything I write: I did it the best I could at the time, and then I had to let it go.” Do you still agree with your previous self? Is this still the way you write poetry? How does your background as a newspaper journalist influence your poetry, if at all?

A lot, actually. I believe that I am drawn to poetry because it is as succinct, if not as obvious, as reporting is. It feels like the other side of the journalism tapestry to me. The journalism side of the tapestry is facts and figures, events and developments. The poetry side of the tapestry is more removed, less direct, more concerned with how these things feel, their mood and what their effects are. I could not tell you which is the front side of this imagined tapestry, though. My metaphor fails me there.

But, certainly: brevity, clarity, speed … these are the things about journalism and poetry that I love. And cutting. Journalism is uncompromising about editing. It robs you of any penchant for preciousness about your work. There is always, always room for cutting and for improvement, but also, there’s the journalistic tendency to say, “There, let it go now into the world.” So, I work hard on my poems, but I don’t, like many people I know, edit myself into a frenzy. I write; I edit. I let go.

Journalism taught me just about everything I’ve needed, not just for the writing life, but for life in general. Ethics, organised thinking, taking criticism, openness to ideas and an ability to make links, hard work, taking nothing at face value and never making assumptions, listening, watching … so many solid values. And it managed to do that without converting me to its icy cynicism, which I always deplored, even as I practised it among hardened newspaper journalists.

You are also a translator. How does this influence your poetry, if at all?

While I can say for certain that newspaper journalism has influenced all the work I do as a freelancer, I cannot say for certain what parts of my day-to-day work influence what anymore. It could be that poetry influences the way I translate, that my editing influences my poetry, that translation influences my non-fiction writing.

When I was translating Flame in the snow, I read about how the Sestigers lived inside the world of writing, consumed by letters. My life is not dissimilar, even though my life seems far less romantic and urgent. Everything I do is about words, writing, language … a roiling, constantly shifting, almost casual daily engagement with these little marks on paper or on the screen. That makes it sound grand. Mostly, it’s not. It can be very prosaic.

One day last year, my son sent me a whatsapp saying: “What are you doing?” I said: “Writing an article about dictionaries.” He wrote back: “Scintillating.” I had to laugh. I was actually having quite a lot of fun, a fact that is obscured to the casual onlooker, I suppose.

I really like what I do.

You won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for your first poetry collection. How was the writing of this poetry collection different to the writing of the first one’s poems?

The received wisdom among writers seems to be that the second book is much harder than the first. Navigate was very hard. The first time around (I published Bare & breaking in 2012), I waded in blithely and naively.

The second book lacked the thematic urgency of the first one, and I felt like if I could not summon that depth of feeling – indeed, suffering – I would fail. But, because I didn’t have that, I turned towards the poetry in a much more focused way. I think, I hope, that pushing through in the second one helped me become a better poet.

You have children in school; you have to write for bread on the table – where do you find the time to write (poetry)?

Well, this is probably why I write poetry: it’s so quick to do a first draft, and the fact that it is unpaid work means that there’s no deadline pressure, so I can return to it at will. However, I would love, more than anything, for poetry to be paid, to have deadlines, to be seen as a serious endeavour. As it is, it gets conveyed in writing via the tiny bubbles of time that rise up during busy days. The only time I have ever spent writing poetry in a dedicated way was the two weeks in January 2016, when I was trying to push on the idea I was grappling with by writing the immigrant poems. It was the happiest writing time of my life, and I would do anything to get to do that for two weeks at least once a year. To be immersed like that – I honestly think it might be one of the peak experiences of my inner life. On a day-to-day basis, poems rush by me and through me all the time, and only now and again do I have the time to snatch them by their slippery tails and nail them to the page.

Yes. It feels that violent and desperate sometimes.

What about love? In your poetry? And do you write about your own love life? (Maybe this is the same question as, “Where are you in your poetry?”)

Bare & breaking was exclusively about love and love lost. This book contains far less Sturm und Drang, but lots more varieties of love.

Who is your favourite poet?

This is always the most impossible question to answer! I read so much poetry all the time, that I simply cannot say what the answer is. Let me tell you, instead, what my two current poetry obsessions are: the New Yorker Poetry podcast and the Penguin Modern Poets series. How’s that for sidestepping your question?

Why write poetry?

“Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment./ For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike/ down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment./ For the adjustments after, aligning facets in a verb/ before the trance leaves you. For working always beyond/ your own intelligence.” – Les MurrayNew selected poems

Every single line in this poem is precisely right. It’s not just an explanation of the urge towards poetry, but is, in itself, a shining example of the art’s precision.

(A lengthier explanation of why I write poetry can be found here:

Practical question: do you sometimes sit and wait for a child in a car and have to write a poem down? Scribble something on a piece of paper? Or how does it work for you?

Yes. There’s a notebook in the car. The car, in fact, is one of the places that delivers up the most lines and ideas.

You have a German background – or, where is the surname from? How long have you lived in other countries (which ones are the other countries – this one or the other ones)?

Yes. My father is German. My mother is Afrikaans. I was born and raised here. I have only ever spent six months in Germany (apart from other shorter visits), and I spent six months in London. I find it hard to imagine living anywhere but here. This is partly the difficulty I was grappling with in Navigate. I do have dreams to travel once my children are finished with school. I have always wanted to go to Bhutan. One of the last poems in this collection is imagining myself getting there.

Recent books you can recommend? In Afrikaans, English or German? 

In Afrikaans: Huilboek by Ryk Hattingh still haunts me, and the German ghost book – the one that won’t leave my head – is Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben. I read both more than two years ago and have read many since, but those two won’t be erased.

The English books of the last few years that lodged in me were The sellout by Paul Beatty and the English translation of David Grossman’s To the end of the land.

Most memorable non-fiction of the past while: Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand time.

Writing is your career; please name a favourite pastime.

When I am not writing, I’m pretty much reading. Other than that, I hike, or run, or gym, or swim.

When there are long stretches of time – in other words, never – I embroider useless bits of cloth for no particular reason. I would garden if I had a garden. I knit. I take photographs of flowers on the macro lens setting, and then never look at them again. I translate poems for fun.

As my son would say: “scintillating”.

What is the meaning of life?

I think about this all the time, and have since I was about sixteen, and I still don’t know; but, give and take various aspects of the definitions of these two words individually, I would probably describe myself as a “cheerful nihilist”.

Click here for more information about the book launch at the Book Lounge in Cape Town on 31 January.

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