Author: Sarah Frost
Publisher: Modjaji Books
Review by Janet van Eeden
Sarah Frost’s first collection of poetry, Conduit, is a numinous work of delicate poetry as light and perfectly formed as a dragonfly’s wing. The first poems in this anthology touch on issues as nebulous as the very essence of being itself. The later poems become more rooted through grappling with the timeless issues of motherhood and its subsequent complications. The poetry reflects the unfolding perceptions of a young woman struggling at first to define the very essence of life to a mother uncovering primal truths through the act of giving birth to another life. This collection depicts a poet’s coming of age as she grapples with existential questions.
Sarah Frost writes with a bright perspicacity threaded through growing awareness of the universal truths hidden in the smallest details of life. This collection leaves the reader shimmering with a snail-trail of luminosity.
Sarah, I love the delicate nature of your poems. The first ones in this anthology are almost ethereal in quality and touch on nebulous issues such as the very nature of being. The last poems are more rooted this world, somehow. I can’t help but think this is as a result of your having had a baby, as you write about him so eloquently. Am I right in surmising that having a child has changed the nature of your work essentially? Or has it allowed you to free your voice in a way you hadn’t envisaged before?
Yes, Janet, I wrote poetry before I had my son, Joseph, but quite erratically. I became more serious about it after his birth. Perhaps it was logistical – after he was born I resigned from my job as a teacher and spent two years at home looking after him. It was in that time that I started to write more, and to try and get poems “out there”. I remember how excited I was when “Blanket”, a poem about the experience of looking after a small baby (it’s in Conduit), was published for the first time in Kotaz (a literary journal which has subsequently closed down). I think having a child put me in touch with a strong core within me which I hadn’t really believed in much before. It gave me confidence.
Her body still heavy
from being a home to a baby for nine months
holds her feelings like a basket
full of knitting.
From these skeins of wool,
some dark with grief for independence lost,
some blood-bright with remembered pain,
many glowing with joy
she makes a tangled throw
rough at the corners.
Later she uses it to cover the child
sleeping in the centre of the marriage bed,
as his father, intimate, unknown, edges into her from behind,
Your poem “Conduit” talks about a tunnel which has been blocked by all the debris coming down with the heavy rains. There is an extended metaphor with “the girl” in the poem who doesn’t know how to find the clear words she needs to express her voice. How does this translate into a metaphor for your life?
It translates perfectly. It’s why I named my book after this poem. I have been wracked by self-doubt my entire life (very strong inner critic), which has led to self-censorship. I am my own worst enemy, and too often block what needs to emerge (often for fear of offending people). The girl walking with her mother next to the ocean is me, “waiting for the clear water to come”. And even that action is too passive: to work with the extended metaphor, the girl should be doing something to release the water (symbolising creativity) – lifting a sluice, or holding on to the conduit, suchlike. Poetry doesn’t just happen; one has to create the flow.
For how long now
it has been blocked.
The tunnel full of ragged plastic bags, dead branches
washed down from the townships.
The water tainted with faeces.
Stagnant as oil sludge
it pools, dirty like unresolved pain.
The concrete pipe
fires half-hearted salvoes
into the sea,
a rifle unable to master the waves
muddying its shallow mouth.
a girl walked there with her mother
speaking of who she might become.
Now a woman walks alone
wondering, in the shadows
how she will ever know
what it is she needs to say.
Poisoned water pisses out of the conduit,
fanning the sand beneath it
into delicate patterns.
She holds a glass shard,
smoothed by the sea.
at the edge of the water,
waiting for the clear words to come.
The early poems in this collection are about a girl who is struggling to define the essence of life itself. Have you found that this questioning of the nature of reality has always been part of your life or is there an event which made you reach deep into your soul, for want of a better word, to question the meaning of why we are here?
I really appreciate these questions! They get to the nub of why I write. I was a solitary child, growing up with questioning thinkers for parents (an academic and an artist), and that combination of loneliness and interrogation led to deep contemplation. Probably the biggest wrench of my childhood, after the birth of my sister, which was difficult for me, was when we left Grahamstown (where I grew up) when I was thirteen and moved to Durban. That sense of displacement coincided with the onset of adolescence, and meant I never felt completely secure about who I was / where I was. Insecurity translated into analysis, and a strange religious impulse too – I have at times in my life sought meaning in Christianity (and Buddhism), although these days I am happier to coexist with mysteries than before.
I think your poems have an existential quality. The birth of your child, the nature of your relationship with your child’s father – nothing is taken for granted and every aspect of life is scoured for meaning. Do you sometimes wish you lived life more superficially? Or is it the artist’s burden to be constantly examining reality, looking for truths?
If living life superficially meant experiencing less pain, then maybe, but I don’t think I could, truth be told. I see very clearly and wouldn’t knowingly want to put on blinkers. I do think the artist’s duty is to reflect the world in new and surprising ways. For me the challenge is not to be so stymied by, paralysed by, grief/anger/despair that I can’t write at all. I came to poetry relatively late – in my early thirties – and wish I had had the support and self-belief to have started much, much earlier. Existential angst nearly immobilised me for good. I must also give credit to Jungian therapy (Conduit is dedicated to my therapist). I have spent years talking about my feelings and personal history with her, and learning to understand my wounds. That has also informed my poetry – the search for meaning. I see myself as a survivor and my poetry as an important part of that survival process, the finding of a voice to tell my story.
You use words very carefully and sparingly. Could you tell the readers of LitNet about your writing process? Do you follow a particular pattern when you write or is each poem different in its birthing process?
The latter. I wish I could say I wrote for an hour every day. I’m still aiming for that. I believe there’s a lot to be said for consistency and routine in terms of writing process. But most of these poems came from an impulse (often an unconscious one) or a strong feeling. Often the poem will come out nearly done. It has been an interesting process, participating in the editing of poems included in Conduit, and their sequencing, to watch how they shift meaning subtly as they are reworded and regrouped. I’ve learnt a lot. I am deeply grateful to my editor, Joan Metelerkamp, who told me that my poetry, “apart from being careful and polished, is also earnest, direct, removed”. She went on to recommend that: “That conduit does need to start gushing. The earnestness and directness are fine, but perhaps if you plunge in (in whatever way – if you really swim with the waves) with more abandon you’ll go deeper into the ‘matter’. You also want to gush, but some kind of (puritanic?) self-restraint keeps you from doing that.” That advice has been hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles! I think my fear of “getting it wrong”, somehow, inhibits me – or maybe it’s just a fear of feeling the feelings – sometimes “puritanic self-restraint” can sustain the illusion of keeping it all at bay/controllable. So my challenge for myself this year is to “go swimming in the sea,” past the backline – somehow find ways of channelling the passion, instead of refining it.
Has your child grounded you in any way? What does having a child brings to the writing process, apart from never quite having enough time to write?!
In a way this question is similar to the first question you asked me. I think Joseph has given me a sense of the preciousness of life – his, and my own, his father’s, everyone’s lives actually – and also a hope that things can change – that the feelings of abandonment and rage that I struggle with don’t have to be his. He represents the prospect of joy for me. I’ve discovered that I am a good mother, and perhaps learning to love myself as a parent has helped me learn to love myself as a creative being in terms of writing too. When I’m not down on myself like a ton of bricks that is.
How did you come to writing? Have you always written poetry or is this your first official venture into writing poems? Do you hope to write short stories or novels at any point? And what about a novel? What do you have planned next for the readers of LitNet to look forward to?
I remember as a child lying on the floor, scrawling poetry in a little book and wishing that I could show someone who’d be interested in what I was doing. I refer to this in “Seahorse” (also in Conduit). So that impulse has been there for a long time; it’s just taken time to translate it into real action. It has been such a pleasure to find an appreciative audience. I owe my determined and brave publisher Colleen Higgs from Modjaji a huge debt of gratitude, and Hugh Hodge, editor from New Contrast too, a kind man who understands poets. Being in poetic conversation with supportive caring “poetic friends” means a lot to me and makes the solitariness of writing bearable.
I curled like a seahorse
on a whispering floor;
clear careful script
filling a secret book –
Time, a numb wave
surged over me. Twenty-two
times I nearly drowned;
I think reading has led me to writing too. I’ve always loved reading poetry. I won the Alan Paton Literary Competition when I was in matric with a paper comparing the work of Ingrid de Kok and Joan Metelerkamp. My favourite activity teaching English was teaching poetry. I read poetry when I can afford new poetry books, loving particularly the work of Gabeba Baderoon, whose clarity and compassion I aspire to. I recently discovered Stephen Watson’s poetry (sad that it took his death to lead me to this) and was blown away by his bleak lyricism.
I do hope to write short stories and have ventured a few Flash Fiction pieces. I’m not sure about a novel. I can promise LitNet readers more poems, certainly.
Thanks for giving me the chance to articulate some of my hesitancies and hopes around writing poetry, Janet; it feels good to be understood.