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MOIRA LOVELL (article first published : 2004-10-6)

Margaret von Klemperer of The Witness talks to well-known published poet and playwright, Moira Lovell. Head of the English department at the Wykeham Collegiate, she has won a BBC award for a radio play.

For Moira Lovell, writing poetry is a private process. Until she feels a poem is finished, she shows it to no-one. And once it is completed to her satisfaction, she never goes back to rework it. "I can’t rewrite," she says. "All the energy is over and I can’t go back, I don’t know why." Her third collection of poems, Not All of Me is Dust, has just been published by the University of KwaZulu Natal Press, containing 41 beautifully crafted and intelligent works.

Often the idea that will grow into the poem is a momentary thing, something that just catches her imagination. She mentions an idea, not yet a poem, that came to her the other day while she was driving. "A woman in the car in front of me turned at the lights with great panache, and I thought, “She wears her car like a garment”. I spent the rest of the day worrying at it, like a bone."

Lovell says the way a line, a word or a phrase comes into her mind is the wonder of poetry, and when it happens, it fills her with both gratitude and dread. Dread because, until she has dealt with it, she has a sense of something unfinished. The first poem in the book, Flight, came to her like that. On the first day of a holiday, flying overseas, she woke up in a plane full of sleeping people, and thought of Juliet waking in the Capulet’s tomb in Romeo and Juliet with Romeo lying dead beside her. She had the idea, and worked it up into a poem after the holiday was over. "I don't think one asks to write," she says. "One is compelled to do it."

Flight, like many of Lovell’s poems, has a sharp, self-deprecating humour in it, although tragedy is not far below the surface. Many of the poems deal, directly or obliquely, with death and loss, and I ask Lovell why the tone of this collection is darker than in the two earlier books, Out of the Mist (1994) and Departures (1997). She thinks about it before answering, but there is no specific reason. Perhaps it has to do with ageing, suggests Lovell, referring to a haiku in the collection, titled at fifty, in Prague:

Stop your howling, Earth,/ And muzzle those hungry teeth:/ You will get your bones.

A number of the poems deal with loss – loss of youth and loss of friends, including the former Witness columnist Robin Hallet who taught Lovell and who she describes as "an enormous influence". Another loss for Lovell, is that of her Zimbabwean homeland, reflected in the cover of the book which uses a photograph Lovell took at the Mangwe Pass in Matabeleland, an area where a 19th Century pioneer made his home. The photograph shows his family cemetery - two gnarled, nameless wooden crosses and a barbed wire fence, in the middle of nowhere. "I found it so evocative; it seemed to epitomise the closing down of the country," she says.

One of the most shocking and harrowing poems is The Suicide, imagining a man in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 who is contemplating killing himself by jumping out of a window. And then the hijacked planes fly into the towers. Although Lovell's editor on the book, Kobus Moolman, was initially not keen to include it, he eventually agreed.

"It is a frightening poem," says Lovell. "And it is an awful irony that you can be thinking of terminating your life, and then it is taken from you." She says she is not quite sure where the idea came from, though it might have been the horrific television pictures of people jumping to their death from the doomed building.

Although Lovell says she works hard at finding her own poetic voice and is determined not to walk in anyone else's tracks, she does acknowledge a debt to Douglas Livingstone who was another writer of polished and crafted poetry. "The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that a poem is like an aeroplane on a huge wide sky - every bolt and rivet matters. It is so little compared with prose that every word and punctuation mark - or lack of one - is vital. It's not just guts spewing or sloganeering," she says. Lovell is no fan of rap poetry, although she admits that some people, who see poetry very differently, would not agree with her.

"In writing something, you are documenting little pockets of life and things that have happened. A diary does the same, but it is raw, unworked. In the crafting you are getting away from the immediacy and sentimentality and turning it into a public artefact," she says. For Lovell, this means that even personal tragedies can be dealt with in poetry.

She talks about how people sometimes ask her if she knows a poem - or would even write one - that would deal with a specific event, either happy or sad. "I think people have a need to articulate things and don't think they can do it as well as a writer might have done. It fascinates me that people who aren't interested in poetry want it at times like that."

And although poets sometimes joke about why they write poetry - it is notoriously hard to publish and sell books of poems - Lovell believes that more people read poetry than is often suspected, and this is why at big moments they often turn to this smallest of literary forms which can say a great deal in a few lines.

Evensong / In the evening / When you say it is time for / Walking the dog / I know you mean / It is time for talking to God / That is why / When you ask if I'm coming / I remain at my desk / Ordering the day into words / While you stalk the hills / Behind the house / In the silence of the dog; / And you know / That I am writing the 'l' out of world / And I know / That you are out walking with Dog.

Not All of Me is Dust by Moira Lovell is published by the University of KwaZulu Natal Press at R75. – Margaret von Klemperer




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