by Janet van Eeden
(Published in The Witness September 2007)
Poetry Africa, organised by the Centre for Creative Arts, comes to Durban from the 1st to the 6th October, 2007. One South African who will be there is Arja Salafranca. She’s taking time out from her day job as Sunday Independent Arts Editor, and Editor of Sunday Life. After reading many of her haunting poems, I spoke to Salafranca about her poetry.
Although all poetry requires that a poet takes a distanced view of the world, the sense of Salafranca being an outside observer is quite profound. I wondered where this came from.
“I think it comes from both my natural personality as well as the circumstances of my birth and upbringing,” Salafranca answers. “I was born in Malaga to a Spanish father and a South African mother. She couldn't speak Spanish. When I was four we went to live in Israel. Again we were outsiders and battling to learn Hebrew. When I was five my mother left my father and returned to this country. Even though she was born here, everything had changed. In addition, my mother has always gone beyond the establishment. Although brought up Jewish, she had a child with a Catholic man. She instilled that same healthy disrespect for the establishment and tradition in me. So I was always looking at the world with questions, an outsider looking in.”
Salafranca’s poetry often takes a moment in history as its starting point. Poems such as Kissing the Wall and Nat Guntman’s Wife are snapshots of real events blown up to life size. Why is Salafranca drawn to moments which depict social phenomena?
“I am naturally more interested in the personal histories that are not documented in history books,” she answers. “I once saw a book about life in a village in France in the 1800s. The book was about their everyday life. I am far more interested in those experiences than whether Madonna can adopt again. I get drawn in by a photo or an image on television. I am interested in certain periods of history always spurred by images.”
Salafranca wouldn't consciously call herself a social commentator although she supposes that writers do comment on the world around them. “It's the nature of writing fiction and poetry.”
Some of Salafranca’s personal poems show the detached observer watching people making unwitting fools of themselves. This made me wonder whether personal poetry can serve as revenge at times.
“I suppose it can,” she answers, “although I haven't and don't use my poetry as revenge. But others, who are depicted in the poems or short stories, have sometimes felt that they want to tell their side of the story. Fair enough. They should do so. But they should also realise that once an incident makes its way into a poem or story it's no longer strictly true. A writer manipulates the truth, using life to produce art, so nothing is literal. I think personal poetry serves as more of a catharsis actually, and then once you've written about something, if it touches readers, it becomes more universal. Others can relate, take comfort or find their own sense of catharsis from it perhaps.”
Salafranca won the Sanlam prize for poetry when she was just twenty two, and later won the Sanlam prize for short stories when she was twenty seven. I asked her whether winning an award at such a young age felt like reaching her zenith very quickly.
“Yes it did feel like that,” Salafranca says. “I learnt, really quickly, that winning awards makes other writers jealous and sometimes unexpectedly malicious. I was warned about that by Tatamkhulu Afrika and boy was he right! But it always serves as an impetus. I feel spurred on to create more so for me it doesn't hinder the creative process. What hinders it is for me is moving around so often - I have just moved again - and of course coping with the demands of a full-time job. Would I be more creative if I was filthy rich and had all the time in the world? I'd like to think that I would take six months off, travel like mad, read countless books and then I would settle down and produce storms of copy. Who knows?”
Salafranca has written poetry since she was ten. “I don't know why I started. It seemed like an ‘easy’ medium - I hear the howls of outrage now!” she says. “And it remains an ‘easy’ medium for me. A poem is written quickly, and is revised quickly. You can distil an experience in a few lines. I do find writing easy, and I am a quick writer so the other forms of writing that I do are equally enjoyable: the short stories, the journalism and essays. But writing poetry is a magical process, so satisfying as long as I mix it with doing other writing. Poetry can be quite marginalized and people do think you live in the clouds if you say you're a poet. Maybe poets do, some of the time, but it's a better place to be than stuck in gritty traffic on William Nicol Drive at peak hour!”