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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Resurrecting the Quagga: an interview with Kate Noakes

interviewed by Judi Sutherland

Today, Eyewear launches two new books in London: Night Journey by Richard Lambert, and Cape Town by Kate Noakes. Pop by for the launch if you're around - details, including time & place, can be found here. Dr Fulminare whets your appetite for the event by publishing an exchange with Kate Noakes, interviewed for you by Judi Sutherland. Enjoy!



Kate Noakes is a poet who lives a two-centre life. For twelve days in every fortnight, she is a partner in a major law firm in Paris; for the other two, she is a wife and mum at her family home in Reading. Happily, she still finds time to write.

How did life get so complicated?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this; I was made redundant from my UK job due to the financial crisis.  The options open to me were all based abroad, so I took up a role in South Africa with a view to bringing my family out to join me, but things didn’t go according to plan. I couldn’t go out on my own; I even had to join a hiking group to discover the walking trails around Table Mountain. The concierge in my apartment block was an armed guard. After making a tough decision, I quit my job and came home, and then I found a role as a partner in a major law firm in Paris.

But your experience in South Africa was good for your writing…

Yes, it was poetically very fruitful; my new collection Cape Town, out in October from Eyewear, is all about my time in Africa. One of the images in the book is of the swallow, migrating from Europe to follow the sun. In the prologue, ‘Hirundine’, it is me, broken-winged, heading south to heal in the African summer. The collection is then bookended by two poems about ‘fairyland’ the nickname for Cape Town’s District Six, which was cleared of its mixed-race population and demolished under the Group Areas Act, and is now resurfacing as Zonnenbloem – the sunflower. Another animal presence recurs in the poems; that of the quagga, an extinct native species similar to the zebra, which ecologists are now trying to re-breed from near relatives.  It stands for South Africa itself – is it extinct, or can it be resurrected? Does it have a viable future?

It’s a collection in three parts; how do they fit together?

The first part of the collection is all about finding myself in a new place on my own, and being disappointed and scared. The second section is more overtly political. Post-Apartheid South Africa is complicated, politically; you think you know all about it but you don’t, even though, in the Apartheid era I was involved in boycotts and marches. The final section describes me wrestling with the decision to leave a beautiful place and a rewarding job. It is a wonderful country, and I hope my poems about the wildlife and landscape show an appreciation of that, but the violence, the aggressive begging, the muggings at knifepoint and gunpoint… if something is going to happen to you in South Africa, it’s going to be bad. The ugly side of Cape Town life features in the poems, for example in ‘Green-and-yellow blanket man, Long Street’ I write about being abused by a street beggar, and in ‘Limpopo’ I describe the flight of Zimbabwean refugees across the river to South Africa, and an uncertain future.

How is your current career move going?

It has proved to be more sustainable! I’m really happy in Paris, and it is close enough by Eurostar to allow frequent visits by my husband, Paul, who is a teacher, and my two daughters, and to allow me to come home regularly to Reading, from where I keep up my poetic contacts in the UK. There’s also a great Anglophone Spoken Word scene in Paris, and I’ve got involved in a regular Monday poetry night (http://spokenwordparis.com), which attracts Paris-based writers, students, and poets just passing through.  Not having to cook for and look after my family during the week, I’ve also got time to write in the evenings.

And I hear there’s a novel afoot?

I don’t want to say a lot about it, but it is a contemporary story, set in London, of a rich family in the current financial crisis.  The protagonist is an anti-hero, an obnoxious man whose redeeming feature is that he is very funny.  He shares the narrative with his wife - who is a much more interesting character. Predictably, for an accountant, I’ve got the plot, and the changes in point of view, all mapped out on a spreadsheet.

Tell me about the Welsh thing.

Although I was born in Guildford, I identify as being Welsh by nature and nurture, and I am proud that among my ancestors is the 18th century bard Sion Llewelyn. I studied for an MPhil in English Literature at the University of Glamorgan, tutored by Gillian Clarke, and I’m an elected member of the Welsh Academi. I am pleased that Welsh-speakers see a distinct Welsh turn of phrase to the language I use in my poems. My Welsh heritage has not yet emerged in the subjects of my poetry, but the poems are still coming. There’s a collection for 2013 in the works, titled I-spy and Shanty, from Cardiff-based Mulfran Press.

I have to ask about the tattoo project.  What started that?

About ten years ago, I got talking to a woman with multiple tattoos in Yosemite, California. I asked her about their meaning and significance, but the conversation didn’t materialise as writing until last summer, when, in a sandwich shop in Bristol, I spotted a man with a jigsaw puzzle piece tattooed on his arm, and started wondering whether his girlfriend might have a similar piece that fitted. Over the last year or so I’ve written no fewer than fifty-eight poems on the subject of tattoos, and there may be more. Six of the poems are in the current edition of Envoi, where I am a featured poet, and another two in the latest Prole magazine. I hope they will form a new collection. It isn’t the permanence of tattoos that inspires me, or the aspect of rebellion. It’s simply that they can look very beautiful. They are usually incredibly significant to their owners, and they often memorialise someone. The poems sometimes reflect the design’s significance in a human story, or may simply use the image as a jumping-off point.

The obvious question; have you ever been inked yourself?

Er… no. For a partner in a firm of lawyers, it might prove just a little career-limiting.

Interviewed by Judi Sutherland. Kate Noakes' third collection, Cape Town, is published by Eyewear. The launch is taking place tonight in London; if you wish to attend, details can be found here

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