Engaging with language
Richard Fox in conversation with Gary Cummiskey
Richard Fox was born in Cape Town in 1975. He lives in Johannesburg and runs the T-shirt company T-Shirt Terrorist. His first collection of poems, 876, was published in 2007, and his second collection, otherwise you well?, was published by deep south in 2021. He has had poems published in journals such as New Coin, Ons Klyntji, Carapace and donga, and in the anthologies it all begins and glass jars among trees.
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otherwise you well? is your second collection. Your first, 876, came out in 2007. I remember you had stopped writing for a while, and it was around 2013 that you started up again. Was there any reason for that period of silence?
I did take a hiatus; I think it was around 2002 though, and it lasted until 2006/2007, just before the release of 876. This was a difficult period for me. I was ‘going through changes’. The poetry in 876 was written between 1997 and 2001, most of that body in the last six months of 2001. This was the year I cancelled my corporate subscription with the world – I resigned from my job and holed out in a garden cottage at the back on my parent’s property, stayed up late, did all kinds of weird stuff, and wrote.
And after that, 2002, the real-world kind of caught up with me, and I got a new job, albeit in a calmer, more creatively sustaining environment – a bookshop. I moved in with my future wife, and things took me away from writing for a while. Being away from writing, I felt I couldn’t rightly publish 876, so I backburned that project. Creatively I went through something of a transformation, and it was a painful process; one I both embraced and fought against – I founded the online T-shirt company, T-shirt Terrorist, which was later to become my full-time profession and focal creative outlet, but I kept hacking away at poetry, none of it really working, until somehow, in 2007, something in me calmed or shifted, and I found I was able to balance my focus between T-shirt design and poetry.
It was strange, both processes come from the same core, it seems, and I had to complete the build of the new form before being able to return to the previous, but once done I was then able to access both with the required intensity to produce decent work.
I don’t see any major change in the poetry contained in the two volumes – do you feel it has been a continuous flow? With 876, you dropped your first name, but with your new collection you have used it.
I build pieces around voice, and perhaps, despite the break in linear continuity between the two volumes, I’m still looking to address similar issues. I look within and without, and my voice is contemplative. I’m concerned on an emotional level with the poetic, artistic identity that forms around an expressive voice, constructing a cohesive simulacrum, a seeker of profundities, or even absurdities, but never generalisations. I want to know more about the person who writes. I don’t know entirely who that is yet. I think the person who writes creates himself anew with each word placed in arrangement, in collusion or in opposition to other words in the vicinity. So internally, poetry is a search for truth. Externally, poetry is a perhaps a search for beauty, and in opposition to that, in tension to that, is the world in which we live where beauty is often hard to find. I think I may take issue with our modern predicament, on this level, modes and modules of society that stand in the way of us achieving beauty. And by beauty I don’t mean a physical beauty, I’m referring to an outcome of consciousness – a desire to make sense and understand the reality we find ourselves immersed within, purposefully. I like the notion of Truth and Beauty as poetic absolutes and writing as a means of uncovering varied ways towards them. A philosophical hole that I am digging myself into, no doubt.
When I wrote 876 I was performing regularly, and I had a stage persona – Fox, which was whittled down from my full name, which is Richard Foxcroft. I also enjoyed the way the title and name thus became patterned and entwined. When I published my earlier work, I dropped the ‘croft’ to create a simple pseudonym – Richard Fox, which I have since kept. It has a nice ring to it, and hankers back to my performance days, my summer years, as it were.
I remember seeing you at a few poetry performances, and you performed at the Grahamstown Arts Festival on a few occasions. Did you start writing poetry with a view to ‘stage’ as opposed to ‘page’ poetry? Has your view on poetry performance changed since then?
Performance has always been core to my work – spoken word as focal intent, and yet my poetic voice only real works, comes alive, when the work presents itself accurately on the page at first, a written recipe. There is a very definite balance here. A performative piece needs to be perfectly presented on the page. I don’t simply string words together all over the place because they sound good in front of the mic, they sound good in front of the mic because the effort has been made to structure them on the page, so there’s that, that dualism as it were. I’m not sure how I feel about performance currently. I did some slam work, toured some fests and in Newtown, inner-city Johannesburg, I hooked up with some young poets and hip-hop artists, rap artists, and enjoyed the experience, and then I moved on. Now, I’m rusty, and I seldom hit the lights and when I do, I am reminded of how age creeps in from the shadows, how you slow over time, how your work becomes calmer perhaps, less intent to roar and shake the foundations. My performance was based soundly on how, when the poem is written as perfectly as you can manage it, the words come easily in front of the mic, and that is still the case, where I have recorded recent work for otherwise you well?. The best poems are easily vocalised because the voice is sure and true, but I don’t think I’ll be performing much moving forward – too much on my plate currently, but this is still how I write, as if I am addressing people, personally and collectively.
Your approach to language – written language – can be quite idiosyncratic: playing on words or joining words together, using title case in places where one would expect sentence case. It as if your approach to language is irreverent – an assault on language?
There is an element of contention in my work often – a dynamic that comes from working with language to create novel forms. I don’t think too much about it when I write, but language, the physical presentation of words on a page, can be very patterned and I see relationships on a number of different levels, from the way stanzas arrange in relation to themselves, the poem as a single element on a page or across pages, down to the arrangement of letters in certain words, and those arrangements, across lines and linkages, between certain words in different parts of the poem. While I am using voice to construct meaning, I feel that I am using language in a physical construction to create concrete pieces, and when a poem ’works’ for me, when it comes together, and you know intrinsically that it has and that it does, that is when both the meaning and the physical construction of a poem align. I don’t set out to achieve this, but the outcomes work on numerous levels, where a poem, to go back to performance, hits a certain level of competency because of a series of interchangeable elements, which when correctly stacked effect a complete piece. Still, there is something to irreverence, isn’t there? To conduct your craft in a slightly different manner, and make the words perform in ways that aren’t expected of them. When you get it right, it looks good, feels good. It’s an instinctive drive, process, that creates poetry for me, and I enjoy working with language. Over the years this has developed in a certain way, I wouldn’t necessarily call it formulaic, but you set out from familiar ground as you seek to encounter new places in your work, with your craft, your art. Messing with words is a starting point for me, and when they mess back, well, that’s communion, isn’t it? That’s how we engage with language and evolve as writers, artists.
For the virtual launch of otherwise you well? you had organised two videos of you reading your poetry – is this a new way of presenting your poetry, and do you intend to explore video presentation further?
I wish to explore different mediums; in the same way I have explored T-shirt design as an expression of my creative drive. The video performance was a way in which I could use the performance aspect of my work to present sections of the book. And it was fun. I hadn’t recorded before, not purposefully, professionally, besides the odd video camera set-up at readings. I hired a production company, and we went to Fordsburg, downtown Johannesburg, this aging building refurbished as studios for artists and creatives, with a chicken rotisserie on the ground floor, and I performed a few of the pieces from the book. Then we went out on the streets and took long shots and footage of people and the general urban activity on a Sunday afternoon. Pigeons. I’m hoping to get a decent 15-minute film from the project, we’ll have to see, but yes, I would like to do this again. I am also exploring vocal recordings with several artists, musicians. I feel there may be a more pronounced spoken word angle somewhere and it might be the right time to see where this may take me.
In 876 there is a long poem about a train journey, and in your new collection there is a long poem about a road trip. Is travel – journeying, or movement, perhaps energy force – a focus? Are you concerned with the movement of language – of poetic language – itself?
When we move outside of our element, our comfort zones, it excites and activates a certain response in ourselves. I’d not want to think I am alone in this. When I travel my poet piques and I am willingly if not always easily inspired to write about my experiences. The energy here is change energy, isn’t it? Transformative, in the literate sense. Poetry comes from experience and what better way than to experience the world. It’s one thing to contemplate endlessly in a closed room late at night, in front of your PC, all the regular arrangements in place, but this can only take you so far. At some stage you’re going to have to feed the beast and what better way to do it than through travel. For me, even the simple notion of seeing different places, different settings, not to mention the interpersonal experiences, cross-cultural exposures, sets off a reaction and I can feel poetry coming on. So, I take notes, mentally, mostly. Of this, and of that. Feelings. And then I sit down, once I have returned, let it juice then, when the time is right, let it flow. If it does it’s beautiful, that search for beauty in extremity, so my travel pieces are sometimes longer than my other pieces. Epics? Not quite, but certainly different to my other work.
Several of your poems deal with sustainability issues around the environment, our dependence on technology, corporate capitalism and the obsession with status. These issues are global, but at the same time your poetry is deeply rooted in the South African experience.
There is an element to my work which transcends the local. An attempt at achieving an expression sounded in the collective unconscious, the prevailing Zeitgeist. I don’t always get here, I often fall very short, and such pieces come across as pretentious (I won’t publish these) but to hit on a nerve that jolts people, across spatial and geographic divides, as poets we’re speaking on issues that affect all of us, or none of us, surely. In this regard you wish to take your work to a level where it reflects the spirit and the transactions of the age. How you do this is up to the individual artist. It’s often best to keep it simple, root your voice in the immediate and the local, but if you want you can also ideate and fixate on real global concerns, or the metaphysical and transcendent. I like to concentrate on some of the issues we’re facing collectively as a society, because they mean something to me, personally. I take an interest, as a poet. I feel I can do something, something real and meaningful, even if it is only to highlight and expose the problems we’re facing as we evolve as an industrial civilisation.
Do you think that poetry – or a poet – can change things? Can poetry change the world? Are poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, as Shelley thought?
Yes. But it’s complicated. And dangerous ‒ for the mind and the soul. You create the world, if not only in the constant of your image, then too through the collection and culmination of thoughts that spring from, grow and govern your consciousness, your single universal expression. Poets are often overlooked, we’re regarded as archaic, relegated to the side lines of commercial enterprise. With poetry I seldom write, I often create, and I feel that that creation moves out in waves, dynamic ripples that are not bound in linear motion and do not abide by temporal and spatial rules. But it is a slippery slope. Once you convince yourself of the power of your own metaphysical incantations, your magnanimous import, suzerain of all you behold, there is nothing that you cannot achieve, and nothing that you can. Your reality becomes guided by nuance, confluence and mounting synchronicity, the face of God in the clouds. Reality will bend to your will, but it will bounce back somewhere else, for someone else. What do we know of any of these things, really? I would advise caution, argue for temperance and balance, in all things poetic, as with all pursuits both intellectual and physical.
What is your opinion of South African poetry at the moment? Do you think we have enough publication outlets? Do we have enough readers in South Africa?
There is no market for poetry in South Africa and this reflects in the limited outlets for young and established poets to seek recognition and an audience for their work. Perhaps this is an outcome of education or policy, or an indication of wider issues. Either way, as a poet, when you publish in South Africa you realise that very few people will interact with your work on a local level. That is a bit disheartening, but you do it for other reasons too, if not only the poetry itself then for yourself; sometimes the sheer compulsion of it all. I applaud those individuals and institutions that still cater to and advance poetry in our society and I’m cautiously optimistic that the situation will maintain its present trajectory, and hopefully expand in the future, although it is likely to remain limited and niche.
Richard Fox’s book, otherwise you well?, is available from Deep South via their distributor Blue Weaver in Southern Africa, and international distributor African Books Collective in all countries. The book can also be purchased or ordered in South Africa from all bookstores that sell poetry. An ebook version is available from African Books Collective.