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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

Gail Dendy in conversation with Janet van Eeden about her poetry collection Closer Than That


Gail Dendy - 2011-09-30

Closer Than That
Gail Dendy
Publisher: Dye Hard Press
ISBN: 9780986998201
Prys: R105

Short Review by Janet van Eeden

Gail Dendy’s new collection, Closer Than That, is full of delicate observations about the human condition, as are many anthologies, but these poems are crafted with the utmost skill and imbued with the musical soul of a dancer.

The poetry lilts and dances in rhythmic metre and one can almost imagine Dendy’s feet keeping time to the words, as if they were notes on a musical score. This musicality makes reading the poetry a pleasure, but getting to the meat of the meaning is just as rewarding. Dendy’s poem cover a vast range of subject matter: love, the art of writing, the physical realities of the body, and the essence of life itself are just some of the subjects broached in this anthology.

Two poems in this collection were shortlisted for the Sol Plaatje Award earlier this year. “Anatomy” and “With her Feet on the Ground” deal with being a lover and the essential nature of certain people respectively.

From “Anatomy”:

Between my shoulder blades
the slim rope of my spine
curves downwards
towards my hips.

If I lie with you
on your wide bed,
my spine
will be regarded as smiling …


for it is safe
between the arrowheads
of my shoulder blades,
pointing towards
the country
of my hips.

And from “With her Feet on the Ground”:

My sister sat with her feet on the ground.
My sister pulled down birds from the sky.

She pulled them down with her tiny whistle,
with her tiny whistle through the gap in her teeth,

through the gap in her teeth she pulled them down,
pulled them to nest in her wild, grey hair,

in her wild, grey hair and her yellow skin,
her skin that was yellow as the desert sand,

the sand that was hard as my sister’s feet,
her feet that were bare on the desert sand,

my sister pulled down birds from the sky,
she pulled them down with her tiny whistle,

through the gap in her teeth she drew them down,
and her feet, like two birds, escaped wild and free.

This is a collection I will revisit often, as the poems deepen in meaning with each reading. Their musicality also makes the poems a delight to read aloud. I hope Dendy’s collection will be distributed widely, especially to high schools pupils, who need to read enjoyable and beautiful poetry. These carefully crafted gems deserve to be appreciated widely.

 Q and A

Gail, your collection Closer Than That covers a wide range of subjects, from dancing to loving to writing to living in the lives of other people, including characters from fiction. This is your seventh collection of poetry, I understand. What is it that drives you to capture the world as you live and perceive it through poetry?

For me, writing is about being alive and open to the world and so I love the way in which poetry, in its relatively short-form format, is uniquely suited to exploring, distilling and crystallising our life experience. After all, in a single day we all experience a myriad events, emotions and feelings – I simply couldn’t write a short story or novel detailing every one of them. I’m drawn, too, towards the compactness and discipline of writing poetry – that quest to make every word, syllable and pause completely meaningful.

You are also a dancer, and it shows in your work. From “Circles”:

The fire encircles the dancers,
and the dancers are like flames,

and their feet are flames
and their skirts are like the circles

when rain beats on the water,
and the water dances

to the sound of the rain,
and in silence

the rain stops dancing
in its silver circles,

and so the dancers are gone,
and you are a solitary, whirling flame.

You are credited with pioneering contemporary dance in South Africa between the late ’70s and early ’90s. You were also internationally trained. Could you tell the readers of LitNet where you trained and what dancing means to you? Also, how does your love of dance feed into your work?

My first overseas experience was an intensive summer course at Bat Dor in Tel Aviv. You had to pass a tough day-long audition just to be accepted into the course. It was there that I discovered that virtually everything I’d been taught in South Africa regarding both ballet and contemporary dance technique was wrong. I had to go right back to basics and start again learning to use the correct muscle groups. Later I went to Alvin Ailey in New York, and then did a year at London Contemporary Dance Theatre’s night classes. It was magical. Dancing is so fundamental to my being that I simply can’t exist without it, just as I can’t exist without eating or breathing. Where my dance crosses over into my poetry is in that heightened sense of movement and musicality – that is, the rhythms and cadences of the language, the way that syllables, sentences and stanzas move and swirl and almost bump up against one another like boats bobbing on water. I love writing that has energy, and language that is so active it can leap off the page. I suspect this is what gives rise to the “powerful voice” that I use, and why people might detect a Sylvia Plath influence in my work. Her poetry, too, is full of energy, but that’s the only real connection between us.

The blurb on the cover of your latest book says you were first published by Harold Pinter. Please tell me more about this incredible achievement? Where did you meet Pinter and how did he come to publish your work?

Incredibly, I was published by Pinter by accident, not by design. My husband and I were living in London for a year, and I set myself the goal of completing a poetry manuscript and sending it off to a publisher in Britain. I selected various publishers from a list in Macmillan’s The Writer’s Handbook, one of which was Diamond Press (I liked the idea of diamonds and their connotation of South Africa). Unfortunately, the Handbook was incorrect as Diamond Press didn’t do poetry, but the contact person there was Geoffrey Godbert, who happened to be one of three editors on Greville Press, along with Anthony Astbury and Harold Pinter. The rest, as they say, is history. I first met Pinter face to face several years after Assault and the Moth was published when he invited me to have drinks with him in his study. Other than that we’d spoken on the phone several times. He was a fascinating and complex person who could be an angel or the devil depending on what mood you caught him in. But he was always highly complimentary about my writing and this meant a great deal to me – to be “Pinter-approved”, as it were.

You seem to have been writing for a long time. Have you always written? Do you still dance? Have you turned to pouring your energy into writing as you may perhaps dance less professionally these days?

I started writing poetry when I was about seven or eight. But what I was really doing was something akin to journaling, giving a voice to my thoughts, ideas and emotions. By my twenties I was crafting what I would indeed call poems, but I started taking my poetry seriously only in my mid-30s. I knew that year I spent in London would be more or less my swan song as regards a dancing and performing career, and so consciously turned to writing as my mode of expression. I do still dance. There aren’t any suitable contemporary classes that I’m aware of, so I do three ballet classes which are at a more or less professional level but geared towards the older dancer. There’s a group of us who’ve danced together for years – we call ourselves “the old ducks”, which is the stage you reach before becoming “the creaky old ducks” and, finally, “the decrepit old ducks”!

Could you tell me more about your writing process? Your poems are finely crafted, which is a delight in a world where anything goes much of the time. (I’d quote from “Shaping the Language” here.) Does a poem come to you fully formed or do you worry at it for days until you get it right?

If I get very, very, lucky a poem will arrive more or less fully formed, but no matter how it appears in first draft there’s always an editing process. I like to hand-write the original drafts late at night while sitting in bed. I’ll then type them up on to my computer and from there on the editor in me kicks in. Basically I work on a poem until it’s finished – a process that can take days, weeks, months or literally years. Knowing when a poem is finished is an art in itself. It’s a bit like working out a puzzle with that concomitant delight when, finally, everything falls into place. When that happens, you can almost hear a click and a whirr and then a wonderful silence as the completed poem comes to rest on the page. But some poems quite simply never work out, no matter how hard one tries.

You have also written short stories which have been published in journals. Do you have the desire to write a novel? If not, why?

Strangely, I’ve never felt any great compulsion to write a novel. Or perhaps it’s not so strange, as I’m not a great novel reader. When I do read novels, they’re from another era. For instance, I’m currently reading Kafka’s The Castle. Every few years I reread all of Jane Austen’s works. Generally I prefer non-fiction. I read a huge number of biographies, and then anything else that takes my fancy, be it The Epic of Gilgamesh or a history of feral children (such as the wild boy of Aveyron). Some years ago I got back into reading plays and then started writing plays myself, focusing mainly on comedies. I think playwriting is the most difficult form of writing there is, and I’d like to be able to create something truly earth-shattering. Hopefully that’ll happen one day, although given my work and other commitments it won’t be for quite a while.

How long did it take you to put this collection together and what is next on the cards for you? Can we expect another collection soon?

This collection took just over two years to write and put together, with another six months of paring down the manuscript from its original 78 pages to 62. I already have several poems earmarked for a next collection, but haven’t decided on the linguistic tones and “colours” that I want to use and, most importantly, the shape of the collection. I try to make each book that I do quite different from the one preceding it, almost like setting out an array of jewels in a box. As to a new collection being published, I’m holding thumbs, toes, and whatever else I can!