Interview with a Poet: Henk Rossouw

Associate Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review had the pleasure of discussing poet and teacher Henk Rossouw’s book Xamissa. This book examines the relationship between an ideal vision of Cape Town, South Africa, where Rossouw grow up, with its past and present. For those of us who know very little about Cape Town and South Africa, the conversation about the city, the country, its troubles, and its possible future is an education in itself.

Denise Rogers, Associate Editor


MockingHeart Review: As I was reading Xamissa, and thinking about the city of Xamissa, I couldn’t help but think of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” especially as in the “Proloog” you mention a trip underground and along waterways. It has a dreamlike quality. 

Henk Rossouw: Interesting. Yes, it is dreamlike, but what I was aiming for was partly about getting at the feeling of jetlag. It’s dreamlike because that section of the poem puts together aspects of the city that are either still vestiges of segregation or far flung. All the images are in the city, but I weave them together in a way that is dreamlike. Put it this way: Cape Town doesn’t add up. It’s a bunch of fragments because of apartheid. So, some of that dreamlike quality is imagined rather than real.

MHR: It seems to me that Xamissa (the book) is haunted: there are so many people in it that have been lost: Jesse, Stix, Ashraf. And even the opening section, “Rearrival,” where you describe your brother’s home with “starlings in the attic,” he’s like a spirit inhabiting a ghostly place. But you appear who has been “absent for seven years”; you’re ghostly too.

HR: Not exactly ghostly, but the speaker is certainly haunted by the painful history of the city and haunted by his complicity in that history up until the present moment. So in the way that you’re reading the speaker as ghostly is perhaps accurate in the sense that the book is partly about that the speaker is the haunter, not the haunted. The speaker, by being haunted by the past, is also the one who is haunting the city with that complicity.

MHR: There’s a poem in the book, “Twin Soldiers,” where the speaker mentions a brother born 7 minutes after him. Are you a twin?

HR: That is more a metaphor for how close we were. I have two brothers, actually. One is a visual artist, and one is an activist.  

MHR: Is Xamissa a place for everyone? 

HR: Yes, in the unrealized sense. It’s the city that could have been, the city in the 1990s we were hoping for.

MHR: And then that wasn’t possible in a way because of what you told me about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

HR: Yes, power for whites got more entrenched economically, even more than before. Cape Town in many ways is even whiter than it was before, with some exceptions, and an even wealthier city due to globalization, with the wealth primarily held by whites. So, it has not become the place for all South Africans that was imagined in the mid-1990s.

MHR: I think that from being from the United States and having seen the hearings from a distance, I’m not sure that many Americans know that that was the end result.

HR: I mean that in the sense of who has the power in the city and what spaces are still coded as white spaces. If you look at the changes in San Francisco over the last few decades, Cape Town has been through a similar change where it is becoming incredibly gentrified and globalized with massive amounts of money pouring in in terms of real estate. It’s the most expensive real estate on the African continent.

MHR: So poor people could never really afford to live there.

HR: Right, so what my brother works on is to try and force government and businesses to let excluded people of color back into the city or to have better access to the city.  In many ways, the people who are excluded are those who have either a moral claim or an actual legal claim (from apartheid-era removals) to land in the city, land that is now the most valuable land on the continent and that the city government or the provincial government have often sold without redress in order to benefit. You know, there’s talk, but no one ever actually either gives the land back or gives access to housing in the city. A good example is District 6, which was bulldozed in the 1960s and the people of color who lived there were evicted. The return of District 6’s people and their descendants to the city is still unresolved for the most part, though not entirely. There are always exceptions, but if you can imagine the kind of gentrification that San Francisco went through but with the added history of apartheid and its forced removals. It’s a double irony.

MHR: It sounds so sad.

HR: Yeah, it’s pretty disillusioning. In some ways, I don’t think it’s sentimental, but in some ways the energy of the book is tapping into the possible city we had imagined in the 1990s when it seemed inevitable that Cape Town could be a truly democratic city, open to all.

MHR: Do you think this book of poems is one you could only have written being away from Cape Town?

HR: Yeah. I don’t think I had the distance before. And, in fact, when I left South Africa I thought I shouldn’t write about it without being there and I kind of slowly changed my mind as I got more distance and I could tap a little bit into the kind of hopefulness of those times.  At the same time, the distance helped with the more disturbing turn in the main movement of the book, to look at some of the structural and historical violences that prevented that hopeful vision of the city coming to be.

MHR: The VOC building still stands?

HR: It still stands. It’s a museum now and called the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum.  In my early childhood it was a cultural history museum and it was pretty offensive. There was a lot of bric-a-brac having to do with the VOC without any acknowledgement that the building had been a slave lodge and then in the ‘90s the museum was changed into the Slave Lodge Museum and its importance as a record of what happened inside its walls was reaffirmed. It’s a really good museum now. It’s very well done. It’s not just a static museum. They have interesting performance art to do with slavery that happens there. It’s really quite dynamic, actually.

MHR: I guess I always wonder why poetry and why not fiction or non-fiction?

HR: I think because poetry allows for more ambiguity and more complexity, at least for me, in writing about a very difficult place and in my shifting subject position within it. Poetry, while more difficult on the surface, was the way to go to get at some of those gaps and fragmentation. To me, formally, there didn’t seem to be any other way to write about where I’m from. Especially the material I was trying to cover—a narrative would have been too neat and not, for me, critical enough or interrogative enough. Poetry is a better way to ask questions. I look at the book as a series of questions.

MHR: There are some aspects of it that are play-like, in that in you have a character in the last part of the book—

HR: Yeah, yeah. And it’s not an anti-narrative poem, by any means, but I think of it as a forking narrative, you know the way that there’s a lot of water imagery in the book and in the way a stream will fork. So you can’t trace the narrative easily in a linear fashion because it keeps forking—it could have been this way, or it could have been that way, so there’s much more of an emphasis on uncertainty. Poetry is more comfortable with uncertainty as an art form.

MHR: So did you start writing poetry as a younger man, or a child?

HR: I did, and economics hit, and I didn’t really have a way to go to university because I didn’t have much money, so I became a journalist, and then much later in my mid-20s, I put myself through school through journalism, so I had to give up poetry for a while, and then it was only when I was able to get access to an MFA program in the U.S. that I had more time and economic support to come back to poetry more fully. Still, there are journalistic elements in the book, which I am sure you picked up on.

MHR: Yes, yes. I appreciated all the notes at the back. They were helpful for someone who was not from that part of the world.

So you don’t write short stories?

HR: I have. I had one short story that was published in Tin House, which just closed down but was for a long time a good magazine. I just could never manage to write another one.  It would be fun to try fiction again, but it just hasn’t happened.

MHR: Who has been your biggest influence in your poetry?

HR: Probably my mentor from the University of Houston, Roberto Tejada. His work is very different that mine on the page but he was very good at pushing me to ask questions in my work. Relatedly, the Martinican poet and theorist Édouard Glissant was especially generative in the sense of the multiple languages included in my book and ways to write about the cultures of Cape Town without doing it in a dominant fashion. That was a big influence for me, Edouard Glissant’s The Poetics of Relation.

MHR: How about life generally?

HR: Probably the stability and structure of graduate school and having a community in Houston during my PhD that was open and inviting. There’s a big poetry community in Houston that is supportive. It’s the longest time I’ve been in one place, pretty much. I was in Houston for six years. It’s not really a city where you make roots but there’s a very strong community there and there were people willing to debate my work or talk to me about it and support me in figuring out what I wanted to say.

MHR: In Xamissa, there are lots of different kinds of relationships. Would you say that Xamissa is about relationships between people or relationships of people to a place?

HR: I think it’s ultimately about that the place is defined—and opened—by relationships between people. If it were just about place, it wouldn’t be enough. Place is the ground from which the speaker speaks and shows his hand as a white person but it’s also, like Glissant’s book, about the poetics of relationship and relations between people. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the book culminates in a list of names—a community. That’s the emblematic endpoint of the book. So, I think it is partly a meditation on community. Not so much about belonging as about being one among many, like among a crowd in a city, which figures in the book. Unimportant, but also part of the crowd. Which doesn’t get around any of the privilege that would come with being white in South Africa, but it was a way to write about what it is actually like to be walking around the city of Cape Town and being surrounded by people I cherish, both the brother figure in the book, but also the people of my country and the city itself. I wanted to write from that kind of shifting position of being among a crowd in a city.

MHR: Let’s talk about one poem I particularly found moving: “Elegy for the Gesture”

[The poem can be found here at Poetry Daily:]

MHR: How did the poem come about? Or how did the poem start?

HR: It was one of the first poems that I wrote.

MHR: Did you write it with the idea that it would be part of a book or that you were starting a book?

HR: I had no idea whether the poem would fit into a book or a collection at the time. It is a biographical poem that became an anchor to that section of the book in so far as who is speaking.

MHR: How did you decide on its form?

HR: I had been studying and translating Old English poetry at the time that had that caesura. I thought the call and response (line then caesura then line) would be the whole structure of the poems in that section.

MHR: The last line/image is particularly powerful.

HR: The last line of the poem was a real incident, but it questions the use of the gesture by the boy, who is white. The boy’s gesture of raising his fist questions whether it is meant to invoke solidarity with the workers or whether it is meant to simply imitate what the boy saw in the photo. But also, here is a boy with privilege but without power in that moment (he’s just been beaten up) trying to claim solidarity with the workers.

For an adult, it would have been an inappropriate and ironic gesture. The child was unaware, though, of larger political forces. One might say those forces are in the poem as the looming power station.

MHR: How soon did the ending appear? And when it did, did you write up to it? That is, did you create to poem around those last lines? Which lines appeared first?

HR: The ending came in the earliest draft and then stayed.

MHR: So the boy in the poem is you?

HR: The last line of the poem was a real incident that happened to me. But the father in the poem wasn’t exactly my father. My father was not a photographer.

MHR: Well, sometimes we write our family into our poems as they are, but sometimes it is as we wish they were. Or sometimes what we wish they weren’t.

MHR: Tell me about the background for the poem.  

HR: The event itself (the biographical event of the boy in the poem with the workers) happened in 1990, which was the year Mandela was released from prison.

The photo that the boy in the poem is imitating is by the South African photographer David Goldblatt. His poems always have long and descriptive titles. This photograph is titled “The Salute of the African National Congress, at the graves of four assassinated black community leaders, Cradock, Eastern Cape.”*

“Elegy for a Gesture” is a double ekphrasis in that the boy in the poem copies the gesture of the boy in the Goldblatt photo, and then the men in the truck copy the boy. I wasn’t conscious of this at the time I wrote it. But the poem is in conversation with the photograph even though I didn’t have the photo before me when I wrote the poem.

MHR: Xamissa covers some hard territory, some hard truths, but I never felt I wanted to look away—instead I felt I wanted to keep reading, keep looking.

HR: I see the book as an invitation to look at complicity in ways that are not accusatory but are as honest as possible.

MHR: Finally, what about your advice to young writers?

HR: It’s kind of the way I teach, which is to not see reading and writing as separate activities—that writing requires reading or that writing is reading so I often assign writing exercises rooted in the poetry we just read.

MHR: A lot of students write poetry but don’t read it.

HR: Right, and that’s something I emphasize a lot, that your ideas come from reading. There’s an American poet, Dean Young, who said “your genius is your error,” meaning copy all you like because you’re human and you will always fail actually to copy perfectly, so it’s always going to be an adaptation. So I think students are caught up in this idea that have to be so original, so they don’t read because they don’t want to be influenced, and I’m like no, it’s actually the opposite. The only way to originality is to be deeply rooted in other texts. Because it’s that community idea again–it comes back to the conversation and relationships between people.

Notes **The Cradock Four were four young anti-apartheid activists from Cradock who were stopped at a roadblock by government security forces, then kidnapped, tortured, and killed and their bodies burned. In the Goldblatt photo, a young African boy is standing before the graves of the Cradock Four, his hand up in a black power salute.

Link to picture:


Henk Rossouw‘s book-length poem Xamissa, published by Fordham University Press in 2018, won the Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. Best American Experimental Writing 2018, out from Wesleyan University Press, featured an excerpt. The African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books included his chapbook The Water Archives in the 2018 boxed set New-Generation African Poets. Poems have appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Massachusetts Review, and Boston Review, among other publications. Originally from Cape Town, Henk earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a PhD from the University of Houston, where he served as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. Currently, he is an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly. He is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and teaches creative writing classes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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