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The Power Tree

by Dylan Muhlenberg / 23.07.2009

Kate Kilalea is a poet and she knows it. Which is why she left her job at Jupiter Drawing Room in Cape Town to study an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, which is in London, where she now lives. Kate recently published her first book, One Eye’d Leigh, which has won plaudits from J.M. Coetzee who praised her poems’ ‘straightforward language, their resourceful metaphors, and their general clear-sightedness.’

Donny Truter, whose poetry you might’ve heard sung over acoustic guitar, picked the book up off of my coffee table and later texted me that ‘Her words are like delicate mathematics. Personal equations for the intricate workings of trivial thought. Simply gentle and truthfully quiet.’

Hell, even a philistine like myself enjoys Kilalea’s experiments with words. Written between 2000 and 2009, between Cape Town and London, there’s a biographical thread where Kate stitches sentences together in meticulous detail to create a paced poetry; her poems turning what is familiar into something strange and new. Most people have commented on her use of metaphor/personificaton, noticing the links between the poetry and the world of design and architecture (Kate’s bread and butter jobs while working on the poems), something, which Kate explains as such:

‘This pragmatism is quite useful when talking about feelings, for example, which are always difficult to approach head on without being either sentimental or predictable. But if you treat the feelings or difficulties (which inevitably are the writer’s material) as you would a material, like metal, it becomes more real – I think of this process of trying to work with emotion as a ‘thing’ as finding ways to draw ideas into the material world.’

One Eyed Leigh_Cover

So far Kate has received an Arts Council Award for poetry, was invited on to BBC radio alongside Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga (White Tiger), and was asked to read in Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived. So yes, she’s kind of a big deal, which is why we skyped her out of the blue to speak to her about words.

Mahala: Okay so I must let you know that what ever you say from here on out is going into the interview, so please try and keep things professional, I know you can get quite slutty sometimes.

Kate: Funny – how else do you convey laughter, I refuse to write ha ha

Mahala: Lol?

Kate: Ok….

Mahala: Or employ emoticons?

Kate: That’s being stupid

Mahala: I dunno, just know that the person you’re talking to is smart enough to know when something is funny? Okay interview time. I really like your imagery. The way you make things yours.

Kate: Can’t see a question there, but will give it a shot.

Mahala: Shoot.

Kate: Hang on, thinking with the clever part of my brain

I think
a lot of the poems were experiments
with ways to focus on
which avoid
the habits of expressing things the way
we think we see them
so for example
there are a lot of them which are conceived as portraits
– like portrait of the beach, and portrait of our death and portrait of Colwyn washing the dishes – where imagining that your only job is to be accurate in describing
the scene, rather than drawing conclusions
so I found that to be a way to lose inhibitions about describing things the way we see them with the imagination which holds the pen.

Mahala: Your answer almost reads like a poem.

Kate: That’s line breaks for you.

Mahala: Do you think in poems?

Kate: No, but I do listen in poems.

Lots of people say that to write about people requires observation. I guess that’s mostly for novels, but the sounds of things are really important for me. Lots of the poems come from things overheard on buses, or things that Larry (Kate’s Kerrel) says in the morning, which suddenly form a phrase… I’m writing something which includes a character who took off his clothes and did cocaine for three weeks. Sure ain’t me.

Poet in our Midst: Kate Kilalea

Mahala: You write prose too. Do you wear a different hat depending on what you’re writing, or does the subject determine the medium?

Kate: Difficult that. I try to wear different hats – because you have to – but the prose hat is quite formal and self-aware. So I end up chopping out sentences until it looks like a long-line poem anyway.

Mahala: Do you have a favourite?

Kate: I thought poetry, but then recently there’s something satisfying about sinking into prose sentences and paragraphs, they’re more fluid, and you can lose yourself in a thought for longer without the language having to be terse.

Mahala: I always found your magazine articles very poetic. That skidpan piece line – ‘… looking over the miniscus of their TV dinners…’

Kate: You know, I don’t think they have to be separate, but they’re different ways of thinking, so if a novel is to be written in a poetic way then it’s necessarily going to be stranger – less planned. Thanks. That is a nice line

Mahala: Very. Can it also be problematic?

Kate: What, the poetic-ness?

Mahala: Adapting a lyrical writing style to journalese?

Kate: Once again, the writing style itself is irrelevant. I think the style is the envelope of the thought process. I think that writing poetry requires absolutely that you don’t know what you’re saying until it’s said. So writing to brief, in any way, is difficult because you’re trying to explicate rather than explore. Ezra pound said and I’ve probably mis-remembered it – that the message is the gaps between the lines – that it’s the tension in the unsaid which has impact. So the medium’s like a crackly radio where the crackles get on your nerves and the other thing is that finding a bit of over-writing in an article is often irritating. So yeah, they do butt heads. Although finding a bit of over-writing in a poem is irritating too. Sorry, just thinking aloud. Gotta run in a couple of minutes, friendy.

Mahala: Wait here’s a question – Were you a poet before you went to poetry school or did the school turn you into a poet?

Kate: I can’t answer that really. I think the poetry school made me a more patient poet and for sure it made me realise that I was not first and foremost a South African and that I could write poetry without referring to South Africa, which was a surprising revelation because I’d been very much involved with thinking about how to express that point of view before and being liberated from that allowed me to discover a more personal outlet, which has been hugely personally satisfying or to be more self-involved if you will. Yes?

Mahala: Yes. That’s something I picked up from the book, how you didn’t paint your face with a Proudly South African flag or anything like that, which would be tempting living in London. The only reference that I can think of is when you say ‘River-Without-End’, which was like an inside joke for us living here.

Kate: There are some superb words in South African. I wanted to use the term ‘n – as in the Afrikaans for ‘the’ somewhere. False Bay is good too. And what if you just heard Beit Bridge – of Zimbabwe – how the imagination’s hackles rise with the odd idea of a biting bridge.

One Eye’d Leigh is available on Amazon for one blue buffalo or seven squid.

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  1. Sean says:

    Small point of fact: University of East Anglia is in Norwich, not London. I know this because my ex-girlfriend studied there, also because the MA in Creative Writing is world-famous, having given birth, so to speak, to Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt and now Kate.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I heard Kate Kilalea read her ‘The Way We Look is A Game Of Chess’, and I’m sorry to say (because I like the way she writes in her interview) that it was quite the uninspiring piece of poetry. It might have had something to do with the way she speaks, though – she seems to not be conscious of the more appropriate pauses and emphases in the reading of her own work. Because poetry is so un-punctuated and unfettered by authoritarian full-stops and commas, the reader plays a doubly important role in abetting the mellifluousness of the work, or turning it into a splintered, wooden rendition of itself; unfortunately Ms. Kilalea did the latter. Another poem of hers I read instead, I was equally unimpressed by. The back of her book jacket reads:

    “”One Eye’d Leigh” is a book of portraits, experiments and objects made of words. They find their locations between Cape Town and London, between the dawn of the new millennium and the present day. Guided by a biographical thread, in her first collection Kate Kilalea borrows the techniques of a craftsman to transform material into new shapes: an artist’s concentrated gaze at the very particular subject in her portrait poems; an embroiderer’s delicate craft of stitching to create a paced poetry, meticulous in detail. Her language is familiar, her forms transparent. She leads readers through a landscape in which the lucid angles of a chair might express love more precisely than the lines of a sonnet. It is the ways in which these poems turn what is familiar into something strange and new, what is stable fluid, and how out of light darkness is seen to shine, that make these poems powerful, haunting and original.”

    Now that to me is poetry. Unfortunately, while being poetically written, it is nothing more than what I call aspirational-blurbing, where the blurb describes what the content of the book aspires to be, rather than what it actually is. And regrettably, I think Ms. Kilalea’s poetry falls short of that fascinatingly fulsome appraisal. She has got a lovely surname, though.

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  3. bubba hotep says:

    Kiss me Kate…how strong is her relationship with Larry? Larry is one lucky dude. Maybe Larry will fall into an open man-hole cover while reading Kate’s work. Then Bubba can move in and be her muse. Sorry Larry…just channeling Satan out of molten lust!

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  4. Marin says:

    kewlz.. must check it out

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  5. Pauly says:

    Great interview. a bit of a coup

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  6. Bilko says:

    Loving the Kate

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