Writing poetry, writing the oceans in pandemic times

Robert Frost, famously wrote, “to be a poet is a condition, not a profession”. For the last few years I have composed poetry, and it is now apparent that the number, form and quality of the poems composed, evolve as the world around me becomes more complex, less just, less hospitable, less charitable. I started writing poems because of the lack of time to write ethnography.

For five years, I served as a senior manager in higher education in a South African university and my main task was to resolve the many complex problems and challenges that arose in the diverse community of scholars that I led. I was then (and still am) a person who likes to think in different directions. I am a person who enjoys deep creativity. In my previous role I enjoyed working with and helping many people. But in this space, it was difficult to express my own creativity.

During this time, Robert Frost’s first quote was entirely applicable: writing poetry reflected my “condition”, a condition then of constraint, pressure and distance from creative writing.

But long before I joined the One Ocean Hub – a consortia of researchers seeking to understand and conserve the oceans and coasts – I was part of and enamoured of the sea. The poetry I wrote then reflects this bond and I have returned to oceanic themes. However, I also now write poems that reflect a diversity of experiences.

What is it like to live as an immigrant in “post” apartheid South Africa? What is like to be a woman in Africa? What is the nature of our familial relationships in a context that still privileges work productivity over family and community? And, what are we experiencing as human beings in the grip of a global pandemic?  

Before I became a manager, I was an anthropologist. My craft is writing. I write long essays and I have written a few monographs. Anthropologists spend years, if not decades, sometimes entire lifetimes trying to understand and to convey the complexity and diversity of the people they encounter.

For them (and I), being “in the field” is a sort of heaven. A real kind of heaven, where we do not really belong but really want to be. As the days and weeks and months go by, our hands and bodies come alive, as if we are steadily relinquishing the carapace of zombie capitalism, to emerge where lives are lived differently and where priorities are differently organised.

For many anthropologists, part of the carapace remains. We write for those “at home”. We go back, back to our universities, communities and families. We re-enter the spaces where we earn a living. I cannot speak for others, but my experience of fieldwork has been that wherever I have been in the last twenty or so years, those places and people have remained with me. It is as if that unremitting shell of the “outsider” is forever cracked, and I will always be connected to those I encountered.

This brings me back to the issue of poetry and other reasons why I came to and stayed with it. In 1984, James Clifford and George Marcus edited a book of influential essays on what they called “the poetics and politics of ethnography”. In it, selected essayists discussed the challenges of anthropology in a “post” colonial world, the problem of authorial voices, of male ethnographers, and of the political disparities between the researcher and the researched.

These scholars also focused on the literary turn in ethnography, including the rhetoric and discourse of ethnographers, how they chose their subjects and made them come alive in their writing. The book unleashed serious questions about the position, purpose and politics of anthropology, and about the place of local or native ethnographers in narratives of a colonised humanity.

Could these local anthropologists authentically represent the realities of their research participants, or, would they (as a result of being trained in neoliberal and “white” establishments) ventriloquise their scholarly masters? Of course, it turned out that local and native ethnographers produced a diversity of works. While some dutifully followed established professional careers in the Global North and replicated hegemonic knowledge forms, others gently and decidedly drifted away on an ocean of possibilities, and experimented with different forms of expression, writing styles, topics and spaces for research.

It is in this spirit of experimentation that I started writing poetry a few years ago. But I also did it because I could not write ethnography. Every time I tried to set aside time to write, I would be interrupted. First by the challenges posed to higher education and their leadership during the very turbulent years of national student protests in South Africa (2015-2017), and then by the challenges of gendered labour.

But the flow, form and fury of creativity could not be stemmed. Instead of posting other people’s articles about gender based violence or xenophobia, I started to write poetry to reflect my thoughts, experiences and sentiments on these difficult issues. The writing intensified and I eventually realised that I was not just articulating an existential condition, but that I had found a genre of writing, to abstractly and otherwise express what I had been circling around with conventional ethnography. I had become interested in sensory aspects of existence and began to see, taste and hear the world differently.

Around the same time, I also began with oceanic poetry, because, besides being an anthropologist, I am an islander. My memories of Mauritius in particular, its sea, sand, tides, waves and its interminable moods are always in my mind. For me then, poetry is a mnemonic device, it allows me to remember exactly how different kinds of sand look and feel, it reminds me of how the sea tastes, where the ocean is cold and where it is cloyingly warm. Poetry allows me to express what it is like to feel buoyed on the gracious deck of a dhow, or what it was really like to cross a lake in a dugout canoe full of holes.

I kept going back to Zanzibar, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius. I needed to be with the sea, to see how others were beholden to it, how they lived with it and why they could not be separated from it. I visited many artists and sculptors. I spoke with poets and singers.

For many, the oceans and coasts are not mere economic resources. The oceans, coast and sea and their creatures seem to provide many benefits that are not economic in nature. The oceans soothe, reassure, feed and allow some to weep, others to rejoice. They remind us of our connection to a deeper, more fundamentally connected biodiverse world. Oceans and coasts are places of bounty, landing, adaptation, boundlessness and profound beauty.

Anthropologist Divine Fuh has called the current moment “corona times”. Times in which humanity appears to be rapidly running out of time. Time to write deeply, in multiple layers and in copious texts, time to be with each other, quietly, listening to and tasting each other’s knowledge. Time to restore and sustain the oceans. The relentless mill of capitalism and the evaporation of an analogue way of life urge us to produce demonstrable, consumable, digital outputs.

Not even a virus that is killing many seems able to stop it. But, like a virus, poetry slips through the nooks and crannies that capitalists and virtual virtuosos forget. Poetry is also quick and often imperceptible. Those who wish to stop it have to be very fit indeed to catch up with it.

The difference with other forms of writing is that, for now, poetry is deemed so unimportant, so unprofitable, that no reasonable scholar should take it up. However, I have found that poetry (as all forms of creative arts) is reconnecting humanity, returning people to emotional, sensory routes. Poetry and art offer hope, healing, fantasy, possibility, humour, revelation, memory, taste and a range of experiences to delight both mind and body – especially in a time of social distancing and deadly fear of contagion.

One could say that poetry and art are unrecognised antidotes to what currently plagues humanity. There is no vaccine yet for Covid-19. However, we need art and poetry to evoke, articulate and hopefully heal the turbulent emotions brought by the pandemic. Much of capitalist existence has not prepared us for this. Capitalism reformulates and redirects our emotions to consumer goods. If we can afford to, we buy to feel good, we rarely analyse why we are not emotionally well. We perform emotional labour to appear reasonable, to be in control, so that we can produce and then earn and then buy.

So, I also write poetry to blur and melt these boundaries. To allow feelings to seep through. To remember and reconnect with the sea. To viscerally connect with my past. I write to remember what it is like to be with people, in places and in social worlds I knew before.

Poetry also seems to be a potent balm, not only for me, but for all those for whom I have composed a piece. We are all somehow waiting for time to write, draw and compose whatever else it is that we must and yet, we are all drawing, painting, writing and taking poignant photographs of now. A now that bears witness to the full gamut of our emotions.

Some time has passed since I began, and I now realise that poetry is what it is supposed to be, a brief, powerful expression of human sentiment in a place where time is scarce.

I am not yet a poet, since Robert Frost also famously said, “the word ‘poet’ is a gift word: someone else has to call you a poet; you can’t call yourself one”. So for the time being, I accept being a mere writer and anthropologist. Poetry does not seem to have any expectations, and that is the secret to its longevity and power.

Rosabelle Boswell is an anthropologist and writer. She is Professor of Ocean Cultures and Heritage, Nelson Mandela University, and Honorary Professor of Anthropology, University of Cape Town. She published several books on identity in the Indian Ocean region. Her latest offering is the poetry book Things Left Unsaid (Langaa RPCIG, 2020).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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