Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Literature, Poetry, South Africa

Interview with Mike Cope

1. What’s your relationship to poetry? How do you interact with it?

I talk to my pet rabbit in rhymed couplets. Apart from that, I read it and think about it a fair bit. I make up songs in my head, to borrowed tunes.

2. Do you work on just one poem at a time, or do you work on several at the same time?

If I’m working on a poem, then that’s what I’m working on. I like to return to things after some months.

3. Poets labour a lot over their work (as do other artists). A lot of time and dedication goes into writing good poetry. Where’s the money?

There are too many ‘poets’ and very little money, and such money as there is tends to go to poets who serve various agendas. Prizes, with their winner-takes-all structure, give the impression that people are being paid and honoured, but in fact very few are receiving very little.
Poets who aren’t climbing on a wagon must write for the pleasure of it. Nobody tries to publish their completed crossword puzzles. That said, I think poets should be paid.

4. Do you ever write ‘political poems’? Why, or why not?

All my work is in some sense political, and to various degrees. Everything, in my view, is political — to varying degrees. At the same time my work questions the power of the political, on its own, to complete our lives.

5. Is there a particular goal you seek when you write? Awake others? Entertain? Tell the truth? What?

While I am writing, the poem is its own end, and is a part of an imagined conversation with other poets.

6. How do you know when a poem is ‘finished’? Do you ever ‘give up’ on a poem?

I am never certain that a poem is finished. I have often given up on poems.

7. You are to encourage poetry students to write a poem. Please come up with a ‘writing prompt’, very short and simple.

Write a 3-verse poem which contains no adjectives, adverbs, clichés, slogans, complaints or opinions. The poem may not be about yourself. It may only contain ordinary language, of the kind that people use when they speak. It should contain at least one metaphor*. The first verse must set out a problem or situation. The second verse must explore it. The third verse must offer some resolution, or insight.

*A metaphor brings together two different things to create a new meaning. ‘John is as strong as an ox’ is a simile, not a metaphor. ‘John is an ox’ is a metaphor. ‘The sky is like neon lights’: simile. ‘The neon-light sky’: metaphor.

8. What writers, living or not, have influenced you the most?

My father Jack Cope was the writer who influenced me the most. Apart from that, I am influenced by whoever I am reading. The list is long, and I’ll never reach the end.

9. How and where do you write? Drink coffee, wine? Listen to music? Type, scribble? At a café, in the sitting room?

I write at a desk on a computer, at home. No wine, sometimes coffee.

10. Here’s an on-going poem. Please add to it.

They stood before me that night
With clenched fists and blown pupils,
Shadowed by leafless branches of a cotton tree,
The moon as bright as the moon and no metaphor

For which image can serve? What simile
Makes sense enough? The ghosts that guard
The tree nod yes, though I’ve not said a thing.
One shade uncurls and crooks a bony finger, calling me.

The voices rise up like beheaded trees
I stumble forward fear at my heels
How did this night arrive and where is wisdom’s heed
“Gone my child are your clothes — face now this thing.”

So strip off your nudity, and learn to be naked.
Release your fears as branches drop leaves
And let yourself see.
The man with an axe stands by
About to chop your ego,
Stand well away.

Oneself gone in the dark,
Everything else steps forward.
What black moonlight paints the scene;
The leaves whisper in the palms of the wind.
Michael Cope was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1952. His father was the distinguished novelist Jack Cope. He has worked, among other things, as a jeweller and a computer programmer. He has published two novels, Spiral of Fire, (David Philip, 1986) and Goldin: A Tale (iUniverse, 2005), two volumes of poems, Scenes and Visions, (Snailpress, 1990) and GHAAP, Sonnets from the Northern Cape (Kwela Books and Snailpress, 2005), a memoir, Intricacy: A Meditation on Memory, (Double Storey, 2005), several chapbooks of poetry, and extensively on the Internet.

He is a veteran performer of poetry, and has made a CD of jazz & poetry with Chris Wildman, Everybody Needs. He lives in Cape Town and works as a designer and jeweller. He teaches Goju karate. He is married to Julia Martin, and has three children.

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