Peter Jarvis was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Africa before settling in Scotland where he worked for 25 years as an English teacher. He returned in the noughties where he enjoyed teaching posts in Botswana and Namibia and immersed himself in African village life.
His poems have appeared previously in Poetry Scotland magazine and he was runner-up in the James Kirkup Memorial Competition in 2011. His debut pamphlet Nights of a Shining Moon was published by HappenStance Press in 2015.
Hi Peter. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your pamphlet Nights of A Shining Moon last year. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of these poems and how they came to fruition as a published collection?
I suppose most of my poems arise out of a homesickness for Africa, a wish to find ways of dwelling there again. In particular I love village Africa; I’ve spent over six years recently experiencing that properly for the first time (my own African upbringing was largely urban).
My very first poem was ’Sametsi’. I was encouraged when friends liked it and it gave me a sense of achievement, the wish to continue trying. It seemed that every poem that came to me was about Africa! Could I even write a poem that was not about Africa?
It was Anna Crowe who encouraged me upon my return to build towards a collection. I’ve always shown my poems to her and to my friend Alastair Macfarlane.
The poems evoke African places, people and cultures many readers may not be immediately familiar with. Some have a clear autobiographical element reflecting your time as a teacher there; others explore the rich mythologies and practices of the indigenous people or assume the voices of imagined characters such as a Lesotho shepherd. What do you think are the themes that emerge in the collection?
I’ve been reading about San culture for years. Growing up, I frequently encountered specimens of San rock art in caves or on rock overhangs all over Zimbabwe. I see the San (who are not Bantu) as Africa’s ‘first people’ and I am distressed that their numbers are now only about 80,000 – 40,000 in Botswana and the northern Cape of South Africa, and 40,000 in north-east Namibia. They are victims of an ages-long slow genocide.
I was also influenced by visits to D’Kar village near Ghanzi in south-west Botswana. This is a resettlement village for San driven away by the government from their traditional territory, which is now called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The village has the cultivation of San art as its big project. This is where the Dada of my poem ‘Dada’s Eland’ lived.
One day I stopped off there to see if I could find someone to check over my draft of ‘A San Triptych’. I was lucky to find a craft tutor who left her class to spend a couple of hours with me and my poem. I greatly appreciated it. The D’Kar Art Project is now quite celebrated and its work has toured the world.
I suppose that in general I’m very sympathetic towards Southern and Central Africa’s indigenous peoples and try to imagine myself into their lives and predicaments.
I like how many of the poems are peppered with African words, perhaps no more so than in the opening ‘Aubade’ which is a hybrid of English and Setswana words. Is this something that arose naturally out of the narratives and subjects you were describing, or did you want to make a conscious effort to explore the poetic possibilities of juxtaposing different languages?
I tried very hard to learn Setswana and later two Namibian dialects but, alas, I’m far too old to pick up new languages. I quickly forgot all I was learning. In ‘Aubade’ I was looking for a sort of ‘marriage’ between English and Setswana, hoping that the Setswana words might be guessable from their immediate contexts. Then to be on the safe side, I later supplied a little glossary at the end of the pamphlet!
It’s interesting to find out the different approaches and methods poets use in their own writing. Do you have any set routine as such in putting together your own work from initial draft to finished product?
I am not organised or systematic in my ways. A poem will usually come to me as a sort of itch that needs to be scratched until the irritation stops. I work hard with pencil and paper on drafts before putting them on screen, where the danger is that the poem may look better there than it in fact is.
I often put work aside for weeks before re-considering it. My wife Marg is a fine judge of wording and register in my poems, helping me to avoid arty-farty phrases and archaisms. She operates a sound ‘bollocks’ gauge as well.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the poetry world? Are you working towards another publication in the future?
I just want to keep going. Poems come slowly and irregularly to me, which is why membership of two writing groups is valuable. It would be horrible if poems stopped coming.
I have about enough for another publication. One problem is that I have some poems that are longish, that is to say longer than the usual 40 lines favoured by A5 formats, especially one that deals with Livingstone’s Zambesi adventures.
Recently I’ve attempted translating from other languages – Swedish and Russian so far – by using prose cribs. This is how Ted Hughes, Robert Bly, Robert Lowell, Christopher Logue and others worked, none of them being great linguists. I have really enjoyed tackling these and mean to do more. Sessions at the Scottish Poetry Library have been great in this regard, especially those run by Rose France.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I have chosen a new poem called ‘Old Sun’. In my Namibian village where I was staying I was sitting by the kitchen window early one winter morning, hastily finishing assignments for my classes. Looking up, I noticed in the tree these three gorgeously colourful birds busy at work there – a sort of epiphany. Suddenly the marvellous moment was destroyed by the noisy intrusion of a pig being pursued by a wee boy!
Old sun, this cloudless morning
you’ve resumed your winter dance
stepping across the grassed plains
and their patches of thorn scrub,
skipping over the long arc
of last night’s dying veld fire,
burning off the river-mist.
Now at my roof ridge you’ve paused
to peep at my window tree.
This green monkey-orange tree
has a leaning, corky stem –
foliage dark, with hidden spines
yet browsed by starving cattle,
its globes of woody-shelled fruit
long matured to yellow-brown,
rotten ones fallen…
From the left, a wild crashing!
Through dry grass and fallen leaves
across the scene a huge pig
fleeing – its belly low-slung,
tail comically curled – bursts in,
dashing by the orange tree.
In pursuit a ragged boy
yelling with a brandished stick.
Sun, you’re blessing that small tree,
in your moments picking out
a triple bird miracle:
an iridescent sunbird
with red patch and down-curved bill;
a golden oriole, male,
his whistling call loud, liquid;
a cardinal woodpecker
working a branch upside down
tapping fissures for insects.
Old sun, you’re laying pools of light
by the bare mangetti grove
where early students huddle
warming themselves before school.
Bell-time! You must move…
Out of the bush from the right
races back the little boy
howling and without his stick –
after him charges the pig.