[Interview] Renée Sigel

Renée Sigel was born in South Africa in 1960.

She worked as a fine art columnist for a major daily South African newspaper and as an arts and theatre editor for a lifestyle magazine before political pressure forced her to leave the country in 1994.

Her work includes the poetry collection, Sexions: Selections from life and love (Bewrite Books, 2005) and the poetry chapbook, Falling Slowly (erbacce press, 2010).

Her poems have also been featured in magazines that include nthposition, Voices in Wartime, The Other Voices International Project and Sam Smith’s The Journal.

Renée Sigel currently lives in Italy. In this interview, she talks about her writing:*

When did you start writing?

I never chose to write. It's very much more a matter of writing choosing me rather than me it.

It never came to my choosing or deciding to become a published writer: it happened literally out from under me as it were. I was very young when I was first published and it felt as though it was all happening to someone else in a way and yet during this process, I became very aware that I had a distinctive, if as yet, for me, undefined relationship with language.

It all began during my second year of high school. We had an extraordinary English teacher; I found her mysterious and enigmatic and even though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I realised years later, she was like a fictional character to me even then.

One lesson she gave us a creative writing assignment: we could choose whatever we wanted as a theme and were free to write a short story, an essay or a poem.

I decided on a poem and thought I'd write about a sunrise and I thought it to be neglected in poetry, so I wrote four lines with alternate rhyming. That was it. Nothing else came to be. The poem was done and for me there was nothing else there was to say.

A couple of days later, the teacher read a selection of the creative work to the class without saying who had written what and she cleverly handed the work back to everyone shortly before the end of class. Everyone filed out at the bell and she called me to her desk as the class emptied and the only thought I had was, "What have I done wrong now" - especially as she had read my poem among the others earlier in the lesson.

She gave me back the poem then and looked at me.

She asked if I had any idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I shook my head: I'd been dancing for as long as I could recall and that aside, I had no clue.

Her already deep voice dropped in tone and she said, "Well, whatever it is you do, even should you never do anything else, do one thing for me, never stop writing because it's what you were born to do."

I was dumbstruck. I think the look on my face was an instant glaze-over: she smiled and ushered me on my way.

I believed her blindly and have been writing ever since.

Several weeks later I was asked to write some poems in English and a piece on war in Afrikaans which was published in the school yearbook and the poems in a local arts paper.

So, suddenly, there I was, writing and being published at barely 13.

How would you describe your writing?

It's difficult to describe my writing as it doesn't fit into any particular genre, even as poetry.

I seek out the experiences and essences which we tend to overlook in making us human. My work is deeply sensorial: it's fearlessly sensuous but free of sentimentality.

I am a poet before anything else and language is both a canvas and a pinsel.

My novels tend to explore the complexities of identity and self.

As a critical essayist, I question everything that seems of consequence or that captures my curiosity. Someone once told me never to abandon my critical curiosity even if it made me less famous as a writer one day: he said, "The world has too many writers and not enough thinkers who write as well as you do, never give it up, the world needs your critical mind even though it doesn't know it yet."

It was a very charming compliment. I found that notion a very interesting one and it stays with me as a mental 'post it' note about relevance.

Who is your target audience?

I don't have a target audience and I've never written with a specific kind of audience in mind.

My focus is the the topic at hand: what is being asked of me by the text/subject and how I might do it the best possible justice.

I believe a work finds its own audience and that is the way it should be.

Marketing and advertising is derived by choosing and targeting an audience. That is not my job as poet, novelist or essayist: my job is to be true to what is being asked of me in the moment of writing any given piece. My responsibility and allegiance is first and foremost with language.

Have your personal experiences influenced your writing in any way?

All writing, all things artistic which derive deepest meaning are autobiographical in some way: not necessarily in the literal 'documentorial' or memoir sense, but experience is a continual growth of awareness and perception and it cannot but be personal in this way.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To be true to language and the text. To never feel mastery over craft to the point where I lose my sense of awe and apprenticeship.

I believe we strive to be masterful with language, but we never master the craft: the instant a poet believes they've become the master, the art dies and intrinsic death and vanitas is born in its place and that is no longer poetry.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Lack of time ... How do I deal with it? Insomnia helps

Do you write everyday?

This question is asked of me often and always with the same kind of expectation of its answer.

I don't believe in forcing a write on a daily basis. I know it works a charm for many writers, but it isn't something that makes any sense to me. The work announces itself and when it does, I listen. There are spates of weeks of no writing at all and then the flood gates open, inexplicably and I can be writing solidly for months at a time. It comes to me when it comes, even in novel writing.

I could sit down punctually at 9 a.m. every day with the intent to write and I may well write pages: chances are most of it would be binned and almost all of that effort feel disingenuous. So I don't.

I listen to what the the text asks of me and when a piece is done, it's very clear.

Why does the flow or inspiration - whatever one wishes to call it, end? No idea ... it just ends and one is back at the beginning and I have to start over from scratch every time.

How many books have you written so far?

A lot of my work has been published online and I am in the process of collating these into a collection of essays.

I also have recently begun The Baobab Papers, a blog where much of my poetry is published.

Online my work has appeared in nthpositionVoices in Wartime and in The Other Voices International Project, among others.

My poetry has been published in Sam Smith's The Journal, two consecutive editions of Harvest International and World's Strand: An international anthology of poetry (Edition Cicero, 2006).

Sexions: Selections from Life and Love featuring the prose poem "Hottentot Venus" was commissioned by Sam Smith and published by Bewrite Books in 2005.

I have a children's piece for Narrator and Orchestra, Tomas und der Regenbogendrachen (Tomas and the Rainbow Dragon) published on CD by Tudor Musik. It was commissioned by Howard Griffiths, conductor and artistic director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and performed at the Friends of Placido Domingo Teddy Bear Concert, a benefit concert for disabled children.

Two of my theatre pieces were published by Trinket Productions before being banned during the 80s in South Africa during the national state of emergency.

Max & Moritz went on tour in Zulu and Not the Graceland was closed down within the first week of opening.

Of Love & Remembrance, a sonnet cycle was performed in Johannesburg and Zurich as set for voice and piano.

What is your latest book about?

My latest poetry chapbook is Falling Slowly. I wrote it over several months as it was in the aftermath of losing my closest friend to suicide.

It was published by erbacce press in the United Kingdom and is available from the publisher directly.

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

I had entered a competition and they asked to see further work. They liked the work and decided to create a chapbook.

The challenge of small independent presses is always getting the word out and finding effective ways to market a collection to a new broader audience. Independent presses do not have the advantage of powerhouse marketing departments or business relationships with major bookstore chains. Now of course the dynamics begin to change with the increased interest in e-book publishing.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Falling Slowly was particularly challenging as I was dealing with a profound loss which occurred in one of the most traumatic of ways.

I dealt with the difficulties by finding a commonality of loss we all share. We all have to find our way between loss and living and this became the theme as the work took on dimension.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

It's always the writing, the process I enjoy most. It's frustrating, maddening, intoxicating, always some kind of struggle, some degree of agony ... but it's forever my oxygen.

What sets Falling Slowly apart from other things you've written?

It's a personal memorial to a superb human being who found the pain of living with herself too great to bear and it is testament to how much a part of me she will always remain.

It also affords me the opportunity to raise funds, awareness and share something of my experiences with those who suffer from clinical depression and affords me a chance to support other families and loved ones caught in the tragedy of a suicide.

I am on a lecture tour with readings from Falling Slowly with the aim of creating a more open public conversation.

In what way is Falling Slowly similar to your other works?

It speaks of the fragility of the human mind and heart and the resilience of our common spirit and shared experiences of living with loss.

What will your next book be about?

It is an erotic exploration inspired by the very beautiful fractal art photography of an ex-artistic director of French Vogue.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

When I receive emails from a reader/readers who express their thanks to me for giving them an opportunity to read an enjoy poetry, which they never normally otherwise read and tell me they have bought/ordered a copy of a collection. That for me is pure magic: I cannot think of any other more significant achievement for any poet.

*This article is based on an email interview with Renée Sigel which took place in June 2010

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