BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Nick Mulgrew is a local literary super-hero — if there’s an independent wordy initiative going on in South Africa, odds are he’s involved. He’s associate editor of literary journal Prufrock, is a pivotal member of Short Story Day Africa (and co-edited Water, its new anthology) — all the while completing his MA in English Language & Literature as a Mandela Rhodes scholar.
A prolific short story writer and poet, his poetry collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, came out last year, while his debut short story collection, Trains, will launch next month. Mulgrew has also founded uHlanga: a poetry press that showcases first-time poets.
uHlanga started out life as a poetry journal. Perhaps you could kick off with telling us a bit more about what made you decide to launch that.
While working at Prufrock magazine, I realised that there weren’t nearly enough publications that were publishing new poets – and especially poets from KwaZulu-Natal, where I’m originally from. I envisioned uHlanga as a yearly journal that would publish poetry from, of and about KZN.
uHlanga issue 1 was launched at Poetry Africa in 2014, where our reading was upstaged by a freestyle slam by some teenagers playing beats on their cellphones. Almost immediately I realised I needed a different angle, even though the magazine was beautiful and affordable and ended up selling well.
What made you decide to transform it into a fully-fledged poetry press?
Even though we have few poetry publications, we have even fewer poetry publishers. Which is a shame, because the only way – well, not the only way, but the most effective way – to build a career as a written poet is through publishing single-author collections. You need visibility and prestige and a publication, and a book is the best way to confer these onto a poet, especially a younger one, or someone who is in the early-building stages of their career.
So far you’ve published three collections. How did you go about choosing who to publish?
Thabo Jijana and Genna Gardini were two poets who I had worked with at Prufrock, whose writing I admired, and who I thought were two of the best young poets in SA who had not yet been published for their poetry. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
Who will be the next poet?
I can’t say just yet because I’m waiting on funding, but there will be a book from someone whose career is gaining momentum, and one from someone no one knows very much, in Xhosa and English.
Tell us a bit about what the role of publisher or editor entails — is putting together a collection a very collaborative process?
For me it is. As well as being the publisher of uHlanga, I work as the commissioner, designer and usually also the editor. I work with the author to make sure the book is as polished and beautiful as possible, and that the poems are tight, their rhythm right, and that no word is wasted. I love to collaborate with authors, because I get to learn a lot about their writing processes and what makes them tick. It makes me a better editor and writer, and I hope it’s a pleasurable experience for the authors too.
What are the biggest challenges you face in publishing poetry?
I’m going to be blunt here: it’s a lack of support from major booksellers. Go into any major bookstore and look at the poetry section. If there is one, it’s usually pitifully small. The refrain goes that poetry doesn’t sell. I say it doesn’t sell because booksellers don’t try to sell it. Vicious cycle, et cetera.
We’ve had mainstream exposure for the books (from Superbalist and City Press and GQ and so on) and exposure at literary festivals – but chain booksellers won’t bite. We’re about to start distributing these books in the UK, but still you can’t easily find a copy in my hometown. From next week it will be easier for my gran in Scotland to buy one of our books than my mum in Durban North!
Independent bookstores, however, and a number of Western Cape-based chain stores have been very supportive. I love those guys. Maybe I just have to work harder to convince everyone else.
You’re also involved in Short Story Day Africa and Prufrock. What are some of the lessons you’ve gained along the way?
In publishing, you can only rely on yourself. You have to assume no one is on your side until, over time, through actions, they prove they are. And once you have people on your side – like my colleagues at SSDA and Prufrock – you hold onto them jealously.
The other thing is that people in the publishing and literary industry now have to have a diverse skill set. You can’t just be a writer or a publisher. You need to also know how to design, or edit, or typeset, or market, or distribute, or events organise. The days of the single-skilled publishing professional are very much gone.
What are the things you dig most about being involved in literary initiatives?
Making people happy. Not just writers – whose work me and my colleagues try our best to champion – but also readers, and helping introduce people to new, current work that reflects their lives or their contemporaries’ lives, and books that make people feel that they are part of a particular, definable point in history and politics and nationhood. We live in a discombobulated age, and I think good books can be a great comfort. Our world isn’t very joyous. Literature could do well to trade in more joy.
You write both your own prose and poetry. Who and want have influenced your own work?
Flannery O’Connor, Catholic dogma, Njabulo Ndebele, four years of unsuccessfully trying to be a popular folk guitarist, MasterChef, Bruce Chatwin, the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, Manchester United, Zadie Smith, Rustum Kozain, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Vladislavic, public transport systems in foreign cities, Richard Rive, Sam Riviere, and the Recurring Tragedies of the Natal Sharks. My church is a broad one, evidently.
There has been much debate around the polarised literary landscape in South Africa. What are ways in which it could be “decolonised”?
It doesn’t just need to be decolonised. It needs to be deglobalised, decapitalised and deapartheid-ised. (What a horrible trio of neologisms I’ve made there, but you get the point.)
There are more sinister forces at work than just the long and heavy shadow of colonial structure and ethos that falls over the publishing industry and the literary landscape. Yes, our publishing industry was imported wholesale from the colonial project and has re-inforced prejudicial and linguistic barriers over centuries. But unless we also address the way we cede our power and agency to positions of global prestige and power; and unless we address the cost-benefit analysis-driven modes of publishing that have become de rigeur (which in turn squash creativity and risk-taking) and the centralisation and suburbification of bookselling; and unless we do sustained work in introducing more black-led and intersectional works and initiatives into our industry, anything new and ostensibly decolonial will still uphold the greater part of our current status quo.
How do we go about that? Well, I think that’s another interview entirely.
Stations launches on 3 March at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.