You are here

Interview with New Faculty: Henk Rossouw

Top Stories

Interview with Southwestern Review Editor Brandon Buckner

Brandon Buckner, the editor-in-chief of The Southwestern Review, is a second-year graduate student in the English Department at UL. We recently got in touch with Brandon to learn more about The Southwestern Review and the role graduate students play in its publishing.

Read More ➝

Call for Proposals for the Global Souths Conference

The Global Souths, a graduate student-run conference, has released a call for papers for the third annual conference

Read More ➝

Interview with New Faculty: Dr. Jessica Alexander

We have been pleased to welcome Dr. Jessica Alexander as Assistant Professor of Fiction to UL’s English Department. She earned her Ph.D. in Literature and Fiction Writing from the University of Utah in 2016; held a Visiting Assistant Professorship at Franklin & Marshall College from 2016-2018; and specializes in Creative Writing, Speculative Fiction, Contemporary Gothic & Horror Fiction, Queer Theory, and Experimental Writing & Hybrid forms.

Read More ➝

We have been pleased to welcome Dr. Henk Rossouw as Assistant Professor of Poetry to UL’s English Department, specializing in creative writing, modern and contemporary poetry, postcolonial studies, archives, and ecocriticism. Dr. Rossouw’s book-length poem Xamissa, published by Fordham University Press in 2018, won the Poets Out Loud Editor's Prize. Best American Experimental Writing 2018, out from Wesleyan University Press, featured an excerpt.

The African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books included his chapbook The Water Archives in the 2018 boxed set New-Generation African Poets. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Boston Review, among other publications. Originally from Cape Town, Dr. Rossouw earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a PhD from the University of Houston, where he served as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. Currently, he is an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly.

Recently, one of our PhD candidates, Daniel Altenburg, sat down with Dr. Rossouw in a conversation to introduce him and his artistic, scholarly, and pedagogical approaches to us:

Daniel:
I know last time we talked, you mentioned recently coming from Houston, so you’re not unfamiliar with this area. But I was wondering: what’s one thing that you expected from this area, region, Lafayette, and/or Louisiana that completely delivered?

Henk:
Well, I knew that Lafayette was a music city in its own right, so that came through for me. I went with some other professors, David [Squires] and Maria [Seger], to the Whirlybird in Opelousas. I don’t know how underground it is, but it’s definitely a secret honky-tonk; they don’t have an address listed. You just buy a ticket online, then on the day they tell you where to arrive. It was really great. So, some actor from maybe Nashville the TV series—or that might be made-up completely—has this huge house on this big piece of land, and behind the house is this old shed or barn that he did-up into a music venue. There was good music, and dancing, which I haven’t learned how to do yet. I don’t know what it is—the Lafayette two-step? I even met a person in New Orleans, another poet, who used to drive to Lafayette for the dancing. So, that came through, for sure.

Daniel:
Then, sort of in that same vein, anything that’s surprised you so far in terms of the region or city?

Henk:
The climate of Houston is similar, but maybe there’s less concrete, or more rain, here because it’s just so lush. Not a surprise in that I think of Louisiana as green, but I mean really lush; things grow. Maybe Houston has too much chemicals or oil. There are trees in Houston, but it’s just more developed. I think a good example here is the wildflower patch just outside of Griffin on the way to the library, which I don’t know if it’s intentional. Somebody told me it used to be a mud patch, so maybe it was somebody’s ecology project. Also, the big live oak by the library, which is the size of a house. There are big live oaks in Houston, but I’ve never seen one that size.

Daniel:
So, I know you’re busy, but are there any Lafayette attractions or Louisiana attractions or experiences you have your eye on for the next break, or which you've recently been to that you hope to return to?

Henk:
Yeah, I’d like to learn how to cook gumbo, or learn how to cook using some regional ingredients. I haven’t shown up at the farmer’s market yet. And I’d like to show up to more festivals—Festivals Acadien et Créoles had some amazing food. Also, as the heat goes down, I want to check out some of the swamps or even one of the nature trails nearby. I’ll have to find a place to swim outside; I hear there are some swimming holes up north.

And then for poetry, in late September I went to the reading series at LSU. They had a famous poet come through: Carmen Giménez Smith, who runs Noemi Press. So, that’s already feeling like there’s a community emerging there. I met some other poets from New Orleans there for dinner. We met halfway. And then in New Orleans itself, I’m starting to get involved in the New Orleans Poetry Festival. It’d be great to facilitate that more for ULL students. There are some avenues for collaboration, so that’s exciting. It feels like there’s a pretty good scene down there, too.

Daniel:
Yeah, I think so. I’ve got a buddy—who I went to my Master’s with—who’s in New Orleans, and will occasionally show me that side of New Orleans a little bit. He works at a community college, so there’s this blend of some academic poets and some general poets in his sphere.

Henk:
Yeah, it’s an interesting mix. There’s a new poetry center that has opened there called Dragonfly. It’s run by the same person who co-directs the New Orleans Poetry Festival, Megan Burns. It’s like a dedicated space with a library. They’re still setting up, but it’s open. It’s in the Bywater, so it’s close to all the cool stuff. And they have readings and events.

Daniel:
And so, a general writer/scholar question: what books are on your nightstand or bookshelf right now? What are you reading?

Henk:
I’ve been reading—or rereading—Lorine Niedecker, who I think is just amazing. Wave Books just reissued her poem Lake Superior, and it’s got all these really cool essays along with it—“Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime,” for instance. So, that relates to my interest in nature. Francis Ponge’s Partisan of Things is really cool. The titles include: “Orange,” “Snails,” “Oyster.” And it’s these prose poems that riff on everyday objects. So, “Moss,” “Sea Shores.” And I think he published it at the height of the Second World War in France, in 1942, when Ponge had joined the Resistance, so it has this subversive aspect to it.

There are two more books: I really like the title of Susan Howe’s latest book, Debths, which is, I guess, a play on “depths” and “debts.” I think it’s one of her best because, as you know, I’m really into documentary poetics, and she’s a doyenne of investigative poetics, documentary poetics, call it what you will—archival practice. It’s really amazing. And, I’m going to teach Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus in my undergrad workshop. This is probably, I’d guess, the most well-known archival-based poetry book right now. I assigned it, and we’re going to talk about it tomorrow. We’ll see; it might be too much for them. But we’ll see; they always surprise me. They’re really smart. I think I’m going to assign this in my grad workshop in the spring as well.

Daniel:
Since you’re sort of talking about teaching right now, I was just wondering your general approach to writing versus teaching, and if or where you see crossover between the two.

Henk:
Yeah, there is the “versus” aspect. You know, teaching takes time. But it’s also energizing in its own way—maybe not on the same day. In the way that I write and think of writing, and also in the way that I teach, I’m trying to defeat the myth—and it’s a pretty male myth—of the solitary, isolated writer on the hilltop. The isolated genius. You know: “In order to be a genius, I need to not collaborate or talk to anyone.” That myth exists?

Daniel:
Yeah, yeah, I think so.

Henk:
I think male fiction writers often struggle with the myth. I know I did. You know, like the Cormac McCarthy Model: “I lived for 20 years in a shed without running water.” He must’ve spoken with people, though, because his novels are rife with interaction.

Daniel:
Do you think that collaboration is a way out of that?

Henk:
Not necessarily in the literal sense. I do like and enjoy collaborative poetry. But I mean in the wider sense, like in workshop, just being part of a conversation or part of a wider conversation. So, I think the way I write is activated by a sense of being among others, a sense of community. I teach in the same way. Audience is imagined, yes, but it’s also actual other people. So, in that way, the teaching and the writing are related very closely because I think my community gets bigger through teaching; and therefore, I feel as a writer that I have more to say. Not in the sense of directly writing to my students; I mean in the wider sense, of making the poetry world bigger.

Daniel:
I can see that. I think that link is pretty clear, especially in driving where and how we learn, whether it be writing or any topic. [You’re] exploring through the collaborative sense rather than the classic methodology of lecture, study, lecture, study.

Henk:
Exactly. Because I think the other aspect of that is—it’s so 1950s—that authority is vested in the teacher somehow. And therefore: “You listen. You shut up and I talk.” And that’s just destructive.

Daniel:
And then probably does lead to our mythos regarding our reclusive writers.

Henk:
Right. The rugged individual. The bootstraps guy. You know, authority is collective; it’s created as a whole. We decide what the future holds, so I think there needs to be collaboration with other people.

Daniel:
In that case, since we’re talking about learning, what set you on the path to be an academic?

Henk:
Okay, that’s a good question. I came to this continent with the intention of teaching at a university. But, you know, utterly naïve. One of my undergraduate professors in Johannesburg had done an MA or MFA at, maybe, University of Indiana, and had said, quite blithely: “Oh, you know, if you want to take your writing further, it’s really easy to get an MFA, and then you just get a job. Then you have teaching. Then you have a way to make a living.” And I took her at her word, not knowing that she was referencing, maybe, the way things were in the 70s. She definitely made it sound as if creative writing jobs were just like eating grapes on a chaise lounge. I’m exaggerating. But that was the vague intention. I didn’t have much of a plan, and I didn’t know nearly enough about how to do it or what I was getting into.

So, I think it really started with my PhD. At first, my goals were honorable; I really wanted to further my work, but I also wanted to stay in the country—I needed a visa. So, that would’ve extended my student visa by like another five or six years. I did my MFA, but I wasn’t ready to leave the US. I think my work had really gotten better here, partially from that community I was talking about. But then things really started to change because I felt my work really started to get better and more intense through reading philosophy or criticism or poetics—things that are outside of poetry but are texts that kind of move like poetry. So, I had this great teacher, Roberto Tejada, who would assign bits of philosophy or some crazy essay he had found, where it was very cerebral but was moving in the kind of leaps that poetic language does. That was exciting. And then I started to feel like, well, it’s more than just teaching and having a job and having a way to make a living as a writer. That this environment is actually highly generative for me. If I see myself as a poet-scholar—though I haven’t really published scholarship, but I do include research and archives in my book—I kind of see the hyphenated tension between “poet” and “scholar” as a really productive tension. For me, personally; not for everyone.

Daniel:
Sure. I can see that, though. And so would you say that you found a reason to be in academia as you existed in academia? I don’t mean to be overly simplistic.

Henk:
No, not at all. I think I found my desire. I think I always wanted it, but I was kind of inarticulate about it, and imprecise about what exactly it is that I wanted.

Daniel:
Sure. Because the idea of academia and being a professor is so nebulous.

Henk:
Exactly. It was just so beyond anything that I knew. Especially, for this writer in his late-twenties from South Africa who had arrived in the United States. [I] had traveled in a lot of countries on the African continent, but had never really left South Africa for very long— and certainly not in relatively rich country like this one.

I think the other part of it that’s worth noting in this interview is—and we don’t really have this term in South Africa—I would be considered a first-generation student. So, I was also hungry for higher education. I went to college pretty late in South Africa. I paid for it myself in, metaphorically, cash. There was no scholarship. I mean, also it’s much cheaper there. It was not like I was giving people $40,000.

Daniel:
No, who would do that?!

Henk:
Exactly! But yeah, I came to college pretty late, so there was a kind of hunger for the academic life. In that year after my MFA—I taught for a year at UMASS Amherst—as I was getting my PhD applications together that desire became more articulate. I was like: “Oh, I really want this.”

Daniel:
Do you think that happened while you were teaching at Amherst? Like a switch just went off, and you’re like: “Oh, this is where I find that passion.”

Henk:
Yes, towards the tail end. I think I didn’t really know what I was doing when I first got to Amherst, but towards the tail end, yeah, something switched on. I wanted to be the first in my family—actually, my younger brothers had finished their undergraduate degrees way before me—to get a PhD. Let’s do it, I thought.

Daniel:
Cool. So, in that regard, do you mind speaking a little bit to your areas of expertise—where you’re at, where you’ve been, where you aim to go?

Henk:
Sure. Well, I don’t know about expertise. There’s certainly the desire for expertise, but it’s always a work in progress. I have interest in, and little bits of expertise on, poetry in the Objectivist tradition—Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker, Basil Bunting. Though that’s not really where I see my own work, there’s definitely a conversation with poets who are concerned with history, people, with the lives of others. I have a strong interest in Postcolonial theory, but not as an expert. I haven’t read much Frantz Fanon, for instance, but I have read a lot of Édouard Glissant. And his book The Poetics of Relation was immensely helpful for me in writing and finishing my book. He’s a poet-philosopher, more than a poet-critic. So, that’s something I really want to share with students: some theory, wisely chosen, can be very helpful. I don’t think it’s upon us poets to be masters of theory, necessarily, but I think we can borrow.

Daniel:
Are you saying: as learners? As poets? As academics?

Henk:
Yeah, all three. But I think especially as poets, because ultimately what I’m hired for is to invigorate poetry, and the writing of poetry, and the love of poetry.

Daniel:
Do you see yourself as poet-philosopher?

Henk:
No, no. I just don’t think I have the street-cred, so to speak. But I’m definitely interested in the hyphen.

So, then other areas of semi-expertise—and this maybe overlaps with David Squires a little bit—I’m very interested in archives. As for areas I hope for future expertise in, I’m very interested in Ecopoetics or Ecocriticism that doesn’t hate people. So that is my new question: Is there some kind of space in poetry that is open to both what Fred Moten called “sociality”—which, I don’t have to go into what it means, but one version is like creative people hanging out, and another version is kind of everything I’ve been saying about community—and thinking or questions about nature? Because there is that dynamic. Nature is often coded as a space of whiteness, of privilege, or a space without people, or a space where people do nothing but destroy. So, can this world, the world of history, of people, or a politics of being among others, overlap with my own desires towards being in nature? Because, for me, nature is about pleasure. Something like that.

Also, 20th Century Modern poetry, especially the long poem. I’m very interested in teaching, reading, writing long poems. [So,] postcolonial stuff, archives, 20th Century and contemporary long poems, and then also how does Ecocriticism fit into all of this.

Daniel:
So, looking at all of those things with that Ecocritic lens.

Henk:
Yeah, that’s where I’m trying to think through now: are they completely mutually exclusive, or is there a conversation to be had?

Daniel:
I can see that, especially because we like to dichotomize, man vs. nature. So, ecocriticism can potentially provide us with a space where we hybridize, where we blend.

Henk:
Especially if it’s a question more than an answer. I think questions really fuel poetry. And I think there are aspects of that in my book. There is a lot of archival stuff in there. The mountain figures prominently, and water figures prominently. And it’s very much a book about space and geography. That’s all connected.

Daniel:
By the way, who published your book?

Henk:
It’s Fordham University Press. I think they must be already like $10,000 in the hole. They did a great job; there are images in there. It’s a lot of pages for a poetry book. There’s enough scholarship in there to require end notes and a bibliography, both unusual for a poetry book. They really spared no expense. So, I’m indebted.

Daniel:
It’s gorgeous. Congratulations! I’m sure it feels good.

Henk:
Yeah. Although—and this is going to sound shitty—now it’s like: what’s next? I’m at that phase where I have to talk about the book, or make sure that it’s on the radar of people; that’s not nearly as fun as the writing, or even just the going to readings part. It feels a little bit more corporate. Not that it really is, but you know what I mean.

Daniel:
No, I understand. For my last question, howbout—and I won’t push too far to what’s on the horizon [for your work]—any advice you have for current grad students—professional, writerly, teacherly, personal?

Henk:
I think this program already has this as a strength, but something like this: not to be afraid of heavy-reading. This was a hard lesson for me but a good lesson, and ultimately one that was worthwhile. The way this program at ULL is structured, it already gives students here an advantage. Because, based on what I can see, I think it has a higher proportion of critical courses or critical reading required than my PhD. And my PhD already had a higher proportion than many other PhDs in Creative Writing, compared to like Denver or Florida State.

Daniel:
Yes. I remember when applying, trying to guess at what percentage of literature versus theory versus creative writing courses are composing a Creative Writing program. And it’s sort of all over.

Henk:
Yeah, at a guess, I’d say this program is closer to University of Georgia, where scholarship is valued a lot. And my piece of advice is: that can be deeply generative. It may seem like a time-suck, but given enough time to germinate, that kind of critical reading or deeper thinking that those courses require, that those exams require—especially if you adapt it to your creative work is generative. And I think what is helpful to me--and I think this might be the second part of the advice--I never felt like I had to be a master or an expert in theory or criticism. I just had to devour it. For instance, I’m teaching an undergraduate survey of Early-American Literature right now and learning the ropes as I teach. My students like it, I think, that I don’t dominate their interpretations of these early American texts with my expertise. I mean, I’ve read and taught Whitman and Dickinson before, but I’m not an expert, and I don’t have to be. I’m a creative writer. So, in some ways, we have an advantage because we can kind of pick and choose.

Daniel:
Yeah. Especially if you’re seeing an avenue in your own work that you want to explore or shore up, or just look into because there’s an inkling towards Early American or what have you.

Henk:
Yeah, so it all goes somewhere, even in courses where it doesn’t seem as relevant. I took courses in Old English and loved it. And most people, myself included at first, were like, “It’s going to cover my language requirement.” But you can immerse yourself in Old English in all kinds of interesting ways, like the use of caesura or use of heavy stresses—playing with that. It was all worthwhile.

And this is a generalist PhD program, so I think that’s an advantage. I mean, you have to make some choices about what you really care about, but if you can see each of those choices as stoking up new writing, new creative writing, then, for example, reading translation or translation theory can be deeply exciting. Or you name it: Southern Studies, 18th Century British Literature, literature at the beginning of the Early Modern period, whatever is exciting to you.

At the same time, there needs to be a measure of expertise for exams. You can’t just be like: “Dear examiner, I’m gonna pick and choose here for the sake of my creative agenda.”

Daniel:
No, I understand what you’re saying. And I think that, being a creative writer, there are a lot of opinions about what Creative Writing has looked like in the past, especially in academia, what it looks like now. And you have a variety of opinions over what a creative writer is, especially in terms of scholarship. You mentioned your hard lesson [about a reluctance towards heavy-reading], do you think you had an idea of what a creative writer was that acted as a roadblock?

Henk:
Yeah, I think back in my MFA, ignoring the academic part was actually a roadblock to my writing. Some of those poems I love, but they’re long forgotten. I feel like I really started finding—and this sounds clichéd—I really started finding my voice when I stopped ignoring my actual environment, which was an environment of scholarship. Not that I ever truly ignored it, but you know what I mean. And I think especially for us poets, even if we don’t become academics, to always have one foot in some way connected or related to the university can be really helpful because poetry is not a profitable enterprise the way fiction sometimes can be. There is no independent way of making money. No agents. Which I think is actually a blessing, to be honest.

And I guess here’s the final aspect of that: so you do all this reading in a PhD creative writing program, and compared to, say, people who just have an MFA, you get way better at positioning your work in cover letters, in job letters, in that one paragraph that you write when you submit your work. I think that hits a new level, too. And that kind of extratextual part is actually important. Because, when you write to an editor, you’re not just, “Here are my poems,” but, “Here’s why they matter; here’s what I’m pushing.”

Daniel:
Right. You learn how to place your writing within not just a history of writing, but in a history of scholarship and ideas. And the poet-scholar relationship is not a new one, so leaning into it can be [fruitful].

Henk:
Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it. So, to sum-up my last thought, the particular freedom we have available is that it’s “poet-scholar,” not “scholar-poet.” There is an order to it. I wouldn’t have it any other way; equally, I wouldn’t have it without the hyphen part. There is a priority that then animates my work, but also a hyphen that my work depends upon. So, the little bits of criticism I’ve written, or my desire to dig through archives, is a kind of scholarship that undergirds my creative work.

 

SHARE THIS |