A cup of Coffee with Sinclair Beiles
by Mark F Hurlin
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
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an interview with the celebrated South African Beat Poet Sinclair Beiles who lived and worked with poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs , Dylan Thomas to name a few
It is a rainy afternoon and I am sitting at Times Square Restaurant in Yeoville together with Sinclair Beiles, South Africas very own beat poet, who has just walked in out of the rain , carrying his Umbrella. Sinclair has just turned seventy. Since 1959 he has had 25 books and 8 plays published and has one festival held in his honour” Sinclair Beiles at the Beat Hotel “ he is also a candidate for the Nobel prize for poetry.( at the time of this interview around 2000 )
Sinclair how and when did you first begin to write poetry ??
I wrote my first poem when I was seventeen years old. I traced it with my finger on the sands of Clifton beach. It was entitled “her eyes were red as fireflies” it was for an ex –girlfriend . I sat and watched as the sea came in and washed it away. After that I went to stay on a ranch in Rustenberg wher I helped the residents to write love letter- poems for their sweethearts.
I am staring at Sinclairs wonderful colourful clown like eccentric tie. He says he has a whole collection of them, everytime I have seen him he is wearing a different one.
Sinclairs false teeth bounce in his mouth as he speaks enunciating the rhyme and meter of his words, and his hands tremble slightly as he lifts his coffee cup. Sinclair says he works at night as a surgeon at Thokoloza hospital." My hands shake when I am not working" he says , but give me a scalpel and I am quite fine.
In 1953 Sinclair traveled to Tangiers where he worked as an editor for the "Tangiers Gazette", it was here that he met and befriended William Burroughs an American writer and best known as the author of “The Naked Lunch”, together they worked on “Cut Ups” where they cut up and juxtaposed unrelated pieces of writing, whilst exploring their associations and producing some quite startling results. In 1958 Sinclair traveled together with Burroughs to Paris where they co-wrote a book entitled “Minutes to Go”
Sinclair did you always know that you wanted to write ?
Sinclair: Writing was something that always came naturally for me, it was never a question of deciding to write. That would have been liking deciding to learn to walk or talk. My first dream however was to become a dancer. I trained privately at the Duncan Dance academy in Paris and in Moscow I spent three months in the "Corps de Ballet" after I stood in for an injured dancer. In Athens I performed as a fertility dancer. Dancing was my first love, its a love I have not lost.
What sort of writing has most influenced and inspired you ??
All good literature , any beautifully penned words that move me,
To deepen my grasp of the classics, I immersed myself in Chaucer, the Greek Myths have always been a great inspiration to me .
I must make mention of two two very good friends whose poetry has inspire me immensely Christopher Logue and Woko Jensma. I was deeply saddened to learn Woko was found decapitated in a forest behind the French embassy in Pretoria.
What are your more modern influences.?
I am very inspired by Rap- poetry and Kwaito music, they are like my "Yiddish" forming a colourful cultural potpourri, a “fanagolo” of contemporary culture.
What would you describe as your Muse or Inner wellspring of your writing , what motivates you to write ?
I write on the spur of the moment whatever inspires my fancy and whatever thoughts or urges demand expression. A poem usually starts with a few words or a germinal idea then evolves to find its own particular form of expression. Often a part of me will stand back and “observe”to see what a poem “wants’ to say.
I use words as merely words, non abstracted simple words are the best. I like to write about ordinary everyday things, life as I experience it around me , and real concrete things, however I also like to play/experiment with the real, so I would describe myself as a surrealist..
Is there any mystical, higher/ spiritual purpose to your poetry ???
I will say only this, there is a hand greater than myself that guides my pen.
What duty or function does a poet perform for society ??
Let us not overly romanticize. As poets We are simply creative souls,who in mirroring our world are doing what we feel we must, we have no “duty” or function whatsoever. We have to say what we feel needs to be said, and we try to say it in the best possible way using the best possible language. Often the best language is the simplest rather than the most elaborate If people wish to ascribe to us some special role or function, or see us as some kind of prophet or priest that is their own projection.
Why do you write ?
Because I am compelled to. I must . I enjoy the process, I need to . I don’t know, I just write, why do I enjoy a cappuccino ??
Please tell me how you met with Ernest Hemingway ??
I met him in Uganda in 1935, shortly after the plane crash he had in Kenya. He knew my father who invited him to come and stay at our home in Uganda to convalesce. He virtually lived on our veranda with his typewriter and he must have spent two or three months here working on his manuscripts for the Snows of Kilimanjaro “ and the short and happy life of Francis Macomber. “
Have you any impressions of Hemingway the man you would care to relate ?
Well even with his injury, he was always limping around the veldt hunting Lions which I did not at all like. In the three months that he stayed with us he must have shot about 30 Lions.
He was in many ways a slow and ponderous man, not a quick thinker at all, he would write no more than about 30 lines a day. He was a manic depressive and he drank rather heavily. He wasn’t really this great action man- adventure heroe at all, He always paid servants to do much of his hunting and fishing for him. He would finish of the kill and pose for the photograph. He thought of himself heroically. He needed to. Through the power of his writing he transformed himself from an ordinary into a great man. He would always try to be witty. He had a practical joker sense of humour. His idea of funny would be to put a frog in your coffee cup. I must say he had a very good eye for art. At his house in Cuba I saw he had a large collection of art. He had quite a few Matisses as I recall.
Through your friendship with William Burroughs you met many of the writers of the “Beat Genertion” did you meet Alan Ginsberg ?
I knew him fairly well. Met him in Tangiers with Burroughs. We would go together to the “Café de Paris” to smoke Hashish Hookahs, drink mint tea and play Sheshbesh with the local old timers. Ginsberg was neurotic and quite mad in many respects. I could honestly regard him as a bit of an asshole, but the most lovable of assholes. I liked hm a lot. He was extremely emotional and he could get carried away on some or other wave of sincere feeling. I tried to have him come out to South Africa but he was sick with a liver condition at that time and he was so insistent on using only “Holistic” alternative medicines, that he never received proper treatment, he could have got better, in my opinion he deteriorated as a result of this holistic puritanism, or his stubborn refusal to listen to sense, in my opinion.
and Jack Kerouac ?
I did not like him at all. I met him in Paris at “the Beat Hotel” while he was writing Lonely traveler or some such, I thought it a dreadful little book. He spent a lot of time with Ginsberg. The two of them were always engrossd in some private fascinating idea, which they were always over-emotional about. They would either be sharing tears of sadness or tears of joy..
Gary Snyder ??
A gentle quiet man and quite likeable , personally I found his poetry bored me. I didn’t really get to know him. He was always wearing robes, he fancied himself a bit of a guru I'd say.
Aaah Gregorio !!! I really liked him. We all did . I met him first in 1957 at the Beat Hotel in Paris. He was a very Haphazard person in his personality and his writing. He was an “Impossible” person in so many ways but the most lovable bear of a man. He was a great poet from the very start and in my opinion Americas greatest contemporary poet.
How did the expression the “Beat generation” come about ?
We were sitting together with Burroughs and Corso at the French Senate in Paris where they had he best colletion of journals and magazines. Although the writers in our circle all wrote very differently our work was rather complementary and we worked together and co-existed quite well. So we were discussing what it was that set us apart from other contemporary poets. Gregorio said that we wrote with a certain Honesty of feeling that we shared a certain vision of Holiness or "Beatitude". A journalist who was sitting nearby overheard this and the following day in the New York Herald Times the first mention of the “Beat Generation was made”
Did you meet any of the English poets?
I was friendly with Dylan Thomas. We used to meet down at the old French pub in Soho, London .
He was a lovely man, but he was too often drunk. He lived in a world entirely made of words. He would reflect on words and all their nuance of meanings he would juggle and juxtapose them for effect he had the most incredible vocabulary. He could not really look after himself properly. For instance he was always behind on his Bills One day he was behind on his gas Bill. I accompanied him on the walk down to Faber and Faber to try and borrow some money from TS Elliot who worked there as a director. When Elliot saw Thoams looking so desperate, he took out a fat wad of money and gave it to him, I think not so much out of generosity but out of an irrational fear that somehow Thomas might beat him up.
What did you think of Elliot.?
I didn’t like him . I thought him an awful man, an elitist armchair nazi swine deluxe who sneered down his nose at the common man, cynical at his best. He was a coward, always afraid of being done in. He continually complained of chronic stomach constipation. Boy could he talk a lot of shit . Nobody that I knew liked him. I think our own (South African ) Roy Campbell once walloped him “for literary reasons”
Is there anything positive you would like to say about Elliot ??
He was quite good looking and he occasionally wrote a decent line.
Lets get back to you. How did you come to recognition as a poet in South Africa ??
In 1969 I wrote and published a volume called “Ashes of Experience “ which received the first Ingrid Jonker Memorial Prize in London, after that I became quite well known.
You went into Exile I believe, what were you exiled for ?
Oh for so many things , it all started when I was nineteen and I made a speech that incited a crowd at Johannesburg station. I was speaking out against segregation on the carriages. Things got really rough for me around the time of the Rivonia trials, I had to get out of the country. I walked to Mozambique and from there got a flight to London, I was in Exile from 1963-1983
What are you writing at the moment ?
I am writing a poem –play for de Beers –Anglo Gold all about Gold and diamonds and precious stones. I am going to set it against a backdrop of the Greek Golden-age. They seem very pleased with what they have seen so far. Its very dramatic, a “skiet and donder” on the Golden fleece
Sinclair Its getting late and you have to be going soon, is there anything you would like to say in finishing off?
Yes I would like to talk about the attitude of the press
(He begins to launch into a long diatribe against the press and I have to remind him to keep it short and sweet.)
In a nutshell what would you like to say about the press, Sinclair ??
Theres one journalist in particular come to mind. Sean de Wal who wrote a whole lot of shit about me. He referred to me as an action-poet, which was as complementary as he got but I have no idea what he meant by that. He also referred to me as a “Tsotsi”
In general I feel that the press find my poetry and my interpretations of life odious and irrelevant. They think I am overly euphorical. They see me as a fiddler on the roof Jew fiddling with words.
Anything else Sinclair before we call it a day ?
Ja this is quite hectic. One highly influential London Poet in London , whilst severely inebriated at the time, recited to me in a loud voice this nasty little piece of verse:
“Nigger- Jew , fuck you Slash you in the avenue.
Sinclair , Thankyou so much for your openess and your time. See you again soon.
Sinclair departs while I mull my impressions over in my head. I order a coffee refill as I reflect on this living literary icon , a living heritage the last survivor of a generation of great Poets. I suddenly notice. He has forgotten his umbrella.
Mark Hurlin Shelton 16 May 2009 Cape Town
My Notes.: A cup of coffee with Sinclair Beiles