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We are a bastard culture, but that liberates us:
A Q&A with Stephen Gray

Poet and author Stephen Gray talks to The English Experience about his acclaimed poem "The Herb Garden", candidly sharing his ideas on what students might gain from reading it, offering suggestions to help them understand the poem better, and explaining why he believes the arrival of the herbs in the 'soggy pages of The Star' offers a key insight into the context and meaning of the poem.

English Experience: How does it feel to know that your poem has been prescribed by the IEB?

Stephen Gray: It's great and if it proves of use in the classroom that will suit me because my entire career has been dedicated to teaching English. I don't write poetry with classroom use in mind, of course, but have observed that poetry can be a really good drill in class - a great way of facilitating literacy, a feel for language and of improving students' expressivity.

EE: What prompted you to write "The Herb Garden"?

SG: The desire to capture the experience of that powerful recollection. The poem tells you exactly what happened: the smell of lavender provoked a potent memory and recollection of my mother. My intention, on a personal level, was to express what I felt as accurately as I could so that other people could share and connect with that feeling.

A poet has a job to do as well, though: the role of social commentator. So there is a social meaning within the poem too. At the time, I was writing a sequence of intensely personal poems about the violence in South Africa and the rhetorical stalemate between the government and the people. It was the late 1980s, the height of the apartheid period, and there was violence and brutality everywhere. As a result, I also wanted to praise active peacemakers, people like my mother.

In remembering my mother and her attitude to life, I realised that she believed in, and represented, the motherly virtues of peace, nurturing and reverence for life. That's why a message of the poem is: 'be gentle, cultivate peace'.

It is also why the arrival of the herbs in the 'soggy pages of The Star' is emphasised. The newspaper was bringing in yet more depressing news, more horrors, and the roots of the herb plants being wrapped up in that soggy mass is aptly symbolic.

EE: How would you describe the process of writing the poem?

SG: Every poem I write has a lengthy genesis. I sort through what I'm feeling and thinking first, in a pre-verbal stage. Once I know what I want to say, I move on to the problem of how the heck to say it so that it will register with others. By the end of the process, it is not my poem any more, but the reader's poem. Once it has been written, it is done and gone. Something articulate germinated from the inarticulate. It becomes an object. One that I hope other people will be able to read refreshingly. I get invited to read them occasionally and usually think to myself, "oh gosh! Did I write that?"

EE: Do you think high school learners will be able to relate to the poem?

SG: Well, I hope so. On a basic level, most of us have experienced some nurturing and can relate to having a mother or someone who cared for us and raised us. Sadly, in the adult world, we seem all too ready to forget them.

EE: How do you think learners will respond to it?

SG: I hope that they understand the poem and that it provokes some kind of reaction. I would be delighted if it helps motivate them to write their own poetry. I hope it helps them realise that they have a huge repertoire of experience to draw on, if they try to.

EE: What advice would you give learners to help them understand the poem?

SG: Start by establishing what type of poem it is, the tradition in which it has been written. I suggest this because there are two traditions that come together here, in a rather relevant and interesting way. One is the lyric poetry tradition of Europe and the other, a special interest of mine, is the praise poetry tradition of Africa. As South Africans, we reside at a crossroads of literary customs - the written European and the spoken African - and this is not a handicap, but a wonderful advantage.

EE: Ideally, what would you like them to gain from reading it?

SG: The confidence to see how well ordinary, everyday moments can be captured in poetry. Also, an understanding that poetry is not something 'brought in' from abroad. It would be easy for pupils to be confronted with this huge English tradition of poetry and consider it 'foreign', but they can just grab it and use it and make it their own. That's a theme in the poem: 'grow it in your own garden'. We are a bastard culture, but that liberates us to use whatever we find that is good and works.

EE: As well as honouring your late mother, the poem appears to tackle the themes of heritage and identity. Would you agree that this is the case and, if so, what advice would you give learners attempting to understand and appreciate this conundrum?

SG: Yes, the poem is about heritage and identity, but it is about mixed heritage and that's the point. My mother was English and 'foreign' here, but the idea that any one of us is somehow 'racially pure' is hopeless.

That seems obvious today and the poem probably wouldn't need to be written nowadays, but it was composed during the 1980s and you need to recreate that time, that atmosphere, everyone trying to 'purify their heritages'. I was simply reacting to these flawed ideas and being anti-segregationist.

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