Scott Thomas Outlar: Well, Don, this interview has been a long time coming. First of all, thank you for taking a moment to answer a few of my questions. Now, without further ado, let’s dive in! You certainly lived through some unique experiences growing up during the final decades of Apartheid in South Africa. How did those early years of life shape both your psyche and art? I’ve often heard you speak about one’s “moral compass.” Was it during this time that yours was formed?
Don Beukes: Yes indeed Scott and I am ready to heed to the call! Thank you for including me in your interview series and for your readers to ‘hear’ my voice from your pages!
Now that I think about it, from the day I was born in 1972 to the time when Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison in Paarl about 45 minutes from Cape Town, it was actually almost two decades. I was in my first year at University after a challenging secondary education involving a national student uprising against Apartheid, intimidation by the Apartheid regime’s military and police forces to prevent pupils from attending classes during this time for fear of demonstrations, mass meetings and perceived violence against armed forces, which was exactly what anyone my age experienced during that historic revolutionary period. Most of my peers at the age of 13 and 14 just starting high school experienced the wrath of the armed forces to prevent dissident gatherings and congregations of pupils at schools. I remember seeing an army vehicle called a ‘Casspir’ one morning before school (Belhar Secondary), and watching a soldier aim in slow motion towards my two friends, Heinrich and Gavin, and myself before firing! We ended up dragging helpless girls across the sports field towards the fence, enshrouded by swirls of Armageddon teargas. It was our first experience of teargas canisters being deployed to chase pupils away from the school premises in order to prevent mass gatherings and for older students to tell us what was really going on in our suburbs, our city and indeed the country, as we were quite protected from politics growing up though primary school.
Although I grew up in a segregated society designed along racial lines into whites only, ‘coloured’ or mixed race only suburbs and black only townships, as well as Indian only areas, along with the same racially segregated transport, beaches and other open spaces, I was never made to feel any different by my family. They shaped my psyche through family, cultural and religious values. It was indeed because of that where my young moral compass was oiled. They also taught me how to care for other human beings despite their circumstances. I witnessed my parents and two sisters make up random food parcels whenever a stranger knocked at the front door, despite my young misgivings, and so I had to learn from a very early age what it meant to be a true citizen.
My sisters and neighbors also inspired me to read more widely. I used to absorb my sister Ruth’s Readers Digest collection whilst my sister Joan introduced me to new writers in both English and Afrikaans.
I knew that Education would be the one weapon that no one could take away from me, and my family ensured that I was able to study at University to train as a teacher. At the end of high school, they even scraped together funds to make sure I could go on a national tour of South Africa, which opened my creative and artistic doors for a future of writing and now also collaborating with international artists and cartoonists.
My poems dealing with my childhood and memories of Apartheid can be seen in venues such as Dissident Voice and Indiana Voice Journal.
Outlar: Was there anything specific on that tour of South Africa that you recall being particularly influential to your future aspirations? Who were some of the artists, writers, and musicians that inspired you early on in life?
Beukes: Where to begin? Well, first of all, just the mere fact that my first ever nationwide tour at the age of 17 would take me over the escarpment mountain ranges to reach the interior of the country and the south and east coasts made me super excited for this once in a lifetime opportunity, as Capetownians from my background rarely ventured to other provinces due to the natural beauty of Cape Town and how cosmopolitan the city was with a melting pot of cultures and languages, as the oldest city in SA, and of course the fact that we could not afford it!
The different landscapes and regions we traveled through inspired me to study Geography at University, as I realized how awesome the natural beauty of our country was. Cape Town of course has Table Mountain and is surrounded by the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which dramatically converge at Cape Point, which is the end of the Cape Peninsula and part of one of the world’s most unique fauna and flora biospheres. From the large lakes of Knysna on the coastal Garden Route, the dry regions of the interior and the high peaks of mountain ranges on the plateau, I was mesmerized by the natural beauty we lived in.
That school tour in 1989, five years before Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president, opened my mind to the country we lived in and the diverse cultures and languages that formed part of what is now known as the ‘Rainbow Nation’. We were introduced to different languages, customs, food and scenery. I found myself able to communicate with anyone I came into contact with in English and Afrikaans, with only a few African tribal words my dad taught me in Xhosa (a click language of the letters c, x, th and q). Unfortunately, the racist regime prohibited us from learning tribal languages spoken in the country and similarly did not allow blacks to be taught in their own languages in schools, and so were forced to be taught in English or Afrikaans despite the fact that English and Afrikaans would have been their second, third or fourth language. Maybe this is why I studied Linguistics at University as well.
I must admit, apart from learning about famous European artists at school and from magazines, the closest I got to visual art was rock art in the Cango Caves in Oudshoorn whilst on tour and urban graffiti!
School and my sisters introduced me to local writers like Wilbur Smith, Afrikaans poets like Ingrid Jonker, Breyten Breytenbach, Adam Small, Antjie Krog and CJ Langenhoven. I’m forever grateful to my English teachers who introduced me to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple. My first Stephen King novel was It and I became a lifelong fan of his books. My most challenging text ever was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as part of my English Literature degree at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), a university in Belleville, Cape Town that allowed ‘coloured’ or mixed race and black students to obtain a diploma or degree, as historically our ‘kind’ were not allowed to study at a ‘whites only’ university under Apartheid laws.
My musical experience ranged from Afrikaans, English, urban ‘coloured’ hip hop and black ‘kwaito’ music and traditional music including Ladysmith Black Mambazo (with Paul Simon), Miriam Makeba, Johnny Clegg, Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassie, Prophets of Da City, Coenie De Villiers, Laurika Rauch, Queen and Michael Jackson.
In conclusion, what inspired me about that senior high school tour of Belhar High 1989 was the vision, ability and qualities of the teachers who made it possible, especially the tour leader, Johannes Adams, and also Michael Liddle, as well as my Afrikaans and English teachers Una Heradien and Magda De Wett.
Outlar: Sounds like an amazing trip! Despite having a loving family and being intimately connected to the culture and geography of your birthplace, you decided to venture out into the wider world at some point. Obviously, from what you’ve described, not everything in Cape Town was kittens, cupcakes, and red roses. But, on some level, had you always felt an inner calling to experience more of what this planet has to offer? What ultimately led you to spread your wings and take flight?
Beukes: I guess my desire to explore my own country or possibly the world was born from hours of reading about places I only saw on television or in travelogues and magazines, so I was naturally enticed to somehow be able to venture into the unknown and when the opportunity knocked, I opened that door with my whole being.
After returning from my SA tour, I was fired up to pass my senior exams, apply to university and somehow equip myself for a global future. I made pen friends in Germany, Poland, Holland, America and Belgium. I guess that was my first contact with the global village.
It was at this point that I felt I had the ability and hunger to think outside my cultural box. I soaked up the pulse of Cape Town, hiked on mountain ranges and even walked the Fish River Canyon in Namibia (second largest after Grand Canyon) to quench my insatiable thirst for the unknown and the weird and wonderful this world has to offer.
After six years of teaching, I finally gathered enough courage and funds to join the wave of young South Africans going to London on a two year working holiday visa, as our options to travel the world became more achievable, especially for someone from my culture and background. So, I stepped onto foreign shores in June 1999 with a friend of mine. London was grey, uninviting, weird and unforgiving. The culture shock was intense but I endured and we ended up travelling to the Northwest of England and worked as head waiters at a bohemian themed château restaurant called Burlington’s Dining Rooms in Ribchester, where we also lived for about 10 months.
I traveled extensively through England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and ended up doing some supply teaching, which enabled me to return to the UK permanently in 2001. My teaching took me to Kuwait City on a school exchange and I also had the chance of visiting some European countries.
My global journey currently revolves around my writing and I hope to personally meet my fellow word weavers one day.
Outlar: One of the mottos I’ve tried to live by during the past few years when it comes to seizing opportunities that arise is: if you happen to catch sight of an open door in the distance, pick up your feet and start running straight toward it, because the time for a slow stroll is officially over. It appears as if you’ve been sprinting along with a similar train of thought for a while now.
Before diving into your recent success with poetry, I thought maybe you’d like to say a few words about your time as a teacher. How has the experience of interacting with students and imparting knowledge to eager (or, perhaps, in some cases, not so eager) minds helped shape your life? What is your overall philosophy when it comes to infusing the future generation with wisdom? I worry that here in the United States the public school system has forgotten the importance of teaching students how to think, and instead is focused more on telling them what to think. Sadly, this seems to lead toward minds that are indoctrinated, rather than informed. Have you had to deal with this alarming trend overseas?
Beukes: You are right, Scott! I have indeed broken down doors to take charge of my own destiny, as I have learned as a young student that I was responsible for my own success and not to depend on others too much to hold a door open.
I am in a unique position to actually respond to your first question using both my South African and British teaching experience, commenting on cultural and economic differences.
As an English and Geography graduate, I was in a unique position to teach language and literacy, as well as Geography, which increased my chances for employment in both hemispheres.
I was catapulted into the teaching arena at the age of 22 after graduation to my first post at Eros School for Cerebral Palsy in Athlone, Cape Town where I was born. What made this unique was the fact that I was not trained in special education but had an opportunity to teach in the mainstream secondary section of the school.
Due to their disabilities and learning difficulties, those pupils were even more determined and eager to succeed academically. In fact, as I did my teaching graduate assessment at the same school, I too had support from staff and learning support teachers, which gave me the confidence to take on such a huge responsibility.
In my very first lesson, one of the pupils had a seizure and fell to the floor. You can just imagine my initial reaction but I had to remain calm and follow the required procedures, whilst the rest of the class explained that this was normal to them and that it would all be fine and could I please continue with the lesson after the nurse arrived! Well I had to recover immediately after my initiation and heed to their call! This had a lasting impact on the rest of my teaching career and fired me up to do my utmost in getting the best out of any ability I taught. This initial experience became a useful reference for me in situations where students who were not eager to learn disrupted the learning of others deliberately either because of sheer lack of social skills or an inability to be educated with their peers in a safe learning environment.
In areas with socio-economic challenges, combined with oversubscribed classes of 40-50 pupils in so called ‘coloured’ schools across the Cape Flats in Cape Town where I taught, my joy as a teacher was born from my students’ ability to support each other in the learning process and they themselves ensuring that others did not spoil their learning experience. For most of those pupils, school was their only social and cultural safe haven. The SA school system in those areas I taught was not perfect with lack of facilities and not having had the same access to opportunities like their white peers but I did my best to equip my pupils with the necessary skills to access specific courses for tertiary education or for the world of work.
In comparison, the pupils I taught in England had equal access to what their education system had to offer and, despite social and cultural differences, their academic achievements would determine their future, instead of colour, race or religion. Classes were smaller and they had access to unrivaled classroom technology in their educational experience. I had to also train to teach pupils of mixed ability in the same class and cater for individual educational study plans. My sense of achievement came from the progress low ability pupils made in small groups and their reactions when they surpassed any targets given to them. Despite the fact that I was subjected to isolated incidents of racism from both students and staff over the ten years I taught in the UK, the overall experience was worth it.
Regarding the ‘indoctrination’ of students within a school system, it is certainly true for most core subjects, as courses are prescribed using a rigid framework and if teachers adapt it for whatever reason to differentiate depending on the ability of pupils they have, they are targeted by senior staff and those enforcing the will of the system. For me personally, I did have some scope to allow pupils to develop their own opinions and question things they needed clarity for.
In comparison, sadly for some areas of study, those in charge of the education matrix enforce their own ideas and philosophies onto a national education system. Unfortunately for some, this disables them during their secondary years, thereby limiting their ability to challenge existing systems in tertiary education or further studies and indeed into adult life.
So my phoenix friend, to answer your question, yes I saw firsthand how a generation was prevented from having their own opinions. This caused a lot of frustration for some, whilst others just sheepishly soldiered on in an expected bubble they, their family and the system were perfectly happy with.
Unfortunately the lack of education and social acumen, social immobility, disenfranchised communities and a historical vortex of substance abuse due to cramped suburbs based upon which colour you were, created by the apartheid regime machine as part of their dream to create a Utopian whites only nation, had a serious effect on the pupils I taught in South Africa but we are made of strong stuff and those who went the extra mile and worked more than what was required of them did succeed.
Maybe I myself felt trapped in the profession and have now found freedom in my writing career.
Outlar: Well, I think it is true that those who have been through a stage of chaos in life have the potential to emerge in a state of higher order on the other side if they have a strong will and keep their wits about them. You are a case example of such, having developed into a strong and decent person after overcoming experiences that might have caused others to succumb to the false siren call of perpetual victimhood.
But now you have mentioned your writing, and so the crux of the matter at hand has been hit upon. When we initially met on Twitter back in 2015, I remember listening to a few of your poems on SoundCloud and thinking that there was definitely something unique to your style. I also found out rather quickly that your energy and enthusiasm both soar high. Since that time, it’s fair to say that you’ve had a good run of success in publishing your poetry. Can you talk a bit about your journey in this regard?
Beukes: Thank you for your spot on observations my phoenix word weaver!
To be honest with you, Scott, I think my energy and enthusiasm was born from my timidity, introvertedness and cultural identity crisis as a child growing up in the seventies and eighties with mostly adults around me in a big, loving family with diverse and colourful characters. I did not really have a voice of my own back then and immersed myself in the music and the culture of the era. I was also lucky to be taken on long train journeys to the south coast, so much so that my mom had to ask for me to be brought back home to Cape Town! I absorbed it all and I guess it just remained dormant within me until I started my university studies where the revolution for freedom, democracy and a good education was well under way.
To begin with, I started writing micro poems on scraps of paper and handed it to a select few of my closest friends about twenty years ago. I just hope they kept some of it! I remember the first one was entitled ‘The Eagle’, as I did a lot of mountain hiking in my twenties which left an everlasting impression on my psyche. My poems dealing with my childhood amidst the vortex of the struggle against Apartheid for freedom and democracy all spilled out about ten years ago, some of which were published in Indiana Voice Journal and Dissident Voice. These poems document real experiences during that historical period in South Africa and when the moment was right, I just heeded to my inner call and started writing, not knowing where and when it would be shared with the global village. I just realized that my story should be told, as well as so many of my peers, as there are still so many untold stories from various sectors of society. However, not everyone has the confidence to put it into writing. I felt compelled to share my autobiographical poetry for all generations and it became a calling I had no control of.
Subsequently, in 2009, whilst visiting my brother and sister in Secunda in the north-east of SA, I experienced firsthand what people had to deal with in society after leaving the country in 2001. We were the victims of a house break-in after a trip to Johannesburg. It was a first for me and a massive shock to the system, which stung me in a serious way. I realized that nothing has really changed in the country and that law enforcement was useless and haphazard. That same afternoon I just had to get rid of my anger and frustration and wrote the poem ‘The Break-in’, published in Dissident Voice, which I also translated into Afrikaans.
During this period I also wrote poems dealing with Cape Town and its 365 year history, affectionately known as ‘The Mother City’. One such poem is ‘The Sentinel’ (Eeue Oue Getuie in Afrikaans), informing the reader about the arrival of the Dutch colonists as part of the East-India Company’s spice route around the tip of Africa and their decision to make Cape Town their half way stopover. Well, when they realized the absolute beauty and potential of the place as a key global port at the time, as well as the fertile soil and wide expanse of land, they made sure they entered into trading with the original tribal people called ‘Khoi-Khoi’ who were a beach dwelling tribe with proud traditions and extended family structures. In a nutshell, their lives were turned upside down, brandy was introduced as part of any bargaining and a fort, the Castle of Good Hope, was built to defend the new Dutch stronghold and the future of the country was changed forever.
Many of those Dutch and Khoi descendants still live in Cape Town, mostly still in ‘coloured’ or mixed race areas designed by the Apartheid regime but many of those who were declared ‘white’ deny any link to their mixed bloodline and hence separated themselves from their ‘darker’ family relations.
As you know, after connecting with you on Twitter through poetry, my writing evolved onto another bolder level. I became more confident in breaking out of my comfort zone and exploring the global word weaving community. I felt more revved up to tackle taboo subjects and experiment more with writing styles and forms. You were the one who introduced me to Visual Verse and I finally found my true passion, ekphrastic poetry. I was hooked and became intoxicated by it. As a visual learner, I instinctively knew that this genre would be my true calling, giving life to an image through the power of words.
It was at this juncture in my creative process that I somehow had the opportunity to have my debut ekphrastic poetry exhibition (actually before we met) in collaboration with South African Afrikaans comedian and artist turned online radio host at Cliffcentral.com in South Africa, Casper De Vries. I responded to selected pieces of his ‘Aapstrak’ art exhibition at Alice Art Gallery in Ruimsig, near Johannesburg in March 2015. This was indeed my first ever exhibition of this kind in the country and indeed the global village in absentia. Although it mainly went unnoticed in the country, there was one magazine article about it and a video is up on my Facebook page of an interview Casper did after the exhibition with the owner of Cliffcentral.com, Gareth Cliff, where he explained our collaboration. This experience cemented my ekphrastic poetry future and I have subsequently collaborated with the London based artist, Pete Rumney; Cape Town based Visual artist, Shameeg Van Schalkwyk; South African artist, Jonel Scholtz; American Pen Artist, Phillip Wilson; Indian artist, Dr. Amitabh Mitra based in South Africa; and Nanda Soobben, cartoonist, artist and animator from Durban, SA.
During this whole creative process, I started to read my poetry on my SoundCloud page in English and Afrikaans, created my own blog on WordPress and explored other word weaving platforms as well as connecting with global writers and even wrote a few songs! I have also ventured into writing flash fiction, of which my first attempt, the ‘Em’ Trilogy, was published in Scarlet Leaf Review in December 2015.
It eventually culminated into my debut poetry collection, The Salamander Chronicles, published by Creative Talents Unleashed, where I have found my creative home with the guidance and experience of the CEO, Raja Williams. I was able to make my publication dreams come true, which all started with my publication in the CTU anthology ‘Shades of the Same Skin’. I can announce that I will be published in my fourth anthology by CTU this month in ‘Poetic Shadows: Ink and the Sword’.
I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your support and guidance and honouring me by writing the foreword for my debut collection. My journey continues…
Outlar: It was an honor and a pleasure to contribute the foreword in your new book, as I hold both you and CTU Publishing in high regard. How do you feel now that your collection has been released into the world? Has the experience met your expectations so far? And what are your plans for 2017 as this (relatively) new year begins to roll along at full steam?
Beukes: It just felt inevitable that you had to be the one introducing me to the literary world by honouring me with my foreword, Scott! After all, you spread the embers that fired up my word weaving path.
How do I feel? Transported to a place of in-between, floating on a pulsating wave of calm, acceptance, recharged energy, embracing support and an overwhelming feeling of achievement. I have never felt such a powerful sensation of attainment and exhilaration all at once and I hope this continues for a little while more.
The guidance and support from stage one of the publication process from my publisher, Raja Williams, who is the CEO of Creative Talents Unleashed and the CTU team, gave me the self-belief and experience in how to bring the dream of getting published to sweet fruition. I am intoxicated with a growing sense of confidence and the will to spill even more ink for a receptive global village.
This experience has far surpassed my wildest expectations. I know that might sound cliché but it’s true. I am finally getting more feedback from new readers of my work and even news of book orders from as far as Australia! All this just further fuels my determination to believe more in myself and what I am capable of. I am more charged up than ever to spread my words across the various social media platforms available and to connect with a range of eclectic individuals through writing, drawing, painting and singing in a mix of genres. I am also driven by the experience to be more proactive in self-promotion and increasing my presence online to reach more global villagers. This process has also cemented my initial friendships with a very close knit circle of literary and artistic friends and acquaintances.
Regarding this year, which you rightly said is ‘steaming’ ahead, I want to continue expanding my Ekphrastic Poetry collection, which has mainly been published in GloMag, edited by Glory Sasikala from Chennai in India, and have invited guest artists to collaborate with me and create original writing based on original artwork and cartoons. My ultimate aim with this genre is to collate a special ekphrastic poetry collection for publication in the near future, hopefully even to have an ekphrastic exhibition with selected artists in the countries they reside in.
Recently, I have had my poetry translated into Albanian by Irsa Ruçi, a well-known poet in Albania and internationally. This inspired me to also consider inviting selected poets to have their poetry translated into Afrikaans, which was my home language growing up in Cape Town, South Africa. I look forward to translating your fiery words, Scott, and it will be an honour to share your embers in another language.
In conclusion, I am also hoping to get an English and Afrikaans collection published in South Africa this year, as well as a new chapbook or two internationally. I also hope to be reading poetry with my fellow word weavers on the same platform one day.
Thank you for a riveting interview experience, Scott.