The Kassabova Phenomenon (1999)

Pander 6/7 (March 1999)

The Kassabova Phenomenon

Kapka Kassabova


A bunch of us were in the London Bar one Friday (as is our semi-regular habit), laying down the law on literature – in the way of would-be Mallarmés everywhere – when the subject turned to Kapka Kassabova, whose latest book dismemberment had shortly before come wafting down the Pander mail-chute.

Kapka Kassabova, for those of you who haven’t heard, is ‘“something more than an immigrant poet” – she is an award-winning poet whose first book, All Roads lead to the Sea, won her a Montana award’ … to quote from the blurb in the Going West Literary Festival booklet. She’s also written a novel, Reconnaissance, due out later this year from Penguin, and now this second collection of poems. She is, originally, from Bulgaria.

It soon became clear that, regardless of the merit (or lack of it) in her poetry, what interested us most about her was the huge eagerness with which she’s been hailed and held up by the literary establishment here. Is it simply that we’re hankering after a Korzeniowski/Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov of our own, or is there something about her work itself which explains it?

You might not believe it, but the Pander is not in the business of character assassination. None of us have ever met Ms. Kassabova, nor can we detect in ourselves any particular ill-will against her, but the curious phenomenon of her rise to stardom does seem to say interesting things about our cultural standards. We therefore decided to attempt to treat the problem from all sides (as it were) by compiling a collective review-symposium both of her book and her place in New Zealand letters.

My Problem

Reading Kapka Kassabova’s book has made me formulate a rather tendentious theory about poetry. Poetry is interesting when it:

  1. intelligently and adroitly manipulates levels of language;
  2. discusses interesting subject-matter;
  3. introduces us to an engaging personality.

Some poets can do all three, others only one, but if you don’t do any of them, then you’re in trouble.

Let me introduce a few out-of-context quotes from her book:
no irony intended (p.15)

… clearly
the script needs editing

you have no sense of the absurd –
you’ve never lost anything

For me, that about sums up the problem. Kassabova’s command of English idiom is certainly impressive, but it is inadequate to the technical problems she has set herself. She is accordingly restricted to a kind of “high poetic” dialect extremely attractive to people brought up on a diet of woolly romanticism (Fairburn, early Baxter et al.), but having nothing to do with Poundian insistence on the real rhythms of speech. Hence blatant clichés such as “I look at the face / its gratuitous beauty / ravaging …” (p.6). Hence also bizarre failures of tone such as “deaf and limbless for the same reason …” (p.2). (Perhaps she meant to say deaf and legless for the same reason …) So much for level one, the stock-in-trade of most of our best poets (Tuwhare, Smithyman, Allen Curnow among them).

As far as level two goes, the blurb on the back of her book is a good example of the way her mind works:
You are a body of phantom limbs, remembering a wholeness you never noticed. Dismemberment is what you end with.

On the evidence of her book, she loves this kind of airy abstraction. She resolutely eschews concrete details. The poem about her mother on page 27 begins as an exception to this rule, but soon modulates off into high metaphysical generalisations. Poets such as Michael Harlow (and, again, Smithyman) have succeeded in writing in this rather Rilkean mode here, but they had the advantage of a lifetime’s experience, and were careful to provide their ideas with a minute particularity of setting.

Level three is perhaps the most disappointing of all. Kapka Kassabova must have led an interesting life, and she clearly fascinates a lot of the journalists who write about her, but it’s surprising how little of this comes across in her poetry. I’m not looking for confessional revelations here – just a sense of the person addressing me. Not necessarily Raymond Carver (let alone Charles Bukowski), but just someone definite. From these poems (sans picture and blurb) I’d gather our author was female, young, occasionally in love, addicted to lofty poeticisms, and allergic to detail.

It’s a crude, blunt way of putting it, but this book should never have been published. Not, at any rate, in its present form. It’s doing no favours to Kassabova, who clearly must have a lot of determination and sticking power to have got so far since she arrived in this country. The real problem, though, is that it’s misleading for people who are already puzzled enough by this strange thing called poetry. They’re only too likely to think that this sort of stuff – humourless, self-absorbed, technically unadventurous while still looking “foreign” (“overseas experience”), vaguely lyrical and lovey-dovey and with lots of trees and flowers and ruins and moonlight – is poetry.

Shame, then, on Bill Manhire, who’s praised her “verbal excellence,” and “sustained thinking in a musical framework: the various relations of intelligence.” Have we been reading the same book? This is Elder-Statesman-of-NZ-Letters-speak. I don’t believe he means it for a second. He knows as well as the rest of us the difference between real poetry (like some of his), enlarging our sensibilities and our knowledge of the various worlds we inhabit, and ghastly lapses such as:
to be the nipple of pleasure
licked by the panting dogs of summer
(p.44); or

… you became
the ultimate dwarf of death

We have her own word for it that she wasn’t being ironic.

Summing Up

Kassabova, then, could be seen as a triumph of publicity over poetry: cynically promoted by people who understand the first, but have no real interest or belief in the second. She’s perfect for the part: young, foreign, gifted. Who cares if her writing is so clearly not (yet) up to the mark?

On a personal level, I’m sure we all hope that she will be able some day to live down all this excessive praise for mediocre work, but on the level of New Zealand culture as a whole, isn’t it about time we stopped looking for another wunderkind, and started to savour the subversive virtues of our own homegrown product?


Pander 6/7 (1999): 41-43.

[1064 wds]

Pander 6/7 (1999)

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