Mann in the mirror: A Q&A with Chris Mann
Poet Chris Mann talks to The English Experience about his celebrated poem Crossing Over, candidly sharing his ideas on what students might gain from reading it and offering suggestions to help them understand the poem better.
English Experience: How does it feel to know that your poem has been listed as a set work?
Chris Mann: I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m delighted that a poem about a contemporary pandemic has been included as a set work. On the other hand, as with other poems that are set for schools, I worry that the poem might be perceived by youthful readers as ‘work’ rather than insight and revelation.
Although, I worry less about this these days, as it becomes more and more apparent how commercial culture relentlessly pretends that instant gratification and surface culture are cool, when, in fact, we human beings all have to grapple with complexity and pain and different types of happiness if we are to be real and not just hollowed out consumers of trivial delights.
EE: What prompted you to write the poem?
CM: An intense experience, as depicted in the poem. I was walking back home on a cold and eerily misty Sunday night after evensong in Grahamstown cathedral, when I caught up with the people who had been presented to the congregation during the service. The bridge is down the street from where I live.
EE: How long did it take you to write the poem?
CM: I noted the encounter in my diary and sometime later, I can’t remember exactly when, I began to draft the poem, in the early morning before going off to work. That’s the time of day when poems break through the surface of ordinary life, at least for me.
I love the poetry of Thomas Hardy and was influenced by his approach to story-telling in the poem, the gritty, down-to-earth, but formalised approach that makes an anecdote compact and accessible to other people and then symbolical.
EE: What thoughts and feelings does the poem conjure in you when you read it today?
CM: It reminds me of how prevalent the disease remains.
EE: Do you think students will be able to relate to the poem?
CM: I really couldn’t say, given the range of students who are likely to read and respond to the poem. I hope, however, that most will feel empathy and compassion, rather than repugnance or that awful judgemental feeling of “serves them right”.
It’s salutary to remember the tragic death of Gugu Dlamini in a township outside Durban, beaten to death by a mob the day after she declared on the radio that she had AIDS. The stigma has not disappeared and has mutated into different forms.
EE: What advice would you give students to help them understand the poem?
CM: Think of a student in your school who is marginal because of a disease or disability and then think of your attitude towards such a marginalised person, and what you can do to change the social exile in which that person lives or, most probably, hides.
EE: What would you like students to gain from reading the poem?
CM: A development of their God-given sense of compassion, not just within their feelings, but also in what they practically do.
EE: Finally, what are your future plans? Are you currently working on more poetry?
CM: For me, poetry is a life-long vocation. I’m working on a couple of new books at the moment and will, as usual, be getting on the road with my guitar for part of the year, performing songs and poems from my present book Home from Home at conferences, churches, high schools and universities.
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