CJ “Jonty” Driver Shares His Thoughts on Books, Authors and Poetry

02 Sep 2015
CJ "Jonty" Driver

Jonty Driver has written seven collections of poems (the first with Jack Cope), five novels, two biographies and a memoir. The memoir, My Brother & I, was published by Kingston University Press in 2013 and Jonty’s latest book, The Man with the Suitcase: The Life, Execution and Rehabilitation of John Harris, Liberal Terrorist, is being published by Crane River this year.

Jonty was detained by the security police in 1964 under the 90 Day Detention law on suspicion of his involvement in the African Resistance Movement (ARM) after coming into contact with members of ARM when he was President of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). After spending a month in detention he was released and left South Africa for the UK, where he studied at Oxford University. While he was studying, the apartheid government withdrew his South African passport leaving him stateless for several years until he was granted British citizenship. He was not allowed to return to South Africa for more than twenty years. His first two novels and his biography Patrick Duncan, South African and Pan-African were all banned in South Africa.

Jonty has held residencies at MacDowell in the USA, at the Bogliasco Study Centre in Italy, and at the International Writers’ Retreat, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. He has been a judge of the Caine Prize for African Writing twice, and is on the Caine Prize Council. He is also an honorary senior lecturer in the School of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Jonty worked as a headmaster for twenty-three years in both England and Hong Kong, and is now based in East Sussex where he is working as a writer full-time, with a continued involvement in education.

Jonty has shared his thoughts on authors, book, poetry and his work below:

Despite the fact that I was in involuntary exile from South Africa for most of my adult life, I have been lucky enough to know – and to be friends with some of them – many of the more eminent South African writers of my generation: J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Lewis Nkosi, Mazisi Kunene, Zoë Wicomb, Zakes Mda, Breyten Breytenbach, for instance. Reading their novels, memoirs and poems helped keep me in touch with the South Africa I was forbidden to enter from 1964-1992.

Probably my favourite novel of those years is Dan Jacobson’s brilliant and under-rated Confessions of Josef Baisz, in which the absurdities and cruelties of apartheid was superimposed on a Communist state in Eastern Europe. I am also a great admirer of Doris Lessing, especially her African short stories and her novel, The Summer before the Dark. I am lucky enough to meet a number of younger international writers through the Writers’ Centre in Norwich, UK, including people like Neel Mukherjee (novelist), Dan Richards (memoirist and travel-writer), Lauren K. Alleyne (Trinidadian poet).

In poetry, my taste veers towards the formal and structured – what W.B. Yeats called “the well-made” – rather than the loose, unrhymed and a-metrical extravaganzas of vers libre. While I would never be silly enough to say that all poems should rhyme, I do think all poets should teach themselves how to use rhyme and the strict metrical forms so they can have that skill available when it would help explicate their subjects.

I am waiting for a decision from publishers about a new book, a sort of “professional memoir” called Some Schools. I hope too that, in the not-too-distant future, I shall have another book of poems ready for publication, provisionally called Still Further, New Poems 2000-2015. There may be more memoirs to come, and there will certainly be more poems.

I have been reading, with great delight and interest, the essays of the Polish philosopher (for many years resident in Oxford), Leszek Kolakowski, and especially the essays gathered in his collection, Is God Happy? I have also enjoyed Vesna Goldsworthy’s novel, Gorsky, a re-telling of The Great Gatsby set in present day London.

(Image courtesy of CJ “Jonty” Driver, taken by Ellen Elmendorp)