Literary Hustler Nick Mulgrew on Progressive Poetry and Publishing

Nick Mulgrew is a bad-ass literary hustler. A poet who references WhatsApp, Instagram and the best veggie burgers in Cape Town, a writer who details the cultural misappropriation of Native Americans by Spur Steak Ranches, and a young publisher who is on his way to becoming a driving force in the South African literary industry. His cheeky and poignant debut poetry collection, the myth is that we’re all in this together, is filled with humour, anecdotes and truisms reflecting experiences of an almost-born-free Durbanite of British decent. Alongside pursuing his own writing career, he’s also the associate editor of Prufrock and publisher of newly launched uHlanga Press, who are ardent about broadening South Africa’s literary horizons and providing emerging writers with opportunities to publish their work. We chat to him before his debut poetry launch taking place this evening at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.

Nick Mulgrew

You’re a poet, an editor, a writer, publisher and award-winning journalist. What led you to a career in writing and publishing?

I think it comes down to a complete inability to do anything else. When I was eight I lived in New Zealand for a bit, and there story-writing was a subject, alongside things like Maori and maths and rugby. It was a cool syllabus. From then on, though, getting into journalism and literature – and all its component parts – was the only thing I ever really wanted to do. Doing all these other things – publishing, editing, book design, all different kinds of writing – has been my way of trying to find even the smallest gaps to get into an industry that is incredibly difficult to get into. Adaptability is a function of desperation, I think.

Are there any lessons you’ve learnt as the associate editor of Prufrock that has helped you launch Uhlanga Press? What have been some of the challenges and triumphs so far?

Good design is vital. We’ve been lucky at Prufrock that James King and Rosie Mudge have been paragons of progressive visual taste and editorial design. Much of Prufrock’s success, I think, comes down to the fact that it looks and feels so damn good, while being very affordable.

Likewise I’ve tried to be clever about uHlanga’s books. I’ve tried to make books that are pleasurable to read and look at, while being relatively affordable: compact format, vibrant litho-print covers, good quality stock, writing of the topmost order, all for R140. I think I’m about three-quarters of the way there. The challenge is that uHlanga pays its writers, while Prufrock doesn’t. It helps, though, that I handle most things myself – from commissioning to editing to typesetting – so it’s a lean operation.

It isn’t all drinking wine and smoking Gauloises in amber-lit literary salons.

How is Uhlanga Press trying to change perceptions of South African poetry?

Printed poetry in South Africa is conservative. Poetry is published not very often, and certainly not by the larger presses. When it is published, it’s either in English or Afrikaans (as are, like, 99% of all commercially-published books in SA), and about a narrow selection of subject matter, by writers who are seldom young.

I see uHlanga as part of a vanguard of progressive poetry forces – from lit mags like Prufrock to other presses like Modjaji, from performance poetry groups like Lingua Franca, to digital archives like Badilisha Poetry X-Change – that is working hard to change these perceptions. The plan next year is that uHlanga will start publishing in African languages and hybrid poetry/art formats, which I’m very excited about.

Nick Mulgrew

You’ve chosen to publish single poet’s collections. What promoted this and how did the selection process work?

Single-author collections are the only way poets can really flex their muscles and play with form and subject matter in a coherent way. They’re also the most important part of a poet really beginning their career.

The main thing I’ve had to learn is how to identify writers who have the potential to write full books. Just because you can write a great short story or a great poem doesn’t mean you have it in you yet to put a 50 000-word manuscript together.

I chose my two uHlanga New Poets for 2015 – Thabo Jijana and Genna Gardini – because they were the two young poets I was impressed with most often when I read poetry on websites and magazines and anthologies. I could see they had read and were engaged with poetry in South Africa. I could see they thought about contemporary issues in a vibrant manner. I could see they had something coherent to say through their work. And they are lovely people to work with, which helps.

The title of your debut poetry collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, implies a sense of loneliness and isolation. What are some of the myths people have when it comes to being a writer and publisher?

It isn’t all drinking wine and smoking Gauloises in amber-lit literary salons. I mean, it’s some of that, but mostly it’s the least encouraging work you can imagine. In South Africa, you’re fighting to break into – or straight-up break, as I want to – an industry that’s becoming increasingly risk-averse and unsure of itself, usually for less money than what you’re worth. It’s pretty good when it works, though.

Negative trends? The whole “young white man returning home to South Africa and feeling weird about it” trope really gets me going.

You haven’t dedicated the collection to anyone. What inspires you to write poems and who should be reading them?

I write for myself. Other than that, I’m not one to dictate which people should read this collection. It’s still a trip to me that other people are interested in what I write.

Who or what has influenced your writing most?

As a poem-writer, definitely the British poet Sam Riviere (his book 81 Austerities was the biggest influence on the myth…) and the local poet Rustum Kozain – I say “local” because he lives on my street – whose work has taught me how to make a mythology out of the quotidian.

Otherwise I’m influenced greatly by Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, Richard Rive, Ivan Vladislavic, Njabulo Ndebele and Bruce Chatwin. I’m attracted to the intersections of spirituality, melancholy and humour.

NIck Mulgrew

As a publisher, are there any thematic trends you’ve noticed among current South African literary voices?

Negative trends? The whole “young white man returning home to South Africa and feeling weird about it” trope really gets me going. And in publishing generally? Braam cookbooks. I know I’m being a bit unfair: books like trend to subsidise more serious “literary” projects for big publishers – but how many chop marinades does one person need to know? Maybe my next book will be called Let’s See How Many Different Things I Can Burn On This Old Weber and I’ll earn mad cash.

More positively, though, South Africa – and sub-Saharan Africa in general – is experiencing unprecedented growth in high-quality speculative fiction. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that African writers are going to regularly put out some of the most arresting sci-fi books in the world over the next decade or so.

Besides being disciplined and practicing the craft, what other advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Always ship. Always hassle. Always hustle. Get to know editors. Submit your work as much as you can, even if you think it’s not perfect. It isn’t any good only sitting on your hard drive or in the kist at the foot of your bed.

Oh, and read South African writers. You have to engage to be involved, and that’s the only way to improve. It’s easy to see a writer who doesn’t read local books: they may as well be writing from another planet.

You’ve just won a Silver BASA Journalism Award. What do you make of the state of Arts journalism in South Africa and what significance do art journalists have in society?

Arts journalism is in rich health, despite the fact that most newspapers don’t seem to give much of a shit about it. The quality and diversity of the work rewarded at the BASA Arts Journalism Awards should be encouraging to magazine and newspaper editors: This is good stuff, guys. You should really use more of it. Good art comments on society and the human condition in unique ways; good arts journalism amplifies and builds on that.

What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?

Knowing the only person I’m beholden to is myself.

Are you working on any other projects we can look forward to?

My debut collection of short fiction, Stations, is coming out next February from David Philip Publishers. The cover is by my old homie Skullboy, and features Jesus drinking a tallboy of Hansa on the back cover. It has nothing to do with the stories, but still manages to succinctly convey the emotional thrust of the book and my life in general.

For more info on uHlanga Press visit Facebook.

Nick Mulgrew

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