Joan Metelerkamp was born in 1956, and grew up with her three brothers in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, where her father farmed. She did a BA at the University of Natal, followed by a post-graduate diploma in acting at the University of Cape Town. She then worked for three years in educational drama and another three years teaching in university English departments. In 1990, married with two children, she completed her MA on the poetry of Ruth Miller while teaching at the University of Natal. In 1998 she moved with her family to the Knysna area of the Southern Cape, where she still lives. From 2000 to 2004 (and for one edition in 2008), she edited the poetry journal New Coin.
Metelerkamp works outside the formal economy as a mother, housewife and writer: she considers her primary work to be that of a poet. “In Burnt Offering, my most recent collection, I attempt, among other things, to understand what that means.” For her, one of the challenges a poet faces is to keep doing this work (“the task/ given, chosen granted”) even if it falls under what the American poet, Robert Hass, calls “the gift economy”.
Joan Metelerkamp has published seven collections of poems, and her reviews and poetry have appeared in leading journals and anthologies, including The Heart in Exile (Penguin, 1996), The Lava of this Land (TriQuarterly/Northwestern, 1997) and Running Towards Us: New Writing from South Africa (Heinemann USA, 2000). She participated in Poetry Africa in 2005, and in various other poetry festivals and writer’s retreats locally and abroad. She judges poetry contests and teaches creative writing periodically.
Peter Midgley wrote about Into the Day Breaking, “Metelerkamp's strength lies in the way she is able to confront the political on a highly personal level and make it part of her life”, while Lionel Abrahams wrote: “Requiem overwhelms my feelings. [These poems] press me to examine and question some of what I've believed about art, truth-telling, pain, love, and more.” Kobus Moolman wrote, “I found myself flinching . . . gasping. These are poems that do not pretend or dissemble . . . they refuse to accept simple consolations.” John Forbis wrote, “this poet doesn't write floridly or introspectively; she writes as if her life and death depended on it”.
Paul Wessels, who published Carrying the Fire, says of Metelerkamp’s work:
“Combining the classical line with a debilitatingly postmodern destruction of linearity and authorial stability, Carrying the Fire accelerates poetics into the stratosphere whilst never surrendering an almost archaic beauty of expression. Carried by a ferociously passionate and non-linear narrative, never ceasing to question the veracity of its force or the circumstances of its existence, the first part of this long poem shatters the constraints of its subject (matter), tools, and methods of presentation, making way for the second part which takes all that is left of destruction and mutilation, places them against a wall of compassion and empathy, and fires.”
Poems are integral to Metelerkamp’s spirituality. In her own words: “They’re the vehicle, and the road and – who knows, if I learn to use them well enough – they may reveal something about the destination too. Because my mode is through intuition, and through emotion tuned to rhythmic music, they allow me to ask questions I don’t have other means to ask. Each time I’ve written something I feel its inadequacies and have to begin all over again. But poetry is not just there for working out my own psychological issues: I believe fundamentally that one person’s articulation of their truth, or truths, can move another.”
Metelerkamp’s work is unlike that of any other South African poet currently writing, resonating with writers like Michael Ondaatje and Anne Carson. Her last four books are poem cycles, or book-length poems. Those who read one or two poems from these collections will miss entirely the sweep of her vision. Metelerkamp’s poetry is particularly effective when she reads it herself. Trained as an actress, the poet is also a consumate performer. When experienced firsthand, her poetry comes alive even more powerfully than on the page. In this she has something in common with another South African performance poet, Lesego Rampolokeng, who also appears as a co-traveller in her poetry. Her phrasing, tone, breath and rhythm insist that her vital poetry be spoken and heard.
Towing the Line, Carrefour, Cape Town, 1992
Stone No More, Gecko, Durban, 1995
Into the Day Breaking, Gecko, Durban, 2000
Floating Islands, Mokoro, Knysna, 2001
Requiem, Deep South, Grahamstown, 2003
Carrying the Fire, Substance Books, Cape Town, 2005
Burnt Offering, Modjaji Books, Cape Town, 2009
1991 Sanlam Prize for Literature
Sweet Magazine: Five Poems
Kobus Moolman’s review of Burnt Offering
Christy Weyer's review of Burnt Offering
Michelle McGrane’s interview on Litnet
Ambrose Musiyiwa’s interview on Conversations With Writers
Review focus on BOOK SA