RUFUS MUFASA | INTERVIEW
Flashbacks & Flowers, Rufus Mufasa’s debut poetry collection, is but the tip of her practice’s iceberg. Hip-hop MC, writer in residence, educator, activist, speaker of three languages… Billie Ingram Sofokleous is thrilled by her understanding of her work and her identity as a mother.
Which poem in this collection are you most proud of?
I’m going to go with Weasel. That was a tough one to write and get right, but it still amazes me how a poem so small can say so much – show you exactly what something is, even if you can’t fix it in real life.
The opening poem, Every family has its scribe, was originally just that line. My editor Dawn kept asking me, what exactly is this? And I was like, “it’s just a line…” But when the manuscript was in the final proofing, I found a sketchbook dated January 2019 where the opening page was a very primitive vision board of what Flashbacks & Flowers would become. On the back of my drawings I’d written a diary entry of a dream I’d had, and I knew that was the opening of the book- it had been there the whole time, waiting, and fitted perfectly with the whole time travel theme I’ve got going on. Then the final poem in the collection ends in July 2019. So even though the story of the collection shows you my entire life, journeying through all that happens over six months.
How did you decide what went in and what was omitted?
I don’t think I wanted to go into so many of the territories that the book houses, but it just all felt so much bigger than me. We have a problem. Our daughters need this literature. But there is so much I had to allow subtext to carry. You are never out of danger. You are never truly free. But there was a team of people inside me that really wanted to speak up, so I had to honour that. I could have gone into more detail, in Toby Said, but the reader doesn’t really need the detail. As a woman I think you have enough of your own detail.
Comp, a prose piece about starting high school, leaves you with some questions – that is a sample of a much bigger body of work which tells that full story. I’m actually six chapters into a novel, but I’m struggling to settle on which language it is. Maybe it is meant to be both.
Your use of the Welsh language is wonderfully woven into your work.
When you disclose that you are a Welsh speaker, it is usually followed with “are you first or second language Welsh?” This drives me a bit nuts – giving it tier status, like you’re less or more, part time or pro. I started my artistry in the Welsh language, but I’ve had a turbulent relationship with it, internally and externally. We are finding peace; the majority of my poetry commissions last year were Welsh language.
How did you and Becky Davies come up with Flashbacks & Flowers’ wonderful artwork?
The original vision I had was different – neon flowers on black, with white writing – but my art skills are not a patch on Becky’s. It was important that she responded to the collection, and covers have become so digitalised – I don’t think that’s me. The illustrations say so much, and there is a much bigger concept at play here: they’re not just there for aesthetics, they show the relationship between literature and artists.
Who gave you the best advice ahead of publishing your poems?
My editor, Dawn. The book could have come out last year, but I don’t think I was ready emotionally. I’ve had a lot of counselling and therapy; I’m so blasé about trauma, not deliberately, but I have come to understand that I do this news reporter style of relaying horrendous things then can’t work out why the person on the receiving end is looking so alarmed.
Dawn told me I had to let it go – I’d get to the final edit then send her four pages of notes and changes. This was fear, I guess, of my acceptance as a page poet. I had to really get it right on the page, but with integrity, without losing myself.
My friends Julie and Julia also gave me good advice on safeguarding myself, how to avoid retraumatising situations, and remind me regularly that haters are motivators. Peter Cox and Llwyd Owen could also recognise that this book was very timely, with so many things unfolding nationally and internationally.
What outlet brings you the most joy to express yourself?
I’m finding myself again through music. I even learnt music production last year, and I really love it. The last few stages of Flashbacks… were really tough, going through the pandemic with two children, on my own; working on the book felt like I was picking at scabs, and some days I just couldn’t do it. I threw myself into music, because that was dealing with the present; I wrote an entire album and all I wanted to do was the music, but had to acknowledge that it was also avoidance – the book had to come first. So I dug deep and finished the book.
How have you adapted to lockdown?
I hadn’t realised how on the road me and my girls had been, so to then be in our house full time, not bopping about in the car, was tough. But we adapted well – it amazes me how quickly I got my head around working online, and I owe so much to People Speak Up for looking after me, giving me no choice but to be in the game.
The pandemic gave us time – to heal, to be together – kept us safe, and my artistry has flourished. I’ve worked so hard. But some of that is that you don’t have an option, you’ve got to provide for your children. I’ve become so used to being home and managing everything from my base, I’ve turned into a bit of a hermit. I’m tired – but that’s good, I’m supposed to be tired. That was a problem for me a few months ago, the unwillingness to acknowledge my exhaustion.
The book is gone, it is no longer mine; the album is in the final stages of production; I have a pamphlet called Dandelion Queens that I’m sitting on, and thanks to the amazing folk at Oriel Gallery and Jill Teague who gave me sessions every Thursday this year, I’ve accidentally got a second collection, waiting to be typed.
Do you think it changed your creative practice?
I definitely lost the decompartmentalisation of it, as in ‘mother is here, artist is there’. We do it together – they write on my flip charts alongside me, collect clips for films with me, cwtch up and work with me. Research, visits, meetings.
I’m working with Meredid Hopwood for the Raymond Williams celebrations, Experimentica and Chapter, and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru – all separate things but will probably overlap. Lockdown was a magical time in many ways because I had conversations and collaborations with some of Wales’ most prestigious arts houses and pioneering academics. There were also so many online literature festivals running free classes, and I was also collaborating with arts organisations in Zimbabwe.
How has motherhood changed and informed your writing?
Motherhood has been my biggest teacher. Everything becomes clear but at the same time you are in a fog. Until this question I hadn’t realised it looks like that – has it really informed my work so widely? Of course, it informs everything so widely.
Mothers have been frontline pre-COVID and during COVID, when we had no choice but to really make it work all together, because what am I showing them if I didn’t continue with my artistry? We really need to change so much about the culture of motherhood, and we’ve made a start in our home. But I wouldn’t have the privileges to do any of this for ego or a hobby, it really has to pay the bills.
I want to see more stories about motherhood in literature. I’ve been commissioned by Literature Wales and The Royal College Of Psychiatry to work with mothers, their voices, and stories, and am setting up a publishing house called O Mam Fach! with help from Anne Phillips. We will deliberately question the culture and push for awareness and change.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
How you see the world is so beautiful and special. The guy that put you down and called you childish for squealing because of the wall full of clocks in the café – well he’s a prick, you’re a writer, stop making yourself small, don’t change, you are supposed to notice clocks, and pauses, and birds and the colour a breeze carries.
There’s no such thing as a proper job and your art will sustain you and your children. You will find poetry in the plague, and the divine in the domestic. Don’t people-please. Put your hoops in and remember who you are. Trauma is your teacher; the pen is your sword. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Women can be the worst promoters for patriarchy. The reoccurring dreams are your soul trying to help you.
Rufus Mufasa’s Flashbacks & Flowers is out now, published by Indigo Dreams. Info: www.rufusmufasa.com
words BILLIE INGRAM SOFOKLEOUS