“For women . . . poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.
It forms the quality of light within which we can predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
– Audre Lorde
We speak to Vangile Gantsho and Thandokuhle Mngqibisa, two powerful female voices in local poetry today, about the politics of gender in poetry and get fantastic advise for young writers still struggling with finding a unique performance voice and writing style.
1. My poetry is…?
Vangi: …my life thread.
Thando: …an eclectic mix of spoken word, poetry and performance. I have used music as well but usually prefer not to. It is love. It is unimposing – you learn if and only when you want to. But mostly it’s just about stories and opinions; sometimes giving a new perspective to our normal existence. It’s a little warped and abnormal (reflecting me) and I often hope it will help someone realise that they aren’t alone in their weird thoughts.
2. What keeps the ink in your pen flowing?
Thando: Love. Really. Nothing else.
Vangi: I have no idea what keeps the ink in my pen flowing, but I am grateful it chose me.
3. So there is this rumour that female poets are afraid to get on the mic. Is it true?
Vangi: Not at all. The most successful SA poets are mostly female. Sure there are many spaces that don’t encourage femininity but women are becoming more daring and holding their own. It’s beautiful.
Thando: Yes. Women are generally insecure. Getting on the stage and pouring your heart and soul out and getting less than the response you expected is draining. For some women it also doesn’t help them grow, it makes them feel smaller and brings them closer to quitting whereas for men a bad audience response almost always leaves them hell-bent on going home, writing some more and getting better.
4. I’ve heard talk of the need for women-friendly poetry platforms. What makes a space ‘women-friendly’?
Thando: Generally it seems like platforms that are non-competitive, that are filled with open-minded people (open to different types of poetry and personalities and people) and filled with people who are polite but honest. These are called “safe” platforms – where whatever you share is acceptable and everyone will listen attentively. They are necessary. Not everyone wants to be a competitive or a professional poet so these platforms (plus open mics) are necessary for one to become more comfortable on stage and to learn more about themselves and their own poetry style.
Vangi: A receptive audience and ears that are willing to listen.
5. Which titles would we find on your bookshelf?
Vangi: The Famished Road – Ben Okri
Maya Angelou the Collection
The Complete works of William Shakespear
I am Woman – Ellen Kuwayo
If I could sing – Keorapetse Kgositsile
Faces of Trees – Don Mattera
The Prophet – Khali Gibran
I write what I like – Steve Biko
(These are a few of my most prized possessions)
Thando: It’s been too long since I’ve finished a book *hides*. My attention span is shocking outside of work–my mind just runs. I spend 20 minutes imagining different versions of what the author has written and I can’t choose one. It sounds so silly. Lol. I’ll just give you six of the books I am (and will soon be) reading that are waiting for me.
A. Starbook by Ben Okri – He writes novel-long poems!
B. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding – One of the classics I didn’t get to read while in high school.
C. Dreams of flight by Myesha Jankins – What more do I need to say. Most have seen Myesha in action. She is nothing short of sublime
D. Next by Michael Chrichton – A book exploring genetic engineering – an easy read except if you don’t understand the jargon etc.
E. Nigeria the Beautiful-poems for dance drama by Odia Ofeimun – The first half are poems; description of the beauty and ugliness inNigeria. The second half is the play (the dance drama). Pretty cool!
F. The Seventh Scroll by Wilbur Smith – I LOVE Wilbur Smith’s Egyptian series. This book was a gift from a patient. Makes me smile.
My favourite book–one I’ve read more than once already–is a children’s book called “How to Write Poems – Pin Your Ideas to The Page written by Wes Magee. It’s really awesome to go back to the beginning every now and again.
6. How easy was it to find your own unique writing and performance voice and style?
Thando: Most of us emulate our favourite poet when we start out. This is natural. I’m sure we’ve all noticed it happen at Word n Sound. Finding you is hard when you’ve got a “favourite poet” or you’ve been watching poetry your whole life. For me, the greatest influences came from T.O…T!; Especially Romeo the Poet. I really identified with his style of writing. And the other prominent influence came from old poetry. I’m a purist so I love Shakespeare and John Donne and Andrew Marvell and William Wordsworth and John Keats (and so on and so forth). So I know a lot more poems than I know spoken word. I didn’t watch a lot of poetry/spoken word. I didn’t know Def Poetry jam for YEARS after I started writing.
Finding your style through all these influences is hard. You have to perform religiously, even when you think you might suck. You have to rehearse religiously–I remember getting teased because whenever my brain or mouth wasn’t busy with something I was saying my poems… Walking between classes… Mid-conversation when my response wasn’t needed… In the bath… During tv shows… ALWAYS. That’s how your work reveals itself to you… The more you say it the more you understand it (and yes… You should write poems you don’t completely understand).
A director friend of mine once made me record my poem and then listen to it in the performance instead of performing it. She asked “do you understand what you are saying here? It’s amazing. Now find a way to do it justice”.
For me it also helps that I was a singer from age 12. I got comfortable with the poetry stage a bit quicker than if I hadn’t been. You develop an attitude on stage when you sing. Of course it’s very different from poetry. So I had to unlearn some things.
Vangi: It’s not easy at all. You have to listen to the voice that guides you then trust that it’s true; even when you don’t sound like what you think everyone wants to listen to.
7. What advice would you give to poets who are just starting out and may be battling to find that voice?
Vangi: Read as many different types of poets you can get your hands on, listen to as many people as you can and decide what you like about what. Don’t be afraid to write everything down…even if it ends up as scraps of ramblings.
Thando: A. Practice practice practice.
B. Spend time alone. Enjoy your own company. Know yourself. What you love and hate. And be honest in this regard.
C. You have to love language. Read. Even if only a little bit.
D. Listen – especially to your poems. Don’t force them out the way you imagined them. Let them tell you sometimes. And don’t rush them. I once spent over a year working on one poem without performing it. It was worth the wait.
E. Do not be afraid. Especially to do what has never been done. Regardless of how weird or “not for this crowd” it might be. It’s nice to see new poets starting to do the “unorthodox” things I’ve loved doing for years–and doing it better. Whether they know it comes from you or not… It leaves a piece of you in forever.
Having said all that… I can’t say I’m done. I’m learning about and finding more of me everyday.
8. In a country like ours, with high illiteracy rate, how do we get young people to read and write more?
Thando: This is a tough one. Unfortunately I suspect that we have to target the older generation–the teachers and parents. Kids don’t see the importance of reading because no-one instils it in them. Our parents are too busy figuring out how to climb to the next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy to think about the pleasures of reading. To me it seems like someone just needs to convince them to try it once. Not in school. Not required reading. Not a textbook or Bible but just for fun nje. (p.s. a religious book is really a good place to start. It forms part of the reason I ever learned to read well–fluently). Also, this will be contested, but maybe give them the book for a movie they’ve already watched. Work backwards. They’ll figure out that “this was good long before it came to the screen” and maybe try another one.
Vangi: Tjo! If I knew, I promise you, I’d be on it. This is a huge concern of mine. Maybe we need to look at promoting a culture of books as opposed to carvellas or cellphones as gifts. Encouraging knowledge over materialism…that’s probably our best hope. And that’s working with parents and society so it’s no easy feat.
9. If you were to be remembered for only one of your poems, which would it be and why?
Vangi: I Expect More From You – my family is politics. My country is personal. This poem speaks of both in a way I had no control over. The words flowed and the truth was (is).
Thando: TSHO! This is an unfair question. Lol. I can’t possibly decide. I haven’t created that “spliff/cipher with jesus/god” poem yet. My favourite poems are usually enjoyed by older academic types as compared to the younger spoken word crowd. I can’t choose. But I like “pocketful of rainbows”, I like “oddball”, I like an untitled poem of mine that starts “I remember we shook hands”… This is a tough one. I will have to say I don’t mind which one it is if I’m remembered–I guess it’s the “being remembered” that would matter (even if its one of the ones I no longer like–it’s fine by me). 🙂
10. Any interesting plans for your poetry this year and where do we go to keep up with you and what you’re up to?
Thando: Publishing a book and working on an audio project. The book is to be launched in July. I have a designer working on it now. The audio has no deadline. In fact it may never come out. Lol. Also I may not appear at live performances for a while; sabbatical of sorts. Maybe I will start to focus on publishing more than performing.
Vangi: Yeah! I’m actually really excited because I’m gonna be in a play in the second part of this year. We’re also working on Katz Cum Out to Play (an intimate conversation with women through poetry and music) which will take place end July as a prelude to Women’s Month. Those are my highlights, and then there are a few things that I’ve claimed from the Universe but we’ll talk about those when the Universe hands me papers to sign.