Interview with Athol Williams

Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event held on 12 August 2016, called Imbokodo hosted by MB Community Studio in Pretoria. The poet and writer Athol Williams was one of the five poets who attended the event. He shared some of his insights on writing poetry and the importance of celebrating Women’s Month with us.

Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?

Athol Williams: I feel as though poetry found me, not the other way around. As young as ten years old I was conjuring up stories and telling them to my younger brother as we went to bed.  I have been a reflective person for as long as I can recall, starting to keep a daily diary since the age of 15.  Somehow, my stories and diary reflections began merging and manifesting as poems.  My poems have evolved from being reflections of my place in the world to being reflections of my hope for the world.

Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?

Athol: Most poems begin with a strong overpowering emotional surge – there is something that wants to get out and so it bursts out and onto the page. Many poems start with a single idea or sometimes a word or phrase.  I will then spend time meditating on the idea, word or phrase and so the poem grows.  Once this initial surge has occurred I then get to work on refining and editing the poem – most poems undergo numerous rewrites. I believe that what we write on the page is not the real ‘poem,’ only a reflection of the poem.  The real ‘poem’ is something mystical, a cocktail of experiences, memories, visions, emotions and thoughts.  So it is the poet’s job to put words and language to work so that what is written gives the reader an experience that comes closest to what the poet experiences as the real ‘poem.’

Alwyn: Your last poetry collection, entitled Bumper Cars, was published in 2015. Could you tell us more about the title of the book and the main themes you explored?


Athol:  I have spent the last 6 years steeped in thought about the sources of human conflict and imagining the possibility for a more harmonious human society, both in South Africa and globally.  My second book, Talking to a Tree, published in 2011 under the pseudonym AE Ballakisten, was my first effort to capture what I saw when I looked closely at the state of our societies.  The book Bumper Cars, is the next installment along this journey.  The book title comes from one of the poems in the book of the same title.  In this poem, I imagine a society where people interact as though they are riding in bumper cars, those little cars that we rode as kids at amusement parks.  In this society we engage in a robust way, we express our different ideas and contest our different viewpoints but these differences don’t lead to conflict, as they do in our real societies, rather we bounce off each other as the bumper cars do.  Bumper cars have those thick rubber bands around them – this prevents damage during collisions.  The key question for me has been – what is the rubber band in our society, what is it that will prevent us from violence as we express our differences?  My answer is compassion.  When we have compassion for each other, i.e. empathy and willing to act for the good of the other, our contested ideas will not reduce to violence.  I think this is a very important lesson for South Africa today.

Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Community Studio.

Athol:  There were 3 broad ideas.  Firstly, I expressed the idea that “how we see each other determines the nature of the society we create.”  If we see each other as enemies we create a society of barriers, restraints, and restrictions, we try to avoid each other.  If we see each other as brothers and sisters, we create a more open society.  Part of what drives people apart is our skewed view of each other, some call this identity politics, but it comes down to every interaction – how we view a beggar, how a man views a woman, how the young view the old and so on.  Part of constructing a more harmonious society is to challenge and revise how we see each other.  The poem “Beggars” is a good example of this – firstly it shows the disdain with which some people are treated, even though we don’t know their context, and it also shows that without knowing this context we can shape our society in a way that drives us to undesirable outcomes.  A second idea that I shared is that of “possibility.” Since our societies, with its laws and norms, are all designed and maintained by humans we can also change it, it is literally within our power and means to rid the world of large-scale conflict, poverty, and suffering.  There is nothing natural about the order of things, we collectively can determine the prospects for our society.  We just need the will to do it.  In the poem “Magic” I naively ask for the ability to let men see this possibility.  I don’t think we need magic to solve the problem but perhaps we do need some magic for us to awaken to the possibility – I believe that poetry can contribute to this awakening.  This brings me to my third idea that I shared on the evening, that words are powerful and that as writers we have a role to play in crafting this desired world – we need to speak boldly and courageously, but also prophetically, sharing our visions.  I shared two poems with this theme, “Words” and the unpublished “These Words.”


Alwyn: Why do you think is it important to celebrate Women’s Month in poetry?

Athol:  Our history has been one of creating fault lines up and down our society.  Before we can really grow as a society we need healing, and I believe that poetry has a significant role to play in this healing.  One of these fault lines has been our historical and enduring oppression of women, so it is important that we highlight the gender disparity in our society and the need to close this gap.  And since poetry is key to our overall healing process, it is also critical to healing the wounds that our society has inflicted upon women.  It is encouraging to see women sharing their experiences and viewpoints through poetry – this will add to the awakening that we need.  We cannot solve gender oppression if we don’t face its ugliness.  It is also encouraging to see poets, male and female, imagining a society of gender-parity, of mutual respect and mutual prosperity.  This is the central message of Bumper Cars … compassion, a compassionate society would not tolerate any division along any lines.

Athol Williams. Beggars


I begged there every day,
at the same traffic light,
corner of Rivonia Rd and Outspan Rd,
for scraps,
for coins,
for mercy,
from those in BMWs and Jaguars and Audis
with a crumpled cardboard sign that read:

I’d be on bended knees
that struck the earth,
cushioned by the hard, jagged asphalt,
my head bowed low,
my face pitiful.
I’d imitate the queen,
and wave the royal beggar wave
to draw attention
like an idiot
as fumes from five-litre engines
filled my empty stomach.
The crumpled cardboard sign in my heart read:
for I had dissolved a long time ago.

The faces in the cars would ignore me,
awkwardly, they’d turn away,
away from me,
away from their shame
and wave a dismissive hand,
“Fuck off,
go get a job!” 

I’d been offered a job
but I didn’t want it;
I’d rather stand there.
The faces were right,
I should fuck off
because I didn’t have to be there.
So I would be a beggar
and be ignored
and be sworn at
and get saliva-soaked leftover sandwiches
or a cigarette butt
or pneumonia.

Then one day I took that job,
abandoned my corner
to the relief of the faces
in the BMWs and Jaguars and Audis.

But I still see those faces,
only now they don’t ignore me;
waving, pleading, bowing, bending,
only now it’s not me.
“Please don’t take our things,
please don’t hurt us,”
they beg.

We’re actually all the same,
it just depends on who holds the power
to grant wishes,
and who’s on their knees.
“Fuck off,” I say, cocking my gun,
“this is my job!”

All first published in Bumper Cars (The Onslaught Press, 2015)
© Athol Williams

Athol Williams. Magic


I want to perform some
magic; make a fountain
appear in the desert sand,
make a mountain turn to
nougat; defy gravity by
leaping from tree to tree,
or run faster than the
speed of dreams, or bend
the unbendable, or lift the
unliftable, or perhaps …
make those frightened men
who kill in vain to rid their
hearts of fear, to stop; to
lift their faces to light,
and to see … life.  Ah magic!

All first published in Bumper Cars (The Onslaught Press, 2015)
© Athol Williams