Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event on Friday evening August 12 called Imbokodo at MB Studio Community in Pretoria. Five well-renowned poets, Athol Williams, Nkateko Masinga, Zena Velloo John, Kobus Kotze, and Mthunzikazi Mbungwana performed some of their poems in celebration of Women’s Month in South Africa. We interviewed the poets and asked them to share some of their work with us.
Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?
Nkateko Masinga: I think I should first by explaining why I started writing altogether. I was very shy during childhood, so I was accustomed to sitting by myself and reading books. Eventually, I started using the art of writing to express myself. As I grew older, I developed a desire to tell my written stories in my own voice and hence I overcame my shyness.
When it comes to writing poetry specifically, I started because it is my favourite form of storytelling. Whether it is a limerick, haiku, sonnet or free verse, every poem has a story to tell. I believe that if we don’t write our stories down, future generations will have no proof that we lived. So I write poems so that other young people will read my stories and be inspired to write their own.
Alwyn: Your first poetry chapbook, entitled “The Sin In My Blackness” was published in 2015. Could you tell us more about the title of the book and the main themes you explored?
Nkateko: ‘The Sin In My Blackness’ started off as a single poem about black consciousness, but as time went on I started writing more poems on the same topic, and eventually the subject matter broadened to explore my experience of black womanhood in the South African context.
I wrote the book because being a black woman in South Africa is a daily struggle and in this struggle I have searched through the rubble and found a beauty in blackness that I am willing to defend, a beauty that I will not allow to be contained or stifled.
The title of the book is part of my personal mantra: I refuse to succumb to the notion that I must hide my hair, bleach my skin or make apologies for the way I sound when I speak. There is no shame or sin in my blackness.
Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Studio Community.
Nkateko: My set at Imbokodo was titled “Lessons on Womanhood.” The message that I wanted to convey in those poems is that women deserve to be celebrated, irrespective of how they choose to live their lives. For too long, society has sold us the idea that women need to be ‘decent’, which is another way of saying we should be quiet, sit in a corner and behave.
My poem “Hollow men” talks about the consequences of silent womanhood. I believe Zora Neale Hurston said it best when she said: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” As women, we need to allow ourselves to be loud and take up as much space as we want to because the world can be cruel at times but speaking up is an act of kindness to ourselves.
Alwyn: Why do you think is it important to celebrate Women’s Month in poetry?
Nkateko: In August each year, South Africa honours women for fighting for their right to have a voice (to vote and make decisions in the running of the country), so we need to celebrate that by making female voices heard. Representation of the female voice must be all-inclusive so we cannot say we are celebrating women if we do not honour the work of female poets. Our work is important and the issues we address through the written and spoken word are also important.
Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?
Nkateko: I write about things that I’ve gone through and things that people around me have told me, so a poem will either start off as a reflection after I’ve processed a personal experience or an idea that comes to mind after a conversation with someone. From there I’ll jot down a few lines and the poem will basically write itself because I will leave it and then go back to it when a new idea comes to mind.
How to be The Other Woman
You must learn to carry children who cannot fit in your womb And just as quickly let them go.
You must learn to be a bride without a groom; Wear a veil and walk slow, Impossibly slow, So painfully slow that you die before you reach the altar Because no man is waiting for you there.
You must learn to hold a pot, a kitchen cloth, a broom For the times when phone calls are answered in another room.
You must remember that you are first a woman Before you are a woman who is not put first.
You must learn that he is not the water to your thirst And that you are not cursed And that your heart will not burst.
You must learn your place.
You must plaster indifference on your face
And say “It’s okay, it’s okay”
so many times that it sounds like your heart beating,
Tastes like a meal you are re-heating,
Looks like an enemy you are defeating For the hundredth time
For the same crime.
You must learn her name
And say it until your mouth bleeds.
You must go to Home Affairs during your lunch break
And cry like a child
Because you cannot bear to not be her.
You must learn to knit while you sit on your bed.
Create something that can be destroyed by the pulling of a thread. Weave loss intricately into the fiber of your being.
Stitch pain into that tapestry
Because you are the other woman:
Not flesh of his flesh
But a thorn in the flesh of another woman.
you were a riot within yourself;
hating your own spine,
wishing it could not bend.
you were quiet because
you did not know
there were a myriad poems
in the gap between your teeth,
a plethora of stories
on your tongue
you did not know that your voice
would make shells of grown men,
make them wish they could
drain their marrow
and say ‘welcome home’while handing you the keys to their bones.
and when you found out
that standing still also required your backbone,
that your stories were all fables
where you gave men fangs within locked jaws
and yourself, wings,
that hollow men were called ghosts and the women who enticed them
inherited haunted mansions,
it was too late.
to escape the hollow home and to restart the riot within yourself.