Poetry Project

Only Connect!

Finuala Dowling launches the first of SLiP’s online poetry workshops.

For the first SLiP poetry workshop, I’m inviting poems that make connections between things or people not normally considered alike or connected in any way.  You can interpret this instruction however you like, or you can respond to one of the following exercise prompts:

  1. Read Frank O’Hara’s poem “Lana Turner has collapsed” here http://www.frankohara.org/fohaudio02/poemlana.html, and then write a poem that connects you (however arbitrarily) to someone from the entertainment industry or to someone who lives a bling life (one of the president’s wives, for example).
  2. Six degrees of separation – your poetic take on this theory.
  3. Write a poem which answers this question: “What do you have in common with Charles Simic?”
  4. A poem beginning with the words “Like you”.
  5. A poem that uses an image from needlecraft – smocking, chain stitch, tacking, or anything to do with sewing.
  6. Your connection to someone who is worse off than you in some way – someone who has less freedom, food, education, health, happiness or simply luck.
  7. A poem that interprets the theme of connection in any way you like.

E.M. Forster’s famous injunction Only connect! comes from his novel, Howard’s End:

That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

One could argue that poetry as a genre is driven to unify. It works against the neatly boxed compartments of class, phylum, and department. It even works against genre itself.  You can write a prose poem or a dialogue poem or a dramatic monologue, thus infringing on the territory of novelists and dramatists.

People ask me “What is a poem?”  or (my worst question) “Surely it can’t be a poem if it doesn’t rhyme?   And all I can think of by way of answer is this: Poetry is deviance.  Poets connect disparate ideas and objects in ways that, at first glance, make us seem abnormal. So you’re odd: live with it.On a more technical note, poetic imagery stems from the impulse to make connections. Every metaphor consists of two parts: the tenor (the thing we wish to describe) and its vehicle (the thing we compare it to).  So, if your tenor is your beloved, your vehicle might be a summer’s day or a red, red rose.  Except that those metaphors have already been used.  Poetry insists that we keep making it new.  It’s the quality of unexpectedness, of surprise, that I’ll be looking out for when I read your poems.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP March poetry workshop to poetryproject@slipnet.co.za by no later than Sunday 20 March 2011.  Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.

Submitted Poems

One Thing I Know
Pam Newham

Charles Simic wrote poems about
and death
and books
and God

So have I

But the one thing I know
is that he
will never write a poem
about what he has
in common
with me.

Grace Kim

(I like you)

like you
like someone

Charles Simic and i
Grace Kim

we take turns staying awake

him on his side of the equator

me on mine

chasing words through the nights

In the exercise hall
Margaret Clough

As my hands sway slowly to the music
and my feet are placed
in just the right angles to one another by the Tai Chi teacher
I can believe that I am only a very few degrees of separation
from some old woman in Beijing doing exercises in the park.

Love stories Chapter 2
Naledi Yaziyo

Kwaito Mbaqanga blaring in both our ears
He kissed the paint off my toes.
Could not hear his voice so I read his lips.
He told me Zimbabwe was no longer his home
I told him Bafana was no longer my team...
That's how my heart began to love him.

Once upon a time, two exiles met in a club.
On that couch by the door,
He, searching for a dollar that could buy his childhood
She, running from an image on the news:
that burning man and those broken doors.

Only in South Africa
Mxolisi James Majola

he opened a bottle of ... 79
a dark and elegant noble wine
the dusty liquid in her glass
told of time in French oak casks
she sipped and savoured its bouquet:
this wine it’s bladdy lekker, hey?

Sitting under the Oak Tree on a Summer Evening
Annette Snyckers

Early evening, slight breeze,
faint flutterings in the leaves.
Fragrance hanging heavy,
lingering cicadas clinging to the fading heat.
Far-off a dog is barking,
birds loudly signing off the day.
Now and then an acorn dropping,
(Hydrangeas have been good this year)
pink and blue amassed around me.
On the table black cat stretching,
grooming, getting ready for the hunt.
Now the crickets are emerging,
squirrels scuttle up the trunk,
eye me, hanging upside down.
Neighbour’s lights flick on,
children called inside for supper,
fussing and complaining.

I sit at rest, my children scattered
in houses of their own.
I feel that threads connect us,
I do not feel alone.
I hear footsteps on the gravel …
you are home!

Six Degrees of Separation
Lise Day

If only the divide
were that small
but I fear, my love,
an enormous wedge
has come between us
an angle at first acute
now stubbornly obtuse
no hope of a full circle

Bridging the gap
Sally Argent

Ants talk by touching
feelers, feet -
could we play at being ants
just for today?

Visiting the past
Mic Bongo

As water she expected not to broke,
she knew not

When scarlet liquid
glides between her thighs,
Shock now clutches her breath to choke

As she awoke,
She couldn’t spoke
When sight what was suppose to be
now is breathless & cloaked,

she thought she dealt with,
reminiscing not her consciousness
to her very living will always poke.

A pain is hidden &
Be forgotten not though
Swallowed by drains,

As her tears beholden by

her aisles is still wide.

false river
Dominique Botha

you travelled light
from the farm of your birth
cut an elegant figure
out of newspapers
and thrift shop suits
divining water for pagans
in towns that call themselves
cities of the south

we waited for you

pa smoking out in the fields at night
ma curing hams in her lonely kitchen
brothers and sisters
sad as weaning calves

ma chose the cheapest coffin
to show the farm staff
don’t waste money on the dead

a janfiskaal on oupa’s shoulder
the girl you always spoke about
shading stinkwoods in bloom

your open casket
militating against usury
in the sharp september sun

when i go back there
the sky is full of your footsteps
god plants endless meadows
of sweet thorn and weeping grass

no one lives in the old stone house
the vlei whispers in the hallway
owls in the forsaken bedroom
through the rose window
open to the seasons
a jackal calls

I hang from the stars at night
my hands grow tired
I fall

Six Degrees of Separation
Graham Dukas

I spoke to my brother last week.
He’d recently played tennis with a friend
who knew someone who’d fixed a bicycle
for a man who made a living exporting
veterinary drugs to Afghanistan,
where his trusted business partner distributed
them to folks whose camels were suffering
from a rare form of colic
and in particular to a close family friend
whose wife owned a hair salon
but whose real interest was in wildlife,
(although we’re talking about tame animals here),
and whose nearby neighbour,
who ran a bed and breakfast,
needed medication for a camel
owned by a guest of hers who
no one had met but who went by the name
of Osama. He had a close associate who
had recently returned from a holiday in America
where he’d met a gorgeous girl
who’d introduced him to a snake charmer
working in an oriental restaurant in New York,
but who was a naturalized American,
having taken the oath after paying off
an enterprising immigration officer who stuttered
and whose ambition it was to emulate
the musical talents of his cousin back west
who played a mean guitar and wore
a shabby sequined outfit that had been given to him
by an old guy he’d met in the park
whose name he couldn’t remember
but whose blue suede shoes had caught his eye.


Only Connect!  My thoughts on your poems

Arrive late.  Leave early.  Anywhere else it’s rude or against the rules, but in poetry it’s good advice.  The eye loves a short poem, takes it in at once.  Look at Pam Newham’s poem, for example.  It’s perfect because it’s utterly simple, yet true and punchy, structured as two mirrored halves.  I love the humility – could even imagine a poem like this working with the first-person pronoun as a lower case “i”.

Grace Kim has produced two little gems.  Wordplay at its best.  The parenthesis in “Confession” works like the whisper of a secret. It takes a great mind to work with so few words, as she does again in “Charles Simic and I”.

Margaret Clough’s poem creates, in just five lines, two scenes at opposite ends of the world.  It’s also a tender poem, connecting people who could never meet, who don’t speak the same language, in one shared humanity.

Naledi Yaziyo’s delightful two-stanza poem manages to tell a love story complete with its backstory of the couple’s troubled past.  We can hear the music because it’s not just “music” but “Kwaito Mbaqanga”; we know it’s love not because he says “I love you” but because “He kissed the paint off my toes”.  Everything is told indirectly, using a concrete image.  The last line is stunning. I call this an achievement.

I just loved the build up of pretentious snobbery (“elegant, noble … French oak casks … bouquet”) followed by the bathos of the colloquial utterance in Mxolisi James Majola’s “Only in South Africa”. The title, too, adds to the wit with its dry comment.

Annette Snyckers’ poem is so subtle; it works gradually with an accretion of exact, specific, concrete images that draw in all our senses.  We get a sense of beauty and solitude without those abstract nouns being used again.  And then the happy moment is made happier by the arrival of the beloved.  So many poems are about our sadness – it’s a triumph to be able to capture the fleeting moment of happiness as Annette does.

Looking at Lise Day’s “Six Degrees of Separation”, I love the way her first line interacts with the title, setting up an immediate disagreement.  The whole poem works with an extended image of geometry – really tight.

Look at Sally Argent’s poem: a single sentence and yet it says so much.  Very satisfying.

Among the longer poems, I was struck by Mic Bongo’s “Visiting the past”. The strangely distorted syntax, the harsh, insistent rhyme, combine with the strongly suggestive subject matter to create quite a disturbing poem.  I feel that it’s about a woman’s secret suffering – something like an abortion, miscarriage or rape.

I was really taken with the beauty and evocativeness of Dominique Botha’s elegy, “false river”.  It has everything: a strong sense of mood, setting and character, and exquisite real, concrete images.  But I wanted to know who he was… is the “you” of the poem Oupa, or a farm labourer or an itinerant visitor, someone like a water diviner?

I was completely bowled over by the humour of Graham Dukas’ poem – how it takes the concept of the title and stretches it with absurdity after absurdity until we’re connected to Elvis!

Among other poems, there were lines I really liked, and I’d like to end by referring to these.  Ilse Baker, in a poem addressed to “Dear Time”, writes:

If you were an animal,
I’d ask you to be a sloth.

If you were material,
I’d ask you to be comfortable satin and soft cotton.

If you were a movie,
I’d ask you to pause.

And if you were a phone call,
I’d ask you to hold.

David Versteeg, in his poem “Pity me” has some lovely word play: “a pitfall to pity me” is how he opens.  Then, later, a wonderfully surprising image of entrapment:

you dug a hole for someone else and sat there at the very bottom
you dug a hole for someone else and here i am!

Estelle Francklin, in “The day the electricity was in the sky” has the delightful lines:

I think it is nice to mend things
Renovate me a heart

And in the middle of the poem, she becomes distracted and as a result, we enter the living moment with her:

I liked the shape of that insect
And oh look at that one
He's red.

The “oh” suddenly there in the middle of the line is perfect.

Nicole Rochat uses her title as a highly effective refrain in her poem, “This is not about him”.  Leoné Watkins conjures so many ancient parks and gardens with her lines:

Squeaky swings hum their howling tune
as the wind lingers on bruised wood.

Thank you all so much for submitting your poems.  I enjoyed reading them, and will post a new set of workshop exercises soon.

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