Poetry Project

Plot Point

If our lives are stories that are unfolding, there are certain events that shape the narrative from early on. In film this is called a 'plot point', and it turns the story onto a different track. This could be a chronic situation, like an illness in the family, or it could be an event that occurred at a specific time, for example a stranger saving you from drowning. The poem that follows, written by South African author and poet Christopher van Wyk, gives an example of an accident that 'cauterised' his childhood.

Write a poem that captures a scene from childhood that defined something about the way you see the world or relate to others. Even if it was an ongoing situation, there will be a specific moment that conveys the essence of the experience. Try to get as much sensory detail down, so as to communicate as effectively as possible what happened.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed 'SLiP June poetry workshop' to slip.stellenbosch@gmail.com by no later than Sunday 1 June 2014. Please give your poem a title.

by Chris van Wyk

Derek is dangling on the kitchen chair
While I’m shuffling about in a flutter of flour.
Mummy is making vetkoek on the primus.
Derek is too small to peer over the table,
That’s why Mummy has perched him on the chair.
His dummy twitters, so he’s a bird.

I’m not that small; I was four in July.
I’m tall enough to see what’s going on;
I’m a giraffe, and the blotches of shadow
on the ceiling and the walls
from the flames of the primus and the candle
are the patches on my back.

Daddy’s coming home soon
from the factory where they’re turning him into
a cupboard that creaks,
but the vetkoek are sizzling and growing
like bloated gold coins,
we’re rich!

This is the first vivid memory of childhood.
Why have I never written it all down before?
Maybe because the pan falls with a clatter
and the oil swims towards the twittering bird.
Mummy flattens her forearm on the table
Stopping the seething flood.

As she does so, she pleads with the bird to fly away,
But quietly so as not to ruffle his feathers.
But my brother clambers off the chair
As if he has all the time in the world.
Sensing danger, the twittering gives way to a wail
and the giraffe’s patches flare on the restive walls.

Ma gives a savage scream that echoes across the decades
and cauterizes my childhood like a long scar.

Submitted Poems

Ways of Forgetting
Jim Pascual Agustin

Five years have passed, yet there remains
a trace on the dining room wall

of the calendar with the photograph of the dictator
and his family days before they left the Palace.
Their opulent smiles had been nailed
to the wall, barely matching

the flowerless chalk vases, six-inch high
bowling trophies and books locked
behind glass panels that slide.

The shiny smoothness of the cardboard
calendar had gathered droppings from geckos
and daily dust. Now that my parents

have finally torn off the memento
of their sense of awe at the Apo,
a long rectangular trace
like the reverse of a shadow

or a ghost that had gotten stuck
in our memory stares back at us,
we who had been brought up
in the countless ways of forgetting history.

*Apo - an endearing term for the late Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who fled in a US military helicopter after he was toppled in a popular uprising in 1986.

Christmas Eve in suburbia - circa 1970 [revised version]
Keith Edwards

On Christmas Eve I walked the suburb
to see the picture-window displays.

Tinselled needles – plastic or real? – pricked the panes;
catenaries of cards curved below pelmet fringes.

In living-room and lounge Christmas tree lights blinked on and off,
revealing and revealing the Hockney and the Tretchikoff.

Little Philosopher
Keith Edwards

The day of the epiphany in my seventh year,
no thunder rumble, lightning flash,
attended the event.

Shelved on the lower slopes on the Newlands' side,
the suburb drowsed in high-summer heat
under sky clear blue.

The garden's lone loquat tree that I stared at –
stiff dark-green leaves, orangy-yellow plum-like fruit;
did it spark the idea?
Why is there something, not nothing? And why is
what is the way it it is? Why people – their terrifying smiles,
awful enthusiasms?

The world was suddenly strange,
and I felt alien; but meaning soon flowed back.

Twenty years later I discovered them –
professional philosophers, as puzzled
as my seven-year-old self, their
questions the same ones.
And now I – born-again agnostic –
look up at the stars,
still ask Why?

Keith Edwards

"A man's reach must exceed his grasp
or what's a metaphor?"
Marshall McLuhan

A woman's reach, too

McLuhan nailed it, its essence.
Meet of reach and grasp is what we want;
shortfall grasp is what we get
and will not settle for.

And so we try to outflank
the signifiers that reach for,
cannot touch,
their signifieds.

I try to imagine life without it:
nightmare world of the
bare instrumental.
But who is it still uses the goose-step
and fails to find it funny?

Candice Willenburgh Syce

Good morning
She greets me loudly
I walk in and look around the room
Surrounded by faces as scared and anxious as my own
I answer her in Afrikaans
My huistaal
And she said we don't speak that language here
She shakes her head and asks me to wait outside
Brown school case in sweaty hand

I see my neighbour, Erica walking with her class
She runs to me and hugs me
Ek het ‘n mooi juffrou, wat maak jy buite? She half screams
Unable to contain her excitement
Nee man, my juffrou sê ek moet Engels praat
I reply grimly
She laughs and runs to join her new classmates

My teacher comes outside and sits on the grey concrete next to me
Her eyes filled with sympathy
You are in an English class, my girl
And we speak to each other in English
Do you really want to be like those wild Afrikaans children?
I look at the ground and shrug my shoulders
Maybe I should tell her my nickname at home is “Sprinkaan”
I don't think she would find it funny
She says she'll allow me inside if I speak English or I cannot speak at all
I follow her into class
Humming “My naam is Liewe Heksie”
Under my breath

Mixed Blessing
Ross Fleming

I like her.

First day, sums, P.T., welcome
the comfort of my leather-fragrant satchel
I like drawing most
I learn how to use tracing paper
there are magazines to inhale, absorb
I have friends, companions,
new shoes squeaking alike,
the light comes into the room like a vanilla milkshake,

but it appears
that she takes
a dim view of those
who don't fit in
and if you don't
have a blazer
at the right time
on the right day
you could be in for
a hard lesson.

And she shouts loudly
and I am not her favourite person
and the class has been
shaped into a sharpened blade
and there is no mercy
so don't think you
can get away with it
we are waiting for you
have you quite finished?

the dynamic is lethal
and dogfights are standard
and it seems that those
I thought my friends are not

so while my erstwhile friends
are learning dog eat dog politics
and cannibalism and
how to hate intelligently
I have retired to the
sunny corner and am
bathing in the fact that
the light still comes in the window
like a vanilla milkshake

but the political skills are out the window
and the gregarious instinct is lost
and I have become a misfit
and my uniform is no longer uniform

She's an allkey now I hear
and left teaching due to
no discipline in the schools.

I dreamed I was back in that classroom
the other day and I was right
the sun did come into the room like a vanilla milkshake

Church camp
Marike Beyers

This was her first camp.
She was afraid of the adults,
Of missing the cues,
Not knowing the rules.
I was afraid of the other children.

I’d already learnt to be invisible.
It was much harder with her wanting.
It weighed on my chest,
Pulled at my hands,
To keep her safe.

We slept outside,
Smuggling sleeping bags from the rooms,
Trooping off in small groups under the stars –
Girls in the clearing to the East,
Boys on the edge of the lawn to the South.
We found a spot higher up, us two,
Away from the clustered campers,
Curled up in the whispers of the night.

Relief seeped from my bones and let the music in.

Shrieks from the lower lawn –
Boys raiding, pirate nights
Whoops disaster downhill yells
Torch beams flung into the sky.

Should we go down there? she whispered.

Bertfand Tufuor

a metallic sheen
shape shading glide
through clouded heights

arms wing to wing tip
school satchels
bouncing on backs
we hurtled
across dry cornfields
elbows teased
by harvest's husks;
'strategic supersonic sorties'
accomplished in time for lunch

our intrepid skylarking
over a rainbow world
bright under the sun

The secret
Linda Zinzi Sealy

When I was a child our family went on holiday.
We slept in a rondavel
all four of us, children and parents
in the same room.
The children were put to bed first,
then my mother and father came in.
Mother started to talk,
she told the secret.
They thought I was asleep.
I lay there quietly with my eyes closed
and I heard every word.
I made them think that I was having a nightmare,
but it was despair!
I know the secret
and it has stayed with me
all of my life.

Linda Zinzi Sealy

Walking barefoot through my life.

In childhood -
Sand between the toes,
sensations of hot-tarred paths,
of smooth cement
and pebbled.
I walked the narrow ways between the houses,
smooth and rough,
alone and mindless,
No thought, just feeling,
each step a meditation,
tranquil in the moment.
Can I return to then?
Just being,
content only to be.

The past dissolves:
in this space of mind
can I forgive him?
Invader of my being,
aggressive interloper of myself.
Can I return to me,
pure me?

Plot Point: Outhouse
Christine Ueri

Was I even twelve then?
I don't quite remember.

Age became irrelevant
in the glistening of your eyes:
a ghastly silhouette, lurking
in the concrete outhouse foyer

artificial light bent off your spectacles,
looking in –
you were a beast and a kinsman,
but not my of my flesh –

my breasts: mere swollen beads of condensation
on baby-blue bathroom walls –
a long drop to tear drops

through an open window

I sometimes prayed to God,
enduring nights when He was a Stepfather
who kissed me with a gaping muzzle
on the other side of frosted panes,
licking its lips


This job of commenting on Slipnet Poetry Project submissions is an edgy one, in that I am passing on my subjective response, informed by what I have learnt from others and from books about poetry. But mine is definitely not the final word, so please search out other opinions if what I offer sticks in your collective throat.

What I look for in a poem is a fresh thought, or a new way of saying something I identify with, a nugget of well thought-through and felt-through word-images, preferably pleasurable to the ear, and with surprising use of language and juxtaposition of images, and where form and content enhance each other, creating something that is greater than the sum of the parts.

In Jim Pascual Agustin’s submission, Ways of Forgetting, he turns a poem about the removal of a calendar from a wall into a contemplation of a removal of a dictator from power and the altering of an attitude, which nevertheless retains traces of the past. The poem works well; the specific objects in the childhood space, the droppings and dust, and the almost unacknowledged ghost of the past all sit uncomfortably in the poem, not permitting total erasure of an epoch either from historical fact or personal memory. I would suggest some minor edits, e.g.

a long rectangular trace
like the reverse of a shadow

or a ghost stuck in our memory
stares back,
we who had been brought up
in countless ways of forgetting.

The associative trigger evoked by an image hung on a wall is also the centerpiece of Keith Edwards’ poem Christmas Eve in suburbia - circa 1970 [revised version]. I like the way the poet evokes the familiar references to both that era and that time of the year. As an outsider, he looks into interiors where a question mark hangs over what is real and what is fake, both in the decorations and the art works on the walls. The last stanza is just right.

Keith's next poem Little Philosopher captures a poignant moment and a lovely idea, but it needs editing. As an exercise, aim to cut the word count of the poem by two thirds; this is much too severe, but it is a great way to discover how many words and even whole phrases are unnecessary to the poem. One can then put things back where the poem has become too skeletal. For example, I would reduce the first stanza to:

Epiphany in my seventh year;
no thunder rumble, no lightning flash.

or even:

Epiphany in my seventh year;
no rumble, no flash.

In poetry, every word must be weighed and considered. And it is better to trust the reader too much than too little. Over-explaining can kill a poem or a piece of prose.

In Keith’s next poem, Metaphor, the first three stanzas do not add anything to the initial quote (politically correct comment aside). After retaining the title and the quote, I would pare the whole poem down to:

I try to imagine life without it:
nightmare world of the
bare instrumental.
Who still uses the goose-step
and fails to find it funny?

(Although, there are probably dictatorships that still use the goose step, and where it is not a funny matter at all, yet the goosestep retains the dark side of its metaphorical or symbolic clout.)

Candice Willenburgh Syce’s poem, Bilingual, gets away with being more discursive and expansive; it’s important to consider how the content works with the form. Here we need a longer poem to draw out the conflicting emotions the child experiences, which, to the poet’s credit, are not spelt out. The ending is such a relief, as we realize that the child’s spirit and identity will not be crushed by the school system. One question I am sitting with is whether the poem should be written in Afrikaans, rather than English (other than the teacher’s utterances); in choosing to write the poem in English, the poet flags, perhaps unwittingly, that the system did win, in part.

In Mixed Blessing, by Ross Fleming, the poet also marks an early school moment where he was expected to conform, yet found a way to avoid violent socialization. The title of the poem reveals that this consequence was not always advantageous. There are two transitions that are well handled – we start off with the curious and engaged child who likes his teacher; the lines are longer and the tone flowing and relaxed. Then the child realises that he is expected to conform to rules he doesn’t identify with, or he will attract harsh punishment and disapproval. By the end of the poem he dreams of his first impression of school as a warm and encouraging space, and again the lines are more relaxed. I think the third repetition of vanilla milk is too much, and suggest changing the last line of the poem to:

the sun did come into the room as a milky light.

or something like that.

In Marike Beyers’ poem Church Camp, the core of the poem is not clear enough yet for me. It seems to be about a girl who hives off with someone new to church camp, ostensibly in an attempt to protect her, but also wanting to develop a friendship where she has failed elsewhere in her peer group. This new friendship might also be about her own protection. I like the noisy, boisterous transition where the boys start making mischief. She then discovers that the other girl would prefer to be with the children she is avoiding than with her.

It is a potentially powerful theme – conflicting ideas of safety alone or in the group – but the poem needs more work. For example it is more effective to give an actual example of the fear of rules, rather than just telling us that that is the case, and perhaps observations about the landscape could be better employed to enhance the overall mood of the poem. I particularly liked the language of Pulled at my hands, and Curled up in the whispers of the night. Both those lines invite the reader into the felt experience in a lyrically intriguing way.

Bertfand Tufuor’s poem Flight blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy as happens in childhood. The poem starts as though describing an actual plane in flight, then we realise that this is a boy imagining being a plane as he runs through cornfields. There’s a lovely tension between the youthful playing at 'strategic supersonic sorties', and the rural setting of the harvest’s husks. I suggest scrapping the last stanza for two reasons: if the poem ends with the phrase ‘in time for lunch’, the poem itself comes down to earth in a satisfying way; in addition, the last stanza adds nothing to a lovely poem.

I like it that The Secret is kept secret in Linda Zinzi Sealy’s poem, but there are too many words and too much explanation for the one central point. I recommend seeing what happens if the poet writes this as a haiku, something small and terrible that must be packed into three lines to keep it hidden. Alternatively, the poem could be made into a more expansive poem about secrets, and the consequences of hearing them and keeping them.

Linda’s other poem, titled Walking, asks whether the mindful act of walking alone and barefoot as a child does can restore and heal after trauma. I would take the idea further, and write the sensory experience of walking in even more detail, trying for a unique way of transmitting this lived experience, so that the reader can feel themselves walking barefoot with the child.

Christine Ueri’s poem Plot Point: Outhouse is an example of how form and content can really spark off each other, and how unusual words can be used to create a powerful image, rather than using words to explain factual details in chronological order. The way the poet has strung seemingly disjointed images together reflects the confusion and terror of the young girl in the poem; her anguish and vulnerability are projected onto the walls; her desire to escape, and the impossibility of doing so, are carried by the images of open and closed windows. The poet also captures the child’s wrestle with God, to whom she prays for help, but who appears to her as a beastly Stepfather with ‘gaping muzzle’ whom she must endure.

I suggest deleting the line:
I don't quite remember.

Check to see what information you can do away with because it is already self-evident.

Have a good month making yourselves hot with lyrical scribblings as you stand in the path of the download …

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