Poetry Project

The poetry of the matter

"A journalist friend of mine was constructing a website, partly to promote her work, which includes two books of non-fiction, and partly to gather together in one place the many things that she has written during her life. She emailed me, conflicted about how to define herself in this public space. ‘Should I describe myself as a poet?’ she worried. At that point she had not yet had any of her poetry published. Although she acknowledged that reading and writing poetry is central to her life, she felt it was arrogant, even fraudulent, to call herself a poet.

Many of us are stopped in our tracks by the feeling that we dare not call ourselves artists. We are almost embarrassed to admit that we play guitar, or paint, or write. We have a notion that the ‘the real thing’ is ‘out there’, and we are reluctant to expose our efforts, fearing they would fail dismally if judged against the greatest artists, writers and composers of all time.

This attitude is truly damaging to the creative spirit in all of us. More importantly, it is insulting to the muse, who needs the attentive collaboration of humans to channel her expression into the physical world.

I told my friend that the way to evaluate whether she was a poet or not was to answer the question: Do you see life as a poet? What I meant by that was: do invigorating phrases present themselves insistently to you? Are you sensitive to the underbelly inherent in situations? Do juxtapositions of objects or events ‘speak’ to you in such a way that you want to record them? Do you derive huge satisfaction – no, more than that, do you experience relief – from finding an exact combination of words that manage to evoke something that can barely be described? Are you frequently attempting to distil emotions and experience into a verbal elixir that directs you and others towards something valuable and true, spiralling towards the ineluctable centre, yet not pinning it down and rendering it lifeless? Are you reading the radical subtext embedded in the everyday? Are you busy with what Kafka calls the axe for the frozen sea within? Are you driven to solve the commotion within your chest by taking up a pen? Do you live life in the world while being rooted in the symbolic? Karin immediately understood what I meant, and went ahead to describe herself as a poet on her webpage."

(Extract from Eloquent Body by Dawn Garisch, Modjaji Books 2012)

There are the facts of the matter that tend to take up residence in the head, disturbing our thoughts; then there is the poetry of the matter that arrives out of the turbulent body. Pay attention to a current joyful or painful image or event that has disturbed you as though it is a fully formed poem that already exists, waiting for you to apply your pen to the page.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP December poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Wednesday 19 December 2012. 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

Peace on earth
Andrea Buchanan

Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness?  - George Herbert, “The Flower”

"The peace which passes all understanding":
A phrase translated with a certain loping elegance,
But certainly it surpassed my understanding.
How to feel something you couldn’t think about?
Perhaps it was just a pretty turn of phrase, or a muddied translation.
You know how these things get lost along the way.

Also, peace? Something scratched out in a treaty, a truce?
Perhaps an understanding that Everything is Going to be Okay.
But it isn’t, is it? I worried, as fear and guilt marched across my mind.
Who was I to be peaceful? Nothing but a fallow field, tulips trampled in the mud.

Till Something passed over me,
Subtle as a breath,
Mysterious as a sudden warmth,
Fragile and strong as bulbs pushing through sod.

And returning to that desperate warfield of thinking, thinking, where every breath was
A gulp for air as panic stalked closer with each tick of the watch,
Is impossible. Past understanding.

This is now only a moment in a room:
the white noise of Christmas beetles’ sibilance outside.
And it’s a marvel, how I’ve truced with myself.

Harry Skennel

delicately suck the marrow
from opinion
burn the bones to warm your feet
then take idle bread
spread with words
still hot and greasy
with no further questions
untie tomorrow's results
with strong coffee
black and weary
close your eyes
the noise will abate
by midnight
silencing dawn

Battery chicken
Zinzi Sealy

A chicken in the house?
Walks among people seated on the floor
Sangomas in their garb
Drinking beer.
What is it doing here?
Picking up crumbs and quietly crooning
Destined for slaughter soon.
The door is open, why won't it run away?
Cage was prison
Never before a free life
It cannot run away.

Widow is freed now.
Gilded bars were prison,
But she cannot run away.

Look! We have come through
Ross Fleming

Nerves screeching to a demon halt,
the year tears itself off and lies, panting, in the bin.

Parents of  boy-toddlers,
constantly interrupted and distracted,
we are all demented.

A month ago my GP casually suggests,
toward the end of the fifteen minute squeeze,
cut out sugar and coffee?

Barely heeded or even heard,
the wisdom passes, gone,
reincarnated later as a google
and a desperate I'll try bloody anything!

And suddenly, mercifully,
murder and suicide find themselves shelved,
as pathways open, beautifully,

and thus my secret source of peace
gentles outward from the silly season's epicentre
and I see new horizons approaching,
softly swimming through the ether
as I start again.

I held your hand
Ludi-May Allie

I held your hand
walking down the hospital corridor
to theatre.
Dressed alike in hospital attire
you and I.
Always you and I,
mother and son
bound irrevocably.

I held your hand
as you lay down on the bed
and I looked at you
my very flesh,
my very heart.
I held your hand
as they put the mask to your face
that would make you fall into a peaceful sleep.
I watched your eyes
as they slowly
fluttered closed.

‘Well Miss, say goodbye to your son!’
they said.
A simple procedure, I know
you will be fine.
but you are my only
you see.
Unwillingly I tore my eyes from you
I let go
of your hand.

Sarah Frost

The foetus, small sea turtle shelled in my womb,
dreaming eyes plumbing dark recesses,
who will she become?
Does she stir when her father puts himself inside me,
swimming into my grateful secretions,
sticky-sweet as mango?

It is a strange knowing, this -
the swell of our coupling on a Durban night
heavy with incipient storm
and the third hidden from us,
an ocean tide yet to wash through, be seen.

But growing, little anemone,
with all her eggs in her already
- her father's come-cry hot against my breast -
my heart-beat and hers semaphoring a fast
'I am, I am' in my belly,
and all our bodies co-mingled, surging,
surer than a wave foams towards beach

blood sounds in my ears
my body a shore, reverberating.

Sandra Hill

What did it to me were
the mights and the maybes,
a lonely dog yowling at dawn
and your sweet, sweet
smile for the doctor,
one hand hidden behind her back.

Head between my knees
I sat while she needled
you. A piece, now missing,
waits to tell if its yes or no,
false or true.

And you sleep on in my bed,
long hair sticking to a damp face,
the surgical plaster an ominous moon
on your small chest.

Going nowhere
Sandra Hill

Half way from home
I stop on Witbrug
to rest from the edge
of a white question.

At my feet,
the southern stars
flow west in a milky river,
followed by the moon.

Above, a Jackal Buzzard
startles from his perch.

A sudden breeze
scatters Rooiels
leaves and blossoms.

Everything is going somewhere else.

And the Pieke can only slow the sun.

As for me,
I'm going nowhere.
I belong here.
I belong here to this place.

Sandra Hill

On the surface nothing happens.
Yet dig down a little, through
the gauze of time and dreamy idleness
where everything is less distinct,
to the place where buck leave their heart shaped prints.
For there lies a poem, blood smeared
and white with vernix.

Fish Therapy
Keith Edwards

Your kisses –
little guppy tickles
down all the line of my jaw.

Cape Town: Weather report
Keith Edwards

Over the mountain-hugging suburbs
no prospect of any rain;
out on the Flats we expect
the usual lead showers again.

 Cape Town suburb, early summer
Keith Edwards

The sky is cloudless blue.
Steakhouse smells drift up from the Main Road.
With the sun soon sweat pricks out on your skin.
It feels like health again, renewed for another year.

Nothing shadows your well-being,
it rises with the hours,
expands like relief.
By midday you begin to confuse quotidian
gestures – made and received –
with kindness or regard.
Late afternoon you notice –
blue-grey smoke
curling over Devil’s Peak.

3 a.m.
Keith Edwards

Getting up at three to pee
vertigo stumbles me into shadowed edges.

The bathroom, in the snapped-on light, is
Why you?
Why now?
Why here?
Light dazzles, beats, beats, between brilliant white walls.

I stumble back to bed,
the life behind resumes,
moodying till morning.

Full moon again
Keith Edwards

You amazed me, rising: gorgeous gold giant penny.
Now look at you, overhead:
picayune moon, ash-white –
pitted and pocked as my hopes.

Configured Confidence
Anyaele Sam Chiyson

People from all lands
Are at your beck and call
Whole continents you have made lap
At your ultimate wave
Sole survivor of your faced challenges
One am so proud of
Mantle of glory to glory
You have bestowed on you
Fertile lives you have harnessed
In your care to spread
There were seasons all you built
Was about to tumble
At such times and seasons
When friends seemed to fumble
You took the challenge
And played life as your scrabble
You proved to all who cared
That you were able
Chronicle of events in your quaver
Are enough to count
Cycle of cycles of waves
In your name I count
Multiple effect
You have always had on all who look
Smiling that smiling of yours
That thrills this whole world
Cuddle your essence
For we cherish what you have got.

Your Creation; Your Initiation
Anyaele Sam Chiyson

The initiation of your creation
Is a fact lacking biliousness
It is one on a journey
Lacking all halefulness
Your creativity and ability
Is one built on rapid ceaselessness
You carve your niche
Beyond imagination and acts that have no laxness
Your thoughts and patterns showcase
One who is full of new ideas and lacks in unfaithfulness
Your essence portrayed
Truly show you have not any giddiness
Your ways and plans you carry
With great and renowned genteelness
Your heat’s mind in your environment
You created in capaciousness
Your next door world
You have thought of in happiness
Spreading forth to reach all lands
Purifying them in cleanness
A purification we now realize
In his ultimate definite rightness
Your acts and skills
Has made nature have a newness
Which has paved a way
So great in its brightness
Your cradle you pitched
In unity and in all directness
You have built your yatch
And heaven’s preciousness.

Grahamstown December
Gillian Rennie

Who are these women?
They pitch up every year
this time
swanky purple cloaks
suddenly a stately march
on every street.
As if from nowhere
they come all over
bright capes flung wide
upon our blue mantle
such excess! so indiscreet!
If this is senior life
I want it.
Then slowly they go
dropping their bits,
pieces of past glory floored
so bees may gorge.
I want that too.
Sometime after lunch
Gillian Rennie

Sometime after lunch
she was eight
and her hair was the hair of a child
– fair –
When the woman took the part at her crown
held it tight
and scrunched it hard into a grown fist
– the right –
Now that wrangler had child hanging by the neck
she was inert
and like a waiting cymbal silent
– but alert –
Meanwhile the woman's left hand gripped the other girl
six years younger
and with child's hair softer still fairer
– then CLONK! –
the woman brought together her packed-full fists
two hit heads
crazy conductor tune with no notes

Golden Orb Spider
John Eppel

Can’t get that dangling girl out of my mind,
nor the jealousy that provoked it.  Why
are  pampered Olympians so unkind
to mortals who challenge them, vivify
them in the first place?  Athene, mistress
of weaving, versus the Lydian wench,
Arachne, who dares to make Olympus
say yes to human pain.  How do the French
put it: la Terre détruit le Ciel?*
It’s a story Sartre might want to tell.

Yes, ‘might want to’.  In the orb spider’s web
Mozart is still composing. The golden
yellow staves of silken moonlight flow, ebb,
ebb, flow… spiralling… while, not beholden
to anyone, Dambudzo’s zigzag script
shocks and enthrals, half pretending to be
a/part; and sun-drunk Vincent, one ear ript
like Hardy’s rotten rose, striving to free
pigment from shapes, paints numerous haystacks,
gets hold of someone’s revolver, and cracks.

Yes, the sadness will last forever; so
will the joy; especially when an early
morning dew transforms the fine meshed halo,
transforms the urgent desire to be
into silvery threads among the gold:
sticky memory and dry forgetting;
indeed, my children, I am growing old,
confused.  Thanks, Mrs Spider, for letting…
…Nephila, with your inward pointing tips,
weave me the dear red curve of her lips;

weave me the aquamarine of her eyes;
weave me the gift of a shawl for her head;
weave me her honey-pale look of surprise
when she learns that the dead bury the dead.
Can’t get it out of my mind, the tangling
word, nor the image of the snake you trapped,
nor the seed-eating bird you’ve been mangling,
and all the lesser creatures you have sapped.
Thank you for letting me experience
what I don’t understand but what I sense.

*the Earth destroys the Heavens

Karin Andersen

Sometimes it seems
we don't talk much
any more
the words have lost their way
teeth in a glass
spectacles next to the bed
when did it happen
where was I?

Sometimes it seems
pain could be truth
to hit my head
against the wall
not merely stub my toe
again and again
blood on the sheets.

Sometimes it seems
the world is sagging
like the springs of this bed
white paint flakes are dandruff
on the green stoep
the curtains are faded
the garden abandoned,
when did it happen
where was I?

Left over from apartheid II
Michael Rolfe

In 2012
it was discovered that it is possible to make money
selling T-shirts that say,
Oh, honey… we all did:
while it lasted,
foreign investors just loved our reliably cheap labour.


The quote at the beginning of the December project was intentionally controversial. What is it to be a poet, or an artist? I argue that it is an attitude, or alignment, about where our thoughts go, how we look at and investigate the world, and how we spend our time. Whether we are able to write good poems or not, is a different question. When we apply ourselves to art of any kind we are hopefully trying to get better at what we do.

Feedback is a way to review what we are doing, and not only in the domain of art. Mostly we resist this. Most of us harbour overdeveloped and undermining inner critics. We often struggle to appraise our own efforts with any degree of accuracy. The freshly written poem that looks simply brilliant at midnight, can look embarrassing in the cold light of day, and vice versa.

I offer the following feedback from my interests and perspective. It is valuable to get a range of responses, so when a poem feels as though it has taken on enough form, show it to those you trust will give you honest criticism – where a poem works and where it doesn’t - feedback that does not undermine you.

Writing is about translation and communication.  It is the art of transferring an idea, image or feeling from my mind and body onto the page, doing so as faithfully and sensitively as possible. This activity is primarily for my own benefit. In the process of turning an inner or outer observation into a poem, I will often surprise myself, as the initiating idea that drew my attention, propelling me to take up my pen, can become a doorway leading me to further related subjects and insights, like Alice down the rabbit hole. As Seamus Heaney depicted in his marvelous poem, "Digging", writing is a way both to excavate and to plant. Poetry can become a way to have a conversation with a part of myself that I do not know very well.

If I then show my poem to another person, there is an opportunity to get feedback as to how successfully I have managed to transfer the intention of the poem to another. That sensation in my chest on hearing upsetting news, or the exact way I saw two dogs circling each other on the beach – what words can I employ to impart the nuances from my sensory systems to those of a reader?

The other challenge that interests me is how the form of the poem might work to enhance the content.

Many of the poems submitted for the December poetry project succeeded well to my mind (and body). It is also lovely to note how particular the voices of the poets are.

In Andrea Buchanan’s poem, the tussle of the wordy arguments of the mind in the longer lines contrasts wonderfully with the shorter, more peaceful sensory observations, which exist without understanding. She captures this powerful paradox well with her imagery of war and regeneration. The rhythm of the lines generates a forward movement that overcomes the tension of the conflict.

In Harry Skennel’s poem I like the juxtaposition of the abstracts of ‘opinion’, ‘words’, ‘questions’ and ‘tomorrow’s results’ with the sensory images of food and eating; then there is the lovely metaphor of ‘idle bread / spread with words’ that seems to straddle the divide. I like this intriguing poem, but I need more help to know what the poet is on about. I believe that clarity is important. The title does not seem to fit with the content (unless we are talking about election results?). In a poem where there is no punctuation other than line breaks, meaning can be difficult to decipher. Does the ending, for example, mean: ‘the noise will abate when midnight silences dawn’?

Zinzi Sealy’s poem addresses imprisonment and freedom in an original way. The poem took me a few readings to get a handle on the context – we are at a funeral, where the widow is compared to the relative freedom of a battery chicken taken out of a cage; yet the creature cannot escape its ultimate fate.

Fleming’s “Look! We have come through” contains well observed and original images of the end of year tensions. I love ‘The year tears itself off….’ and the way the character of the poet comes through. I felt cheated, though, when ‘pathways open’ and ‘my secret source of peace’ is alluded to and glossed over. We all need some of that! It is fine to keep the details secret, but we need more to hold onto – the nature of secrets, and what they mean to the author perhaps. Otherwise it becomes a dead space in the poem – we are being asked to believe something the poet tells us is true, rather than experience it for ourselves. I also think that there are some words one should mostly avoid in poetry, as they have become annexed by generic cliché-makers: “soul” and “ether” are two of them.

The poem “I held your hand” by Ludi-May Allie describes a charged moment between a mother and child. It has poignancy, as the first of many lettings go, and I like the arc from the first line of holding hands to the last of letting go. I think the poem would benefit from a careful assessment of which lines could be deleted – those that are superfluous or repeated. Overwriting is a weakness of mine too. Spelling things out and not trusting the reader weakens the impact. As a radical exercise, try cutting to half the word count, and see what that does to the poem. You can always put lines back if it is then too shorn and stark.

Sarah Frost successfully combines metaphor, body sense and meaning in a heart-warming poem of anticipation, desire and mystery.  I wonder, though, about the use of the word ‘semaphoring’ -  lovely as it is, conjuring non-verbal communication, I am not sure that a system of flag signaling in the transport industry works in this context.

“Scared” by Sandra Hill is about fears, betrayal and hope. I would cut the abstracts of ‘mights and maybes’ – the reader understands implicitly that there is uncertainty in the situation. Go straight from the dog yowling to the doctor and mother’s necessary betrayal.

I love the contrast and paradox in Hill’s second poem “Going nowhere” between the astutely observed movements in this natural space - often of natural objects that are moving away - and the stationary position and intent of the narrator/observer. Her third poem” Birthing” has lovely images of heart-felt tracks to follow and a new beginning underneath the impression that nothing is going on. I feel conflicted by the use of ‘gauze’, associated as it is with manufactured surgical cloth, reinforced by an image of birth. ‘Gauze of time’ is an evocative image, but it might be conflicted with the rest of the poem’s trajectory.

I have chosen five of Keith Edward’s submitted poems:

“Fish therapy” - Such a sensate poem, with the long last line drawing out the pleasure of the experience.
“Cape Town: Weather report” - Indeed. Short poem with a gut twist.
“Cape Town suburb, early summer” - I would suggest a new stanza with ‘Late afternoon….’ to enhance the disappointment. Also, if the poet gets specific about the ‘quotidian gestures’ and their mistaken meaning, this could strengthen the poem.
“3 a.m.” - I like the idea that a bathroom has a night life that does not like to be disturbed by human beings getting up to pee! Also how ‘snapped-on light’ captures exactly that.
“Full moon again” - Gorgeous poem. The moon rising is a hopeful image, creating a nice paradox with the narrator’s damaged yet not destroyed  hope. I also like the juxtaposition of picayune and moon.

Anyaele Sam Chiyson submitted several poems in similar style and theme. They feel like praise poems to me, which I think mostly do better in performance than on the page. Robert Berold, my first poetry teacher, said that when writing about war, it is more effective to write about an individual’s experience of war, rather than general observations. In these poems, I would encourage the poet to take specific incidents to illustrate the qualities she depicts (what acts? What skills? Demonstrate these in an incident, not as a list). People respond to stories told in a sensory way. If the poet merely reports the net effect of what happened in generic terms, we cannot feel it, meaning we do not identify or have compassion with, or even believe the emotion and observations that the poet is attempting to get across. I think of this as writing out of the head; the poetry I respond to most comes from an experience transmitted in the language of physical, which includes emotion and symbol.

In “Grahamstown December” by Gillian Rennie, I like the sensory way the poet describes a group of people she does not understand, yet desires some of their characteristics.  The purple, excess and indiscretion harks back to the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph. I find the last line jarring – it repeats something we already know. I suggest that the poet drops it.

Rennie’s second poem “Sometime after lunch” contains quite an image. I feel that the title does not help the poem, and that paring the incident down using fewer words would strengthen the image.

The art of writing rhyming poetry that flows like an easy conversation without losing hold of the subject matter requires immense skill and application. John Eppel’s “Golden Orb Spider” achieves this while also investigating themes that are layered and thought-provoking. The reader is required to put some effort (pleasantly so, with reward) into what the poet is on about

In Karin Anderson’s poem “Restart” the form of short, curt lines, the imagery of neglect and ageing, and emotions of pain and frustration combine successfully to enhance those distraught, restless questions.

Michael Rolfe is developing a particular poetic voice – quirky, ironic, humorous, provocative, in combination with images. I like this interdisciplinary experiment. The verse “Left over from apartheid II”needs to be tightened up. A writer must have a very good reason to use the passive tense (It was discovered) – it is alienating. There are some rhymes - ‘money’ and honey’, and ‘all did’ and ‘lasted’ - side by side with clunky prose as in the last line.

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