Poetry Project

Capturing change

It is worth paying attention to how form and content work together in a poem. Here are two very different examples:

The race

When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk,
bought a ticket, ten minutes later
they told me the flight was cancelled, the doctors
had said my father would not live through the night
and the flight was cancelled. A young man
with a dark brown moustache told me
another airline had a nonstop
leaving in seven minutes. See that
elevator over there, well go
down to the first floor, make a right, you’ll
see a yellow bus, get off at the
second Pan Am terminal, I
ran, I who have no sense of direction
raced exactly where he’d told me, a fish
slipping upstream deftly against
the flow of the river. I jumped off that bus with those
bags I had thrown everything into
in five minutes, and ran, the bags
wagged me from side to side as if
to prove I was under the claims of the material,
I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,
I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then
run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,
at the top I saw the corridor,
and then I took a deep breath, I said
goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,
I used my legs and heart as if I would
gladly use them up for this,
to touch him again in this life. I ran, and the
bags banged against me, wheeled and coursed
in skewed orbits, I have seen pictures of
women running, their belongings tied
in scarves grasped in their fists, I blessed my
long legs he gave me, my strong
heart I abandoned to its own purpose,
I ran to Gate 17 and they were
just lifting the thick white
lozenge of the door to fit it into
the socket of the plane. Like the one who is not
too rich, I turned sideways and
slipped through the needle’s eye, and then
I walked down the aisle toward my father. The jet
was full, and people’s hair was shining, they were
smiling, the interior of the plane was filled with a
mist of gold endorphin light,
I wept as people weep when they enter heaven,
in massive relief. We lifted up
gently from one tip of the continent
and did not stop until we set down lightly on the
other edge, I walked into his room
and watched his chest rise slowly
and sink again, all night
I watched him breathe.

© Sharon Olds, The Father (Borzoi Books, 1992)

Impassable Bridge

I phoned for an MP
A former bosom friend.
His secretary asked,
In connection with what?

It punctured my ego,
I felt my manhood shrinking.

I said,
Give him my message
Tell him that poisonous mushrooms
Sprout under rotten logs.
If he asks for my name
Say it was an angered poet.
If you can do that for me
I’ll be OK.

But she was quick to add,
She said,
And lizards don’t fly
For their food
They crawl.

She hung up.

© Mzi Mahola, When Rains Come (Snailpress, 2000)

Make a list of those things that are changing in your life at the moment – work, relationship, security, health, landscape, weather, physical appearance, attitude. Write a poem about the one that is uppermost, the one with the most energy. See how you might capture the essence of that change in both the form and the content of the poem.

Suggestion: Don’t worry about the form until you have pinned some material down on the page, then see what the poem itself wants or needs.

Submit your poems with the heading SLiP May Poetry Project to pieter@slipnet.co.za before 20 May. I'll respond to the submissions and select the best for publication here.

Submitted Poems

poem at forty-something
Zita S. Consani

gone are the madcap
march hare days

where leap i
care no look

and time spans

into Neverland

where merry-on-the-go

to gallop off the

daily round –

ain’t life grand!

I trudge now
tortoise days,

bottom sags
with vanity

forty-something face;

in sage bow

for small mercies;

secret smiles

in miles of star;

my fifty-something

lover’s sure touch.

gone are the madcap
march hare days

bloom of fancy
rock ‘n roll romancy.

I don’t mind
so much. 


Jeannie Wallace McKeown

Who can see a future
from disarticulated bones

when checkpoints stop but not the world
not desire
just stepped off-map


but these soils are familiar
aloes and spekboom              wind
which blows to break the sky

here at home the milestones ran out
time set me free
(it was you but behind you was time)

Amidst this unexpected freedom
I taste fynbos air                   hear
boubous and coucals
call my childhood name
the one I gave away for you
walls and rooms remember long ago
they give it back to me

My map has torn apart
you are on the other half

I clutch for markers on the way
not the first to travel this road
these unmarked pathways.

Over the Bones

Jeannie Wallace McKeown

Over these bones which still hold true
to each other          there is

not a creature of wings
nothing so delicate
so finely balanced

No, I have woven myself together
with kikuyu grass and succulents
vivid flowers of red hot pokers

have blended sandstone and
ochre earth with tears of the rain

daubed the cracks of this shape
to the form of a woman

Still though                inside
I am only the same

soft beating tissue
permeable veins
water and tears

A loose thread pulled free
unravels me

this fragile, shivering, salty heart

Pan Pan PanPan

Emily Buchanan

What I imagined
Was my husband’s

Rare, terse
Wonderful poetry –

A scrap of paper
Left on a table –

Our daughter’s nickname?
A piper’s call?

Turned out to be
His study notes

For sailing away –
Mayday, mayday.

A strip club called provocative chicks

Rabbie Serumula

She can barely ooze, femininity
She will booze, to escape reality
Into a tanked-up stupor of proclivity
Camouflaging her sensitivity with promiscuity
A drug mule of finesse
Eager to twirl, wind and shake her fine ass
Philandering, uncontained
Dirty Diana-ring, lacks self-constraint
With ease she gets your bashful wives complaining
Rands in gesticulating hands
Of married men lands
Where there should be her pink top and red pants
Violating her
from within, through the pores of their skin
She has their pulses vibrating
To the rhythm of her seductive gyrating
Gyrating, her thighs,
Tell beautiful lies
Fallacy and fables, her navel conceptualises and connives
With, her perky, firm, voluptuous breasts and behind
The front row buzzes in a frenzy of an exasperated bee hive
She sold her soul
She sold her soul to the pole
The pole she clings on with her manicure hands
Doing a mid-air headstand, one leg to the west, one leg to the east
They feast, their lustful eyes, on the poetry that lies between her thighs
Her hips, my gosh… Her hips speak in tongues
Capable of humming voodoo drums
Tongues capable of collapsing lungs
Her oiled up figure has zero tussles
Look at how she swirls her pelvic muscles
She’s a cardboard cutout of sexiness
Watch the front row eat its friggin’ heart out due to her sassiness
This is who she is. That’s right
This is who she is at night
When she is internally bleeding
Let the moon take a break and it’s the suns turn to shine
Damn hell, this dime of a damsel will forever be reading
Books on anatomy
Lying next to me
One man’s trash is my bargain
Her symphonic voice dictating medical jargon
The nictitating membrane of my froggy eyes shut
When she gives me a kiss
And says, babe, it’s six
Little do they know
She wears that wig to cover her halo
She always gets swallowed by the darkness at six
Headed to a strip club called provocative chicks

My poem

Linda Zinzi Sealy

I have been coming here for weeks
To this poetry gathering

This "open mike"
Where poets perform.
It is ironic that I have been coming here
My poem clutched under my arm
Yet I've never read it.
The poet stars fly in, perform and go
Their poems prolific and confident.

Youth's turn to speak then
Loud vibrant and literate
What chance do I have amongst them?
My poem was birthed in blood
But my pangs will be now unacknowledged.

It is ironic
That I have even been here
Dared to be here
Thinking I have something to offer.
I will take my poem
And put it away under cover.
Weeks maybe years later
I'll discover it
While sorting my papers.
I'll find it I'll read it
And maybe I'll say;
"Did I write this?
It is really very good!
Wonder why I never read it in public!"

Death in the garden

Linda Zinzi Sealy

Tradition demands an offering
Of a white cockerel.
Prophets of old gave offerings
Healers today give gifts the same.
We sit as sun is fading in the cool garden
Reed mat beneath our knees.
I cut his bonds but hold him firmly as
We pray for him in thanks and dedication
For gifts of spirit.
And then the act.
He kicks and thrashes wildly.
How can he scream?
His head is severed, lying in the sand.
What have I learnt from this?
No longer will I take a chicken up
A supermarket plastic shrouded corpse
With no thought of how it got there.
For now I have a deep and genuine love
And reverence for life.

The Ageing Poet

Ross Fleming

Once, poems were the artful conjuring
of careful design within theoretical space.

When blood ran thick and red
poetry was a mad drive
that fed wisdom’s core in quenching draughts.

Books, devoured daily,
birthed spontaneous, sensual phrases.

But now, the male menopause
delivers fluked rhyme (mostly not),

the best poem is a well cooked meal
enjoyed amply with good friends,
and revolution is the word a toddler learns
on the giddy merry-go-round.

An autumn morning spent sleepily in a cosy corner
gives as much warm satisfaction
as a whole weekend of randy romping did
in the hazy memories of honeymoon.

Wayward words now live gingerly;
aches and worries chase them;

and friends are the simple illusions of
a soft blanket,
a comforting chocolate,
or a kind smile.

Place by the River
Annette Snyckers

I have outgrown that place,
that house by the river,

that place of birdsong,
fireflies on sultry evenings
and fussing guinea fowl
settling in for the night.
That place of leaden clouds
and thunderstorms,
of angry, brown waters.
That place of frosty winter mornings
and dusty days,
of dry, bone dry wind
squeezing sap from the soul.
That place of snakes and mice,
of bats and spiders,
of Kudu and Klipspringer.
That place of full moons,
of campfires and stories.
That place of young boys,
bicycles, boats and fishing rods.

That place where we once
were young and strong.


Annette Snyckers

Just for tonight
I shall not think of leaving

I shall not consider the destination
I shall not contemplate the hurt

I shall not imagine my arrival

at another door.

Just for tonight
I shall feel this house enfold me

I shall hear the wind in the trees
I shall smell damp autumn leaves

I shall taste contentment here

I shall see – no,

only tomorrow
shall I look loss in the eye.

They fear they will fall

Sara P. Dias

The council is cutting the giant
blue gums down –

they’ve stood for a 150 years.
Branches could crack
and injure pedestrians.
Cars could be crushed
in the race course parking lot
where homeowners stroll
and kids on bikes race dogs.
They could fall on a house,
our body corporate fears –
and TV signals can’t get through.

Those who attend the races
will park in glaring light.
No broad bole will hide
thieves or security patrols.
Lovers will lament the loss
of this large yet intimate trysting place.
The pied crows will eye their prey
from diminished heights –
maybe the telephone poles.
Maybe they will move on.

The trees make the sun late to blind me –
I will have to close the curtains.
The bloated moon will have
nothing to prop it up –
I fear it will fall
and leave an empty sky.


Keith Edwards

A warm wind flows downhill.
Dry scrape of dry leaves.
Acorns pop underfoot
like small firecrackers.
My mind's not attuned to the season's turning.

Summer seemed to have solidified something, made
this Self permanent.
Now the first chill autumn day -  my memory's madeleine -
threatens revival of old Selves, malevolent
across the moat of the past:
naiveties, innocence, narcissism, cowardice, hubris -
stand ready for another sortie.

Well, this time the drawbridge is up,
the place well-buttressed.
I expect some, though limited, damage.

Treating anxiety with OCD

Michael Rolfe

nExclamation points shall appear rarely, if ever,
and shall be reserved for exclamations.
Questions shall have question marks.
The car, long deprived of maintenance on the grounds of economy
has finally thrown a major wobbly that must be paid for,
but I do not wish to think of that.
Parenthetical interpolations shall be set off with commas.
Or, if they themselves have commas, with em-dashes.
I could take the money out of the bond, I suppose,
although there is no money to pay the extra interest,
but I do not wish to think of that.
Em-dashes or en-dashes; I’m not fussy, as long as they aren’t hyphens.
And em-dashes are always paired,
usually with another em-dash, sometimes with a full-stop.
When you pay with plastic, and pay it off in 55 days, it’s free.
But, if you don’t, it starts to add up.
but I do not wish to think of that.
Levi’s and Jack Daniel’s and Macdonald’s have apostrophes
but Harrods and Twinings and Starbucks do not.
And electricity has just gone up again
but I do not wish to think of that.
And now this whole piece has too many commas.
but I do not wish to think of that.

I think I’d better go through it once again,
just to be sure.

Gone Already

Unathi Magubeni

Don't cry when i die as i will already be born again
Celebrate, for there's birth within my death
I came for a while and was rather pressed for time
I came to love and pass a message from beyond
I promised not to stay a while longer
I begged for more time in the distant yonder
I flew too close to the Sun and indulged in the exotic orgy of earthily desires
Through the fires, I transcend, illuminate, giving birth to true self
The circle continues bringing wonder to itself
I want to fly really
Cross the oceans with birds of a feather
Merge with the divine star and claim my worth in the land of origins
And be reminded how it’s like to be completely spirit


Zita S. Consani’s poem at forty-something contrasts two stages of life and two ways of being. It starts off taking wonderful risks with language and syntax, which mirrors the wild flamboyance of youth. In the second stanza, I suggest that the poet experiment more with line length, language and syntax to give a more visual and visceral representation of the older, slower stage of life, with its unexpected benefits.

Changes attendant on ageing is also the subject of Ross Fleming’s poem The Ageing Poet. I like the contrasting images, but am bothered by two things. Firstly the use of the passive tense and the lack of a discernible narrator. The decision to employ this device needs to add to the poem; here I feel it distracts and alienates. Secondly,  I want the narrator to take me with him so that I can sympathise with his insight – I want to feel the coziness of the corner and the romp of the honeymoon, and how these different experiences can bring about the same satisfaction. The old adage of ‘show don’t tell’.

The tension between past and present Selves is the subject of the poem by Keith Edwards. I like the idea that a season can consolidate the best in one, and that a change in the seasons can threaten this achievement. I also like the list of character traits that stand in wait to bring one down, and the irony that the very defense of the drawbridge contains aspects of those traits. Yet the narrator realizes that ‘limited damage’ is as unavoidable as the ‘Dry scrape of dry leaves’ and the acorns popping underfoot.

Loss of the familiar path, or way of life, in Journeying by Jeannie Wallace McKeown is conveyed through jagged line length. I wondered whether this ‘disarticulation’, which mirrors the disorientation of the narrator, could be carried through into the lines ‘My map has torn apart / you are on the other half’ which is a bit too neat on the page for the content, to my mind. However, by the end of the poem, the narrator has found some solace in knowing that others have been this way before; here I think the more stable structure works to enhance this sense. Some lovely unexpected observations, e.g. ‘time set me free / (it was you but behind you was time)’

In Over the Bones, the same poet tracks a related theme of vulnerability, and ways to keep oneself together through difficulty. I love the way her sensate descriptions  weave the poem and herself together, with three words over the six stanzas that threaten to unravel, and the final word breaking away, utterly exposed, like her ‘salty heart’.

Emily Buchanan’s rare, terse, wonderful poem, Pan Pan PanPan packs an enormous story of relationship, with all its dreams, creativity, disappointments, anxieties into a tiny number of words, as though her poem is also a study note for sailing away. There is a brilliant interplay between form and content, the real and the symbolic, culminating in the double meaning of the last line. I think the poem would benefit in terms of clarity from changing the order of the lines. I have also taken the liberty of suggesting another title.

Found Poem

A scrap of paper
Left on a table

I imagined
Was my husband’s
Rare, terse
Wonderful poetry –

Pan Pan PanPan

Our daughter’s nickname?
A piper’s call?

Turned out to be
His study notes
For sailing away

Mayday, mayday.

In A strip club called provocative chicks Rabbie Serumula plays wonderfully with perception. Just when I thought I knew who the woman and the narrator are, ‘This is who she is. That’s right’ he throws these presumptions on their head. ‘She wears that wig to cover her halo’, but the narrator himself has froggy eyes, suggesting that he might also change when he is kissed… The rhythms of the poem (which should be read aloud) suggest the raw aggressive sexiness found in forms such as rap.

The subject matter of Linda Zinzi Sealy’s My poem provides an opportunity to explore what it feels like to create and then perform or publish a poem, or the feeling on finding a piece one has penned years back and put away. The poem could be shortened considerably – a kind of embarrassed cringe, thinking one is not good enough. Or the poem could start when the poet finds an old poem, and then do a retrospective on how we hide parts of ourselves away. Some good ideas here that need more work.

In Death in the Garden, Linda Zinzi Sealy gives us a vivid picture of a traditional sacrifice and her own transformation. I suggest putting down the details of ‘the act’, and cutting the line ‘What have I learnt from this?’ The break between the two stanzas mirrors both the beheading and the transformation of the narrator’s attitude towards the ‘plastic shrouded corpse’ in the supermarket.

Annette Snyckers’ poem Place by the River gives us a lot of information, yet not enough. The repeated refrain of ‘that place’ and the structure of a list keeps pushing the memories of that place away, a distancing, which works well to demonstrate the narrator’s desire to be done with what appears to be her childhood home, yet the nostalgia belies this. At present the listing of memories are too generic to involve the reader; I suggest taking the time to get really specific, so that the tension between the felt memories and the desire to leave them behind is more acute. Also I would leave the first line out, and allow the inference that the narrator has outgrown the place to filter through as we read the lines of the poem, or else leave that overt insight till near the end. I also think that there are certain words that are too loaded, too commodified or too generic to be useful or meaningful in a poem; ‘soul’ is one of them.

In Departure, Annette Snyckers captures the tension between staying and leaving. Here, the tension between the repeated refrain, which sounds like a mantra, and the use of a list to help control the heartache works better than in Place by the River. I would change the last line to ‘shall I look at loss.’ to avoid cliché, and because the reference to ‘see’ and the eye is already there in the word ‘look’.

Sara P. Dias also employs a list to argue the case for and against the council’s decision to cut down trees in They fear they will fall. The poem becomes more interesting towards the end with a wonderful image to finish it off. I suggest starting with the actual visceral scene of the chain-sawing of the trees, which will grab the readers’ attention from the beginning. Playing spatially with words on the page to amplify the argument for and against might be worth the experiment.

In Michael Rolfe’s hilarious poem Treating anxiety with OCD, form and content compliment each other  very well. The only thing I would change is the superfluous title.

Unathi Magubeni has captured the feeling of exuberant transcendence in the poem Gone Already  through use of specific language and line length. Two pointers to improve the poem: all of us fall into the trap of cliché or well-worn phrases. They are deadly, in that the writing goes lifeless and the reader shuts down. As poets we need to find original ways of setting down what we are trying to say. In this poem, ‘born again’. ‘flew too close to the Sun’, ‘true self’ and ‘birds of a feather’ are examples of staple phrases which need rewriting in the poet’s own words. I also suggest that the poet write more about what it is like to be completely spirit.

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