Difficult to Explain (Hands-On Books, 2010) is more than just an anthology of highly accessible, striking, funny, quirky, tender and moving poems. It is also a much-needed companion for poets and teachers, offering a series of inspirational exercises as well as memorable reflections on the art of teaching creative writing.
Poet and creative writing teacher Finuala Dowling has put together a collection of the best poems that have emerged from her current and recent poetry workshops. The collection includes a new, unpublished poem by Finuala as well as contributions by established writers who have attended her classes.
Contributors include Sally Argent, Leila Bloch, Melissa Butler, Margaret Clough, Kerry Hammerton, Colleen Higgs, Jordan Kantey, Michael Keeling, Pam Newham, Dorothy Paramore, Lara Potgieter, Angela Prew, Cornelia Rohde, Consuelo Roland, Beverly Rycroft, Karin Schimke, Annette Snykers, Heather Tibshraeny and Winifred Thomson.
The ukai cormorant
dove deep, brought in the day’s catch,
stood statuesque under a fading sky,
wings hung out to drip dry.
The old men wait in the boathouse,
no longer fishermen, skippers, carpenters.
They laze around in greasy overstuffed chairs,
groan about their bones,
gossip about who is
sporting a gold chain,
who lurches down the road
drunk at dawn,
about Jock’s boy
high on crack, totalling his Jag,
about Millie who shot straight off
the dock when her brakes failed on the curve.
Around them, gulls cluster and squawk
amplifying the vacant clack of old men blind
to the hull silently poling towards them.
When you’re old enough we’ll go on a trip.
Just you and me.
We’ll pack boiled eggs and sandwiches
and tea in a flask.
(You have to have a flask)
And we’ll mark the route on a map in pen.
(No, let’s just go)
We’ll set off while everyone else
is still asleep.
And we’ll take our time
and sing our favourite songs.
(Singing loudly’s a must)
And when we stop for fuel
we’ll buy ice cream
and let it drip through our fingers.
We’ll see places with names like
Katbakkies Pass and Krokodil Port
and Bibby’s Hoek and Bela Bela.
We’ll stop for timid tortoises
and to watch dingy sheep.
Then, at night, we’ll find a B&B.
(A farm would be good)
And we’ll make a fire
and lie on our backs
and smell the curling wood smoke
while we count the stars.
Or we’ll take a torch
and hunt for nagapies in a tree.
(There and there and there)
When you’re old enough we’ll go on a trip.
Just you and me.
And no matter how many times you ask,
“Are we there yet?”
I will say,
“Yes, we’re there.”
To adventurers, as far as I’m concerned
There is a climber on TV dangling
from a rope about to die.
He reminds me of the stranded balloonist,
parched in the desert, about to die
who reminds me of the solo yachtsman with broken arms,
4000 kilometres from anywhere, about to die
who reminds me of the men who tried to play
and who ended up hating each other and about to die.
Oh misled, unfortunate adventurers: stay home!
What would it take to make you stay at home?
There’s so much to do: Make tea! Clean out the shed!
Find your inner mountain and climb it
Find your inner sea and chart it
Find your inner arid plain and trudge across it
as we all do, daily,
harnesses in the canyon
crampons in the glacier.
Imagine how much we’d save on search and rescue
if you would only stay at home
Imagine how many we could save
if you would only cease this quest for accidental death
and talk about your feelings; or clean the shed.
from Difficult to Explain, edited by Finula Dowling
(Hands-On Books, 2010)
Dr. Graham Ellis writes:
“Many have songs but are silenced before they can sing. Many of the voices lost to HIV/AIDS will never be heard. The talent lost cannot be calculated. Many of those who are lost never ‘hit the Big Time’. The language of their hearts never reached their lips. I don’t know how many or who they were.
Mzwandile Matiwane was one and I knew him briefly.
He wrote poetry while in St. Albans jail where he spent about 14 years. He told me that poetry saved his life there. In 2006 he sometimes appeared at ‘Off-The-Wall’ poetry evenings in Observatory, where he masqueraded as ‘the Hobo Poet’. In the harsh Cape winter of that year he lived under cardboard beneath a bridge near Cape Town Castle.
On one of my trips to drop him off at his ‘home’ he asked me to take care of some of his handwritten pages of poetry. The first page opened with a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘One always hears in the writings of a hermit something of the echo of the desert, something of the whisper and the shy vigilance of solitude’. His health deteriorated and in 2008 he moved back to his mother’s home in Port Elizabeth. He passed away shortly thereafter. In a phone call to him a few days before he died, he said: “It feels as if I am walking against the wind”.
Lost Voices is an attempt, not only to honour Mzwandile’s tragic life, but also the many unknown voices that we have lost to HIV/AIDS.
I have been joined in this project by the remarkable playwright and performer, Monty Jola.
Monty was Mzwandile’s friend and mentor. His acclaimed play, A New Struggle, will form the centrepiece of our short evening of poetry, music, dance and performance. Our collaboration became possible when we teamed up with Dr. Ashraf Mohammed and the Peer Group Educators of the HIV/AIDS Unit of Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Proceeds from the evening will go to Mzwandile’s mother and to Monty Jola’s Township Theatre Performance Group.
We look forward to a memorable evening.
Thanks for your support!”
Beverly Rycroft was born in the Eastern Cape. She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand. She worked as a teacher for several years before turning full time to writing and journalism. Her articles have been published widely both locally and internationally. Her poems have been published in local literary magazines such as Carapace, New Coin and scrutiny2. She lives in Cape Town with her family. Missing (Modjaji Books, 2010) is her first collection of poems.
In 1997 Beverly Rycroft was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. The poems in her debut collection, Missing, chart the experience of facing mortality, illness and the hope of recovery.
“This astonishingly moving debut collection reads compellingly as one complete story. Missing covers the archetypal journey from sickness and near-death to transformation and hope. Rycroft wears her exquisite poetic technique lightly – through rich and deftly crafted images, the poems are profoundly inviting, readable and memorable. I could not put it down.”
– Finuala Dowling
The telephone, once a domestic creature
has turned into a raptor.
At nine last night it sprang, the first attack.
The Doctor’s voice spinning from it
and sticky as fresh entrails:
When I dropped the receiver back
the shriek became a burr again.
This morning it perches beside my unmade bed
wings folded, eyes shut
On the sixth floor we’re almost eye level
with three white clouds that have
strayed into the maze
of buildings around Wynberg Hospital.
They’ve no language for
where they’ve been left, lost
above the traffic
and hawkers selling fruit
and taxi drivers we can hear
even from behind the double-glazed windows
of the doctor’s room.
No one’s forced me here.
I’m free if I wish to catch
– for five rand only –
a ride to
or Cape Town Central Station.
If I wanted I could
take a train to the east coast
disembark at East London
hitch to Transkei.
I’m told long-horned Nguni cattle still bask
on the Wild Coast rocks and
get called back each evening
by barefoot boys in school uniform.
I’ve seen for myself the clouds
that sprawl and slur untranslated
across that sky
beneath which poverty
are quite unremarkable.
Dying women should not wear lipstick
dying women should not wear lipstick
or pink-checked mini skirts that shriek
sexy! and shoot right up
past their skinny knees
towards their truncated breasts.
they ought not to wear
pillbox hats that lodge on their stubbled heads
like stranded yachts or put on
stiletto heels or shiny earrings
or even oddly-matched shoes. they
must stay at home and
wear brown scarves. they must
turn their dying faces away from the rest of us
and not eat ice cream on Sea Point promenade
or enjoy spring
or breed hamsters.
they may not run in the annual school sports day mothers’ race
and definitely never win.
of course they are allowed to cry.
but only in the privacy of their own
and only when holding
a pillow over their
warm and dying mouths to stop
their children from knowing:
there is something a little more
than dying going on in there.
For Thomas in California
Do you lie awake at night
– cousin Nolan asks –
and worry about your kids?
– I knew someone else – he sighs
She looked fine, just like you.
Until she died.
And the woman who cut my hair
at the hairdresser’s in Cavendish Square:
She had an Aunt with the illness
who’d been one hundred percent OK.
Until six months ago.
Then there’s the nurse in Wynberg
who sews prosthetic pockets and enjoys
keeping me up to date with each
amongst her dwindling
I save them all up for you, Tom
for Sunday nights
when you phone and I can finally fume:
I’m going to live
to bury all those people who think
I won’t make it.
I wait for you to tell me:
Don’t say that
People don’t mean to
But you just say:
Hand me that shovel, girl.
I’m gonna help you dig.
i don’t remember what
made her cry that day
– her brother teasing? her sister ignoring her? –
running to where i sat
in the armchair of the sunny lounge
that was before they allowed
a prosthesis to lie
over the healing scar
and i only remember
– long after she’d stopped –
how hard her skull felt
on the bones of my chest.
What I plan
I plan to eat oat snaps (more than two)
while drinking Lady Grey tea
in a house at Plettenberg Bay overlooking
the mountains and a sea
rolled flat as pastry by the fussy wind.
I plan to not-plan or anticipate
the abrupt scream of metal
or the phone call at 3 am
or the silent busy-ness of my own
I plan to forgive myself if I do.
I plan to lose myself – often –
in the temporary
to sit out the turbulence when it mauls
at the equator of my muscle and bone
I plan to remember I’ve kept afloat till now.
And remembering better times I plan
to call them once again to account
to hang them from my warped mainsail
like worn and mended sails that shout:
Here you have held the wind.
from Missing (Modjaji Books, 2010)
You are cordially invited to the launch of Beverly Rycroft’s Missing:
Date: Saturday, 17 July 2010
Time: 18h00 to 19h30
Venue: Kalk Bay Books, Cape Town
Enter your details here to be added to the guest list.
Visit Reach for Recovery.
“At the root of Lucille Greeff’s best offerings lies an otherness of perception, an enchanting, quirky linguistic and imaginative bent, which vindicates the search by our publishers to develop new talent, and which is a delight to encounter. It is a search that does not shy away from what is endemic to South African experience but rather tries to retrieve it with love and care.
Lucille skryf om die beurt in Engels en in haar harts-Afrikaans. Ek hoop om hierdie grinterige jong vrouestem in die toekoms weer teë te kom.”
– Charl-Pierre Naude
“Lucille Greeff offers a fresh, resounding voice with extraordinary perception and humour. Her poetry is uniquely bilingual; she seems equally and lyrically at ease in Afrikaans and English, making both languages sing.”
– Deborah Steinmair
You are invited to the launch of Lucille Greeff’s debut poetry collection, Glaskastele / Skylight of the Heart.
Featuring Khadija Heeger, Tania van Schalkwyk, Winslow Schalkwyk
Music by Maxim Starcke
Live Art by Elaine Millin
@ Novalis Ubuntu Institute
39 Rosmead Avenue, Wynberg
between Wetton & Ottery Rds
Friday, 5 February 2010
18h30 for 19h00 – 20h30
Entrance R30 p.p. at the door, u/12 free (CES Talents Accepted)
Fundraising Event for Symphonia for South Africa.
Books for sale on the evening @ R100 per book (cash only).
Free drinks (non-alcoholic) and snacks served.
RSVP & Queries: 021 786 2627 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Glaskastele / Skylight of the Heart is available online here and here and at selected independent bookstores in Cape Town.
On Thursday, 30 July 2009, the Two Oceans Aquarium, in collaboration with the UCT Writers Series, will present DEEP: A Night of Creative Currents featuring Sharks, Poets and other Endangered Species. The event is in support of the Aquarium’s Adopt-a-School Programme.
Tickets cost R40.00 and include entrance to the Two Oceans Aquarium and a free glass of wine on arrival. Fairview will present cheese and wine and a cash bar will be available. Art, and books from the Book Lounge, will be on sale. Doors open at 18h30 with performances starting at 19h00.
Writers and poets have been inspired to speak and write in celebration and defence of the oceans. In today’s rushed world there are fewer and fewer places available for contemplation and creativity, especially in cities. Just as our creative spaces and practitioners are under threat, so too are our oceans and their creatures. DEEP is an opportunity to celebrate the oceans and some of South Africa’s most creative artists.
Central to DEEP is the launch of Hyphen, a debut collection of poems by Tania van Schalkwyk, which is published by the UCT Writers Series. Included in this collection are a number of poems inspired by the sea including ‘Siren Song’, ‘Abyss’, ‘Lionfish’ and ‘Water’. Lindsey Collen, author of The Rape of Sita, Mutiny and Boy, and twice winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Africa, said, “Tania van Schalkwyk’s poems are warm, sensuous memories that often shock and surprise at the same time … They are not just on inner space, but are poems of place, as they move from islands to the veld, from cities to the desert”. No stranger to the Aquarium, having assisted with the launch of Shoreline Café, van Schalkwyk also curated DEEP in collaboration with Michelle Matthews of Electric Book Works.
The launch of Hyphen will be supported by a collection of three minute sea-inspired flash readings and performances by select poets and writers, including Gus Ferguson, Justin Fox, Sarah Lotz, Helen Moffett, Malika Lueen Ndlovu, Henrietta Rose-Innes and a collaborative piece by Toni Stuart, Michael Mwila Mambwe & James Jamala Safari. The MC for the evening is the inimitable Suzy Bell; writer, columnist and pop culture aficionado.
Ferguson has had seven collections of poems and two books of cartoons published; Fox is deputy editor and senior photographer at Getaway magazine; Lotz is a scriptwriter-cum-krimi author with an insatiable greed for the macabre; Moffett has recently published her first collection of poems; Ndlovu is dedicated to creating indigenous multi-media works in line with her personal motto ” healing through creativity”; Rose-Innes won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2008; Stuart works with young people, using poetry as a means of self-expression; DRC born Mambwe’s has performed on various stages from the Cape Town Book Fair to the Africa Centre’s Badilisha Poetry Exchange and Jamala Safari’s earliest artistic exposure came in the form of theatre at a young age in Bukavu, South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These well-known word-artists have a wealth of performance experience and publications behind their names and will give voice to the ocean’s deepest secrets.
Word art by Gabeba Baderoon, Gus Ferguson, Tania van Schalkwyk and others in The Vinyl Collection, will come to life against the backdrop of smaller exhibits in the Aquarium. Baderoon is the author of three collections of poetry and was the recipient of the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry in 2005.
The evening will also feature seven short films including three from the City Breath Project – Waitless, The Electrician and Omdat ek die stadsrumoer (Because I chose the city noise). The writer of the latter film was blinded at age four, but at sixty-nine, still has vivid memories of visiting an aquarium. A film, alpha, by Kai Lossgott, curator of the City Breath Project, will also be shown. City Breath is an urban oral history video project which seeks to interrogate the official understandings of South African cities conveyed in television, film and other mass media.
Other film pieces include Umbilical Cord by poet/filmmaker Shelley Barry and Sea Orchestra and The Tale of How by the Blackheart Gang. Barry’s films have been screened at major festivals and events around the world and The Tale of How has won numerous international awards, including “Best Independent Film” at the Bradford Animation Festival in London in 2006.
Artists Rebecca Townsend and Colwyn Thomas will show their work which will be available for purchase. Townsend works predominantly with glass and creates sculptural glass vessels that reveal the magic of the ordinary things we live with every day. ‘Kelp’ by Thomas is a 12-part light-box installation which, according to Thomas, “is a rumination on some of the changes that take place when we grow up.”. Thomas is influenced by traditional and modern Japanese art and his works often show both humans and fish or animals in dreamscapes animated by trailing clouds, plants or jellyfish tendrils.
Local band Benguela will take to the stage against the spectacular backdrop of the I&J Predator Exhibit. The trio, including Ross Campbell, Alex Bozas and Brydon Bolton, has played at many of the festivals around South Africa. According to James Garner, “Benguela’s sound is an atmospheric, uncompromisingly adventurous fusion of constantly shifting elements…” The name ‘Benguela’ is taken from the cold current running up the West Coast of southern Africa and reflects both the flowing nature of the music as well as being geographically representative of where the band came together and the climate in which they live.
Proceeds from DEEP will go towards the Aquarium’s Adopt-a-School Programme. This programme provides the opportunity for children from previously disadvantaged schools to visit the Aquarium and to discover the wonders and beauty of the ocean and its inhabitants. Such an opportunity can be a life-changing experience for these children and instill a deep and long-lasting appreciation for the oceans.
Tickets cost R40.00 and include entrance to the Two Oceans Aquarium and a free glass of wine on arrival. Fairview will present cheese and wine and a cash bar will be available. Art, and books from the Book Lounge, will be on sale. Doors open at 18h30 with performances starting at 19h00. For more information contact:
Communications & Sustainability Manager
Two Oceans Aquarium
Tel: 021-418 3823
Body of work
As coming upon
a puff-adder coiled on the carpet
under the desk
or a boomslang
slithered off out of its tracks
then its skin and later even
its bones …
perhaps they didn’t even know it
was done when it was done,
perhaps it felt too easy –
like waking drugged out of sleep still
sloughing it off –
maybe they didn’t even feel better
for a while, if at all
they didn’t know what they were doing
when they started
nor how terrible they’d feel
nor for how long –
they were dead scared
was it the fear itself or was it the fear
of mercury poisoning or the poisoning itself
god’s truth they must have got sick of it –
right arms aching down to the little finger
right side of the head aching
right down the back aching
sick of it sick of that vocation that exhaustion that compulsion
to make something of something as nothing
as love making matter what mattered
so little to anyone else if at all –
ridicule, poverty, social ostracism
they weren’t worried about those they worried
about their work
not working their fear not resolving
what they knew: what they were
their material, their metal, to make
come like the mysterious body
they didn’t want to end up with
the same stuff they started with
the residue of the time before
all they knew they were
burning thickening melting
into air finding wanting
all they could ever hope for
From Burnt Offering (Modjaji Books, 2009).
Read my interview with Joan on Litnet.
To purchase Burnt Offering, contact Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books: email@example.com.
You are cordially invited to Burnt Offering’s launch – Joan will be reading – at the Cape Town Book Fair on 14 June 2009 from 17h30 to 18h30 at the DALRO Stage in the CTICC exhibition halls.
It takes a village
It takes a village
To raise a child
Mother to tomorrow’s
It takes a village
To heal broken accord
Child to tomorrow’s
It takes a village
To plough the widow’s field
So her children will not steal
It takes a village
To sow seeds of life
To communal living.
It takes a village
To raise a standard,
Kill competition, father
Of greed and unending strife.
From Please, Take Photographs (Modjaji Books, 2009)
To purchase Please, Take Photographs, contact Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books: firstname.lastname@example.org
You are cordially invited to Please, Take Photograph’s launch – Sindiwe will be reading – at the Cape Town Book Fair on 14 June 2009 from 17h30 to 18h30 at the DALRO Stage in the CTICC exhibition halls.
In other countries, I become a different person.
In Uganda, I drink beer after Tuskers beer,
and in Barbados, home-made herb rum.
In Alaska, I drive a four-by-four.
In Ireland, I stick out my thumb.
In Greece, I share a room with strangers.
And everywhere, I get up before dawn,
climbing out of windows if I have to,
scrambling to catch first light.
On the sacred isle of Iona, adrift in the Hebrides,
I walk along a beach, confessing,
clutching the hand of an impossible man
I have known for all of three days.
And I skydive into love, freefalling,
wind whistling past my ears.
A day later, I kiss him
in the middle of the night,
in the middle of a storm,
spray wet on our faces,
caught in the boom of a kettledrum.
At home, I never do any of these things.
I’m a white-wine girl who doesn’t see sunrise.
My car is small and second-hand.
I seldom take risks.
And while I might fall in love,
I no longer jump out of planes,
hurtle into the heart of the wind.
But maybe I should. Live in another country.
for Sean McDonagh
From Strange Fruit (Modjaji Books, 2009)
Read my interview with Helen on Litnet.
Read four poems from Strange Fruit at Rustum Kozain’s blog,
To purchase Strange Fruit, contact Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books:
You are cordially invited to Strange Fruit’s launch – Helen will be reading – at the Cape Town Book Fair on 14 June 2009 from 17h30 to 18h30 at the DALRO Stage in the CTICC exhibition halls.
Four wonderful new Modjaji poetry collections go to the printer this week. The volumes are available at the special offer of R100 each if you buy one this week. They will sell for R120 plus in the shops when they are out. The books are:
Please, take photographs by Sindiwe Magona;
Burnt Offering by Joan Metelerkamp;
Oleander by Fiona Zerbst;
Strange Fruit by Helen Moffett.
All four collections are available for R300, if you buy them this week.
If you’re interested, contact Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books: email@example.com.
About Modjaji Books
Modjaji Books was started in 2007 by Colleen Higgs. Modjaji is a new independent press that publishes the work of South African women. “Modjaji – which means rain queen – is a press that will make rain and generate spaces for new voices to be heard that otherwise may not find a platform.”
She Comes Swimming
She comes swimming to you, following
da Gama’s wake. The twisting Nile
won’t take her halfway far enough.
No, don’t imagine sirens – mermaid
beauty is too delicate and quick.
Nor does she have that radiance,
Botticelli’s Venus glow. No golden
goddess, she’s a southern
selkie-sister, dusky otter-girl
who breasts the cold Benguela, rides
the rough Atlantic swell, its chilly
tides, for leagues and leagues.
Her pelt is salty, soaked. Worn out,
she floats, a dark Ophelia, thinking
what it feels like just to sink
caressed by seaweed, nibbled by
a school of jewel-plated fish.
But with her chin tipped skyward
she can’t miss the Southern Cross
which now looks newly down on her,
a buttress for the roof of her familiar
hemisphere. She’s nearly there.
With wrinkled fingertips, she strokes
her rosary of ivory, bone and horn
and some black seed or stone
she can’t recall the name of,
only knows its rubbed-down feel.
And then she thanks her stars,
the ones she’s always known,
and flips herself, to find her rhythm
and her course again. On, southwards,
yes, much further south than this.
This time she’ll pay attention
to the names – not just the English,
Portuguese and Dutch, the splicings
and accretions of the years. She’ll search
for first names in that Urworld, find
her heart-land’s mother tongue.
Perhaps there’s no such language,
only touch – but that’s at least a dialect
still spoken there. She knows when she
arrives she’ll have to learn again,
so much forgotten, lost. And when
they put her to the test she fears
she’ll be found wanting, out of step.
But now what she must do is swim,
stay focused for each stroke,
until she feels the landshelf
far beneath her rise, a gentle slope
up to the rock, the Cape,
the Fairest Cape, Her Mother City
and its mountain, waiting, wrapped
in veils of cloud and smoke.
Then she must concentrate, dodge
nets and wrack, a plastic bag afloat –
a flaccid, shrunk albino ray –
until she’s close enough to touch
down on the seabed, stumble
to the beach – the glistening sand
as great a treasure as her Milky Way –
fall on her knees and plant a kiss
and her old string of beads,
her own explorer’s cross
into the cruel, fruitful earth at last.
She’s at your feet. Her heart
is beating fast. Her limbs are weak.
Make her look up. Tell her she’s home.
Don’t send her on her way again.