The poetic revolution will not be anthologized

Black Women’s poetry has been largely ignored or denigrated in the world of South African letters. They have to do it on their own.

The Afrikaans poet Ronelda Kamfer. Image credit Writers Unlimited.

The recent outrage against violence against women in South Africa has revealed how we, as a nation, are responsible for the erasure of black womanhood. The eruption signals a period of tardy reflection about who falls outside the lines of citizenry and about how this is a despicable way to conceive of ourselves in relation to others.

A first of its kind, Makhosazana Xaba’s edited collection, Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, 2000-2018 reiterates these fault lines within the South African literary imaginary by illustrating how the textual bodies of Black Women’s poetry has been largely ignored or denigrated in the world of South African letters. In doing so, this book destabilizes the notion of the literary anthology itself and demands a different reading praxis of us.

Discussing the evolution of literary collections, novelist and critic Barbara Mujica describes how anthologies “create and reform canons, establish literary reputations, and help institutionalize the national culture, which they reflect.”  She compares this notion to an earlier form called miscellany; derived from the word miscellance, meaning “a dish of mixed corn”, which offers “an unordered gathering of writings on the same topic or of the same genre.”

In very conscious ways, Our Words, Our Worlds uses the form of miscellany to expose how entrenched ways of thinking cannot and do not serve the fullest expression of black female livelihood in South Africa – poetic or otherwise. Hybrid and ideologically non-prescriptive, miscellany views inclusiveness as a far greater ambition than overarching ideological ideals—and what better form to reflect on the nature of Black women’s poetry in South Africa than this?

For a group of writers who have been consistently overlooked by literary canons, miscellany strikes out against the cruel exclusion and denigration of women’s poetry and presents us with a more fundamental opportunity to rethink the nature of literary practice itself. This is immediately apparent in Xaba’s editorial choice to incorporate various genres in the book: Part One offers readers formal pieces of literary criticism and Part Two includes a series of personal essays by Black women poets. Meanwhile, Part Three consists of a collection of interviews and documented conversations. The lack of homogeneity in style and responsive modalities is, by far, one of the book’s strongest and most remarkable features; which in turn breeds a spirit of plurality, of voices that converge to unpack nuance rather than ones that combine to iron them out.

Consequently, each piece stands out with rare distinctiveness, but none more so than the personal essays in Part Two, which has left a mark on me. As a literary academic, I was caught off-guard, and deeply challenged by the emotional response this section elicited but I soon realized that this is precisely how the form of miscellany disrupts our preconceived ideas about the nature of knowledge production; which reminded me of Mujica’s assertion that the anthology is “a vehicle through which a cultural elite could inculcate critical literary values.” And when it comes to Black women’s poetry, this usually involves perpetuating ideas of their work as sentimental and unskilful. Yet Our Words, Our Worlds outwits and outperforms elitist academic and patriarchal prejudices by presenting us with a unique opportunity to learn differently. These candid and beautifully written personal essays require you to sit beside each respondent as they outline how anger, frustration and alienation forms part of the practice of poetry in contemporary South Africa. It felt like an enormous privilege to listen in on the background noise, to learn of experiences that I imagine only personal acquaintances of writers are privy to—and to consider how it amplifies the poetic sounds produced by these writers.

Both Myesha Jenkins and Lebogang Mashile highlight the grit it takes to enter male dominated poetry spaces in which women are trivialized and belittled. For Jenkins, in a world where women are told to be polite and quiet, spoken word is an act of political defiance. Similarly Mashile unpacks how her success has made her an easy target for sexist dismissals that deride both the nature of her body and her poetry. Sedica Davids, Tereska Muishond, Toni Stuart, Makgano Mamabolo, Ronelda Kamfer, Maganthrie Pillay and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers all offer reflections on how and why writing entered their lives, of struggle against largely unsupportive systems, of seeking visibility in a world and poetic canon that offers no reflection of you.

Equally intellectually and emotively charged, these essays resonated with so many of my personal experiences, and just as Muishond highlights how encountering Malika Ndlovu changed everything for her, we learn the enormous importance of having mentors; of being encouraged by women who make you feel seen. As a whole, the book itself performs this function, it has stepped up to put these stories in circulation for other Black women who are looking for stories of women who have walked the paths they are trying to navigate.

Davids highlights how poetry is about being seen as successful, but is quick to redefine success as that of learning how to use poetry as a tool for self-actualization, for finding and building reflections of our more authentic selves. And, as Stuart’s essay attests, the benefits of using poetry to explore personal vulnerability are socially and politically significant as it taps into a collective human experience. According to Stuart, “it is in creating space for another’s voice to be heard that we build community” and as many of these authors suggest, this occurs by first modeling vulnerability through poetry, much like these essays do. These reflections demonstrate how poetry can meaningfully cut through our preconceived ideas; a gut-wrenching surgery we are seemingly in need of as a collective if we are ever to restore dignity to all who live in South Africa.

In Part Two, though one gets a real sense of the collaboration that exists amongst Black women poets in South Africa, Part Three, which is entitled “Conversations,” confirms the collective nature of their engagement in both style and content. Conversation is, again, yet another form of women’s discursive practice that has been subject to sexist dismissal, but here it exhibits the richness of miscellany. These interviews include voices that listen and share space on the page with a democratic ease that does not have to result in concord, certainty or canonization of any particular individual. Just as the form of the conversation implies, these interviews attest to the consistent hard work and collective dedication that goes into creating space for Black women’s poetry. Marking this feature as a point of personal pride, Jenkins declares that “my journey continues as a networker, someone who links women through different projects and genres,” and, I would add, generations.

Reading through this text, I often felt ashamed to learn, for the first time, of certain details and initiatives that have gone into producing our current Black women’s poetry scene. It is indeed true that we have failed to treat this journey as properly historical, as we would if these were the lives of men. But Xaba has stepped in, producing not an archive to add to the national voice but a counter-archive that helps us to not forget what it excludes. Unlike the anthology that helps to “define the national culture” as Mujica suggested, this edited collection uses various strategies to draw our attention to the generative margins that Black female poets occupy in our society.

The notion of contemporary women’s poetry as inherently disruptive to the status quo is made explicit in Part One, where Duduzile Mabaso accounts for Black women who write poetry in indigenous languages. The irony that she presents here is compelling; women are seen bearing the role of tradition—as women always have—but in a manner that completely undermines the patriarchal identity that often governs the role of the imbongi. These indigenous language poets simultaneously affirm and break with the past to insist on space for women’s voices in contemporary times.

Similarly, V.M Sisi Maqagi and Barbara Boswell illustrate how women are always writing against various forms of marginality and silence. These chapters show the enormous burden placed on women’s writing that, by necessity, must represent, condemn, and then transform a society that supports the systemic devaluation of women’s bodies and being. Maqagi outlines how resistance can also find more affirmative expressions by bearing witness to experiences of overlooked pleasure and erotic delight. Taking this point further, Boswell offers a close reading of poems by contemporary Black women who affirm their bodies in ways that reframe the misogynistic idea of disgust that has been used to denigrate and control it. For example, she cites Shelley Barry’s ‘pee poem,’ which narrates the humiliation of a disabled subject after their catheter leaks over everything. Yet, at the end the subject turns to witness their lover tenderly wiping down their wheelchair and states, ‘cleaning my pee/this is romance.’ As Boswell explains, the malfunctioning body is not an adherence to love but a direct conduit for intimacy between the couple. Poems of this nature, she suggests, perform the revolutionary work of showing women’s experiences as multiple and complex; thereby disrupting heteronormative ideals of women’s bodies and their erotic and poetic lives.

As Mujica reminds us, “anthologies tell us much about the cultures that produce them,” and in contrast Our Words, Our Worlds rather proposes a ‘culture’ under production. Xaba’s rigorous archival account of women’s publication in South Africa reveals both the paucity of historical recovery in South African letters, but also the rich production of Black women’s poetry in the 21st century. In her essay, Xaba explores how women negotiate their way around facts that lie “beyond their control,” but as this book cumulatively reveals, it is in fact women who are beyond control, who go on to produce their contexts as opposed to being produced by them. Xaba remains hopeful in this regard, in her stats, she cites a post-transitional proliferation of Black women writing poetry and of readers who “desire a wider narration of the black women.”

Yet this remaking of public space can only occur by ensuring agency, access and control in word, body and publishing, meaning that Black women’s poetry does not and cannot settle. It is its own revolution at odds with a society that often co-opts our words and our worlds. As Maqagi opines, we must never be satisfied with unthinking celebrations of Black women’s writing, and must rather look at how women have constituted an alternative vision of public discourse in a way that enriches the fabric of South African democracy. And in Xaba’s miscellany, Our Words, Our Worlds, we see that the Black South African women’s poetic revolution will not be anthologized, because it offers something far more significant, a counter discourse that widens and enriches the public sphere, which saves it from stagnation and bourgeois singularities through acts of poetic disruption and documentation.

Further Reading