On listening. And dreams. Poetry as an act of hope. by Vangile Gantsho

vangile gantsho | November 12th, 2021 | essays | No Comments

In thinking of poetry – both as a teacher and a practitioner – I am always listening for what the poem is trying to say. Listening to the music, and the ground. As a practitioner, I want to push myself towards listening for what has been buried, oftentimes through multiple lifetimes of silencing. As a teacher, I try to listen for how poetry does this for others. In living poetry, I have come to learn that poetry is an act of listening. And an act of hope.

“I urge each one of us to reach down into
that deep place of knowledge inside herself
and touch that terror and loathing of any
difference that lives there.”

-Audre Lorde

In 2016 I was gifted the profound honour of visiting Malawi. My dear friend, Qabaniso Malawezi, was launching his poetry album – People. As part of the process leading up to the launch, Q asked that I workshop the younger poets who would be opening for him. During the workshop, I asked them to revisit where they wrote their pieces from. One of the young women, whose poem was about sexual violence, went into convulsions and completely broke down after sharing. A young man went into a screaming rage about the violence committed against black men’s bodies throughout the ages. Both poets were able to touch the source of the poem somehow, and by doing so… they allowed us to do the same. Obviously it was most important to create a safe space for them to do this. To hold them and give them enough support to carry them back, but what an incredible gift it was to journey with them to the hearts of their poems.

One young man, whose poem was about a great and epic love, watched his peers with their dramatic journeys into their poems and found himself dissatisfied with his more quiet response. He also wanted tears and volume.

uMama loves telling the story of how after school, Phumela (my sister) and I would sit on the side of the road and share each other’s day. She would tell me what they did in crèche (kindergarten) and I would teach her everything we learned at school. I would write the letters and words into the sand and took the whole exchange quite seriously, I’m told. Later, primary school still, I would tell my baby brother (and anyone who would listen) stories off the top of my head. uTata told me to write them down in a book. And through the years, those stories grew into poems, and a language with which my ancestors would guide through dreams.

What about watching for the moon
through the windows low enough to let the screams
and the curses of the street the gunshots
and the drunken driver screeching tires
and the boombox big beat and the tinkle
bell ice cream truck

What about moonlight
What about moonlight…

– Poem To Take Back The Night by June Jordan

Toni Morrison once said: “It has to be both: beautiful & political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language & the structure & what’s going on behind it.” I remember a conversation with my supervisor, Robert Berold. I wanted to become a teacher in the MA programme at the University Currently Known as Rhodes. After years of practising as an independent teaching artist, I wanted to return to the place that had shaped so much of who I am currently, as an artist and a healer, with the hope that I could be of some kind of value. But my voice had changed so much over the years and I could not trust my ability to interact with other writers as a holder of knowledge. Robert advised that I teach from the edge of my questioning. That I use teaching as an opportunity to think out loud, collectively, rather than teaching. Perhaps, if we are honest, this has always been my approach, to some degree.

When I first began performing poetry, I was a loud raging storm. My poems came from an angry hurt that could no longer stomach the political carnage of post-Apartheid South Africa. My poem “I Expect More from You” and “Talking Frankly” often left me spent, emptied in exchange for standing ovations. Although both poems – and others from that part of my life – were written from a genuine and true listening, I can say (in hindsight) that a lot of the performance was ego-driven. And perhaps it was this ego that kept me stuck in the large externality of politics.

As the years passed, my voice began to change. I moved inward. In search of something more grounding, I began to declutter internally and used poetry as a way of listening to what was most urgent at each point. Of course I felt as though I was a political orphan, and my family’s struggle history had much to do with that, but at the heart of it, I felt like I live in a country that does not care about my physical and emotional safety. We had elected a man into the presidency with a dubious history of sexual violence, and I am a survivor of sexual violence. 276 black girls were stolen over a period of two days and it took the world over a week to care. I am an older black girl now and know of many disappearings of black girls in multiple spaces.

The political is personal. Everything is political. Everything is personal – more so for those of us who feel the world with no skin. Poetry provides an opportunity for creative conversation and for deep listening. Conversations through black womxnhood and listening into the spaces between our breaths and the world. The big shared moments, as well as the small personal revelations… these fragments of sounds and textures and tastes that meet us mid-sentence and incomplete – this is what poetry gives us access to.

Perhaps like me you are tired of suffering and talking about suffering… up to your neck with suffering, of counting the rains of blood but not the rains of flowers. Like me you may be tired of making a tragedy of our lives… let’s abandon this autocannibahsm: rage, sadness, fear)… enough of shouting against the wind—all words are noise if not accompanied with action… let’s work not talk, let’s say nothing until we’ve made the world luminous and active… enough of passivity and passing time while waiting for the boy friend, the girl friend, the Goddess, or the Revolution… we can’t afford to stop in the middle of the bridge with arms crossed. And yet to act is not enough.

– Gloria Anzaldua

In 2017, at the African Women Writers Symposium, during a panel discussion about living in a hopeless world and creative writing being a source of hope, Aja Monet spoke about protest and struggle, and how hopeless things were. How black people have become so used to holding on to hope that we have endured and accepted much more than should be humanly required. Every day we are confronted by the atrocities committed against (black) womxn bodies. (Black) womxn raped, maimed and killed. (Black) womxn systemically poisoned, side-lined, ignored then lauded with empty praises that lead to perpetuated examples of being turned into glorified mules. Black womxn of multiple generations across the times, whose voices have been silenced – because they are both black and womxn.

In her seminal essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”, Audre Lorde writes that all womxn have “a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit arises. These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong enough through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The [womxn’s] place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it’s dark, it’s ancient, and it’s deep.”

During the 2018 #TotalShutdown March to the Union Buildings in Tshwane, the organisers requested that at 1pm we observe a moment of silence for all the womxn who had been affected by gender based violence over the years. As we prepared ourselves, finding places to sit and raising our plaque cards, I felt a restless vibration in the ground beneath us. I watched it move (quite quickly) in search of someone willing to hold it, I think. Someone willing to listen. I made my way to a young woman who began shaking uncontrollably. She was the one. And before I could get to her, she let out one of the most chilling screams I have ever heard in my life. It was long and filled with many voices – some shrilled, some deep… old.

uTata passed away in 2009. Shortly after that, I committed myself to poetry. I worked in call centres and as a waitress. I caught early morning taxis, and late night rides with friends and strangers, just so I could attend Arts Alive and Horror Café open mics. I would sneak into conferences (arrive just after registration or mid-first session, as a question or two and pretend to belong), and I stalked all my favourite writers. I wanted to learn everything I could about poetry, and although I wasn’t really sure how, I knew that poetry would help me feel less lost in the world.

In that journey, I came across Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile – then South African Poet Laureate. I had somehow managed to convince the organisers of the South African Literary Awards to allow me to go to Bloemfontein with them. I would attend the workshops and in turn, review them and do write-ups for the African Writers Conference. Prof Kgositsile, an incredibly perceptive and vast fountain of knowledge, heard some of my work and offered me some guidance. He taught me many things, but one thing in particular: if you tell the story of a human experience honestly and sincerely, all things human will respond to it somehow.

On another occasion, a friend of mine invited me to her workplace so I could “bump into” Dr Don Mattera. Tamkhulu Don instantly became both mentor and someone very dear to my heart. He read many of my poems, so generously, and always offered loving feedback. I remember one occasion where he allowed me to gather up to fifteen friends for a bring-and-share. He made us samosas and we spend all afternoon discussing poetry and the importance of being compassionate human beings.

In pursuit of sincerity and compassion, I have found refuge in two go-to exercises: freewriting and dream transcription. Freewriting is a timed exercise with only one rule — to keep the pen moving. You don’t have to worry about spelling, grammar, tenses or going off on a tangent. I find that freewriting allows for outpouring that over time, feels as natural as breath. There is no time, when you keep writing, to be insecure or self-conscious, or producing a product. There is only the movement of the pen. The second, transcribing dreams, requires waking up in the middle of the night and recording your dreams in the dark – before the light chases them away. You keep a recorder next to your bed, and when you wake up during the night, say your dream out loud, as your remember and forget it. If there are multiple dreams, say them all out loud. Record them. Again… don’t think. Just speak. From these recordings, transcribe them as they are.

Only once this base has been established – the honest outpouring of freewriting or dreams – can the work of editing begin. South African poet and animator, Nathan Trantraal says: all good writing is re-writing. Which is to say, most of the work is done during editing. This is where deep listening is required. When editing, we are being called to listen to what the poem wants to say. Listen for what lives in the silences. To listen beyond the ego and what we would have the poem say. To be unafraid, or write it anyway.

Of course, at the heart of all writing is reading. Reading widely and closely. Read what interests you and what sparks your curiosity. Read to learn more about form, and read to be stunned into silence. Read! Because reading gives way to playing confidently. If we see the multiple ways in which words may live on a page, we have more freedom to mix and break form. It also gives us a new language with which to listen.

To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channelled…
To write as if your life depended on it: to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public, words you have dredged, sieved up from behind screen memories, out of silence – words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.

– Adrienne Rich, What is found there: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics

In The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing, Kim Addonizio and Dorrianne Laux say:

“Writing a poem in such times may feel like fiddling while Rome burns. Yet we’re poets. Writing is what we do in the world – or part of it anyway – and as ephemeral as it might sometimes seem, the making of poems is a necessary act, one that allies itself with hope rather than despair.”

While writing my MA – where I first experienced the poetry of dreaming – I met my maternal grandmother for the first time I could remember. She told me she had planted beads inside my stomach. The following year, a man I had never met told me there was something in the past that would keep pulling me back for as long as I did not answer it. This was not the first time I had been told I had a spiritual calling. But this was the first time I understood. Poetry had given me “words [I had] dreaded and needed in order to know [that I exist]”. And through these words, I was able to see into the past and the future. To touch my purpose and sit in the heart of hope.

Hope that this world of hurt upon hurt upon hurt was not all there was. Hope that this light could be felt by others as well if they knew it existed.

The young man in Malawi with the beautiful epic love poem could not move past his ego. He wanted a standing ovation, and instead, he gave up hope. The hearts of two lovers who chose each other across multiple lifetimes. The black man who was vulnerable and loving and kind. And wounded and loving and kind. Then, in the middle of the #MeToo, #RUReferenceList and #AmINext movements, triggered traumatised me, met a man in Malawi who gave me hope.

I don’t know what it takes to be good at anything. But I do know how to listen. Janet Fitch, in White Oleander, says: “Always learn poems by heart. They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.” I think poetry should be a part of our marrow. It has so much to teach us, about what has been and who we could be. As armour… as love. If we can only, even for a moment, quieten ourselves and listen to the poem.

READ vangile gantsho’s bio

***This essay was first published on https://jonathanbtucker.com/ as part of The Poetry Teaching Artist Training Project

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