Phillippa Yaa de Villiers started out writing in her diary as a young kid. In an interview with Mike Alfred in the Twelve + One (Botsotso Publishing, 2014), she reveals that she would write her secret thoughts and secret letters to various people and characters from action films. By eleven, her first poem was published in The Star newspaper but when her teacher claimed her mother had written it for her, Phillippa lost her confidence.
She never stopped writing, though. She went on to study journalism, scriptwriting and drama and even mime and theatre. She has written television dramas and plays. It would be years before she returned to poetry and when she did, she published Taller than Trees (Center for the Book, 2006) and then The Everyday Wife (Modjaji, 2010).
Phillippaa’s one-hander play, Original Skin, is perhaps the work for which she is most know for. It explores her life story from childhood to discovering she was adopted and how she deals with it. Her poetry has been described as “sensitive, unafraid to be erotic, sometimes tragic and always irreverent” (Ogunlesi, T. 2012 Wasafiri). For me, it is her openness and exuberant energy that she brings into the poetry game that assures me that even if we can take poetry seriously, we don’t have to be dour.
Phillippa shares her thoughts about her work, her inspiration and her future projects.
Poetry Potion: What/who is it that keeps you writing poetry?
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: Poetry itself keeps inspiring me to write and the events of life also encourage me to put it down in words. Sometimes things are so intense emotionally that writing a poem relieves the pressure. Sometimes you really just want to say something to someone and it comes out in images – it’s poetry. Sometimes you just want someone to share their wisdom with you, let you know it’s going to be all right. So you create that person outside of yourself, but it’s actually you – you know what’s good for you.
PP: You have written about the difficulties of working with a small publisher and self-publishing. Do you think there’s a future in publishing poetry? Or is the future of poetry performance?
PhilYaa: I think that publishing and performance are the same when in the capitalist system, which is relentless – it only cares about profits. I’ve just given up trying to earn a living from poetry. I earn a living from teaching, coaching and editing poetry and prose. I think I’m really lucky because some of the work I’ve been given has been because of what I’ve done with what I’ve got i.e. a university education, access to libraries, a hell of a complicated life story, and friends. I used to think I could make a living doing poetry but when I thought about it, much better writers than me have day jobs. You know like Kwame Dawes and Toni Morrison and Franz Kafka and Pablo Neruda – they all have – and had day jobs. I think we need to take the pressure off ourselves and wake up to reality. If we can’t monetize our poetry, it’s not to say that our poetry is not good. It’s just that a different value system can never pay you what you’re worth. It can’t afford you.
PP: Taller than Buildings was your first book, How different or similar was the journey of putting together your first collection compared to when you put together The Everyday Wife?
PhilYaa: I never think I’m putting together a collection. I write and write and write and after some time – this time it will be over five years – I decide to make a manuscript. Many of the poems have already been published by the time I do this – I send my work to journals, when there’s a call out for poems of a particular theme, etc. I’m always looking for places to publish – I’m in several anthologies. I prefer being in an anthology because an anthology is an ensemble of voices, so you are seen in context with other poets of your generation. That’s very important to me these days. I was much more focused on my individual contribution with Taller than Buildings – it came about from an eight-month writing project called Crossing Borders run by Lancaster University and the British Council. I had a mentor in the UK who I [sent] 6 poems [to] every six weeks – and he gave me detailed feedback. By the end of the process I had enough poems for a collection, I made a manuscript and sent it to Centre for the Book’s Community Publishing Grant – and I [was] given the grant to publish the book. I could never do it without the support of somebody. First of all, I couldn’t afford that R20-30 000 to design and print copies of the book and get a distributor. Second of all, I have confidence issues and if I hadn’t had other people to say, “good, nice work, we’ll support it”, I’d probably have buried it and carried on with my day job – writing for TV. I thought of the collection as my ‘passport’ to a whole lot of literary experiences – which it was. The Everyday Wife also came about because of a prize for writing – the Writing beyond the Fringe Prize which was offered by the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. I had been writing poems since Taller Than Buildings and part of the prize was a residency. I went and lived in a farmhouse in the Belgian countryside and wrote and edited and tweaked the poems I already had for two months. Then I had the manuscript for The Everyday Wife.
Earlier this year, you performed Original Skin. I think you haven’t performed it in a while, am I right? I imagine this to be the most intimate and personal of your work. How does performing it over and over again feel? To get naked again, to go to that place again. Does it still feel raw and too private? Did it ever?
PhilYaa: I put the show to bed last January after a short season at Bayreuth University in Germany. I really thought it was the end of the line, and I had loved the show, I really learnt a lot from it, and from working with the various people who helped me to make the show – Vanessa Cooke, Robert Colman. I was given a challenge by the late Peter Hayes – a director and actor I have a lot of respect for. He came to see Original Skin and was disappointed that I hadn’t used the real names of the people in the show. So this year Ismail Mahomed of the National Arts Festival wanted to create a platform for coloured artists, and invited me to add Original Skin to the shows that were on offer. I reworked the show with Robert Colman and changed a lot of the text to be less flowery and more direct. It felt even more raw and it was energising to do it again. It didn’t feel private at all – I think I’ve done a lot of work to feel at home in my own life – now it’s more real than it’s ever been and my life is not that story. That was part of my life, a very important part of it, but not everything – thank the heavens!
PP: You have quite an amazing sisterhood with Myesha Jenkins, Natalia Molebatsi, Khosi Xaba and other creative women; please talk about what it is that you think creativity brings to the relationship between women. Also how does that feed your poetry?
PhilYaa: Well I have a bunch of women who won’t let me get away with anything. They are honest and they are supportive at the same time. You know how a sister can slap you and hug you in the next breath? I love that about each of them. We encourage each other and we give each other props and also projects. For example, Khosi is editing a book of essays on SA women’s poetry and she’s asked us to contribute. So she raises the bar all the time – she knows we have potential and she demands it of us! I respect each of their minds and I know they respect mine too. We are, however quite independent of each other and we don’t always agree, which is one of the other things that makes me to love these women.
PP: You and Myesha continue to run Jozi House of Poetry. And it’s a different kind of poetry session, can you talk about the role Jozi House of Poetry plays in poetry development?
PhilYaa: Well now it’s the three of us: – Natalia Molebatsi is also running the session. After two years at Pop Art in Maboneng, we decided to move to Afrikan Freedom Station in Westdene. Jozi House of Poetry worked well at PopArt Theatre but it was [also] difficult – poetry could never earn the money that’s required by a busy theatre in a highly commercial environment. The format we used at PopArt – readings by multiple poets followed by a panel discussion and an open mic, taught us that people really needed to talk – about politics, literature, society, sexuality, money … etc. So we moved to Afrikan Freedom Station, chilled out, and got into different kinds of sessions. This last one was actually a writing workshop followed by reading. We wanted participate in the development of poets – and our own poetry as well – as far as we could, and this venue lends itself to these kinds of discussions. Of course, the initial mandate of Jozi House of Poetry was always to provide a safe space for women to read their poetry – so the idea of performance doesn’t even have to exist, but we can do that as well.
PP: You’re one of the poets that are involved in ZAPP. Why did you got involved and why is a project like this is important?
PhilYaa: I have a passion for poetry and I think a lot of young people do too. Poetry has been very healing for me, as well as enriching – my language, sense of history, politics, nature, everything has been enhanced by poetry and I wanted to share that with young people. Many of us had poetry destroyed for us at school by teachers who hated poetry themselves. This is a chance to create an alternative. Zapp is also going to suggest different poems for the school curriculum and we are hoping that we will be able to suggest more contemporary poems to be added to the list of poems that are studied. As part of Zapp, we’re also launching an amazing initiative that we’re copying from the UK. There it’s called Poetry by Heart and basically it sees school learners having competitions reciting the best poems in English – then moving to provincial and national levels too. I wanted to be part of that, to have a say about what learners are allowed to study as excellent poetry. The Western Cape Branch of Poetry for Life is launching on 18 September at Somerset College and the Gauteng Branch is launching at St Johns College on 18 October. We are inviting teachers to join us and start running the competitions at their schools. The top learners will be sponsored to perform at national playoffs at the Franschoek Literary Festival next May. So whenever you work with young people you have to stay engaged and energetic because they are. I like it, for one thing it means that one is constantly in conversation with the future – and I want to support and encourage those kids who feel like freaks, are ridiculed because they read books instead of partying and being cool. They are not the first to be the freaks of the school. We were also there.
PP: Earlier this year, you were commissioned to write a poem for Commonwealth Day, how did that come about? Can you talk about the differences, challenges of writing commissioned poems versus your own poems?
PhilYaa: First, I have to overcome my own hang-ups and negativity. I had to really think about the queen and the royal family and what they represent to colonised countries. Then I had to face the fact that this was a gift, a truly amazing gift and I had to say thank you to the Cambridge professor who loved my poem Tongue and felt that it represented a view of language that challenged the way that they were used to hearing about English. I don’t want to ever feel like I have written something that’s meaningless or a big fat lie. So when I was asked to write this poem (ten days before it was due) and asked to also reflect on Nelson Mandela’s contribution within the context of Team Commonwealth, I nearly jumped off a building. I mean, really, Team Commonwealth. Can we please have the Cullinan Diamond back? Just as a token of your, erhm, LOOTING. But anyway, so I had to handle all these very strong reactions – so for ten days I rolled and sweated and swore and wrote and crossed out and crossed out and swore. I was told that there would be about 1 000 children in the audience as well as the royals so I wanted the poem to have some lightness… I’ve always loved Lewis Carroll…. and I’ve always loved Bob Marley, and he was also a son of the Commonwealth…. So I don’t know, it all came together and I wrote a poem that I like so I was really looking forward to the performance, and Vangi Gantsho lent me a dress and I got earrings from Dejavu Tafari and a necklace and perfume from Myesha… but my performance really disappointed me. I was suddenly SO NERVOUS and I wished I’d had a music stand with my words…but I still enjoyed it a lot and I am so grateful to the people who trusted me enough to give me that opportunity. Commissioned poems are your own poems. They’re just purpose-driven.
PP: The awards, the commissions, and getting to travel to represent South Africa: What do these opportunities mean for a poet? How have they influenced and shaped your own work?
PhilYaa: Every opportunity to travel expands the mind. Usually one meets other writers and you talk about books that you like reading and authors I’ve never heard of. It’s like swapping references and it’s the main reason why I do it because I get to hear more about writing – especially poetry – that thrills and that in some way makes me feel more alive.
PP: Are you working on any new collections and performances that you can share with our readers?
PhilYaa: I’m going to the Open Book Festival in Cape Town and that will be a great opportunity to really think about this short stories manuscript. In 2012, I won a scholarship to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University – so I’ve just finished that and I suppose I should try to find a home for some of the things I wrote there. But for now, I really feel like reading. A lot.
this article was published in our print quarterly number seven, Words.
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