Keitumetse ‘Abi’ Tlhako is a young poet born and raised in Rustenburg, in the North West province of South Africa. Currently studying Diagnostic Radiography at The university of Johannesburg, Abi is also steadily carving out a name for herself as a clear voice worth tuning into, devoid of clutter and full of intention.Poetry Potion sought out a moment with the current reigning Uj Can You Slam and Poetry Africa Slam champion, to catch a glimpse of the human behind the brilliant poetry.
PP:1 Where does the Story of Abi the poet begin ? Do you remember the 1st poem you wrote?
K.A.T: I started writing when I was maybe 10 years old or so. I used to have difficulties expressing displeasure(I still do) so I wrote notes to my mother to describe how I felt about things. I then changed to short stories as a form of hobby as time went by. I would make scrap-books and write fiction stories.
The poetry came in early in high school, once we learned about figures of speech. I’ve always loved literature in general but that put the cherry on the cake for me. I don’t remember the first poem I wrote but I remember it was for marks and I was in grade 8.
PP:Some of your poems make reference to emergency wards or health care facilities. How much of your day job filters into your poetry? What else informs your poetry?
K.A.T: I only started including the emergency ward and health care facilities when I started my course in radiography. I didn’t want it to influence my poetry at first but eventually it just came through. It’s hard to run away from writing about the environment because I literally work and live at the hospital. The things I’ve seen here touch me. My other influences are the friends and family I have and what they go through. I recently started writing about my relationship with my mother and with God in my twenties and that’s totally new to me.
PP: In your poem ”Black man Body -For black boys” ,you deal with masculinity and how it is a burden and an armour that black boys are taught to bear. That poem makes such a poignant contribution to the current conversation around the socializing of boys and the toxicity of statements such as ”just be a man”. How important is it to you to write about themes like this? Is writing poetry enough?
K.A.T: The poem “Black Man Body- For Black Boys” Is a conversation I wish the black community was open to having. It’s very important to me because it contributes to how black boys interact with other boys and people around them from a young age. Toxic masculinity is holding many men hostage but they don’t see it that way because of the image they are expected to portray as “men”.
I don’t think writing poetry is enough because a lot of people listen to poetry for the punchlines but don’t take anything else from it. We leave poetry shows and go back to the stuff we agreed is bad. I think the same effort should be put into talking to young boys as with young girls about how to behave themselves. Our culture is too concentrated on policing the bodies of women and girls and men police us too and refuse to admit when they are wrong. I can go on and on about this one.
Black man Body:For Black boys by Keitumetse ‘Abi’ Thlako:
The average white lady’s dog costs more to maintain
than a black boy in school per annum.
When white lady’s dog goes missing,
She spends money to make posters on trees and milk cartons
to help dog come home safely.
Nobody cares enough about John Does who arrive in the ER
to put their faces up on posters on trees and milk cartons.
Nobody cries when a stranger’s body is sprawled across the streets like home décor.
Nobody asks black boys how they are getting home after 18:00pm.
Nobody asks if they are afraid, or if they ever cry.
The African hierarchy tells us that black boy is
born king and head of the house.
Born responsible for everything he is and everything he is not.
The television says he’s guilty until proven innocent.
That if black boy is found beaten and broken,
We have every right to ask what he did to deserve it.
That his skin looks suspect.
That his mouth cannot protect him,
Only his fists, and occasionally his legs.
Black boy born so strong he’s a danger to himself.
If black boy is anything but strong,
Other black boys will eat him.
Black boy born so strong that beating him up only makes him stronger.
The right of passage to his manhood is polished with blood.
Black boy’s tears too sacred to hit the ground.
Black boy’s cry is abominable.
Black boys don’t go missing, they leave.
Missing is a term used for girls and white lady’s dog.
Black boy’s mother eats prayer for dinner.
And if black boy doesn’t return home for sixteen years,
His masculinity will feed and protect him.
Black boy so strong he can resurrect himself.
Black boy’s grandmother prays:
“lord empty the hospitals and heal the prisoners”
As if these are the only two places a displaced black boy belongs.
As the perpetrator who got caught, and the perpetrator who got away.
Never the victim.
Never the painful scream in the night,
Never the mouth that cries for help.
I seem to be the only person who wants to know,
What factory generates John Does?
Faces without names.
Black Boys without families and friends, just enemies,
And acquaintances who disappear when the going gets tough.
But if a black boy is shot in a dark alley, in the middle of the night
And nobody is there to scream on his mother’s behalf,
Does his body bleed enough to make headlines?
PP: In 2016 you won the Inaugural UJ Can You Slam competition and The 2016 Poetry Africa Slam championship in Durban. Congratulations. What does that mean for you and your craft? Do these titles add any measurable value to you, as a poet, or your work?
K.A.T: Winning UJ Can You Slam was fun but I didn’t take it to head at all. I feel like the point of slamming is to learn and to improve. Winning is nice too but it’s pointless if you don’t grow or change from there. I don’t write with the intention to compete. I am a writer first, I only started slamming in 2013 because Richard Roodt asked me very nicely to.
PP:What are you reading right now? And what books would you suggest we all read?
K.A.T:I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. Right now I’m reading the short story compilation by Chimamanda Adiechie Ngozi ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ and I have ‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd on standby.
I don’t have any suggestions but My personal favourite so far has been ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ also by Chimamanda Ngozi.
PP:What should the poetry scene expect from you over the next few years?
K.A.T:Over the next few years I want to publish in small doses first to see if I can grab an audience and I want to learn performing arts. Hopefully one day I’ll be good enough to give other writers advice I trust will help them and facilitate workshops and such. I want my writing to change something even if it’s just a small change.
PP: Where can people read more of your work. Or see you perform.
K.A.T: I publish some of my work on my blog abitlhako.wordpress.com with links to performance videos. I’m still trying to find someone to help me with video work. Right now you can only catch me monthly at the Word n Sound slam platform.
PP:Follow Abi on twitter at @missabikinz because, as she puts it ”I don’t really use other social media”