Around the World with the Poetry of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
From South Africa, to America’s east and west coasts, to Europe and beyond, readers were traveling with the words of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, sending her questions, and sharing in our ever-expanding online book club.
Each month sees more questions for these wonderful authors, from a variety of readers, writers and teachers. This is a free online reading club, and you’re welcome to join. Click here to learn more about our monthly online book club. Whether you’re a writer, a reader, or a teacher, you can gain a lot from the insight that comes from a good Q&A.
And, as a bonus, you might win a signed book from the author! This month’s winner (drawn from readers who submitted questions and/or photos) is Caroline Tanski, of Boston, Massachusetts! Congratulations, Caroline! We’ll have the inscribed book in your hands by Christmas!
I think we’ll open our Q&A with a question from Caroline, and go from there…
[Q]: Many of your poems are forthrightly political and take on occupation, colonialism, and racism, among other heavy topics. (“Stolen Rivers” is a gorgeous example.) Others have an allegorical or even fantastical bent (“Warning: adopting a dragon can be dangerous”). I’m very impressed by how smoothly you can juggle personal and national questions of identity inside of one poem. Would you please tell us a bit about how you use your poems to explore these boundaries and intersections?
A dear friend and multidisciplinary artist Peter van Straten says that being an artist is license to make your problems everyone else’s. I write what I know and what I wish to understand, but don’t yet. I was born at a time in history where apartheid was allowed to exist and I was born in a very specific family – my white teenaged mother gave me up for adoption in Hendrik Verwoerd’s South Africa. My Ghanaian father was not involved. At the time black people were forbidden from having sex with white people so like Trevor Noah I was born a crime. I was adopted by a politically conservative white family illegally, so therefore it had to be a secret. I had to be a secret. I grew in the dark like a mushroom. I am still trying to understand how you can love a person and call their people kaffirs. How to survive that. I am all about traversing boundaries right down to my DNA. It’s inescapable and sometimes it feels oppressive, but it does provide a lot of material.
[Q]: My uncle, who raised me, committed suicide almost 15 years ago, which made your poem, “In the Red” one of my favorite poems in the book. It spoke clearly of the pain of the person who left and the ones who are left behind. How do you edit your poems in a way where you are leading the reader to the emotions you want them to feel while allowing room for the reader’s own, organic emotions?
I am so sorry to hear about your uncle. My brother shot himself in the head – it’s now 23 years ago. These things are so hard to talk about, even after so long. My initial training as an artist was in theatre, my core discipline is acting. Your entire body, your mind and your memories are your material that you have to put at the disposal of the story. It’s not entirely your choice, you are always in dialogue with something besides you and in a sense that becomes the support. I once performed at a poetry festival with Staceyann Chin – it was one of those where there was a small audience of public so we had some very deep and meaningful conversations with fellow artists. I was going through a depression and trying to work through some of the stuff I’ve been given and she said “the work helps.” And it’s true. When you have to tell a story it no longer belongs to you alone. And you have to use technique and memory and make whatever you’re trying to share with others, perceptible to them. We were taught that art is completed by the audience – you are always in dialogue with something other than you. So this is the first time I really managed to say something about my brother’s suicide. There are other poems there but they have not yet emerged.
[Q]: The title poem “The Everyday Wife” reminds me of Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” The short stanzas, the rhyme, and particularly how the final lines open a whole new world. Bradstreet writes: “That when we live no more we may live ever.” You write: “I think we should rather/ stay loose.” How do you see this poem interacting with and reacting to some of the poems using the word “wife” that came before it?
I am always surprised when people find this poem significant because I meant it as a joke, but Margaret Busby, who wrote the foreword, also had some things to say about the Everyday Wife.
I’m not a very good wife. I was never taught to be a wife, my mother taught me to be an independent woman. Like many adoptees, intimacy and love are the most difficult things for me to do. I half-despise, half-envy the idea of being a wife, with all the baggage attached to it, with equal intensity. I’m not familiar with the poem you talk about but I really enjoyed Carol Anne Duffy’s The World’s Wife, for the humour and the language which is so silky and transparent you barely feel it on your skin like a good negligee.
I’ve hardly ever consciously written with another poem or poet in mind – I’m not clever like that. I can only barely manage to attempt to make some kind of scribble gesture about what I know and what I think I want to understand. In this case, I feel oppressed by patriarchy and I think men are too, so – which is why I say “we should say loose” because I want to be free, and I want that for everyone I love too.
[Q]: I always wonder where writers get their ideas. In The Everyday Wife, the idea of the everyday, and the normal and often unexamined aspects of life are present here. How did you choose these routines to focus on?
When I was starting to write poetry seriously I was also raising my son, he was two years old when I started attending sessions and reading in public. It was a time of repeated mundane tasks related to his care and I had chosen tougher options that I felt were better for him in the long run like cloth diapers as opposed to throw away ones. So it was, I think a combination of the scrubbing and the chopping and the wiping that was going on that made me to focus on these everyday things that lie around waiting to be used. I think I am always fascinated by how people prepare themselves for the performance of social behavior, the detail that goes into that. Again it’s just material that we make significant by how we dwell on it, how we juxtapose it with memory and intention.
[Q]: Even on the cover, the separation of the words in the title show how fractured and yet cohesive our lives can seem. I love how the aspect of decision and choice comes to mind. So many of these poems deal with togetherness and so many also deal with loneliness and power, and how to be comfortable with one, means you’re comfortable with the other. Is this an intentional choice? When you begin writing are you writing to see what images emerge, or do you start with an image and show that on the paper? (I’m a writer, too and I struggle with both options.)
It depends on the intention – the poem finds its shape in the making of it. It’s usually a response to some kind of emotional urgency or desire to escape. The poems arrive and slow down the feeling, almost filter it. Often poems come in schools, like fish, because I feel violently contradictory responses at the same time. However with some poems, God for example, I was provoked by Myesha Jenkins, who I was performing with, when she said “don’t you have one of those happy I –love –my-girlfriends kind of poems”? So I consciously tried to write something inspiring. ‘Breastsummer’ was commissioned for a benefit for Busi Mhlongo. My first commission came through Lesley Perkes who was working for Cell C at the time and she came up with this campaign which involved making large scale art on the city walls. I wrote three poems for the brief – the advertising people used the worst one – and I was left with The River, which in my estimation was the best. I keep writing about rivers for example. I don’t know why. It’s like a painter reaching for a colour. We spent lots of time next to rivers as a child, because my dad was into fishing.
[Q]: Many of your poems are dedicated to someone, be it a figure from history or a ghost haunting Soweto. Does it often help your writing process to write to or for someone specific?
There is no real pattern, I make poems completely haphazardly. The main reason for anything being written is that I am alone and lonely; and I don’t want to be so I invent relationships with people so that we can get down together. I was in Singapore with Theatre for Africa in 1993 and Rubdiego Zwane told me the story of Vera while we were waiting for a plane or something. When it was time to learn to write a villanelle the story rose out of memory and formed itself into the poem. It’s the material, it’s what’s available. I need to feel connected to what I’m writing about. It feels like the audience is a friend and the poem is another who only will meet each other through me.
[Q]: I’d love to know how you decided to make the transition from TV to poetry. As an aspiring TV writer myself in LA, I’m wowed by your imagery and know what a strong script writer you must be. Is it something that still interests you?
I loved acting –for the storytelling mostly, and character and style. My first writing job was with the same people with whom I’d been improvising for eight years, so my initiation into TV was grafted onto the storytelling we’d been doing collectively and theatrically. I was attracted to scriptwriting by the chance to continue telling stories but from home because I had a baby. I sort of gave birth while writing the first series of Soul Buddyz. I was really grateful to get a TV series. From there I got a chance to work with Oliver Schmidt on a stillborn series project – then we were redeployed to Soul City Series 6. Working with Greg Latter, as head writer, which is a kind of demon-mechanic for the soul of the writer. With the constraints on time, lack of sleep and a build-up of emotional pressure, poems began to pour out of me, and I would attend poetry sessions and read. (I’m an actor at heart, I need the audience response far too much). After about four years of this I plucked up courage to apply for a mentorship called Crossing Borders, a project of Lancaster University (UK) and the British Council. In this way I was able to keep writing for TV to pay the bills and to write poetry which was healing my soul. The TV writing sort of dried up as the poetry became more demanding – I got a scholarship to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University which I passed in October so I feel like TV played its role in helping me do what I have to do, which is tell these stories.
[Q]: You use white space a number of times in this book. Examples include: “Tissue Paper” (26-27), “Going Down There” (53), “Switching on the Light” (71) and “Anthem” (75). Do you believe the page is a poetry craft tool? Secondly, do you think there are some human experiences for which we have no words, experiences that can only be demonstrated by empty space like “infinite uniqueness”? (71).
To be honest I never really thought about white space until recently – it seems more like a decision by the book designer than me. I’ve been given an opportunity to teach creative writing which has forced me to be more self-conscious about my process. My new collection which will be out next year uses white space much more consciously. I think the word in the air is like an interruption of silence, the word on the page is the record of that sound – the silence forms the sound, words interrupt the white page. And sometimes the space, like a pause, lends a dramatic quality to what comes next.
There are definitely so many aspects of human experience that we can’t put into words, and words themselves are merely gestures.
[Q]: You use white space in really interesting and unexpected ways. Poems like “Dismissed” and “Tissue Paper” are divided in half not just across pages, but by large chunks of white space, with their second halves positioned farther down on the poem’s second page. How did you decide on this stylistic device, and what do you think it communicates about these poems?
I’m not sure what it communicates to you. I’m not sure that I took a decision. It might have been the person who laid out the book who put the space there. You are free to assign whatever significance you wish to it. There is no right or wrong answer. Poetry is a set of speculations based on actual pain or whimsy. The work belongs to you, the reader, to evaluate the meaning of those moments and pauses.
[Q]: – Womanhood and virginity is described as “the secret at our middle” or “the clean envelope / of their pleated sex” or “Ladies know / a secret is a weapon.”
It’s such a strong statement on femininity and makes every part of the body so vivid, but makes it clear how we hide parts of ourselves to please or evade others.
Do you think we — as people and as writers — are getting better at discussing the sexual and the feminine? Freedom comes in the open discussion. How do we continue to get better at it?
I’m not sure that I know how to get better at discussing being a female. My contribution has been to offer a few poems which attempt to explore some of my experiences of that part of my humanity. For me it was very liberating to insist on discussing rape, for example and equally sensuality. To give oneself permission to express, decry, describe, challenge and interrogate every aspect of our existence, gives a kind of robust intellectual grounding in themes that life teaches us with love as well as neglect, curiosity and cruelty. Like James Baldwin says in Autobiographical Notes “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent–which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next–one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.” And he was not even thirty when he wrote this – he knew this.
[Q]: I noticed more structured rhyme schemes in Taller than Buildings, whereas The Everyday Wife played more with form and structure, branching into list poems and using the white space of the page less conventionally. Did you decide to work differently with the poems in the years between the two books, or was it a natural evolution of your writing?
When I started the mentorship it was the first time I was having serious conversations about my poetry which I secretly felt was too personal and self-indulgent to be of any interest to anyone. To try and buy credibility I asked my mentor, John Lindley to help me to formalize the poems more. He was incredibly compassionate and generous and it caused a flood of writing – the first full play “Where the Children Live,” came out in a 24 hour writing binge.
Because I wasn’t told that I was adopted until I was twenty, I lacked a vocabulary to describe who I am and where I come from, so performing and writing became ways to make myself up. Poetry was a big surprise to me and yes, I think it was a natural evolution that came out of a confidence that I grew into.
[Q]: I so love the flirtation with words throughout the collection. Do you enjoy reading these out loud for readers? Is part of your creation process oral? So many of these poems feel natural said aloud, so I’m wondering what degree of playing with language for you is spoken vs strictly on the page.
Absolutely, and it’s becoming even more so as the poems drift towards music – a kind of musicality. My next book is taking more liberties in the use of white space and musicality in general. I think it’s also about what I want to give the reader – a sense of play, and lightness, while they’re reading.
[Q]: I noticed several patterns throughout the book including: borders, language, definitions, and names. In addition, the “tongue” comes up again and again: history, organ, voice, snake-tongued lightning. In your poems, language seems to create borders between the speaker and the lover, the South Africans and the tourists, the child and the world, and humans and our God. In your view, is language another way we are made refugees in our own territories–country, home, relationship, body, past?
I think the hidden alphabet of my childhood is all about being subject to other people’s definition of who they might think I am. Without the words to articulate why you’re there in the whites only lounge of the train station you are so fragile. At the same time you’re expected to be grateful. It took me a long time to work out POV in my own story. All that practice in writing TV across genres. But each time I write myself it’s a mess of discordant voices. I am writing from a world of contested representation – language is a site of struggle.
[Q]: In “Summer 1978” you use snippets of Afrikaans as part of the conversation of the poem. Considering that South Africa has eleven official languages, I’m curious about what it means to use to use Afrikaans in your work. Why did you make this choice, and what did it contribute to the poem that nothing else could have?
Afrikaans is a very sensual language, and blunt. The way it comes out sometimes is so tough and caustic and funny and full-hearted. When I was a kid there was a scandal because some academic proved that most Afrikaners had African blood, which makes sense – they’ve been here long enough. I had Afrikaans relatives so we used it occasionally and the children who threw stones at me were Afrikaans, some of them. Afrikaans has been liberated for me by the many Afrikaans writers who are black, I think the poems are mostly playful and also, there are some Afrikaans words that are untranslateable, and I like that.
[Q]: You draw a correlation between the natural world and human bodies. Do you think that your comparisons are uniquely South African? If so, in what ways? Secondly, does re-writing the body as the earth, as a tree, as coming from environment and land (instead of a person) create a connection where there may be a disconnection for the young people in this book?
I don’t know if it’s a South African thing because the natural world has been very close to me and is part of the material available to me, or if it’s because of being adopted and feeling not very connected to whatever a human was – any particular language, culture or national group. I think maybe the creative urge is to fill whatever space that is empty with whatever’s within reach. I grew up in quite a rural place although it’s close to Johannesburg and during the seventies it was peri-urban, our streets were not yet tarred and we had to burn our rubbish – it was not collected, we had a borehole for water. Without any facts about where I came from I assumed that I had hatched from an egg. I like patterns and so I guess that’s also a means to reach something that I want to do.
[Q]: After reading these books, I realized that I think of them as work poems, poems that are about the hard and messy work of being human. For example, in “Jozi parks,” you write, “Children come uninvited, so let them cut their feet: / we all learn through pain.” In “The Guest,” you write, “I felt like a giant mother / I felt invincible / I felt like I was really helping someone.” These were some of my favorite lines, the ones I stopped and reread a few times because they felt so true to my life and to those of everyone I’ve ever known. Could you talk about these macro-lens moments of everyday life, and how you find the poetry in them?
Sometimes it’s not me saying things but I’m imagining what others are saying because they say things that reveal their thoughts. Sometimes people are extremely cruel to each other but you can also see that they don’t mean to be cruel, they are trying to raise their child right. My disease is that I see both the tormentor and the victim and I can see that both roles have their merits. It’s a very demanding space, this Afrika we live in and when I go to the west I feel so unsatisfied, like everything has already been processed, you don’t need to chew through things to reach their meaning, it all seems so safe, all harmful ingredients removed. Bland. Because we have to chew, we find a flavor that belongs only to the chewer.
[Q]: – In these poems, I contrast the physical and sexual with the idea of emotional love, that it “depends on the tongue’s performance / on what it does, and what is says.” The line makes it so clear that even with the talk of the physical, there are so many more parts of life that create love.
From “Stolen Rivers”:
“That night I thought / if only / love could purchase bread, / Africans would not be hungry.”
It’s such a painful and lovely expression in a few short lines, and you say so much about culture, identity, and ownership. This piece you wrote in honor of Chiwoniso Maraire, who passed away in 2013. I appreciate when one art form speaks to another. What does it mean to truly use art to express these feelings? And are there other artists (writers, singers, painters, etc.) that also speak to you in similar ways?
There are many of us who are trying to connect. I get a strong feeling from artists whose expression touches me – they are many and varied, some are famous and well established like Leonard Cohen and others are young still finding their language like Lindiwe Matshikiza and Nkoto Malebye and Sarah Godsell. I have been thrilled by the poetry of Mphutlane wa Bofelo and Vangi Gantsho and Charl-Pierre Naudé and Makhosazana Xaba and Ian McCallum and Nathan Trantraal and Ronelda Kamfer among many others. As soon as my father told me I was adopted and my biological father was black I found no reason to keep trying to find myself in white writing even though before I knew it didn’t bother me. I got into Zora Neal Hurston, Salman Rushdie, Noni Jabavu, Toni Morrison and boyfriends led me to James Baldwin and Claude McKay and Michael Smith. I was always chasing the feeling, the one that made me feel real. Sounds of Astor Piazzola and Phillip Tabane, Thandiswa Mazwai and the rock project The Brother Moves On, and the visual brilliance of Dean Hutton and William Kentridge and Thokozani Mthiyane. I don’t know where to begin and where to stop with the brilliance that surrounds me I am so glad that I grew up in South Africa with this very high population of creators, but I found them wherever I went, I shared a flat in Hollywood with the John McCrea of Cake. Etc.
[Q]: I’m a particular fan of your travel poems. Small moments as in “Trance” as well as journey revelations and surreal moments as in “Tissue Paper” and “Getting to know yourself in Amsterdam Museums” — they reflect so well the upending that such trips can do to our peace of mind and assumptions of who we are. So many of these moments capture my attention when I put in the miles, but I’ve never turned them into such art. What helps you to recognize a poem in the making?
A deadline forces me to stop dreaming and make a decision. Faced with the deadline I turn back on my tracks and see what I gathered. Then I read the responses to the moments and I think about whether they sound true to me. Then I either put poems on ice or put them out in the world. And that world is first of all my trusted readers, people who have shown an interest in the work and will not mince words or kill me with useless flattery.
Someone who kindly read my latest manuscript said to me “when I meet a poem I want it to be like falling in love. I don’t care about the poem’s pedigree, what it meant to them, then, but I am in love now.” I think that’s a very helpful comment. It helped me to reach what I wanted to in the upcoming collection. I can’t say why I’m in love but I am. You’ll find out in the poem.
[Q]: What is your writing process like? I’ve read that you intend many of your poems to be performed out loud. Do you read the words aloud as you write?
Sometimes, but mostly only when they’re going to be read by others do I put them through that performance. Most of my writing is for me only. Readers will only read what gets past the censor. And it’s not so much like a political censoring but that I respect the power of words to give people different kinds of impressions and I want to take them on a journey through different sensations. Like making love, a lot of one’s pleasure is in giving a range of sensations to the recipient of your love.
[Comment]: I’d like to express what an honor it’s been to read your work. I’m still reading and interacting with it, and it enriches me every time.
Wasn’t that Q&A session wonderful!?
Between our Featured Readers and our new readers, I thought these questions were awesome! Special, special thanks to Phillippa Yaa de Villiers for her time in giving these thoughtful responses.
Up next —> October’s author, Niq Mhlongo.
I Bet I Can Make a Niq Mhlongo Fan Out of You!
*Please note: Due to transportation time to send books to the states, I needed to shuffle the order of the next few titles. Please begin reading one of Niq Mhlongo’s books for our October Book Club. Links to upcoming titles below…
November: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 11 November 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing email@example.com . This book is currently only available as an e-book in the states, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.
December: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows and The Lost Colours of the Chameleon
Read-by-Date: 16 December 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org . This book is currently only available as an e-book in the states, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.
January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl – Please email me to pre-order this book. It is not yet available in the states. I have purchased several copies for my readers.
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Kanakotsame: In My Times – Please email me to pre-order this book. It is not yet available in the states. I have purchased several signed copies for my readers.