Over the years, I’ve given numerous online “interviews” to people who are interested in my views on poetry. Mostly, these have been questions by school children or students who have an English assignment about a contemporary (South) African poem. So I thought I’d share some of my answers here.
What sort of lifestyle did you grow up with?
I grew up in a small town called Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, where some of my most memorable experiences were visits to my grandparents’ farm and scenic sites like Motopas Hills, Hwange game reserve and Victoria falls. I moved to Cape Town, where my involvement in the Boy Scout movement probably shaped me more than school, giving me the opportunity to do lots of hiking and camping.
What life experiences did you have that was most outstanding?
When I was at university in Cape Town, through an organisation called AIESEC (the International Association of Economics and Commerce Students), I had the opportunity to travel to conferences inZimbabwe and Kenya, and so began my love affair with Africa. Since then, I have also travelled to many other countries in Africa. Each country makes me appreciate the diverse cultures and landscapes ofAfrica.
Where did you go to school?
I went to several primary schools – Kumalo and Bains in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and Parow North in Cape Town. Then I went to Fairbairn High School and the University of Cape Town, where I studied a business degree.
What are your values and beliefs?
I have been influenced by many religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, all of which I believe share common values and beliefs. Probably the closest to representing my beliefs are Unitarianism (a Western inter-faith tradition) and Taoism (an Eastern philosophy). Underlying these is my belief in tolerance (of the beliefs of others), harmony (with people and nature) and the search for meaning.
Have you always had a passion for poetry?
No, I only really discovered poetry in high school. Somehow, it came alive for me in my final year of English. I came upon poems like “Horses on the Camargue” and and poets like Wilfred Owen. At the same time, I was asking lots of questions about the meaning of life, so I started to use write poems in my diary, as a way to express my thoughts and emotions.
How long have you been writing poetry?
The first poem I remember writing was in 1987, when I was seventeen and in my last year of high school. It was a poem about keeping faith in times of uncertainty, called “Mists” and was only 15 words long.
When and why did you decide to become a poet?
Although I wrote a little in high school, it was “unrequited love” at University that really got the words flowing.
Why do you write poetry?
Poetry gives me a voice in the world. It is my way of saying, “this is life through my eyes”. Hence, writing poetry is part biography, part therapy; part creativity, part activism. Without a doubt, poetry is a selfish pursuit, in the best and worst sense. At best, it is an authentic expression of our complex self; at worst it is vane exercise in parochial narcissism. So first and foremost, I write poetry for my own personal satisfaction. It gives me a creative outlet and a sense of achievement. And when others are somehow moved or inspired by what I write, that is an unexpected bonus. A few poems that talk about how I see my role as a poet are “To Live is To Create” and “Fragments”.
How does poetry impact your life?
First and foremost, writing poetry is something I do for personal satisfaction. It is a way to express how I feel and how I see the world. Also, because I love words, poetry is like a game of creativity. Knowing that some people enjoy what I write is like the cherry on top. I have also found that, the older I get, the more I read other people’s poetry.
Is it hard being a poet?
It is not hard being a poet, although some poems are hard to write – it is sometimes a struggle to get the words to capture exactly what you are thinking or feeling. Some poems take me years to finish (e.g. “Dreams of Gold”); others are quick as a flash. Also, sometimes, a poet must write about difficult things (e.g. the poems I wrote when my marriage broke down were very emotionally painful, e.g. “Two Weeks”). Mostly, however, it is very rewarding being a poet, as with all forms of art and creative expression.
What are the qualities to become a poet?
The most important quality of a poet is a love of language and a desire to express yourself creatively in words. Bravery is another important trait, because when you write down your thoughts and feelings, you are exposing your mind, heart and soul. You are planting a flag in the ground and saying “this is what I believe, this is how the world looks through my eyes”. That is exciting, but sometimes a little scary too.
Are teachers’ and pupils’ interpretation of poetry what the poet intended?
I think we can guess about the meaning of poems, and it certainly helps to understand about the context in which they were written. But ultimately, interpretation will always be personal. I will give you one example. I wrote a poem called Invisible, and received a letter from someone saying how helpful it was to convey how people with leprosy feel. Now, clearly that was not what I had in mind when I wrote it, but that is the magic of poetry. By tapping into the undercurrents of human experience, we meet in a shared stream of thoughts and feelings.
Do you think you poetry has/will have an effect on society? How, why and in what way?
I think most poetry is personal. It is written by individuals, primarily for themselves, as a form of creative expression and for the satisfaction it gives them. Occasionally, it finds resonance among readers, usually because it echoes their own emotions or reflections. More rarely, a poem comes to define an era, to serve as a record of history, or to become a rallying cry for social change (like some of the war poems). So I think poetry does create a sense of common identity (we all feel love and pain) or a voice for a culture (Robert Burns) or sub-culture (think of rap). The very best poetry is like leaven in the bread of society – it lifts our spirits, broadens our minds, stretches our hearts and binds us together. I hope that helps. Good luck with the project! And keep feeding your imagination.
What first inspired you to write poetry?
I had an English teacher who opened my eyes to poetry. I remember spending the night just before my Matric English exam copying out my favourite poems from the prescribed poetry book, which we had to return the next day. They were poems like “Horses on the Camargue” (Roy Campbell), “Constantly Risking Absurdity” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), “Poem in October” (Dylan Thomas) and “Dulcet et Decorum” (Wilfred Owen), which made a big impression on me. My first few poems were religious and philosophical (like “Awake” and “Life’s Dream”), but it was a girl I liked in my first year of university (her name was Liesl) who really inspired me to write my own poetry (poems like “Footprints” and “Dove on the Wind”).
What inspires you to write the poems that you do? Do you ever base them on personal experiences?
Poetry is just my way of expressing what I think and how I feel. It is triggered by virtually anything – relationships (e.g. Be My Kite), nature (e.g. Great Fathers of the Forest), a movie (e.g. Perfume), people that inspire me (e.g. Leonardo Da Vinci), travel (e.g. Egypt) or even podcasts (e.g. The Universe was written after watching Stephen Hawking on YouTube).
What creates an inspirational environment for the poet?
I think it is change, of one form or another. I find I write when I have been shaken out of my hum-drum routine of life. It may be new sights and sounds I am exposed to when I travel, or simply a fresh idea I get when I walk along the river in the morning. Often, however, poetry is a way to make sense of life when our neatly ordered world is shattered – either by conflicting feelings, new love, the end of a relationship, or a traumatic event like 9/11 or someone dying. Because poetry is simply a way of expressing our experiences of life, there is no end to the sources of inspiration. I am alive, therefore, I am inspired.
Do the lyrics to the poems come easily to you?
It varies. Usually there is a word or a phrase or an idea which comes to me, and I play with in my head before I start writing. Some poems are hard work (e.g. “Quest for Gold” I wrote over several years) and some are effortless (e.g. “I Am An African” took me a few minutes). On average, they take a few hours to get right.
How come your poems are so easy to understand but still carry a deep powerful meaning?
One way to look at this is to say that different poems appeal at different levels – some to the head, some to the heart; some to the spirit and some to the funny bone. So depending on what we are looking for, we choose and enjoy poems accordingly. If we are feeling philosophical, we may look for a poem that is enigmatic and obscure; if we are in the throes of love, we will look for a poem that is pulsing with emotion. Sometimes poems are difficult to understand because they have dated – we can no longer relate to the language and times of the poet. Hence, I tend to read more modern than classic poets. As far as my poetry is concerned, for the most part, I like to keep my poems accessible (in language and style) and appeal to the common human experience – thoughts and feelings, and doubts and hopes that we all share.
Who are your favourite poets?
Some of my favourite poets are Kahlil Gibran, Ben Okri, Pablo Neruda, Leonard Cohen and Wendy Cope.
Which is your favourite poem of your own and why?
I find it difficult to choose one favourite poem of my own. I like different poems for different reasons – “Quest for Gold”, because it was my first poem that tells a story; “Musings on Morphic Time”, because it reflects deeply on a fascinating subject; “I Am An African”, because it captures my love for the continent; “Flibbawookie”, because it is a bit of nonsense but also makes you think; “Animal ABCs”, because it helps children learn in a fun way; and “Walk On”, because poetry should also help us in difficult times.
Which is your favourite poem by someone else and why?
The poem I like the most which is written by someone else is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It is actually a series of poems, set in a story, on a whole range of topics, like Children, Crime and Punishment, Eating and Drinking, Houses, Love, Marriage, Joy and Sorry, and Work. I like it because it is beautifully written (e.g. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth) and at the same time very wise and philosophical.
What is your favourite thing about Africa?
My favourite thing about Africa is the people – who I find friendly, colourful and incredibly brave and strong. Bob Geldoff once called Africa “the luminous continent”, which I think captures my feelings quite nicely. Despite its shadows of problems and struggles, Africa shines brightly with the light of its welcoming smiles, its kaleidoscope clothes, its ancient traditions and its hopes for the future.
What is your favourite place in Africa?
My favourite place in Africa is probably Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I think of it as my “soul place” and I always feel rejuvenated in my spirit when I visit there. However, the most interesting and inspiring place in Africa I have visited is Egypt. I find their ancient culture, architecture and art most fascinating. I even wrote a poem about it, called “Where The World Once Began”.
What inspired you to use Africa for your poems?
There is a saying that “Africa gets into your blood”. That is how it is for me. Because I was born and grew up in Africa, I feel a deep connection and love for the continent and its people. And the more I travel in Africa, the stronger my feelings get. Perhaps it is also because Africa is so diverse and interesting, so it provides an unending source of inspiration.
Why do you use personification and treat Africa as a living being?
I think it is because, despite our great diversity with 54 countries and over 2000 languages, most Africans feel a common sense of identity. This African identity is not only geographic, but also because we can share Africa’s struggles and achievements. I believe that any community, whether it is a village or a continent, has living traits – they are born, they grow up, sometimes they fight and they strive for a higher purpose. So for me, it is natural to treat Africa as alive.
With reference to your poem “I Weep for Africa”, have you given up on Africa?
No, my hope and love for Africa springs eternal. However, I felt that some of my earlier poems onAfrica (e.g. “I Am An African”, “I Know A Place In Africa”, “Africa Calls to Me”) only told part of the story – the positive side. In I Weep for Africa, I wanted to bring some balance by saying that, while we can and should celebrate Africa, we also should not ignore its shadow side. What I am trying to convey in the last three stanzas – as a reminder to myself as much as anyone – is that the way to remain optimistic about Africa, despite its tragedies and sorrows, is to reconnect with the things that make Africa such an amazing place – its ancient cultures, its sense of community, its incredible resilience, its wonderful diversity and its promise for the future.
What is the message that you try to get to people with your poem “I am an African”?
I was trying to get three things across in “I Am An African”. Firstly, that there is a lot that is wonderful and beautiful and unique about Africa and should be celebrated (this is the same positive message of my book South Africa: Reasons to Believe. Secondly, that feeling a connection to Africa – the land and its people – is something that goes very deep emotionally and psychologically. And thirdly, that being African is about a way of being (an attitude and a love for Africa), rather than being born there, or living there, or having a certain skin colour.
Is there more than one meaning or a deeper meaning to the poem?
There are as many meanings as there are readers of the poem, because poetry is subjective. What is interesting, however, is that many (but not all) of the people who are moved by the poem are white Africans and Africans who are living abroad. This tells me that many White Africans or Africans living abroad struggle with their identity. They feel African, but others often don’t view them that way. So perhaps the deeper meaning of poem is about finding our true identity.
Are there any particular poetic techniques that you used?
Rather than rhyme, the poem uses repetition and pattern to create a rhythm and structure. The main technique is personification – I treat Africa as a living person, with a body, character traits and the ability to act. I also give life to other abstract ideas – e.g. the footprints of history. I also use metaphors – e.g. I become the wind, the sounds, the colours of Africa. Can you spot any other techniques? I’m sure I have missed some?
What inspired you to write “Born to Fly”, “9/11 – They day the world changed”, “I am an African” and “Jealousy”?
“Born to Fly” – based on an online friendship/romance that I had with someone in America, which was full of highs and lows; “9/11” – it took me a few months to digest the event. I wanted to capture both the horror and tragedy, but also the distaste of America’s cultural and military arrogance; “I Am An African” – I was editing a journal on the role of business in Africa and we quoted former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s speech of the same name. It made me ponder what it means to me to be African. This has been my most popular poem to date; “Jealousy” – this had its roots in the breakdown of my marriage, and the perceived (and it later turned out, actual) duplicity of my wife. I wanted to capture the physical, poisonous feeling.