Five South African Poets

Five South African Poets
December 14, 2014 Plume



Ganora Farm, photograph by Roddy Fox

Ganora Farm, photograph by Roddy Fox



This is a vast country with such a mixed and turbulent political and social history – all of which has, necessarily, contributed its own elements to the poetic life of the nation – that it simply cannot be encapsulated in this short space. South Africa boasts eleven official languages, every one with its own rich blend of linguistic heritage, much of it still rooted in oral traditions, so it would take someone of far greater erudition and scholarship than I to begin any real analysis.

Instead, perhaps the very personal view of a latecomer to this wonderfully diverse country will suffice. Having visited SA for the first time in July 2007 and lived here since January 2008, I can feel truly confident only in the accuracy of that epithet: latecomer.

But I don’t say “outsider”, although maybe I should. To the great credit of the many, many poets and other writers I have met here, no one has ever made me feel like that. The welcome has been immense, both on a personal and a professional level. Two of the first South African poets I met (neither of whom, to my shame, I had come across before) were Don Maclennan and James Matthews.

Matthews was a courageous and persistent voice of opposition to the horrors of apartheid, recording from personal experience the realities of that miserable time. His is a heartfelt and persistent poetry of anger and resentment that accurately chronicles a period too soon and too readily forgotten. When I met him in Cape Town, where he still lives, he was determined that his major work, Cry Rage: Odyssey of a Dissident Poet, should live as a testament to the truth of what happened.

The late Don Maclennan, on the other hand, wrote more reflective, introspective poetry that nonetheless is a penetrating commentary on the period both during and after the apartheid years. A much-loved university teacher in Grahamstown and a deeply thoughtful interrogator of life in all its complexities, Maclennan’s work is described – accurately, in my opinion – in the blurb of his Collected Poems thus:

No poetry in the nation reveals greater passion for the mere fact of being alive…few can match its uncompromising honesty and courage in the face of physical collapse and impending death.

So that was my beginning. Since then I have become more and more aware of a vast array of poetries that permeate every corner of this country, ranging from traditional praise poetry to contemporary rap and hip-hop; from the provocatively outspoken Lesego Rampolokeng to the sagacity of Keorapetse Kgositsile; from poetry in performance to poetry on the page.

The five poets represented here, all writing in English, live within this world, part of a discernible shift away from the pervasive ‘struggle poetry’ of the late 20th century. Writers such as these comprise just one small part of something new sprouting from vigorous roots and proving enormously vibrant: the living arena that is South African poetry in the 21st century.


Author of seven collections of poetry, Gail Dendy was first published by Harold Pinter and has shared a poetry collection with Oscar Nominee Norman Corwin. A ballet-trained (and acclaimed) contemporary dancer, her passion for the non-verbal is evident in the rhythms which pervade her writing. She lives in Johannesburg with her husband and three cats, and is a researcher in an international law firm.


At just 22 years of age, Mishka Hoosen has already lived a full and sometimes arduous international life, the complexity of which results in a startlingly mature and richly textured poetry of pain, love, loss and transcendent joy that belies her youth. Expect to hear much more of this resourceful and empathetic new voice.

Sonwabo Meyi, who lives with his wife and young daughter in Port Elizabeth, is a gifted poet who creatively manipulates the English language to echo the ways it is used by young people. As an admirer of Steve Biko’s heritage of Black Consciousness, he speaks uncomfortable truths – social and political – with inventive courage.

Author of six collections of poetry, Harry Owen was brought up in Liverpool (UK) but now lives in Grahamstown. He is especially concerned with environmental threats to the natural world, a problem highlighted by violent poaching, especially of rhinos and elephants. The international poetry anthology For Rhino in a Shrinking World (The Poets Printery, 2013), which he edited, is a response to this grave issue.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, the 2014 Commonwealth Poet, is an award-winning South African writer and performance artist based in Johannesburg. Her celebrated one-woman show, Original Skin, explores her sense of identity as a mixed-race woman in South Africa and has been performed to wide acclaim in numerous countries around the world. Her latest poetry collection is The Everyday Wife (Modjaji Books, 2011).

Harry Owen
Grahamstown, South Africa
18 October 2014



The Prayer Everywhere
—Mishka Hoosen


The day is a snare

Last night I imagined lying with you in Maine

telling you about everything. The wells in the eyes

of the psych ward in East London. The Bangladeshi woman

with the bleeding ankles holding my face in her hands,

How my hands have always come

unprepared, quick but too small,

clumsy, they’ve never

been able to hold enough, love, I was going to say.

I don’t know how I’d wake up, there, beside you

as if we weren’t a world away from each other.

I don’t know how I’d face a day with no beggars

or fruit sellers wailing at the gates. I was going to say,

love yesterday Joy comes and tells me

her baby was raped

and her shack burnt down. Can’t she have

some more money. Her sister’s just died

like she did last month. The tik

makes her eyes wander down the alleys.


Love do you even

know this country, it might be true – what do I do

with my hands?


Susannah told me during one of our fights

You don’t have to fucking account for everything.

I was listing the names of the shot miners

and the Palestinian high schoolers,

and the murdered eight year old

with her clitoris cut out in Joburg.

The little boy in Sao Paolo whose father pushed 50 needles into his body.


Damn it, not everything needs to be accounted for, she said to me

and left next day. I told her what do I do for this child

raped since four

by all the men of her family, who combed my hair,

shrieked laughing when I picked her up and spun her  across the room.


What are all the things I meant to tell you?

I lit each smoke end to end that night when we skyped till four

telling you love my hands are too empty, my hands are so empty they ache. Can’t hold enough. Jack shit.

I was ten and he was ten, that child I was given to feed

at the hospital. He was ten, shriveled with hunger

to the size of a two year old. I was feeding him

drip by drip of cheap baby food

saying eat. Eat and grow. What is this

I said love what is this place where this happens. What do I do

in this place how do I live.

You said I love you, like that solved anything.


I said how am I going to wake up when I can’t hear

the wailing at the gates.

At a protest I hoist the banner with the man from

Joza, he says look, comrade, one of us

from the poor, one from the rich.

What am I holding in my hands that will not

be given? How do I give it?

In Mecca a bundle of rags turned out to be an old woman

with birdseed in her fist, sleeping

behind the barriers of the woman’s section.

I took tasbih from my bag, cut jade,

tucked them beside her and prayed God

let her sell them for food, or a blanket.


At Jabul Rahman the Mount of Mercy

someone was playing Fairouz on a car stereo

and all the beggars were lying under the sky, open mouthed, crying

Sadaqah, Sadaqah. I walked up burning rocks

with dry fingers brushing the hem of my robe

while Fairouz sang, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.


In Saigon they sell dog tags engraved with names like Bob or Joe

and none of the women in the paintings has a face.

In Paris a Palestinian cab driver said

now I will tell you

what happened to us.

I wait year after year for my children to come here

from Gaza, but these things are not easy.

how do you leave your home? I watched my neighbor’s brains

soak into the dirt like honey into bread.


We are not without reverence here.

Even now, see beloved

how this child throws her head back,

grins, reaching her arms to the pigeons on the tin shack haram,

laugh burning like branches

with the voice of God.

It’s this love that keeps us hostage. Between my hands

the baby of the Somali woman at the Kaaba

rocked undisturbed by the crowd as we walked.


Once, back home in Newclare

under the jacarandas and the rain, I grabbed handfuls of earth,

ran my lips over them, so much dirt,

so much shit, so many trampled things.

Mine, mine, I was thinking. We are of each other.

I am kissing the ground at the crossroads.

I am feverish in every old hotel room

praying to the last God — Let me be ripped open.

Let the world in. Fill my belly

with the stones of this place.

Fill my throat with a language




—Sonwabo Meyi


this music takes me out of here

i hear the beats & screams of my ancestors

the feet of running elephants

bloodstained umbilical chords of afrikans

women grounding grinding creating food

rules & mules recording blues for the grass

mass movement of heads bobbing

heart-beats sobbing & robbing the soul


piano chords give birth to mon/stars

politicians create red-card fouls

you cannot try to sell ice to bushmen

rather sell fire to Eskimos

& supply condoms to moffies

give free make-up to widows

don’t forget to clean the windows

eyes wide shut hard looking at the tar

the grotesque image is painted with blood


when you listen closely

you can hear the slaves breathing

& the whiteman shouting

you can smell the gunpowder

your tongue craves the blood sweat & tears

your fingers itch & they are horny

look at them making love with hand-grenades

while the earth gives birth to civil wars

& cowards fly to mars

holding tight onto the wings of paper jets

& along the road

exist web magnets



— Phillippa Yaa de Villiers


Luis wouldn’t kiss me when I gave him that blow job

said he couldn’t do that to his wife,

kisses were only for the woman he loves

says Bella.


That guy, hoots Gloria, he gave me a STD

my thing was so sore I could hardly walk,

he doesn’t even know that she gave it to him.


Ja, she’s doing Fernando.


Luis’s wife walks in at the door

hello ladies, the usual please.

Sure, Madam, says Gloria, the basin is free

would you like to take a seat? Bella,

make the Madam a cup of tea.


Luis’s wife lies back on the sink

her neck all open

like she’s on the guillotine



Proposal of Marriage
—Gail Dendy


by a filthy rumpus of dike which glued

together two sides of the same field,


and out of which ricocheted a rat.

It slipstreamed up the shallow bank


and caused a zithering of grass

which parted and closed like a breath


long after the thought it intended

has ended. On the following day we saw it again,


its grey body the length of a child’s ballet shoe,

its death-grin already covered


by a congregation of ants, which, with the sun

on their backs, glittered like crystals.


You turned away, but not before

taking my hand and laying it as an invitation


quite close to your heart which I could feel beating.

And so I knew what you wanted to say


even though the time for saying it was already past

and you were booked to fly out later that afternoon.



Story of a Zimbabwean Farm
— Gail Dendy


You would search for the old place

only hesitantly, driving the 4X4

onwards down the potholed road


then, with a grind of gears, idle the engine

while you looked and looked


past the newly installed electric gates, down the tracks,

past the side of the tractor shed (now enlarged,

but the roof in need of repair),


and, finally, if you craned your neck enough,

through the soft coldness of the stone verandah.

I always wondered why you never stopped

dead, removed the keys from the ignition


and walked those last fifty paces. The new owners

would surely have let you in, shown you around.

You weren’t a threat any more.


All I know is that for forty years you’ve stood

in your bedroom, twelve years old, your mother leaning

to kiss your feverish face, your father not yet back


from the Bush War. Wherever the vultures had circled

that day, no one would tell.

You’d had a premonition, but nothing more.


Yesterday, with the help of a tracker, (unemployed,

he said, since Mugabe’s second term, his village burnt),

we found the spot, or something close enough –


a cross on rusted tin. And nothing else but knobthorns,

a duiker’s shattered bone, the crackling chant of bulbul.


Those last fifty paces would be the end of the story.

But there’s another one, too,


the one in which you’ve just turned eight

and your mother, knotting her apron behind her waist,

asks for help with slaughtering chickens.


You refuse, leave the house, slam all the doors

on your way out.



—Gail Dendy


I was thirteen, and The Beatles

had just been unbanned.[1] The airwaves

were thick with it, the new


sounds, like dead people

being brought back to life.


But Vorster[2] was there, too,

a man perfect for radio

since he never smiled. But with


one twist of the dial, we’d erase him

with an off-station static

that was like a spell.


Each day the Official News was followed

by ‘Commentary’, as though

one box wasn’t enough

for thoughts, there had to be more,


more, which the Government provided

free instead of housing.


But I was just thirteen,

and my friends

John, Paul, George, and Ringo

were out there waiting.


It was a hard day’s night

that would one day end,

like wind-up watches, roneo machines,

trolley buses, one-rand notes,


and huge hand-washed sheets

hung up like wings.


[1]The Beatles’ records were banned by the SABC from 1966 to 1971.

[2] Prime Minister of South Africa, 1966—1978. His dour demeanour earned him the nickname ‘Jolly John’.



—Harry Owen


Washed down from the moor by torrents

into a coarse alluvium of cities and towns,

we settle as dregs at the mouth of the great river.


Good at deposits, of course – on houses, cars,

plasma screens, wives – we find our lives weathered,

eroded, reduced from distant heights as


in wind, water, vodka, ice we bear before us

a deep scale of deposition in newly-worked

fragmenting ecosystems of the mind.


Next, thin precipitate of fluvial histories,

biota sluiced out to lacustrine gels shallow

as a salt-pan, the holy water of ourselves


evaporates as we harden into stone.


Or do we rather dream within the embrace

of sediment? What sands will scratch the epitaph

of our time: that we were betrothed and married


to the soil but proved unfaithful? Such silt

may yet leave grounds for an absolute decree

as frail splinters settle to stone, to earth again,


petrified words in the yawning mouths of rivers.




Mishka Hoosen is a South African writer originally from Johannesburg. An alumna of Interlochen Arts Academy in the US, she completed an MA in Creative Writing, focusing on nonfiction and poetry, at Rhodes University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rolling Stone South Africa, New Coin, Chimurenga, Hunger Mountain, and Ons Klyntji. Her book of nonfiction, Hollow the Bones, is forthcoming from Deep South Books in early 2015.

Gail Dendy was first published by Harold Pinter in 1993, with subsequent collections appearing in South Africa, the UK and the USA. Her seventh collection is Closer Than That (Dye Hard, 2011). Gail’s poems have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Carcanet’s A Field of Large Desires (2010). She was the Winner of the SA Pen Millennium Competition (Playwriting), a Finalist in the Herman Charles Bosman Award, shortlisted for the Thomas Pringle Award 2010 (prose), and for the EU/Sol Plaatje Poetry Prize 2011 and 2012. Gail has recently completed her first novel.

Sonwabo Meyi was born & bred in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. He started writing protest poetry in 2004. He is quick to point out that he is a Black Consciousness activist, & therefore his writing is driven by BC principles. His first book of poetry rage against the beast is the manifestation of his activism. He has been published in a number of anthologies and is currently working on his second full collection, conversations with a mon/star. He lives in Port Elizabeth.

Multi-award winning South African poet, playwright and performance artist, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is a graduate of the Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris. Her poetry ranges from the private to the political, exploring matters serious, satirical and sensual. She has published two collections of her work: Taller Than Buildings (Centre for the Book, 2006) and The Everyday Wife (Modjaji Books, 2010).  In 2014 Phillippa was commissioned by the Commonwealth Education Trust to write a poem in celebration of Commonwealth Day, which was performed in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on 10 March as part of the Commonwealth Celebrations. She lives in Johannesburg.

Harry Owen lives in Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where he hosts the popular Reddits Poetry open floor poetry evenings every month. He is the author of six collections, the latest of which is Small Stones for Bromley (Lapwing Publications, Belfast), and has edited two anthologies, I Write Who I Am (2011), an anthology of poetry by young people from disadvantaged township schools, and For Rhino in a Shrinking World – An International Anthology (2013), both published by The Poets Printery, East London, South Africa.