Poetry as a Discipline Advised by Nature: A Dialogue with Mangaliso Buzani
Mangaliso Buzani (b.1978) grew up in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, and later trained as a jeweller in Tshwane/Pretoria. His first collection, Ndisabhala Imibongo, (Imbizo Arts, 2014) written in isiXhosa, won the 2015 South African Literary Award for poetry. a naked bone (Deep South, 2019) was his first book in English: its title poem won the 2014 Dalro Prize for best poem published in the poetry journal New Coin. Buzani teaches poetry in English and isiXhosa in the MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place in South Africa, via email.
Nkateko: Hello, Mangaliso. Thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me. Can you take me back to the day you found out that your poetry book, a naked bone, had won the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry? What were you doing when you got the news? What was your immediate reaction?
Mangaliso: My friend and publisher Robert Berold phoned me one weekend, around 7pm if I’m not mistaken. I was fixing the houses of my chickens and pigeons in Nelson Mandela Bay, my hometown, when he told me the news that I’m the winner of the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.
I collected myself, as I always do to calm myself at anything that would judge me as a better person than others. I continued fixing the houses of my birds, then I went to bed. When I woke up, I saw a missed call from Mzi Mahola. When I called him back, I told him the news. I phoned Mxolisi Nyezwa and told him. The rest was a string of congratulations from the people who are close to me. This prize for poetry made me realise how important it is to visit your work many times before you make a book; look at it, shift it around, take things out, look at them again with fresh eyes that were on a holiday.
Nkateko: I love the notion of a writer looking at their work “with fresh eyes that were on a holiday.” How does one cultivate the patience and bravery to look away from a fledgling poem or any work-in-progress, especially if the work is what they look towards when everything else fails to make sense? What do we do if writing is the holiday itself? What do we look to then?
I understand that you are referring to the time one must take before compiling a book, but I have also heard the advice to revisit work “with fresh eyes” in reference to individual poems as well. Do you find it important to put a poem away before submitting it for publication? As a writer who revises with patience, what changes in you during the time when you are looking away from the work? What do your fresh eyes, which I assume symbolize a renewed creative vision, bring to the words on the page?
Mangaliso: I have trained myself not to lose focus, even when things are difficult. I focus my mind and put my whole body at peace through things I do; I go to judo training to forget about everything and think only about judo. I attend to my garden, work with plants, even here my mind thinks about flowers and vegetables only. I play with my dogs, attend to my birds. I read the work of other writers, which is the most important part of my eyes holiday; I do as Lesego Rampolokeng begs us to do: read and read and read.
After these activities, I come back to my work with fresh ideas. It is here where I correct whoever or whatever gave me the poem. I say to a stone, ‘you were wrong to say this line in this way, I want it in this way.’ Or I might see that I have no grounds to support my way of thinking and remain saying, ‘that stone gave me a poem and I wrote it the way it was given to me by it.’
I don’t rush things that come full-speed to me and send them straight for publication. When poems come to my head, they don’t give me a second to think; they come like a lightning bolt and I’m always powerless to stop that process, hence I put them on the page with the same speed they came. After I have finished writing, then it’s my time to sit with a cup of coffee and look at other things.
“We must just continue to empty ourselves of any poems that are within us, as long as we are still alive.”
It can be a day, a week, a month, a year, or some years before I go back to look at poems I wrote. I know that there are people who are strongly interested in being published within seconds, but I always remember Mzi Mahola warning us many times in his workshops that we must not rush for publishing, because when your poem is out there in the world, you won’t be able to take it back and re-edit it. When it is already out there for people to see, you might be ashamed to see it after ten years and then begin to think that you were wrong to just pass it from your head to the paper, and then to the publisher.
No matter how you are pressured by your head to publish what you have just written, say no to that feeling. Sit with your work, revisiting it now and then, until you are sure about its health.
Nkateko: “I collected myself as I always do to calm myself at anything that would judge me as a better person than others.” The humility in this statement is so beautiful, and I cannot help but think of all the people you mentioned in your response regarding the news that your book had won. It is as if you are saying “This is not just my success, it is ours.” Your publisher, your friends and mentors, an entire collective of people who have played a role in the book being what it is. Was there a similar feeling within your circle when your first book, Ndisabhala Imibongo, won the South African Literary Award for poetry five years ago?
Mangaliso: We may even take it further back to 2004, when I was named one of the finalists in AngloGold Ashanti’s Riches of Africa gold jewellery design competition. When I walked through the door of Mr Sarel Vos, our Head of Department at the School of Art and Design, to tell him the news that I have been selected as one of the finalists, he asked me, “Why do you come so quietly through the door with great news?”
Yes the feeling has always been the same. I celebrated the achievement of Ndisabhala Imibongo with everyone.
Nkateko: I am fascinated by your connection with nature, which comes through in your poetry as well as in your everyday language. In your earlier response you said, “I say to a stone, ‘you were wrong to say this line in this way’” and I thought of how you not only connect with nature but also communicate with its elements.
I often feel that my own communication with the natural environment is blocked by an inability to pay attention, to focus wholly on one scene and absorb all its beauty with no distraction, which is something you also made reference to with regard to tending to your garden, playing with pets, and looking after birds. I can tell that these interactions with nature influence your writing, but I am curious about how the process of turning that silent meditation in nature into language comes about?
How do you translate the sights, smells and sounds of nature into words? Does it happen automatically? Do you ever have an idea for a poem spring up on you while you are busy working with your plants and then have to stop to jot it down before it flies away? In “My first lesson” you are “welcomed” by snails, who teach you to make a light-trail on a leaf. In “Inside the river” you read poems to frogs. Do these experiences and lessons you learn from animals already exist as vocabulary or do you sit down and translate them in retrospect?
Mangaliso: To tell the truth, I don’t know how these things happen; how the body absorbs what is happening around it and then keeps it for days within itself. The brain always does its daily job of bringing back to life what the hands have delayed to put on the paper.
I don’t carry a paper and pen when I’m going to the garden, or to tend to my dogs and chickens and pigeons. If it happens that something comes to mind and the paper is within my reach, I write it down. But it is not usually like this; when I’m going outside. I don’t think about poems at that time, but if they come, they stay with me until I write them down later.
I don’t know exactly how these things happen, but the body has its way of bringing them back into life. It doesn’t matter what happens; even if you are disturbed by a knock at the door or by someone screaming for help, allow yourself to be disturbed. Do not force the brain to do justice to the poem when you are thinking about other things. Do not worry about what you have forgotten; continue with life, it will come back to you again the way it was, to surprise you even more.
When the poems are given to me, I’m not aware of what is happening inside myself, other than the awareness that I’m holding a garden fork and must concentrate so that it doesn’t go into my foot by mistake. In my poems I say I have wished to read poems to frogs, or I wish we step on something and leave a trail of light, but the language of poetry is not planned at all. I don’t even know where it is coming from, it just happens to be around and reveals itself the way it does.
In most cases it feels like I become a sort of bridge, crossing the idea from my brain to the page. Even if we are not aware of them, the things that we see, hear, touch all speak with us quietly, hence they appear in our works without showing us the ways they got there.
Nkateko: “Don’t worry about what you have forgotten, continue with life and it will come back to you again, the way it was, to surprise you even more.” This is beautiful. The depth of your responses is astounding, and I am grateful to be sitting with your words, both through a naked bone and in this conversation. Speaking of guidance, who are your greatest literary influences? In your teaching, do you introduce your students to the work of those poets you admire the most?
Mangaliso: I read a lot. I read all the genres that fall under the word ‘literature’. Oral literature, which I’m always in touch with, the stories that we were told by our grannies, iintsomi. With iintsomi in my head, I go to African myth and folklore, then Japanese myth, then Chinese myth. Myth is always with me. Then to enjoy the forms of poetry there are 20th century writers whose work I go back to often: Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Tadeusz Różewicz, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo.
I read everything that I like, everything that fixes my brain in a moment, allowing me to be influenced by it in my life and my writing as well. I read works of my fellow African writers; S.E.K Mqhayi, S.S.M Mema, Amos Tutuola, Guybon B Sinxo. I also read a lot of translated works in fiction as well, such as those of José Saramago, Camilo José Cela, Nikos Kazantzakis. With these writers in my head, I try to influence my students to build on their works on the basis of reading other writers, especially the writers whose work I introduced them to.
Nkateko: In the poem “It Is Thursday”, you wrote, “After reading Pablo Neruda I went to the table to meet the paper head-on with a pen.” The image of the pen, paper and the poet meeting is such a sacred ritual.
Personally, I am unable to write in noisy places, or in cluttered spaces. Even if that noise and clutter are in my brain, I cannot write.
Do you have a special place where you do most of your writing? Or any conditions that are absolutely necessary for you to be able to write?
Mangaliso: If I am in that urge of writing, and the paper and the pen are around, I go ahead with that energy of wanting to write. I don’t have any special times or conditions. If my body is pushing me to lift a pen, I lift it and see after what comes out of that courage.
Nkateko: I like the idea of writing as an act of courage. The love poems in a naked bone make me think of the courage required when declaring one’s romantic interest in another person, especially if poetry is the vehicle. “Kiss me” is one of my favourite poems from the book because it is both explicit and tender. The vulnerability of overtly expressed desire is so beautiful.
I recently had a love poem accepted for publication in a journal and although I was excited that the editor of the journal enjoyed the poem, I then began to worry about the person I loved recognising themselves in the poem. Have you ever had the fear of someone you love reading a poem you wrote about them? How does one overcome that?
Mangaliso: I think poems choose to come the way they want to come to us, forcing us to reveal our deepest secrets. The rest will be a dialogue between me and whatever gave me the poem. Sometimes I don’t want to censor myself, then the poem remains the way it came into my head.
We learn everyday how to speak. For example “I like you, Brother Leo, I like you because you leave the worms free to stroll over your lips and ears; you do not chase them away.” If people can express themselves with this confidence, as Nikos Kazantzakis is doing in this sentence, then we can learn from them how to say things without feeling embarrassed? Write even when the world is laughing at you, throwing stones at you saying ‘you don’t say these things’, ‘you don’t write like this’.
I understand that you may hurt others with what you bring to the page, but I believe it is always better to write the poem the way it comes, the way you feel it. There will be time to say sorry to whoever feels embarrassed or hurt because of what is written, but we must just continue to empty ourselves of any poems that are within us, as long as we are still alive.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Mangaliso. I have truly enjoyed engaging with your work and getting to know more about you and your writing process. Congratulations once again on winning the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. You are an inspiration. I look forward to reading more of your work and being in conversation with you again in the future.
Mangaliso: You are very welcome, Nkateko. Thanks for making this interview happen.
This is a good place for me to thank others. To the Glenna Luschei Prize people, thank you for creating such a platform for poetry. It is an encouragement to writers to focus their energy on writing.
The book, a naked bone, came out of my MA creative thesis, inside the river, at Rhodes University. A big thank you to everyone who was involved, especially my supervisor, Joan Metelerkamp, for helping me to pull it through.
Maserame June Madingwane, I say your name here hoping you will hear me, six feet under my feet; thank you for your friendship.
Lastly, to Robert Berold, I wish everyone who has ever come close to you can understand what an opportunity it is, how lucky the world is to have someone like you around.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she co-won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled the heart is a caged animal, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest chapbook, psalm for chrysanthemums, has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.