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“We are seeing that there is more to poetry than the dead white men of high school textbooks” – a Q&A with poet and cultural activist, Vangile Gantsho

By Carla Lever

Nal’ibali column 21: term 3 2018

Published in the Sunday World (26/08/2018), Daily Dispatch (27/08/2018), Herald (30/08/2018)

Poet and cultural activist, Vangile Gantsho. Pic: supplied.


How would you describe your own work?

Honest. Uncomfortable. Deeply mine. I don’t think it’s for everyone, mostly because not everyone wants to know how deeply we – as people/womxn/black womxn – feel. There is a responsibility that comes with knowledge.

You are participating in several of the exciting panels at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town this September. What role do you think SA arts festivals should have in bringing all kinds of people together around storytelling and culture(s)?

I guess I think festivals should be well-crafted mazes, where people are inspired to be so curious that they arrive expecting one thing, and leave having experienced something they wouldn’t have bumped into otherwise. I would hope that this adventure would spark conversation, because at the heart of storytelling is conversation – between writers and readers and society.

A lot of people see poetry as something you learn in school or intimidating to understand. Can poetry be a relevant and accessible form of expression for everyone?

I think that’s how poetry used to be taught. Now, poetry is an evolving language. We are seeing that there is more to poetry than the dead white men of high school text books. That before Lebo Mashile, there was Jayne Cortez and June Jordan. That poetry can have agency, and that emotional complexity does not always have to be trapped in complicated language.

What language/s do you write and perform in and what motivates that choice?

English. Because the way in which this freedom was/is structured meant that my parents felt it was best for me to prioritise English so my brothers and I could be successful in life. Even if it was at the expense of our home language.

You have said that people can use poetry as a healing tool – a way of feeling safe inside our own bodies. How can writing be a form of self-care?

From a young age I learned that journaling was a way of making what I was feeling and experiencing real. I think, when you are silenced, writing especially can be an important way of existing. I have seen that free writing exercises often leads people to unexpected places: “Wow! I didn’t even realise I was feeling like this.” In existing, in “saying out loud” what you are living through, you can heal from it, or discard it. You can claim some power over it.

It’s hard to break into South Africa’s very small publishing industry. You’ve proven that going it alone can be a great solution, by self-publishing your own very successful book of poetry. Can you tell us a little about what that involves?

My debut poetry collection, Undressing in front of the window (2015), taught me that no one will willingly open doors for you. You have to knock, or break the doors down yourself. And in order to do that, you must always be willing to learn. Self-publishing requires more than just raising funds. You still need a good team. And it’s not an easy process. It’s difficult, expensive work…but fortunately also deeply rewarding!

Your publishing company, Impepho Press, is a self-described “Pan-African” publishing house. Are you currently accepting submissions from authors?

We just announced our first open call, open throughout September. We are accepting submissions from people born in Africa and people of colour from the diaspora. This includes gender non-conforming people.

For those not able to afford books, are there other ways to access writing from poets working across our continent?

I think the biggest tragedy is that everything costs money. So even if I say the internet is a way of accessing the work of international writers of colour, data is expensive. And access to technology is a luxury. I think more and more second-hand books shops and the bigger libraries are getting better at stocking some contemporary writers at a steal. But the internet is probably the best bet, for now, because access to literature is seen as a luxury.

How can parents, friends and teachers encourage young people to tell their stories creatively?

By encouraging young people to express themselves honestly and without fear of intimidation or prejudice. Exposing ourselves to art also encourages us to be inspired by art!

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:


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