“so much depends upon”

On April 29th, 2007, I left New York for the distant reality of post-apartheid Soweto, that infamous sprawl of townships and shantytowns outside of Johannesburg. I had arranged to spend the next four months doing a poetry workshop with children from some of the most impoverished areas in South Africa. Despite almost a year of planning, things quickly fell apart upon my arrival. The youth center where I’d arranged to bring the workshop was plagued by scandal, my initial contact had recently quit, and the “room” I’d been promised somehow ceased to exist. I ended up at backpacker’s hostel in the heart of Soweto. I killed time walking the dusty streets, talking with the men who couldn’t get work, men who had lost a thumb or an ear. Through long, slow afternoons, I took pictures of large bugs. At night I listened to the roosters and dogs. I began to think the poetry project, like so many hopes in Africa, was destined to become yet another faint and stillborn dream. But then a young man named Mbuso found me. He’d heard rumors of my arrival. He came to talk to me at the backpacker’s one day. And he came back the next day. And he kept coming back.

In a dark, abandoned schoolhouse with broken windows and walls scarred by fire, Mbuso and I gathered from the neighborhood the kids he had taught to dance. In spite of the many challenges we faced (the coldest winter in South Africa in over thirty years, no electricity or heat, a crippling union strike which closed hospitals and schools), the workshops endured and ultimately thrived. In the process of discovering their poetic voices, the kids began to see beauty in places where they couldn’t before and found exciting new ways to articulate both themselves and their world.

The context for the kids who participated in the workshops is unlike that of those who will read their work, but what invariably connects them, author and reader, reveals far more than the distances and disparities which divide them. These poems, this story, takes place in Soweto, but it isn’t about Soweto alone. In a broader sense, it is about resilient hopes and active dreams, and surprising new ways of expressing those hopes and dreams, which translate, I believe, in any language and in any part of the world.

True poetry breathes. This breath, however varied and multihued, is shared by us all, no matter our origins, no matter our customs. To give it life is simply a matter of letting it in and letting it out. Intuitively, the kids from Soweto understood this. To give their own poetry its life, they needed to share it, so at the end of each day, as the darkness and cold closed around us, they proudly read their poems aloud, while their fellow poets listened, then cheered.

One of my goals for the Soweto Poetry Project was to show these kids that, despite the hardships of where they lived, they had the power to transform something broken, forsaken, or unseen into something alive and affirming. This sampling of their work, I believe, is evidence of their growth and achievement as artists, and to share their work is to ensure that these proud voices may be heard. In doing so, I hope to bring the readers of these poems closer to a world which might have before seemed remote.

These poems tell a story that is uniquely South African and yet universal, enigmatic yet honest. They seek a dialogue, long for questions, and desire to be fulfilled by a reader. I hope these poems will encourage the people who read them to try unlocking their own imaginations and to respond, in a poem or a painting, in a story or a song, in their own ways, from their own contexts, to the voices of the poets who are speaking to them here. There is no right way to read a poem. One simply has to be open to it, inhabit it, as the kids from Soweto were open to everything they inhabited through their work.

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“the sun on this rubble”

Soweto stands for South Western Townships. Townships were conceived in the early 1950’s when the architects of apartheid began to forcibly remove all the blacks from the white neighborhoods. Once relocated to these new settlements, blacks were made to carry passbooks, observe a curfew, and endure not only the oppressive apartheid regime but also harsh and deteriorating conditions. Apartheid, a policy of blatant and violent discrimination, came to its long-overdue end in 1994, but the reality in Soweto is not much improved.

Over fifteen years later, many promises from the government have yet to be fulfilled, and families in Kliptown and White City, the townships where the workshops took place, are still living in tin shacks with no heat, hot water, or electricity. Food, other than mealie meal and roasted chicken feet, is often beyond their means. Winters in Soweto are surprisingly cold, so even children learn to make fires at night with whatever they can burn in the fields. And the nation’s HIV/AIDS crisis, the worst in the world, casts an ominous shadow over both the present and future of every child there.


The history of apartheid is dark and cruel, marked by such tragic events as the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto Riots of 1976. Over the decades of brutality, thousands of men and women were detained for months without charge. Leaders of the resistance were captured and murdered. Schoolchildren were shot in protests in the streets. Though freedom is a part of the new vocabulary, much of South Africa is still scarred by its past, both literally and symbolically. One often hears inanimate objects whisper upon the air in hallowed places, like cathedrals with their ghosts in the cool arches and stone, but in the darkness of coal smoke and winter in Kliptown, those whispers are neither hallowed nor inanimate. They are instead the sound of an open wound, the inescapable remembering, the identity of a pain which gradually tells itself over the course of a night in the haunted air.

In the narrow dirt alleys, black water trickles. Garbage, often burning, mounts between the rows of crowded and misshapen shacks. And yet despite temperatures frequently dropping into the 20’s (one night it even snowed), the children there, many without shoes, literally danced and sang in the streets. I often think back to my first day in that dark classroom when I was still a stranger to those kids. They stared at me in a long and suspicious silence. I asked them then what poetry was. Sheepishly, they looked to the floor.

“Fezile,” I said, “what do you think poetry is?”

Fezile stared at Pinky for help, then said, uncertainly, “Poetry is how you feel.”

“Pinky, what do you think? Is poetry how you feel?”

“Poetry is special words,” Pinky said.

“How are they special?”

“They’re pretty. And they make you feel different.”

Then more of the kids became willing to answer.

“Poetry is nature.”

“Poetry is happy.”

“Poetry is what’s inside you that you make come out by writing them.”

“Poetry is us.”

Then, after a silence, Nokuthula looked up. “Poetry,” she said, “is courage.”

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“but tell it slant”

Poems are beginning everywhere around us all the time. In whispers and snowstorms. In the dark aromas of wet, summer fruit. In reflections of a blackbird, or the ache of young lilacs. In our accidental solitudes. We begin them by opening our eyes to the margins, by hearing the shape of a silence, by mistaking stare, or stair, for star. But how many of these poems ever get finished? How many get to blossom and be given away? And yet these beginnings, unnoticed, endure. They wait for us, an invitation, opened just slightly, and wanting to open more.

Perhaps it is the seadreaming insomniac in me, but I feel a special stillness and lyricism are disappearing in our world. Here in New York, pockets of hopeful silence are crowded and baffled by advertisements and engines. A vast realm of media, of infinite choice, goes digitized in our pockets. Has the wistful moth of autumn been lost? Underneath an august storm, who anymore smells the lightning in the street? Poetry today has become something of vaguely familiar if dusty keepsake, the creased and brittle contents of the shoebox in the closet. It’s old, we say. The words are strange. It’s too difficult to enjoy. We don’t wait for its premiere in long lines on humid July nights. We don’t discuss around the water cooler a surprising last stanza as we might a last-second play. Fortunately, though, this is not a competition. I would never ask poetry to do for me what baseball, technology, or movies do. Poetry, thankfully, does something quite different, something akin to but beyond the alchemy of dreams, for poetry, at its best, does considerably more.

The American poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, “It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry.” In light of this project, it matters to me that Stevens said “a feeling about the world,” not “a feeling about my day,” or “my room,” or “my shoes.” Poetry very often appears small, small on the page and small in scope, a small number of words focused on something no bigger than a nightingale or a bowl of pears. But the poem itself, and poetry as a whole, is vast. Yet with all that exists within a poem, how do we get inside?

A poem seems tightly-wound, a riddle of images, a thing in disguise. And perhaps the greatest challenge it presents is that its essence resides in all that breathes in the space between the words. Yet there’s a quiet promise in this elusiveness, the sense that more is at stake. Because in poetry what matters most is that which can’t be said. “Genuine poetry,” T.S. Eliot said, “communicates before it is understood.” It reveals a place both familiar and just born, and in that newly imagined air evokes something in the reader that is, often without explanation, illuminating and true. The power of beauty and the imagination can say, and make real, the unsayable. In this way, poetry transforms our feelings and perceptions of the world, and in so doing, transforms the world.

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“what will suffice?”

When this project was initially conceived, I saw in it an essential charitable element. The idea of empowerment was very important to the kids’ conception of their evolving identities as South Africans. A perfect expression of that empowerment would be to see their own art, their own voices, practically contribute in some small way to the welfare of their nation. My hope, should “The Sound of the Sun” find an audience, is to have a percentage of the proceeds go to AIDS education for children in South Africa.

As of yet, no organization has been settled upon, but I would greatly appreciate any input from people interested in this project and my vision of doing more work like this in the future.

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Next Stop: ???

I see The Soweto Poetry Project as ongoing. I hope to bring workshops to children in other parts of the world living in conditions similar to those in Soweto, and by doing so, to create a dialogue through poetry between kids from varied ways of life. Already the poems from Soweto have reached out to other youth. In 2009, I brought a workshop to a public school in Brooklyn, and the students, while discovering their own poetic voices, responded through their work to the poems from the kids of White City and Kliptown. In the summer of 2011, a third workshop took place in Mumbai, India with children from disadvantaged communities, many of them living in the slums. As with the preceding workshops, the Mumbai kids explored their own identities and contexts through poetry, and continued the dialogue begun in Soweto and Brooklyn by responding to poems from those workshops through poems of their own.

As of now, no destination or timetable for the next workshop has been set, but my nascent hopes and dreams (thanks in large part to my wife) have a whiff of the Philippines about them.

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