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.