Press release: "Across a crowded street" – AVBOB poetry mini-competition

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Lezel Simons, Malusi Aphelele Mbangata, Retshepisitswe ‘Promise’ Makhatha (Photos: Provided)

Across a crowded street: South African poets slow down and learn how to whisper

Early in February, the AVBOB Poetry Project announced its first mini-competition for 2024 on the theme of “Across a crowded street”. In a cultural landscape where our words can easily divide us and box us in, poets were invited to find their most urgent words, whether tender and encouraging or new and challenging. Today, we announce the winning poets and share their extraordinary poems.

Early in February, the AVBOB Poetry Project announced its first mini-competition for 2024 on the theme of ‘Across a Crowded Street’. In a cultural landscape where our words can easily divide us and box us in, poets were invited to find their most urgent words, whether tender and encouraging or new and challenging. Today, we announce the winning poets and share their extraordinary poems.

The tone of much of what we read and respond to, in the news or on social media, is repetitive and shrill. When writing a poem, however, we have an opportunity to send a message that is urgent and surprising but also tender and encouraging or new and challenging.

This year, the AVBOB Poetry Project celebrates the power of poetry to help us slow down, tune in, and speak from the heart by announcing the winners of the ““Across a crowded street” mini-competition and sharing their astonishing poems.

This mini-competition challenged poets to share their most intimate words and stories, and the response was particularly impressive. “Once again, we are astonished by what poets were willing to share and explore,” said Johann de Lange, chief judge of the competition. “Clearly, excitement is building about these competitions, and the standard of entries remains high.”

De Lange continued, “Poets shared their sense of awe and excitement about the world around them. At a time when so much of what we read and listen to confirms our biases, poetry reminds us to listen and look again, to slow down and find newer, better words.”

First-place winner, Retshepisitswe ‘Promise’ Makhatha

First-place winner, Retshepisitswe ‘Promise’ Makhatha (Photo: Carlotta Hu)

First-place winner, Retshepisitswe ‘Promise’ Makhatha, was born in Mthatha, Eastern Cape. He matriculated from St Peter’s College in 2009 and graduated from Rhodes University in 2014. He has been living and working in Ningbo, China, for the past four and a half years as an English teacher, and currently works at Zhejiang Business Technology Institute. His poems have been published in Poetry Potion’s 10th print edition, titled This Woman Is…, as well as in other local and international magazines. He placed fourth in the 2019 AVBOB Poetry Competition and won first place in the AVBOB mini-competition (Eco-poetry) in 2022 with his poem, “Mama is Terminal”.

“My motivation for entering this competition is that it is an opportunity for me to compete against and learn from poets of different backgrounds and writing levels, and I value any opportunity to improve and share my own writing.

On his winning poem, he shares, “‘Bird of Paradise’ is about someone on a walk who is captivated by the beauty, elegance and self-assuredness of the person they see from across the street. They desire to be around this person, but they lack the words to convince this person that they are worthy to be in their lives. The strelitzia (bird of paradise) is a flower indigenous to South Africa, so the poem is also a celebration of its majesty.”

Bird of Paradise
Retshepisitswe ‘Promise’ Makhatha 

From across a crowded street
I gaze at your towering stem,
Sturdy against the turbulent winds,
Robust you stand in times of change.

I am in awe of the curvature in your neck,
the arch of your elegant nape
As you crane your head
To study the soldiering ants
marching in line, in sychronised step.

From across a crowded street
I trace the dramatic lines of your smile,
There are no words I could say to make it mine,
So I’ll memorise every contour of your sublime profile.

Second-place winner, Malusi Aphelele Mbangata

Second-place winner, Malusi Aphelele Mbangata (Photo: Provided)

Second-place winner, Malusi Aphelele Mbangata, was born in Mount Ayliff, Eastern Cape in 2001. He has had four poems published by the AVBOB Poetry Project – three in English and one in isiXhosa.

“I entered this mini-competition because I could relate to its theme. I have locked eyes with a female stranger in a public place, who had no company or fancy materials with her. She was quiet and collected, while almost everyone else around her had company. I could relate to the way she was. As we locked eyes, it was as though we were speaking a language of shared understanding and admiration. She knew that she needed nothing to be comfortable. She herself was a treasure.”

It’s okay, fine stranger 
Malusi Aphelele Mbangata

Amidst the well-spoken,
Them with plentiful companions,
Them called from the north and south,
It’s okay too, to stand alone.
Amidst the ones with fine tokens,
The loudly cheered champions,
Ones with beautified faces and mouths,
It’s okay too, to be barely known.
Amidst them dressed in vogue,
With jewelries and a pleasing brogue,
It’s okay too, to wear what’s barely new.
It’s highly okay to stand there and be you.
It’s okay, fine stranger,
For in you, I see an immeasurable treasure
That can neither be purchased nor hidden
By things you may soon have or be given.

Third-place winner, Lezel Simons

Third-place winner, Lezel Simons

Third-place winner, Lezel Simons, comes from Alberton, Gauteng. She is a physiotherapist, a mother of two and a widow. Over the past few years, she has been exploring writing and self-publishing, along with other creative endeavours, with a view to an alternative career.

“Writing has always been a dream and a hobby. Many recent events have guided me back to it, to fulfil that dream. Poetry has helped me to deal with grief and to process complex and difficult emotions. I have been writing it for six years now, and have published three collections. When I write, I often have an idea or concept, and then a subconscious, almost automatic flow and expression of that idea. That is how I wrote this poem. I believe our souls have wisdom, knowledge and a purpose beyond what we consciously understand, and that sharing our experiences and insights brings meaning and purpose to our lives.”

Across a crowded street
Lezel Simons

I do not know
the road you’ve walked,
how long or how far,
what load you carry
or if your legs are tired
Here, we find ourselves
walking parallel lines
We are passers-by
in this uncertain journey
Never truly knowing
where we are going
We do know
where we come from
and where we are now
As I turn to see
what is around me
In a fleeting moment
eyes meet
If we pay attention
our hearts will say,
“Look another soul
making their way.”
When we observe
and are seen
You are not simply
another person
across a crowded street
I am because you are

Amid so much that divides us, poetry reminds us of our shared curiosity about the world. It invites us into an archive of moments, recorded by those who have something urgent to say and who have found the best words with which to say it.

One thing is certain: our desire to write poetry is deeply linked to our appetite to gain deeper knowledge about the world and the people in it, so that we can carry it into our everyday lives and live more imaginatively.

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