In the final week of the AVBOB Poetry Competition, many novice poets are coming to poetry for the first time, learning how to write and aspiring to become a winning poet. We hope that participants will still take the time to think deeply about how they read poetry, including their own. Here are three focus points to enhance your understanding.
How do you become a winning poet? “The path to poetic discovery is paved with questions,” says popular poetry teacher Quaz Roodt, who cultivates passion in the hearts and minds of the aspirant poets who find their way to him. “I encourage all who want to enter the AVBOB Poetry Competition to become lifelong learners of the art of the enquiry, as they develop their creative skills,” he says.
A 2020 Mellon writer-in-residence at Wits University and editor of Poetry Potion (a platform for South African poets), his work has been widely published locally and internationally. Quaz is a vibrant performer who has been invited to international festivals in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Botswana, and as far afield as Brazil.
“Much of life and history can be captured in a poem,” he explains. “Within it we build worlds upon worlds of meaning. Peeling these back like layers of an onion, one still finds something new each time. By reading and truly examining the words, we enrich our experience – not just as readers but as writers as well.”
Taking his cue from the fabulous Introduction to Poetry by former US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, Quaz encourages students in the University of Johannesburg’s poetry programme, to “interrogate” a poem. In practical terms, they must examine the language beneath the surface, making deep dives between the lines and the white space of the page. It’s more than asking, “What is this about?” and expecting the poem to immediately give back concrete answers – it is also about probing for images and metaphors, shape and sound, and thinking deeply about what they might signify.
Billy Collins alluded to this seemingly commonplace yet perhaps unsatisfactory way of finding out what a poem could mean. He suggests one “walk inside the poem’s room / and feel the walls for a light switch” – though most of the time what readers do “is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”
These vivid depictions show two approaches to reading poetry: one that leads to wonder and the other to certain discontent.
Roodt’s students put one foot forward and then another, edging towards a sense of astonishment. For what could indeed happen when one sits with a poem and asks it questions? How can reading poetry makes us better poets?
- Images draw us into the world of the poem
The great thing about poetry is allowing our imagination to be an extension of our sense of sight. We paint pictures with words on the page as our canvas. A single image can be the start of a story, idea or feeling that we want to convey.
- Metaphors are an opportunity to play with language
Inside each word is a wild thing – using figures of speech is an opportunity to pack layers of meaning for readers to discover on their own, like easter eggs waiting for lucky explorers.
- Rhythm and sound focus the reader on key ideas
Reading aloud is a differently enjoyable poetic encounter. Just like artists painting with our pens, writers can be musicians, employing rhymes or using words that sound alike but mean different things. Repeated words create cadence in a poem. It can be a literary device to convey importance or forcefulness or letting the poem turn in a different direction where a word has multiple meanings.
A poem is not a scientific or mathematical equation with an exact answer. By continually asking questions, we invite readers to meet us on the page, bringing their own histories and experiences to deepen their understanding and appreciation. We must allow the reader to do the work: what could the images mean? How do they relate to each other? Why was this particular word used? Why did it end with this particular punctuation?
“A poem is both heard and seen,” Roodt explains, “but it doesn’t stop there. We must develop the habit of asking questions if we are to be delighted, perplexed or surprised. If we allow ourselves that vulnerability and curiosity, both as reader and writer – only then will the poem gradually reveal itself.”
The AVBOB Poetry Competition closes on 30 November 2021 at 23:59! Enter up to 10 poems in any of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Register to enter at www.avbobpoetry.co.za