Viva the Villanelle!
Youth poets show survival spirit and mental health awareness
During Youth Month the AVBOB Poetry Project announced a mini-competition on social media, inviting South Africans poets, aged 18 and younger, to reflect on their experience of surviving the pandemic. Here we announce the winning poets and profile their inspiring poetry.
Cash prize: R1 000
Cash prize: R700
Athikshay Kumar Maharaj
Cash prize: R300
Three immensely talented youth poets demonstrated resilience and imagination in their entries to the AVBOB poetry youth month mini-competition. Their creative responses address the devastation faced by this generation of high school learners tackling matric studies in isolation and the issue of mental health.
A swathe of terrific entries arrived from writers 18 years and younger in response to COVID-19. It is notable that all three winners matriculated in 2020. Kiara Naidoo, Alister Hichens and Athikshay Maharaj won prizes of R1000, R700 and R300 respectively. All revealed their wistful wishes, words of wisdom, and aching worries in tender and touching poems.
Our overall winner, Kiara Naidoo, is a talented wordsmith who matriculated at Saheti in Johannesburg last year. She also entered the AVBOB poetry competition in 2020 and her poem ‘Pioneer’ appears in the AVBOB poetry library.
Her poem ‘Rising Thespians’ is a worthy first-place winner in the Youth Month mini-competition. She used the sophisticated form of the villanelle that challenges experienced poets. Her language and concept engage the reader from the first line, setting the stage powerfully in theatrical fashion for a tragicomic portrayal of the pandemic.
Kiara moved to Stellenbosch this year to study a BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. ‘Rising Thespians’ spotlights the strains on mental health in the youth. “This is easily concealed… the victims are phenomenal actors and it’s easy to assume that a loved one is coping when, in reality, they’re overwhelmed. The central symbol of the poem, the Sock and Buskin, speaks to how South Africans fashion comedy from memes and social media posts in the face of tragedy.” Kiara urges those struggling with their mental health: “Don’t hesitate to seek the help you deserve.”
Today we wear our Sock and Buskin
To mask in sarcasm callow distress
With youthful pretence we can begin.
Comedic containment with memes akin
As youth we connect; in social media we bless
Today we wear our Sock and Buskin.
With online school to make our heads spin
All that Math and Science is just a guess
With youthful pretence we shall begin.
A mocking façade of what has been
Sanitiser, soap, and all that mess
Today we wear our Sock and Buskin
To hide behind exaggerated grins
The lurking depression and shroud of stress
With youthful pretence we will begin.
Confined within the walls of West Berlin
For even in our home, there is no rest
Today we wear our Sock and Buskin
With youthful pretence we begin.
Second-place winner, Alister Hichens, discovered his love of poetry at Westerford High School and enjoyed publication in the school magazine. He is studying a BA Law online through Wits University and lives with his mother in Muizenberg. His father passed away in 2014 suddenly. Alister entered the AVBOB Poetry Competition in 2020 and his powerful work, ‘A Poem for my Late Father’ which articulates the anguish of losing a parent was published in the AVBOB Poetry Library.
His second-placed poem, ‘Covid Diary’ takes the form of a daily journal. He succeeds in writing a harrowing yet wry account of facing his mother’s mortality. Alister explained why he entered the competition, “My mom has always supported my poetry and she told me about the competition. Entering it gave me a chance to express the emotions going through my head when she got Covid. I wanted to win it for her.”
7th June: Mom has Covid. We don’t know who or where from.
8th June: Panic. I have no clue where Mom can stay… I can’t leave the house… who’s going to buy the food… What if I catch it?
9th June: Relief – Jessica orders us groceries. We can eat for a week. Doctor says I must stay inside and self-isolate until next Friday. 10 more days
10th June: I fear things are getting worse – Mom has Covid-induced pneumonia. She isn’t eating, and her cough is horrible. 9 more days.
11th June: Mom’s oxygen monitor readings are low. I sit in my room with my door wide open listening out in case she calls me at any time.
12th June: Mom is still not in good shape. I have to take a new wet towel for her forehead every 2 hours. I spend my day worrying about her.
13th June: The Doctor does some tests on Mom; she says she will be OK. 6 more days.
14th June: She is stabilising… back to normal life on Friday… I can see my girlfriend… go to the gym with some friends… 5 more days!
15th June: Mom is back on her feet.
16th June: I am SO excited to go outside!
17th June: Getting a cautionary Covid test today… don’t want to endanger my girlfriend and her family…
18th June: Just got the results back from the Doctor… Covid-positive.
19th June: 10 more days.
Third-place winner, Athikshay Maharaj, wrote ‘Suffering Day’ – a lyrical rap that unpacks the weird world that put his generation into disarray. His rhythm and rhyme beg for a drum beat and a mic. This emerging talent will hopefully go far and should inspire many other youths to turn to poetry to lift their spirits during hard times.
Athikshay matriculated at Raisethorpe Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg last year. “As matriculants writing finals during a pandemic, nothing was ever normal for us. Being locked down at home for days on end made me emotional. Poetry and music allow you to be yourself, and express how you truly feel about the changing world around you,” he said. “They expand my intellectual mindset, allowing me to think from a deeper perspective.”
His paternal Grandmother is his mentor and inspiration. She presented him with an example of strength and persistence in all things good. “I’m glad I attempted the contest because of her. Finally, I’ve discovered my direction in life – to study English Literature,” he concluded.
Every day same room, same doom, same flow,
I just want to jump in the car with my friends and go
to the mall, to the matric ball,
but covid made all these dreams fall.
I’m dreading hearing the hospital call.
Mom lost her job, I tried to make her tears stop.
People walking around without their masks,
till they see the cops.
My matric year was a fail,
but I tried to hit the hammer on the nail.
Every time a friend coughed,
I just turned pale.
So, I grabbed my pen and my pad,
maybe lockdown won’t be so bad.
I turned the whole world on mute,
this is my commute.
It’s like I’m a lost soul, Covid is the devil,
I met him at the crossroads.
I forgot the feeling of the breeze on my face,
no more smiling at pretty girls in my case.
All the days in my Covid mansion,
reading books, trying to get my brain
to maximum expansion,
all this pain and contraction,
each human being had a different reaction.
Truth is we’re afraid,
so, we sit inside our rooms,
and we pray.
Pray for God to stay,
and take this Covid away.
The government is lying,
trying to keep us calm through the sirens,
people without supplies
were resorting to violence.
A mall became a ghost town,
and people look like clowns,
except they’re all wearing a frown.
It’s a war everyone will remember,
because we’re all in this together,
maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
We will give a fair fight.
Our heroism will shine bright.
If you yearn to try your hand at the page, don’t hesitate to register online www.avbobpoetry.co.za. The fifth AVBOB Poetry Competition opens on 1 August 2021 and poets are welcome to send up to 10 poems each. A first prize of R10 000 will be awarded in all 11 official language categories.