Short review by JvE
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’s approach to her work is summed up by the first poem in her new collection of poetry, The Everyday Wife:
Words become me …
Without them I am shorn.
This poet breathes her very life on to the page through her vibrant use of words. She takes the blood and guts of her painful reality to paint the walls of her life. She, like those imprisoned in the Tower of London centuries ago, makes meaning out of her moments by writing on the walls of her prison. Her childhood rape; her black self being rejected by her white adoptive family; her anger at the prejudice encountered against her origins – all experiences are wrenched from the poet’s heart and shaped into meaning through explosive words.
The fact that Yaa de Villiers deals with harsh realities does not imply that the collection is without humour. Yaa de Villiers has an eye for the anachronistic and the ridiculous. Her poem "Hell in a Handbag", though savage in its tone, is filled with humorous observations which cause the reader to smile in ironic recognition. In this way she reminds me of Sylvia Plath, another poet who bared her soul while using savage irony to cut pomposity down to the quick. The Everyday Wife is an emotional rollercoaster of a ride, one in which readers are enriched by the language and wisdom of a woman who lives every moment to the full.
Here are two of my favourite poems:
Johannesburg was a baby
born with teeth
that bit the midwife
as it struggled to light.
A thousand people heard her scream
and walked across moons to find
what lay beyond the known fields
of their dismembered history.
They are still waiting
to find out what gold tastes like.
The everyday wife
Lover, you hold me
in the palm of your hand,
I lie in your pocket.
I am small change.
You spend me without thinking.
You will always have me.
You do not have to save me.
I am like
an everyday wife.
If we get committed we’ll probably go insane,
sweet nothings will become bitterly inane,
bond becomes mortgage, lead-lined shoes
vows repeated solemnly, death by noose.
I think we should rather
Phillippa, your poetry is very energetic, if I could describe it that way. There is a tremendous sense of power behind your words. In fact, I would say that you use words athletically. I know that you also like to “perform” much of your poetry. There are a number of poems - "Sixty Nine Bullets" for example - which I can see are perfect for this sort of platform. Here is an extract:
- I was on my way to the shop
- I saw this chap I like
- He’s all fire, his skin and eyes
- Are copper weapons, blazing in the turning sun
- I go soft in his hard eyes, can’t stop smiling
- Oh, it was still quiet when I came past
- And he told me to go home
- Things could get nasty
- Then he smiled and said
- Let’s meet
The poem "The Guest" is another one with an evocative energy. This is another extract:
Then one day I got a visitor.
A dark stranger
stood framed in the blue rectangle of the doorway
with two creatures at his feet; one with three heads,
the other whining, its jaws dripping pools
of mucus mixed with blood.
Is it sick? I asked.
He nodded. His eyes were empty and desperate.
We’re hungry and we need to rest
Is there any reason your style has developed such an energetic form?
There was a lot of emotional repression in my upbringing, so I think all that energy lay in wait for the chance it would get to express itself. Initially writing was about healing for me. It was a kind of therapy that I gave to myself. Then, as I progressed and learnt the craft, I realised that this emotional energy was actually a great gift, especially to the making of poetry. So I guess I’ve worked it into my creative process, even though it was always there. But I guess part of being a writer is being explicit about your choices and having greater access to your motivations and your deeper metaphors.
Many of your poems have a blistering awareness of innocence lost. I can’t help but assume you suffered a tremendous betrayal of some sort during your childhood to make your loss of innocence such a brutal experience. "Going Down There", in particular, talks about your enduring repeated rapes while you were a very young child. Would you mind talking about this extreme betrayal?
I was adopted, so in a sense I lost my innocence before I got a name. The adoption is the happy ending to a real fairy tale of abandonment. Most of us never find the words to describe that first event, because the wound is so deep it can really destabilise a person. You can really lose your way. The first thing you learn is how to charm, how to be the perfect baby so that you will be the chosen one. That becomes part of your personality. And I think the loss of innocence happens in the way that your acceptance by your new family is conditional. As I said in the poem, I was raped on a number of occasions during my childhood. I didn’t understand what was happening, so therefore I did not speak about it. A condition of my adoption was that my race (my father is Ghanaian) had to be a secret. Secrets were thus woven into my sense of myself. I was a walking taboo! By this I mean much of my experience was silenced. Meeting Myesha Jenkins, Khosi Xaba, Napo Masheane and Lebo Mashile changed my life. The Jozi House of Poetry was a wonderful session where sisters were encouraged to speak. I realised that many had had the same challenges. I started reading my poetry there and it gave me confidence to enter competitions and publish. I also want to do more to help others write and publish. I wish our Department of Arts and Culture could do a kind of mini Crossing Borders to help us develop younger or less experienced writers.
How did you decide on writing as your means to deal with all that life has thrown at you? If I’m not mistaken your childhood was also quite traumatic. Your play was on in Grahamstown in the Masonic Hall next to my production of In-Gene-Uity last year. I was told by someone who’d seen both our plays that they dealt with the search for identity by adopted children in very different ways. Would you mind telling me a bit about your play and why you chose to dramatise this aspect of your life? Did it help you come to terms with the whole issue?
As a child I kept a diary and wrote poems, some of which were published in school magazines. When I was six I wanted to be a writer, an actress and a cocktail waitress. (I’m still working on that final dream.) Everyone was always telling me to write my story. During 2005 I was on a mentorship programme called Crossing Borders. This was the first time I ever had feedback on my work. I was writing poems about being adopted for the first time in my life at 39! I’d tried so often to write my story, but it was so complicated and I could never end the damn thing. So with the boost of confidence that Crossing Borders gave me, I sat down and wrote a play called Where the Children Live in ten days. It was short-listed for the Pansa Scriptwriting Festival and we got to do a staged reading of it. It was a two-hander, but was very dense and quite impossible to stage. The following year I got funding from the NAC to develop it into a show for Grahamstown, but that was still impossible – the money was far too little. So with my director Robert Colman as my guide I rewrote the play as a one-woman show. The story is that of a black child adopted into a white family who absolutely refuse to deal with the fact that she is black. It is set in the1960s and ’70s, the height of the apartheid era. In the ’80s she runs away from her white home and gets involved in student politics. In the ’90s she finds her biological father - I found mine in 1999 - and enters her black identity fully for the first time. I wanted to find out why racial identity is so important and I dealt with the issues in my play via my experiences. It led me to explore the ideas of shame and secrecy that were created by the policies of the Nationalist government and still have echoes in ordinary people’s lives. It showed me that rage has redemptive qualities. The outrage against apartheid gave us our freedom and helped the world to understand that racism is inhumane and wrong. But when it gets out of control it turns into necklacing and mob violence. All these things are part of my experience. I would say that I understand our society better and I understand myself and my family more through having written and performed the play. It will be on again at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square in Sandton in August.
When do you decide to work through an issue using poetry and when do you decide to use drama? Have you ever written a novel, and if not, do you think you’ll ever use that medium to express your feelings?
Writing used to be the place that I could fully be. Now it’s a job and I prefer it that way. I can express my feelings openly to the people around me. I don’t have to write them a letter. I think this is progress! Because I learnt to work through poetry, it taught me some basic rules that are also spiritual principles for me these days:
1. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
2. Distinguish clearly between what you need and what you want. Know
the difference, because sometimes you are driven by something that you think you need, but you just want it. You can change that.
Because emotions are the engine for my work, they usually express themselves in poetry. The poetry writes itself. I am just the pen. I want to write more prose, though, so the opportunity to contribute to Home Away was great. The short story I wrote for the Pen Studinski Prize last year was short-listed and published too. I do have a strong desire to write about fictional characters and to become a better writer. I want to write a novel some day when my attention span is longer. I really want to write a big play based on Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment and set in Jozi. I am constantly worrying about money. I don’t have a day job, so much of my writing is driven by the need to eat. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I am not a Trustafarian (trust fund beneficiary!). I keep applying for jobs that I don’t get, so I think I’ll have to do the best with what I have. I’ve also been given great opportunities to edit and mentor. I have been mentoring a young PhD student and helped to compile an anthology of African poetry to be translated into Chinese. That is the bread and the butter. No jam for the moment, but there have been really enriching experiences!
You also seem to have a deep awareness of the passage of time. Your poem "The Middle Promise" deals with aging and the begetting of wisdom. Here is an extract:
In the beginning we are promised nothing but
the firm hunger of our perfect bodies, and
at the end, the aches, the dreams of bones,
mortal wisdom as a final breath,
the gift of the living to the gifted dead.
"Hell in a Handbag" and "What the Dead Say" also touch on the frailty of life. I believe all good writers should have an awareness of the skull beneath the skin. Where do you think your awareness of the transience of life comes from? Does it enhance or hinder your work?
I’m interested in desire and sometimes time is your friend and sometimes it’s not. I think that the years after forty are a very rich time in a woman’s life. You say goodbye to your eggs, which is very sad, but you enter society without the troublesome bother of your sexuality being so important. I have experienced a lot of loss in my life, so I guess it has taught me that the time that we have is all that we have. So I’m packing my time with life and love and intensity. Sometimes feelings of loss can be so overwhelming that you can’t write. At times like that you have to mourn and then you can go back when you’ve done that work.
You have obviously travelled a lot, as you write about the awareness of being in the USA, for example, and feeling anger at their prejudiced attitudes towards Africa ("Tissue Paper"). Can you tell the readers of LitNet more about your experiences overseas?
Travelling expands your possibilities. I was very privileged because my adoptive mother took me travelling with her from a young age. I developed a love of nomadic peoples and their philosophies through exploring her world to a large extent. She was a physical anthropologist. Travelling and reading became completely interchangeable to me. Writing was the practical manifestation of going on a journey. There was always this sense of trying to give someone who was far away an idea of where I was and what I was doing. Travelling to Cuba was an absolute watershed moment in my life. It changed the way I viewed everything and unplugged my inner critic. It also linked me to the world community of writers. Now I get opportunities to travel and someone else is paying the ticket, so that’s great! The Harare International Festival of the Arts is one of the best festivals in the world and I loved it for the sake of meeting Zimbabwean writers and for the very high standards that it expected from all of us. I would like to explore Africa more, but I don’t mind going to Denmark in August for the worldwide words festival or to Shanghai for the Biennale in October. That is all fine for me! Each time I travel I come home with poems and stories. It’s also so lekker to stay in a hotel and let someone else cook.
Motherhood has been a very grounding experience for me. It seems to be the same for you. In "Origin" you talk about the sense of belonging that a child brings to a person. Have you found that you’re a different person since having had your child? Do you think your poetry would have been different if you hadn’t had children? In what way has his birth changed you?
Absolutely. His life has given me a focus beyond my own contradictions and conflicts. Having a child is like having a second chance every single day. He’s very light-skinned, so we have some old apartheid ghosts rearing their heads sometimes. When he was a baby a woman asked me why I was breastfeeding the madam’s child! It’s great to have a relationship that is not legislated. It has to be one of the greatest human freedoms, one that we should celebrate and protect.
Do you think poets ever feel completely at peace? I ask this because your poetry analyses your life and relationships ruthlessly and restlessly. You seem to have a desperate need to find an ultimate truth through your words. I wonder if peace is ever possible for someone who asks so much of life. Do you think poets and artists are forever meant to be outsiders and observers? Is this our gift so that we can look upon our milieus as visitors, in a way, and be detached so as to give an accurate account of the world? And is this also our curse in that we’ll never feel that everything is quite as it should be?
I think that if we demand an ultimate anything from life we will be disappointed or else become calloused and cemented into buckets of bitterness. I want my poetry to be sharp as a sushi knife and I want it to open the reader’s mind to their own memories and dreams. I want the words to be transparent. That’s what I am striving for. I try to tell my truth as generously as I can. Then I let it go, because when we hold on to emotions we make ourselves sick. My poems are temporary sculptures of my inner flow.
I also feel that the condition of dissatisfaction and being an outsider and proudly holding on to one’s own island of grief and revelation and never being satisfied with the world is cunningly undermined by parenthood. Because if you want your child to be well-mannered and socialised to some extent you have to live by what you preach and you have to have the grace to accept life as it comes. You have to learn tolerance for team sports and organised religion and the web of compromises that society daily demands that you adhere to.