Hailing from South Africa, this week in the final Women and Words interview is Siphokazi Jonas.
Siphokazi is a storyteller, and ordinary lives fuel her work in poetry and in the theatre. Her experience of growing up in Komani, in the Eastern Cape, during the transition years of South Africa’s democracy, has an on-going influence on the kinds of stories which she tells. Her work engages questions of faith, identity, gender-based violence, cultural and linguistic alienation, black women in rural spaces, and the politics of the everyday. Siphokazi’s engagement with writing and performance extends to the academic field. Until 2017, she worked as a tutor and Teaching Assistant at the University of Cape Town. Here she taught on the history of isiXhosa praise poetry, performance poetry, and South African literature. Further, she runs short-term poetry workshops with schools in Cape Town and Johannesburg. She also guest teaches a spoken word and class at an elementary school in Gainesville, Florida.
“I started writing poetry when I was 14 and spoken word when I was at university. I started really taking the combination seriously and more professionally in 2012 but I have only been working as a full -time writer and performer since January this year. I have a BA in English and Drama as well as an MA in English Literature.” – Siphokazi Jonas
What drew you to poetry?:
I can’t really say. I just remember the realization that I did not ony have to read and perform other people’s poetry at eisteddfods in high school. My English teacher really encouraged and supported me through this process.
How would you describe your poetry to someone who has never encountered you as a poet?:
Stylistically it is really hard to say. It is easier to classify myself as a spoken word poet than it is to unpack the form of my writing.
In an ideal set up, after one of your performances what is going through your audience’s minds as they leave?:
It depends really on the intent of the gathering but one thing that is key for me is to leave people with hope and a shift in thinking.
You have performed at the P4CM Rhetoric, how was that experience for you and what sort of impact has it had on your art?:
I really enjoyed it! It was a little nerve-wracking at first as I was stepping into such an established institution but by the end, it was definitely a wonderful experience. I think that it made the world smaller for me. Some ideas which I had about the impact of spoken word in the US in particular, changed. I realized that we truly have something special to offer on this continent and we need to nurture it and step up our place on the globe. Africa is more than sufficient as a source of inspiration.
What are some of the constrants you have faced on your journey as a poet?:
There are numerous. The key ones are staying sharp in your craft and working hard to be better. The second is a little more pragmatic and has to do with people respecting the value of the craft and compensating it accordingly. Some poople want what our work offer and love how it makes them feel, but they don’t want to pay for the time, skill, and effort that goes into it.
How have you remedied them?:
The first is easy – by reading, watching poetry events and other art forms, spending time (working on my 10 000 hours) learning from others.
The other is a larger culture of attitude towards the arts. So it is hard to overcome but I am learning to understand the value of my work and to say No when it is being exploited. It is, however, not always easy.
Page to podium workshops help poets embrace the stage, other than this what do you think can be done to make poetry a mainstream art form in South Africa?:
I am not sure whether poetry will ever be as mainstream as something like music. I think even within music, there are genres that are more popular than others, and that shifts. For example, Kwaito was huge in SA but the musicians with the biggest influence right now seem to be hip hop artists. I think poetry is, however, on the rise. It is integral that we build audiences and readers for poetry. That must then be coupled with a continued improvement of the standard of the work which we produce.
Is the notion that poetry as a genre of the creative arts can be very selective of its audience because not everyone has an understanding of it valid in your experience?
I’ve not thought about this in that way. I have had good experience but perhaps partly because my poetry is concerned with people. It is not impossible that the opposite could be true.
Who would you say has been your biggest influence?:
This shifts quite a bit so I will share what is of interest to me right now: I am currently trying to tap more into the form of praise poetry. There are also some Biblical texts which fascinate me such as the book of Job, I have been reading that a lot. Alysia Harris is always a favourite as is Gabeba Baderoon. I am also sampling a bit more by reading anthologies rather than just one body of work.
Do you follow any trends when it comes to your spoken word performances?:
Not particularly. As I work in the theatre as well, I am always finding ways for fusion and overlap and developing forms. The production I am working on now, Around the Fire draws on poetry, theatre, and music to tell stories from all three forms.
If asked to give a poetic interpretation of the South African poetry scene what would it be?
A cracked window, leaking as much as it holds.
Who is Siphokazi in one word?:
Asemrowend. (‘Breathtaking’ in Afrikaans and one of my favourite words.)
Each voice has an ear; tell us YOUR story.
You can find Siphokazi Jonas on her social media:
Facebook page: Siphokazi Jonas
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.