The award-winning Maneo Mohale on why queer poetry is the new black

Maneo Mohale just won the 2020 Glenna Luschei Award for African Poetry for their debut book. They speak to Eyewitness News about healing, love and why poetry will always be relevant.

South African poet Maneo Mohale. Picture: Andile Buka.

JOHANNESBURG - Maneo Mohale recently won the 2020 Glenna Luschei Award for African Poetry for their debut collection Everything Is A Deathly Flower.

The Glenna Luschei Award, named after US American philanthropist and poet Glenna Luschei, is said to be the only pan-African book prize of its kind, which awards African poetry written in English or in translation by recognising a significant book published each year by a poet on the continent.

Mohale is a South African editor, feminist writer and poet. Their work has appeared in various national and international publications, including Jalada, Prufrock, The Beautiful Project, The Mail & Guardian and, to name a few. They also served as a contributing editor for The New York Times and i-D.

Eyewitness News caught up with Mohale and talked about their poetry journey.

Palesa Manaleng: When did you fall in love with poetry?

Maneo Mohale: I've loved poetry since I started reading! I've been so fortunate to grow up in a home where both my parents and my older sister Tshepiso encouraged my appetite for books and stories.

I also sensed the poetry in my grandparents' stories and oral traditions, the colour and cadence in how we spoke to one another. Sesotho is a very poetic language, though I speak and understand it imperfectly.

I really leaned into writing poetry after I encountered South African poets like Gabeba Baderoon, Makhosazana Xaba, Chris van Wyk, Don Mattera and Keorapetse Kgositsile.

Then, poets closer to me in age and experience, like Genna Gardini, who wrote the incredible collection Matric Rage. I remember reading Genna's Performance Scale in an anthology with such awe, and then immediately thinking: "I want to do that!".

PM: How long did it take you to write this book? Did you write it all at one or did you have times when you just couldn't?

MM: I wrote Everything is a Deathly Flower over two very difficult years: five years of healing, two years of writing. It was stop and start, but ended with a giant push in Durban by myself for a few weeks. I had 50 poems initially, written over two years.

Once I worked with my incredible editor Francine Simon, she paired them down to 31. There were many times I thought I would never finish, but therapy helped so much, as well as the unconditional love I received from my chosen families and loves.

PM: Why did you choose poetry instead of another medium to tell your story?

MM: I initially wrote about my experience as a survivor of queer sexual assault in long-form, as an essay, first published in Bitch Magazine. Though I really appreciated the platform and opportunity to write in that medium, I wanted a medium that could hold some complexity and contradiction found in my story. I wanted to tell a facet of the truth in a way that freed me a little. Poetry does that. It has such space to tell secrets, to shine light while also casting shadow over meaning. It lets me dance towards meaning, instead of marching towards it.

PM: This book of poetry is about healing after a sexual assault. How did putting it on paper help you through the journey?

MM: It both helped and didn't. It helped in the sense that I was able to produce something complex and beautiful. But also didn't, in the sense that it wasn't this perfectly cathartic experience. It was painful and remains painful. But I love it very much, as a reminder to myself that healing is a lifelong thing, not a momentary epiphany.

PM: What was the scariest part of healing for you?

MM: Letting go. Letting this book go was terrifying. After it was published in 2019, the story wasn't just mine anymore, and that prospect terrified me. I was afraid of what people would think, how they would hold the book. But I've received such tenderness and gratitude for sharing this tiny facet of my story, and so I'm very grateful for the way the book is moving through the world without me.

PM: Poetry is such a personal thing, especially with this kind of subject. How did you decide to share your quiet spaces with the world?

MM: By telling secrets! Poetry is like speaking in code, or writing in invisible ink, or setting a puzzle for yourself and for your readers. It still feels really personal, because it's so full of secrets. As a poet, I wrestle with the desire to be known and understood, and the twin desire to hide forever and ever and ever!

PM: What were you hoping to achieve with this anthology?

MM: I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that despite the horror of the violence that I experienced, that I was still capable of making beautiful things. I also wanted to prick the silence around queer sexual assault, to lift my voice in a growing chorus of survivors, so that we all feel a little less alone.

PM: Did you achieve it?

MM: I think so! I'm very proud of these little poems.

PM: Your book was shortlisted for the Ingrid Jonker Prize for English Poetry. You just won the Glenna Luschei Award for African Poetry, judged by one of our own great, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. What goes through your mind when you see your name among the top poets on the continent and in the world?

MM: Sheer joy, disbelief, and gratitude. I'm still pinching myself. It's wild.

PM: Every writer has "that award" they would love to win. What is it for you?

MM: I really, really, REALLY want a Lambda Award. Oh my word, yes. Phew. Yes!

PM: There seems to be a growing number of people who are reading and sharing poetry, especially on social media. We saw internationally that poets are being arrested, some killed, like in the case of Myanmar. Where do you see the most impact of poetry on people?

MM: Poets are dangerous because we ask people to look at the world with different eyes, to ponder meaning and justice and love, to consider both the quotidian and the profound. Poets have been doing this for as long as humans could speak and write and draw. I see poetry's impact everywhere, and this makes me really
proud to be a student of this medium, hopefully for the rest of my life.

PM: In a digital world, does poetry look and feel different to what it has been – lengthy books of anthologies?

MM: Absolutely! As long as humans have the capacity to innovate, poetry will evolve in pace with the evolution of such innovation. I'm here for all of it, the page poets, the stage poets, the TikTok poets, the griots, the praise-singers, all of us!

PM: What about black, queer poetry - will we be seeing it taught at schools any time soon?

MM: Absolutely! It already is. I'm thinking about luminaries such as Koleka Putuma (Collective Amnesia, Hello Bu Bye Koko Come In), who has been translated and taught all over the world, and more recent voices like Kopano Maroga (Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations), who should absolutely be taught at schools and varsities everywhere. I'm looking forward to the proliferation of more voices, especially black trans and queer writers.

PM: What kind of writer are you? Do you wait to feel the wave of inspiration, or you just sit at your desk and write until you created magic?

MM: I try my best to be disciplined in my writing practice. I admire the discipline and output of writers like Akwaeke Emezi, and look to them whenever I need to ignite a fire underneath me. Though lately, I'm being as gentle with myself as I can, while riding waves of inspiration and energy. I'm grateful that I'm learning to slow down a bit, and take care of my mental health with tenderness and lots of self-forgiveness.

PM: We see a few poets collaborate on projects, some using animations and sound, turning their poetry into multimedia projects. What do you think of those kinds of projects?

MM: I love that! Poetry plays well with other children, so I love it when poets collaborate across media.

PM: Any collaborations from you we can look out for?

MM: A few! I was recently asked by the Goodman Gallery to write an ekphrastic prose poem based on the late photographer David Goldblatt's work. It was really challenging, but I feel like I pushed myself to find a space where I could articulate something powerful and complicated, based on his photography.

PM: What’s next for Maneo?

MM: More writing, more nerdiness, more work, and lots of naps.

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