Dowling has judged plenty of poetry competitions and, as Aerodrome’s poetry editor for almost four years, has been responsible for choosing which poems we publish on the site. Many of these submissions give her the impression “that sometimes poetry is mistaken as an ‘easy’ genre, a place where you can dump your unprocessed, dully abstract or numbingly clichéd words for your readers (which readers?) to make sense of, using skills you yourself do not possess.
“I get a sense of entrants just slapping down on the page something that sounds like something they once heard being described as poetry,” she told me. “A bad poet will say ‘I am sad’, but give no life to that sadness, perhaps out of coyness. A bad poet thinks that poetry is a quick road to literary fame; that it can be churned out using the same tired old tropes over and over again. But poetry makes demands, some of them, admittedly, elusive.” She encourages aspirant poets to think about their readers. “Write for others. Subject your work to more rigorous editing; scour every word and every line for evidence of posturing and mendacity. Finally, know that not to read poetry, not to buy poetry, but to expect others to read or publish yours, is a sin.”
The poet and publisher Nick Mulgrew told me that poetry “does a lot of things for one’s psyche, whether through catharsis, expression, or just playing”.
While mainstream publishers in South Africa have largely shied away from publishing poetry recently, the 26-year-old Mulgrew’s uHlanga Press has released nine collections since 2014, with more on the way.
“I publish poetry because poetry, like any art form, has unique ways of exploring and illuminating ourselves and society, and without it being available to people, ourselves and society are poorer for it,” he says.
It’s encouraging that another new imprint, Dryad Press, was established by Michèle Betty and University of Cape Town creative writing professor Joan Hambidge this year; while Mzwakhe Mbuli — “the People’s Poet” — has founded the Mzansi Poetry Academy, which will be offering poetry classes from its base in Joburg’s CBD. Clearly, poetry is here to stay.