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Poetry: Rethabile Masilo – Lesotho


Interview

Flash Frontier: When did you start writing, and what attracted you to poetry?

Rethabile Masilo: I started reading a lot at a very early age. All my siblings did. Our mom was a primary school teacher and our dad was a journalist, so there were always books and newspapers in Lesotho and in English floating around. We read everything from Enid Blyton to the biographies of political figures.

I began writing short stories when I was in high school, in the mid-seventies. Our English teacher one day asked us to write a story for a class competition. I won, and he acknowledged it in front of the class, but later asked me where I had copied the story from. I stopped writing altogether, until he was replaced by a lady teacher who introduced us to poetry. She read it so well that I was hooked – and still kind of am.

FF: Your four books are titled: Things that are silent, Waslap, Letter to country and Qoaling. Can you tell us about those titles, and the meanings behind them?

RM: “Things that are silent” is a line in a poem about Michael Jackson. The poem is called Mr. Jackson and is in that book. “Waslap” means ‘washcloth’. Among my people, when a father passes away, his sons get to choose from among his belongings. When my dad passed away in 2010 one of the first things I chose was his waslap, which I took back to Europe where I live and washed myself with it. The emotion of doing so yielded several poems, one of which is called The waslap of my father. The title of the book came from there.

“Letter to country” is also the title of a poem in my first book. When I was working on my third book, people started getting shot in Lesotho, including Maaparankoe Mahao. I decided that the book would be dedicated to Lesotho and that a few poems in it would speak about what was going on: I wanted to write a letter to my country.

As for the last book, “Qoaling,” it got its name from the name of the suburban village we lived in when we were attacked by elements of the government in 1981. The attack, I need to say, has continued to shape my expression as a poet writing out of exile, first, and now writing as an out-of-home-country resident.

FF: How accessible should a poem be? How hard should a reader work to ‘get’ a poem?

RM: It is true that some readers think of poems as tools the author uses to hide some meaning in, and for the reader to find the meaning. I tend to mostly disagree. I somewhat agree because poets do have tool such as metaphors and similes and rhyme and rhythm and assonance and alliteration, which help to accentuate meaning by, instead of saying things, making the reader feel them.

But I disagree because a poet’s raison d’être is to convey feeling: fear, love, hate, joy and so on. As a result, the easier a reader is reached, the more successful a poem is, the more successful any piece of writing is. But the reader must make sure the reader is indeed reached. Robert Frost’s “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” sums this up well. In other words, this is how the writer knows their poem is meaningful and strong: it makes them tear up, or laugh, or love, or hate.

FF: Who are your favourite living poets?

RM: Many. Here is a reduced list: Rustum Kozain, Geoffrey Philp, Pamela Mordecai, Kwame Dawes, Warsan Shire, Billy Collins, Ruth Padel, and Derek Walcott (who passed away a few years ago but can’t not mention). These, and others, are poets whom I turn automatically to, and cannot read enough of. Among them, and usually individually, they embody everything I like in poetry. They are my mentors, so to speak.

FF: What advice would you give to someone who would like to write and publish poetry ?

RM: Reading widely is of the utmost importance. I usually say that 70% of writing time should be devoted to reading. This feeds the poet with sounds and with how sense can be made out of those sounds. And reading is just plain fun, which does help the writer to develop their own voice since little by little they discover what kind of reading reaches them.

I used to carry a note book. Today I use a notes app on my phone. I write what strikes me as cleverly said, as colourful language, as musical, etc. – a line or two or three. Recently I dictated a poem into my phone and got home elated that I had written a whole poem on my commute from work. Although some may call this kind of thing inspiration, I call it being prepared.

Many poems will have to be tweaked and revised – grueling but necessary work. Once a poem sounds ready, it’s time to try it out at an open mic event. I was lucky that in France I was welcomed by Spoken Word Paris and Angora Poets. That’s where I road-tested and still road-test many poems that end up in my books and in anthologies. On the way home, after a reading, I tweak. A live reading tells me where the tongue stumbles and where the audience gets lost.

Then the poem needs to be submitted to a magazine.

FF: How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?

RM: I know a poem is finished when it has attained, as much as possible, the euphoric feeling that sparked the poem. I say ‘finished’, but a poem is never finished… it is ‘ready’ to face the world. I have been known to tweak and revise poems that are already in books. And I agree with Charles Simic who has said, “Even when I’m stretched out in my coffin they may find me tinkering with some poem.”

Billy Collins, on the other hand, says many of his poems get done in one sitting, and that if they don’t, he usually discards them.

Thank you, Rethabile!


Four poems

 

White canes bend at two places, like fingers

Cities through fingertips inebriate me. Everywhere I travel lies this pavement defining the town with a kerb that may or may not curve to where I go. Patient, I like to try and see it with my cane, slightly slanted in the hand. Not a stick, a pen I use to trace my life again as I walk and tap or touch stone or brick or granite at my feet. No need to prove God or splendour. If you don’t listen well to night you may miss the bat that moves with rubber wing, and flickers round walls in a feeding frenzy. For the glory of everything belongs truly to the night, which holds day as dead retinas carry light, to watch life with previous sight. from “Things that are Silent, Pindrop Press, 2012

The waslap of my father

In my palm sits my father’s waslap, as I knew it would one day each time I saw him scrub himself with it in the zinc tub beside our hut, darkening the water with his mood. I wash myself with that waslap, wishing he were here to watch me, all growed up and whistling in the cold morning of winter. I gather it again and squeeze the water out of it the same way he always did, with might, because it is that, too, remembrance, nothing but a conquest of will that has made me the keeper of my father’s dreams, his pants and best cotton shirt that fit me, the hat he bought in Bloemfontein when there for work once, a belt. All fit and I wear them to parties to impress my friends. The day my father lay here in state on his back, shocked at what the world had done, I wet the waslap and dabbed his brow, before scrubbing him well from sternum and chest down to the legs. My father who said he was off somewhere and we should let him— I wonder, is he watching me now as I wring this out and put it on my head to dry, like a kippah, O cloth of memory; all his clothes go on me like a charm, except his shoes which are too big for me to wear. from “Waslap,” The Onslaught Press, 2015

Leaving home

The slow, soft rain beats on the head of my last days in Maseru, my mother and I sit across the table talking about another year. There is no animosity toward nature, as there was none against the sun of a few days before. We have forgiven. We said it out loud while looking at each other: “We forgive”. I think of sanity, in light emanating from her eyes. When I gaze out the window all I see is tomorrow, when this rain will be gone and the sun, too, stars which spent last night falling, as if this day needed fireworks. No, tomorrow must come. It is day turned upside down to show what hides within, a handbag shaken onto a table and its contents studied. I found a long lost Parker pen, dried at the nib. I’ve made a note to buy a bottle of ink. My mother found a lipstick she didn’t even know she had ever had, and put it on, our hands searching among old and new objects in quietness. Somewhere out there water took a badly placed object, maybe a drum, and rolled it down the street. A torrent was brewing. I knew I was searching for what could never be, when you want to be in two places at the same time. My hand moved over my mother’s and found peace in that. –28 December 2014 from “Letter to country”, Canopic Publishing, 2016

My mother’s calendar

We have learned to abide by our mother’s language and by her calendar, when we’re in her presence. Every time she mentions him it’s to relate a part of life to the years when he was with us. Old has become when your father was alive, and some of us have begun to speak her way too, the same way we began to love people after observing her. Now is since he died, and we even hear what she does not dare say: and left me behind. Our mother looks like her mother and my sisters look like her. The boys in my family all look like each other, and yearn to take after him. In the future, or soon, is fast becoming the day I am with your father and you are free at last, even though she set us free at birth just after she had handed each of us to the midwife for cleaning, and we had been returned to her arms for the first breakfast of our lives. from “Qoaling”, The Onslaught Press, 2018
Rethabile Masilo is a Mosotho poet who has lived in France for more than 30 years. He left his country as a refugee in 1981, eventually ending up in the USA where he continued his biology studies. He moved to France in 1987. Rethabile has published four books of poetry and two poetry anthologies. In 2014 his poem ‘Swimming’ from the book Waslap won the Dalro First Prize in poetry and the Thomas Pringle Award for Poetry in Periodicals a year later. The poem had first appeared in New Coin, Vol. 49 Number 1, in June 2013. In 2016 his second volume Waslap, published by The Onslaught Press, was awarded The Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. That same year in October Rethabile was invited to participate in the 20th Poetry Africa Festival in Durban. Masilo’s books are Things that are silent (Pindrop Press, 2012), Waslap (The Onslaught Press, 2015), Letter to country (Canopic Publishing, 2016) and Qoaling (The Onslaught Press, 2018).

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