22 April 2014

Writers' Blog Tour: My Writing Process

Nadine Tomlinson
I was very pleased when writer and storyteller Nadine Tomlinson asked me to be part of this Writer’s Blog Hop Tour. And not least because of where Nadine is from. There’s something about those islands that produces writers who know what they’re talking about as well as how and why. Nadine is mainly at http://nadinetomlinson.com. I wasn’t sure I could do it and I was right. I’m already a day late, through the fault of my family who organized a trip over the Easter weekend without telling me there was no wi-fi connection where we were going. But here I am, a day late, thankful to be part of this venture and especially appreciative that Nadine thought to ask me.

I have known Nadine for quite a while over the years and our relationship has always been sweet and literary. She likes books and so do I, we like the same authors and seemingly the same poems. I thank you, Nadine, for giving me this opportunity to acknowledge you and to say a little something about myself. The following are reflections based on questions that I have been posed as part of the exercise.

What are you working on?

I’m mainly working on a manuscript to my second book of poems. It started with poems that didn’t go in the first book and picked up from there. I find that three things still command my attention when I write: home (Lesotho), the untimely deaths of my brother, nephew and father, the first two by violent political death at 17 and 3, and the latter by illness, and I also write about religion. I can write about them all except for religion, which I don’t know how to approach. To date I must have two or three poems about religion that I consider poems.

The manuscript is tentatively called Waslap (washcloth) because when my dad passed away one of his belongings I took and still cherish is his waslap, which I wash myself with. Here is the 'title poem':

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.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I write poems, and by definition poems are personal. That does not mean they have to be reclusive in any way, or cater to a small, similarly minded minority. It means they come from a personal experience. A poem about a pencil cannot or at least should not be the same as another poem about a pencil by another writer. Even twins should not be able to write similar pencil poems because despite the fact that they are the same person they can't have had similar experiences in life. Or, to put it in other words, any poet wouldn't have written the same poems if they had lived elsewhere and been brought up under different “rules”.

But further than that, my poems want to reach the reader directly, by exposing themselves without any—not metaphor or other poetic tools—but holding back, or inviting the reader to ferret the feeling. I try to write the poem that I would have enjoyed reading myself, communicative poems as learned by reading Geoffrey Philp, Rustum Kozain, Pamela Mordecai, Derek Walcott, and before them, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath (What a thrill!/My thumb instead of an onion./The top quite gone/Except for a sort of hinge). In this way I do not try to imitate them but simply learn and try to understand why their poems make me tick. Then find what it is in me that will make me tick in a similar way.

Why do you write what you do?

I think it is important for my people (pardon the cliché) to know who we are, what we have done, and as a result where we need to go. My poems are not history, they are personal history that necessarily involves a nation, the Basotho nation, and wider than it, the African nation. In my reading process I do not hesitate to read everyone from everywhere because I read for pleasure and I read to learn: why is this poem good? But my writing is more restricted because my experience is. I write so that the demons come out into the open where they can be dealt with. I write so that the world may know about us, the good and the ugly. I write so that I may live.

How does your writing process work?

I don’t really have a process. I may write a sentence that needles me (Many butterflies in Ladybrand today,/as many as snowflakes in a blizzard) because I lived it, or because I saw a poster in the Paris underground. And it starts from there. Sometimes I have to put a book I’m reading down and grab my notebook because a line or two is being born in my head from the situation in the book I’m reading.
Then I tend to work on the resultant poem a lot, re-reading and revising, and listening for chimes and other ideas that may come along as I go on.

Next week, the blog tour continues with…
I’m afraid I haven’t got any writer to share at present. I apologise for this and blame my family once more for taking me to a heavenly place in the north of France where there was no wi-fi at all!


Nadine Tomlinson said...

I enjoyed learning about your writing process, Rethabile. And what a powerful treat those poems were! I'm glad that you included them. Wishing you great success for your new book!

Rethabile said...

Thank you, my sister. Joy to you too.

Michelle Elvy said...

A beautiful post with a tender poem for your father. I enjoyed this very much. I like the rumination on the personal aspect of poetry, how every persona and every poem will draw on unique experiences to make that poem different. I shall have to write a poem about a pencil and see how it turns out! And I greatly look forward to the book when it is complete!

Rethabile said...

Thank you for your comment, Michelle.

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