Five Questions With...Rethabile Masilo
- The poems in your collection re-enact
various rituals. What is the connection between ritual and poetry?
Ritual is an anchor. After wandering, it brings me back home to where I started, where I feel safer, and where I get re-energized. Although I recognize the benefits of leaving the nest, just about everything that has remained a deep part of me was learned at those initial rituals. Playing morabaraba with my brother taught me tactic and patience. Performing chores at home gave me a sense of responsibility. Worshipping put me firmly in a group. All these have left in me images that never tire of giving and of being my starting blocks.
And so I suspect it is for other poets. The importance of getting out of one’s safe zone does not mean a whole lot if there is no safe zone to begin with.
- "Janice's Poem" is one of my
favorites. Can you explain the personal significance of this poem?
The poem started as an ode to woman, a woman who loves and is loved, who works to see to the needs of her family, a woman who is good, who is sexy. But I abandoned the poem because it refused to come together, until a dear friend of mine lost his wife, who was just such a woman. I had forgotten about the poem but as soon as I heard the sad news it came roaring back and came together in a few hours, almost as it stands today.
The poem is for Janice specifically; but Janice was the woman I think all women ought to be, and knowing her, however little, was enough to write over the fragments I had scribbled into that pre-poem.
It is a farewell poem, to be sure, but in many ways it is also a poem of realization, of coming to terms. Woman is misrepresented in my corner of Africa and in other parts of the world, despite the fact that she does most of the work. I wanted to show her in that light: undertaking, loving, lovable, altruistic, pretty… yet undermined. I think the poem initially refused to budge because I wanted her to be African. Janice came along and took the poem and turned it universal by representing the loss of what is dear to us all, and she did it, in her passing, in the form of woman. In her, as a result, I lost a sister and a mother and a friend and a friend’s love, all of them embodied in her person.
If anyone were to ask me, I would tell them that, yes, Janice's Poem is the most complete poem I have ever written. Complete because I wouldn't move or replace one comma.
When I finally stood back and looked at the poem, after finishing it in a frenzy, I phoned Janice's husband and expressed my sympathy. And knew then the power of such feelings in poetry as well as in life.
- Originally from Lesotho, you studied at
Maryville College, and you now live in Paris. How have these travels
influenced your poetry?
My father went to prison when I was nine, and the events of that period, the raid on our home, the sight of father hauled away, my brother later being killed, my nephew being killed, and the inevitable flight into exile, will always stay with me and nourish my thoughts.
Between my father's prison stint and our exile, I learned poetry (praise poetry, essentially) as a young boy. All boys learn it in Lesotho. Traditionally, teenage boys go up into the mountains for a long stretch, a few months, to learn how to be men and husbands. Some call it initiation school. I choose to call it school or traditional school at worst. There they learn fighting skills (A Sesotho stick-fighting art called lekallo), how to be a father, a husband, a provider, a singer and a poet.
I did not have that privilege because I was busy learning my ABCs, but when I was in high school we organized a mock traditional school with the help of older boys who had lived it. And suddenly I found myself learning how to sing and how to recite poetry. While at the same high school, a lady teacher introduced us to a volume of mainstream African poetry from East and West Africa, and read it to us whenever she could. Her voice and her lips have a lot to do with my poetic interests today.
In Maryville, TN, at Maryville College, I encountered Frost, cummings, Whitman, Wheatley and other American poets. One of my teachers told me I had to be studying English literature instead of biology. I switched. I was hooked. Then I met my then fiancée, and proceeded to write a poem a day and slip it into her mailbox. She became my wife a few years later. There was a vibrant varsity rag and I submitted to it, poems about the plight of Africa mainly, and read other poems by fellow students. My stay at that institution served to turn me from a rhymester into an aspiring poet.
Paris brought children and a new family, but also this permanent distance from Lesotho and from sibling and parent. I longed for them as I still do, and attempted to transform that longing into poetry. In essence, Paris closed the loop and took me back to Lesotho to connect with my roots and with the reasons I was in Europe in the first place. But it was also in Paris that I started "computering" and blogging, and being exposed to an even wider spectrum of poets and poems. It became much easier to find and bookmark favorite poems without the burden of having to buy books. That, to a young man looking for work in a foreign land, was a blessing.
- How has living through pre- and
post-Apartheid South Africa affected your life and poetry?
When I was in high school we would enact a show for our year-end function. I was involved in representing a freedom fighter, which meant learning their gallows speech and reciting it in front of school mates and parents. We would wear torn jeans and rub dry grass into our hair, as if we were rubbing the struggle itself like oil into our hair. We had to look haggard. I remember my dad eyeing me proudly as I recited Mandela's trial defense speech, which I had learned by heart. Today I retain the kernel of it: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. And no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” Or perhaps that is from the 1955 Freedom Charter. I realized early on that all people are born equal, and failed to understand why, if I was black, I was bad. That, too, was the beginning of my questioning religion, although this quest is today represented by only one poem in Things That Are Silent.
Why did my father and uncles, these stern, sure, steady men, have to bow to white boys? I also went to prison in South Africa for pass laws, and learned the life lessons of being patient and subtly educational. I realized that most white folks were indeed not to blame, but truly believed they were superior, believed that I was inferior, for having been taught so. They had to be educated not through morality lectures, but by example. And greater people have died doing exactly that.
When I went to the USA I immediately preferred outright racism to hidden racism. I found that the latter was more difficult to deal with, whereas in South Africa I knew that the white person approaching me thought themselves superior and an enemy. This affected me profoundly because it was to me the revelation that racism was evolving, instead of going away. I discovered that it never does go away, but instead adapts. And this was reinforced when I came to France where the practice remains, in the denial of jobs, the locking car doors when I pass, the being singled out for a pat-down in the metro, and the being systematically asked to show ID when writing a check.
Experiencing pre- and post-Apartheid helped me in several ways, if only to see myself as part of a larger group, getting me to look beyond the conventional wisdom of that time to people reaching for eternal wisdom, Mandela, Sobukwe, Brutus, Fischer, Tutu, who assured me that I was OK. I have wanted to write a Mandela poem for as long as I can remember, but have so far failed. The repeated attempts, however, generate ideas and images, and I will not despair. After all, Janice's Poem is there to encourage me.
- In the introduction, you mentioned two
American poets, e.e. cummings and Robert Frost, whose work occupies the
opposite ends of the poetic spectrum. What did you learn from these two
Frost taught me to play tennis with the net up, and cummings to play it with the net down. Both approaches are valid, as long as the absence of a net entertains the audience, too. I read so much Frost that for some time I couldn't write anything but a sonnet. Or a couplet. I am grateful. Cummings taught me imagery of tongue and eye. I still remember one of his earlier poems where he writes about a sparrow and watches its little "toe, toe, toe." That has stayed with me through the times.
Robert Frost also told me that a poet should have a local voice and be proud of it. When I hear him read “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy's inauguration, with his twang and expressions, and when I hear him in The Death Of The Hired Man write:
'When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,' he said.
'I told him so last haying, didn't I?
If he left then, I said, that ended it.
What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?'
I am transformed. I discovered that there was no need to conform, but that there was instead a need to be authentic to self. All his poems opened wide this idea to me, who had grown up among imitators of everything British. Frost more than anyone showed me that the language of the people is what makes poetry good, as much as cummings showed me that if a poem is good, it is good, no matter how it is written.
- What makes you laugh?
I tend to laugh at absurd situations, especially those involving folks who before then could not have imagined themselves in such fixes. I am never amused, however, when I think people laugh at me mockingly, or at another person mockingly. I think this is a remnant of my charged childhood and adolescence, when we were ridiculed solely on account of who we were. I laugh out loud in the middle of the night when all of a sudden I get a joke, or understand something that had eluded me until then. This used to happen a lot when I was new in France, due to the then language barrier.
I think we can laugh about everything as long as the joke isn’t cruel, and is funny. I laugh when I’m confronted with a silly dilemma, such as being asked an awkward question whose reply I know will hurt my interlocutor. This happens often with friends and family who do not understand my beef with religion and faith.
I laugh whenever I can. Happiness tickles me, a good day or a good picnic or a sumptuous braai. I laugh when the underdog gets the upper hand. In short, I laugh when nature or a circumstance places a banana peel on the path of the unsuspecting.
About Rethabile Masilo
Rethabile Masilo was born in Lesotho and currently resides in Paris, France. He is married and has two children. Rethabile left Lesotho in 1980 and moved through South Africa and Kenya, before being admitted to Maryville College at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. He studied biology and English literature there, met his future wife, and followed her to France where she was from. Rethabile has been published in Canopic Jar, Orbis, Bolts of Silk, and in several personal blogs. His first collection of poems, Things That Are Silent, was published in June 2012 by Pindrop Press. He blogs at Poéfrika and co-edits Canopic Jar.
For more information, please follow this link: Pindrop Press.