‘I am proud that I surrendered to poetry in the ways I did’—Katleho Kano Shoro in conversation with Makhosazana Xaba

This is the second in a series of long-form interviews by Patron Makhosazana Xaba to be hosted on The JRB, which will focus on contemporary collections by Black women and non-binary poets. The first, with Maneo Refiloe Mohale, can be found here. In opening up a space for wide-ranging, erudite and graceful conversations, Xaba aims to correct the misdeeds of the past by engaging black women and non-binary poets seriously on their ideas and on their work.

Two previous long-form interviews, with Mthunzikazi A Mbungwana on her isiXhosa volume Unam Wena, and with Athambile Masola on her debut collection Ilifa, were published in New Coin last year.

Makhosazana Xaba (MX): What does reading Serurubele in 2023 feel like to you? It was published in 2017, and much has changed and much has stayed the same—I imagine—in the way you think about your poetry performance and writing, its art and craft. 

Katleho Kano Shoro (KKS): Before preparing for this interview, I had not read the whole of Serurubele since doing the once-off production of the collection in 2018. When I first received the collection, in August 2017, I wrote ‘Dear Katli, I am proud of you. You should be proud of you too and celebrate. A lot of you lives here. I love you. Kano’. Nevermind the part where I am speaking to myself as if Katleho and Kano are separable (this has since been resolved), what remains true is that many of my core, guiding beliefs and aspirations still live in this collection. For me, many times, the beliefs and aspirations choose the medium and therefore come before the impulse to perform or write, per se. For instance, I still believe that we cannot think of ourselves wholly as individuals who achieve things on our own or simply for ourselves—there are many who ‘keep the lights on’. To this end, what has stretched in me is my inclination to work collaboratively without needing to be the one on stage. Facilitating creative workshops especially at high school level as well as co-editing others’ poetry and scholarship around poetry has been a huge, joyous development for me in the past few years.  To come back to how I feel reading the collection: I am proud that I surrendered to poetry in the ways I did. I am grateful for all the things that this collection continues gifting me, two of which are: first, the courage and faith to do things I have never done and do not always fully understand upon doing them, and second, I have come to embody Serurubele—the poems and the concept of the butterfly and aesthetics—in ways that I could not have anticipated. It feels like an archive of Serurubele is growing through or in me.

MX: You are a ‘published performing poet’ at a time when very few performance poets choose to publish their work and at a time when there seems to be a generalised insistence on separating the two: poetry for the page and poetry for the stage. Please share your views and experiences of writing for the stage and the page and what it means for you to embody both as fully as you do.

KKS: I understand the stage and page as porous categories that often pour into one another—especially for those who read, perform or record their poems. For a few years, I was writing to perform while, simultaneously, performing to edit the writing. ‘Men of Fire’ is an unambiguous example of this. In 2016/2017 I went through a few drafts of the poem and it was through performing it over and over—bombing the first time, for sure—that a final draft came to life. The workshops that I took through CSP (Current State of Poetry) at Joburg Theatre really got me into this routine of testing out the written and performative quality of poems. I learnt so much about poetry from Vus’umuzi Phakathi, Sarah Godsell, Billy Langa and the other facilitators. What was salient in CSP workshops was how the stage and the page were not judged as separate but as complementary. I still grapple with questions like: How can subtleties that are obvious on the page be relayed onto the stage?  

The 2018 Serurubele production—directed by the brilliantly attentive Nondumiso Lwazi Msimanga—became another level of understanding my work through performance. Before, because I was immersed in slamming, I was wary of performing the same poems—I saw this as an intrinsic failure to be prolific. I have since come to learn how repetition provides the opportunity to layer one’s relationship and meanings with that which is written, or seems overly familiar. I hope to keep growing as a performer as much as I hope to keep growing as a writer.

MX: Your honours thesis was on performance poetry. What was the biggest lesson you learned from this academic project? How has this lesson continued to resonate with your poetry writing processes?

KKS: The thesis, Listening to the Voices at Home and Being at Home With Voice: Conversations Between Performance Poetry and Anthropology, forced me to grapple with what it means for scholars and others to claim a representative role over others or to speak for and about ‘othered’ people. More than this, the thesis removed any kind of delusion I might have harboured of some people being ‘voiceless’, and attuned me to seeing how conditions are created and maintained so that some people are muted, misrepresented and created in the image imagined by an apparently ‘objective’ intellectual. Poets consistently made the point that they were speaking and asked me to evaluate what my value is if that is the case. I was challenged as to who can be an intellectual and who deems one so. ‘Living Libraries’ comes from this line of thinking. The thesis helped me see multiplicity—as opposed to representative, stereotypical identities. Through this my ethics as a writer strengthened, I believe. 

MX: The colour-rich yet subtle cover of Serurubele was designed by two artists, Tammy Griffin and Karen Lijie. That’s not common. Why was this necessary? How did you work with these artists? 

KKS: Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books was at the forefront of choosing the artists. Karen handled the font and lettering while Tammy put the visuals together. All I had to do was offer a sense of what I wanted and what I wanted was for ‘Living Libraries’ to be the grounding poem and for butterflies to feature subtly. Tammy got the palette and visual influence from two South African butterflies, plus dunes, rivers and peaks. The font from Karen was meant to subtly reference butterfly antennae too. 

MX: Serurubele has so many poems about poetry (‘In the Name of Poetry’ and ‘The Poet and Her Habit’); about writing (‘Sesotho sa ka Will Not Be Written in Italics’ and ‘Pen’); and, about translating, reading, being read. Three of the thirty poems have the word ‘poem’ in the title. This gave me the impression that you are a deep reader who cares about the writing process and how you are read by others. Please say more about these topics and how they live in your thinking about and writing of poems.

KKS: Through, and as a consequence of, doing my honours research on poets, I kept thinking about what poets are doing when they say they are practising poetry as well as what the power, capacity and limitations of poetry are. ‘The Poet and Her Habit’, ‘Pen’, ‘Absent Performer’ and ‘A Poem’s Home’ are all partly meditations on the process of writing poetry, placing poetry and performing it. So, yes, it is about process but it is also about the contexts around poetry-making and sharing. For ‘Absent Performer’, for instance, the relationship is between the poet and her audience: what responsibilities she has to them, the ways they affect her performance—their co-presence that configures the poetry space, so to speak. 

Now ‘Sesotho sa ka Will Not Be Written in Italics’ is about where and how our languages are allowed to exist freely and where they are not—particularly within institutions. The poem is a frustrated response to a screenwriting course that obligated me to write all languages that are not English in italics. So just looking at a script, Sesotho and other languages were immediately ‘othered’ and made marginal. Poetry, in this instance, was where I could be frustrated—in ways that I had not been in the screenwriting course. 

MX: Playfulness is one of my favourite approaches to writing poetry and short stories. I enjoyed the playfulness in the poem ‘The Poet and Her Habit’. These lines were amusingly surprising:  

She urinated synonyms that smelt of colloquial diction
This morning she woke up hungover
From creating antonyms out of euphemisms
Now look at her,
Trying to concoct colours from simile and tautology 

What read like playfulness could of course be something completely different to you, the creator. I also sensed some irony. What inspired this poem? What did you want to achieve? How have readers responded to it? 

KKS: I actually don’t remember ever performing this poem or receiving feedback around it. Playfulness is certainly at its core. Again, this is me thinking about the poet’s work and how it can be interpreted. I reckon the narrator rolls her eyes at the end (that irony you point out) but she is also smiling because she may not always understand why the poet does what she does, but it is intriguing and something is happening there. I think sometimes it seems like the poet is a creature of frivolity, superfluity and unattainable dreams. Still, the poet creates because words create. The poet also necessarily plays. I appreciate how poetry asks me to play. 

MX: The poem ‘Spit not Swallow’ ends with the line: ‘We have become too comfortable with swallowing disasters’. My brain instinctively began listing these disasters: Marikana, Life Esidimeni, violence against women, loadshedding, e-tolls in Gauteng, infighting in political parties, state capture … and then, I turned off the autopilot in my brain and asked: what specific disasters inspired this poem? How does Shoro spit, in her role as a poet, a female bodied person and an intellectual? 

KKS: Poetry is often where many of my frustrations, sadness, comebacks, rage and desires for more are locatable. All of the disasters you have listed infuriate and sadden me but also sometimes make me feel helpless. Add Afrophobia, homophobia and all the other ways that people’s lives are made to seem as if they do not count as lives. As a black woman, especially since the murder of Karabo Mokoena, my fear has multiplied in intimate relationships and spaces. Still, the way that I ‘spit fire’ beyond poetry is within interpersonal spaces. I try to love and care and hold myself and others accountable as far as I can, as often as I can. I have limited faith that me, personally, going after big corporations and institutions is going to work to dismantle and decolonise. I think this work is necessary though and my scholarship says I am actually hopeful. Where I do have the most faith is in my ability to spit fire that warms and cooks within intimate, interpersonal relationships. I am trying to cultivate love and mutual honour in these spaces as much as I can—this is what black women have taught me and I buy into it. 

MX: I found what I will call a ‘touch of Pan-Africanism and a nod to decoloniality’ in the poem ‘A Young Debriefing on Sankara’ delightfully curious. The opening line reads: ‘Dear Thomas, Mr Sankara.’ Please respond to this poem by imagining you are Thomas Isidore Sankara and you have just read the poem. Start this poem of four stanzas with the words, ‘Dear Katleho, Ms Shoro’ and give it a fitting title. 

KKS: I do not have a poem. I have ambitious rough notes of Sankara speaking as a vessel and not a hero, him addressing me as one of many, talking to me about the Burkina Faso youth uprising in 2014, acknowledging women rising despite femicide, asking for compassion for parents who did their part towards making the world we live in, young people as martyrs and his bones being dug up when I tried to visit his grave. But this is all that I could muster—an idea for a poem I have no capacity to write and may never write.  

MX: The poem ‘Upright Men’, formatted upright, reminded me of Myesha Jenkins’s poem ‘Wannabes’ from her second poetry collection Dreams of Flight (2011). These two poems are on the ideal man, the kind of man South Africa seems to lack in abundance. What led you to write this poem and what is your reading of the differences and similarities between yours and Jenkins’s poem?

KKS: Around 2008 or 2009, I had another poem that was an unambiguous celebration of good black men—particularly my father. Then, I understood one of my responsibilities to be: making the point that ‘good’ black men (including present fathers) exist, as a response to the absent, aggressive, ‘bad’ black man narrative. I suspect this may have been one of Mama Myesha’s motivations too. That last line ‘I smile for the good black men that they are’ makes me believe so. Years later, when I wrote ‘Upright Men’, I could not simply reproduce a celebratory poem without complicating the idea of ‘good’, and my editor, Lauren Smith, also explicitly challenged me on this idea. When writing this poem, on the one hand, I had accumulated too much frustration, anger and sadness in my encounters with black men—those in close proximity and strangers—and with patriarchy in general. On the other hand, I had seen some black men in close proximity grappling with the toxic parts of their masculinity, challenging other men, acknowledging complicity through actions, and sometimes coming under patriarchal fire for doing this work. So, there is tension between frustratedly holding men accountable and hopefully accounting for the work that is being done and is possible. In the poem there is yearning and hope for deeper mutual vulnerability, love, listening, accountability, care and respect from black men towards black women, towards queer black humans, towards black children and towards themselves (and vice versa). I am also co-dreaming of this ‘Land of Upright Men/People’ with Thomas Sankara.

MX: The poem ‘How Do We Mourn Friendships?’ is a question we often do not answer, if we ask it all. I shared with you the affirming response from a friend after I’d shared the poem with them. Can you share two readers’ responses to poems in Serurubele, the most surprising and the most referenced?

KKS: According to poet and independent publisher Nkateko Masinga’s review:

A recurrent theme [in] this book is that of invocation. By definition, invocation means ‘the action of invoking something or someone for assistance or as an authority’ or ‘the summoning of a deity or the supernatural’. In this book, Katleho manages to do both of the above. In the first poem, titled ‘In the Name of Poetry’, Katleho calls upon poetry to roll out the proverbial welcome mat to readers […] The first poem is so welcoming and so affirming that the rest of the book feels like settling into a home that is both new and yet still yours.

Nadia Sanger, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University at the time of writing this review, wrote: 

At the launch, Shoro was interviewed by Dr Uhuru Phalafala of the SU English Department, giving a glimpse into this collection as a ‘deeply personal labour of love’, a long time in the making. Phalafala described Serurubele as a personal poetics of ‘decolonisation in practice’. The collection contains thought-provoking poems such as ‘Sesotho sa ka Will Not Be Written in Italics’ and ‘Living Libraries’. These poems centre on unsettling assumptions about English as a normative, expressive linguistic standard, and the energy of the poems carries the poet’s longing to re-root herself in Sesotho as a language of love—a language she loves. The poems also attest to language as a cultural archive, appreciating the fact that knowledge doesn’t necessarily need to be stored in a building.

One of my nieces, Lwazi, recently said the daughter–father poems resonate with her because of the love of jazz that she and her father share. The ability for parts of my work to resonate with family is a huge honour for me. 

MX: The poem ‘Daughter Notes’ planted a smile on my face. I also loved its brevity:

Jazz and soul soothe me and make me feel grown.
I think this means you soothe my soul and jazz up my growth.
I think I mean you are music.

The poem reminded me of the book To Breathe into Another Voice: A South African Anthology of Jazz Poetry (2017), edited by Myesha Jenkins. What are your views on and experiences of the relationship between poetry and jazz?  And between poetry and music generally?

KKS: This is such a big question so it might be easier to anchor it with my experiences of Ntate Abdullah Ibrahim. I grew up with my father playing jazz—among other genres of music. When we went to my grandparents’ home in Evaton, my uncle would be blasting Abdullah Ibrahim—never forgetting ‘Blues for a Hip King’. When I need to write for long stretches or when I need grounding, it is towards Abdullah Ibrahim that I often gravitate first. One of my first unpublished butterfly poems was written to his ‘The Wedding’. (I found it a sad melody until I read the title and from then on I have been fascinated with the interior worlds of jazz artists and their naming practices.) Thus, through his jazz, I constantly carry my uncle and my father and the music they have gifted me carries me through life. I found a poem Ntate Ibrahim wrote while he was still Dollar Brand titled ‘Africa, Music and Show Business: An Analytical Survey in Twelve Tones Plus Finale’. It is not surprising that jazz artists and other musicians would also write poetry. I think this is all to say that jazz—and music in general—is poetic, inspires poetry and sometimes captures feelings and intricacies as poetry does. 

Another way to answer your question is to say that hip hop let me understand that poetry can thrive as music. Speaking about the anthology, Ntate Pallo Jordan mentions the ‘musicality of poetry’, but I am also thinking about a saying that describes a poem as a resting song. But it was Mama Myesha Jenkins, Ntate Keorapetse Kgositsile and James Matthews who made me see most clearly how different art forms spill into, reinforce and inspire each other to thrive. And sometimes these forms are working towards the same cause. 

MX: Your MA thesis is titled Terms of Engaging and Project-ing Africa(ns): An Ethnographic Encounter with African Studies Through Curate Africa. It is a project on photography and curation in Africa. You describe the project objective thus: ‘The project aimed—conceptually and visually—to re-imagine, re-image and re-envision Africa from within Africa and through the lenses of Africans.’ Please write a poem that captures the essence of your findings from this research.

KKS:  I did not have the capacity to write this poem.

MX: Poet and professor Harry Olúdáre Garuba’s name appears in your thesis, and upon his death in 2020 you dedicated a poem to him titled ‘Between Colours, Senses, Words and Worlds: Harry Garuba’s Transition’. Please introduce those of us who have not read his poetry by describing his oeuvre. 

KKS: Within Harry’s poetry, I find laughter, loneliness, love and wounds. The despair he writes is always holding a single-stemmed rose of hope. There are many trees, suns, winds, spiders and webs. I feel like I am outside with his poetry—sometimes suffocated by battle and political mayhem and other times just indulging in the mundane imagery he presents. The land he writes is never quite passive: many times it is growing something we take for granted or absorbing blood or bullets. The complexities sit together in his poetry about Nigeria, about colonial histories, about love, about folkloric animals. When I first started reading his work, papers and poems, the word ‘animism’ would come up a lot. In a 2003 article on animism he wrote that the ‘animist unconscious’ allows for ‘continual re-enchantment with the world’. As I think of being Mokoena or embracing the concept of Serurubele, I am still trying to figure out what animism means to make sense of it in my own work (maybe). 

Side note: Harry (as we all called him) taught me in a course called ‘Problematising the study of Africa’. This is to say, before encountering his poetry, I encountered with what nuance he asked us to think about the study of our continent. This is also to sneak in that in class he would laugh without hesitation and this makes me understand how central laughter is in work even more. 

MX: Photography features prominently in your thesis. How would you describe photography in relation to poetry? What do you regard as meeting points and diverging points? 

KKS: My ideas about the interconnections between art forms are present in my response to jazz. Of course, there could be more to add and complicate, different literacies and mediums to interrogate, and so on. But I don’t have more of a response readily available. Can I pass?            

MX: Yes, of course you can pass. These questions are merely ways of exploring, so even a pass qualifies as an adequate response or answer. 

Thank you for undertaking this MA thesis, it is work that turns tables. I learned so much about the ‘histories, debates and university dynamics’. Chapter 5 is illuminating! Congratulations.

KKS: Ke ya leboha! I have really appreciated how deeply you have dived into multiple aspects of my life in order to ask these sometimes daunting questions

MX: Vuyokazi Ngemntu edited the Serurubele manuscript. What did you value the most about this experience? 

KKS: Vuyokazi Ngemntu edited an earlier and different version of the manuscript—before I signed with Modjaji Books. Lauren Smith edited what we now have published. Before Modjaji Books, I was in negotiation with a publisher who believed that poetry should not be rigorously edited. This did not sit comfortably with me so I sought editors. Since I respect the poetry of Vuyokazi and the ways I had heard her dissect literary works, I asked her to edit and she graciously agreed. Having someone I trusted look at this work in the state it was in was invaluable. I’ve already touched on the ways that Lauren Smith challenged my writing and thinking of the idea of a ‘good’ man or even a wholly ‘good’ person.

MX: What does the world look like when we are able to value one another equally? I am paraphrasing the question you posed when you were interviewed about Serurubele on the Morning Live programme. What is your answer to this question?

KKS: The basis is love.

MX: ‘As Africans we are complex,’ you said during the same interview. Please write a poem that captures the essence of this idea: complexity. 

KKS:  I did not have capacity to write this poem (and the next response contextualises why).

MX: You are currently a PhD candidate. What are your ideas, experiences and expectations on the meeting points between academia and intellectualism with a poetry focus? 

KKS: I love how you phrased ‘intellectualism with a poetry focus’. At my most optimistic, I’d say the possibilities for blurring boundaries, creating institutional homes for poetic work and generating creative scholarship are abundant. There are countless meeting points and overlaps—even though, often, the power is skewed towards academia and its systems of valuations. Many scholars are or were poets too. For example, Uhuru Phalafala, Lebohang Masango, you, Sarah Godsell, Gabeba Baderoon, Zora Neale Hurston, Kofi Anyidoho, Harry Garuba. Scholars like Duduzile Ndlovu are using ‘poetic inquiry’ as a collaborative research method where both the scholar and research collaborators get to think and speak through poems. Increasingly, as interdisciplinarity and decolonisation are striven for, research institutes, working groups and curatorial projects are finding it necessary to bring artistic practices and academic practices (and resources) into complementary conversations. I think artist practices like poetry make academic jargon as well as convoluted concepts, interiorities and philosophies differently accessible. There are also some poets (and artists) who use methods like ethnography as part of the research that informs their practice. At my most disillusioned and frustrated, however, I find the value systems of academia which cultivate an anxious, Euro-American-centric, capitalist, patriarchal and racist environment to be harmful to creativity. The more steeped I am in any academic institution for extended periods, the less I am able to write poetry and dream up poetry projects that excite me.  

MX: What would you like to see on the South African poetry landscape ten years from now—something ‘deliciously beautiful’ I imagine, as the poem titled as such in Serurubele?

KKS: Over the past few years I have been a part of ZAPP (The South African Poetry Project) and it has made me privy to the ways poetry is taught and not taught at high school level. On the one hand, learners are secretly writing poetry as a way to process their lives or find safe spaces to speak. On the other hand, they do not feel like theirs is poetry because the ways that poetry is understood and engaged in the classroom does not feel welcoming, familiar or resonant (often for the teachers, too). Many times learners don’t even write poems in class. I am keen for poetry and other art forms to be taught, engaged and experimented with by learners in ways that make them feel like they are capable of being creatives or simply use creative practices to heal, feel, make sense of their worlds, and so on. Poetry and art are capable of doing a lot of that work and they build confidence, cultivate self-reflexivity and deep listening. I know teachers are spread thin so I would imagine this creativity being cultivated alongside practising artists, cultural workers, and arts educators. Poetry Zone ZA, CSP and Drama for Life have done similar work so it is possible. (Plus, those many days when many learners are idle after exams or during long holidays look so juicy for such.)  

MX: When shall we hold your second poetry collection in our hands? Does it have a working title yet?  

KKS: At the moment, I am not working on a second collection. I believe I have at least two more collections in me (and I have a sense of what these two are) but they seem to require me to do some other work before I can do them. One of the things I have done recently is to co-edit The Constant Reader: South African Poetry Reviewed by South African Poets together with Vus’umuzi Phakhathi and Raphael d’Abdon. This is a book, a collection of reviews, inspired by the editorial work of Michael Chapman’s Soweto Poetry: Literary Perspectives and your Our Words, Our Worlds, in that both have been examples of how necessary it is for poets themselves to reflect on the works of their colleagues as well as the developments and state of poetry. This reflective, intellectual exercise is important for archiving and ensuring we know each other’s work. 

MX: Is there a question you were hoping I would ask, and I have not? Please share this question and answer it. 

KKS: This interview has already reached into parts of me that I could not have imagined. No questions from me.

Author photo: State Capture/Composite: The JRB

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