[Conversation Issue] ‘Poetry refuses the abstraction of theory’—danai mupotsa in conversation with Makhosazana Xaba

This is the fifth in a series of long-form interviews by Patron Makhosazana Xaba to be hosted on The JRB, which focus on contemporary collections by Black women and non-binary poets. The first, with Maneo Refiloe Mohale, can be found here; the second, with Katleho Kano Shoro, here; the third, with Sarah Lubala, here; and the forth, with vangile gantsho, 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 in 2022.

Makhosazana Xaba (MX): I can no longer remember the number of times I have returned to reading feeling and ugly (impepho press), your debut collection, which turns six in 2024. A 2018 review by Ainehi Edoro asserts: 

Mupotsa’s feeling and ugly presents femininity as a complex framework for thinking about how private life intersects with politics. It shows how through poetry, something as ubiquitous as feeling becomes a powerful means of conveying as much as transcending the ugly side of life.

What is your response to Edoro’s reading and assertion? 

danai mupotsa (dm): I am very reluctant to be involved in any kind of ‘public’, being fairly awkward and fairly introverted. So I immediately feel the awkwardness of self-exposure. 

The collection allowed me to express things that I had otherwise only experienced as an inwardly turned rage, because of how difficult, beautiful or even plain things are addressed. It is a feeling of being misunderstood when you are invited to make yourself present to something that people rationalise as important. My experience shows me that routine involves closure, and that closure demands a repetition of the same. To this end, even the most vulnerable exposure will be subject to a sanitising procedure. And I say this, recognising that while Edoro makes a compelling case for feeling as a ‘rupture’ of some sort—‘plant life’ is probably closest to making that gesture—we live in a world where the performance of vulnerability has captured such a degree of purchase, that it can sometimes feel like a routine that makes the use of sentimentality so viable for the fascist regimes that presently govern us.

I think what I hoped to convey was the affective registers that complicate easy conclusions about fairly large political questions—to reposition the morality built around the rationality of a particular kind of person in their performance, or evaluation of the function of ‘politics’ itself. What I presented was an intellectual practice that broke thinking or feeling out of descriptive use. And I did this with a hopefulness that, when appended to the awkwardness, often means living with the concession of being misunderstood.

MX: I am fascinated by the processes behind decisions. How did you—or was it the publisher—arrive at this title? And what was behind the decision to print your name only on the spine and not on the front cover?

dm: That was all me. When I write anything, the title comes first. The content usually follows. And this becomes complicated with academic writing, where the formula often involves a subheading that invites a particular kind of reader. I think that some of my academic writing will be discovered in posthumous celebration, when the reader it was intended for finds me. 

MX: You remind me of your chapter ‘Breathing Under Water’ in Desiree Lewis and Gabeba Baderoon’s book Surfacing: On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa (2021). I enjoyed reading it because of the poetry in it. Starting with the title, we hear vangile gantsho’s voice and then we hear Busisiwe Mahlangu, Gabeba Baderoon, Koleka Putuma and Sindiswa Busuku. I am willing to bet that these poets are not waiting for a ‘posthumous celebration’. And I was ‘the reader’, so thank you for writing it.

dm: I think that a practiced method of reading poetry (criticism, I mean) is to make sense of its meaning, and the authority of meaning becomes the property of the analyst (author or meaning maker) in that kind of process. I am aware of the ways that we read, when and where we read from inform what ‘meaning’ is—even when someone takes up some version or claim to ‘objectivity’ in their analysis. But, what has become apparent in this method of writing is that there is no meaningful attempt to make the meaning transparent in order to make my intentions more legible. I don’t need to explain what connects the song that develops because it’s not intended to impose meaning, it’s a series of companioning placements (and not ‘citation’ in the traditional sense, either) that is not always about agreement, or illustration. There are jokes, double-entendres, contestations and other forms of rumination that these placements make. 

I am thinking of my article ‘Black Common Sense’, where there is a quote from one of your poems—and the obvious reference I am thinking about is ‘uhuru’ and Letta Mbulu’s articulation of it in song. The reference in your poem, for me, is very dense in meanings. There is a mirror that doesn’t attempt to approximate or illustrate what the utterance ‘uhuru’ enacts when it appears—even in repetition, it does not accumulate a single or even meaning. And in the sense of your use of or engagement with historicity, with time, with the enactment of progressive time as an ‘always already’—even when it is not stated as such; that people will often imagine that to express a disappointment in the present (time) is singularly and wholly to be oppositional. This negation misses the density assembled in The Alkalinity of Bottled Water, as I see it. Its surface might be affirmative. But the spaces (humour and otherwise) have a begrudging relationship to an even meaning. 

I am using this example—this reference—because it reveals the method. What the poem is there for is not to illustrate the example or point—it is not a representation of the argument, or even (and people use poetry this way, like it is Women’s Day, so a poet must do a poem about women) a way to recognise how Mbulu is celebrated or commemorated or represented. In fact, what hovers around the making sense of an article that doesn’t expose all of its intentions—because that would make no sense to its own intentions—is made sense of in that conversation with what the poem repeats. It does not sit on the surface.

I also wonder about the poem and the person referenced. The distance can be difficult to discern at times. Sometimes it is in how a poet develops their technique and how those formal (and contextual or content) aspects can shape the container of the collection (or poem) that situates it. And in so doing, situate its logic in an elsewhere (for instance, my intentions with that chapter). And for other poets (perhaps even when the technique is in sharp contrast to others, when the technique grounds itself in a different epistemological or ontological orientation, even if the poets share an overdetermined or over-saturated meaning as ‘black or African woman’) who placed beside each other, the intention might be that there is a seamless continuity between them. That is not my intention. The messy is always retained, because it matters to me. So there is some messiness that shapes this encounter with reading. It is a sense-making. And it also shapes who or how we read it.

I have never really enjoyed it when people speak behind each other’s backs. I don’t understand the rules. 

MX: Thank you for this ‘Black Common Sense’ reference. What an expansively layered engagement with what initially seems simple, almost mundane, ‘uhuru as a critical noun’. I need time to read the article again so I can take in its density.    

I like how the cover of feeling and ugly has this minimalist, tactile look which, upon touching it, is surprisingly smooth. It is an inviting cover that seems to be saying: ‘Please touch me!’ When I asked vangile gantsho about her and your covers, she said: ‘with feeling and ugly, Tanya [Pretorius, of impepho press] wanted to create something that felt like a leather journal. I am oversimplifying it, no doubt, but when we saw the covers, we loved them.’ What would you add to vangile’s ‘oversimplification’?

dm: I loved that it would look like a notebook. I could not intuit an image that would serve as a companion. I think unassuming is a better word. I like to be part of the background in this way, despite the roles that life has sometimes served me. Unassuming. 

MX: In your acknowledgements you list twenty-one people who read your drafts and gave you feedback. How did you manage feedback from so many people? Did you give all of them the same poems? Did you have to develop a system? Please share your process as you revised the manuscript.

dm: Pumla [Dineo Gqola] read a full draft—that is how the poem ‘fruit bowl’ happened. I spent a night piecing together a full draft and sent it to her, she printed it and sat in my office eating apples while she read. There were many poems that I practiced or played with for the first time online and in other public spaces, so this felt like ‘reading’. Sarah and vangi were probably the first to read a full draft.  I think I shared a list of people who were the first to witness the voice developed in the collection, in some part or form.

MX: You mention the poet and medical doctor Thandokuhle Mngqibisa in your acknowledgements, and here I quote the last sentence: ‘You brought me to proximity with myself and opened a door for me that I had closed tightly, imagining that I had neither the courage or the sense to actually live.’ Please share the specifics of how Thandokuhle Mngqibisa had such an impact on you that you wept as she performed.

dm: I went to a reading Thando did at the Joburg Theatre—it might have been ten years ago. She is an incredibly talented performer—the performance of language in her work is something to behold. Her poems, her body, her language created this meeting point between her experience and that of others in the room that sliced me open. I cried until I was howling. I was somewhere mid-separation and divorce, where people could not really hold the nature of the difficulty or even violence that shaped the worlds I lived in. I barely understood the layers of trauma imprinted on my skin, or the safety that I thought a marriage might provide me in attempting to escape it—or what it felt like to be so dissociated from my own body in the ways that I have been. It was probably the first time I could account for the feeling of dissociation that allowed me to function, and once I could recognise it the pain was excruciating.  

MX: The Foreword by Lidudumalingani affirms the potency of your poetry: 

No writer should have the privilege of leaving me unravelled and in pieces, I have always maintained. I do not want to spend days after reading a text feeling that I have been taken apart, that parts of me are missing and I am not sure where to look for them. 

Please write a poem in response to these words.


even though we find our way back to each other,
(will we always find our way back to each other?)
we speak sometimes.

I can still smell the touch of her skin,

It has never been the same since the morning that I screamed
‘you are such a liar’
the worst part is how much you can lie to yourself.

She went silent for three whole weeks.

The moment she met me, 
‘oh no, not you again’ was the first thing on her mind, she replied.

MX: I read somewhere that feeling and ugly was translated into Portuguese. Congratulations! Has it been translated into any other languages? What is the title in Portuguese? Are you keeping track of how it has been received by Portuguese speakers? Please share.

dm: Sandra Tamele translated feeling e feio. She is the founder of Editora Trinta Zero Nove in Maputo. I met her in 2018 in Maputo, after she reached out to me about a translation. She has been in the process of translating African literary works in English to Portuguese, with the Lusophone African (perhaps Lusophone reader in general) in mind. I’ve been really lucky to meet people who speak to my heart. It’s also so sensible that a Mozambican translator and publisher would work with me, given my own biographies and the experiences that shape parts of the book. I think the experience I bring to the work was very capable of meeting with readers—I see it in what connects me with Sandra. I did a reading with a musician in Maputo last year and there were a few older men—Mozambican/Portuguese/Lusophone poetry doyens—who commented, mostly on the content of the work. It’s the thing that can often happen when you speak about love, lovemaking even, but outside of something accessible to a heteronormative gaze. It sometimes seems like addressing it as naïve or youthful is one direction. It was also different in the ways that the audience experienced the performance. It was different with this audience, and with the work being read in Portuguese and English, than my previous experiences of reading in Maputo in English. I think the difference is in the translation, Sandra’s method of meeting the meaning of the work and her delicate use of tone and language. My own Portuguese is limited, but it is enough for me to recognise her profound intuition with language as a translator. 

MX: It’s interesting that the title kept the English word ‘feeling’.

dm: So, this was Sandra’s decision, to keep the English—because there was no substantive equivalent that would have kept the title ‘sensible’ in its own sense. The affectivity in the word ‘feeling’ as I meant it would not be the same if it were translated into ‘sentimento’ in Portuguese.  

I was also called to engage with the question of the frame ‘Botswana, Zimbabwe’ as situating contexts—with my connection to poets who are more intimately situated within or around those national formations or frames. And this question of language is perhaps helpful here. 

I was setting up a poetry reading pack for an undergraduate course that I will be teaching this term. And I included some of Tariro Ndoro’s poems. And what was familiar or familial were the scenes of family (these are familiar across contexts) as socialising spaces that have kinship with poems like ‘gud wuk’ or ‘Circus’ in my collection. There is a prior knowledge that might make those poems more sensible to a girlhood in Harare that is not explained, but is illuminated in my encounter with Tariro. And yet, her collection is this incredible performance of languaging with multiple surfaces (some more legible than others). The landscape of this language process is attached to a logic of language and territory as sutured together (how our present organises its logical status), and what, or who, it displaces—this is the container of the title of the collection. But there are many instances where the movements between languages (sometimes within the same language)—do this thing that does not stabilise the foreigner (the one who is foreign to the language practice), so that the seamlessness of the whole unravels itself.

The Portuguese I learned in the brief stint I practiced as makoti was based on the needs I had in that position. The makoti or foreigner needed to understand some things to strategically be situated in that fore-play. ‘Feio’ was a word I learned very soon, very quickly. It was also communicated with that frown people make to disapprove of something. Like you smell something bad (sometimes there is an offending object, or for example you didn’t know how offensive it was to wash your glassware in the same water as your plates so your glasses smell bad to the one who disapproves)—but the smelling bad, or the feio, can also simply be towards another mishap of etiquette, like not knowing that you must peel a tomato before you use it in cooking. There is no bad smell but é feio. It is ugly.

MX: There are sixty-six poems in this collection. Thirty-two of these have conventional titles, in bold. The rest appear on the contents page, suggesting they are titles, but on their page they are the opening lines. You chose not to use what I believe to be the over-used ‘Untitled’. What was the logic behind titling some poems in the conventional way and not others?

dm: I could have gone either way, but I think it became complicated for the purposes of having a contents page. Untitled seemed like a title. They just don’t have a title. I think that the titles, when they exist, operate as it relates to meaning. They are less ‘name’ than they are an aspect of the form, as it relates to its meaning. It seemed strange to assign a name, when the titles don’t instinctively play that role. 

MX: There are one-stanza poems in this collection that are highly impactful, with varied themes. I will share and ask questions on five of these: a couplet, two tercets, a quatrain and an octane, starting with this one:

On the sexual division of labour 

white people talk 
black people dance. 

Reading this poem reminded me of Edward Hirsch’s definition in A Poet’s Glossary: ‘Irony is a notoriously slippery term’—because it comes in so many variations. Most memorably, irony can mean to ask innocuous questions or make innocuous statements that lead readers to discover the truth. How would you summarise ‘the truth’ that readers could discover in this poem?

dm: People can make me tired. Sometimes irony is my tired with a voice. Much like vulnerability, there are words we have to name, diagnose or confront systems of power. But people really know how to abuse language. So my tired can find other ways. I was tired of intersectionality being an identity category. It never was, but I understand the connections between consciousness (awareness) and the need for some kind of representational logic—even if it requires misshaping the intentions of language—but still. Of the sustained allyship between white women and black men. Or going to a conference. In general. Watching the performance of ‘thinking’—the virtue signalling. How some subjects (persons, objects) can occupy the rationale, question and finding of something that can only resolve the pocket of its expert speaker. You mention an African woman, and a broad location for her, and you can win a prize. But this is not the truth of it, because in part, what the poem evokes is not what is immediately available—oversaturated with meaning. Even though there can be many references to what I mean that are available in this way. But it escapes the ease of fitting itself in the mouth so easily.

MX: ‘Irony is my tired with a voice’! I still remember the first words that came to my mind when I read this poem: uDanai ukhathele udiniwe! An impactful isiZulu expression. Then there’s the Afrikaans, which I also like: ‘gatvol’! The English version, ‘fed up’, sounds light—too light for what the poem offers. The poem evokes so, so, much and I love it. Congratulations! 

dm: [laughs] It’s gatvol. But also, a turn—turning my attention towards an audience that does not make their money from forcing me to engage the loss of their authority, should I turn away from them.  

MX: Then there is the understated, erotic and humorous poem ‘Beloved’, with hyperbole captured in the four-letter word ‘only’.

you make me dream 
only of nipples and
fingers and wet.  

How much planning came with crafting this poem? Or is it one of those that simply wrote itself? Please share your process.

dm: [laughs] Some poems come immediately. 

MX: Another poem that made me smile because of the implied multiple meanings, the decidedly assertive voice of the speaker and the playfulness of it all. This tercet is one of those poems that makes it clear that simple words in strong combination make impactful poems. 

I won’t take a lover 
who does not know what it means 
to use their tongue.   

Please share responses from readers and scholars to this specific poem.

dm: I think that people take the most literal meaning. And I think it’s important to make space for this too. I’m not sure that I’ve been engaged on the other connotations of the tongue that substantively. 

I’m working on an article, the first where I pull all of my analytical attention to a novel. Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. This is one of five poems at the beginning of it—and there’s the implication of a longing (the article is titled ‘The Promise’)—but tongue (it stammers, it trills), there I am thinking about our use of language and how the literal and the transversal or transsubstantive can operate for the reader who can receive it. A dialogue between reader and writer that cannot make itself up. 

MX: Then there is ‘Justice’:

is a heartache
in pretty paper
offered with
cheap sentiment
from friends
who own land.  

What inspired this intensely political poem? 

dm: I’ve been grappling with the language we have to discuss or describe justice, or freedom. It is confined to the post-World War II moment, the turning of meaning to the nationalist projects that people build this language around. I have conversations in my head, I am sure we all do. When I comment on political events in the world, lend my voice to them in some way, I am sometimes compelled to answer to my general silence as a Zimbabwean regarding what those words mean. And it’s not because I do not understand the role that the dispossession of land plays in our present—its infrastructures of injustice—to the monolingual expatriates who are the first ones to write about xenophobia, who can easily access suburban homes when many of us others grapple with a salary as an invitation to debt. I understand that in a deeply confronting way. But what could I say of justice, the national/ist project and the ways that it turns its subjects on the inside to the extent that they can’t identify a caste system even when it sits directly in front of them? Where people speak of education as a route to freedom, and are trained to think only of profit (if thinking at all)?

And as the battles for education or access are around the corner—is it land that is the battle ground, after all? The property around these institutions and the market plotted around it, the sexual division of labour—the time of ritual performance.

Sometimes I write this way because the things I see sound a bit cruel when I express them another way.

MX:  This poem made me laugh, unexpectedly:

loathe the clever people
with no poetry
in their hearts  

Poetry has been described in so many ways by poets and scholars all over the world, over centuries. What is your definition of poetry?

dm: Poetry refuses the abstraction of theory.

MX: The poem ‘wedding vows’ reminded me of your PhD thesis, titled White Weddings, which I read a while ago. I remember being surprised by the focus of the research. You delved into histories and concepts I was curious about without having honoured them with research. Thank you for educating me. Please write a poem that captures the essence of what is in the section you titled ‘“Diamond Zulus” and the invention of a Modern “Traditional” Wedding’.




also sounds like a word people might use unconsciously since it can no longer be considered to be fashionable to call black people aspirational.


to have an [a]effect on, make a difference to


influence; exert influence on; have an effect on; act on; work on; condition; touch; have an impact on; impact on; take hold of; attack; infect; strike; strike at; hit; change; alter; modify; transform; form

also similar:

the mirror stage, the girl child does not stop touching herself, she cannot be corrected.

MX: Wow! Maybe one day I will find concise words …

dm: There were so many versions. It is intimidating to write poems in dialogue with someone who is so delicately and decidedly attentive to words, to form, technique and its feeling. One hopes to avoid being contrived. 

MX: The section of the thesis titled ‘Happy Objects’ contains a wedding photograph, captioned ‘17 Rutendo and Marc, Avianto 2012’. Please write an ekphrastic poem on this image. 


it was nice to see you again.

Your faces, so expectant, almost true in longing
like friendship and feeling, palimpsests 

I wonder if this routine would feel less cruel for us both,
not only (if only) I smiled kinder.

MX: African Literature in English is your discipline at Wits University. I imagine the dance between academic and creative writing—poetry in particular—requires skilful choreography and execution. How would you describe this dance? 

dm: I think that it’s become easier. Perhaps more difficult. I’ve been applying for a promotion for some years. What remains is a letter—and if overthinking had a proper name, her name would be Danai. In one version, it is titled ‘swollen’—this seems a seamless name for this dance, that the various forms of practice that I do have swollen into each other, so that they almost take the form of a colloid. The structure of each molecule is so swollen that the original can no longer be restored. Not liquid, not solid. Nothing apart anymore.

MX: When you received an Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity fellowship in 2020, you were quoted thus: ‘I want to participate in classrooms where love and freedom and justice are densely articulated as objectives, as much as the syllabus.’ I would like to imagine that it is easier to achieve this as a poet. What do you do in your classes to achieve these objectives?

dm: I was humbled by 2023. I know one thing has stayed true—we cannot attach our sense of self to something that can also be described as an ‘ideal’—not a person, or an organisation, or a movement. I think this is a helpful way to stay present, to keep a conscience—to still be able to sense the world around you. 

I don’t know if my humility gives up on what this space could be. I know that the most brutal and the most affirming moments I have collected—outside of what is immediate with the families we inherit—have happened in those places. And in situations where most people will enter and leave classrooms retaining fairly little information (perhaps it is the very form of that information that makes it particularly dangerous or vacuous), the stakes of abandoning the classroom as an idealised object are high. 

MX: Are you connected to and engaged with contemporary poets in Harare, where you were born, in Botswana, or in the United States, where you lived before taking on the lecturing position at Wits?  

dm: Not really, short of the kind of contact that comes in books. We left Botswana when I was in grade 6. The childhood was fairly isolated, given our location. So, short of making me feel like an imposter as a Zimbabwean teenager—it is something I remark upon because it shaped the childhood that I know—my ties are almost contained to the meeting points of the streets (the desert, also) that bound those moments. And the songs my parents would play.

I have very recently been able to listen to my mother’s favourite music. I think I am in that grieving moment where I can start to bear the idea of her in memories. Can see her face in my mind. My daughter is also starting to feel like if she remembers her it won’t break her. So we’re trying.

Her passing left me in a place of such strong awareness of my broad sense of dislodgement. I have to make home (I’m running out of time, in the sense of this lifetime) and seeking home is a quest I have to abandon. I need to make it. I always thought it was the sharpness of my mind that drove my disloyalty to such an idea. Don’t get me wrong—the things I was witness to in terms of affiliation (to any, many things) are not convincing. But, when you (I) have chosen to leave places that hurt too much, because you know it has to feel like something else in some other place you are imagining—there is also the very possible truth that it is you who does not fit the requirements of entry and affiliation. My resolution of late has been to simplify, to live at peace in my mind. And to make sure there is a garden where I can plant the seeds my mother left me. Walk on the ground. Find stillness in my mind. And this might not heal the chosen isolation. But it’s a peace I have demanded so I must make this home. 

MX: In a short 2018 review of feeling and ugly by Gorata Chengeta we read

I have something that I can hold (onto) when being in the world makes me want to cry. A soft anchor. A companion […] 

There are poems in this collection which are difficult to read, uncomfortable in that they know too much. [Emphasis mine.] 

This is such a curious way of describing one of the roles of poetry. Do you have a poetry collection that you could call ‘a soft anchor, a companion’? 

dm: When I go to sleep, particularly when I am writing, I notice the strangest habit. I will take the book I am thinking about and then add five related companions, usually connected to what my analytical process is. And I place them either on the pillow next to me, or the side table. (This is probably why I find it difficult to maintain the kind of long-term lovering that would replace these friends.) The point is, there is absolutely no way that in the hours of sleep ahead of me I will open the pages, or annotate the pages that I have prepared pens, pencils, notebooks and post-its for. It has yet to happen. But we sleep together as if I will be able to inhabit those worlds in dreamland.

A friend passed, and when I went to the bed where it happened to clean the room, I saw the books by their bed, including a collection of poetry that I could only bombastically side-eye. In my most generous voice, it’s important for us to have companions that our friends cannot reconcile with.

The other thing I notice, now that my mind is completely preoccupied with Okparanta’s novel—Ijeoma [the main character] is very present. When I have a decision to make, I process it ‘with her’. Or I consider her approach (I am thinking of the language, the author, her protagonist, her reader) and it infiltrates my own. So she is it, for now.

MX: A coincidence. As I sat in a communal lounge reading your responses to this conversation for the second time, someone who teaches African Literature at the University of Leeds approached me, introduced themselves, and we started talking about queer literature, including Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. We shared our super positive reviews of this great novel. I will wait patiently for your article. 

dm: I think it became so large that I want to make it a chapter in a book. The language it begins with was so charged with erotic energy that it refused to meet the need to situate my argument in dialogue with readings (criticism) that place Ijeoma as a shifting signifier for something progressive. I was attempting so many things that a version reached 30,000 words. (Hyper focus gone very far.) Tracy Chapman came to fetch me. So, I wait for the seamlessness of a voice that can retain that promise.

MX: From an article to 30 000 words! Thank you, Tracy Chapman, now we can look forward to reading a whole chapter. Processing: waiting for the seamlessness of a voice …

Many of the poems in feeling and ugly expose private moments, pivotal personal points that we are led to as readers. For instance, this single stanza poem of six lines:

her mother found her 
sitting on the floor
head leaning against the porcelain toilet
dead baby floating in the bowl 
her mother called her a whore. 
they never spoke about the matter again  

I loved how you used a full stop—the only punctuation mark in this poem—at the end of the word ‘whore’ as a way to begin ‘a chapter on eternity’, which is what I want to call that last line. The positioning of this full stop inserted an exclamation mark in my head. It was as if the omniscient narrator in this poem is saying: now that I have told this story, decide how you deal with it. The full stop works as a conversation starter, oxymoronic as this might sound. How would you describe how you work with punctuation when writing poetry? How different, or not, is it to other genres?

dm: I think about it too—very often. My mind can think fifteen things at once, and it makes sense to me as I weave them all into a paragraph when I speak. I think a part of it is the memory of being a child that was too afraid, or too anxious to speak. Probably the same reason I look at the sky when I speak in public, or speak softly and quickly. I think maybe people don’t actually want to hear what I have to say. I would end up saying nothing, even if I planned it out. So now there is this flurry of words. And I was reminded that commas in a sentence mean a pause. 

Perhaps it is when I have pen and paper—or face a laptop, which is a different pressure—that my attentiveness is different. I feel some intentionality about the use of grammar, because it feels like it can be harmful. Maybe because of the ways we get punished for not pursuing it in a straight line. Or because the languages we first spoke place emphasis in places that a monological sequence of words would do differently.

The memory I have that led to that poem: I heard of this story from my sister, she was my sister’s friend. Our silence—fear—because in the language that filled the space around us there would have been an opportunity for a kikikiki. To mask the shame we all carried, that our predisposition to a past, present, future was contained in that word. 

MX: ‘The come on’ is a striking poem, with a lineation that deceptively shouts ‘simple’, and an unexpected rhythm delivered by the repetition, which is unaccompanied by rhyme. There is an admirable, gentle yet potent intimacy, bordering on the erotic, oozing out of this poem.    

the come on 
is all of our awkward 
the come on 
is anticipating everything and nothing

the come on 
fractures all of my sovereign 

The sixth, eighth and final stanzas introduce layers that complicate what reads like intimacy, and maybe romance and eroticism in the other six stanzas. Please share your process in writing this poem.

dm: I was in love with someone—maybe I should start that differently—I had a lover that was the kind of lover that I’m not generally used to. I did not admire her mind. And it’s quite possible that I could pass (by) her physical presence and not feel anything at all. And yet, I found myself desperately in need of her. I found a lustful vocabulary that was so foreign, it actually rid me of oedipal fantasy. I became curious about my own mind in such a process. It made no fucking sense. 

MX: Your poems on girls: ‘little girl runs through the crowd’; ‘little girls playing in a circle’; and ‘good wuk’, a poem of three stanzas each opening with the two words ‘little girls’; and ‘I mourn that sweet girl’ all live in my head in the same room as the poem ‘these uncles’—even though they shouldn’t. This is the result of the burden of being a woman in this South Africa, the rape capital of the world. I imagine activists within the violence against women and perhaps the gender-based violence sectors could make use of your poems in varying ways. Have activists engaged with your poems?

dm: I’m not sure, in the collective sense of it. And, because of the sequencing (or the lack thereof, or the intention of whichever order you place those poems in), there is a gap between the sign and the signified that I often need. It’s a gap that sits comfortably between the representable and the non-representable, so that interiority and exteriority can rest more comfortably together when we try to express what is burning in our hearts. The uncles, beyond their appearance in ‘good wuk’, was a reference to a dominant epistemic order that rips us all apart, we can’t even live in our bodies or find the tools that might be more honest about the nature of our unfreedom. 

I know, on an individual level, where conversations have come alive. I am also aware of an inward turn (perhaps connected to a direction towards healing justice as a central aim and action in activist spaces) and that I have found myself in these dialogues.

MX: Elaine Salo, 1962—2016. I thought the title ‘feminist pedagogy’ was so fitting for a poem that opens with the name: Elaine Salo. Her scholarship lives with some of us. To me feeling and ugly is feminist pedagogy. I trust you agree.  

dm: I was soaking my washing today, and thinking about my daughter who has not met Woolite yet [smiles].

Elaine Salo was the teacher I never expected to need, or to impact me so profoundly. I hope every part of the book can extend something of this. Even if it comes unevenly.

I think of ‘wakes with praises for her mother’, and the moment of its writing and impacting. And how it sits with other reflections on the maternal. 

MX: It is refreshing to read poems that are unflinching on sex, sexuality, the erotic and queerness; poems that are crafted with such artistry that they do not scream. I am reminded of a quotation from the aforementioned beloved glossary that defined excellence in art as being in its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate’. In feeling and ugly, disagreeables do evaporate. I love the last sentence of the back cover blurb: ‘This collection is a long love letter to those who are willful.’ I welcomed and received this love letter with immense gratitude. 

dm: This whole interview is something I could never have imagined. It’s capacity. I’m not prone to sentimentality. I find it manipulative and harmful. But fuck. I felt seen in ways that I could never expect, ever. I was also confronted with questions that I don’t answer, intentionally. For example, national affiliations. There is no easy response to it. And people often meet my language, one, where they need to at the time for the purposes most urgent to them; two, that we live in a world that makes us only manage at the basest level; three, sometimes it is not ‘managing’, it’s the reason I don’t want to leave the house. People take the surface because it is well received. 

My love is sometimes too honest, even mean. Sometimes it looks like self-harm. Sometimes it is nothing but the anxiety that I am learning to hold more gently, acknowledge, rather than try to put it away or fill myself with substances so that it has to hide away. 

My love is for those who are holding on to all of those pieces, and who also manage to be large in the room. I think of the way Barbara [Boswell, the writer and academic] walks—like she owns the ground she walks on. And it makes me feel something.

MX: Interesting! What does it make you feel, exactly? Barbara Boswell makes me feel educated. She is one of the few scholars in South Africa today who is working on our poetry. Each time I read one of her scholarly articles on our work, I learn a lot.

dm: I was setting work for the module I mentioned earlier—the course is on love in Africa. And I was thinking about which secondary texts to place with the poetry. (When I finished the pack, I had to send a voice note to a friend to tell them how much I was feeling myself, I did a wonderful job.)

You are absolutely correct about Barbara. And I think it is a manner of reading that is not only attentive. It is the voice of a reader and writer that does not cos-play the erotic: I call that the monological. It is often what educated places train us to do. One thought at a time.  

When I grow up, I want to live in my body and mind the way that Barbara does.

MX: The last poem in feeling and ugly is a monostich:

I can only write love poems.  

I can only ask askable questions. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Let us end with this quatrain.

cruel optimism 

the belief that love will last.
the hope that justice is possible.
the wish for recognition.
the will to wake each day.

2 thoughts on “[Conversation Issue] ‘Poetry refuses the abstraction of theory’—danai mupotsa in conversation with Makhosazana Xaba”

  1. This is a wonderful conversation. It lifted my spirit up. It also makes me want to read and get the collections from the series that Prof Xaba has been doing, and I intend to do that: get the collections and read them alongside the interviews. Thank you once more. This was a treat!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *