Three prompts from youth poetry mentor, Brian Walter    
Mon, 22 August 2022

Each year the AVBOB Poetry Competition opens its doors to poets writing in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages. From the very beginning, the work of the youngest poets has often been particularly moving and astonished readers. This year, we anticipate a similar influx of youth poets, so we invited Brian Walter to talk about his special interest in young poets.

Walter is a highly accomplished poet who won the 2000 Ingrid Jonker Prize for his debut, Tracks. In 2011, he started mentoring five young poets from Helenvale, a troubled area of Gqeberha, Eastern Cape. At the end of the first year the Helenvale Poets had already put together its first collection. At present, it has 20 members between the ages of eight and 20, and 11 published poetry collections under its belt. 

Many of the members’ poems bear witness to growing up in the midst of widespread unemployment and gang violence. Writing poetry provides a safe space in which these youngsters can process difficult emotions. Their poems have a raw, honest energy that makes their group readings unforgettable. Leonie Williams and Luciano Roberts, two of the older members, recently participated in an online reading by the Cape Town-based Black Consciousness Poets.

Walter stresses continuity as an important factor in poets’ growth and development. “Keeping a group together makes a great difference, although this was especially challenging over the COVID period.” Regular practice of poetry makes a difference in the young poets’ lives and in the quality of the poems. “We meet the younger poets on Wednesdays, the older on Saturdays. I facilitate the Wednesdays, giving prompts, often with a theme. Writers are encouraged to observe their surroundings and reflect on their own experiences. Leonie Williams facilitates on Saturdays, with the freedom to use the Wednesday material, or develop her own prompts,” he says.

“I ask poets for description to bring imagery into their work. Most of all, I encourage poets to be receptive to sounds and sights around them and to write from their own experience.”

Walter offers poets planning to enter the AVBOB Poetry Competition three prompts he uses to harness the group’s energy and to turn group sessions into productive hours spent writing. If you’re struggling to focus your thoughts in the midst of noise and distraction, try one of the following exercises:

1          “Hier en daar” writing

First describe, as fully as you can, a place called “my soul place”. Then describe, as fully as you can, a place called “my body place”. These terms are vague, but let them be so. There is no right answer and writers can make of them what they will. Here the emphasis is on the need to describe the places, especially in the second prompt. Use words that paint a picture, with imagery of sound, sight and feeling. Now, make one poem from the two texts.

2          “Nog hier en daar” writing 

Describe, as fully as you can, a much-loved kitchen. Emphasise the sense of smell; describe a character that moves in the kitchen; remember the dishes being prepared. Then describe, as fully as you can, the place where you like to write. What “ingredients” do you need for writing? Now, make one poem from the two texts.

3          Six questions

Can you smell fear?
Can you taste anger?
Can you feel the heat or stand the chill?
Can you hear possibilities?
Can you see the weather?
Can you sense the weight of the moment, or the wait …?

Think of a situation in the streets or at school. Perhaps there was protest or conflict? Or a new set of circumstances never seen before. A birth? A race? A special date? A crisis? Describe the scene, focusing more on the images of the moment than on the causes or reasons. Don’t get stuck in the whys and wherefores, but describe the nitty-gritty details. Let the answers to the questions merge into a poem, allowing the most vibrant details to form the core of your poem.

If these prompts helped you prepare an entry for the sixth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition, now is the time to register and read the rules. Visit competition and send your entries in any of the 11 official languages before 30 November 2022.
Photo: Youth poets from Helenvale, a troubled area of Gqeberha, Eastern Cape