Be playful – Phillippa Yaa de Villiers on writing poetry    
Mon, 14 November 2022

In the last days of November, the closing date of this year’s AVBOB Poetry Competition draws near. If you haven’t yet entered up to 10 poems in any of South Africa’s official languages, the window is still open!

For those needing a steer, we offer this playful advice from Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – a funny, wise and influential poetry voice in the South African landscape. Phillippa is an award-winning poet, performing artist, scriptwriter, choreographer and clown. She is also a lecturer in the Creative Writing Department at the University of the Witwatersrand and brings with her tremendous experience in supporting and encouraging new writers.

Phillippa has published three collections of poetry and has performed her work in poetry venues and on stages both locally and abroad. In her work as a teacher, editor and activist, she is a tireless champion of South African women poets and has edited a special edition of the prestigious Atlanta Review in which 30 South African women’s poems are represented.

A renowned reader of her own work, she has given us a memorable image of poetry’s ability to be a life-saving tool kit, transforming our grief and trauma into language that empowers and consoles. In ‘The River’, a poem from her first collection, she describes an unstoppable flood of tears that threatens to engulf an entire city:

“They flowed until they became a river
that carried us into the night
where our dreams grew
taller than buildings”

Whether your words are still stuck in your throat, or they’re brimming over onto the page, try these five fabulous creative writing exercises that Phillippa uses with her students. Remember to tell your own story and invite your reader into a world that is uniquely yours.

1) Write a letter in the form of a poem to the poet who told you that you can change something about yourself and how to do that. Take the poem from here…
2) Write a recipe for your favourite comfort food as a poem. Play with the form of the recipe. Blend the ingredients of a poem into the mix. This is a game that helps you arouse the senses and bypass the censor.
3) Take inspiration from poetry anthologies that offer poetry in translation. Excellent examples include the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry anthologies and I wish I’d said… the AVBOB Poetry Competition anthologies, both of which feature excellent South African poets writing in all 11 official languages. Choose three poems and read them aloud while recording your voice on your mobile phone. Play the poems back to yourself on a loop. While you're listening to the poems, draw or doodle. Let the doodle draw you in. Let the poem speak in loops or swirls of colour. Write the poem that emerges from these doodles. 
4) Write a poem in a language you don't know how to speak. The poem should address something you know a lot about – it should be a very technical poem about quite intricate aspects. For example, write about the Big Toe of the Hidden Mole! Read it aloud to an imaginary audience, with great depth and seriousness. Translate the poem into English, Afrikaans, or any other language in which you feel competent.
5) Write a sonnet complaining about a service you were promised. Or write a sonnet celebrating a solution that changed your life. A sonnet is a 14-line poem using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes – in English it typically has 10 syllables per line. Let it rhyme or forget about rhyming and tumble into the melody of language.

To enter your poems for the AVBOB Poetry Competition, register and enter on the website at before 23:59 on 30 November 2022.
Image by Fezekile Msimang