Shaping our stories into jewels – Jolyn Phillips    
Tue, 21 February 2023

Do you ever struggle to organise jumbled thoughts on a page or screen while you write a poem? Have you wished that you could shape your ideas into something beautiful and lasting?

Fortunately, you are not the first person to struggle with this problem. For centuries, poets have turned to forms of verse like the sonnet, the villanelle and the pantoum as an aid to structuring their thoughts and creativity.

Jolyn Phillips, poet, musician, performance artist and academic, has addressed the challenges of form more deeply than most. In 2022, she was one of the AVBOB Poetry online tutors, and she shared her outline for writing a pantoum in a highly enjoyable online session. Jolyn’s short story collection Tjieng Tjang Tjerries (2016) won the University of Johannesburg and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences’ fiction awards.

Her Afrikaans poetry anthology Radbraak (2017) was shortlisted for both the Ingrid Jonker Award and the Elizabeth Eybers Prize.

Her epic poem Bientang (2020) explored the life of a woman who lived in a cave in Hermanus at the turn of the nineteenth century. It has been well received as a play in theatres around the country. All this to say, that you can rest assured that Jolyn’s great advice is born of her own experience.

Jolyn believes that choosing the right form for a poem or story is essential. “These forms are ancient tools from our ancestors, so pick them up and play with them! Songs and stories have archived people’s experiences for millennia.”

During the online workshop last July, Jolyn shared excellent tips with those who want to experiment with form:
  1. Always follow the story first. Listen to the pressing need, the instinct, that makes you want to write it down.
  2. Give yourself time for free writing. Allow your thoughts to spill onto the page without checking or censoring them. That can come later!
  3. Take the point of view of one of your ancestors. Your relationship to this person can be close or distant. It may be a famous ancestor, alive in everyone’s consciousness, or an unknown one, alive only in your imagination. What story does this person have to tell? What will you have to say when you are an ancestor?
  4. Do parts of the story need to be repeated, chanted or sung? Allow them to be a refrain.
  5. Set up conversations with a character, real or imagined. Ask this character a couple of questions: “What is your full name? Where and when were you born? What is your occupation? What does your voice sound like? On which occasions do you lie or tell the truth? Which words and phrases do you use most often?”
  6. Pay close attention to the hidden stories in your environment. Visit a museum, art gallery or second-hand bookshop that speaks to you, or perhaps a garden or café closer to home.
  7. Be curious about forms of poetry, whether ancient or modern. Think of them as ways of playing with language.
  8. When writing a poem, ask yourself what shape would best suit the story you are telling. Shaping a story according to a preset form may provide just the right amount of discipline to enable you to find the jewel in the dirt.
Spend time with Jolyn’s prompts and trust that interesting poems will come knocking on your door. Remember that no experience is too ordinary to be the starting point for a strong poem.

The AVBOB Poetry Competition reopens its doors for submissions in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages on 1 August 2023. Visit to share in the wealth of creativity posted there.