World Book Day, 23 April 2021    
Thu, 15 April 2021

So you have a book inside you?
Books are miracles of design. They are small, seemingly inert objects, that contain magical microcosms hidden between their covers, constellations that captivate our imaginations, connect us to our history and inspire future possibilities we could not otherwise imagine. 
This year on World Book Day (23 April) The AVBOB Poetry Competition acknowledges Modjaji Books, whose beautiful books made life more bearable for local lovers of poetry during the hardships of the pandemic.
“During lockdown, staying alive was a challenge, literally and metaphorically” said Colleen Higgs, of Modjaji Books. “Although books were not considered essential items and libraries had closed, many people managed to endure the hardships of lockdown because books became their entertainment, their friends, and a source of hope.”
Since 2004, Higgs has published many emerging women writers. The press now has 150 titles on its catalogue, has three times won the Ingrid Jonker Award, many other literary prizes, as well as having a movie made from a novel, and an opera composed from a short story.
But before the wonderful accolades there was a dream of creating a place where under-represented work could come into being – marginalised voices that couldn’t find a home in mainstream publishing houses. Higgs wanted to publish poems by writers like Sindiwe Magona. This poignant poem, ‘Statement’, is a heartfelt recognition of the power of publishing and the way that telling the untold stories of our country can heal the unheard voices.

I come to writing with no great learning
Except my life and the lives of my people
Of whom I am a part. For centuries,
Others have written about us
I write to change that
Instead of moaning about it.
I write so that children who look like me
In my country,
And my people, dispersed
Through the world,
May see someone who looks like them
Do this thing that has for so long
Not belonged to us.
I write so that the tale of the hunt
May be heard also, from the mouth of
The hunted, the hated, of this world
For only then, will that story
Be anywhere near complete…

This poem appeared in The Only Magic we Know, an anthology celebrating 15 years of Modjaji’s existence. It contains a selection of poems by a stellar array of top South African women poets who had been published since inception.
“When The AVBOB Poetry Competition came into existence in 2017,” said editor-in-chief Johann de Lange, “it was inevitable that many new poets from every language group would emerge. We believed that many would develop this talent and hone their craft, but we didn’t anticipate how many would want to go on to create and publish their own collections of poetry.” 
The AVBOB Poetry Competition receives many enquiries from participants, who are animated by receiving a R300 payment for their first published poem. De Lange continued, “Recognition awakens an appetite for writing and a desire for poets to see their name in print on their own book. It affirms a person’s sense of selfhood when their work is received and recognised.”
While the growth in popularity of poetry is immensely exciting, it’s important to register that the path to publication is not straightforward. Modjaji receives many more submissions than she can possibly entertain. If you cherish this goal, the news is not promising. In the wake of COVID-19, very little poetry is being published in South Africa. 
Start by reading How to get a collection of poetry published, Higgs’s eloquent, articulate and tactful list of instructions. Check the “submissions” page on the website. It clearly states that Modjaji Books is closed for poetry submissions until 2022. “Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll let you know when submissions re-open,” she says. “Poets must get clear about one thing – don’t do it for the money. Publishing poetry is not a financially sensible thing to do!” 
For those who can afford to create their own bespoke books, self-publication is a viable and valid option. Especially if you are well connected, and your network of friends, family and perhaps a faith community and hobby group will support you by buying your book. This route expedites the publication process. Higgs explains: “We make a limited number of books for clients, as in custom publishing. During the pandemic, as a way of keeping things going we made a few more beautiful bespoke books than usual.”
Higgs’s key message to aspirant poets is simple. “Don’t be in a hurry to publish. Focus on the love of the craft. Read widely. Get familiar with as many different poets to learn about poetic style to improve your own work. Submit to literary journals and writing competitions to gain confidence and experience. If you grow a platform of readers and followers on social media, it might help you sell your book one day. Don’t hold your breath, enjoy the writing and stay hopeful.”
Visit The AVBOB Poetry Competition website to register for the fifth competition, which opens on 1 August 2021: