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An eye on the prize – Maneo Mohale on awards, prizing self-worth, and representing trauma    
Fri, 23 July 2021



The AVBOB Poetry Project features international prize-winning poet, Maneo Mohale, in this, the latest in a series of profiles featuring South African poets who are changing the poetry landscape. This series aims to provide role models and information to emerging poets planning to enter the fifth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition.
 
In June this year, the exquisite and translucent debut collection Everything is a Deathly Flower by Maneo Mohale won the prestigious Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. This $1000 award (approximate equivalence R14 000) is made annually under the auspices of the African Poetry Book Fund, in partnership with Prairie Schooner. It uniquely honours a significant book published by an African poet and no other award quite like it exists.
 
The writing in Everything is a Deathly Flower is clear and opaque enough to resonate with those who have had similar encounters without being submerged into the gory details. Its clever use of form - for example rotating the page by 90 degrees, strikethrough text, and inventive punctuation - crafts a visceral sense of the narrator’s experience. 
 
Readers are invited quietly to accompany this journey that seamlessly stitches a Katlehong childhood, student life in Vancouver and the immense challenge of survival. The graphic layout on each page welcomes the reader to pause and hold, to behold and bear witness. Everything is a Deathly Flower is a subtly wrought and multi-layered telling, offering space to enter the experience at your own level of readiness. 
 
Mohale pays homage and talks to other contemporary writers. Extracts from Saeed Jones, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Kelsey Savage, Juliane Okot Bitek, and Kopano Maroga appear as epigraphs to poems and interwoven lines. The effect created is of a vibrant family of poets leaning in together, nodding in support, creating a lineage of survivors. 
 
Speaking about the book, Mohale said: “I was most nervous about the work arriving in the hands of other survivors. By virtue of being femme and alive in South Africa today, you’re touched by the experience of sexual violence. I never want to re-traumatise anybody.” Receiving the Glenna Luschei Award was extremely validating and affirming. Yet, like many writers who shoot to fame, the recognition and ensuing pressure to perform is a mixed blessing. 
 
“I’m trying to develop a relationship with the award that preserves my mental health and is good for me. I used to hitch a lot of my self-worth on my work and my output. The award is a wonderful, beautiful thing that sent my name into rooms where it might not have been before, but it raises anxiety too. The anxiety of not writing during the pandemic meant that I asked myself whether I’m still a poet if I’m not writing poetry?”
 
For Mohale, the real accomplishment was the publication with uHlanga Press: “I succeeded in creating an account of what happened to me and I could point to it. To be seen and believed, and to be held after going through something awful was the real prize. The award is a lovely additional thing, but the greater purpose came from the publication. 
 
“Wherever my words land, with whom and how they land... is so much more important than the award. And yet, awards change the material reality for marginalised writers. They open doors and introduce you; they start conversations with people you were reading and admiring, and who now consider you as a peer. There’s no feeling like that!”
 
Mohale continues: “For millennia poets were integral parts of society. Something has become distorted with celebrity status under capitalism. The pedestalisation and individualisation of someone who attains success in an extremely niche space is problematic. I’m very grateful for organisations like AVBOB that are trying to democratise that space. This opening of access to poetry is a most welcome development.
 
“In order to open the doors to the arts, we must be honest about its links to elite thinking. You don’t have to have read a whole library to become a poet!”
 
Goodenough Mashego is the Sepedi Editor for the AVBOB Poetry Competition. He concurs with Maneo Mohale, saying, “Indeed, you don’t have to read a whole library… but reading the poetry that speaks to youhelps you discover what constitutes excellence in your own mind, to discover your own personal aesthetic.”
 
In conclusion, the final micro-poem from Everything is a Deathly Flower is a wry and subversive verse. ‘False Buchu’ serves as both an invitation to buy and read this book and a challenge to trust the process of telling your own story.
 
            FALSE BUCHU
 
i
don’t care
if you
believe me
 
The AVBOB Poetry Competition invites poets to submit poetry in all 11 official languages. The competition reopens on 1 August and closes on 30 November. To register and enter visit: www.avbobpoetry.co.za

 



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