These poems emanate from a challenge to my writerly self. After submitting six poems found in Lauretta Ngcobo’s novel, And They Didn’t Die, Barbara Boswell – the co-editor of Scrutiny 2: issues in english studies in southern africa, volume 22 (1) 2017, a special issue commemorating the novelist Lauretta Ngcobo’s life and writings – asked me to write notes on my finding and writing process. I did. And then I wondered if I would be able to repeat the process and if so, how different it would be. Then I waited for the novel that would urge me to repeat this process.
A few months later in early 2017 Barbara asked me to write a back cover blurb to her then manuscript, Grace: A Novel, I read the manuscript and wrote the three sentence blurb. I promised myself I would read the novel when it comes out, this time, for sheer pleasure.
It was during this reading in August that the words began to reveal themselves as they jumped off the pages and demanded my attention. At first I thought it was because the words were just beautiful. I continued to read determined not to read Grace for the second time aiming for a tangible outcome beyond the sheer pleasure of reading. In time, further along the chapters, I realized that these words were in fact formatting themselves into poems somewhere in an unknown part of my brain. I started paying attention. Then I remembered the vague wonderings I had had the year before, about whether a whole collection of poems from one source was possible.
I was reading chapter five when it became clear to me that I could no longer ignore the poems screaming away pleadingly at me. I decided then to return to the beginning of the book and be deliberate about my watching the words, just as I had done while reading Lauretta Ngcobo’s novel.
Why did Grace: The Novel, urge me to repeat the process? Because, I think, it is exquisite. In its exquisiteness, it opens up avenues and villas – avenues to stride through with confidence and villas to luxuriate in, gratified. It allows and welcomes exhilarating literary endeavours. This is how I felt as I worked through “finding” these poems. In fact, I did not do much finding work, the words found me, lifted off the page, screamed poetically at me, welcomed me and let me be – with them, among them. At times it felt as if the words were daring me to find the unique combination of mystery and beauty they possessed so I could have fun playing this literary game with them. So I played. In this game there is no better fun than the type I had while reading Grace, rereading it, watching words pop and speak to one another further down the pages, creating a new and unique unity.
In November 2017 when I realized that I was indeed going to be able to create a poem per chapter as per my challenge-to-self, I decided to share the draft manuscript with Barbara over coffee, just to see her response to it. I was affirmed and assured that the project was worth pursuing to the end.
My poem-finding journey with Boswell’s, Grace, was similar to Ngcobo’s, And They Didn’t Die because of the creative energy both journeys generated and the persuasive urgency with which the words lifted from the page, surprised and delighted me. Working on Grace took a much longer time once I accepted the challenge to find at least one poem from each chapter of the novel. And, the process became a tad daunting. My notes on the finding and writing process appear at the end of these poems, followed by Boswell’s Afterword.
The novel, Grace, and the characters Barbara created: Mary and Patrick, Johnny and David, Sindi, Grace (the central character) and Aunty Joan, accompanied me during this joyous journey of a yet unfamiliar form of creativity, creativity akin to the surreal, albeit confusingly, this experiment in imagination, this unknowing-waiting-and-seeing-and-trusting-and-recreating. These characters have been a gift of grace and as I finalise the collection I feel a special kind of intimacy with them. Barbara’s descriptive narration is drenched in cinematic images that provided me with landscapes, sea and mountain views I could see, smell and touch. It evoked memories particularly those of the southeaster, in unique ways. During all my visits to Cape Town I endured the perennial, menacing southeaster. In Barbara’s writing via the many mentions and descriptions of the southeaster I felt connected me to her the characters. We shared the wind. The most surprising aspect of this journey was the urgency with which the work needed to be begun, pursued and completed.
I am eternally grateful to Barbara for her elegant text of twenty-two chapters that has made possible this collection of forty-three poems. The art of waiting for tales is a manifestation of what it means to show up for one another as Black women writers. It is a product of a political imagination. This is the kind of imagination that has a higher purpose than an individualised creativity and focus on oneself; it reaches out and pays tribute to the community of writers and readers and therefore it is a political initiative. It is political-and-feminist because it prioritizes another woman’s writing and consequently builds a text-founded bridge of a feminist sisterhood and solidarity.
To my surprise in December of 2017 when I was devouring my to-do reading list, I was sitting with Mohale Mashigo’s novel, The Yearning when the words began lifting off the pages. By now I felt well practiced. I allowed the urge to write these poems. Only three seemed to want to be written. I submitted them to the editor of the online literary journal The Johannesburg Review of Books and they were published on 15 January 2018 with these accompanying words: “As part of our January Conversation Issue, we present new found poetry by The JRB Patron Makhosazana Xaba, a creative effort that creates a dialogue between two literary imaginations.” The titles of the three poems are: “Yearning”; “This togetherness”; and, “To necklace”. I also indicated the chapters, pages and line number where I found the words in the novel.
I also shared the complete submission-ready, draft manuscript with Barbara, who after reading it sent me a long affirming email on 16 February 2018. In this email she mentioned her favourite poems, commented on the process notes as well as the feelings she had while reading The Art. The final sentence in this email reads as follows, ”…It is something larger than both of us and it’s a testament to the utterly amazing healing power of creativity and black feminist imagination.”
A journey that began with a challenge to my imaginative-yet-unsure self, shifted to an experiment in creativity, and moved to an engagement with poetry as a genre in ways I had not done before. The process ended as an even higher honour and regard for Boswell. Dear reader, here then is, The art of waiting for tales.