Poetry, much like any other form of art, is a matter of taste. Personally, I'm not that into the U.S. practice of stringing together adjective-noun phrases lightly seasoned with verbs, as if to say things happen, but I do not.
It is therefore a particular joy to find a poet who experiences her art in the same way as you. In that, there is true connection. Nomashenge Dlamini is one such poet. Her work is focused on the harmony of life and self, an expression of intent that is simultaneously deeply personal and lovingly universal.
A primary school teacher once disqualified her from a competition on suspicion of plagiarism for a poem that was apparently too advanced for a child of 12.
For Dlamini, poetry is more than simply words on a page. Following in the footsteps of a millennia-old tradition, she writes her poetry to be sung rather than recited, often to great effect. The influence of hip-hop is evident in her delivery, but it would be a disservice to her art to draw a simple comparison between what she does and the music that led her here.
Dlamini occupies several artistic spaces at once. Her voice, electric and hypnotic, draws you into her world, where she shifts between music and spoken word with such ease that the room can scarcely do more than nod in agreement, her soft hmm-hmm punctuating what is already an exclamation in itself.
Growing up in a family naturally inclined towards the arts spurred Dlamini to poetic expression from an early age. A primary school teacher once disqualified her from a competition on suspicion of plagiarism for a poem that was apparently too advanced for a child of 12.
Poetry is not a thing that happens to Dlamini; she is a force waiting to happen to poetry.
She took this to heart and set about deliberately pursuing the poetic life. When she talks about this experience, she considers it formative. "Somehow, as humans, we can find inspiration in the darkest things that happen to us," she muses, as she explains her relationship with writing.
Dlamini describes poetry as a prayer, written down and performed as an expression of the salvation of the self, the stage the altar on which she sacrifices herself. Despite this inward-looking practice, she is keenly aware that she is not alone in her experience.
The chaos of daily life is underwritten by a harmony that can be found in self-reflection, reclaiming her agency and helping others do the same. This means revisiting painful past experiences to learn, heal and undergo the change necessary to find harmony.
Poetry is not a thing that happens to Dlamini; she is a force waiting to happen to poetry. In fact, it's happening already. Her upcoming show, "Harmonious Dichotomous", tackles the darkness by bringing it to light, exploring the complexity of what makes us human and gently provoking us to allow ourselves the same space in which to confront the chaos.
Working with a three-piece band, she negotiates the space between pain and healing, looking for balance. When we talk about love, past relationships, religion and writing from a happy place, she stresses the importance of being fully present. "You drown yourself in your own pain so that you might be able to imagine someone else's," she tells me, and I can't help but think that Dlamini fully embodies her art in ways that are both humbling and cathartic.
Like many poets of her generation – a generation that has already gifted us Koleka Putuma and is surely not done – Dlamini is determined to give her audience raw honesty and authenticity. These poets are changing the face of poetry in South Africa. They are actively building a poetry industry in which black women are afforded space and encouraged to explore "all the parts that make me", as Dlamini so eloquently puts it, without being constrained by ideas of what black femininity and poetic expression should look like in order to be considered good. It's a constant search for humanity and the patterns that mould who we become, but it comes with its own set of challenges.
Being an artist is expensive. Dlamini, who works full-time as a pharmacist while practising poetry full-time, too, says that creating art is a responsibility not just to oneself, but to the artistic community as well. She compensates her band and other collaborators at her own expense, and she hopes that one day the industry will become self-sustaining.
It's a long-term process to which she is fully committed in word and in deed. Increased access to poetry in digital spaces might make this dream – a dream all poets share – a reality, but it would not be possible without poets such as Nomashenge Dlamini, who stretch themselves and their art to its limits in service of the greater collective consciousness. If this is what the future of poetry looks like, I am HERE FOR IT.
Catch Nomashenge Dlamini's"Harmonious Dichotomous"on April 8 2018 at African Flavour Books in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
I've seen you dabble in archery
Bending over backwards to trigger war for him
So many wholes in you he could flute a whistle
His breath a tempest to your hollow
He thinks himself God to this clay.
You are just glad you can breathe through everywhere
Part of everything
Soon to be no thing.
Be sure not to kick the bucket while you hang in there
You unnerve me with your love for daisies dear.
The earth will swallow you bones and all.
All you will do is hover, like a tempest.
Unsettling the debris, screaming the end is near.
He will shrine behind the spine of another.
Who will master archery and trigger peace for him.
You will remember the wholes came from you too
Throat too narrow
You wanted to breathe through everywhere
Part of everything
Soon to be