Q & A Poet, healer and co-founder of impepho press Vangile Gantsho

30 July 2019 Interview Latest Poetry

Vangile gantsho is a poet, healer and co-founder of impepho press. Unapologetically black woman, she has travelled the continent and the USA participating in literary events and festivals. Gantsho is the author of two poetry collections: Undressing in front of the window (2015) and red cotton(2018). She holds an MA from the University Currently Known as Rhodes (2016) and was recently named one of Mail& Guardian’s Top Young 200 South Africans of 2018.

AYOB VANIA: What’s the weirdest thing you have come across when you Googled yourself?


VANGILE GANTSHO: I don’t know hey. I’m not sure I’ve found anything I could consider weird.


AV: What is the first book/poem that made you cry and why?


VG: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. Her life just felt so painful. I couldn’t imagine having to go through so much. And I didn’t understand why people (children) had to suffer. It broke my heart.


AV: What is your writing process like?


VG: My writing process has relaxed a bit now because I do so many other things outside of writing, but my favourite and most productive writing time continues to be around 3am. Which is also a time for prayer. I think I do my clearest writing as a part of prayer.


I prefer writing by hand, so I keep pen and paper next to my bed, but I’m not opposed to typing on my computer. Propped up, on my bed, when the world feels like it’s quiet and listening. Poetry is, for me, about listening.


AV: What advice do you have for writers?


VG: Read.


AV: Does writing energize or exhaust you?


VG: It depends. On what I’m writing I guess. Some writing feels like coming back from the toilet after holding your pee in for too long, you can finally look people in their faces and hear what they’re saying. Other writing feels like scraping dead skin. So I can’t say for sure really.


AV: Did you write as a child?


VG: Yes. Quite well actually. My dad encouraged me to put all my writing together in a book. Unfortunately that book was stolen with my money box (that toppled over into a bag of collected coins) when we were moving. I was quite devastated.

AV: What writers did you enjoy reading as a child?


VG: I guess it would depend on which part of my childhood. Pre-teens, I can’t really remember. I remember loving nursery rhymes, poems like Ladles and Jellyspoons (I come before you to stand behind you and tell you something I know nothing about…) and Childcraft and World Book Encyclopedias. I loved for reading Poldy to my little brother. (Signora Piti Pati was my favourite – when Poldy was in Italy I think.)


As I got older, I read began with Esther Hautzig and moved on to The Diary of Anne Frank, and then I discover umakhulu Maya [Angelou]. I stayed with Maya for years. She’s still my North when it comes to literature.


AV: How did you get started as a poet?


VG: I think my love for nursery rhymes got me loving poetry. I used to love reading funny poems


Haircut by Allan Ahlberg

“I hate having my hair cut;

And when it’s done, 

I hate going to school next day 

and being told about it –

By everyone

I can stand having my hair cut,

Though I’d rather let it grow. 

What I can’t stand 

Is being told I’ve had it cut –

As if I didn’t know!”


Then there was the daughter of a family friend who was older and wrote such beautiful poetry. She was from Namibia. And she helped me prepare for the poetry eisteddfod in primary school. I remember Mrs De Ronchi didn’t believe I wrote my poem myself.


Anyways… I was one of those people who loved English literature at school. I even didn’t mind dissecting the poem ad nauseam. (Although I’m still not convinced Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms is about population anything.) I liked my English teachers, esp Mrs Felton… And I guess over time, I just fell in love with poetry in particular, but words in general.


AV: How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a poem


VG: Tjo! I can’t say. Some poems come out by themselves. No help. I sit down and I write, freehand, and it’s done. Others I have to come back to often. I have to sit with and fiddle with until they feel right.


Once written though, I let it sit. Rest a bit before coming back to it. Then I’ll read it again and edit it, and let it rest some more. I may share it with one of my poetry sisters for feedback. Or I may file it under “new writing” and see.


AV: Who are your favourite living poets?


VG: Hmmm… Tamkhulu Wally Serote (his early works), Tamkhulu Don Materra. Safia Elhillo, Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese, Rita Dove, Claudia Rankin (essay-lyricist maybe). Busisiwe Mahlangu. I don’t know hey… I varies, depending on my mood and what I need.


AV: Who are your favourite dead poets?


VG: Pablo Neruda, Khalil Gibran, Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich.


AV: How did you first get published?


VG: A poem? Hmmm… I can’t remember how it happened, but I remember it was a poem called “How did it go so wrong” and it was published in a journal called The Agenda (2005).


AV: Can you give any advice to someone wanting to write and publish poetry?


VG: Read the kind of poetry you wish you could write. Then read the poets your favourite poets enjoy. Every once in a while, read a few poems you don’t agree with but think are beautifully written. Find out who published your favourite authors. Get a feedback community that will be honest with you. Submit your work to journals and websites. Send your manuscript to at least four people who won’t lie to you, one of them should be someone who enjoys reading but isn’t a writer. Be bold, but put in the work.


AV: In addition to your poetry, Is there any form you enjoy writing more than others?


VG: I enjoy writing poetic prose. And blog style essays.


AV: What sparked your initial love of poetry?


VG: Nursery rhymes


AV: In what important ways does poetry differ from fiction?


VG: Poetry is succinct. Cuts to the bone. (Or should be.) With poetry very little says so much.


AV: What do you find most informs your current writing?


VG: What I’m reading and my spirituality.


AV: To you, what are some of the most prevalent ingredients that go into being a South African poet?


VG: Hmmm… Should or do?


Should. Having something to say. Something urgent. Having your own style of writing and references. Honesty. Sincerity. A degree of fearlessness.


AV: What role should a title play for a poem? What’s important to consider when titling a poem?


VG: I don’t know hey. Honestly. I struggle with titles. But I think the title should add to the poem. Be a part of it or a reflection of it. Not be too prosaic.


AV: In 2019, why is it important that we celebrate Poetry more?


VG: I think we must celebrate good art. Always. And we must celebrate good poetry. Because these are the footprints we leave behind. In the future, what people will know of us will be from the art we left behind.


AV: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?


VG: Don’t give up. Read more. Trust your voice more. What you have to say is important. And saying it is more important than being celebrated for saying it. Remember that. Remember why you write it.


AV: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?


VG: Yho. Ummm… In primary school. Mrs De Ronchi pronounced my name Van-jee-lee. I corrected her and she dismissed me. So I called her Mrs De Ron-chee instead of De Ron-khi. Every time she mispronounced my name, I responded by mispronouncing hers. Then she stopped. And called me Vangile. My dad had always taught me that what I answer to is important, because that’s how I retain my power. I think this was my first real life lesson of that.

vangile gantsho
poet. healer. publisher.



Her latest collection, red cotton, an exploration of what it means to be black, queer, and woman in modern-day South Africa, was named City Press Top Poetry Read of 2018, alongside feeling and ugly by danai mupotsa (also from impepho press).