Q & A with Multi-award winning poet Phillippa Yaa De Villiers
Multi-award winning poet, playwright and performance artist, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is a graduate of the Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris. Her poetry ranges from the private to the political, exploring matters serious, satirical and sensual. She has a prolific portfolio of national and international stage and television productions. Taller than Buildings is first collection of poetry.
Ayob Vania spoke to her on her jorney, this is what she said.
Ayob Vania: What’s the weirdest thing you have come across when you Googled yourself?
Phillippa Yaa De Villiers:I try not to do this too often. I have had some stunningly awful hair days, and also sometimes not very articulate.
Ayob Vania: What is the first book/poem that made you cry and why?
PV:I was very sentimental as a child and cried for animals – Flipper the dolphin, and Ring of Bright Water, and Bright Eyes (Watership Down). Then there were the divorce movies and the cancer movies, that was a lot of snot and trane. Crying for literature was a different kind of touch. it was partly because it was so, so BEAUTIFUL. The first things were nature, then theatre and dance, then words and books. so one that stands out isthis poem by Alice Walker from her collection Horses make a landscape more beautiful, which I just ADORED in high school and varsity.
THE DIAMONDS ON LIZ’s BOSOM
The diamonds on Liz’s bosom
are not as bright
as his eyes
the morning they took him
to work in the mines.
The rubies in Nancy’s
jewel box (Oh, how he loves red!)
not as vivid
as the despair
in his children’s
Oh, those Africans!
Everywhere you look
Crying and bleeding
on some of the whitest necks
in your town.
I cried because of the truth of it, but also because of the elegance of the images, those diamond tears that red red rage. And why do we ask about when a poem made us cry and not when it made us burn down something? I’m not saying I have the answer but it interests me that we think crying is the thing that changes the world. Maybe it does, but maybe other emotions also.
AV: What is your writing process like?
PV:Pretty haphazard, but constant
AV: What advice do you have for writers?
PV:Write, and read, and write and read.
AV: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
PV:it energizes me because it’s like spring cleaning. I only know what’s in my mind when i write it down
AV: Did you write as a child?
AV: What writers did you enjoy reading as a child?
PV:my parents were those ‘we don’t do children’s books’ but i read the nancy drews, the famous fives, the faraway tree stands out to me, madeleine l’engle, ursula le guin, i loved those books.
AV: How did you get started as a poet?
PV:poetry came in search of me at the age of seven when i wrote a poem about my brother. most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing was poems.
AV: How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a poem?
PV:. ear worm, line worm, playing in my head worm, feeling building inside me, usually a few come at the same time, over a few days, l ike a meteor shower for hours and hours
AV: Who are your favourite living poets?
PV:Jackie Kay. Ama Ata Aidoo. Makhosazana Xaba. Don Mattera. Diana Ferrus. Lebohang Masango. Francine Simone. Jolyn Phillips. Katleho Shoro. Billy Collins. Alice Walker.Sterling Plumpp. Tariro Ndoro. All the women in Daughters of Africa. All the women in Our words, our worlds (ed Khosi Xaba)
AV: Who are your favourite dead poets?
PV:Pablo Neruda. Kabir. Keorapetse Kgositsile (it feels wrong – he still feels alive to me because I’ve been working on a Collected Works for University of Nebraska that’s going to come out early next year but. Also he’s a major part of my PhD so he won’t be dead to me for at least 3 more years, and hopefully more). Maya Angelou. June Jordan. Sonia Sanchez.
AV: How did you first get published?
PV:I was reading poems in poetry sessions and people would ask if I could please send the poem to them, so they put ii in journals.
AV: Can you give any advice to someone wanting to write and publish poetry?
PV:The two things are very different.
AV: In addition to your poetry, Is there any form you enjoy writing more than others?
PV:I like music, so I’m trying my hand at lyrics. but there is no real boundary between forms, when I write I’m just writing. it’s the purpose that dictates how it ends up being consumed
AV: What sparked your initial love of poetry?
AV: In what important ways does poetry differ from fiction?
PV:Because emotion, as well as all the senses are so crucial in poetry, it can really change the way you express yourself and see the world. I believe it can change the world, because it can change you at a genetic level. It is a form of healing and a source of spiritual and intellectual enjoyment
AV: What do you find most informs your current writing?
PV:My life, what I like, what I hate, what I am trying to understand.
AV: To you, what are some of the most prevalent ingredients that go into being a South African poet?
PV:A sense of history, a sense of community, a sense of humour
AV: What role should a title play for a poem? What’s important to consider when titling a poem?
Every single choice you make must have a purpose
AV: In 2019, why is it important that we celebrate Poetry more?
PV:because reading, our own private studio for strengthening the mind and enlivening the soul, is under threat. We don’t want to read things that are too difficult, which means that we have a bit of a bubblehead level of concentration, and quite a superficial understanding of events, which makes us vulnerable. All we want is money and sweets, and not each other’s happiness.
AV: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
PV:Honey, listen to the people. You are GOOD.
AV: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
PV:At 6 I was told to get off the bus because “it was not for Coloureds”. I had no other way of getting home – my school was in Orange Grove and I lived in Halfway House, Midrand. I was on the side of the road, without a cell phone. No matter how well I spoke, how polite I was, the label was bigger than anything I could say. On the other hand, after my parents had told me that I was adopted (at 20) I realized that the made up story about who I was, that was white, had no more power over me and I was free to create my own vocabulary of my experience.