Monday, July 5, 2010

Gleaming in Mansion and Moonlight, a Toilet Tale of South Africa

June 8, 2010. Right before I boarded my Emirates flight from Dubai to Johannesburg, I picked South Africa’s Guardian from a buffet of South African newspapers splayed out for the boarding passengers. Aside from the president’s personal affairs, most of the paper covered the World cup, which was to officially begin in three days. I could certainly feel the fever there on this here plane. A flock of Mexicans in their green Adidas soccer jerseys and gargantuan sombreros certainly added to the noise level especially with the help of all you can drink booze. I was surprised to find a smattering of empty seats—a foreshadowing of what I was to later learn. That as a whole, South Africa and FIFA expected more people. Imagine entire hotels, built in anticipation and never used. Bars that bought flat screens hoping their counters would be packed with elbows only to find them near empty, night after night.

The most compelling news of the day concerned Cape Town, a place I can see myself building a life someday. The headline “Township Toilet Wars” snagged my eye along with the photo of a simple toilet standing in broad daylight in someone’s yard. Toilet disputes were going down in Khayelitsha, the massive ghetto that accompanies one for most of the journey from Cape Town’s airport to town, miles and miles of shacks.

For decades, township residents have lived without proper sanitation. The DA, the governing party in Cape Town, installed toilets minus enclosures for families throughout the townships, inspiring feelings of insult among township residents. The rivaling political party, the ANC Youth League responded in an uproar, for the blatant lack of dignity the poor were being afforded by being expected to defecate in broad daylight. The president of the DA, however, claimed that they wanted to encourage the families to take ownership and build their own enclosures, their argument being that people should take initiative and not always expect handouts from the government. To appease the uproar, the DA began building ramshackle enclosures, some of which members of the ANC Youth League subsequently tore down, stating that they should dignify the poor by building proper concrete enclosures so that families can feel secure and well protected. These actions lead to volatile conflicts between the protestors and the police force. So here we have two political parties who once fought together against the Apartheid regime, fighting in the streets over an issue so intimate to our every day lives as Americans. Here, using the bathroom is a political act. To shit or not to shit?


Dusk as Langa transported me from OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg to my guest house in Pretoria, which some call the capital of Apartheid. The stunning tree canopied roads made me feel I was in a wonderland, that is, until I spotted the high, razor-wired walls encasing ashamed mansions.

Trickling from the gates of these homes are the working class, leaving after a long day to return to their respective township. I wondered for the mental shift even the most accustomed day laborer must make to leave the township so early each morning to clean the insides, manicure the grasses of these concrete monstrosities. To relieve yourself in a bucket at night to avoid having to go outside the comfort and safety your home, only to enter these high walls in the morning with 10 toilets to gleam.


June 10, 2010: My first evening in Cape Town, I found myself accompanying Teba (who I write snail mail letters to all year long) and Langa to the townships to run errands. We went to the Marcus Garvey a section in the Phillipa where the Rastas reside. On the way there, Teba popped in his new reggae track entitled “No!” which he wrote out of anger and grief after a member of the Marcus Garvey Rasta community was murdered unexpectedly in his home in the night.

It was well past dusk and the streets were clear, save for the sad packs of mongrel dogs. While the strays in Trinidad have a habit of lying down in the middle of the street, only to raise up just before the knowing Trini driver advances with aggression, these dogs chase your car as you leave, sometimes coming so close to the wheels it is understandable why at least one dog in the pack walks and runs on only three legs.

In Marcus Garvey, I waited outside in the quiet, semi dark. And in the front yard of one of the shacks I spotted a toilet, vulnerable and stark in the night, gleamed by the rag of moon.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Birthing the Staccatode, a nonce form

In 2001 in Tallahassee during Black on Black Rhyme week, I taught a poetry workshop to my peers. There, I shared my short poem, Prince Charmin'.

Prince Charmin'

I want
a man like
toilet paper

gentle enough
to wipe
away my tears

strong enough
to take
all my shit

We began discussing short poems (that aren't haiku.) What do short poems accomplish that longer works cannot? How does silence serve us then? And since there are so few words how is the title then forced to function in the larger message of the poem? And what to name this poem?

Thus, the staccato was born. Staccato is a short and detached note of music. Think staccato fire.


Two criteria for staccato:

1. Brief, though no prescribed length

2. Title should be integral, enhances the experience of the poem greatly.


My Half Brother

Man! What happened to your legs?

-Staccato by Keith Rodgers


Staccatoes come in all types ranging from raw, disturbing, thought-provoking, silly, and just downright laugh out loud funny. And yes, clever. Outside of a handful, I never did write too terribly many and felt like less than a person whenever I would speak to Keith, who would always ask, write any staccatoes lately? Keith however, has been mastering the craft and has kept the form alive on fb and in the form of poetry workshops to young people, who love them!


Meanwhile, thanks to Senor Pablo Neruda, I have been entertaining an obsession of my own. You guessed it...the ode. Most commonly they are said to be poems of praise, though I like to call them poems of dedication. Really for me it becomes an honest conversation to or about something that matters about stuff that matters. Robert Hass once told me that all poems were once odes.


Today my head is almost as empty as the sky seems. Just returned stateside from a month long poetry tour in South Africa, I have very few words. But I want to write something. And so I open my pen, and ink, all over my hands.


Staccato + Ode: = Staccaode!!

Staccatode to My Rolling Writer Pen

Black woman
you explode
when we fly

Just a first stab. We'll see what happens...