An interview with the poet Khaya Ronkainen[ life from South Africa to Finland]

adventure cold cross country skiing dawn
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I understand Finland has very advanced social systems. What impresses you most about it?

Khaya: What impresses me is the accountability and transparency on how public funds and taxpayers’ money are used in creating a dignified and decent living for all. The accessibility of education, free and everyone’s right, regardless of background, impresses me the most.

Sherry: It impresses me as well. In North America, we are losing rights left and right at the moment.

When did you first begin to write? Did it help you with the culture shock of finding yourself in a new place?

Khaya: Ah! The famous question…*laughs*. I can’t say for sure. As a child I preferred to write than to talk. This means I did a lot of letter writing, you know, more like the Dorothy Osborne kind of writing; long reports about rural life to my cousins and friends living in cities.

But it was when I moved to Finland that I actually started putting meaningful stories down. It was a way of dealing with culture shock, and so words became my friends.

Sherry: I love that: “words became my friends.” They do give comfort. When did you branch into poetry?

Khaya: I don’t think I branched out into poetry, Sherry. I’ve always been in it, even before I attempted to write it. I’ve always been a lover and a reader of poetry with influences such as S.E.K. Mqhayi and Tiyo Soga (Xhosa poets/writers), to name just a few.

I even had a crush on John Keats himself, during my high school years…*laughs* when a boy trying to impress me recited Keats’ Endymion. I thought, wow! I want to do that. But then I went to study business and got swept away a bit, whilst I chased the bottom line.

So, I returned and pursued poetry seriously, when I got stuck in my novel writing; a project that is still pending. Luckily at the time, I was also doing studies in English Philology (as part of a career change), and the process of writing poetry sort of came naturally.

Sherry: I love that you branch out in all directions, exploring all life offers. What do you love about poetry? What makes it sing for you?

Khaya: I love how poetry pushes limits with language and form. Its ability to make us pause, be in the moment, and remind us that water is still wet. The process of birthing a poem; the whisper, the nudge, the build-up and the release that eventually leads me to write with urgency. That like any other art form, poetry doesn’t belong to the creator but to the people.

To quote one of my writer friends, Khutsie Kasale, “Poetry is something more sacred and authentic. It is a gift of words birthed through the artist that come straight from the hands of God.”

So, I love that poetry means different things to different people depending on where it finds them.

Sherry: Such a good explanation! I read on your blog that you come from the Xhosa people, who have a strong tradition of oral storytelling. Do you think that is reflected in your poetry, that you are carrying on the tradition in your work? Do you remember a grandmother or someone in your family, who told great stories that caused you, as a little girl, to dream?

Khaya: I mentioned earlier on that I don’t think I branched out into poetry, I’ve always been in it. By this I mean, a Xhosa child, (or an African child for that matter), learns quite early in life who they are. That is, a knowledge of their origin, past history and culture because African cultures pride themselves on clan names.

So, a child learns about the notion of iziduko/izibongo through chanting of a multitude of family clan names; ancestors and heroes (living and dead) from the elders.

Chanting of clan praises is poetry itself; oral poetry that overlaps with a song. Thus, in my writing I’m always trying to emulate that rhythm and harmony.

Sherry: I envy you that rich cultural heritage. I see it, too, among the First Nations people where I live – such an ancient, proud, traditional culture.

Would you like to share three of your poems here, and tell us a bit about each one?

Khaya: Before I share, it’s important to point that my work often examines duality of an immigrant life; loss and gain. And the “I” doesn’t always mean the writer but the speaker.

Word Roots

Of origins I do not know

Theories varied and accepted

Making sense and no sense

Words are my friends.

Words that go forward

In prose and in books

Words that return

In verse and in song.

Of classical and medieval

Renaissance and modern

It’s Twa, the forage and pastoral

Tshawe, the ancestral heroes I seek

Diminished words found

Not in history books

Accepted words whose

History is esteemed

It’s Nongqawuse‘s words I thirst;

A prophecy from uQamata

Words older than writing

Dramatic and creative

Praise poems of no particular

Historical period. Folk tales

Of Tokoloshe terrifying

Children and adults alike.

Infidel words, beginnings

I do not know but whose

Oral tradition leaves me

Smitten in a trance

Speaking in tongues

Descending the Great Lakes

Borrowing from Khoi

To click a sound.

A tradition of Xhosa poetry

Whose metre measured not

In literary magazines, yet rhyme

Rings loud in Grahamstown

Words murmured teasing

With foreplay, words chanted

Exploding into a climax

Do scratch an itch

Spoken and sung

Barbaric and censored

Roots of word

I seek.

Khaya: This poem examines relationship with languages. It was inspired by a Poetry Festival held in my city, Tampere, in 2015. The theme was Syntyjä, Syviä, loosely translated as “root of words”.

Journeys I’ve Travelled

I’ve been to the north
I’ve been to the south

Journeys —
left me floating in between
(where both worlds depart)
and with no claim to either.

Suburbia no longer white
we sip tea and spend hours
discussing weather, whilst
the sun shines in black rural.
In song and dance we quench
— thirst vanquished.

I’ve been to the city
I’ve been to the country

Allow me the misguided view
with diluted memories, for
I build a world with these
smatterings of my life.

Khaya: I think this one is self-explanatory.


                    What would you have me say of you?

                    Ours is an obscure relationship

                    You led me believe I was your baby

A summer baby―

                    Because down south, October simmers

                    Spring overlapping with summer.

                    What would you have me say of you?

                    As if immaterial, now you tell me I am

An autumn baby―

                    Because up north, October teases

                    Skies weep fearful of winter.

Khaya: And the last is a poem excerpt from my upcoming chapbook that I’m hoping to release in spring 2018. I wrote it in celebration of the centenary of Finland’s Independence.

Sherry: Thank you for these, Khaya. You express yourself so well. I especially love the Xhosa words included in your poem. And we look forward to your book.

When you aren’t writing, what other activities do you enjoy?

Khaya: During my spare time, I can be found wandering in nature, hiking and backpacking, amongst other things, with my husband.

Should you go on holiday this year…….


Why not take a holiday in  the Vatican State especially if you are wanted by the police here or in Australia and you are a Cardinal.
How about going to Poland  and asking  what anti-Semitism ever did for them?
Don’t buy a raffle ticket in Saudi Arabia.Gambling is illegal.
Don’t go to Egypt with  your own Mummy
On the Golan Heights you  get a good view of Israel.Soon it will be in Israel
If you go to Gaza don’t strip unless forced to by the Border Guards.Smile and be friendly.It annoys some of them.
If you go to Jerusalem, wear long sleeves even if you are a nudist
In a Mosque, be decently dressed.If you remember what it means
Don’t bear or bare arms anywhere in the Middle East
That cheap 15 day trip to Damascus might end  early when the Bomb drops.We know who has one.
Don’t complain that the French don’t speak English.Complain if they do
If in the Holy Land,pray.
Pray anyway
Remember the flu in 1918 killed more people than two world wars .Is giving your enemies flu the best revenge?
I wish we were Muslims as the clothes Christians and atheists wear are so revealing it’s enough to make a man  or woman go mad with either rage or lust  or both.It’s embarrasing living here as only immigrants dress nicely [ and me![
I  reckon a stay at home holiday and a donation to the Red Cross might be the answer for me.



Three Hundred Thousand More BY JAMES SLOAN GIBBONS

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more,
From Mississippi’s winding stream, and from New England’s shore;
We leave our ploughs and workshops, our wives and children dear,
With hearts too full for utterance, with but a silent tear;
We dare not look behind us, but steadfastly before:
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!
If you look across the hill tops that meet the Northern sky,
Long moving lines of rising dust your vision may descry;
And now the wind, an instant, tears the cloudy vail aside,
And floats aloft our spangled flag, in glory and in pride,
And bayonets in the sunlight gleam, and bands brave music pour:
We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!
If you look all up your valleys, where the growing harvests shine,
You may see our sturdy farmer boys, fast forming into line;
And children from their mothers’ knees, are pulling at the weeds,
And learning how to reap and sow against their country’s needs;
And a farewell group stands weeping at every cottage door:
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!
You have called us, and we’re coming, by Richmond’s bloody tide
To lay us down, for freedom’s sake, our brother’s bones beside;
Or from foul treason’s savage group to wrench the murderous blade,
And in the face of foreign foes its fragments to parade;
Six hundred thousand loyal men and true have gone before:
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!

Poetry and the American civil war

An extract

A “Poetry-Fueled War”

During the Civil War, poetry didn’t just respond to events; it shaped them.

When Edmund Wilson dismissed the poetry of the Civil War as “versified journalism” in 1962, he summed up a common set of critiques: American poetry of the era is mostly nationalist doggerel, with little in the way of formal innovation. On the contrary, argues scholar Faith Barrett. In her new book, To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave,Barrett contends that a broad range of 19th-century writers used verse during the Civil War to negotiate complicated territory, both personal and public. Taking its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, Barrett’s book also argues that Civil War poetry was much more formally destabilizing than scholars have traditionally acknowledged.

The book explores work by Northern writers such as Emily DickinsonWalt Whitman, and black abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, along with amateur “soldier-poets” and several Southern poets, including the so-called poet laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod. Barrett devotes a chapter to Herman Melville’s little-read postwar collection Battle-Pieces, and another to the close connection between poetry and songs during the war.

Barrett co-edited a 2005 anthology of Civil War poetry called Words for the Hour, and her own published poetry includes a 2001 chapbook, Invisible Axis. She spoke with the Poetry Foundation from Appleton, Wisconsin, where she teaches English and creative writing at Lawrence University.

You write that the Civil War was a “poetry-fueled war.” What do you mean by that?

Poetry in mid-19th-century America was ubiquitous in a way that it just isn’t now. It was everywhere in newspapers and magazines, children were learning it in school…. Americans were encountering poetry on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis, in the Civil War era, and that’s a profound difference from contemporary poetry and its place in our culture.

There are so many accounts in newspapers of soldiers dying with a poem in their pockets, poems written on a scrap of paper folded up inside a book; so many accounts of songs or poems being sung or read to political leaders at particular moments. For example, after Lincoln announced the second call for a draft … James Sloan Gibbons wrote this song poem called “Three Hundred Thousand More,” which he supposedly sang to Lincoln in his office one day. So there’s a kind of immediacy of impact, that poetry is actually, I suggest, shaping events, not just responding or reflecting on them

When blackness is accepted, may one learn?

The gravity of loss brought me to earth
Beneath the rotting leaves, I lay with worms. |
I wondered if I were of any worth.

No more to be enchanted by love’s mirth,
I with unnamed particles was turned.
The weight of loss bears down the heart to earth.

I could not rise alone but saw a path
While I slept a unity had formed
I learned I need not think of what I’m worth

My sorrow brought no guilt nor fear of wrath
I am both eagle and the twisted worm
In my little grave, I loved the earth.

Like the adder, shocked into rebirth.
I from silent underworld had learned
Not to judge the soul about its worth.

I shall not fear the flames of hell that burn
When blackness is accepted, may one learn?
The weight of loss breaks down the soul to earth
With dusty shredded leaves, we then converse

Post-truth, post-God, post meaning, post remorse

Who should speak, which people have a voice?
Can we trust the ones who’ve told such lies
Post-truth, post-God, post meaning, post remorse?

If we’re wounded, who shall give recourse?
Does it matter to them what we’re tortured by?
Who should speak, which people own their voice?

If we hear bad news, what is its source?
See the bodies  hear the babies cry,
Post-truth, post-God, post meaning, post remorse?

Can we spread democracy by force?
Is it still democracy post-war?
Who should speak, which people own their voice?

Which of all the methods is the choice?
What is politics the reason for,
Post-truth, post-God, post meaning, post remorse?

If I speak, will you believe I lie?
The tongues of angels whisper, what of Troy
Who should speak, which people have a voice?
Post-truth, post-God, post meaning, post remorse

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