How (I think) I became a Poet by Annette Snyckers

All children are poets at heart. Some are lucky, like me, and grow up close to nature. They carry with them forever the images that later inspire words. I grew up in a city on the edge of a nature reserve. We kept a half drum of dried mealies in the shed and my mother grew a patch of lucerne at the back of our terraced garden for the animals that came down to our fence. Today that would be frowned upon, considered meddling with Nature. But then it gave me a sense of responsibility, of caring for something – a sense of wonderment above all, as those blue-grey tongues of the Eland delicately licked the treats from my small hands. The reserve was one of the few “koppies” or flat-topped hills on the plains of the Free State. As there were no predators, I was allowed to climb the big tree on our side of the fence and let myself down along a low-hanging branch into the veld on the other side – into another world.

During the summer holidays we went camping in the Tsitsikamma forest on the Eastern Cape coast. I slept in a tent under huge trees, heard rain drops on the canvas and lay in bed listening to tree frogs calling. There were hundreds of fireflies in the forest at night. I never felt scared – except when a stray donkey popped his head into my tent one night. There were no friends or siblings to capture my attention during those holidays – my sister was thirteen years older and already at university. My father had beautiful hands – and the knack of grabbing a fly mid-flight. Most mornings we walked hand-in-hand to feed flies to the big yellow-and-blue orb spider who sat in the centre of a magnificent web. I became aware of bird song and the sound of the wind in high trees. But when I close my eyes now, what I see is the light – filtered through the forest canopy – lucent shades of green, a sacred space. And I smell the fecund smell of damp earth, leaf mulch and rotting wood. A little further away was the ocean and the clear amber-coloured water of Nature’s Valley’s river and lagoon. Sun and salt turned my skin a smooth almond brown very quickly.

On some weekends there were visits to farms where in the dry season, the wind would moan forlornly through bluegum trees and the nights would be bitterly cold. There were cats in front of the coal stove and little black girls to play with. They wore coloured glass beads around their slim necks. I envied those beads. Inadvertently, I scared them one evening when, in the lamp-lit bedroom, I brushed my hair and sparks of static electricity flew. Behind me in the mirror I saw mistrust in their eyes– they were no longer keen to play with me after that.

I remember another holiday spent on the coast of KwaZulu Natal. I was in awe: banana trees, Frangipani, Hibiscus and waving palm fronds stirred up feelings I had not known before.  As we drove into the city centre of Durban, I saw the most beautiful human being I had hitherto seen – a young Indian woman in a sari of unimaginable colour crossed the road in front of our car. In the hotel there were smartly dressed waiters – dark-skinned men with shiny sleeked-back hair. I was smitten and I wanted answers. I was told that in the province where we lived, Indians were only allowed to pass through; they were not allowed to spend even one night. Why? And what happened if their car broke down? I was incensed, furious about the unfairness of it all and by the exclusion of these people from my world. The Indian market swamped my senses with colours, sounds and aromas – fabrics, silver, strange music, strange languages, noise, incense, curry and spices. I wrapped up these exotic images and took them home to spread out in splendour at the feet of my friends – in my mother tongue Afrikaans and in my newly acquired English (with a Canadian accent picked up from the little girls who were visiting their grandparents next door). I loved the new words and the new sounds and could not understand why my parents would fall about laughing.

My response to this rich world was to draw, to lose myself in colour. Although those first attempts always fell short of my young heart’s expectations, I was hooked and I kept at it. Today I am a visual artist. But I am also a poet. Before I studied Fine Art, I studied French and English literature and became a high school language teacher. I married a German speaking man. I took in translation work when my children were small. I lived in four languages and walked through the doors they opened into a wonderfully varied world. I can write endlessly about love, marriage and motherhood, about dark and desperate episodes in my life and how these themes drip steadily through the filter of my work, but I would not do them justice within the confines of an essay. Poetry collections are piled on my bedside table. I have learnt from other poets; their work has sustained me through difficult times, kept me company through lonely times, made me laugh, made me cry. Those whose work I love and who have inspired me, are too many to mention here.

The sharing of fears, feelings and ideas through poetry brings about a sense of risk and of vulnerability which I suppose all poets struggle with, but I cannot imagine my life without it – the thrill and satisfaction of painting with words, the feeling that something extraordinary, something inexplicable is happening while I work on a poem. Something I feel reluctant to take credit for. So I can talk about the crafting of poetry in as far as I master that, I can list the anthologies and the literary magazines my poems appear in, but do these things make me a poet? I don’t really know.

I do know that on some days the old imposter syndrome makes me think: who am I to call myself a poet? But then I remember that little girl in the forest. Perhaps she was a poet long before she even knew what the word meant. I owe her gratitude.

(This essay was written by Annette Snyckers. More about Annette can be found here: Annette Snyckers)