Sihle Ntuli on Bringing Durban Poetry to the World
In Conversation with Kirsten Reneau for the Micro Podcast
Micro is a podcast for short but powerful writing. Each week features a few short pieces of fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or poetry read by the author. In the accompanying interview series, 5 Qs with Kirsten, Kirsten Reneau chats with a featured reader.
The sun has been linked to spiritualness many times in literature and religion, but rarely is it done with as much precision as in “The Sun Turns on Us” by Sihle Ntuli. There is obviously a skillful level of craft happening in the layout and the change of form, but maybe the most impressive part (for me, at least) is what a professor of mine once called “choosing the perfect word.”
The idea is simple —you choose the perfect word, every time, for every word—but how often do we really think about every single word, every single time? Reading Ntuli’s work, there is a sense that he’s doing exactly that. It is not one beautiful line, but several perfect words, elevating the language over and over again. That language emulates the movement of the sun and tunes the reader into the physical and spiritual, forcing us to consider reckon with both—on Ntuli’s terms.
Listen to Sihle Ntuli read “The Sun Turns on Us” on Micro.
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Kirsten Reneau: What was the original inspiration behind this poem?
Sihle Ntuli: Durban summers have recently become particularly unbearable. This led me into a conversation about global warming with my twin and some friends from KwaMashu. The inspiration to write the poem came about when a friend brought religion into the discussion, saying God would not abandon his children. For me this was an interesting place to begin thinking about the poem.
Kirsten Reneau: There’s obviously something really interesting going on with the way this poem moves. Not only is there this container of time for each set of stanzas, but the format of the stanzas changes as we move forward. Can you talk some about those decisions?
Sihle Ntuli: I used a common understanding of times of the day (morning, daytime, afternoon) to build a dramatic tension that gains intensity through each of the stanzas. The poem moves in three different directions to correspond with each transition of the sun. I made the commitment to poetically interpret the movements of the sun whilst also referencing philosophical and existential questions.
Kirsten Reneau: You have your masters in classical civilizations. How do you feel that informs your writing?
Sihle Ntuli: Classics in South Africa is currently undergoing a transition—departments are now beginning to include African mythology and civilizations in the curriculum. I have recently found myself having to think a lot more deeply about this. I’d say it informs my overall poetic outlook; I write with a deep respect for the craft of poetry. I honor the craft with a deep sense of passion.
With this said, our contemporary poems record history just as the bards did, and I recognize the responsibility that comes with this. I have chosen to honor the bards who once used oral poetry to preserve the origins of the Ntuli family name, alongside many others. I am paying homage to a poetic tradition often overlooked but undeniably the oldest form of African literature, and it still needs to be given its due respect.
Kirsten Reneau: What do you think is the perfect time of day?
Sihle Ntuli: I enjoy the early morning hours, just before the sun rises, where there is still enough time for darkness to sit for a while before the gradual emergence of light. I often think a lot about my life in this little window. I dream about the person I wish I could be until the sun creeps in.
Kirsten Reneau: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process in general, where you find inspiration, and walk us through the submission process for this piece?
Sihle Ntuli: I write in cycles rather than write every day. Occasionally I choose a month and try to write a poem for each day. I then edit the useable poems over a few months until I feel they are ready. I made the submission for the Red Velvet issue of The Hellebore in late 2020; the editor Denise Nicole Andrews was super flexible and open to suggestions (which I appreciated). This was also my first ever publication in the United States. I find inspiration everywhere in my daily life, though my ultimate inspiration is to showcase South African culture, and more especially bring Durban poetry to the world.
Micro is edited and curated by Dylan Evers and produced and hosted by Drew Hawkins. Theme song is by Matt Ordes. Follow the show on Twitter at @podcastmicro.
Sihle Ntuli is a poet and classicist from Durban, South Africa. He has had poetry published in The Rumpus, SAND Journal, Lolwe & Transition Magazine, amongst others. He is the author of the chapbook Rumblin (uHlanga, 2020).