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Artist Spotlight: Khanyi Mbukwane

Words: Ellen Kenny
Photos: Sal Stapelton

Words: Ellen Kenny
Photos: Sal Stapelton

Moving to Dublin from South Africa in 2020, writer and creative Khanyi Mbukwane is making their poetry debut. Launching their first anthology, “A Girl and her Poems”, Khanyi explores early childhood traumas living in South Africa, heartaches, and self-love in an exciting and experimental fashion.
Speaking to District ahead of their live performances in Workman’s and Project Arts Centre, Khanyi discusses the art of poetry, the power of performing and their rising career in Dublin’s fledgling new creative scene.

TW: This interview contains mentions of sexual violence.

Q: What do you think connects you to poetry beyond like other forms of creativity?

“I always reference the fact that I’m super African. And when I say that, I mean, I think a lot of my ideals come through storytelling. As Africans, we passed down knowledge through talking and telling stories around the fire, and I’ve always associated poetry with that. And also, poetry was just the easiest thing for me.”

“Because if it’s short stories, there’s so many versions of it, where I think poetry is simpler. I’m a really simple person, I think poetry is just the simplest form of “I’m feeling this way and putting it on paper”.”

Q: So do you think a lot of your poetry is based on your personal experiences?

1000 per cent. I think intrinsically I always say this thing that like at my core, I’m just a baby that is filled with stories and I think that’s just all my poetry is. And also not just my past experiences, but prayers for the future. I write poems about what I want to do, I want to see people I want to meet places. I think my poetry jumps between honouring and listening to my past self and praying and hoping for my future.

Q: And when you’re keeping things individual to yourself, do you find some people find the concepts universal?

One thing that TikTok’s taught me is that I have no unique experiences. I have none.
I think the poems I tried to write that are super relatable happened to be the ones about my South African experience. And like growing up, because I don’t identify as a woman but I would say I was perceived as one growing up, as like a woman in that society. When I write that perspective, it’s always about us.

I think my poetry jumps between honouring and listening to my past self and praying and hoping for my future.

Khanyi Mbukwane

Q: What are some of the main themes in the book?

Okay, this is where we get really sad. So the book kind of goes in four stages. It’s trauma, heart ache, healing and power.

I think trauma kind of just goes to growing up in a very violent society in Africa. Because, trigger warning, we are the highest with the rape capital of the world, and then having been the victim to that, and then trying to date with that giant bag of trauma.

And then you’ve got “healing”, which was really radical and honest and taking accountability for my actions and a lot of heartache. And the kind of realization that like you’re not that special, you know, like nobody comes into your life that special. You give them that importance.

And then “power” in the end is, “I’m gonna take this baton, and I’m gonna fuck with me so radically that you fucking with me is not gonna hurt.”

I think it’s because in my head I’m a singer that just happens to read poetry. I feel like in another life I probably would have been a musician or had some semblance of musical talent.

Khanyi Mbukwane

Q: Where would you find that inspiration for your poetry?

Again, being African, listening to my mom, and talking about her upbringing? My dad, a lot of older people around me. And I used to watch Def Jam and be like, “I can’t wait to be on it!” like it wasn’t over for ten years by the time I was watching it. But I was watching Def Jam poetry, a lot of rap, a lot of philosophical rap, and also jazz. Everything is so intense and so simple.

Q: Do you think there’s something quite musical to your poetry?

1000 per cent. I think it’s because in my head I’m a singer that just happens to read poetry. I just can’t sing. I feel like in another life I probably would have been a musician or had some semblance of musical talent.

Q: If you could have any artist sing your poetry, who would you pick?

Oh, Georgia Smith, because she does really well with turning poetry into music. Or Charlotte Day Wilson. And I’d want Little Simz to rap my poems.

Image: Connolly Books

I think the poetry scene has a lot of potential. It needs to be bigger and I think they need to expand what poetry looks like. It’s not just sad white men writing about nature.

Khanyi Mbukwane

Q: You’ll be performing yourself next week in Workman’s and Project Arts Centre. What’s the process of getting ready to perform your poetry live?

A lot of texting friendship groups and a lot of reading, because when I I write the poems, it is from a place of “how would this sound if I performed it?” I think that kind of makes it easier because I’ve already written it like I was gonna perform it.

So I don’t really have a lot of anxiety when performing at poetry events. I think that what I’m shiting myself with Project Arts is just because it’s like I’ve never done this before. People are coming to see me in a theatre space by myself.

Q: So when you’re performing, do you have a persona or a character in each performance or do you feel like it is just you?

I feel there is a stronger version of me performing. I think I’m super confident in how I behave. And always, I just feel like I’m asking you to come indulge me, I have to give you a show. It is very much like, we don’t fake it till we make it but like you’re asking people to come and enjoy your poetry and share this. So I have to be super confident in how I’m doing this, because you deserve that.

Q: How do you find being involved in poetry and performing arts in Dublin?

Dublin has so much potential to be such a cool city. It’s just that it does not value young people. Which is a wild thing to say because like it doesn’t value young people, and especially the arts, and on top of that young black people.

I think in terms of poetry, it’s been really successful, but like you kind of reach a ceiling really quickly, because there’s only like five events and five shows and five versions of something. It’s really difficult to grow past something.

I think the poetry scene has a lot of potential. It needs to be bigger and I think they need to expand what poetry looks like. It’s not just sad white men writing about nature. If there’s one thing Irish poets love, it’s nature. If people focus less on what poetry used to look like and honoured more what poetry could be, the scene could be phenomenal.

We have a lot more like rappers and a lot more interesting stories from immigrants. There are so many stories that have not been told yet because it does not fit this old white man mould of what poetry should look like. And there’s a lot of Irish stories that aren’t being told, like Irish poets that speak about adoption, the Church, these are all themes that do not get touched.

I think that poetry in the years to come is going to be like a reflection of Irish society and like how multicultural it actually is. I think in the years to come, we’re gonna see a lot more radical poetry, a lot more interesting stories, a lot more universal stories and a lot more niche stories I would like to see and just a lot less white men taking up space that they’ve had for decades.

Q: Any advice to aspiring poets?

Just fucking do it. I came to this country, nobody knew me three years ago. I don’t know how I fucking did it, but just do it.

And also don’t ask people permission to dream. Don’t look to people to affirm your dreams. Just fucking do it.

Click here to order Khanyi’s book, “A Girl and Her Poems”. Click here to attend “District Presents: Subterranean Spoken Word” with Khanyi and other spoken word poets tonight. Click here to attend “An Evening With A Girl – Khanyisile Mbukwane” at Projects Art Centre on Saturday November 19.

Elsewhere on District: Living Hell Awards 2022