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Leeza Awojobi: “If I’m not writing, there’s usually something deeper going on”

With the help of our Patrons, we’ve given a grant to Bristol-based performance poet Leeza Awojobi. Leeza’s new piece, ‘The Frayed Elephant’, is a poetry, audio and storytelling piece more akin to a participatory art installation. It’s a new frontier for Leeza, and still in the development stages, so we asked London poet Traysi Benjamin-Matthew to find out more. Along the way they discuss ideas of truth, the problems of social media, and being a whole person outside of your artistic practice.

We love to help out artists who are trying new things in their practice, to encourage them to be bold, stretch themselves, and open up new conversations with their work. Join our Patrons scheme for as little as £5/month, and we can keep supporting artists like Leeza who are doing exactly that.

Hi Leeza! Can you introduce yourself, and your background as an artist?

My name is Leeza Awojobi. I’m a Bristol-based poet and producer. I’ve been doing performance poetry for about four and a half years now. I like to summarise my poetry with the themes/words ‘eyes and oath’. So ‘eyes’ refer to observation, perception, and intent; and an ‘oath’ is a testimony of truth, or a solemn promise. And these are two ideas I regularly go back to in my practice, and I feel like they really ground my work.

Can you tell us about the piece that Sputnik is helping to fund?

So thanks to you guys, I get to develop this idea that’s probably been a year and a half in the making. It’s called ‘The Frayed Elephant’. It’s a poetry, audio and storytelling piece that features materials. So currently I imagine it to be a solitary experience, where people listen to the poetry and storytelling pieces on headphones, and at the same time they get to play with, interact and respond to materials.

Why that title, the Frayed Elephant?

That title basically comes from a parable that I came across called ‘the blind men and the elephant.’ It’s the story of six blind men who are all feeling on different parts of the elephant – one is feeling the trunk and says ‘ an elephant is like a snake’. Another is feeling a leg and says ‘no, no, an elephant is like a tree’.

The moral is that because we’re coming from different perspectives, we shouldn’t judge each other on claims to truth.

But the ‘Frayed Elephant’ also came out of a critique I heard of that story – if there’s no absolute truth, if it’s all just for grabs, who is the person looking into the frame? Who is the person who claims to see the whole picture, and has the objective view to say that everyone else is blind? I think the moral is a good one, that we should strive towards tolerance, or shouldn’t allow our personal angle to create division; but how do we exist, and co-exist in a society without any anchoring?

Do you find something limiting in the usual ‘performance’ dynamic between artist and audience? Or how would you see it?

That’s a good question, I wouldn’t say there are limitations. I think there are just different ways of viewing performance. I want to enable whoever I engage with, in this piece at least, to engage more actively.

There’s so much you can do in that kind of traditional, unidirectional way of storytelling that we’re used to. But this is just a different way of doing it.

Can you tell us why you feel connected to the material personally, and why it’s important to make this work?

I guess this grew out of – partly that parable – but it also came out of my relationship with social media. Gradually over the years I’ve just taken myself off various platforms. I’ve always had a very back-and-forth relationship with social media. It wasn’t an environment that I felt I could thrive in, if I wanted to engage with it properly.

Any top tips for those who are starting out in poetry?

Definitely write! Sometimes, it comes out so clunky, it’s not flowing; but just having that regular time of writing – twice a week, for example.

At various times I’ve written every day. I don’t do that all the time – for some people that’s their thing, I don’t put that pressure on myself but I do write regularly, and if I feel like I’m getting stuck, I do make an effort to not stay there.

And how do you do that? How do you get out of the space of being unable to write?

I think to be honest my faith helps a lot. We’re whole people. The way society is set up, and the way work can be set up, is that we cut ourselves off from different parts of ourselves. But we’re whole people.

If I’m not writing, there’s usually something deeper going on. Maybe I’m stuck because I feel overwhelmed, and the pressure of being an artist is too much; maybe I’m looking at my work and thinking ‘this is rubbish’! But whether it’s rubbish or not, who am I outside of my work?

Because as artists we’re pouring ourselves out, we can get so wrapped up in our practice and that can be where our identity is rooted. But actually I try to be careful about that. While poetry is always going to be inside me, it can’t be all that ultimately defines me, or all that I live for.

You’ve been writing poetry for a while. Can you tell me when you felt actually “I am a poet”?

That’s a good question! It’s kind of difficult to answer because I did have a moment when I decided to pursue it professionally, but I’ve been writing since I was a kid. But that moment came about through the mentorship I received when I did a Christian internship; I had the privilege of being mentored by Cully and Ally from Morphe Arts.

It wasn’t something I had been encouraged to do or seen other people in my sphere do. But with their encouragement and others, they helped me realise, “you can do this, this is a thing, this is legitimate!’ People do see the value of poetry and engaging with people culturally.

That’s another tip surely, surrounding yourself with like-minded people who can mentor and guide you along that poetry journey, isn’t it? So what’s next, what will you be working on?

Well what’s next is this, really! I’m really looking forward to returning to my ideas and thinking about who I can potentially collaborate with. I want it to be an audio piece which may or may not feature music, for example. So that’s what I’ll be doing!

Follow Leeza aka @eyesandoath on Instagram, or find out more at her website.

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All That Nothing: A Poem

‘All That Nothing’, read by Hannah Kelly


When I was a child learning to draw my father leant over the page and said,
Don’t forget the gaps

I didn’t know at all what he meant.
I drew anyway, cramming the paper.

Did you know there’s a different line for hair, another for cloth, another for stone and lake and knife and hem and grit.

But where are the gaps? he would say.
You haven’t left space for anyone to get into the drawing.

I had no idea what he meant.

Here, he said
Just hold the pencil differently.


Already, you can draw a leg.
It’s very good.
A leg is hard to draw as you have; to scoop the line over the bridge of the hamstring,
to get the knuckle-shaped bone by the heel.
That is difficult.
But did you know that your lines don’t have to join up?
That the way the pencil goes down and
s w i f t s
across the page
can make – not just a foot

but a leap?


So when I was older learning to write an instinct stood at my shoulder and said,
Don’t forget the gaps.

I didn’t know at all what it meant.
I wrote anyway. Cramming the paper.

Long hours, I bent double over books
And floundered there.
I hurried, harried,
through Lays of welsh hills and the coast of stones
bound by the cadence of those ancient walls
and wandered keenly through the learned halls
of forebears I could not discern
for loudness of their honour.

I don’t want to write a foot

I want to leap.



Cut out
of noise
the harbour
the sliced-up gap and gash through ‘proper’

It turned up
nick of time

come lumbering out of the woods
of acre
the wills
of other say-ers words
from their strings of verses
Their dark wars
and purses
Ways of

And birthed-
words came
where their strokes
Left off- blunt
and barrowed
Bellowed into
being born


I’d love to put Wilfred Owen in a room with Emily Dickenson and see
who comes out standing

only a steady hand
leaves all that nothing in
and lives


did you know?
An eyebrow is not just many hairs shaped like the bend of a bow
It is a flick of question
A tick, darkened at contact, frowning.

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Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu performs her poems as if they’re brand new

Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu Praise Protest Sputnik Intern Faith Art

Jessica Wood: I always find it a weird question when people ask me ‘what kind of poetry do you write?’ I don’t really know how to answer that question, but I’m going to ask you anyway: ‘How would you describe your poetry?’

Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu: I would say it’s Spoken Word poetry. The difference, I think, between spoken word and page poetry is that spoken word is written with the intent of sharing it out loud. It incorporates hip-hop, storytelling, theatre; it is many different elements all at once, but it is intended to be heard out loud. Whereas page poetry is intended be read. 

JW: I think with my poetry, you can read it out loud and there’s something to be gained from that, but it takes multiple readings in order to understand it fully.

TC: I think the more accomplished performance poets can walk the line, but there’s an immediacy about performance poetry. I don’t have all day to listen to you, or for me to go over a line multiple times so that you get it. I have to be powerful enough to capture the essence of what I’m trying to tell you.

I think that better poets are able to do that; they put enough work and effort into their craft that even though you can get something in the moment, something else should hit you later. There should be a level of realisation even after the moment is done, but I think that takes a lot of craft and a lot of understanding of how to use the words and the performance to create something bigger than the moment. 

JW: What do you think is the benefit of seeing performance poetry live?

TC: Some of the work that has inspired me has made me think after they have finished it. There’s something about the way they’ve done it: the words, the atmosphere they’ve created, that remains with me and it resonates. I think those are the best ones. I’m still striving to get there. That’s where the craft is. 

JW: For me, I have that feeling sometimes after watching music, after seeing someone live. I like to come away from seeing art when I feel like I’m buzzing, really alive and my only response is: ‘I have to create’.

TC: To this day there are things that I’ve carried from those performances, things I’ve learned from that, and those things were spontaneous, they were in the room, they can’t be replicated. I really love that. I love the spontaneity and flexibility of recreating a moment or recreating a poem every time I perform.

Tanya Chitunhu Performance Art Sputnik Faith Arts
Tanya Chitunhu performing at the ‘On Praise & Protest’ launch

That’s one thing I’m trying to do now: even if I’ve been doing this poem for five years, I should be able to ‘re-create’ this, every time I’m on stage. So it’s a different performance every time. It’s a one-off.

That’s hard to do because you’re using the same words. It’s a challenge for me as a performer; how do I say this in a way that’s still real and true to what I wrote it to be, but also bring it forward into today.

JW: Does the way you perform differ a lot between groups, places or people?

TC: I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m still trying to experiment with what that’s going to look like. I hope to bring something different every time, but I don’t think I always manage.

When I’m doing My Africa – which I’ve done hundreds of times – it becomes stale after a while. But [the flexibility of] performance over the page is that I should be able to recreate My Africa in such a way that it’s new, it’s fresh, as if I’m speaking in this very moment. Rather than speaking it from the past, it’s a now thing. It’s a very different performance. 

I should be able to recreate [a poem] in such a way that it’s new, as if I’m speaking in this very moment.

JW: That’s interesting. In my poetry – in Precariat, it’s centred in a very specific time, a specific issue. But if I choose to read it in a different space in ten years’ time, who knows what the context will be like then? It might speak differently compared to what it tells people today. 

Jess Wood, as featured in Sputnik’s Anthology Vol. 2

TC: My favourite poem now is Imagine the Angels of Bread by Martin Espada – it’s so urgent right now, but he wrote it in 1999, and I’m telling you what he says is timeless. Essentially – in the way I interpret it – it’s the kingdom come. He’s put what’s underneath on top, he’s talking about righting wrongs and injustice, but he’s imagining it the other way around and it’s now more urgent than it was in 1999.

That’s the best writing, when your work in twenty years time can still speak and be as urgent or even more so than when you wrote it. That’s the kind of writing I would love to do. I know I’m not doing that right now, but it’s exciting. I just don’t know how often that sort of work happens.

JW: It’s interesting thinking about the seen and the unseen of art; there’s something about time and context which can determine what people are able to achieve or articulate.

TC: You know what – I think the truth is timeless. If you speak the truth it should live forever. There’s truth in the Espanda poem. For me it’s a prophetic piece because he’s talking about universal ideas, big ideas: if your work has these things, it’s going to speak regardless of what time you wrote it and it should speak in sixty years. The nuances might be different, but the truth will always resonate, whether it’s on page or on stage. But for me I love when truth is said out loud. That’s why people preach, right? It’s because there’s power in that.

I think it’s a challenge in this day and age, because we’ve lost the art of being present. We’re consuming the world through media, but there’s still something really beautiful about connecting with an audience. That’s how I look at performance poetry – it’s a live conversation. Yes, I’m doing the piece and I’ve got the words, but the audience is just as much part of the performance as what I’m reading and what I’m giving to them. Their reaction, their faces, however they’re reacting to me, that’s part of my conversation with them. Sometimes I get people to be part of it – I tell them to do this or do that, because I want them to feel that they’re just as much a part of the performance as what I’m doing. 

Using all these phrases and the buzzwords that people love nowadays can get you the affirmation that you want, but does it actually help people grow?

I think that’s the difference with the page. I don’t know if you write with an audience in mind?

JW: With what I was writing recently – all the stuff that’s in Temper – I think I had in mind people who are like me, encouraging those people to be empathetic in how we engage our opinions, our views and our voice.

What you say about the fact that we’re not present anymore is so true – it also relates to the way we form our opinions on situations. I really wanted to step into that and challenge that a little bit. I’m learning more that it’s a valuable thing to do to focus my work, but I’m still growing in it. 

TC: It shouldn’t overtake you. There’s also the fear of writing to please people, writing to impress people. Unfortunately spoken word can be a bit like that, particularly competitive slam poetry. People can write with the intent of winning a slam and write knowing what the audience wants to hear, or what is popular-

JW: Yes, that vexes me so much. That’s what I was trying to get at in Temper, I want to speak about these issues that everyone is talking about, but in a different way. Using all these phrases and the buzzwords that people love nowadays can get you the affirmation that you want, but does it actually help people grow, and see the world differently, and see the world from different people’s perspectives? 

TC: This is something that poetry should do in general: authenticity. There should be a level of being honest and real. Sometimes it’s easy to write with the intent of pleasing or to fit in or to conform, whereas I think the best kind of poetry is authentic. 

There’s this saying ‘what comes from the heart, enters the heart’. I like that. What drew me into spoken word was that I really felt these performers were not just performing, they were giving me their guts, giving me their heart, and I thought – wow, I’ve got to be part of this, because this is meaningful, this is powerful, this is weighty, this is costly, this is awesome – you know, in the best possible way. 

Tanya Chitunhu Performance Art Sputnik Faith Arts
Tanya Chitunhu performs at the ‘On Praise & Protest’ launch

JW: If people only ever saw your work online, a video or on youtube, or even reading it in your book, what do you think is lost? 

TC: I think that that’s an audience question. I think that you should answer that, because you’ve seen me. It’s hard for me to answer

JW: With your poetry, the way you perform it engages your senses and you have so much genuine joy when you’re reading it. I can see how much you love and value all those elements, and that really comes across in the performance. There’s something about your personality that’s only scratched on the surface in the words, and that comes to life in your voice and your character. 

TC: What I’ve always loved about performance poetry and what I always try to give is passion. Passion, passion, passion – I try to embody the moment. I don’t know if I do it well every time, but I am literally becoming the poem. I’m taking on the emotions, the intent, everything.

I’m investing me into this piece. I’m giving you a piece of me, essentially. Taken to its fullest extent, it’s very exhausting, but I feel like it’s worth it. It says that this is important enough to put me into it. So then the poems will be different than on the page, I think, because it’s missing something of who I am. 

JW: You’re still there in the poems on the page, but it is like a little scratch on the surface. There’s something different when you perform, when you embody it. 

[In performance] I’m giving you a piece of me, essentially. The poems will be different on the page, I think, because it’s missing something of who I am.

TC: Also I think ‘performing’ and ‘performance’ is different. I tend to be quite big on stage, but I think I need to learn as well how to be small. That’s as much performance as being big, you know? You can’t be big all the time, not every poem is big. It’s learning how to do that, but still how to be myself, how to be authentic, but learning how to use everything that I can on the stage. 

There’s more to work with on the stage than the page. I could sing a line or I could say a line. I could say it quietly, or loudly, I could say it with force. 

JW: I see that as well on the page actually, I see that there’s so much room. You know the book On Poetry by Glen Maxwell? He talks a lot about the use of space in poetry, specifically on the page. He talks a lot about black space and white space, how the white space of the page interacts with the blackness of the words and the text and how you can manipulate and use that. 

TC: A performance space is very much the same for me. I’ve thought about starting a poem from the back of the room and walking my way to the stage. I’ve never done it but i think I should- 

JW: You should! I think that carries the audience through the poem in a very different way. 

TC: -and it’s always that element of surprise, that’s the thing that you miss, the potential for surprise on the stage. The Haitian-American poet Carvens Lissaint, he came over almost ten years ago, performing with a group, and this poem he did – Beauty Part Three – he’s basically talking about how he grew up and was being bullied, he was overweight and then he lost the weight.

In the performance when I saw him, it was in this dark room full of people. At the end of the poem, he did something that wasn’t even part of the set. He got off the stage and he started saying ‘you are beautiful’, ‘you are beautiful’ ‘ you are beautiful’ – I remember that moment. I thought wow…  when he said those words I swear something shifted in the atmosphere; something magical happened and I never forgot that, as an audience member but also as a performer.

He created that moment, and ten years later I’m still talking about it. As a performer and as a poet that’s what you want, to remain, but how you do that is going to look different on the page as on the stage. I love creating those moments – I don’t think I’ve really mastered that, but I would love to be able to do that for other people. 

JW: So what are you working on at the minute?

TC: I’m praying about, how do I use this art form to serve in a bigger way, in a bigger capacity. Paul in Philippians says don’t do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit – value others above yourself, seek other people’s interest over your own. That’s really a challenge, especially as someone who’s on the stage, which is all about ‘what i want to say and what I want to put out’. 

I don’t want my work to just be about me. I want it to be bigger than my own experiences, or my own life. The best kind of poetry helps you to see differently. I would love to be able to do that. I just know that my work can’t be rooted in myself – I’m too small and to be boring for my work to be about me, when there’s so much going on in the world. 

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Protests, prison & poetry: Jeremy Cronin’s revolutionary past

Jeremy Cronin Protests Prison Poetry Sputnik Faith Art

Lex Loizides is a song writer, pastor, poet and historian. He’s one of those people who is always up to something, and, more often than not, that particular ‘something’ is far more noteworthy than what you happen to be doing. Therefore, it was not a massive surprise to hear that he’d conducted an in depth interview with the South African Deputy Minister for Public Works and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party! The interviewee in question is Jeremy Cronin, who, apart from his political activities, is a renowned poet in his homeland and beyond. New Contrast, South Africa’s leading literary journal commissioned Lex to conduct the interview – first published in Issue 180, Volume 45, Summer 2017. It is reproduced here with permission.

Poet and politician Jeremy Cronin has been a key player in both crafting and steering the Restitution of Land Rights Act through Parliament and has been a tireless campaigner for democracy and justice in South Africa. He could easily have retired by now, but continues to serve the young democracy with energy and dedication. He has written three collections of poetry: Inside (Jonathan Cape, 1987), Even the Dead (David Philip Publishers, 1997), and More than a Casual Contact (Umuzi, 2006).

Jeremy was educated in Cape Town and became a lecturer in Philosophy at UCT before being imprisoned by the apartheid government for seven years for distributing anti-apartheid literature. I met with Jeremy in his rooms at Parliament during the course of September 2017.

LL: Jeremy, all three of your collections of poetry are so intricately bound up with your amazing life story. Can you tell us something of your background?

JC: I was born in Durban but grew up largely in Cape Town. My father was a naval officer, so until the age of ten I was living in Simonstown and Simonstown features in some of my poems. I have a sensuous memory of a coastal place with all of its contradictions. My father died when I was ten years old and we moved to Rondebosch where I attended a Catholic School. In 1968 I went to  UCT where I studied Philosophy and Literature. I had a vague sense of what I wanted to do, but it had something to do with being a poet, perhaps.

LL: When did you first start writing poetry?

JC: Probably adolescence. I was reading a lot of TS Eliot and reading eclectically. It was less what I was getting at school and more independent reading, as I was going to the Rondebosch library. I was attracted to what was then called the ‘Creative Writing’ section. My first out-of-school publication was with English Alive, edited by Robin Malan. Apparently, I was in the first edition of it. But the poetry was a bit pretentious.

LL: There was presumably a fairly narrow range of topics about which you could be published, in the school magazines.

JC: Well, you’re right, but there were some interesting ‘defrocked’ priests who were among the more interesting teachers.

LL: And being published both at school and in English Alive was presumably an encouragement.

JC: Yes, exactly. It was a huge encouragement and that’s the critical thing. And it’s so important. Some of my poems are set for Matric [high school diploma] so I do some class appearances, which are very interesting. At school I had even contemplated going into the priesthood, but I had seen a contradiction between some of the Catholic thinkers I was reading and the local parish church. There was a disjunction between white suburban life and the stimulating stuff I was hearing from the ‘defrocked’ priests. But my parents had warned me not to get into politics. After my father died, we were quite poor, but living in this kind of white welfare system. We didn’t own a car but public transport was good, there was a swimming pool in Newlands, and we had the library. So, I grew up privileged, but we were at the lower end of the scale in a place like Rondebosch. I was aware of class discriminations and I began to buck against that a little bit.

LL: Were you aware of black South Africans around you? Were they always at the periphery?

JC: I was aware, and aware that they were peripheral. I think that dawned quite early; an awareness that there were huge inequalities, and a kind of smugness in the place that I was staying. In the Criterion Bioscope in Simonstown, the Africans had been moved out and they weren’t allowed into the cinema, but in the upstairs balcony, the coloured audience were allowed to go in. That was fairly standard at the time. During a matinee, watching cowboys and Indians, and of course the Indians would be winning half way through, to great cheers from upstairs, and then when the finale came and the US Cavalry rode over the crest to the rescue, we were showered with popcorn, at best, and sometimes less mentionable things.

Ernest Cole Magnum Photos Pretoria South Africa
A segregated bridge at Pretoria railway station. Pretoria, South Africa. Circa mid-1960s. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos

So quite early on, I was aware there was something wrong. There was this discomfort. And there were big removals happening in Simonstown while I was there. I was kind of aware. I think that’s why my parents said don’t get involved in politics. We were told it was the Afrikaaners who were messing it up and that was very much my outlook. My mother wanted me to have a good professional career. 1968 was the year of the global student uprisings, and the distant echo of that came to South Africa. At UCT there weren’t any African students at that time, very few people of colour. A small group of left-leaning white students began to gather. There were mass meetings and the occupation of university buildings. I was feeling uncomfortable with the privileges. I had a bursary. I was white. ’68 was a period of intellectual ferment in Europe, and Mexico. There were large youth uprisings.

LL: There was a sense of entering something much larger?

JC: Yes. It wasn’t sympathetic to established communism though. But I then began to receive underground literature and we formed a small reading group. During the sit-ins, they employed Stellenbosch University students to come and beat us up, and then the police intervened. And what was launched out of that was a radical students society and we produced a magazine, which I coedited, called Radical. Then we started to get deep underground and illegal pamphlets and so on. And also literature. Books would be smuggled in, and people would make precious photocopies of this or that. There was a great deal of respect, which has since been lost, for the book – smuggling them in, getting them into the country and so on.

There was a great deal of respect, which has since been lost, for the book – smuggling them in, getting them into the country and so on.

LL: At some point you were involved in the production of illegal pamphlets. Were you writing these?

JC: I was recruited into the Communist Party in 1968 and our first task was to develop an address list of progressive students. I was running the film society at that stage, so I went into the admin building and said we needed to write a newsletter. We were able to access the residential addresses of a few thousand students, which, along with other lists of addresses, we smuggled out of the country, so that the production units of the Communist Party had address lists.

LL: What was the content of the pamphlets?

JC: At that stage we were mainly using the magazine, but trying to hegemonise the content of the publication, presenting quasi-academic articles on the history on the Communist Party and so on. I was also using the Film Society very actively as well. It was kind of cultural and ideological activity.

UCT Student Protests Jeremy Cronin Sputnik Faith Art
UCT students protest Archie Mafeje’s dismissal in the 1960s

LL: In your poem A Step Away From Them, you describe delivering these pamphlets.

JC: I completed an honours degree at UCT and worked briefly for the Argus. I received a bursary to go to France and study at the Sorbonne, and I had more formal contact with the exiled communists, mainly in London. I would go to London and get training. London was quite central. There were lots of people in London. And, through a circuitous link I was set up with a person called ‘Frank’. He gave me a pile of books to read, which were all about horrific torture that people had undergone. The idea was to say, ‘we’re getting serious now and are you serious?’ And then there was lots of training in counter-surveillance techniques. How to make sure you’re not being followed and so on.

LL: So you’re moving forward with increased awareness of the consequences. The further you progress, the more you realise how dangerous it all is. And they’re wanting to know, are you with us?

JC: Yes, there were two things. Firstly, am I not a plant? So they were checking on me. But I had a bit of a track record. The specific task is to come back here and become a production centre for underground pamphlets. I was trained in secret ink communication and dead letter drops and was in communication with London. Mainly, they would send in the copy, which we reproduced on the old printing machines and then posted.

LL: So it wasn’t random leafleting?

JC: Well, the random thing was the bucket drops. We’d stuff a bucket full of pamphlets and put a small explosive underneath and plant them by black bus queues or train stations with a five minute delay and let them poof! They’d go up and there was a lot of excitement. We were saying, ‘We’re with you!’

LL: So this poem where you’re carrying the OK Bazaar plastic packet, going to post-boxes, and your heart is in the packet. What’s going on there?

JC: Well those were to mainly township addresses. It was using the postal system. I had developed a fetish for post boxes. Some have got larger mouths than others. Some you can post quite easily with a gloved hand, because you didn’t want to get fingerprints on them… it was fairly discreet. So we would stuff twenty or so at a time into a post box. I had a pretty good sense of every postbox in the greater Cape Town area.

There’s a poem called that
by Frank O’Hara, the American,
it begins: It’s my lunch hour so I go
for a walk… I like the poem, sometime
I’ll write it out complete, but just for now
I’ve got this OK Bazaars plastic packet
in my left hand, and my right
hand’s in my pocket (out of sight),
how else to walk lunch hour
summertime Cape Town with
one gloved hand? And now
I’m going past The Cape Clog
– Takeaways, it says it’s
The Home of the Original
ham n’ cheese – Dutch Burgers,
past the unsegregated toilets on
Greenmarket Square. A cop van’s
at the corner. On a bench
3 black building workers eat
from a can of Lucky
Star pilchards. They’re
in various shapes & sizes. It’s a fact.
Though you’d think
post boxes’d be all
just one size. I’m sweating a bit,
heart pumps, mouth dry, umm
Gone one, I say slipping
past the Groote Kerk when
an Iranian naval sailor asks
What’s the time? IRANIAN? – yessir,
it’s 1975, the shah’s
in place, the southeaster blows,
there’re gulls in the sky,
two cable cars are halfway
up or down (respectively) and
outside the Cultural Museum
an old hunchback tries
to flog me 10c worth of unshelled
nuts. He’s been here
since I was 15
trying to be Baudelaire, I’d maunder
round town watching women’s legs, but now
I’ve only eyes for postboxes and
my heart’s in my packet: it’s
one thousand
illegal pamphlets to be mailed.

A Step Away From Them

LL: Then you get arrested. Was that a raid?

JC: I was working with two others, whose names I didn’t know. They didn’t have the same leftist profile that I did. I was now lecturing in political philosophy at UCT. They got arrested through effective sleuthing over many years. A couple of weeks before my colleagues were arrested, we had a received a secret ink communication from London, which looked a bit different from the normal ones. We think they had developed and read it, but couldn’t un-develop it and then conveyed the same communication themselves and posted it from the UK.

LL: So you were arrested and pled guilty. Was that a nerve-racking thing?

JC: Well, it wasn’t pleasant getting caught! I was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to seven years. They had us absolutely. I was in Pretoria Maximum Security, which is where the white male political prisoners were interred.

LL: So it was Afrikaans prison guards and predominantly English inmates?

JC: Yes, almost entirely.

LL: And your wife, Anne-Marie, died quite soon after that?

JC: Yes, within a year. That’s all pertinent. So in prison, I began to write.

LL: So during your actively political period you hadn’t written much poetry. Your creative energies had gone into that work. And now you’ve come from a lot of activity and suddenly there’s space?

JC: There is space actually and time! As a political prisoner, one of the things they gave us was the prisoner’s handbook which said all the things you’re not allowed to do, and it said, interestingly, if I can remember, ‘singing, writing poetry and any other unnecessary noise is forbidden’. One of the earlier titles of Inside was Unnecessary Noise.

LL: You’re not allowed to write poetry. Are you allowed to write anything? Letters?

JC: You were allowed to study through UNISA so we did have writing materials, but, in theory, you couldn’t write poetry.

LL: So how did you?

JC: I’m not an oral poet so I had to write it! And rework, and rework, and rework a great deal. So it was disguised as draft letters or assignments. But Dennis Goldberg, who was a Rivonia trialist, was also with me. He was an engineer and was good with his hands, so I could get the stuff out. I would write the poems on thin strips of paper with a tiny 0.5mm pencil and then – I might still have it here [he hurries off to a cupboard in the corner and brings out what looks like a shoe box].

It’s a filing box. I was working on a thesis on South African poetry and had this old box –and buried into the layer here [corrugated edges of the box] were little slithers of paper containing the poems.

Protests Prison Poetry Sputnik Faith Arts Cronin History
The filing box Jeremy used to smuggle poetry from prison.

LL: So that was allowed out?

JC: Yes. This one came out of prison. And I had a couple of other boxes too.

LL: There is something in us, as humans, that needs the word; and needs the word communicated to others. It’s a primal drive.

JC: Absolutely. Subjectively, the poetry I had written was quite self-indulgent and quite lyrical, because I tend to be attracted in that direction, and therefore about subjective emotions. And so, as a young, relatively privileged white, I felt there was a certain lack of authenticity or meaningfulness in adolescent love affairs. And so, in a curious way, becoming a minor victim of the apartheid system made me feel the emotions that I now needed to express, connected to a wider reality.

Funerals and social rituals provide spaces, structure and discipline to bereavement… Poetry became an important space to explore emotion, but also to give it a rhythm and a discipline.

And I think quite a lot of the poems reflect that: I’m not alone. Some people, who might not even be in prison, are having it a lot worse in a squatter camp and so it kind of liberated lyricism for me. Clearly then, the death of my wife gave rise to a deep need to deal with an overflow of emotions. You suddenly realise why bereavement and funerals and social rituals are very important to provide spaces, structure and discipline to these issues. Of course I didn’t have them. I couldn’t go to the funeral and I couldn’t burden my fellow comrades. They were supportive, but we were a small number. And they all had their own emotional challenges. So the poetry became a very important space to talk emotion, explore it, but also to give it a rhythm and a discipline.

LL: Were you aware that she was unwell?

JC: No.

LL: Not at all?

JC: Not at all! So the one poem about the visit, I Saw Your Mother.

LL: So that is the first moment you even knew anything?

JC: That she was unwell? Yeah.

LL: Was your wife visiting regularly before?

JC: As regularly as she was allowed, which was once a month for half an hour.

LL: And did she miss one or two towards the end?

JC: No.

LL: Wow. That’s brutal.

JC: It was, yes.

I saw your mother
with two guards
through a glass plate
for one quarter hour
on the day that you died.
‘Extra visit, special favour’
I was told, and warned
‘The visit will be stopped
if politics is discussed.
Verstaan – understand!?’
on the day that you died.
I couldn’t place
my arm around her,
around your mother
when she sobbed.
Fifteen minutes up
I was led
back to the workshop.
Your death, my wife,
one crime they managed
not to perpetrate
on the day that you died.

I Saw Your Mother

LL: Walking On Air, the poem about fellow-prisoner John Matthews, has a kind of defiant, triumphal ring at the end. Inside was published right in the thick of the apartheid era and yet they are resounding resistance poems. So you have both a suffering and celebratory note in these poems.

JC: I was released in 1983 and it was a very different climate. There was a resurgence of unions and organisations and I went back to the underground and was active in the broad front of social movement type struggles. There were lots of rallies happening, typically around funerals. And so I got to read/perform quite a lot of the poetry. But I hadn’t really had a sense of an audience. I was writing for testimony. What was very interesting in the 80s was a huge cultural flowering: street art, t-shirts with wonderful designs, Zapiro was producing fantastic posters and teaching others in Salt River. There was a kind of cultural revolution happening.

Apartheid Protests 1980s
Apartheid Protests in the 1980s

I was wheeled out as a veteran of the struggle to rallies. I got into political education and journals but I was active as a performing poet. It was a time when the genre was called ‘protest poetry’. I always wanted to defy that genre, firstly, because the academy located that poetry as protest poetry and didn’t look at its craft, and often it was quite well crafted. But also the poets themselves were often oral. So it was oral crafting, which the academy couldn’t recognise. I wrote some pieces at the time arguing for the skill that was involved, the poetics. I wanted to insist that poetry could be political but lyrical, aesthetic. And my aesthetic wasn’t quite the same as the performing poets. I quickly discovered that some poems didn’t work in a larger audience. And, particularly, it wasn’t a poetry audience, it was an audience there for a funeral and helicopters were watching us, and kids running up and down. It was exciting but the irony in some of the poems didn’t carry.

LL: Were you aware that there was a burgeoning new style of poetry happening?

JC: I had been aware before going in to prison. I wanted to connect to the largely white South African poetic tradition but also to connect with the emerging mainly English, and brilliant Afrikaans poetry.

A poem about a sunset is never politically innocent… [you] can’t observe the sunset without understanding that the sunset is going to be observed from different places.

LL: Do you feel that protest poetry is less relevant now? You use a phrase about the struggle of ‘trying to make the too good to be true be true’. Are we there yet? Is there space for South African poets to write about sunsets? Or would that feel like we’re a bit off-topic?

JC: I wouldn’t like to be a policeman about what is legitimate or not. Mainly, because I want the poetic licence for myself. But I think a poem about a sunset is never politically innocent. That was what was interesting in looking at Roy Campbell and Plomer and so on. I love landscape. But the way in which the South African landscape is perceived – it’s quite interesting to trace the development in South African English language poetry. The early writers – Thomas Pringle, who wrote some wonderful poetry – it’s seen as a non-European exotic terrain, and it’s beautifully crafted, but there is a framing: exotic, savage, barbaric. The Plomer, Campbell generation, assert their South African-ness, but lurking in the landscape, is a ‘the barbarians are coming’, the drums. There’s formal structure, and effective poetry, but the version of the landscape is unsettling. The natives are out there. Plomer is sympathetic to the natives but troubled by it. So talk of a sunset is not neutral.

But to this hard category of the protest; the political: I’ve always wanted to say the personal is political. I think a lot of the agony and the problems in South Africa have to do with the unresolved subjective issue. There’s a lot of post-traumatic stress. The factional behaviour, the moral decline, have profound unresolved subjective issues surrounding them. The South African project has suffered quite a setback. There’s a disconnect between the subjective and the political project. And the poetry that I tried to write was making the connections.

LL: In all three collections of your poetry, the social context, and the incidents arising from within them are so immediate and powerful. Is there still a need for passionate, rallying poetry?

JC: I don’t want to give a definite answer. Out there, in the non-poetry world, there’s a lot of protest happening, and anger, and turmoil. I don’t want to prescribe a role. Writing, narration, means we have a responsibility to try and connect with that anger and also to lead it out of its angst, out of the vicious cycle.

LL: Towards something more constructive?

JC: Yeah. I’m not saying a poem can do it, but the poems I’d like to see and to write, would… well, hopes were raised after 1994 and there were real achievements. And the last great aesthetic moment, arguably, was at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And some great poetry came out of it, Antjie Krog, and Ingrid de Kok, in particular. It was an extremely powerful cultural intervention, but that was seeking to find reconciliation in truth-telling about the past. But the present failed to resolve the deep structural problems. which are obvious: continued poverty, racialised spaces in urban settings and, hence, pent-up frustrations.

For me, protest is around in any case. Poetry that is going to be meaningful in South Africa can’t ignore the reality of this protest; can’t observe the sunset without understanding that the sunset is going to be observed from different places. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the sunset and celebrate the sunset. I do think that the aesthetic disciplines are important to bring to bear in that space, and poetry that is just a poster or a string of slogans is OK (I’m still writing headlines for pamphlets) but poetry has the ability to go a bit further. I see a continuum between the pamphlet and the poetry but the poetry isn’t a pamphlet and would be selling itself short if it was.

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Poet, priest and rock ‘n’ roller, Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite AOTW Poetry Sputnik Faith Arts

Malcolm Guite has called himself a “poet, priest, rock & roller: in any order you like, really.” It’s a succinct way to describe an otherwise indescribable character: a bearded bard from some other realm full of Tolkien-esque polymaths, and currently a lecturer and chaplain of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge.

Guite is a generous interviewee, so full of words that he often runs breathless finishing his sentences (he’s somehow both intimidatingly sharp and amiably approachable at the same time); which makes his many interviews a good way to get acquainted with his style and process. We’d recommend his series of interviews with The Cultivating Project, this in-depth profile, or his appearance on Nomad Podcast, at Greenbelt.

Guite’s work, of course, is as thoughtful and thorough as his conversations, embracing the confrontations, confusions and mysticisms of faith. It hums with a deep belief in the goodness of poetry itself: poetry as a life-giving force, and as a means to give people confidence that their ‘inner’, spiritual lives are as real and revelatory as the material world.

It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to his poetry and the rest, but let’s be contrary and begin with some of the most recent: Parable and Paradox, a book of poetry inspired by the sayings of Jesus; and a biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, called Mariner. But as an even simpler starting point, try reading this sonnet for our times, called The six days world transposing in an hour.

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Our new Sputnik intern: poet Jess Wood

Jess Wood Poetry Poet Sputnik Faith Arts

We’re excited to welcome Jess Wood into the Sputnik team, on our second year offering an internship programme to aspiring artists.We asked Jess a few questions to introduce herself to our readers, and she performed her poem ‘Precariat’ for us, which you can watch below.

Describe yourself in five words:

Compassionate conviction (that) laughs out loud.

Who are your creative inspirations?

I’m inspired by anyone who can use words well to make me really think about things I usually experience without consequence. Whether it be a good preach, a podcast (Krista Tippet anyone?) or a gorgeous piece of poetry. In terms of poets, I’m inspired by Kei Miller, Warsan Shire and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze.

Why are you interning for Sputnik?

Art can most often be placed on the back burner, and I figure that I’ll never have more freedom to explore, develop and get good at it than now!

I’m at the awkward post-grad state of not knowing what I want to do with my life, so during this year I will be exploring what it could look like for me to make a living as a poet, working within the arts sector and hosting workshops. I decided to intern with Sputnik specifically because of the way they intertwine faith and art which are two incredibly important aspects of my life. I know that the support I’ll receive, both as a Christian and as an artist will set me up well for the future.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m so thankful that I have a team of people behind me who are passionate about seeing me produce new work, and who will – if necessary – go the lengths of locking me in a room with only paper and pen to see it come about! I’m so aware of what a privilege it is to have a year dedicated to my art practice and having the flexibility of working my schedule around something I’m so passionate about.

Within the first month, it’s been inspiring to be surrounded by Christians who take art seriously and want to deeply engage with the issues we face in the world, and I’m so excited to learn more from them. Alongside all my artistic developments, the theology training from Impact was incredibly helpful and released me from a lot of anxieties and uncertainties I had about what a relationship with God can look like. I’m really looking forward to what we’ll learn in the next training block and how it will continue to develop my relationship with God.

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Heart-Expanding, Mind-Stretching: My Year as a Sputnik Intern

Sputnik Intern Year Birmingham Faith Art
Sputnik Intern Year Birmingham Faith Art

Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.


This is one of my favourite quotes for many reasons; it’s a challenge to take risks, find the adventure, and leave your mark. For me, spending a year as the first Sputnik intern was exactly that – as I explored spoken word poetry, made connections and pushed myself further into my craft.

Learning the Basics

The first of my three terms was spent exploring different art forms, by shadowing and meeting other artists. I had a guided tour of Birmingham Museum with visual artist Luke Sewell. I shadowed Birmingham’s former poet laureate Giovanni Esposito (known as Spoz) as he taught spoken word poetry in local schools. I observed Anna O’ Brien, a skilled storyteller, engaging young children at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts through painting and craft. All of these were great learning experiences.

At the same time, I was learning the basic forms and structures of poetry from my accomplished tutor, Huw Evans. Every fortnight, I tried a new form in a poem – with mixed results! It was a challenge, but it was good to try, to learn and to build a good foundation, since I had little training in poetry.

Watching & Writing

The second term consisted of writing new work of my own, receiving valuable critique and – most importantly – editing my work. I learned, and continue to learn, that writing is largely about discipline and time. It’s imperative to be dissatisfied with your initial drafts, to fine-tune again and again to get to the core of the work, where the best writing and ideas live.

I learned, and continue to learn, that writing is largely about discipline and time.

That term, I was also privileged to attend Birmingham’s Verve Poetry Festival, a smorgasbord of poetry and artists from different forms and diverse backgrounds across the world. Highlights: Tomomi Adachi – a Japanese sound artist and poet, who invented an infrared jacket that produces eerie sounds when he moves and performs poetry. Or the sublime and mesmerising The Sea-Migrations by Asha Lul Mohammed Yusuf, an outstanding Somalian poet who now lives in London.

Across the whole festival, I saw poets who had mastered their craft over many years,writing and performing at the highest level; from the eclectic collective Nymphs and Thugs, to local legends like Spoz himself, who was powerful and entertaining to witness.

Performance & Publishing

Finally, in the last term, I was able to take my work to Catalyst Festival – a true highlight of the year. I performed some of the poems I had been working on, led a spoken word workshop, and of course I helped with the Sputnik stand, engaging with people at the festival. I discovered how much I enjoy performing and interacting with an audience; on top of this, it was wonderful to share this art form through a workshop and get people to engage with it.

I discovered how much I enjoy performing and interacting with an audience.

Throughout this, I’d been working on my debut collection, On Praise and Protest – a book of ten poems exploring themes of defiance, protest and celebration. It’s now available through the website that I also created during this year – Check it out!

Broadening Horizons

Alongside the time working on poetry, I completed the Impact course, in Bedford – one of the best parts of my internship. To be able to engage with the Bible, with the help of church leaders and teachers; to ask questions and gain wisdom for life, was invaluable. On top of that, my fellow Impact-ers were outstanding, and it was a privilege to hear what God was doing in them, and through their projects at various churches across the country.

The sense of family between us was incredible, and crucial in supporting each other through the year. But the highlight of all this was our mission trip to Albania. It was an honour to meet the church in that nation, and especially touching to witness how God was working powerfully to save his people there.

This year has been such a heart-expanding, mind-stretching and horizon-broadening experience! It was an honour to work with Sputnik – especially with Jonny and Jemma Mellor, who gave me endless encouragement and support to grow, push past my comfort zone, and become an artist that speaks into culture with relevant, risky and kingdom-minded work.

In many ways, this year was just the beginning of that journey as a poet, but I have that goal in mind going forward, as I dedicate myself both to the craft of writing and the community of writers.

As I do that, I hope I can leave a trail…

Tanyaradzwa’s book is available from most major outlets or through her website. If you’re interested in starting the next Sputnik internship in September, get the application form here – but be quick!

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Huw Evans’ ‘Minor Monuments’ comes to life

Huw Evans Poetry Minor Monuments Sputnik Patrons

Newcastle-based poet and author Huw Evans has been an integral part of Sputnik for a long time, as our resident expert on writing and a regular contributor to our blog.

He’s also a fantastic writer and performer, and we were greatly pleased to support Huw’s work by helping him publish his debut poetry collection Minor Monuments with the help of our Sputnik Patrons.

Huw Evans Minor Monuments Poetry Sputnik Faith Art
‘Minor Monuments’ by Huw Evans

Minor Monuments is a collection of poems inspired by the district of Ardudwy in North Wales, the works of Sir Thomas Browne and the Welsh mythologies of the Mabinogion. You can read more about it, and buy a copy, from Huw’s website. You can also attend the official launch event at the Holy Biscuit in Newcastle, next week – more details here.

Minor Monuments is also available at:, Blackwells, Book Depository Ltd, Waterstones; (USA), Barnes and Noble; (AUS/NZ) Booktopia.

Subscribe to Sputnik Patrons to help more work like this to get made.

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Writer and poet Sharon Clark launches new website of her work

Sharon J Clark Website Sputnik Faith Art

Sharon Clark contributed work to our first Sputnik writing anthology back in 2013 and it was great to see her new blog appear towards the end of last year. is the online home for Sharon’s short stories, poetry and blog – it’s already filling up with quality work, and that’s likely to continue apace.

Sharon recently spoke to us about rearranging her working schedule to set aside at least a day a week to her craft: something that’s especially significant when you consider Sharon is one of the leaders at New Life Church Milton Keynes and is a key administrator in the Catalyst network of churches. It is wonderful to see someone who continues to be committed at the heart of her church and family of churches, at the same time committing herself to her artistic practice.

We know that many Christian artists feel that when it comes to church and art, it’s become a ‘one or the other’ sort of deal. Sharon gives credence to a ‘both/and’ approach. So, when you’ve next got half an hour spare, give the website a thorough perusal and get to know a really promising new writer.

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John Koenig creates new terms for familiar, unnamed emotions

John Koenig - Sputnik

I love the internet. It can be a treasure chest of wonderful inspiration. Today I came across an absolute gem: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow. Oh my, what a thought-provoking project this is!

As someone who has started to write poetry I have become aware of the challenges we face as human beings in recording our thoughts, our emotions and our deepest longings in the limited vocabulary of whichever language we speak. We have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, yet how often, when faced with the extremes of our life experiences, do we find ourselves admitting ‘there are no words’? John Koenig has set out to fill this gap – to create new words that capture those deeply profound moments.

One of my favourite phrases from his dictionary is ‘Moment of Tangency’. He defines this as ‘a glimpse of what might have been’, and explains that it is about lives lived in parallel. The video that he has created to explore this concept is beautiful yet bittersweet. Watching it makes you realise how much more there could be, and how insular our own lives are in this vast world of humanity that we inhabit.

What I also love about John’s project is that he has created a feast of inspiration for creative writers. Take the word ‘flashover’ for example. He defines it as ‘the moment a conversation becomes real and alive, which occurs when a spark of trust shorts out the delicate circuits you keep insulated under layers of irony, momentarily grounding the static emotional charge you’ve built up through decades of friction with the world’. How many short stories or poems could that generate? Plus it is so beautifully written. I adore the phrase ‘decades of friction with the world’ – again, that just sparks the imagination and helps to birth ideas for new characters and situations.

There is so much I could say in praise of this dictionary. I know I will be visiting it often, drawing on the amazing creativity and insight of this man. For now though, I want to thank him for coming up with the word ‘sonder’. I often sit in coffee shops or restaurants and wonder about the life stories of the people around me. How have they arrived in the same place as me? Where are they going? Who else do they connect to? John created the word ‘sonder’ to describe that experience, but he does it in a far more poetical way than I ever could. I salute him for it.

Sonder – ‘the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.’

Do go and visit his website.


This article was first published on Sharon Clark’s excellent blog 

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Huw Evans on the Dangers of Rhyme

‘Fundamentally, rhyme is dangerous in poetry!’

I have had several animated conversations with my good friend Huw Evans about the pros and cons of rhyme in poetry. On the whole, The pros have come from me, the cons from Huw. I recognise that it is hard for me to approach this objectively when my favourite artform, rap, is synoymous with this particular poetic device. To rap is to rhyme. I was never going to roll over on this one.

However, even with that bias, over the years, Huw has talked to me round when it comes to rhyme and written poetry and he has very helpfully put together a simple little video outlining his beef with rhyming and justifying such extreme statements as the one quoted above. It’s here, and it’ll take a mere 5 minutes of your time…

If you’ve made it to this paragraph without watching the video, I’ll give you a taster, before you scroll up again. Huw’s basic argument goes like this. Rhyme clearly has a function in poetry but it can cause more problems than it solves, especially when it comes to ‘meandering meaning and mangled syntax’. Poets should resist the urge for the easy rhyme, and if they find their meaning being driven by the rhyme, or it leading to a particularly ‘grotesque word order’, they should search harder for a different rhyme or change the phrase they’re trying to rhyme with. In short, a decent rule of thumb is:

‘If… a rhyme seems to be taking away from the meaning or needs a weird word ordering, get rid of it!’

With all that said, though, if you’d like some balance to the argument, or perhaps, like me, if you have such a connection to sonic symmetry in your lyrical diet, that all of this anti-rhyme talk makes you feel slightly uneasy, let’s end with something to restore your faith in ryhme. In short, kids, be careful of rhyme unless you can rhyme like this 😉

Huw is releasing a poetry collection in late Spring, which Sputnik is supporting as part of our Patrons Scheme, to hear more from Huw about his work or to find out more about the patronage, check out the Sputnik Patrons page.


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Rowan Williams, Elaine Storkey and David Benjamin Blower present a series of Advent Devotionals

Nomad Podcast is releasing a series of Advent ‘Devotionals’ for free: audio meditations that reflect on a particular topic, unpacking it with music, song, readings and prayers. Reflections are brought by philosopher and theologian Elaine Storkey; former archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams contributes the readings, and David Benjamin Blower, a good friend of Sputnik, provides the music and songs.

Nomad is an online podcast centred around Christian community – regularly interviewing renowned Christian thinkers and activists in the hope of understanding the church’s future in a post-Christendom culture. Nomad are supported in part by their listeners on Patreon – and their regular ‘Devotionals’ like these are a patrons-only perk, so if you enjoy the Advent series, why not support their work?

Find the free Advent series here, and listen to their excellent back-catalogue of interviews here.

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Remember when Churches made Great Art? This!

People often hark back to bygone ages when churches were the driving force behind the highest calibre of art. Art that affected you after you thought you’d left it behind. Art that perfectly complemented its content to warm your heart to Jesus and the Good News that he entrusted to us.

This year, King’s Church, Edinburgh have crafted a Christmas video that can give us confidence that those days are not entirely behind us. Following on from their excellent 2016 piece Threadbare, this year’s video is a collaboration between poet Jennifer Rawson,  composer Stu Kennedy and video maker and graphic designer George Gibson and features a load of peeps from the church. The visuals, sonics and lyricism are all exceptional, but the fact that they interplay so harmoniously is deeply impressive and creates a profound and powerful piece of art.

The poem is certainly the centrepiece though, and while it was written to be performed, it stands up as a very effective written piece too. Therefore here it is (reproduced with permission):

He Draws Near

A hymnal wind.

The quiet oratorio
sung by our common existence.

Earth’s heaving,
churning pulse
drew its breath
when Jesus came.

He is music.

He is the long silence
between stars
draped across the night
like fairy lights
like the heavens shout —

He is infinite.

He is galaxy upon galaxy,
a tapestry, the spark
that lit the sun.

Open your eyes and see—

The ridges of his fingertips
in every heather-dusted hill.

His voice in the roaring ocean—
constant and deep.

His reflection in the faces
we pass — His image

The very stones cry out
“He is with us.”

He draws near
to our daily rituals —
the baptism of cutlery
in soapy, sink water;
the crackle of oil
anointing kitchen surfaces;
fire smoke in winter
like incense offerings;
our commuter engine chorus
singing with angels.

All the while,
the carpenter King
knocks at the door
and waits.

His birth was just the beginning.


Jennifer Rawson


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Interpreting The Times

Some of the Old Testament prophets dabbled in the performance arts, that’s for sure. However, not all of them.

For most of these guys, it was a matter of delivering a message to the people with good old fashioned words. Spoken or written. When we hear of prophets today, our minds often drift to the Nostradamus mode of prophecy- predicting the future, and that type of prophecy was certainly in the biblical prophets’ repertoire. However, they were often just as concerned with revealing God’s character to people, reminding them of God’s commands and promises, and also interpreting present events in the light of these.

One key aspect of their ministry was seeing layers of meaning behind the very natural events that were unfolding around them or even happening to them. So, Hosea’s wife’s adultery was seen as representative of the unfaithfulness of the entire people of Israel. Similarly, Joel witnessed a devastating locust plague and saw it as symbolic of the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’ (Joel 2:31) and therefore presented the crisis as a call to repent.

Jesus expected all his followers to keep their eyes open and see what was really going on behind what was really going on (e.g. Luke 12:54-59). But this expectation must be even more pronounced for his followers who make art. After all, artists are always opening up new layers of meaning to the subjects they attend to. It’s kind of what we do.

As I was reading through Joel in my Bible reading plan this summer, I was reminded of all this. Unfortunately, there weren’t any ravenous grasshoppers munching their way through my city, for me to muse on. However, there were a few hiccups with the bins.

As my fellow Brummies will be fully aware, the bin men went on strike this summer. Bin bags filled pavements all over the city as one of the most basic expectations of first world civilisation, regular refuse collections, fell by the wayside for the best part of 4 months.

It was funny, because I hadn’t thought about any deeper meaning to all of this (rather that is was a massive pain), until, in a church leaders meeting, two of my friends were discussing the symbolism of this whole fiasco. Not to be outdone, I put my mind to penning a verse or two. It probably won’t be pored over in 3000 years and it certainly isn’t God’s infallible word, but I’m pretty pleased with the outcome, which I’ve included above (thanks to Chris Donald for video and sound work).

What’s going on in your life/family/community/city/nation/world that God may be enabling you to interpret to your audience?

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Kate Tempest and the Voice That Won’t be Silent

Prophecy, in the Biblical sense, is not usually about telling the future: it’s about re-framing the present as seen through God’s eyes, with encouragement or dire warning as appropriate. The future part is implicit, perhaps, but primarily God speaks to what is happening now.

Many of the Old Testament prophets were performance artists, active demonstrators of the message that God wanted them to deliver. Isaiah preached naked and barefoot as a warning that Judah’s allies would become similarly stripped. David sang songs that became signifiers of Jesus’s life and, in some cases, actual words that Jesus spoke. In fine oral tradition, prophecy was a thing performed, proclaimed, in real time and space.

Because prophecy addresses the state of now, it’s socio-political: not party politics but the deeper stuff, the interrelationships of communities, the misuse of power and resources, the contents of people’s hearts towards each other. Nowadays, Christians are deeply involved with matters of justice and social action in the charitable sector – implicitly prophetic work, you might say. But what about the art of explicit prophecy?

While there are Christian artists doing it well – our man Benjamin Blower comes to mind – I’d like to suggest that there are a number of more agnostic artists who have taken onto themselves a mission that’s best described as prophetic. Kate Tempest would be a good example. (Contains dangerous language.. and one F-word):

Above all else, Kate Tempest’s poem carries a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness of everything, the ‘web of being’ as David Dark calls it: the environment, capitalism, the arms trade, social isolation. Yes, it’s a hugely broad sweep, but that’s exactly the point: while “the myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost and pitiful”, comprehending the real state of the nation requires a bird’s eye view. Old Testament prophets dealt in broad sweeps too, and one theme that recurred ad nauseum was that the greed of nations leads to social wreckage and death.

Tempest ends with a plea to “wake up, and love more”, which may be too ambiguous an ending for those who favour clear, didactic treatises of faith (and generally throttling artistry) but watching it again, I don’t disagree with any of it – in fact, I think the poem’s message is something God is crying out for us to hear and understand. You might say it’s not the ‘whole’ truth, but it’s part of it, and powerfully, incisively delivered.

I’m not suggesting that the role of the prophets has somehow moved on to those outside the faith (though there is Biblical precedent for that). Only that there are artists we can learn from who unflinchingly grasp the prophetic nettle. Perhaps the spectacle of sandwich-board-wearing street preachers shouting about hell has scared us from the idea of protest. Yet Tempest, in her way, preaches hell: the hell we’re in, the chaos we’re headed for. I don’t doubt she faces her fair share of deaf ears, doubters, haters, cynical eye-rolls and gleeful misinterpreters. But the prophetic voice in the world will not be silent.

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Our New Sputnik Intern: Tanya Chitunhu

Two weeks ago, our first ever intern started work at Sputnik HQ. Her name is Tanya, and we thought it would be amiss of us not to introduce her to you all. So, Tanya…

Describe yourself in 5 words.

Compassionate, opinionated, determined, introverted and surprising

Why are you interning for Sputnik this year?

I have been performing spoken word poetry on and off for years in my local church and other places and I just felt I needed to dedicate time and effort to explore and hone the craft. I also wanted to see if or how I can turn professional or semi professional at it. The internship seems perfect to do that.

What are you going to be doing this year?

I will be mentored or coached by other writers and poets. That translates practically into working on lots of new poems and getting feedback on my work as well as regularly performing at different venues across Birmingham and beyond. I will also be meeting artists from different fields to get a wider perspective on the arts as inspiration. Alongside that, I will be assisting Sputnik with their day to day administration and whatever they need. Lastly, I am participating in Impact training which is a basic theology course for a great foundation in growing in relationship with God.

As for your artistic practice, what are your goals and who are your main inspirations?

My main goal is to be a better writer and performer of spoken word poetry. I believe God has given me a gift and the best way to honour him is to be the best I can be at using it. I have set myself an incredibly high bar of becoming the next Birmingham Poet Laureate! I hope participating in the competition will push me to the next level of my craft and it will be fun trying to achieve it.

My main inspirations are a little known spoken word poetry collective from America called The Strivers Row – their work is probably why I believe this art form is worth doing – it is deeply personal, incredibly powerful and absolutely passionate. Whenever I listen to or read their poetry, I feel alive and so inspired which are the greatest gifts I hope to give as an artist.


It’s an absolute pleasure having Tanya on board this year. If the first fortnight is anything to go by, she’s going to be a fantastic addition to the Sputnik team. I’m sure you’ll hear much more from her as the year goes on, but for the time being, I’ll leave you with a taster of what she does:

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A Road Trip to The Holy Biscuit Study Day

I first visited the Holy Biscuit back in July 2015, to set up the Newcastle leg of our WhatIsItToBeHuman? exhibition tour. It was clear from our first email exchanges that these guys knew what they were up to, and the space worked perfectly for the exhibition. Therefore, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to pay them another visit for their 2017 Arts Study Day on 29th April. I thought I’d give you an overview of the general shenanigans.


While the Study Day was the main focus of my trip, one of the definite highlights was catching up with friends. I badgered Benjamin Harris into coming along for the ride and we stayed with Huw and Ruth Evans. Conversation ploughed such fields as RG Collingwood, anarchism, the futility of higher education, the rapture and grave digging. Exceptional.

On top of this, we got to spend the Sunday morning at City Church, Newcastle. Their building is impressive, formerly housing the turbines that provided electricity for the city trams. However, an added bonus was the gallery of painted portraits of church members (by local artist Alan Reed) that greets you as you walk in. A great welcome to a great church gathering. Loved it.

Productive Diversity

As for the day itself, between 40 and 50 artists and practitioners made their way to the Holy Biscuit from places as far as Dundee and Edinburgh. From the outset, one of the most noticeable things was the remarkable diversity in the room. There were Catholics. There were Quakers. There were conservative evangelicals. There were ex-Hillsong pastors. All crammed into a refurbished Methodist church.

I’ll be honest; I’ve not always had a particularly generous attitude to Christians who think differently to me. This is not something I admit with pride, but it is the reality. At certain points in my life, if I was given God’s job for a day, the first thing on my to-do-list would have been straightening out a few denominations (and probably eliminating a few too!) After all, wouldn’t it be so much easier if everyone thought like me! However, God is patiently dealing with my latent fascism and I think that this day was another gracious eye opener.

You see, for all the differences of tradition and theology, a pronounced unity of purpose was the most apparent feature of proceedings. In short, everyone seemed to want to follow Jesus and develop his or her artistic practice. The diversity of outlook did not stunt proceedings, but created an atmosphere of vibrancy and curiosity that I, for one, greatly appreciated.

There are some areas of church life where such range of perspectives would prove rather challenging: the organisation of a baptismal service, for example, or a training day on how to speak in tongues! However, while working in the arts I’m increasingly finding diversity to be productive and even necessary.

If a new focus on the arts in the church simply achieved the goal of bringing different types of Christians together to learn from one another, while humbling a few arrogant Jonny Mellors in the process, then for that alone it would be worthwhile.

There are Christians making outstanding stuff in the arts

I waffled on for a couple of sessions about ‘Art in The Bible’ and I’m sure at some point, I’ll probably share these thoughts on the blog. However, the highlight of the day was not my insightful theological musings, but the rather intimidating quintet of Pecha Kucha presentations that preceded lunch.

We had Richard Phipps’ otherworldly, transporting collages, Huw Evans’ honest and expertly presented artistic life story, Lorna Bryan’s reaction to the advertising industry in works that were both acerbic and generous spirited at the same time, Cully’s showcase of the prominent place that Nomas* Projects occupy in Dundee’s art scene, and Sam’s counter-cultural journey through queer-theatre. Afterwards Benjamin Harris put it pretty accurately when he reflected ‘It dawned upon me that I was sat in a room of heavyweights!’

Christian art may get a lot of bad press (and rightly so!) but there are a lot of Christians making excellent art while also making a difference in their local art scenes. This was an encouraging reminder.

So how to sum up the day? Well, that’s easy, as Miriam Skinner acted as the poet in residence for the day, and closed proceedings with a piece, doing just that. Below is We are probably prophets – Miriam Skinner (or click on the link to get it in its intended formatting)


We are probably prophets

Miriam Skinner

“Hi, who are you?”

Ah, I did have a label but these things refuse to stick to me

but see…

I am an enabler of super magic direct to the heart_communication.

A prophet of performance, paint, paper, pottery, pen

We are them

Who sometimes make stuff. We prefer ‘creative’ …and …

We are the marketing team for our nans

and for the 30 breeds of squirrels

– You should google that.

We resolve to not do things that are meaningless.

Meaningless, everything under the sun is meaningless

We value communication, we communicate value

And You and I,

we are contradictory, unfortunately inconsistent.

Our threads tangled. We are present.

We are practitioners. We practice. It doesn’t make perfect.

We answer questions we didn’t ask. We did not know How

If art isn’t heard, does it even make a sound.

We are those who break down,

break through and paint the cracks gold

And hold torches in the dusk. We keep glory, grit and grime, in our clay jars

We are those whose Virgin Mary wears stilettos

Whose attack alarms read YOLO

And who paint black Trump’s oppression- oil on canvas.

In the beginning was the verb- the doing word

We are made in the image of the verb- we are verbs

The heard, the unheard, the underheard

The now but not yet

And yet

We are prophets- probably.


For those who weren’t there, that will probably be a cryptic and tantalising glimpse of The Holy Biscuit Study Day. My advice: keep your eyes peeled for next year’s event.


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Christmas Videos: Kings Church Edinburgh & St Pauls Auckland

On Tuesday we highlighted some music to get you in the Christmas mood. Today we have some videos- 2 to be precise. Christmas always gets Christian creatives motivated and there are plenty of good videos out there, retelling the Christmas story or exploring the questions it raises.

To stand out from the melee, you’ve got to be good. You’ve got to come in at a different angle, you’ve got to exhibit a level of quality that will stand up even discounting the seasonal good cheer. These two videos do just that. So here goes:

Threadbare (King’s Church, Edinburgh)

Kings Church, Edinburgh, is a church that I’d love to get to know better. They’re in the New Ground bit of Newfrontiers, we’re in the Catalyst bit, so we’re like siblings, or at worst cousins. My good friend Luke Davydaitis is one of the leaders (and he’s a great bloke) and they’ve got all sorts of exceptional artists in the church and Jennifer Rawson is one of them.

Jennifer Rawson used to be called Jennifer Taylor and featured in our very first Sputnik Anthology back in 2014. Her poems were some of the highlights of that particular publication but I’d heard nothing from her since. Until this video. I don’t think that Jennifer is the lady in the video, but she certainly wrote the poem that it is built around.

To put it simply, this is how to do a church Christmas video. Forget all the wrappings and just go for the heart of things. This will work in a carol service, but it stands up in its own right as an excellent piece of work at any time of the year (inside or outside a church meeting). It’s well shot, well edited and well recorded. I get the impression that Kings church folk were also responsible for the soundtrack too. Phew!

As Christians left, right and centre fill Youtube with earnest and deeply mediocre ‘spoken words’, it is so refreshing to hear someone who knows how to wield the English language with subtlety and skill.

Take note: this is what happens when you get an actual poet to do a church video, rather than getting a pastor,student worker, or just some good looking member of your congregation to do it.

Seriously guys. This is awesome.

Star of Wonder (St Pauls, Auckland)

I’ve rather selfishly kept this up my sleeve for the last week or so, and noticed that none of my Facebook pals or twitter cronies have cottoned on to it yet. I LOVE this video.

When Sputnik began, St Pauls, Auckland were a huge source of inspiration to me. They are most renowned for their Christmas videos, particularly the Spike Jonze-y ‘Good News of Great Joy’ and Michel Gondry-esque ‘An Unexpected Christmas’. They then dropped off most people’s radars (although their subsequent offerings were also fantastic).

Upon a little investigation, I soon found out that, while Christmas seems to be their shop window, St Pauls is more than a sanctified Santa’s grotto. These guys don’t just have a creative streak, they seem to be something of a creative powerhouse in their city. They put on art exhibitions, gather thousands to their creative services and basically put the rest of us to shame (or spur us onwards, depending how you’re feeling that day).

Behind all of this is a guy called James Bowman. He was senior art director at Saatchi until 2013, but has since moved to New Zealand based advertising and communications company bcg2. We exchanged some emails early on and he was really encouraging in those early days, for which I am still very grateful.

Therefore, it was excellent to see a link from him in my inbox to the new SPAM (St Pauls Arts and Media) Christmas video. What was more excellent though was the video itself. After the full on cuteness of GNoGJ and AUC, this is more of a stealth attack. It is a masterful piece of work- drawing you in, with a light smile here and a furtive glance there, until the understated, but still grand, reveal.

Whereas most Christmas videos talk and talk at you, this features just one Bible verse. But there is a simple profundity here that should not be missed.

City crowds are a helpful window into modern life. We walk through our lives increasingly isolated and individualistic, cut off from those around us, in our iPod dream chambers, augmented reality games or just swapping emojis with people on Whatsapp. But, even in such a world, Christmas has something to say. Christmas is about the one who can still grab our attention and he can turn our vacant stares and world weary frowns into huge beaming smiles.

More than any other video I’ve seen this year, this one boils Christmas down to its most crucial component: Joy to the world.

Happy Christmas!

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Advent 2016 by Bernard Davis

A couple of weeks ago, we directed you towards Luke Sewell’s excellent Orbital blog, a result of Luke’s wrestlings with the year that is now drawing to a close. Today, I thought I’d point you towards a different response to 2016, from Bernard Davis. Bernard is a stalwart of the Birmingham poetry scene and part of our Brum Sputnik Hub and his poem ‘Advent 2016’ is another excellent reflection on the year.

Advent 2016

The present keeps colliding with the future.
We are the flies too near the windscreen,
we need to create some distance before 
our heads explode. This year choreographed by
Heironymus Bosch, this garden of earthly disasters.
We need the perspective he refused,
to break through the canvas of his eternal present,
back into our fractured reality to reset time.
To still the compass he used as a spinning toy,
and if we are to take our bearings,
locate some ground, some rock, that
hasn’t been hollowed into echo chambers,
where each group who know they are right,
sooth themselves with the returning sound
of their own voices. Mutually Assured Stupidity.
With these lullabies in our ears, it’s no surprise
the crib no longer comforts, the holy family
cling to wreckage in the Aegean sea,
Herod stalks the streets of Syria and North Iraq,
everywhere Rachael, inconsolable,
weeps for her children. The only sane voice
is a madman crying in the desert.
Make a straight path, fill in the bomb craters,
tear down the barricades, let through the ambulances,
treat the injured, feed the starving
emerging from their basement prisons.
We have to start making a way out of here.
Out of here? First of all we have to find
out where we are. The frontlines, the signposts,
the borders, every line we drew, obliterated.

© Bernard.S.Davis

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madebymotive: Huw Evans

In an off the cuff remark on the phone a few days before the festival, Benjamin Harris agreed to hand write each of the 4 poems we were exhibiting on to our display boards. Over the course of about 5 hours on the following Friday and Saturday, he fulfilled this agreement (with the help of a band of helpers that increased in inverse proportions to the amount of time left before the exhibition opened).

It was well worth it though, as pieces by Huw Evans, Sharon Clark, Jess Wood and Lex Loizides were given the space they deserved.

I thought I’d share Huw’s poem with you all. Whether 6 feet high etched in black marker or in wordpress’ serif free font of choice, it’s an evocative and beautiful piece of work. Underneath it is Huw’s explanation of what motivates him, which is itself pretty much a work of art 😉

On Mistress Joan’s Passing

(Joan Aiken 1924 – 2004)

Sweep from the hearth the flakes of grey,

ash from the apple wood last night.

We shall not have a fire today


with cunning flames which feed and prey

on wood to swell their tangle bright.

Sweep from the hearth the flakes of grey,


the sap is spent, no shadows play

like ghosts of wood in clash and fight,

we shall not have a fire today


transforming things we know by day

to mysteries and half delight.

Sweep from the hearth the flakes of grey


and spread them gently where they may

inspire new trees to greater height.

We shall not have a fire today,


although the room chills we shall stay

and talk in darkness of the light.

Sweep from the hearth the flakes of grey

we shall not have a fire today.



Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to  do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.



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More from Catalyst Festival…

Finally, I’ve had a chance to see Steve’s performance from the Monday night meeting at Catalyst Festival and I can see what all the fuss was about.

Lyrically excellent. Authentically and skilfully delivered. Worship inciting. Mind engaging. This is great. (The band provide very sensitive and helpful accompaniment too- online high fives all round)

What I think I like most (and remember I’m just going from the video as I didn’t see him perform it live) is how he moves seamlessly from ‘eyes closed-lost in worship- it’s just me and God-Sunday meeting contribution’ to ‘eyes open- whole body- performance’. He mixes this up perfectly and gets the balance between all eyes on me performer and all eyes on God worshipper just right.

I think this is a balance we need to learn to live with. Traditionally, the type of church I’ve been involved in (Charismatic evangelical) has been very suspicious of performances creeping into our ‘worship times’. The minute someone contributes to a meeting in a way that seems to attract attention to themselves,  people often get a little tetchy. Are they wanting to steal glory from God? Do they want to break the worship spell and make me open my eyes and recognise that this meeting is not actually just me and Jesus? Aren’t only prophets allowed to do that?

That depiction may be slightly cheeky, but it’s probably not massively wide of the mark for many in churches like ours. The thing is- the biblical mandate is that people should contribute to Christian gatherings in a way that strengthens and builds up the church (1 Corinthians 12:12, 14:26) and that does not preclude unapologetic performance pieces in the times when we gather. I’ve personally found some times when, while lost in worship, if you pardon that expression, a public prayer or prophetic word has acted as a kind of soundtrack in the background of my personal connection with God- that has built me up and strengthened me. At other times though, I’ve also been built up, strengthened, and inspired in gung ho, sing your heart out worship, by someone interrupting me from my pious worship pose by doing a performed piece that demands my attention and the exercise of my intellectual faculties (which is as true if someone reads out a lengthy chunk of Romans as if they grab the mic and perform a 2 minute song/rap/spoken word piece/dance).

So over to you guys. Performances in worship times?