/ 12 June 2024

Undertaker’s challenge helps to keep poetry alive

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Winning poet Collen Thabo

An undertaker sponsoring a poetry competition sounds weird but it actually makes a lot of sense. 

In 2017, South Africa’s largest funeral company, Avbob, launched its first poetry competition because “of the need to have words of weight on a funeral notice when people feel their world has fallen apart”, explained the project’s manager, Johan Myburgh. 

South Africans of all ages were invited to enter poems in all 11 official languages, with the themes of love, hope, death and birth to guide them.

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Winning poet Kiara Naidoo

Now in its eighth iteration, the annual competition is being adjudicated by a panel of esteemed literary experts, with 11 winners in each of the country’s languages being announced at a gala dinner in September, said Myburgh.

The poems of 33 writers — the top three in each language category, each with an English translation —will be published in an anthology titled I Wish I’d Said.

Chief judge, the award-winning poet Johann de Lange, said at last year’s event: “Poetry addresses the universal struggle to find meaning and purpose in our darkest hours. The Avbob poetry competition inspires poets to reach deep inside themselves to find words that keep hope alive.”

In 2023’s competition, 55% of the poems entered were written 

in South Africa’s vernacular languages.

As part of the project, Avbob has created an online library, which consists of 22 789 poems in 11 languages. These poems are available for free.

It has clearly elicited an enthusiastic response from writers because the project publishes on average two new poems a week on its social media platforms, said Myburgh.

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Winning poet Ann Scarborough Moore

The poetry project also ran a mini competition in April on the theme “Three ways to look at a person”. 

The response to this mini competition has been remarkably thoughtful and sensitive, said De Lange. 

“This was quite a challenging theme,” he said. “But poets rose to the challenge and sent us their finest work. There are poems here that will move readers, that will inspire them to think and feel more attentively.”

The winner was Ann Scarborough Moore, an artist and ceramicist living in Cape Town, with her poem Through A Fish-Eye Lens

In second place was Kiara Naidoo, who is pursuing an honours degree in medical virology at the University of Pretoria. Her work is titled The Worldview of a Forensic Pathologist.

The third-place winner, Collen Thabo Molahleni, is an engineering student from Johannesburg. His poem is called Remember Who You Are!.

Meanwhile, next year’s competition will open for poetry submissions on 1 August.