Poet Sue Woodward captures wild places, ancient stories in her poems

By CityLIfe Arts Writer

On 21 June, inhabitants of the southern hemisphere will celebrate the annual Winter Solstice, marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

We might shrug this off as an unimportant detail on a calendar today, but centuries ago people across the world attached immense significance to this event, which symbolised the death of the old year and the beginning of new life.

As we approach this year’s Winter Solstice, the AVBOB Poetry Project celebrates the work of Sue Woodward, a poet and teacher fascinated by ancient myths and legends. Many of her sources may be ancient, but her vision is sharp and up to date.

Her debut collection, Between the Apple and the Bite (Modjaji, 2020) was shortlisted for the Ingrid Jonker Prize. In it, she finds clear, resonant voices for famous women from Greek mythology and the Bible as well as for more recent women who shaped the course of human history.

We asked Sue what draws her to these ancient women.

“I realised that the choices and predicaments they faced are the same as those faced by modern women. I had a strong feeling of solidarity with them. These stories have survived for thousands of years, and much of our western art, music and literature is built on them. So in a very real sense, these women are our contemporaries. Their problems are still ours today.”

For instance, she evokes Eve’s choice to pluck and eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden:

“paradise is lost

in the blink of a serpent’s gaze

between the apple and the bite

and the spark and the beginning

the forest burns”

In that final image, she also challenges us to confront our present moment, faced with the possibility of imminent climate catastrophe. Other poems evoke unequal power relations between men and women that are very reminiscent of those flagged by the #MeToo movement.

Sue comments, “We cannot escape the times we live in, and any writing about the past needs to be in tune with what is happening today. I knew I had to bring those ancient voices into a contemporary setting.”

Many of these women challenge the roles they are expected to play. Others lament their lack of power or even collaborate with those who have it. The poems are written in such a way that we are always left with questions. We are tempted to imagine different choices; more empowering outcomes. In the process, modern women and men are given permission to look at and question their roles and positions in society.

“My poems try to bring out the tensions between the genders, but also the conflict within women themselves. They want to be desired and loved but also to be empowered and respected as equals.”

Sue’s work shows how poetry can help us re-examine our beliefs. It leads us into ancient myths and stories, challenging us to pay renewed attention.

“Myths have a huge role to play, particularly in the light of AI and the prevalence of social media. I think and hope that people will long for the wild places and ancient stories as an antidote to technology.”

In the next few days, think of an ancient story that influenced the way you were brought up or the way you think. Try to write a poem in conversation with that story and see what emerges. You will be amazed at how alive ancient stories are.

You can order Between the Apple and the Bite from Modjaji Books or from the African Books Collective.

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