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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

South African poet writes to change perceptions

Author Judy Croome said many of her poems are about finding beauty in the mundane. PHOTO: MATEO CAPLIN ’23/THE HAWK

Judy Croome is a South African poet, novelist and short story writer born in Zvishavane, Zimbabwe, to South African parents. After many years of being an accountant, Croome decided to turn to writing fiction and poetry full-time.

In 2015, Croome published a poetry book titled “a stranger in a strange land,” which explores themes of race and gender as well as poems about cats, cancer and vegetarianism. More recent volumes include “Drop by Drop” (poems of loss)” (2020) and “the dust of hope (rune poems)” (2021). 

The Hawk interviewed Croome in Johannesburg, where she lives, to find out more about her poetry. 

The Hawk: When did you decide to become a poet, or realize you were one?

Croome: I think I fell into it. I wanted to write the next great novel. Of course, I think every writer wants to write the great novel. My personal circumstances were such that I didn’t have the time to dedicate [to writing]. My father was very ill. My mother needed help, she had a heart attack, my husband was with all sorts of things, so I was trying to balance all these things and I didn’t have time to do another novel. I thought, well, just write poems, at least you’re writing something. And somehow I discovered that I’m actually probably better at poems than I am at writing a novel because it suits my personality. The poem exists in and of itself, and its whole within itself, and I like that feeling of completeness when you finish the poem. That was when I realized I must focus on poetry, and that’s what I’ve done. 

The Hawk: Do you have a favorite poem? Or one that is especially meaningful to you?

Croome: That’s almost impossible to answer because there are so many poems that have moved me. As you grow as an individual, a poem that means something to you 10 years ago may have pushed you into a new experience, but when you look at it 10 years later, it doesn’t have the same resonance. The one that springs to mind now is “The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski because it’s all about living life with passion and not letting the darkness of the world diminish you. “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver is also a beautiful one.

The Hawk: In your biography on Goodreads, you cite the American novelist Toni Morrison as one of your influences. How has Morrison inspired you?

Croome: I love Toni Morrison’s style of writing. Although she’s talking about issues that are so important, she doesn’t do it from a role of victimhood, she does it from a role of power. She forces you into very uncomfortable – especially for me as a white South African – and really challenging things. That’s going back to what I was saying previously about how you want to change people by changing their perspectives. Works like Toni Morrison’s, Maya Angelou’s poems, Mary Oliver’s, Louise Erdrich’s novels, they inspire me by showing me different perspectives. They move me, they make me feel emotions, sometimes emotions that I don’t want to feel like guilt and shame. At the same time, it’s all part of human existence. If we don’t acknowledge those feelings, then we’re never going to move through them. We’re never going to change, we’re never going to grow.

The Hawk: How can poetry be used to tackle issues like race and gender in a meaningful way?

Croome: We can in our own small way change one person’s perception even if we can just open their minds or their hearts to a different way of looking at things rather than trying to impose it from outside. If somebody reads a poem, and it opens their view to something they’ve never thought of before, isn’t that a change worthwhile? Even if it’s only one person? Because then that person will maybe affect somebody else and that’s how the ripples start . . . That’s what I hope my poetry does. It reaches people who would perhaps never read poetry. Another poet could come here and say, ‘Listen, I want to change the world. Not with one step at a time. I want to change the world in one great big bang.’ Fantastic. For me, it’s tiny steps, it’s about the mundane.

The Hawk: Why does representation of marginalized groups within poetry matter?

Croome: One of the most painful experiences of my life was sitting and listening every day to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the early 90s. The most important thing that I took away from that is people being allowed to tell the stories. When you’re marginalized, you don’t have a voice. You’re not being seen, you’re not heard.

In “a stranger in a strangle land,” South African poet Judy Croome includes poems that she hopes will change the world, and people’s perceptions, in “tiny steps.” PHOTO: LESLIE QUAN ’22/THE HAWK

The Hawk: What about the poems in a stranger in a strange land” about cats, cancer and vegetarianism? Poems about everyday living? 

Croome: Sappho was a great female poet from the classical Athens period. Sappho wrote about politics and war, but very few people know of a poetess from classical Athens, at the same time as Sappho, called Karina. Karina wrote about daily things. She wrote about mothers having children, caring for children, weaving, digging up the fields and collecting the corn and those kinds of things. She’s been forgotten because that was not considered important enough. Wars and politics are real important things that run the world. To me, that’s such a tragedy because the wars and the politics and all those kinds of things are so far out of reach of most of the ordinary people. It’s like an elitist barrier. What about the millions of other people who just live ordinary lives? Who only want to live ordinary lives?

The Hawk: What is the current state of contemporary poetry in South Africa? Is poetry popular among readers? Publishers? 

Croome: It’s better now in the new South Africa than it was in the old South Africa, especially spoken poetry. If you think about it, poetry and music lyrics are almost the same because music lyrics are often poems that have been put to music. But somehow, music is acceptable, and it’s something people turn to. I would love poetry to become more popular because it suits today’s world. The skill set of poetry is you have to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. Poetry actually scares people. Yet, music lyrics are nothing but poetry. That’s maybe why music is so popular, especially among the youth. It’s all about feelings, it’s all about being a voice for the unheard, it’s all about speaking up. I wish poetry would also tap into that collective and be recognized for the potential that it is. 

The Hawk: Why is it important for young people to have access to, read and write poetry?

Croome: In today’s world, there’s so much insecurity and so much uncertainty. The one thing with poetry is it has the potential to tap into ancient rhythms – almost reaching into that inner knowledge within us of what’s right or wrong. Poetry can give young people guidance. Good poetry today can offer young people a way to get in touch with that inner divinity that’s within them, that inner knowing. When I was young, we had our values imposed on us from the outside. Young people are far more questioning and they are far more aware that you can’t just blindly accept an authority from outside. Poetry can show you. It can be this guide that allows you to navigate, maybe not with certainty, but with the skills and tools that will help you make more informed decisions. 

The Hawk: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

Croome: When you start a book, write every day. I don’t care if you have to set the alarm to get up at four o’clock. I don’t care if you have to write rubbish at 12 o’clock in the morning when you come back from a party. Write every day until that particular book is finished. Put it aside and let your brain and your soul rest. From a more emotional, artistic creative side, get yourself in that space where you can receive the words. Try to get into that meditative state because I think that’s where the best poetry comes from. It does come from reason as well, but poetry is more emotional.

Find Judy Croome on Instagram @judy_croome.

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