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Poetry Offers Us a Language When Our Other Languages Fail – 2015 Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award Winner Athol Williams

Athol Williams wins the 2015 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award for "Streetclass Diseases"
The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology 2011The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IIThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IIIThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IVThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology

Athol Williams was recently announced as the winner of the fifth Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award for his poem “Streetclass Diseases”. He was not able to attend the ceremony in Johannesburg, as he is currently based in the UK, but he has shared some thoughts about the award and poetry in general.

Williams is a poet and social philosopher from Cape Town who has published two volumes of poetry and a children’s book, Oaky and the Sun. His poems have been published in anthologies and literary journals in the UK, USA and South Africa. He holds five degrees from Harvard, MIT, LSE, LBS and Wits, and is currently registered at Oxford.

“Portrait of a Mother and Indiscretion”, by Sindiswa Busku-Mathese, was awarded second place, with “Baleka, what do you know”, by Jim Pascual Agustin, in third.

The winners were presented with their awards by head judge and chairperson of the Jacana Literary Foundation Mongane Wally Serote and at an award ceremony hosted by Poetry Africa in October.

Watch Williams’ acceptance speech:

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Read the transcript:

A message from Athol Williams:

Hello from Oxford University, where I will be spending the next few years.

My apologies for not being there with you this evening to celebrate at this award ceremony.

It is such an honour for me to be among the award winners of such a prestigious poetry award as the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award for 2015.

Poets don’t write poems to win awards, but recognition such as this certainly encourages us to keep writing, and to keep improving our craft.

This is the third time that I am entering, so the adage “third time’s a charm” certainly holds true.

Such an award serves not only to encourage poets, but also to raise the profile of poetry in society, and maintain its place amongst the arts.

I believe that poetry is special among the arts, because it uniquely is able to test and transcend the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual; to tie yesterday to tomorrow, in hope, and to link memory with imagination in important ways that the other arts don’t.

Poetry contains lines and words packed with concentrated human experience, and offers us a language when our other languages fail to express our greatest hopes and joys, and indeed, our darkest horrors.

So there is a beauty, a special beauty of the human spirit, that poetry alone seems able to express. Surely our lives are richer for having poetry in it, both as individuals, and as society.

And so I am grateful for a poetry prize such as the Sol Plaatje EU Award, and I commend the sponsors – the European Union, the Jacana Literary Foundation – for having the vision for this prize, and for putting resources behind it.

I would like to thank the judges for their dedicated and time-consuming effort to select the winning poems, and for seeing the beauty of the human spirit and the challenges of our social context in my poem, ‘Streetclass Diseases’.

I would also like to extend a special thank you to Dr Mongane Wally Serote, as the head judge, who I regret not being able to meet tonight.

This award means the world to me. It is the highlight of my 20-year poetry career, and will certainly keep me going for the next 20 years.

Thank you!

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