In conversation with: Xabiso Vili

We’re super excited to have Xabiso in Bombay and featuring at our next WTS open mic on 27th May. We asked him a few questions..

What does poetry mean to you? 

I was an awkward kid growing up. All this charm and charisma was hidden beneath fear after fear and then insecurity. I spent all my time in the library, reading, staying away from my peers. I started with rap, in a library I heard someone playing Pharoah Monch’s “Behind Closed Doors”, the artform intrigued me so much, I wrote my own response to it. I must have been 11. There used to be cyphers on the playground during break, I approached them one day, veering away from my library route and laced my “Behind Closed Doors” verse. I received rapturous applause. I wrote everyday after that and competed in battles every break and at all the socials. I was undefeated. By the time I started writing poetry at 12, I was disillusioned with rap. Everybody just wanted to hear cool lines, none of what was actually going on inside me. When I first heard a spoken word poem, I ran home, missing the last two periods of school and fervently wrote my first poem. I awkwardly gave it to my English teacher the next day who asked me why I had missed her class the previous day. She read it and, after a brief silence, asked me to read it to the class. This was the most nervous I had ever been, because these were my truths I had on this page, everything inside me, laid bare to the world. I performed the piece and with each stanza I floated further and further away from the floor, when I was done, I didn’t hear the applause, I ran out in tears. Something in me knew I had found what it was that I had to with my life. Poetry is the voice that told me to wipe my tears and it do it again.

How long have you been writing? Tell us about your poetry journey.

I’ve been writing actual logical poems since I was 12 years old. I’m 26 now. My family used to call me umtshingo when I was a baby because, Mama says, I used to cry nonstop like a flute – umtshingo is a flute. I tell Mama, even as I baby I was trying to breathe poems into life. Mama laughs, that true laughter, because she knows she can’t disagree. After I started writing, I started performing at 16. I went to university at 18 and started studying a little bit of drama, ran events for the poetry collective there and was their chairperson in my final year. I went to work for a year after university, then left work and went full time into poetry. A year after leaving work and spending the last dregs of my savings to get to my next gig, was the first time I ever got paid for a performance. The rest is a story best told over whiskey.

What is your creative process? 

Huh? What? I don’t know, I just write, every day. Sometimes I’m a little drunk, sometimes an idea comes to me so clearly that I stop everything, sometimes it takes me weeks, months to squeeze out an idea to its fullest, sometimes nothing good comes for far too long but I stay writing, every day. I live for the moment where the poem just flows out of you but I know it’s a lot more likely that I’ll have to chisel a rock into being and breathing. So I keep my chiselling hand strong.

If anything, my creative process is editing. I know, that’s far less glamourous than writer magician, poof, out of thin air, a poem appears. But I think writer alchemists are a lot more inspiring, after years of failed attempts, they finally turn a little lead into even less gold then improve on that process. Unfortunately, I’m still at lead, but I can tell you, it’s getting purer. I’m coming for that gold.

Who/what inspires you? 

Before I list names and apologise for missing a lot of those unlisted names, let me say WHAT inspires me. Which is everything. Everything is a poem! I’ve written poems about run over dogs as metaphors for government, poems about black boys and thinfat boys and black boys ordering bread. Poems about bonfires and fireplaces and broken pottery and clothes with no owners and lonely bedrooms and periods as poems and poems as periods, rats and mothers and fathers and brothers and art installations. All these have poetry in common. Life is lived, the job of the poet is to find the poetry in the living.

Who inspires me? Here is a list, I’m sorry for all the inspirations I miss. First, I inspire me, as Napo Masheane says (who also inspires me) my dreams dream of me. Then artists and humans such as; Alt-J, Modise Sekgothe, ee cummings, Vuyelwa Maluleka, Mutle Mothibe, Koleka Putuma, Zewande Bengu, Thandokuhle Mngqibisa, Qhakaza Mthembu, Zano Mthembu, Lwazi Mthembu, Sandi Dlangalala, Tyson Ngubeni, Ashley Makue, Manolagayatri Kumarswamy, Lebo Lebese, Ishmael Sibiya, Anga Mamfanya, The Brother Moves On, Benjamin Clementine, Katleho Shoro, Sabelo Soko, Chris Kets, Daniel Green, Deanna Rodger, Safia Elhillo, Itai Hakim, Children of the Wind, Sarah Godsell, Loyce Gayo, Emi Mahmoud, Bella Cox, Thabiso Afurakan Mohare, Sbu Simelane, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Bukowski, Ben Okri, Haruki Murakami, Andre 3000, BLK JKS, Batandwa Alperstein, Buhle Ngaba, Neo Baepi, Saul Williams, Nkosinathi Gaar, Kurt Schroder, Puno Selesho, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zadie Smith, Danielle Bowler, Mr Bean, Wolverine, Deadpool, Goku, Walter White and the list spirals! These humans all possess something that makes my heart skip, makes me want to do better. I appreciate them for that.

Advice for aspiring performance poets? 

1. Write
2. Write some more
3. Edit.
4. Edit again.
5. Rewrite
6. Let those you trust edit
7. Rewrite.
8. Perform as an editing tool.
9. Breathe, look after yourself, self care, splurge, cry, eat ice cream, drink too much, do something forbidden
10. Accept.


This is one of the most frightening forms of art, look after yourself, do not come into this expecting fame, come into this to speak your truth, walk away knowing you’ve said what you could say the only way you could have and look after yourself afterward. Only through truth can one be heard. And if you so happen to make a living from it, don’t forget the craft nor the truth.

A poetry video or poem you absolutely recommend?

I carry your heart with me (i carry it in) – EE Cummings

Also, here is a link-list of amazing South African poets (I’m in there somewhere because I also rep myself! Also, because I asked my contemporaries which videos to share and I was included, like the new facebook like button, I’m mad grateful for that.)

American poem I kinda like.


Xabiso Vili is a performer, writer, and social activist from South Africa, currently working in the City of Tshwane. His writings help him explore his inner world so as to be able to relate to the outer world.

He is the Pretoria Spoken Sessions Slam League Champion 2015/16 and the Speak Out Loud Youth Poetry Competition Champion 2015. He has also represented the Eastern Cape in the Lover + Another Regional Poetry Slam (2011) and in 2013, he won the Gauteng Regional Slam and came in 3rd in the National Slam. Xabiso was also the Word N Sound poet of the year in 2014 and 2015.

He has recently released his African contemporary Lounge and Spoken Word fusion Album called; “Eating My Skin”, created in collaboration with Favela Ninjas. He is also touring his one-man show; “Black Boi Be” and is launching his album in willing participants’ homes and lounges in his Live Lounge Launches”.


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