Sparking Your Writing Using Abantu

Friday, August 05, 2022
By Sheila Bender

What is Abantu?

Years ago, poet Robert Hass taught a short couplet form that he had read was an oral tradition among the Abantu people of Africa. In class, he recited this couplet:

The sound of an elephant’s tusk cracking
The voice of an angry man

It was an example of the oral poetry that the Abantu tribe members created as they worked. One person offered an image and another would respond with a an unrelated image that when paired with the first one provided a sensory experience. The participants created something like similes (the sound of an elephant’s tusk cracking is like the voice of an angry man).

Whether you imagine that the elephant’s tusk breaks as a consequence of the animal knocking into a tree or that the cracking is the noise the tusk causes when the elephant uses it to fell a tree, the sound has a tangible meaning when compared to the voice of an angry man.

Try creating sound, sight, taste, touch, smelling and hearing related images for a first line of an abantu couplet:

Clothes fresh from the dryer

Clothes tumbling in the dryer

Clothes going into the dryer

Next “answer back” to these lines with an image that creates the same physical sensation you got from the first line:

Clothes fresh from the dryer
Patch of carpet where my cat lies in sunshine

Clothes tumbling in the dryer
Leaves and paper blown by the wind

Clothes going into the dryer
Seaweed lying on the beach

Try some more with these first lines:

The cornflakes in my bowl

Waiting for the school bus

Kids eating in the cafeteria

Sitting at my desk

The lights in the ceiling

Lockers along the hallway
Here are some sample responses:

The cornflakes in my bowl
Sand bars in a bay

Waiting for the school bus
A jellybean out of the bag

Kids eating in the cafeteria
Undulating kelp

Sitting at my desk
Piloting a space craft

The lights in the ceiling
Egg cartons in the supermarket

Lockers along the hallway
An army waiting

If most of the images turn out to be visual in content (which most often happens at first) try putting sound or smell into your work instead of relying totally on visual images and likenesses:

My mother’s voice
Water in a fountain

My baby’s cry
Siren’s behind our car

The star jasmine at night
Powder on a baby

Bubble gum out of the wrapper
The plastic skin of a Barbie doll

Taste may be harder:

A cracker with no butter
Brown paper bag in my mouth

The rubber bands on my braces

Sometimes the sense of touch needs practice. You can do that with first lines about textures:

My wool hat on my head
Blades of dry grass

Touching the skin of a dolphin
The smooth part of the peel under an eggshell

The rough skin of an orange
Stucco on a building

Developing facility with association, you foster new ways of looking at, touching, smelling, tasting and listening to the world. It keeps the writing mind oiled and ready to go:

I went downstairs for breakfast. My mother had put cornflakes in a bowl for me and I poured milk over the brown flakes. They peeked out of the milk, sand bars in the bay where my father used to take me fishing.

A beginning to a story about fishing with Father.

Valuing associational thinking both encourages good writing and the spirit of play essential in its creation.


Sheila Bender, founder of, is the author of many books on writing, including the popular Writing Personal Essays: Shaping and Sharing Your Life Experience and Creative Writing DeMystified. Her memoir is entitled A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. Her newest book, Since Then: Poems and Short Prose will be available in spring 2022. She has been updating previously published books. Two of them are now available in print and digitally on Amazon and through bookstores: Writing in a Convertible with the Top Down, co-authored with Christi Killien Glover, and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief. As a writer, teacher and editor, she believes that writing so others understand our hearts and minds helps us understand ourselves, heal grief and sadness and grow. She has presented at conferences and writers' centers including Centrum Foundation's summer Port Townsend Writer's Conference, the Whidbey Island's writer's conference workshops, the Writer's Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA, and the Kahini writing program's writer's workshops and served as a Distinguished Lecturer in Poetry at Seattle University.

--Sheila is also a WOW! Women on Writing instructor. Her class, Writing the Hermit Crab Essay and Other Related Creative Nonfiction Forms, starts on September 19th! Reserve your spot here.


Andrea said...

What a great exercise for writers, like me, who write their first few drafts without the senses. I'm so weak in that area, I'll have to try this. It should improve my writing quite a bit. Thanks!

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