John Eppel

John Eppel

John Eppel's pamphlet 'Landlocked' was a winner in the 2015/16 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, judged by Billy Collins 

John Eppel’s first novel, D G G Berry’s The Great North Road, won the M-Net prize and was listed in the Weekly Mail & Guardian as one of the best 20 South African books in English published between 1948 and 1994.  His second novel, Hatchings, was short-listed for the M-Net prize and was chosen for the series in the Times Literary Supplement of the most significant books to have come out of Africa.   His other novels are The Giraffe Man, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, The Holy Innocents, Absent: The English Teacher, Traffickings and (awaiting publication) The Boy Who Loved Camping.


His poetry collections include Spoils of War, which won the Ingrid Jonker prize, Sonata for Matabeleland, Selected Poems: 1965 – 1995, and Songs My Country Taught Me. Furthermore he has collaborated with Philani Amadeus Nyoni  in a collection called Hewn From Rock, and with Togara Muzanenhamo in a collection called Textures. He has published three collections of poetry and short stories: The Caruso of Colleen Bawn, White Man Crawling, and, in collaboration with the late Julius Chingono, Together (nominated for the Pushcart prize).


Eppel’s short stories and poems have appeared in many anthologies, journals and websites, including six poems in the Penguin Anthology of South African Poetry.  His poem, ‘Vendor and Child’ was chosen by New Internationalist for their collection, Fire in the Soul, the best 100 human rights poems from across the world over the last 100 years.  His poem, ‘Jasmine’ was chosen as ‘Poem of the Week’ in the British Guardian Newspaper.

'Ample proof that good formal poetry is very much alive, this poet uses run-on lines and counter rhythms to allow the rhymes to be the undersong of the poem rather than its striking measure. Lovely poems here about sex, arts, spiders, flowers, and yes, birds.'

– Billy Collins


‘Eppel’s poetry rises above banal patriotism or futile optimism and sidesteps the realm of the politically correct.  His poems resonate humour and warmth.’  Anthony Chennels


‘John Eppel is a craftsman of high order; a poet and novelist who savages complacency with deft ironies; and a man who is faithful to the complexities of his rootedness.’  

– Dan Wylie


‘Eppel has sent roots deep down into the soil.’  

– Nick Meihuizen


‘... his poems have nothing to do do with white nostalgia for the colonial period.  On the contrary, they circle round an attempt both to embrace a past (after all, he has no other source of identity) and also to wean himself from it.’  

– Stephen Watson


‘Eppel is a poet with a compulsive gift for the telling image … he has clung to a Southern African idiom and concerns, even though expert in a “world language.”’  

– Geoffrey Haresnape


‘I know of no other poems which depict more poignantly the experience of being a white African during this time of transition.’

– Guy Butler



The American Dream is uncovered for being just that

in the flowers of the poinsettia, which are not flowers

at all but a series of scarlet bracts or modified leaves.

They recall the lips of Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth,

and, most poignantly, of America’s astounding poet,

Sylvia Plath.  But this is my garden in Bulawayo!

What has the American Dream or “manifest destiny”

got to do with it?  Everything, I guess; except our clichés

are different, like “Commonwealth of Nations”, “rod of empire”,

“Rule Britannia”.  And this shrub, Euphorbia pulcherrima,


adorning my early winter garden, concordant with that

afterglow of common thatching grass unsettling as its “flowers”,

is as much a settler as I am; and the day that it leaves

is the day I leave: “For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth”,

as politicians have, and academics (a white poet

should restrict his content to the flora of Bulawayo),

“to stir men’s (sic) blood”.  My settler friends and me, our destiny

is obscure.  We measure out our lives in platitudes, clichés,

watching the sun set on Zimbabwe, as it set on empire:

scarlet and gold, heart-breaking, most beautiful - pulcherrima.


How did you start writing? 


I grew up in a village in rural Matabeleland called Colleen Bawn! I started writing in my early teens.  I loved the sound rather than the sense of word patterns.  I wore out The Book of Nonsense (chosen and arranged by Roger Lancelyn Green).  My primary school teachers were British expats who instilled a love of lyricism in me through Georgian poets like John Masefield and Walter de la Mare, and through countless sentimental songs about Irish eyes, Welsh rivers, Scottish lassies, and English pastures green.



My father worked in a limestone quarry; my mother was a housewife.  I have an older brother and a younger sister. We were all born in South Africa but moved to Zimbabwe when I was four years old.  I completed my secondary education as a boarder at Milton High School in Bulawayo.  I read for my degrees at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and my teacher’s certificate at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. I am still teaching here in Bulawayo.  I am divorced, with three grown up children, and have recently become a grandfather.



Which are your favourite poets and poems? 


My favourite poets are Shakespeare, Keats, and Hardy. And they have all influenced me, Hardy in particular, for his craft and his poignant sense of loss.  If I had to choose representative poems from each of them they would be Cleopatra’s dying speech, ‘To Autumn’, and ‘The Darkling Thrush’:


I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-gray,

And winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.


Where do you mostly write? What do you do instead of writing?


I write at home, mostly in my bedroom, mostly (because of a heavy teaching load) in the school holidays.  Instead of writing I read, listen to historical recordings of opera and other classical music, play with my pets (two dogs and a cat) and potter about in my wasteland of a garden.  Oh, and then there is Facebook!



My first collection of poems, Spoils of War, took twelve years to find a publisher (my first novel took fifteen years).  The cover is an old photograph of me and my two siblings as children, posing in front of our second hand Austin A70.  In the background is our one-room house with a thatched roof and walls made of whitewashed burlap sacking. Beyond the house is the bushveld: the subject of much of my poetry.


The title poem of the collection describes a contact I was engaged in during the war of liberation, in the seventies. There is an intended pun on the word ‘spoils’.


What are you currently working on?


Currently I am working on my ninth novel about an elderly white music teacher, terminally ill, who rediscovers a purpose in life.  I hope it won’t be too satirical.

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