Poetry Africa 2001: Cultural Commitment and the Eruption of Verse

by Remi Raji

Poetry Africa 2001? If you ask me, the experience can be summed up in one word: exhilarating. Metaphorically speaking, the month of May was indeed one of the several seasons of migration to the South of Africa ably initiated by the duo of Peter Rorvik and Clare Hull and their supportive team in the Centre for Creative Arts of the University of Natal. The windy port city of Durban in the Kwa Zulu-Natal region of South Africa welcomed us all, twenty five writers representing sixteen different nations from North America, the Caribbean island, Europe, Oceania, the Middle East and Africa. The youngest was John Mateer, the South African born Australian who announced that he was thirty on Friday June 1 as we had lunch under the marula for the Indaba (the writers’ speakout) near Shongweni in the romantic “Valley of a Thousand Hills.” The oldest were Hone Tuwhare, the Maori octogenarian from New Zealand and Mazisi Kunene, the revered writer and theorist of Zulu poetry who turned seventy recently. The other participants included Taban lo Liyong of Sudan, Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana, Jean-Claude Daberllay of Switzerland, Nidaa Khoury of Palestine, Amir Or of Israel, Amina Said of Tunisia, Lasana Sekou of St. Martin, Sheri-D Wilson of Canada, Dorothea Smartt of UK, Tracie Morris of USA, David Dabydeen of Guyana, Chirikure Chirikure of Zimbabwe, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer of the Netherlands, and Sandile Dikeni, Valiant Swart, Antjie Krog, Roger Lucey, Ari Sitas, Nise Malange and Yvette Christianse, all of South Africa. I joined the team in the evening of Sunday May 27 for a welcome dinner on a harbour cruise circling the cool open space of the waters which merged into the Indian Ocean. Poetry erupted from the mouths of nations.

Sterling Plumpp would have read aloud “Poems are bridges, neon/reaches across worlds/where language seeks/a voice for itself. Where words/are steps up towers of perception.” (Johannesburg & Other Poems, 64)

Poetry came alive in the city of Durban. Durban itself is poetry in motion. Perhaps one of the most densely populated and highly multi-racial cities of South Africa, Durban was the site of political mass violence and death in the heady years of the making of new South Africa; but its provincial name is associated with birth, “natal.” Durban’s entire landscape is very romantic but its original inhabitants imagined it, precisely so, as masculine even in geographical layout: they called it “Thekweni” meaning “(the place of) the Elephant’s scrotum.” In welcoming the visitor, the municipal government announced with certainty: “food and water feed our bodies/poetry feeds our souls.” A firsthand experience of poetry/jazz sessions at the BAT Centre coordinated by poet Nise Malange, a random exploration of several artshops which are walking distance to the parade of hotels overlooking the Golden Mile Beachfront, and a visit to the KwaMuhle museum or the Durban Art Gallery among others attest to the city’s genuine consciousness for the necessary aesthetics of art and culture. Poetry came alive in the city. I mean poetry in all its possibilities; music, choreography, mime, libation, performance dependent on voice and gestures; a week-long night of metaphors, symbologies and dancing with the tongue.

The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre became the spirit house of songs and subtle polemics where poets grew lyrical about what poetry is, is not, ought not to be and should be. On the first night, you are invited to introduce yourself, your poetry and your country in a fleeting space of five minutes; you are offered the choice of saying little or nothing…you could just break into a reading from your own works and wait for the sobering silence or a flattering thunder of claps by an ever-appreciative audience. You are in the House of Imagery; there’s a genuine Hunger for what you have to say from an attentive and well behaved audience; and you’re sure to be cornered after the night of introduction by friendly and inquisitive faces who wish to shake your hand the South African way or simply want to tell you that they love and respect Fela’s music, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Kanu’s football sense, and Wole Soyinka’s talent…

From Monday, May 28 to Saturday June 2, 2001, the only event, which captured the attention of the average art lover and theatre-goer, teacher, student, and aspiring writer in the beautiful city of Durban, was Poetry Africa! The electronic presence of SABC was heavy and generous; everyday, there was a couple of print journalists ready to probe your creative process, eager to know why you think writing is necessary; and there were several workshop groups waiting, in university libraries, secondary school halls and public museums, to ask you how you have managed to multiply images into a tapestry of original texts, what you think should be the subject or purpose of poetry, and why you have chosen a second/third language but not your mother tongue as the medium of peddling your dreams. Apart from the first and last nights, a number of five poets each performed at the Elizabeth Sneddon theatre to a full auditorium with an average sitting capacity of three hundred and seventy-five. During the day, poets visited schools and other educational centres either to read or to grant interviews and share their experience of writing; and in the evening, you are treated to a cocktail of words and songs by fellow poets inside the Sneddon.

An interesting medley of poets and performers: Lasana Sekou of St. Martin delivered his lines with gusto gliding up and down the steps of the auditorium in a Garveyesque flourish; Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana heralded and ended his majestic presentation with the Ewe sonority of his mother’s voice captured on tape; the sing-song trademark of his poetry did not becloud the deep philosophizing of the Ghanaian master. Nidaa Khoury rendered very passionate Arabic verses with a Qabanni-like fluency for the displaced and dispossessed people of Palestine; Ilja Pfeijffer read in both Dutch and English while Amina Said chose to read in graceful French. Valiant Swart and Roger Lucey strummed the guitar on different nights to the delight of many; Tracey Morris displayed the vitality of the African American musical background of her poetry; Sheri-D Wilson, the Canadian was simply electrifying in her delivery of a set of “action-poems” while Chirikure Chirikure of Zimbabwe rendered some powe rfully political lines with Mbira musical accompaniment. Taban lo Liyong made libation with water before reading from his books of blasphemous verses. I too made libation, with words reading first in praise of “forebears… who ponder our ways to sunlight…;” then I chose a sequence of love poems for size since, I confessed, the only language I know is that of tenderness, and ended with a poem of another kind of love: “There can be no argument on where I stand.”

I missed one night of reading. On Wednesday 30 May, Claude Daberllay, Sandile Dikeni and I had traveled about seventy-seven kilometres west of Durban to the university town of Pietermaritzburg for one workshop and two different readings hosted by the university and the city’s Tatham Gallery. A prolonged interview with The Natal Witness and a late evening reading at the launch of Fidelities magazine edited by Kobus Moolman, himself a poet, ensured a very interesting outing for us. But in the fullness of the day, we lost track of our schedule and guide. We deliberated on how we should trap the night and make our way back to the sure comfort of Tropicana Hotel accepting we’d lost the chance of attending the ever-colourful reading at the Sneddon. Somehow we survived; Musa Zulu, a physically handicapped but brilliant and enthusiastic painter was generous in offering to take us back to Durban in his state-of-the-art car. After arrival came the sense of loss. To make up for the absence at the Sneddon, I set out in company of Yvette, Chirikure and Dorothea for a dancing spree and in search of the entrails of Durban. We settled for a joint called The African Paradise, a seedy club overflowing with wine, downtown girls who were fully dressed in their nakedness and some violence about to break just two blocks away from beach-fronted Tropicana. The lusty pollution of noise and smoke was so overwhelming that I lost interest in dance and all adventure. Some other time, I assured Parisian Durban…

It was a great feeling to “represent” my country in an international festival of a global status, a cultural festival which afforded some participants to be extra-political representatives of their different nations. I watched in painful amusement the apparent friendship between Khoury of Palestine and Or of Israel even as killings escalated in the Gaza strip and the West bank, and I wished that that shared love was not cosmetic and that it would touch the minds of the dispensers of death in both Israel and Palestine. And given the peculiar image of Nigeria as once a pariah state, and now as ever, the main exporter of the best and crooked brains to South Africa, I had to be a self-appointed poet-diplomat, if there’s any such designation. I had to be. Once outside Africa, I speak of the unity and the collective fate of the African state, in spite of linguistic separation, economic and political imbalances. But once inside Africa, the challenge of a Renascent Continent becomes daunting, the dream almost becomes too far-fetched like a clown’s logic because of the dangers and realities of ignorance, ethnic and regional bigotry, and most importantly an unyielding xenophobia inserted into the social unconscious by inveterate enemies of the authentic idea of African Unity. So I said, “Poetry is the best diplomat.” My country is a paradox, an enigma bounded by a geography of the mysterious, the marvelous, the fantastic and the ridiculous. Perhaps very much like any other nation with a potential for greatness. “To understand the unique character of the amorphous country is to understand the heart of Africa. For every five Africans, there is a Nigerian, so the statistician says; but the poet in me insists, ‘for every Nigerian, there are five other African peers, clones or copies.'” My conviction is that much exaggeration has led many an African to believe and hold onto the lie of the impossible character of all things, every thing Nigerian.

On Sunday the third of June, we made for the final leg of readings tagged “Poetry Africa in Jo’burg” at the Windybrow Theatre. The compere, Zolani Mkiva, acknowledged imbongi (praise poet) of Nelson Mandela, invited me last onto the stage emphasizing the enviable position of Nigeria in the area of education and human development. I seized the opportunity to suggest a relaxation of unnecessary stereotyping based on national borderlines which are themselves artificial colonial creations; I called on Sandile Dikeni to read with me the last poem in my second volume, Webs of Remembrance (2001), because the poem “Light Must Break” best exemplified for me the idea of the collective will and transcendental patriotism I spoke about:

But one dawn
After the pogrom of dreams
One surprised dawn
Light must break
The shadows of the dead
The lost and the silenced
The spirit of the devoured
Will rise again
From new womb…

In this second chance of reflection, I wonder if my country really care about her image, or rather if the appointed image launderers and official cultural officers of this country understand the politics of presence in the context of the league of nation within and outside Africa. I recall now that Poetry Africa 2001 was sponsored by a welter of local, national and international organizations including embassies. Its principal sponsors are National Arts Council of South Africa and the City of Rotterdam with support from First National Bank, the nation’s prime financial institution, and the French Institute of South Africa. I wonder if ever a local government or a Department of Culture or a banking corporation in any state of the Nigerian federation would give the slightest sympathetic audience to any team interested in organising an austere 2-day poetry gathering under any name, however beautifully authentic, inventive or articulated. Ah, poetry is not a jamboree of contractors and concubines wishing the great performer another tenure even before another bout of campaign is announced. I remember that the embassies of Israel, Canada, Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand and the United States had special interests in the poets attending from these countries; I know that the Alliance Francaise in Durban organized a special reading for Amina Said, the Tunisian poet born of a French mother; I know that the British Council had work for Dorothea Smartt to do in Cape Town; and I know too that Tracie Morris was chauffeur-driven from Johannesburg to Pretoria to be received by some official of the United States embassy. But my memory fails me now; I cannot recall if any of my own country’s agency or commission imagined the need to show even a token pretence of support for such cultural event. Oh, what has poetry got to do with the High Commission’s beat? Aren’t there more urgent assignments like whirlwind state visits and official wedding rituals? Is poetry not the bad ritual of jobless rebels? Is poetry not the prattle of the childish who claims to be a patriot?

And Czeslaw Milosz would ask “What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people? /A connivance with official lies, /A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment…” (Selected Poems, 45)

I came away from Poetry Africa 2001 with greater conviction than before in the persuasive power of poetry, in the myriad aesthetic possibilities of the art, and in the significance of the strategic science of the word. As a writer with a sense of place and time, I am personally committed to the force of a poetic vision which recommends both playfulness and intense commitment as the binary necessity of writing; a playful transaction with images to imbue the word with a fresh, sometimes shocking, meaning; and a serious, but sometimes detached engagement with the idea of being human in a world gradually becoming too anti-human for comfort. I want to knead words into stones, into flowers, into fire-bombs, I want to play with words for effect and get engaged with the fate of my life, my society, and perhaps the world of my generation.

A true eruption of verse, a release of intense energies, a colourful display of voices and visions, and above all, the result of a painstaking ordering of time and schedule, Poetry Africa lived up to its hype and purpose. This is one rare opportunity for the poet to confront his shortcomings and discover himself anew. In the course of the festival, Amina Said wrote a brief poem in French and wished it could be translated into other languages. About eight of us took up the challenge to produce what turned out to be a lengthy, interesting babel of words as the special offering, after the Parade of Poets, on the last night of performance in Durban: Arabic, “Canadian English,” Creole, Dutch and ancient Greek, Maori, Tshona, Zulu, and Yoruba. And to think that Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana had earlier encouraged me to begin to do research and experiment more with traditional verbal art believing that the kind of poetry that comes from traditional African societies like mine is stupendously rich for inventive reproduction. Momentarily, I triumphed over my fears of a subsistent dependence on the colonial tongue. I discovered more…and wished that the festival would beckon onto others from Nigeria in the years ahead. Yet I stopped to ask, whence the wake-up call from this national lethargy towards the practical promotion of the arts? Who hides the axe away from the fig tree of cultural complacency? Who loves the wasting of talent in this land? Who is afraid of Poetry?

To every departure an arrival
To all beginnings, a new beginning.

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