07 October 2009

poetry africa 2009 and my day one, durban

Made it to Durban this afternoon after a 24 hour journey from Wisconsin to Gauteng and an overnight in Johannesburg. Trip on the whole was smooth, though so ragged -- my sleeping at least -- that I spent my time away from anything that required or would have beggared much thought. So it was movies and television shows on the little screens on the headrest in front of me, dozing on and off, and reading a bit about The Dancing Plague.

But all of that's behind me, and we dive in…

Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus
Day 3 of Poetry Africa 2009 (Wednesday, October 7)

7:18 pm -- The book launch is swamped by the noise of the spillover area -- including the poets lined up for the reading to come. Shame on you, and a shame -- especially as the discussion picked up at the close: with the (inevitable?) focus on the use of language, translation, and the preservation (and extension) of culture. Granted, these are issues that I am, almost on the face of it, weary of. But here is the stuff in process -- a poet and editor of Zulu poetry (Bongani Mavuso), his own and others, nodding to Masizi Kunene, and with a pile of school children and University students in the audience.

Washed out by chatter. Too bad.

7:37 pm -- And the program starts with an introduction by Ewok. Giving the "formal" introduction and then "they hired a rapper for tonight"… Sprinkling "Hip Hop 101" lessons throughout…

7:44 pm -- Sarah Frost, one of the Durban showcase poets. A traditional (written) poet, like the pages piled up on the table celebrated by Ewok (but so unlike the rousing introduction he offered).

That introduction did her no favors -- only four poems; I was only just easing into her understated, quietly easy, reading. And there it is, the why it did her no favors; and there she goes…

7:49 pm -- Sihle Qwashuqwashu, using rhyme, young man, words piling on top of one another, spilling over and tumbling down. I'm losing some, too many, but still flowing along with him… And the crowd, which is beginning to pipe up; and enough raunch to pull a laugh and a clap mid-poem -- and cheers and hammering applause at the end.

7:55 pm -- Loftus Marais. Another younger man and another reading. Afrikaans (with the English translation flashed up on a screen to the side of the stage).

He did a piece on a tranny and Cape Town that I want to find… best of the bunch, the closing lines especially, packing a marvelously playful punch.

So much more dynamic a reader in his Afrikaans, but so odd to be hearing him, trying to catch the rhythm in the Afrikaans, and instead reading the English. Some of his poems... just don’t seem to end; but they all stop. And I wonder how much this has to do with this rupture.

Closing with reading the first ever poem he's written in English. Astounding for just knocking it off earlier in the evening.

8:12 pm --Odia Ofeimun described by Ewok as "gentleman's poetry" (a wonderful characterization and one that fits, I think, many of Ofeimun's contemporaries). And I feel like I'm back at the Nigeria-heavy readings of the African Literature Association conferences… Lagos, London -- "I let metaphors drop their clothes" -- sparrows, Venice (and an evocation of Sisyphus), and on and on. Worrying over the question of poet as activist.
A brief editorial aside: It seems to me that there's a generational split of sorts, with earlier generations, the elders, discussing whether a poet can, or should, be an activist (though they almost all answer yes in one way or another, they still feel compelled to ask the question, again and again and again); the younger simply "being" relevant, and celebrated for it, in slam and spoken-word, speaking to the blood and shit and sex that makes us howl, be it in delight or protest…
Did Ofeimun just read "The Poet Lied"?!? He did.

8:25 -- A twenty minute intermission and time to absorb what we've heard and "grab a smoke." What an interesting mix. It hasn’t all worked. But no clunkers, either. These are all poets, that’s for damn sure!

8:51 -- Back from the intermission and a few more riffs from Ewok.

8:53 -- Enter Susan Kiguli, a Ugandan poet. Radiant smile and greeting us in Zulu. Opens with "I'm back home" which really pops and crackles (as she does) at times. There’s an amazing change between the speaker and the reading poet, her whole body pitching and rolling with the poem, her voice loud, insistent, almost demanding, strong.

The quieter poems -- including her homage to David Rubadiri and "Amin is dead" -- are no less insistent, but softer.

9:14 -- Jennifer Ferguson thanks and introduces herself as "a musician who uses words"… drawing from the "primordial soundbank" -- she’s doing some amazing things on the mic which seem to be drawing alternately sniggering and amazement from some of the kids in the audience (ending with most hopping up and applauding).

There's a great deal of earnestness in her performance, which almost instinctually causes me to pull back just a bit; but there's a load of joy and almost shocking depth as well.

Of her piece "Lilith": "That’s done with great love for the brothers." Hmmm… But it's hard not to see a bit of South Africa’s current plight in it, and be saddened a little bit more for it.

The song "Dickie Baby" is more than a little wrenching, though she's losing a bit of the audience with it. I need to get ahold of a version of this to post.

Second to last piece is an evocation of Bessie Head.

I really don't know what to make of Ferguson's work as poetry (I'm not nearly smart enough to make any original contribution to that discussion) but there is a fullness to her work, and a maturity and fullness to her presence and her work that will not be swamped, by chatter or emcees or anything else. Amazing that.

And she ends with "Jo'burg" -- a spoken piece with accompaniment. Sound accompaniment. Her accent breaks out strong at points, hitting those most South African of words and scenes. Strong. And an amazing piece. An absolutely amazing piece. What a piece to end on. Just astounding! This is one we need -- this is one I'd love a recording of.

10:21 -- And we’re done. Wow.

Wrapping up -- after the walk back to where I'm staying and… The first of four nights. Not sure what this "tells" me of the South African poetry scene, other than that it’s alive and well (and other similar, meaningless clich├ęs). Not sure it's meant to tell me anything. Or that the four nights are either. I'll sit with this, with all the performances, and see what they work on me. And then, at some core level, I'll know a little more.

And that will be more than enough.
Addendum: I'll try to pull together as many useful links to poems, performances, and general information on all the poets sometime after Poetry Africa wraps up. In the meantime, if you've got suggestions, do please send them on!!

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