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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Three grown-up (and one small) poets explore FREEDOM at Jozi House of Poetry: What you missed

One of the by-products of a poetry session, says Donna Smith quoting Khalil Gibran, is that it creates a space of togetherness. And April 29′s Jozi House of Poetry was no exception. Featuring Donna Smith, Lebo Mashile and Mphutlane wa Bofelo, the poets came together to share their reflections on Freedom in the spirit of the 50-year celebration of Jamaica’s independence among our own Freedom Month celebrations.

Space, for the poet is always a paradox: as a human deeply attuned to the human condition of fear and loneliness as well as hope and love, space can sometimes be too much, or too little, especially between people in close relationships, the main theme of Donna Smith’s poetry.

Jamaican-born activist Smith combined music with her poetry which carries the infectious inflections of her native land. Manoeuvring through paradox and ambivalence is grist for Smith’s mill: Poetry is what keeps me alive versus how to pay the bills? How to conquer fear and doubt?
She chants: I don’t know which is worse
Burdened soul or empty purse.

As an activist she embraces her potential to free herself: as she says ‘I am the lock as well as the key’. Perhaps all artists are activists but Smith and wa Bofelo are organised. Mphutlane wa Bofelo evokes the journey of a human seeking a higher consciousness with his masterful poetry. Some of my favourite lines:

My past is not behind me
my past is under my feet.

I am a presence
human beyond borders
a boy with the heart and smile of a girl.

Griselda’s song explores how people can die of a stigma. He really seems to embody the Kgositsile lyric: armed struggle is an act of love.

With the violent acts perpetrated against women this month, it’s clear that the concept of freedom has to include gender and the poets all spoke to gender in different ways. Lebo Mashile goes from the personal to the general to the land itself to explore theft, possession, betrayal and still, her golden voice reminds us that our liberation lies in our own pens: in the writing we reveal the truth, and from the truth, liberation. Again, a poet who is able to explore different, even contradictory perspectives in her courageous quest for truth. Her set was a continuous river of words, carrying us from Miriam Makeba, asking us ‘how many songs must a songbird sing’, and then a different take on exploitation, sexual exploitation of women by men. ‘I don’t know how many women you’ve put inside me’ and challenging us to listen to the ‘screams of men’: ‘We can live lies, but love never pretends.’ Poets speak the unspeakable: the pain of a woman raped because of a war that robs her of more than the land, it robs her of herself. The beautiful I dance to know who I am is the redemption song for 2012 as we return once more to our material situation: I just love the simplicity of this line: “The body is the soul’s physical address
The symmetry between design and purpose…/
and of course, with Mashile there are no limits because
‘the landscape of the body can’t be seen by the eye’…

A brilliant interlude showcases a young poet with an extraordinary gift. Quince Hopkins (8) was introduced to the congregation by her mother, trainer Caroline who has discovered her creative side living in Mzansi. She shared her blog about her family discovering poetry via Myesha Jenkins’ beautiful work, and how this led to the children, led by Quince, decided to make Sunday poetry day in their house. Quince’s poem revealed a deep understanding when she recites: ‘Comfort fights for space/ but fear hides in a hole’ – I hope I have remembered it vaguely – but it struck me as a lovely gift to the audience, a young, fresh poem from a young, fresh poet.

The discussion, always a moment of rich exchange, was particularly poignant because of our country’s spirit at the moment. Disappointed with the cheap orange chips of what has become our freedom, poets see only inspiration and opportunity in the ashes. For Smith, it is simple: Recognizing freedom can’t be separated from a process of self-acceptance. For all these poets, the personal is political and vice versa, and they all see themselves creating in the fire of the chaos of material reality. ‘It’s like peeling the layers of an onion,” says Mashile, who first fell in love with poetry when she was paging for purpose, looking for unity and unpacking identity on the way there. Her high comes from the awareness that everyone is an outsider, nobody fits in, and it is fuelled by ‘trying to dive off the edge of my own fear. I crave, and chase that’.

For Donna, freedom is giving yourself the chance to take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself is a revolutionary act. Wa Bofelo nods emphatically. ‘I come from a tradition where poetry was an instrument of struggle – at rallies there was always poetry. So for me Freedom is being able to have a sense of self beyond the constructions of society and economics, seeing yourself beyond that but not oblivious to that.” He reminded us that the Black Consciousness movement’s underlying message was ‘to instill a sense of love in yourself, to liberate you from the cocoon of race, class, ethnicity, etc and to affirm again and again that our primary identity is human identity.”

Once again the h-word comes up, and I remind people of how we use being human as an excuse more often than a badge of courage and potential. Mashile affirms our current confusion as a rich source for poets who listen to “voices that gave our society an emotional vocabulary to write certain things into being.” But she is not satisfied. “We’re not allowed to have the whole range of human feelings so we continue to act out the damage…”

In amongst the gems of the conversation we heard the writers reaffirming their commitment to their work, and to the free exploration of their expression:

Mphutlane: there is no strict border between private and public: it’s up to me to dictate my limits, it should not be imposed. …the act of writing is the act of claiming your right to think independently and critically.

Donna: Writers excavate, our task is to articulate our condition for ourselves and then for others to identify, reflect and grow. I stop writing when I need to listen…

Lebo: For SA expression is a dance between public and private: you hold people accountable and find yourself accountable. Literature is a time machine: a collapsing of time. My preoccupation is not with growing my audience but with being more and me myself… I don’t want to get distracted in trying to change others: this is my place and this is my (not always easy) job.

Open mic revealed gems: Vanessa Herman’s line ‘my heart is a riddle solved by my lover’s mouth’ and wondrous poems by Thandokuhle, Duduzile, Gillian and Monene… without people taking the gap to reveal their souls in words, there is no poetry folks. So thank you, and please join us at the next JOZI HOUSE OF POETRY featuring AFURAKAN, ARJA SALAFRANCA AND TERESKA MUISHOND (all poets who WRITE FOR MONEY), 3 JUNE, POPART THEATRE, MAIN STREET LIFE, FOX STREET, DOORNFONTEIN. 2PM SHARP. R50 (or R40 with a packet of pads…)


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