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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jozi House of Poetry’s View from Okri’s mountain


Three poets, three views of South Africa, and the world. Kgositsile is a wandering sage who walks over mountains of poetry, with the creativity of a jazz musician who “comes from everywhere he’s ever been”. Afurakan is the real people’s poet, engaging head-on with the betrayal of the youth in an idiom that is unashamedly urban, proudly standing in the traditions of spoken word, hip-hop and the reggae canon, with its own kwaito twist. But it’s also just poetry. Kgositsile’s often-repeated assertion is that it is young women who are the remarkable voices in these times, and it’s clear to us Lebohang Nova Masango is a force for the continent to absorb. Her To-Do List for Africa, which Afurakan cites as his favourite poem, rages, exhorts, prays and praises our battered continent into a monument to hope. Her fluent, articulate style, which is tempered with her natural charm, humour and youthful frivolity along with the gravitas of Kgositsile and the vibrancy of Afurakan once again, gave the audience diversity of voices and an hour of spellbinding poetry.

“I’ve never understood why some people think writers have answers to their burning questions, or why some writers would have the arrogance to think they have answers to those questions,” began Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Africa, kicking off the discussion at the 9th Jozi House of Poetry session: The view from here.

In the introduction I had stated that Myesha and I had agreed on the theme after listening to Ben Okri’s Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, where he evoked the human journey as a climb up a mountain. We invited our featured poets to select poems that would give the audience the view from their part of the mountain. This is not because we think that writers have better vision, or because they have some supernatural ability to see beyond the petty ego of the ordinary human, but because it’s worth it to reflect, to stop and think, and this is what writers are doing when they put thought into words. Through reading, we also have a chance to reflect. The value of such an activity can’t be quantified. Writing may help people think more clearly about their lives, or it might be as futile yet pleasurable as masturbating.
If it’s so risky, why bother? “I write because I believe I can,” said Kgositsile. “…… I used to seriously question my authority to write and actually tried to stop writing totally. But one day, without even thinking about it, I found myself writing again.”

Thabiso Mohare, better known as Afurakan by his thousands of fans, works as a copywriter in a cutting edge ad agency. “I think people see creatives as problem-solvers, and assume that we have answers.” Trying to find answers to some of our most pressing problems might be helped by people with imagination, people who can enter a different reality and play with what is there, and re-create means of engagement. Whether not these means are more effective, is a risk that readers take when reading, but probably better than no reflection at all.

“Part of the problem with a lot of us is that, like some politicians, we finally end up merely talking about the symptoms of our social illness, which is common knowledge. Our supposed intelligentsia also don’t go beyond telling us that we are sick, which should be the point of departure of their analysis. They don’t even pose the relevant questions. For instance, could human life have any value under capitalism?” asks Kgositsile.

Afurakan is passionate about people, and believes in developing and inspiring young people. The founder of several poetry initiatives, including the highly popular and successful Word ‘n Sound, uses poetry as a weapon, as a scalpel, as a spotlight, to interrogate what pushes his buttons and what inspires him. “My point of departure is – I love people. Seeing anyone suffering hurts me, so writing about problems helps me to see them in a new way and try to come up with some kind of creative solution. Writing and sharing poetry is one of the ways that I unpack.”

For one of those young people, Lebohang Nova Masango, Afurakan has been a key player in her growing career. The 21-year old performance poet and anthropology student was the Word ‘n Sound 2011 National Slam Champion.
“For me, writing is therapy – creativity and expression, putting humanity to its best use. Quoting Audre Lorde, “silence will not save you,” writing allows us to take back our power to author our own narratives. It’s important to articulate who you are.”

“I think writers need to have an uncompromising stubbornness to explore what we’re most responsive to in our lives. How it is to be alive and responsive to the realities of lived experience in your time, might be more interesting than constantly asking yourself what it means to be an artist,” said the stubborn elder, uncompromising in his clarity and demanding that from everyone around him. “ … Writers are not mirrors. Mirrors are passive; they can only reflect what stands in front of them, if they are clean enough and not cracked. Writers, on the other hand, should strive to be creative. We also need a level of humility that teaches us that whether you realise it or not, when you write all you are saying is ‘this is who I am’. And if you are successful you might touch something human in the next person; the rest is just illusion.”

For a young person writing is fuelled by an urgent need to break down boundaries, “poetry is the one honest medium, the most honest discipline,” says Afurakan. “Hip hop is about the community – I can speak about my problems and my neighbourhood. Because of hip-hop and slam, more young people are writing and making themselves heard.”

Technology has made it easier for young people to express themselves and for those thoughts to be read in different formats, which is something to celebrate according to a member of the public who attended the session. Afurakan stresses the discipline of writing. “It’s important to stay in contact, and social media has made it possible to stay in contact with people across a wider geographical area. It has broken down boundaries between countries, but it’s like someone who gets a job and can afford a golf and goes back to the township to show off. We have a responsibility to understand the power in having made that move. I’m interested in writing being a tool for broadening power.”
For Kgositsile, the capitalist system will always create inequality because “under the capitalist system human life has no value versus capital.” When an audience member asks why a poem has not yet been written that will stop men from abusing women, Kgositsile’s sharp reply is that “if you want to contribute to stopping gender violence, perhaps join an organisation that is involved with that, you would be more effective joining the organisation than writing a poem.”
According to Afurakan, the word must pay its way in inspiring action towards freeing those parts of our society bound by inequality. But he is challenged by Kgositsile, and his demand for verbal precision, his stubborn commitment to say what he means and mean what he says.

“When you see human action and interaction during armed struggle, it is easy to speak of weapons. If you’re not at war it can be a little tricky. The images you create using language can affect people psychologically. … One of the dangers we are faced with today is there are a lot of people who feel powerless and either fold their arms or say ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, without ever asking ‘where do they come from?’ How did we get into this situation? It’s dangerous, for example, for South Africans to think of being homeless, because homelessness is a social problem with a specific history in the USA. Here in South Africa you can’t be homeless. You might not have a house – just because you don’t have a residence doesn’t mean that you are homeless.” For a man who spent more than 30 years in exile, the concept of home and its opposite – homelessness, has a historical, political resonance. We should carefully consider the use of words from other cultures and situations, especially the USA.

Lebohang is preoccupied with questioning the motivations of her generation. “I question post-independence youth,” says the passionate young woman, whose love poetry for Africa scolds and celebrates through the powerful images that ring through her poems “To-do list for Africa” and ‘The house that we built’. She demands presence and action, and also allows herself to be her age, and fall in love with the wrong type of guy. But mostly she wants the youth to honour those who won freedom for them. “Let their voyage not be in vain.”

Having a voice and a presence in the mainstream of life is not, according to Prof Kgositsile, necessarily poetry. So what is poetry? “Nothing about poetry has changed since there were people using language to communicate. As long as there are people with issues like greed, love, happiness, hatred… poetry will be there. All the major themes have been there and will always be there, among the elite of bourgeois society and among ordinary people. It even existed before the publication of books – as long as there are people using language, there will be poetry.”

Whew, what a relief, the flow is not dependent on us, poor practitioners, for it stretches as far back as human history and far into the future. And anyone – from an 8-year old to an 80-year old can use language to make poetry. It all counts as a contribution to the human reflecting on humanity, there are no limits to the ocean of poetry. But.
What, then, is poetry? For Thabiso, the writing must move him. Many of his poems are what he describes as ‘sparks’ to initiate dialogue. “The power of words is the effect that they have on us.” For Professor Kgositsile poetry cannot be defined. “If one had enough exposure, one could define a certain aesthetic ordering of sound, in the same way that music is distinct from noise because it is ordered according to aesthetic rules and standards. Rhythm is very important in poetry… Criticism or evaluation of any piece of work is very scientific – and the best way to explore these rules is to read work from every corner of the planet, expose yourself to as much work as you can.”
Our ‘unapologetically political’ Poet Laureate has this to say about his position: “It’s good to get recognition, but it would have meant much more if that recognition had been accompanied with some kind of mechanism to interact more dynamically with younger poets. Initially I wanted to travel to all the provinces conducting workshops with younger or aspiring poets.” Resources to do this work have not been available so we are extremely grateful for having an afternoon with our Poet Laureate.

Keorapetse Kgositsile earned his share of our door takings after the venue had been paid, and we thanked him with poems, including the gorgeous Music Man by Natalia Molebatsi, and with all our hearts for the invaluable wealth that he left in our minds.

Jozi House of Poetry would like to thank Lebohang Nova Masango and Thabiso Afurakan Mohare and all the generous, intelligent audience which continues to support our sessions, enriching us with their comments and encouraging us with their warm responses.

To-do list for Africa by Lebohang Nova Masango


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