“ever been kidnapped by a poet” ~Nikki Giovanni, kidnap poem
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PUBLISHED BY ZAMANTUNGWA
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editorial 6 featured poem Always a Suspect by Oswald Mtshali
poet profile 10 Oswald Mtshali q&a 28 Kwame Dawes submission guidelines the craft Rhyme, Alliteration & Assonance
the poets brewing the potion
poetry 16 As much as they like by daniel bogogolela 16 Flash to Flash by Khomotjo Manthata 17 An Ode To The Muse by Sihle Ntuli 18 Soul Searching by Sihle Ntuli 19 Someone please dictate by Simiso Slashfire Sokhela 20 Men feared the fire of his soul by Simphiwe Phukwane 21 Revenging Soul by Dina Koumatse 22 I’m a TV. I’m a Radio by Galapagos 23 A smile that’s begot by strife by Bandung Poet Mau Mau 26 If Black Hair could talk by mbuzobuciko 27
2012.01 this is the first edition for 2012, in fact, it’s the last edition of 2011. it just didn’t make it and almost never it. dealing with various factors in my personal life almost lead me to drop this all together. but that’s a story for another time. this edition is special to me. this edition is like a revival. as 2012 kicks off, Poetry Potion is six months away from it’s fifth anniversary. so i’ve been thinking a lot about it’s future, indeed about my future in poetry. i guess when you’ve been doing something for a long time, it’s easy to forget why you started and what drove you in the first time. you know, just like we can have an economic recession, we can have a spiritual recession and a creative recession. but i’m glad that i’m finding my way back to purpose and also steering Poetry Potion back to purpose. this edition is also special because of the poets that featured. i’m glad to be able to publishing again these poets: Su, Khomotjo Manthata, Sihle Ntuli, Dina Koumatse and Simphiwe Phukwane. i’m pleased to be publishing for the first time: Mbuzobuciko, Daniel Bogogela, Galapagos and Bandung Poets. i had the chance to speak with one of our legends, Oswald Mtshali. when someone is a legend, who’s poetry you studied in high school, it’s easy to get intimidated, it doesn’t help that i’m socially awkward anyway. but all my silly fears were blown away by the fatherly generosity and demeanour that bab’ Mtshali has. he reminded me of my uncle who died in 2009, a man of great wisdom who wants to share all he knows and remembers over his seventy something years. men, elders like Oswald Mtshali are easily forgotten because in their old age they 6
no longer go to the open mics and all the sessions. they are easily forgotten even though we wouldn’t be writing poetry, performing poetry and going to open mics if they hadn’t laid down the foundation. it makes me realise that the open mic scene can lead one to have a very narrow view of what poetry is all about. makes me also remember why Poetry Potion is important. i’m always excited when Poetry Africa comes to Johannesburg but this time i was especially thrilled to see Oswald Mtshali on the bill. for this i’m especially grateful. i also had the chance to speak to Kwame Dawes about poetry, writer’s blocks and identity. both bab’ Dawes and bab’ Mtshali reminded me about the craft of poetry, their advice on how to handle a writer’s block was pretty much the same. the effect that my conversations had on me, led me to remember what drew me to poetry in the first place. both these poets are generous with their knowledge and experience. in style, neither of them are about the noise, the pomp and production of poetry yet with each word they touch and move us deep in our conscience. with out the production of poetry to focus on you have no choice but to focus on each word, each line, each stanza, each poem. i hope that you will enjoy reading the poetry in this edition as well as the interviews. as for me, i have the next edition to prepare... “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” ~Leonard Cohen
peace zamantungwa 7
Always a Suspect by Oswald Mtshali I get up in the morning and dress up like a gentleman – A white shirt a tie and a suit. I walk into the street to be met by a man who tells me to ‘produce’. I show him the document of my existence to be scrutinized and given the nod. Then I enter the foyer of a building to have my way barred by a commissionaire ‘What do you want?’ I trudge the city pavements side by side with ‘madam’ who shifts her handbag from my side to the other, and looks at me with eyes that say ‘Ha! Ha! I know who you are; beneath those fine clothes ticks the heart of a thief.’
“Honest writers write what they see, experience, live.”
Forty one years ago, Song’s of the Cowhide Drum was published. This book, a humble collection of poetry would become the key that would open doors for the writer, Oswald Mtshali. Liberal white South Africa was in awe - a messenger boy could write great poetry. Black South Africa, his contemporaries, were not so sure about him. “You know I’m very thick skinned. They [the reviews] were relevant because they were showing me different aspects of life in SA. [They] looked at it [the collection] from their own perspective,” says Mtshali calmly. The criticism gave him clarification, something he seemed to appreciate but wasn’t blind to. “[There] were liberals who were fascinated by this black messenger not even having a university degree writing by candlelight.” Mtshali was well aware of the fact that to white South Africa he was “a curiosity more than anything else.” In the short 1973 essay, Mtshali on Mtshali, he reflected extensively on how he felt about the mixed reviews: “I was innocently and genuinely employed as a ’messenger.’ This was seized upon, glamorised, romanticised and, presto, I became an underprivileged black who was ‘gifted’... I am not a Liberal, Nationalist or Progressive but a black who tried to 10
articulate the daily hopes and disappointments of his life.”¹ Mtshali found some of the reviews by white critics patronising and even believed that some white readers bought his collection as a way of soothing their consciences. This is not to say however that none of them genuinely enjoyed his work. Black youth felt that he lacked “revolutionary fire”. There are those who thought it was a “liberal thing”, particularly because he was published by Lionel Abrahams. “He’s not radical enough, he doesn’t articulate the black consciousness perspective enough.” Mtshali reflects not really taking the criticism personal, “I write exactly as I see life, I am not going to be swayed or influence by people.” He left them their opinions focussed on articulating life “as I go through it on a day to day basis, because that’s what I think poetry, or art expression is about.” Though his work was seen as “platitudinous by some radicals, there was no way for Mtshali to be oblivious to the politics of the era. He was also greatly influenced by Black Consciousness and felt it was an important period in black South Africa because writers, artists began to articulate pride, black pride, in their creative work. He tributes his political awareness to his older brother who had been an activist. His brother had left South Africa to study in Roma, Lesotho in 1961 and because he was involved in politics he was never able to come back to South Africa. His family would never see him again but they maintained contact through letters. Mtshali always received encouragement from his brother in this way. His reflection on life was always aware of the politics of the day without being radical as shown in the poem, Always a Suspect. “I trudge the city pavements side by side with ‘madam’ who shifts her handbag from my side to the other, and looks at me with eyes that say ‘Ha! Ha! I know who you are; beneath those fine clothes ticks the heart of a thief.” 11
Coming from rural beginnings, from a ‘black spot’² called Kwabhanya, Mtshali remembers seeing the home that he grew up, being razed to the ground. The garden they had planted. The peach trees were destroyed. This is one of the traumatic experiences that informed his writing. “I remember they were saying, run to those rascals in Rivonia, let them help you and see how far they can help you.” Mtshali recalls the apartheid agents saying to him and his family. The forced removal had been timed to take place when the leaders of the ANC were facing treason charges in Johannesburg. His memory remains sharp even though he’s in his early seventies. The “gifted” messenger boy, Mtshali had a thirst for education. Mtshali began writing in boarding school to “impress girls”. Writing was a way of keeping record of his own thoughts and feelings. “I was already ‘twittering’ and updating my Facebook status,” he says with a chuckle. Through the support and encouragement of his teachers and his parents, who were also teachers, Mtshali kept writing. He came to Johannesburg after Matric to study towards being a social worker. This dream was thwarted by the apartheid laws that prevented Wits University from accepting black students. That’s how he ended up a messenger boy. Before publishing, Mtshali had never really shared his poetry with anyone. After all, in those years a black man had other concerns other than sharing poetry. After being rejected by Wits, he had to make a living for his young family. After a long day at work, Mtshali work stay up late into the night, writing by candlelight. Circa 1967, he saw a newspaper announcement from Lionel Abrahams reflecting on the fact that he hadn’t received any contributions from black writers for his new journal, Purple Renoster. Mtshali saw this as a challenge and wrote in to say that he had tons of poems that he could share. This would be the start of a relationship that Mtshali always appreciated. 12
poet profile He credits Lionel Abrahams for having helped him not just by publishing his work but by “stress[ing] the importance of poetry and [teaching him] how to ‘break the line’, without mutilating the thought.” Abrahams saw the potential and working together regularly they would work on Mtshali’s poetry till there was enough for a book. Song’s of the Cowhide Drum came out with a bang, trouncing poetry sale records that many in South African don’t see even today. In 1973 he had already sold 11000³ and was on the reading lists of several universities. The success of this book, did not make him rich, but it encouraged him to submit to other publications such as New Coin and Quarry. Most importantly the success of the book, allowed Mtshali access to an education he had always craved. When Mtshali received an offer to be part of an International writers’ programme at the University of Iowa, the apartheid government would make it difficult for him to for him to get a passport. His dream to study, was almost lost but when he was invited to Poetry International in London, he would receive a visa only if he signed a document promising to come back to South Africa. He considered not coming back, was even advised not to come back. But he had a young family. He came back, this would benefit him later when the government finally gave him an open visa allowing him to go and study in Iowa. “My thirst for education would lead me to sacrifice everything,” he tells me. “The chance to study and become a better person,” would cost him his first marriage. He has no regrets, however. He went on to earn his BA and later a Masters in Education. With that, he would come back to teach in South Africa. He returned in the 1980s, persuaded by Johnny Makhathini of the ANC who told him South African needed educated South Africans to return home and set up structures, especially in education. Pace College in Soweto is part of Mtshali’s legacy as an educator. It’s perhaps the cherry on top of his cream legacy. He beams and gets excited when he remembers going door to door, as the vice-principal, to find students for the new 13
poet profile school. “I can count [a] top banker among my old students. The top banker used to work in a coal yard as a 13 year old but he wanted to learn, he wanted to get out of where he was.” He says he is now seeing the fruits of his labour because many of his students came have since become prominent South Africans in business, government, law and other sectors. He has written, plays, essays and published two collections of poetry. He studied journalism, literature and education. He has taught and inspired us for over thirty years. Now retired and living in his beautiful home in Pimville, Mtshali still writes but not as much as he used to when he was younger. He’s now moving to express himself for the first time in isiZulu. This is something that he thinks shows growth because he has always written in English. It is only now in his later years that he’s starting to translate his works into isiZulu. At the 2011 Poetry Africa he recited his poem Ode to Mandela in English and isiZulu. Hearing the poem in English and Zulu reveals the magnificent quality of Zulu poetry that goes unnoticed because many Zulu writers aren’t in the mainstream. There was just something thrilling about the rising and falling rhythm of words in Zulu poetry that revealed itself in how he performed it on stage more animated compared to the English version. He reveals that he’s currently translating Sounds of the Cowhide Drum into Zulu. He hopes to complete that work soon and send it to a publisher. He says turned off by publishers that are only interested in money because he doesn’t want to be motivated by money. It hinders his writing process if he has to focus on making money. For him, having been unsure of teaching or becoming a writer worrying about getting paid. He reflects that he’s not a millionaire but he is somebody. His experiences and legacy are more important to him. So it seems that he no longer minds losing the “obscurity of being a nonentity” that he used to enjoy before his first book of poetry. Mtshali busies himself with translating his work into Zulu, with an epic poem and most importantly with his family - his children 14
and grandchildren. And occasionally coming out of retirement to grace the stage and enthral us with his poetry and great smile. He still feels like his work is not done. He still finds great fulfilment in being part of workshops as he was during Poetry Africa and talking to young people about the life of a writer. He says that one has only two important dates in their lives - the day you are born and the day you day. “In between there’s a big chasm there. You fill it up goodies or you fill up with garbage. I try to fill up my space with as much goodies as possible. My goodies are poems or whatever I’ve written.” He’s no longer in the spotlight and he seems content. His legacy will never be forgotten. Some poets burn with a ‘revolutionary fire’ and enter the mainstream, others like Oswald Mtshali enter our collective psyches without making too much noise. Their words stay there, the imagery turn our eyes on to an everyday life we no longer see. “I shuffle in the queue with feet that patter on the station platform. and stumble into the coach that squeezes me like a lemon of all the juice of my life.” ~ The Song of Sunrise
Mtshali still has many stories to tell, all we have to do is listen, “It’s important to say I’m writing for the love of poetry, the love of the written word and I’m enjoying every moment of that.”
¹ Mtshali on Mtshali, Bolt No 7, March 1973 as reproduced in Soweto Poetry: literary perspectives, edited by Michael Chapman ² a black spot is a political term used to describe residential areas that were occupied by black people or mixed races and were considered unsavoury. The Group Areas Act dealt with such areas - Sophiatown, District 6 being the most famously known. ³ editors note in Bolt no. 7, March 1973 15
As much as they like by Daniel Bogogolela They are in love Why should I let her go? I love herâ€” Very much! He stole her from another man. His heart is bleeding too. The public can whine As much as they like.
short bio: Daniel is from South Africa. Heâ€™s the owner of 3 blogs; www.hawkandchikita.blogspot.com, danielbogogolela.wordpress. com, maelwedtshwn.blogspot.com. 16
Flash to Flash by Khomotjo Manthata Some kind of hue, which articulates the passion Translated in a forbidden, but artistic precision Make believe or history â€˜who knowsâ€™? Is this a touch of determined desires? Pain was not of the past, but of the present and the present could still not stay until the moonlight. We might have been...but the choices were ours whatever that was heard with your own two ears you were to bear witness to. Smiles were botched by the admission and the acknowledgement to defeat, but again the choices were still ours. Things more solid than a rock, yet the choices remained. The poison finger has always with no doubt been witness to the many lost lives of our brothers young and brothers old.
short bio: Poem about the stain that minutes of pleasure can cause a stain like HIV. Pain that will always remain whether ancient or young its affects an infects anybody! 17
An Ode To The Muse by Sihle Ntuli Muse sitting on the hypotenuse The complexities of Pythagoras I tri an angle of the view Guilty curves drive brains over the leap of faith Sparking thought in the air Landing on an explosion I left The State called “ Mind” Just an outsider They say I’m out “Mind” Like Mind was rationed No brain scratching i play irrational with no skips, I’m goin from D to J And if you thought I was Jumping to conclusions ,I’d jump again anyway Just for kicks I have eshoes I “just do it” cause “Cause i’m all in” What I stand for speaks for itself My body of work born of a muse that’s fused with the blue’s Slow Percussion is my mood Hate love,Love Hate where is my muse? Normality was a long time ago That shipped has sailed It battles a storm of hate camouflaged as Love In the cypher that can’t be deciphered While they claim Hips that Hop getting killed by assassins As in the ass but no sin I can’t lie on this sheet of red ink I’m Slept on like the undertone’s My muse rubs my back when i turn on all of you Muse sitting on the hypotenuse This is my ode to you
Soul Searching by Sihle Ntuli Yesterday everybody wanted to be a poet They wanted to touch the world with words Turning things around call it a revolution And then the struggle was won Then they got old Kept their bedsides shining with the torch they couldnâ€™t pass on Calling the rest unsolicited Nobody wants to be a poet Nowadays everybody wants to be a DJ Spinning discs brings dizzy chicks And a ride on a stick Saturation is the bull that shits Red bull was given to all Their Fly eating chicken wings Yet still Everybody wants to be a DJ Nowadays everybody wants to be somebody Other than their body The fear of being nobody Nobody is perfect Guess itâ€™s the soul that shines The gospel of the state of mind The calmness of the blues Where did the soul go?
short bio: Sihle Ntuli is a 21 year old writer who currently lives in Durban, South Africa, his work can be found on various online journals including Itch, Sang Bleu, Jiggered, Free Riddim & Poetry Potion 19
Someone please dictate by Simiso Slashfire Sokhela Someone please dictate I’m a die hard Let me write while I sojourn The jingle causes tiny stars that tabulate the tailor made thoughts I’m tamed by your caress I therefore profess interest in your dictation Outflow your thoughts let me jot the swelling words you command my pen To dance...dance my pen dance To independence In the pen dances ink The expression doesn’t need any subtitles I’m using an amusing universal language I submerge your dictation in the succulent blood Tears mixed with blood cells This is not sedate Who knows maybe you have a subway in your grave This poem is touching to the brave Who get to read this offspring’s bouncing words Someone please dictate
short bio: Simiso Sabelo Sokhela (born September 04, 1991) is a South African poet, writer, and Voice actor known for his way of creatively crafting words on and off stage. He enjoys writing poetry and short stories based on his environment. He is a crazy peoples person. In 2000 he began writing his thoughts on a page, hence poetry 20
Men feared the fire of his soul by Simphiwe Phukwane For in the light dark shades of his being appeared to fade. stories untold were painted on canvas of stones. these stories had uncovered thoughts of loneliness He took his time to stand and listen to voices screaming whispers of hope. Still shaking, his hands carved dreams of hope. in his heart he knew they could be true. He sang songs of freedom to shed light the melodies destructed trials of misery. the beatings of his heart, just like a drum were on the same rhythm his hands could in fear bring hope, his smile in sorrow bring happiness
Revenging Soul by Dina Koumatse Fear Her! Do not underestimate the instinctive melancholy in the tone of her voice Abide Her! The new ruler speaks in a glaring modern patois Be awe of Her! Jungle-ways of a ruthless observant lioness Succumb to Her! Freedom is no longer the invention of others The fire of her soul will guide us.
short bio: small island girl from Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, in pursuit of something yet unknown. 22
I’m a TV. I’m a Radio by Galapagos My mind, body, spirit and soul is programmed I’m a color screen TV in society I’m a radio headed freak in society I channel film mode expeditions any time of the day I speak radioactive vocal frequencies any time of the day I tune into filtered journalistic blood wars every second of the day I listen to holy war jingles sensationally manipulated My newspaper writers and editors will tell you lies about my media mentality My media mentality is hypodermic My media mind is a message gun trajectory My media shoots your loafer brain with brainwashing bullet bulletins Do you want to switch me off? Television pandemonium Do you want to turn me off? Radio upset Hey, “I got musical sound for you” Jazz and soul for your chill out moments Hip hop and rock ‘n roll for your funky crazy nights on the weekends RnB and Gospel for your spiritual platonic fantasies Thin skinned drum for your rain dance shower Chordophones strings that will make your heart beat “I got indie poems to recite” “I got dope lyrics to spit” “I can freestyle during radio announcements and prime time” “I got album listening sessions of all your favorite artists” “I got beautiful songs for your receptive ears” “I have an interview today with your role model, Mr. Know it all” “You can ask him any question you want” “Dial and talk to him” “Mr. Know it all tell me more about the origins of science and religion “Tell me about the creation of God and Satan” “Tell me about the miraculous ancient verbal dialogues between machines and shadows” “Tell me about the kiss between crayons and a canvas” “Unfold the drunken Noah’s flood on the mixture of alcohol and water when the glass ship sink deep into tongues” “Tell me about the interesting bible fairytales” “The talking snake in the Garden of Eden” “The Virgin birth of the prodigal Son” “The woman that lived inside the fish”
“The invisible God of the heavens” “The life and death between the book of genesis and revelation” “Ooh! Mr. Know it all thank you for such fruitful knowledge” “I will always tune into your radio station” “But Mr. know it all you also have a TV show, so may you please unfold the interesting programmes just with a finger fiddle on your remote control” “Tell me about your favourite movies” “Horror, romantic and adventure movies” “Tell me about your favourite morning and afternoon cartoons” “I want to know about Clifford the dog” “I want to know about Tom and Jerry” “I want to know about Dragon Ball Z and Pokemons” “Tell me what’s going on the news today” “Tell me about the president’s child’s molestation” The government corruption and money bribery “Tell me about criminal cases, suicide, genocide and secret weapons in the Middle East” “Tell me how beautiful and sexy the newsreader is” “Tell me how you planning to flirt with that light skinned news reporter from channel 2” “Tell me about your favourite Coca Cola advertisements and soapies” “Tell me about your favourite comedy and sitcoms” “I want to hear about The Fresh Prince of Bell Air” “Tell me about the funniest scenes ever by Bill Cosby and Martin Lawrence” “Oooooh! What a nice conversation I had with you Mr. Know it all” Back to TV and Radio reality TV and Radio media mentality I channel you into brainwashing wonderland Psychological limitation Drown your focus in the subconscious dimension Remote controlling your reality 24 hours Motion pictures fill up the slave rooms located inside your mind Mind programming Eye programming Eardrum destruction I’m a TV I’m a Radio Tainted Epics Lingering Emphasized Visions In Sophisticated 24
Inadequacies Of News Reality About Dictated Inadequacies Overall I am!
short bio: I’m a poet, writer of short stories, mcee and photo writing. I’m known by my rap name Dionys Volatile. I’m from Tembisa in the East Rand. Also a student at the University of Johannesburg doing my degree in BA Corporate Communication. I’m that book reading freak! I really value success, my purpose in life and addherent to my high consciousness. 25
a smile that’s begot by strife by Bandung Poet Mau Mau He threads on....... He threads on with his feet so tiny You’d think he tip toes. Conditions are cold; Clouds collude like all black scrum; Rain begins to fall. He wears a big hole..... He wears a big hole With patches of wool, He calls it a jersey but i promise If you saw it you would disagree. It reveals a totally torn T-shirt That’s not as white as it used to be. Inquire about his age, Go head, inquire about his age And he’ll widely spread his palm; On the other hand He’ll pop out his thumb; And then, Continue to take his small steps On a wet surface While his biggest toe Peeps through his unpolished shoe, Touching the ground. Yet all he worries about Is protecting his books, So he ties a knot On his yellow checkers plastic bag... Suddenly; A visit from a vivid vision of his parents: Perished in an overloaded, Unroadworthy taxi; Now they reside in the heavens. Now life seem like a puzzle of gloom, But seeds grow Through the harshness Of a seal’d ground: See how beautiful flowers bloom. short bio: From Springs, Johannesburg South Africa. Born in 81, one half of The Bandung Conference (poetry group) and I love my people
If Black Hair could talk by mbuzobuciko If Black Hair could talk imagine what words would you hear what First words would it say OOH NO STOP!!!...it’s enough for decades i have obliged and accommodated ABUSE and TORTURE of being Burned Alive by those who don’t APPRECIATE BEAUTY those who have no PRIDE of being FIRM of being STRONG ,of being NATURAL and let be what I want to be So allow these 10 disciples to do the work do the walk and twist it round but not like the clock permit these under-valued soldiers to be the keys to your DREADED LOCKS so if I could talk if this BLACK HAIR could talk the would be no SUN SILKing my follicle to RESTORE EASY WAVES that leaves BLACKs LIKE ME with no PERFECT CHOICE but to wonder as DARK N LOVEly to the scalp cortical layer is left PRECISE IF I COULD TALK none of my skin plug and sebaceous glands will be in the dock I DEMAND that you refrain from fertilizing me with chemicals I’m not a crop not even a single drop SO STOP!!!
short bio: I’m a member of unGAMAd, but I’m focusing on my project, as we want the group to mature and we are waiting for the right time. I am deeply influenced by the writings of Bantu Biko and that made me aware that there are people who are less fortunate than me, so I have to stop mourning and complaining about life complexities. Instead I have to focus on more society driven issues, like making people aware that their present position and situations are man-made, so they have to react in a way that will liberate but also empower them mentally. 27
Kwame Dawes “I have decided to stay focused on being present and writing for the present moment as fiercely and beautifully as I can.” Kwame Dawes states towards the end of an essay about timeless poetry¹. A statement that clearly defines of his approach to poetry and, perhaps, the reason why he continues to write poetry. It’s easy for one to be intimidated by Kwame Dawes. I mean he has been publishing his poetry consistently since ‘94, in ‘96 he published two collections. He is the editor-in-chief of Prairie Schooner; he has published numerous essays about writing. He ran a project documenting the 2009 Haiti earthquake through poetry. He is the director of Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica. He’s a professor of English and runs writing workshops all over the world... All of this can leave you feeling very intimidated and expecting an intellectual snob. He is not any kind of snob. He is a generous with his knowledge and his ideas. As a storyteller, his work isn’t just inspiring; it opens the mind to the world. The evocative imagery lets you journey with him all over the world and take a peak at something you may never experience first hand. In this Q&A, he answers questions about experience and writing candidly 28
PP: how has being born in Ghana, growing up in Jamaica, being based in the USA and travelling the world informed your writing? KD: I was born in Ghana my father was Jamaican my mother was Ghanaian. When we moved to Jamaica, that is, to the New World, we were engaging in this ‘middle passage’ journey, three hundred years ahead. I had to start to find places of home because in a sense being a Ghanaian with a father was Jamaican who kept saying, “Jamaica was home” or “there’s a home in Jamaica,” I’ve always had this bifurcated kind of view of the world. A world that I’m both in and am outside of. So, when we were in Ghana I always had this imagined Jamaica. Whatever he told us wasn’t necessarily accurate but it was a myth of an away. When we got to Jamaica then Ghana was my home. I had a place outside [of Jamaica]. I was looking at Jamaica with new eyes as an outsider yet I was part of that space. That is a condition that I think is the condition of the artist. I think the artists is always both inside the world that we are in and yet outside looking in. My last life journey, forced that of my youth and I use that in the way that I engage in writing being both inside and outside the moment. That’s what we call empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling so thoroughly that we can then act upon it. Sympathy we just ‘feel with’ while empathy has distance. The artist is an empathiser because you have to have a little distance. The artist is going to ‘feel with’ through the imagination and then be able to express that through language. I believe all people should write poetry, I think writing poetry is the way to exercise the muscle of empathy. I think it humanises us. Kwame became the editor-in-chief of the Prairie Schooner and quarterly journal that is attached to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. the journal is eighty five years old! with such notable contributors as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Charles Bukowski. how did you approach going into something with such a history and legacy? 29
KD: I approach it as I approach most things. I go and I find out as much as I can about the journal and it’s history. At the same time, they knew who I was when they invited me to come there so they expected to expand its clientele and subscribers and also the people who publish it. It’s a great organization and a great staff that I work with. It’s an opportunity. PP: we tend to see poetry as a very limited place to work in. a lot of poets, i work with are usually young poets approaching 30 are already leaving poetry because they want to make money. so you, working on an 85 year old journal and i on a 5 year old journal, what has your experience been for you being in poetry for so long? KD: I think poetry is vocation. I think you become a poet and you treat your process of writing petty as an ongoing learning experience. I’m never going to be completely satisfied with any poem that I have written not because I don’t think the poem is strong but because I’m acutely aware, constantly, of the limitations of language and the limitations of my facility of language to capture the idea or the vision that has entered my head. My task for the rest of my life will be to bring those two things as close together as possible. In other words to raise my language to a point where it can capture my imagination and capture my ideas and my emotions. So, for me, poetry is an ongoing exercise but it’s also the process of how we engage the world. I observe the world, I feel the world and I try to use language to express the world. In many ways, much of my poetry is about finding a language to tell the story of the experiences that I’ve encountered. And to do that in ways that create beauty. And beauty is not pretty, beauty is not something cute, beauty is that sense of accuracy about the experience. And the art of poetry elevates that. Poetry is an ongoing existence there’s no sense that I’m done with it. I know that there’re many poets that come into poetry as performers and the challenge with performance poetry is that the demands on the poet are quite different. You’re demand 30
q&a [as a performance poet] is to be interesting on stage but your productivity is not highly demanding. You can do five poems and work the circuit for a year. I can’t do that. As a poet, I’m producing a hundred poems a year and editing and writing those poems. But what happens with the performance poet is that there’s a sense in which you are more connected with popular music and popular culture. The life span for most people is very short because there’s the next hot thing that’s coming. Also there’s a challenge with maintaining your craft because, where does your craft go after you’ve been on the circuit for so long? It’s very difficult to be in the [performance] circuit. It’s very tiring. You spend so much time learning your words, learning your lines that you don’t spend enough time reflecting and thinking and writing about experience, which I think a poet needs to do. I think what happens to poets who are in the performance scene who burn out, what used to be a living by gig money, etc, eventually peters about because the hot new talent is coming behind you and you’re tired of competing. So you say “I need to do something else with my life.” PP: so how would you advise these poets who are in that space right now. for them it’s the poetry that’s gone ‘bad’ is not the performance scene? KD: What I advise them to do is to learn the craft. Any poet who starts off writing has only begun to scratch the surface. Poetry is a craft; it’s not economic at all. It’s like a carpenter. You don’t hear an apprentice carpenter saying, “I don’t build tables, I only build chairs or I don’t use hammers I only use a screwdriver.” They are trained to know everything about carpentry. That’s how they become a master carpenter. Eventually, you may specialise in church benches but you have to know how to play. You have to know how to use sandpaper. You have to know how to use all the different machines. You have to know the quality of wood from all over the place and the more you have that knowledge the greater your ability to work. If you went to a carpenter and said to them I need you to build me a table and he says, “Come back next week, I’ll have your table.” And you go back next week and he says to you, “I 31
q&a haven’t done the table yet, I haven’t felt it yet.” What are you meant to do with that carpenter? “I have carpenter’s block.” You fire that carpenter. I think sometimes poets forget the craft and get involved in the spiritual part of being a poet. The sort of idea that the poet is some kind of authentic thinker. That may be part of poetry but that is a small part of poetry. That will take care of itself; the real task of poetry is to bring your capacity and your skill with the craft to match your idea. Musicians learn everything they can about their instrument not because they are going to play every song but because they want to have a choice in what they are going to do. If you do only one kind of thing as a poet, then you’ll always produce that same kind of poem over and over and frankly, you’re not going to be interesting. PP: i was reading your essay about timelessness and timeliness; i was grappling with the same issues wondering who will read my poems in fifty years poem. because i want them to feel what i was feeling. at the same time when I read older poets like the Ingoapele Madingoane’s and others they still work and still hit me in that place. in your experience with workshopping and the poets that come to these workshops, do you get these kinds of questions? KD: People will ask me these kinds of questions but some are resistant [to the answer]. Because it depends on what stage they are in their careers. You know, when a poet is performance poet and they are hot, they don’t hear a whole lot because they are hot, they are celebrities. But eventually, and I’ve seen this again and again with poets like Roger Bonair-Agard, Patricia Smith, all these poets in England and the US who were major performers and were slam poets, eventually they come back and say I need to learn this craft. I need to know what I’m talking about. So it depends on where they are when they come to the workshop. And my craft in the workshop is to simply build an honestiness about what our limitations are. Poets need to be honest about what their limitations are. [When] I say [in a workshop] write a 32
line, an iambic pentameter line, the typical response is “that’s western stuff, I don’t write like that” when the truth is that you can’t, you don’t know. You’re saying, “I don’t do that” not because you’ve tried and then decided you prefer not to. You can’t do it because you haven’t trained your self to do it to then [be able to] make the choice. So my task is to say that there’s a range of things we can learn as poets. Even as we’re coming down to truth, being as honest and as close to our voice and our language as possible, we are also trying to take the language and the craft to a point where we do justice to the ideas [we have]. Poets are never short of ideas. What poets are short of is their craft. Ideas are dime a dozen. We’re not the only ones that have great ideas. Anybody has a great idea, great concept and great thought. The difference between that person and the poet, even the performance poet is that we have some craft but the poets who are committed to this for life will build [their] craft over time and keep challenging themselves. Do you stop with just the poetry of your little community or your country or your continent? Are you interested in reading poetry from Japan or China or Macedonia, just trying to learn what poetry [there] is all around? What you can gain from it? What skills you can learn from it. If we forget that poetry is a craft with skills that we learn then we are doing ourselves an injustice. So that’s one part of the things I focus on at workshops. Do you stop with just the poetry of your little community or your country or your continent? Are you interested in reading poetry from Japan or China or Macedonia, just trying to learn what poetry [there] is all around? What you can gain from it? What skills you can learn from it. If we forget that poetry is a craft with skills that we learn then we are doing ourselves an injustice. So that’s one part of the things I focus on at workshops. PP: i find that there is a lot of the “i” in the poetry, telling people about the self. in your approach to writing poetry, with your multicultural identity, how does your identity feature in your poems? KD: My sense of identity is defined by having moved around 33
so I’ve seen different parts of the world and I’ve seen different people. The ‘I’ in the poem is a very interesting concept. Frankly, I thing people are delusional about how interesting they are. We think we’re more interesting that we really are. We’re not that interesting. I think it’s a delusion because we are in a generation that’s very I-centred. It’s a generation of “I” and therefore it’s my story, my truth. We say that a lot. And sometimes we say that as a defence. I think it’s delusional in a sense that art is about selecting what is interesting and the best art manages to identify what is more interesting that was it not interesting. Some people give the impression that everything is interesting and that is not true. Then something happens to you, and I say what happened? You edit what happened to you so that you make it interesting. If you were to tell me everything that happened from the beginning of the day until now, we’d be fast asleep. What you do as a storyteller is you pick those things that are more interesting that allow us to have an emotional engagement with what you’re saying. That selection is a very careful skill and we have to develop the skill to know how to self-edit and to construct experience and to construct narrative so that it’s interesting. So in a sense, for me having seen so much in the world, I just add to my pool of things I can select from. I’m interested in people, I listen to people, I store it. If you ask me what I remember, I don’t know. But when I start writing there’s a faucet that starts to flow and I begin to pick things that were locked in my memory. Writing releases that. But I’m looking for that which is interesting. That’s what we call an image. A woman said to me one day when I was in Haiti: What do you think I’m worth? A prostitute said that, not as a come on, as a statement. That stayed with me and that became the basis for a poem I wrote called Bebe’s Wish². She said many things to me but that - What do you think I’m worth? [It] stayed [with me] because that is fascinating. One of the keys for a writer is being able to know what is interesting. That takes skill and craft. PP: in terms of engaging with the craft, how else would you tell the writer that’s feeling burnt out and suffering a writers’ block? 34
q&a KD: The first thing I would say to you is banish the concept of writers block. It’s not true. It’s something we made up. It’s a great idea. What does writer’s block say to you? Here’s what happens, you come to write and you can’t think of anything to write so you say I have writer’s block. Which means, you didn’t do anything; you’re blaming the writer’s block for your problem, right? It’s the block; it’s that nasty block that keeps running around blocking everybody. But it has nothing to do with you. The truth is writer’s block is essentially that maybe you don’t have anything to say. What you have to do is to say to yourself as a writer, even if I don’t have anything to say, I must make myself ready for when I have something to say. So for me [that means] craft, practising. I write haikus, I write essays. Some of it makes no sense. It’s not really good stuff but I’m learning. So [that] when the idea comes, I’m ready for it. You have to examine yourself and ask ‘what is driving my writing?’ If that’s all that drives you to write you need to expand the things that make you want to write. I don’t give myself many excuses. If we have a workshop and say we’re going to write a poem now, a third of the people will say they don’t write on demand ‘I have to feel it’ then I say then you’re not a serious writer. You can write on demand because everything you write is not necessarily going to be brilliant. Some of it will be bad but you need to do it to keep the practice going. It’s like the carpenter again, what are you going to tell the carpenter? We’re not that special, poets are not that special. Because we’re poets, we’ve written enough about being poets to make everyone think we’re special. We’re not special. We’re just like the carpenter. [Except] he’s more reliable.
¹“On Timelessness,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ harriet/2011/04/on-timelessness/ ² http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sExAkB6zyc4 35
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Rhyme, Alliteration & Assonance Sound plays an important role in creating meaning in poetry. one way to use sound is the employ repetition through rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance. according to Wikipedia, rhyme consists of identical (“hardrhyme”) or similar (“soft-rhyme”) sounds placed at the ends of lines or at predictable locations within lines (“internal rhyme”) “Under the greenwood tree Who loves to lie with me” ~ Shakespeare, from As You Like It Alliteration refers to the repetition of a particular sound in the first syllables of a series of words or phrases. Alliteration is about the sound, not the letter. “She sells seashells on the seashore” Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain!” ~ from My Fair Lady Consonance is a poetic device characterized by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in “pitter patter” or in “all mammals named Sam are clammy” In next months APADC, all submissions must use rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance. source: en.wikipedia.org
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