Conversations With Yesterday: An Evening With Don Mattera
April 4, 2011
In my mind, I had always imagined yesterday as a personified, moving allegory of the deceptive hands of time. A noun as opposed to an adverb. She would be a great speaker oozing provocative diatribes. Adorned in fitting attire, she would be an enceinte symbol of rhetoric, lest mundane thinking beset us. Aristotle would dress her in fine linen of “logos, pathos and ethos.” The literati would write extensively of her in their books and known orators would attempt to speak of her. Kings would say of her, “An iridescent Yesterday beholds us, with sagely, golden brown eyes. She asks, ‘What has become of wisdom? What shallow form shall inherit this deep thirst for knowledge? And ‘Tomorrow? Shall this capricious being lead stars into eternity?’”
Not so long ago, in an un-personified yesterday, I vowed to have a sit down with one of the most influential poets of my time (and my father’s time) without much success; I got “close, but no cigar,” as the expression goes. Sometimes, when one is off the path, they meet others who will find it, and that is exactly what Vangile Gantsho did for me. She found the path! And then she connected people to it through “Conversations with yesterday…”
So, Saturday, 19 March 2011 was billed to be a day to remember, when I would finally get my chance to meet a true role model, one human enough to touch without bypassing guards, but by merely extending a few humble words. Don Mattera is a wonder to listen to, not the type of person one would easily be drawn to. He first speaks you closer and then he listen’s you into respect. Not proper English? I know. There were thirteen other young minds in the room of whom I could write epics. Three of them have braced the Spoken Mind’s pages before. One of them, Donald “Neosapien” Mokgale, looked beyond an earlier accident, which saw his car totally wrecked, to make the gathering. No one could be stopped from being here. We spent a good 4 hours with Don Mattera, I however will not be able to encapsulate those hours into a single article, neither will I attempt splitting them into more articles. I will however attempt hitting some high notes of the discussions that arose on the day.
The participants were a rich mix of poets, namely, Ayabongwa Cawe, Nothukela Mahambehlala, Mthunzikazi Mbungwana, Vangile Gantsho, Zintle Gantsho, Nicholas RH Welch, Kabelo Tlailane, Donald Mokgale and myself. The Cinematographers/Actors were, Akelo Maohloli and Thokozani Ngoma. Then we had writer/director, Belinda Belseck and TV Producer/writer and singer, Lunga Nene. In fact, I doubt I’ll be able to enter everything some of these guys do, so I’ll just keep it simple.
Tata Don Speaks Clip 1 (Click to Listen) Tata Don Speaks Clip 2 (Click to Listen) Tata Don Speaks Clip 3 (Click to Listen)
“Must we only feel for our kind, or must we feel for all kind?” I left with these words from Don Mattera beating vociferously against my conscience. He had just recollected an incident where he came across a group of young, Afrikaner children living in passages, begging for bread. One of them was dressed indecently, not that there’s anything decent about poverty. He said, “The young girl is fourteen, she walks around with no panties… she’s ready for the act, just for a R5.”He said, “This is the mystery of being human, of being poetic. You can’t be a poet and be in isolation to the things that are happening in your country…” This rang true with me, especially after having attended a “Racial harmony” workshop hosted by Sasol the previous week. Can we really be disconnected from the struggles of people just because they are different from us? Can we be insensitive to peoples growing pains just because they are black/white, male/female or because they practice different beliefs from our own? Can we ignore the ‘Makwerekwere’s’ cry for help, because “they are taking our jobs?” Or is there truly a greater responsibility expected from us, both as citizens and as artists? Something undefined by our skin, our religion or even our politics? Something far more unique. Humanity perhaps? Not even diversity, because as a friend of mine said the other day, and I paraphrase, “Diversity by its definition already renders us different…”
The business of poetry?
Can money be made from this art? We are not all Lebo Mashile’s or Tumi Molekane’s you know, but either way, people like Tumi (from Tumi and the Volume) did not necessarily make their money on poetry. In fact, I even doubt Lebo makes her living on JUST poetry. Half the ‘ordinary’ people I know and work with have never heard of Tumi, yet he continues being celebrated OUTSIDE the borders of our country. Don Mattera first expressed a big NO to this question, but it seems there are some exceptions. For instance, if you are connected to corporates or the ruling party, you could make a lot of money from poetry, as Don Mattera put it, “1% aspiration, 99% perspiration.” He also advised us not to be ‘one dimensional,’ for lack of a better expression, that an artist should spread his/her talent, i.e. the poet/activist/public speaker/motivational speaker etc. This way, you do not have to be ‘just a poet’ in order to make a living. Maybe being a poet with a certain philosophy could be the key to breaking tags such as, starving artist. Poets are like the taxi drivers of the art industry, driving mental change with unkempt hair and faded, dirty jeans, ‘se ngabo mageza,’ and that tag is so untranslatable. We too… are sons and daughters of a prolifically vicious mother, her name is STEREOTYPE.
Asked what they would like out of their art, their comments ranged from the materialistic to the spiritual, from the illuming to the “I want it all” to the exploratory. In all these comments, Don Mattera found a gap and in it, slotted the word, “Legacy.” It was at eight, during his years at a Catholic school when he wrote the following:
To the veld I want to wander.
There where sunsets are golden splendor,
Where honey bees hum sweet melodies
And the white veld flowers scent the morning breeze.
Oh how my heart there longs to go,
To that wide open world that is my home.
To hear the birds sing on dew drops that shine
And to know that life can be sweet and divine.
He was accused of plagiarism by a sister at the school, punished, a bag pulled over his head and ash thrown over him, being sent off to repent. “People sometimes don’t believe that there’s a genius sitting here. Each one of you has genius in them. It is what you do with the genius, how you employ it that it will feed you and feed those that you love. So legacy is important… but if you have not been to the school of brick laying, how can you lay bricks, how can you do foundations? You must learn this art completely. Have a repository of words like you’ve never heard yet. You must never feign for words, they must come out. You conquer, you demand the dictionary, and you wax the dictionary… Be curious, conquer words and then string them together in ways that are unique… When you have this, ‘now, I think I am ready for the people, whether they like me or not…’”
Don Mattera spoke briefly of a performance he had in London, where a few people walked out of the show, “They thought I’m Lebo Mashile. They thought I’m Kgositsile… I am a missionary, I’m a warrior. I use the word as a sword, I fight, I kill with my words. So if you don’t want me, walk out. There’ll be a few people who stay in and if they like it, good, if they don’t, hard luck!”
He also encouraged us to form a group, to focus our collective efforts and resources on helping each other achieve our individual objectives, especially in terms of publishing. I observed the intensity and concentration on the faces in the room, images of an incessant wave of talent flooded my mind. In this very room, set a vast array of artists, each possessing unique talents and highly polished skills. If these guys were to seriously consider this wise man’s counsel, join forces and throw their combined weights behind the stagnant wheel of change, who knows what impact they could bring. With which colors would they paint the future face of art? What visuals would our children be subjected to on that addictive screen? Would poets still be publishing on books? Whichever shape the future will ultimately be churned into; I just hope it at least wears a smile. There exists an undying concupiscence within me for word. One that will not allow me to behold it with a one dimensional view. A view that expresses word as a mere scribbling or utterance void of a philosophy, a creation and a distinct touch. A word born as a result of merely mastering 26 letters seems so unattractive to me, too shallow to change one beyond the stately robes of flesh and blood. I desire a word that penetrates the walls of convention, the walls of the 5 senses and the mechanics it incases. Sure, I would like to speak and move you with word, but move you to what? That seems a more important question to me than an answer which merely seeks to move.
For me, Don Mattera only expanded the landscape upon which I wished my word to exist upon. His persona though, is something which really humbled me. Once, at a discussion at the National Library about two years ago, he was part of a panel comprised of Lebo Mashile, where one of the people present was the fiery Lefifi Tladi. The conversation was on Memory and National Heritage and a young man, no older than 20 years old, went on a verbal onslaught on the older generation and our current leaders. Throwing a tantrum on burning issues around leadership and the arts (people get a wack at the back of the head for speaking like that), but Don Mattera, humbled himself to the point of almost begging this young man to forgive them. He also bestowed a responsibility upon all of us, not to blame the past, but also to be participants in plotting optimistically for our country and its future. I will never forget his humbleness and total…? I don’t know, total compassion maybe.
Don Mattera is a dying breed, a unique creation we might never get the opportunity to walk with again in our time. Perhaps existing only in the class of the likes of Keorapetse Kgositsile, possessing the humbleness of Ghandi and outspokenness of a Moses. What is our generation going to do with this spoken word? How will we mould it in our hands? Should we be the ones moulding it or should it rather be moulding us? Look at your art through the lens of Yesterday and maybe you will be able to shape it appropriately to meet the ever changing challenges of Today. How will Cinematographers paint our LCD, plasma screen thirsty eyes? Will Directors plot the paths and destinies of future actors and actresses, poets and musicians, on charred, non-compassed routes? Will tomorrow’s artists be as thirsty for opulence at the sacrifice of principles, morals and intuitive relevance as is the case with some of our contemporaries?
I just hope to see some of these thirteen faces on the other side of their envisioned selves.