Foreword by Matthew ‘The Mytt’ Mokoena:
At the beginning of every year, we find ourselves pressed by the glorious presence of an eternal hope. Eternal, not because it pre-dates us, but because at the core of our very existence lies a story pre written, adjudicated by deity and DNA’d in inescapable bloodlines. A lineage of warriors, pagans, whores and saviours who set out to right our people’s irreversible wrongs. The very essence of our existence, captured in man’s spirit, articulated from the alpha of hope. My hope for the year is to remain in hope, not to lose sight of what I set out to accomplish at the beginning of my pilgrimage which, ironically, pre-dates the numerical imperatives set out before me by time.
A few weeks ago, I received an invite from the Wizard of Oz of Emerald City (a certain lady by the name of Phillippa) who sought my wise counsel at a certain intervention where magical pens could be probed into the wounds of art and with the bloody, dripping ink –lets, we could write a book in the sky about draining illiteracy, taming society in this new democracy. Alas! My dream of consorting with wise men and women was shattered by the un-ideal demands of the real world. So I requested the assistance of a super scribe to capture this great gathering. A lady by the name of Vangile Gantsho, and this is her report.
Love and Society… Love and Revolution… Literature and Revolution…
Literature and Society
Before I begin, I have to admit that when I heard I would be allowed to sit in on a conversation on Literature and Society, hosted by Lebo Mashile, and including Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile (if you don’t know…now you know…), I literally felt as though I was going to resemble a crazy teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. But when, in addition to that, I found myself in the company of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Napo Masheane, Milisuthando Bongela, Myesha Jenkins, Allan Horwits, Pamela Sneed (USA based poet) and David Wa Maahlamela, I died and went to my own piece of literary heaven! The thing about such conversations is that no matter how many times we may have them amongst ourselves, when we sit down with people who live, breath and embody the word, we’re bound to walk away feeling schooled…in a good way. Because we have the same questions, but inexperience may, at times, keep us idealistic and naïve.
“Art imitates life”, they say. “Literature is a reflection of a society lived or a society dreamed”, and “what is, has been, and will be again”. These three sayings came to mind at Love and Revolution during the conversation on Literature and Society. I think Love and Revolution was the perfect venue for this conversation: nestled in the beautiful corner of 7th and 2nd in the idyllic artistic haven of Melville, the set up was intimate and quite perfect actually. Even Allan had to point out that places like L&R and Xarra Books in Newtown have to be cherished for their ability to survive the demands of a capitalist system and still be able to provide a creative space where people are allowed (and even encouraged) to think freely. The discussion was being filmed for a documentary called How My Country Speaks on BBC, and that’s exactly what it was about: how poets (and writers in general) fit into, reflect, and affect society. How we survive society and our craft, and whether or not the society we live in can handle, or is ready for the stories our words tell.
So there is an expectation to find an audience and share your work, but not to make a living off it? – Lebo Mashile
During the conversation, Lebo asked the age-old question: is it possible for poets to make a living off their craft? Sadly, the general consensus was No. The reality of South Africa is that, although poetry has grown and become more widely appreciated than perhaps most countries, we still have a very long way to go. The industry of the arts is not yet organised in such a way whereby poets can be sustained by their craft. Initially, Napo said she felt she could make a living off her poetry, but later conceded that she had to supplement it with her other art forms. She admitted that it’s not enough to just be a poet, because if one depends on their poetry for income, they begin to make a lot of compromises and end up losing a lot of the love and perhaps truth, in the pursuit of a pay check. A disheartening truth, considering that Napo (alongside Lebo, Myesha and Ntsiki Mazwai) was one of the pioneers for female poets in SA, and Feelah Sista allowed many of us willingly naïve followers to believe (hope) that not only was there a market for poetry in SA, but that we could follow our dreams and get paid for it. Even Prof Kgositsile pointed out that although he may know a number of poets with money, none of them made their money from their poetry. In addition to a lack of organisation, the poetry niche is a small and competitive one, and requires some kind of what Myesha calls “massification”. Unfortunately, as both Myesha and Phillippa pointed out, not everyone can speak to the masses. And sometimes, the masses are not ready to hear the truths poets have to share. But that’s ok, because they have carved out their own markets and found other ways to get by. Not necessarily ideal, but no less fulfilling either.
According to Prof Kgositsile, the lack of organisation in the arts is largely due to a lack of understanding between the government and the society of artists, because the artists believe they are the responsibility of the Department of Arts and Culture, while the DOAC is confused as to whether they are required to deliver to artists or to communities. As a result, we find a system wherein bureaucrats make decisions without consultation and find themselves dealing with disgruntled artists who feel that they have an incompetent government. He proposes that a possible solution would be for the government to take a facilitating role and use the artists as instruments of service delivery, in the same way the health department uses doctors and nurses to provide health services. Then perhaps we would not have the problem of it seeming as though arts and literature are not a priority in our country. Because, as Allen pointed out, it’s quite concerning for a country to host such an extravagant World Cup, when about 80% of the schools in that country don’t even have sports facilities and libraries. If the government doesn’t prioritise literature and facilitate an ethos of consuming literature, then who will read, buy and/or appreciate these poems and stories and written truths?
We live in a country with a high illiteracy rate, where books are expensive and only a few poets ever make it into the mainstream. – Lebo Mashile
Another point that was raised is that of poetry as an entertainment industry within a system that is of a capitalist nature. When talking about the page and the stage, Prof Kgositsile was quick to point out two very important things. The first is that: “Poetry is and always has been, an oral art form. Whether it’s on paper or on stage, printed paper does not change anything”. So as a result, an oral poet exercises the same measure of being precise and creative with language as the one who writes on the page, when done correctly. When one writes a poem, one has to be mindful of the fact that they did not invent language. Language existed long before any of us and we have to be mindful of it when we use it. Also, when one presents a poem, one must be aware that they are dealing with people’s expectations. A scope for presentation is then required and is translated differently by different poets. For Phillippa, it’s reworking her pieces so they become suitable for an audience, but it does not mean that she must now put on specific outfits and create a poetry persona. For Napo, on the other hand, creating a poetry persona is part of her performance. Which brings us to the second point Prof Kgositsile made: that we need to demystify the difference between performance poetry and poetry as entertainment, with a market place, within the context of a capitalist South Africa.
If what you explore is a lived human experience, then everything human will respond to it. – Prof Kgositsile
Many poets shy away from wanting to be labelled as political poets, or writing anything that could be associated with politics. I think Phillippa explained it best when she said that she writes because of a personal pressure and is oftentimes so caught up in her own journey that she would be “grateful” if anyone thought any of her work would be of any use to them. But we can’t run away from politics. Once again I find myself quoting Prof Kgositsile (I really can’t help myself) when he said that no one lives outside the demands of the political environment, because even when someone says they are not political, they are taking a political stand. “When you put your mouth on paper or you run your mouth off in the streets, you are taking a position with one class or another because nothing exists outside that in this world.” So when Myesha said that we need to start building movements from truths, I think she brought into prospective the inevitable marriage between politics and the pen. “We need to build movements from what we feel without just describing landscapes, but talking about what it reveals from the insides.”
Poets are often labelled as dreamers or idealists, living on clouds and unable to live within the realities of this world. But if this conversation taught me anything, it is that literature really does reflect a society lived, and a society dreamed. Pamela said it best when she said: “Poets carry the hope and spirit of people. They bring light to the things people cannot articulate”. So even if people are not ready to listen to, or not willing to pay for, or just plain old uninterested in the stories poets have to tell, we have to keep telling them anyway. And in telling them, we must be truthful at all times, speak from the human experience and be respectful of the gift of language.