The wind outside whistles restlessly; Cold, solitary tunes reminiscent to those of a broken hearted young mans bluesy notes. The song itself is split into two parts, for two voices seem to be whistling one to the other. A duet of some sought. In response to the blues, the female whistler seems to be howling over the sadness. This… is the soundtrack to a Lent-less Blue Monday. “Winter? I was not anticipating her cold embrace so soon.” I am re-acquainted to the phrase ”cold to the bone” as Oz, Karabo and I take a butt numbing seat at the Sophiatown restaurant in Newtown (a bit indecisively.) It is no surprise that she chose this joint, if birds of a feather were artists, this is where they’d flock together. Was it not Lebo Mashile with whom we set just on the opposite side of this same restaurant not more than a month ago?
Myesha arrives (like a spirit floating in an evergreen forest) I’ve never come across one, but if I had it would be at that moment. I, like most of my peers, grew up calling my elders mama or papa (before the educationally prompted shift to Ms and Mr/Sir) regardless of relation. So you might understand why young people like Karabo and I had difficulty adjusting to the untitled “Myesha.” This permission by her to omit the title allowed the free flowing conversation that ensued on the comfortable couches she had led us to. Ladies and gentlemen, before you… lie pieces of writing… passages to an evergreen spirit. Enjoy.
|Born||29 July 1948; USA|
|Current Hometown||Yeoville, Johannesburg|
|Memberships/affiliations i.e poetry groups etc||Jozi House of Poetry, was part of Exodus Live Poetry! (Botswana)|
|Inspirations||Living: nature, news, people, observations, feelings … living.|
|Relationship status”,||no attachments – man, woman or child|
|Poets||Gabeba Baderoon, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and my good friends Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile, Makhosazana Xaba, Phillippa Yaa DeVilliers, Natalia Molebatsi . and then there are many, many others|
|Musicians||Feya Faku, Andile Yenana, Simphiwe Dana, Marcus Wyatt, Thandiswa Mazwai, MXO|
|Verse/Quote||“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there’s a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi|
|Books and authors||Half of a yellow sun – Chimamanda Adichie; When a man cries – Siphiwo Mahala; Beloved – Toni Morrison; Heart of Redness – Zakes Mda; Seat of the Soul – Gary Zukav and many many more.|
Myesha Jenkins graduated from the University of California, Riverside, with a BA degree in Black Studies. She was active in progressive politics, the anti-apartheid struggle and women’s movement. She published her first collection of poetry, Breaking the surface, in 2005 and her work has appeared in Insight: Six South African Poets, Isis X and We Are and in numerous magazines and journals including Timbila, Baobab and Botsotso. A founding member of Feela Sistah Spoken Word Collective, she has performed on stages and in community halls and been interviewed on radio and television.
My 1st Live experience of Myesha Jenkins was at the Grahamstown Arts Festival 2009, so any ‘fan-izmness’ I may declare can be referred to as adolescent at best. My consciousness companions had also experienced Myesha at the part consciousness.co.za organized “When the Kats come out to play” gig last July 24th. So we began the conversation by getting these ‘weaknesses’ out of the way. She shares with us how she came to perform at the Grahamstown arts festival last year.
Myesha: In 2008 PACOFS (Performing Arts Centre of the Free States) hired me to do a workshop for girls around issues of Violence Against Women and 16 days of Activism. Afterwards they asked me if I could do work with the kids to put up a show for Grahamstown, so some of the girls you saw were from that 1st Workshop that I had done in the Free State.
She tells us about a concept of hers (which came about in 2009) she refers to as “Playing with words.” This, she says, is a structured focused writing practice. It is one of many creative offerings she intends on starting this year as modules for young people, including piano lessons and poetry writing workshops among others. She would like to give kids creativity, to encourage young people to write.”It’s not so much the structure (though it is relevant) or that you gonna learn Shakespeare… it’s more that you gonna learn whatever it is that you want and be affirmed that it’s fine to think out of the box and be creative and use your imagination…”
As we proceed, I can’t help but notice the change in her tone and emotion as she describes her eye condition.”I had an eye operation in September (2009) and I got a really bad infection. I’ve had 7 surgeries and have consequently lost the vision in my (one) eye. I’m really just kinda adjusting to what it means to have sight in only one eye.” As I listen to her recalling the events that followed the advent of her sight loss, the new challenges she’s now faced with in her writing, driving, eating, in just viewing the world in its broken up entirety. I am consumed not only by the depth of her honesty, but by my own human realizations. As young hearted, spirited or involved as we may get, the human experience/condition is bound and governed by the same laws that govern nature itself. The sun rises, it shines and sets in the same rhythmic routine as it always has, but like Myesha, it sets hearts ablaze; sometimes in the east, sometimes in the west, it all depends on the season its warmth has chosen to visit you. So we age with each experience, but at 61, Myesha continues to age with a grace found only in nature.
Continuing on her eye ordeal she says, “I haven’t been able to work, so I haven’t had money, but luckily I’ve discovered that people love me and care about me and people put me on their debit orders… so people gave me money to live.” This statement for me is perhaps the fundamental representation of what humanity is. So here’s a woman who gives the WHOLE of herself to us. I’m talking words that heal, does she not in turn deserve the same courtesy from us when she is ailing.
Matt: how did it make you feel (the support from people)?
Myesha: I felt privileged and really special, that somehow I must be bringing positivity to the world if people can give me back and take care of me. The guy who lives in my back, he put (eye) drops in my eyes every half hour from the morning till I went to bad at night for six weeks…
Matt: Your 1st anthology of poems, “Breaking the surface,” is the title the general theme of the work?
Myesha: that poem comes from a poem about writing poems in the book, the line is “when I next brake the surface, it was as a dolphin smooth and light…”
My space of writing is an orgasmic space. It’s like time is not time… an orgasmic space you know what I mean? (Laughs all round) and then “when you brake the surface…” you know… and then I’m like whoa… I did that? That’s what it was naughty bugger…
She describes what she writes as “my view of the world. I’m not prescriptive in anyway and even though people wanna call me mama, I ain’t nobody’s mama. If you check the book out (Breaking the surface) there’s a poem about that. My writing reflects MY vision, what caught my eye today, what stirred me you know…” I think I insulted her somewhere round about here, she was on some,
Myesha: oh… do you know who I am? (jokingly of course) Do you know Green (the poem)?
Matt: no, but I’ve read “Food.”
Myesha: but I asked do you know Green
Matt: no I don’t
And without hesitation she breaks the conventions of ‘interview etiquette’ on some…
Valley of a thousand hills Green.
It holds me, cleanses me,
Makes me lush.
Do you know the Green I mean?
(the cheers that follow were more about how she delivered it than the actual words)
Myesha: That comes from being at a place called Elliot in the Eastern Cape that was on a bridge. And there was green on both sides… like layers of it. Some people think I’m talking about dope and you could think I’m talking about dope, but I’m actually talking about beauty and the beauty of this ‘Grand Canyon’ thing of different colored greens…
I love the texture of Myesha’s descriptions and I went on to tell her about the visual stimulation of her poems, i.e. the poem ‘Food.’
My experience of life
is through food
entwined and embedded
in my memories…
Cuba will always be
strong black coffee
and seven kinds of pork
at the Palacio Nacional
waiting to meet Fidel…
My first shaky month in a new life
buying dinner “R2 a plate, mama”
from the bus stop to home
finding umngqushu and phutu,
koeksisters and all the kinds of curries…
Matt: Beyond the “mother land” statements/stereotypes that go around, what was the motivation, for you personally, that inspired you to move to SA?
It’s khaya’s fault, this question almost had Myesha having my head on a platter (thanks a lot K.) Well, after expressing her dislike of the question she stated the following
Myesha: You know, I’m a communist. I’m an African American, so I didn’t grow up in that ‘American dream’ kinda a thing and so I’m a progressive lefty, I was doing solidarity work… I am a black person, my roots are here, I am because of Africa, there’s no doubt that I am an African woman, that’s who I am. My notions came from Amilka kebral, Chris Hani and different revolutionary leaders… Look, I’m an anti-american American.
She shares with us her arrival to South Africa story in 1993 (pre-elections),”on April 28 1993, 3 weeks after Chris (Hani) had been murdered… At this point the waiter found it appropriate to brake up the conversation.
Karabo: when you performed at the Kats gig, I noticed that most of your work was sexually charged and quite explicit. Is this something that is omnipresent in your work?
Myesha: I think the main thing which that reflects is being honest. I feel it’s also something which goes back to Feelah Sista’s as well… I wanna tell the truth to the people, I’m not interested in making you feel comfortable, I’m not interested in pretending, I’m an alcoholic (recovering). I’ve pretended enough in my life that I was someone else so I have to be pretty straight in how I deal. I’m honest… I think part of the problem with the poetry scene is that men don’t talk of women in a way that makes sense. It’s the “Madonna whore” complex. The girl is either a bitch, a gold digger or slut. (at this point Karabo strongly interjects, “but man surely do speak of them as queens…”)
The topic continues and is concluded by Myesha saying,”how do we get beyond the superficial stuff, the fantasy land relationships? If you know that I’m a woman and I like to get down and nasty as much as you do, that changes things, changes how we approach each other. If we can openly speak of such things it helps to even get to the real issues like Caster Semenya and howcome sexuality is duality, you are either this or that… and the other thing about those poems is it encourages people to be for real, to talk about our ‘real’ lives.”
Karabo: could you please share with us your views on marriage?
Myesha: I’m not a big fan of marriage, I’m not a man hater or bitter. I don’t think it’s necessary. I just don’t think people need to be married to make a commitment to each other and to survive and live. I think that most people generally grow out of each other. And probably we need about 3 marriages in our lives, but we end up making it one which is why we have so much divorce. Very few people are able to grow together… our society has come to a place where we can work as individuals; I don’t need you to go out and hunt and bring home the bacon. We’re beyond that. We need to be able to support each other to develop spiritually, to develop dreams, to develop creation. I think that those are much more important partnerships and commitments than a traditional marriage. She continues to say,”everytime you love, you love better.”
You might not agree with what she says, but you should at least appreciate her honesty. If more people were this honest, everyone would know what to expect in relationships etc. We would be able to make more informed decisions. The brutality of her honesty might hit you with an immense force, but it’s real.
Karabo brings to her remembrance a poem he’d heard from her and she once again gets into it:
Myesha: I wrote this after the eye incident:
Who I was is not who I am
And who I am, is not who I will be.
Some bits falling off,
Other parts sprouting,
Inside of this cocoon I dream of flight…
This poem was part of her performance at the Grahamstown Arts Festival.
Asked to share words of wisdom with our readers she says in three words,”remember to breathe.”
And on fighting her demons she says, “I’m not fighting my demons, I’m peeling the onion. I wanna know that next layer, what’s underneath that…”
“I really don’t have a lot of tolerance for bad poetry, you know what I mean right. Look, I’m not wise, I’m not any of those things and I don’t pretend to be. I’m continually learning as well. I read (she emphasizes this.) If you stop growing, you’re dead.”
“South Africa is a really wounded society and it’s really crazy. And there’s lot of fantasy looming and you see it in the rape, you see it in alcoholism, you see it in the level of corruption and in domestic violence. People are living in fantasies and the reality is a whole other story. So people need ways to say ‘hey, this is what is happening to me.’ And for me, in poetry, I talk about what happens to me, I talk about being an alcoholic in my autobiography poem… and being honest and say, “I’ve been with women as well as men. If you know about my problems you’ll feel comfortable calling me when you encounter the same problem.”
We speak about the business of art, marketing, (lack of) assistance from uMam’ Lulu, book sales and exploitation by publishers. I’m only hitting the subject matters because that conversation alone would have taken the whole article. But the conclusion of the discussion, we as a community of artists need to support each other, empower each other. Even in community’s, your work will not be for EVERYONE, but it’s community’s that will sustain us. The Feelah Sista’s only performed at 6 gigs together, for all the fame they’ve received you’d think it would be complimented with finance. Is financial support the vampire that sucks the blood out of our art and GOOD artists?
Myesha is a 40 something year young 61 year old. Her work possesses an energy which is absent from even the youngest of writers. We hail from a biter generation of writers, an eratic class of consumers, but what or whom are they consuming? Definitely not Myesha Jenkins, Phillipa Yaa De Villiers, Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile, Makhosazana Xaba etc. You know these names, but do you attend their shows? Do you buy their books, invite them to workshops?
Along with this article, the new material going up on consciousness will include amongst others a detailed description of the show “Body of Words” with the likes of Myesha, Lebo and Phillipa etc, which will be showing at the Market Theatre from this month. Consciousness will most definitely be supporting the show, I urge our readers to do the same. If you are indeed for Spoken Word, there should be no empty chair at that gig. Check out the line up and drool. Myesha Jenkins is all yours; let your fingers do the asking.