Philani is a poet based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe who recently published his much awaited anthology of poetry titled “Hewn From Rock’. Philani’s poetry is a beautiful stream of consciousness, politics and yes, Love! his art comes from the heart and will definitely find it’s way into yours.
– The tile “Hewn from Rock ‘ sounds like such a tight metaphor for the ‘ angry black poet’ -are you hewn from rock?
– When I came up with the title it was just about the time I was living in South Africa coming from Zimbabwe after one of its roughest periods. Hewn From Rock was my way of expressing my Zimbabwean identity, and also a celebration of triumph over adversity. The project fell through, I did the pamphlet ‘My Love In Black And White’ which became the blueprint for ‘Once A Lover Always A Fool’. With the success of my first book I thought maybe I had earned the right to deal with more serious issues, ‘Once A Lover…’ is more personal, ‘Hewn From Rock’ deals with other issues, more pressing issues. In a way I am angry, but Hewn From Rock is a testament of triumph, after all the shit we have gone through we are still standing. The title became most apt for a collaboration with John in the sense that it is a way of healing the rift our national politics have caused between two sub-cultures. Ultimately though, whether one is white or black, we suffer under the same conditions, and we have overcome them up to here. Maybe our mutual pain will forge a new Zimbabwe. Hewn From Rock is a tale of people, two subcultures but carved from the same stone, the House of Stone.
– Tell us about your collaboration with John Eppel, how did it come about and is there going to be any future projects?
I am excited to work with John, an amazing writer. I think he is highly underrated but what did Kanye say before he went all weird? ‘People never get the flowers while they can still smell them’. After I completed the first Hewn From Rock manuscript back in 2010 I got in touch with him, remember you and Ricky were to do the second book, a collaboration between us? So I told him how much I respect his craft and would like to work with him sometime, he asked to see my work and he loved it, so he sent through the material. A lot of things happened along the way, Hewn From Rock was not my first book and I was back home, this time publishing under my own colours having learnt a lot from you in that field. While I have had John’s material for ‘Hewn From Rock’ for four years I didn’t feel collaborating with him in my first book was a solid career decision, I want to stand on my own and I have earned the stripes, when the papers reported on Hewn From Rock they said, ‘two award-winning poets’, it wasn’t just John and some other guy.
John has been very instrumental in my development as a writer. I will speak in detail one day but our paths crossed as far back as 2004 when I was a school kid. Working with him is a challenge, the man knows his craft and you have to feel your brain sweating to compose a poem worthy enough to stand next to his and I think I did fine. He is one man who still believes in form, and I am one of the few ‘second-language’ poets who believes in form so we meet there. When I did ‘Once A Lover…’ he was one of the few guys who understood the direction, he came on board as an editor and helped sharpen my work and imparted some invaluable skills too.
We didn’t run the book by a big label, it became the second book I published and him trusting me with his work is a great endorsement for my methods. Because of the sensitive nature of some of the content we decided to distribute electronically on mazwi.co, a local company I am excited to work with first and internationally on Amazon. We just have to tie up a few lose ends and soon it will be available locally in hardcopy. The plus side is that e-books don’t cost much to produce, so the book will fund itself in part which greatly reduces the cost of distribution. I am all for sales, but I believe books are more than a business, if we can break even and distribute more copies I am a happy man.
– Most contemporary artists/poets from Afrika have a specific perception of their surroundings – tell us about yours! and feel to talk about both your influences and how it sculptured your poetry?
– The artist is a glutton who feeds on both decay and bounty ravenously, his excretions are what we call art. The consciousness does not differentiate between the good and the bad, it just consumes and processes them. Sometimes we write as a means of catharsis, letting out the puss and we as Zimbabweans have seen a lot. Couple that with my over-sensitive artist self and you have a cauldron of raw emotion. While I maintain the importance of aesthetic value, it is but a vehicle for something more than beauty. To whom much is given much shall be required says the good book. When I was younger I hated seeing a lot, now I understand, the feelings of pain and despair no longer hurt as much, call it growing up but something in me says hey, you have seen worse, this too shall pass. Sometimes we write and it looks like rebellion, unpatriotic is the favourite phase but we create that work so future generations will not repeat our mistakes, to accurately portray a time and sometimes for ourselves, you find yourself overwhelmed with emotion and you have to let it out somehow. My views change or grow everyday, I try to see the world as it is, paint an accurate portrait even if it’s not from a favourable angle. I believe the only sin I can commit is to corrupt my writing into more than a photograph.
Perhaps because of what I have seen in my short life I become less sensitive to ‘trifles’. Everyone here is an economist and political analyst. We were exposed to these things while we were very young so being what I eat, the art feeds off that and you get a lot of political stuff. But the dilemma: Bob is only going soft now, back in the day newspapers were getting bombed for trash-talking him, people were afraid to speak politics in public with good reason, in fact they still are, the state has cultivated a culture of fear in us. Even when we wrote about it, you couldn’t come out and say it outright, unless you were John or Yvonne Vera you had to be crafty and wily. At least that is how I viewed it, being young too and wanting to grow old with my scrotum still attached to me. That great influenced my grasp of metaphor, pun, irony, sarcasm, symbolism and other literary devices one would use to ‘hide behind the finger’. So while a lot of my post-colonial colleagues disregard form as an active act of rebellion, like Julius Chingono who was a ‘deliberate anti-stylist’, I regard it as an essential tool of survival in times of war, as a poet I am responsible for what I say not what you hear.
– With the birth of social media the digital landscape has changed and artists/poets are seemingly becoming more independent, we can market and distribute our art through so many new mediums and reach a greater audience with a click of a button. How are you using the digital network to promote your poetry and where can people get hold of you?
– It has been a blessing indeed. Last year at Intwasa Arts Festival I got carried away on stage and told a fucking hilarious joke about the president which the government press had no reason to laugh at, among other ‘wrong’ stuff. A couple of days later I was slandered by the press, charged with ridiculous things that were formally crimes back when Bob was Bob, and a lot of people were worried. Because of social media I got to tell my story, my version, which would have never come out back in the day.
I use Facebook to link up with people who increase my net value, I keep abreast with trends, and what others in my field are doing and exchange ideas like that. With social media you can talk to people all over the world and that is very useful. I post poetry regularly on my wall, it’s one thing telling people you write and another putting it on the line and getting real-live feedback. It was actually through a Facebook friend, Shaun Matsheza, that I got the gig at thisisafrica.me, he saw some of my stuff and introduced me to the editor there. Shaun is also facilitating a deal which will see me and four other local writers blogging for Radio Netherlands. I am pretty excited about that too.
I don’t do much social media, the phone I use in real life makes calls, sends texts, has an alarm, a calculator and a torch. I find smartphones distracting, good art breeds in solace. That doesn’t mean I am a total caveman, my weakness is Facebook, I have been building my profile for years and some of my friends there I feel like I know them in real life even though we have never met. Facebook is like my public diary, if I am feeling a certain way, if I am happy, want to share something I have read or written it’s right there, at my fingertips. It’s like my own broadcasting channel! I find it also more personal than most stuff out there so you connect to the human. I worry a lot about becoming ‘a brand’ in a very ugly way. I still refuse to see myself as a celebrity whatever that means. I am just a crazy guy with a pen.