“They warmed our hearts, opened our minds and spoke truth to power.”
A spoken word festival in Grahamstown brought attention to some of the foremost issues confronting the nation.
“What did you do between despair and desire?” asked poet-laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, addressing the audience which was silent with rapt attention.
He was reciting one of his poems, but he may as well have been speaking in prose for his, and the work of the other poets over the festival of spoken word poetry touched a nerve in Grahamstown and electrified minds with their truth and rhymes.
Spoken word poetry is growing internationally as poets across the globe return to this original and developing form of literature. As part of the project An Arc to the Future: Preserving and Promoting Orature in the South African Literary Imaginary, a three day spoken word poetry festival was held at The Eastern Star Museum in Grahamstown from 9-11 September.
The event, organised by the Rhodes University English Department’s Dr Deborah Seddon included the likes of the previously mentioned poet-laureate, isiXhosa poets from the Cycle of Knowledge and poets from the Stellenbosch-based InZync poetry initiative. Highly critical of Marikana, all of the poets’ performances spoke back to the ruling elite and demanded an emancipation of South African politics from the old colonial and apartheid norms of self-aggrandising and class-based oppression.
While Kgositsile employed the more traditional style of recitation, many of the other poets’ work tended towards the more popular rap-style that is favoured on the international stage, and the event successfully fused the old guard with the new.
Included in the line-up was Lesego Rampolokeng, playwright, novelist and poet who is currently teaching on the MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University whose honest, brutal lines were met with a visceral response from the crowd.
Also on the bill were Stellenbosch-based poets Pieter Odendaal and Adrian ‘Different’ van Wyk, founders and members of the InZync Poetry Sessions. Odendaal’s work translated from the original Afrikaans with astonishing fluidity and van Wyk’s work deconstructed normative masculinity in its intelligent and perceptive verse.
Mak Manaka’s characteristically layered poetry was heavy with imagery and allusion, though he surprised the audience by slipping a poem of lost-love in between his politically critical verse, self-reflexive and honest. Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson’s performance spoke to the heart of the brewing unquiet of South African students in untransformed spaces, and perfectly articulated white privilege as well as the necessity for people to re-examine their conceptions of the road to intellectual emancipation: “if all we know is escape, how can we get to freedom?”
WordNSound poet Thabiso ‘Afurakan’ Mohare shared some of the camaraderie that was established between the poets during the festival and addressed issues as diverse as Gaza, losing a lover in an art gallery and the ever-present Marikana. Rhodes University Xhosa literature lecturer Mhlobo Jadezweni shared his verse from the collection Umdilaya Wesihobe, his measured style contrasting well with the spat rhymes of the younger poets.
As was made abundantly clear at the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year, the South African literary landscape is dominated by English and white culture. Doing important work to undermine this hegemony of language, around half of the poets in the festival shared verse in Xhosa and the poets on the bill invited poets Thembani Ma’at Onceya, Ulizwi Nelani and Lesedi Thwala and Akissi Beukman from the Grahamstown poetry collective the Cycle of Knowledge to share their work on stage as well. Welcomed also were impromptu performances by local high school students Akhona Mafani, 18, and Esethu Siyolo, 16, whose passionate deliveries belied their tender years.
Testament to the success of the event was Seddon’s enormous smile at the close of the first night as audience members called for more. Seddon highlighted the politicisation of the South African imaginary landscape when she explained that the poets “bring their experience to bear on issues currently effecting South Africa”.
Speaking on the final night of the event Seddon thanked the participants and shared the sentiments of many when she said, “They warmed our hearts, opened our minds and spoke truth to power.”