Myesha Jenkins 1948 – 2020

Philippa Yaa de Villiers

This tribute is not only a portrait of an extraordinary human being, but a set of decisions, like any work of art, executed with dexterity, empathy and commitment.

Myesha Jenkins, activist, poet and feminist, who died peacefully in her home on 5 September, arrived in South Africa from the US in the heady early days of our new democracy and devoted her life to the empowerment of rural black women, performance poetry, the creation of networks that supported poets, the broadcast of poetry and multiple collaborations between poetry and jazz, one of her greatest loves.

A protean artist, who evolved as her interests led her, her signature style was one of unshakeable socialist principles delivered with simplicity and integrity infused with a rich seam of humour.

Her poetry was published in two collections: Breaking the Surface and Dreams of Flight. She edited South Africa’s pioneering anthology of jazz poetry, To Breathe into Another Voice. Her work is published in numerous local and international journals, and is part of what noted literary scholar Pumla Gqola first described as “the proliferation of black South African contemporary women’s poetry”.

James Baldwin, literary ancestor to initially African-American writers and artists, and in his time, a global benchmark for integrity in practice, wrote: “This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life the order that is art.”

Myesha created from life – the poem is the woman is the poem. A poem is something that is made, crafted from the collective resource that is language. ‘Collective’ is a word which is dear to Myesha’s personal philosophy. Trained by years of Black Panther-inspired reading groups, Myesha’s praxis broadened the aims of the revolutionary struggle by constantly drawing on the human potential of imagination. Her engagement with social issues draws deeply on lived experience, like In Memorial to a Comrade Sister Friend, where she challenges the hypocrisy of official funerals:

“the aging poet ranted as in days gone by/one person even gave an election pitch (at a funeral nogal).”

This tribute will not, however, speak to the quality of Myesha’s writing, or quote from the many examples of her excellent work. As a working poet, I will focus on the “how”, the means by which she achieved her remarkable ends. And that means she gave me my voice. We make our place in the world by the way we tell it, one experience at a time. So much of my life was hidden behind shame and pretence. She carefully listened to how I had come to be me, my fumbling attempts at political activism, my disastrous love affairs, my complicated family … She asked questions, probed and gently pointed out the false notes.

Myesha Jenkins exuded a warm orange glow, which at times could get a little too hot for comfort. (Photo: supplied)

So, this tribute is not only a portrait of an extraordinary human being, but a set of decisions, like any work of art, executed with dexterity, empathy and commitment.

Myesha was famous when I first met her, a member of Feela Sistah!, a feminist spoken-word performance troupe that made a massive impact on South Africa’s poetry scene in early 2000.

Besides performing on stages all over the country, they ran a monthly poetry session – strictly feminist, all children welcome, in a coffee shop opposite The Market Theatre run by an ex-MK helicopter pilot and his wife. I was not in the poetry world, and had never heard of Feela Sistah! Myesha welcomed me to the session as she welcomed everyone, and it was only later that I discovered her fame and importance.

It was the honesty that attracted me, over and over, drawing me back to Jozi House of Poetry to experience another episode of heart-to-heart conversations, which sometimes led to tears and then smiles.

I fell in love with the integrity with which she engaged even the most painful aspects of her life, like the break-up of Feela Sistah!, which she explores in her essay in the ground-breaking anthology Our Words, Our Worlds, where she writes: “As with many relationships, things went wrong … Maybe it was our egos, maybe it was our hectic schedules. At another level, we had given birth to a child we didn’t know how to nurture and support.”

But that was not the case with the community project, an ongoing conversation about poetry and life that became a fixture for many aspiring poets. Jozi House of Poetry was unique in its style. We sat around in a circle, introduced ourselves and read poems to each other. As the session evolved we had themes, invited poets, had more performance-centred sessions, and had poetry workshops focusing on craft. Myesha used the sessions to introduce political education in a laid-back way. One year we decided to try a poetry marathon, putting our regular monthly session on a global calendar with the organisation 100,000 Poets for Change.

For Myesha Jenkins, creativity was a means to build a better world.

Myesha was a free-thinking person who was interested in discovering different ways of bringing about change in the world. I suggested that we do an experiment to see if we could raise the consciousness of the whole planet by synergising our poetry for long enough. We drew our community together, and we sat through 10 solid hours of poetry. We got on to some kind of poetry high and went home singing. We reported vivid dreams to each other the following day and each produced a scatter of new poems.

“You grew us into the adults we are in poetry,” said Mandi Vundla to me, after Myesha’s fourth zoom memorial hour on a Wednesday evening. “I would look out at the audience, and Myesha was always there. I can’t think of Myesha without thinking of you, Natalia [Molebatsi], Raphael [d’Abdon]. We need elders to thrive, and Myesha was always there, sitting through hours of bad poetry for that one poet that she would take aside, and tell them something that will help them grow.”

There would always be time for a conversation with the audience. All were welcome as we explored sexuality, family, colours, food, any aspect of the human experience was pored over, shared and delighted in. One year when mothers brought their children we heard poems from a six-year-old and a nine-year-old. Atisa Molebatsi d’Abdon, now 13, grew up in the Jozi House of Poetry sessions.

As I became more involved I became influenced by Myesha’s charm and rigour, and became her partner in the Jozi House of Poetry project. We spent two years at POPArt Theatre in Maboneng, and another few years at Steve Kwena Mokwena’s cultural history centre, the African Freedom Station, where Myesha spent hours listening to jazz and cementing friendships with artists such as Lex Futshane, Ariel Zamonsky, Yonela Mnana, Sydney Mavundla, Steve and Bokani Dyer, and many more.

Although she didn’t chase celebrity, she loved performing, and continued to make shows, always bringing women together to share words. From She Speaks (2006) and Body of Words (2009), to Out There Sessions in collaboration with Natalia Molebatsi at Aymeric Peguillan’s Orbit jazz club. She had already curated and presented four consecutive seasons of Poetry in the Air on SAfm when she was invited to produce a new season of jazz and poetry for Kaya FM’s Jazzuary project, which she did until lockdown began.

Whenever she could, Myesha opened platforms for other talented artists and facilitated public conversations in melody and heart. The stage was always balanced with the down-to-earth conversations she had with people, mostly much younger than her, about life, politics, sex, nature…

Just out of her teens, around 2009, Sarah Godsell booked Myesha for a poetry project she was starting with a friend. Always open to poetry, Myesha went along and a friendship began. Sarah began attending Jozi House of Poetry, published a collection and went on to become a publisher of Impepho Press, a role she shares with Vangile Gantsho. “If it were not for Myesha’s interest and guidance – she was quite strict at times – we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we have done,” the pair said during this memorial week.

From our 18-year friendship, I learnt the value of a collective and how to survive in it. How to disagree, to remain focused on a goal, to keep exploring new ways of being free. Myesha’s commitment to liberation was an everyday promise she kept to herself.

In this time where leaders disappoint us daily, our power resides in our ability to use language to connect with what is most meaningful to us – the myriad ways in which we say, I see you, I feel you, I hear you – your struggle is mine.

Myesha exuded a warm orange glow, which at times could get a little too hot for comfort. Mostly, she was easy-going. A friend remembers her strolling down Yeoville’s Rockey Street in colourful cotton dresses, on her way to or from a jazz club, poetry gathering or political meeting. Laughter always bubbled below the surface.

For Myesha, creativity was a means to build a better world. In Our Words, Our Worlds, she said: “From activist to poet and performer, I truly found flying. Breaking boundaries, promoting women and black people, being for real with everyone I meet, building community – these are the things I speak about in my writing, the ideals that people see in my daily life. These are the things I want to be remembered for.”

We will remember this by taking responsibility for how we speak and move through the world, standing up for the vulnerable, supporting and energising the move towards equality. We could start right now. Without our friend by our side, but with the glowing memory of her way of being our constant companion.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is an award-winning writer and performance artist.

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