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“Weaving the Body of Light”: Poets Craft Lyricism at Poetry Africa 2011

Special to Books LIVE by Sarah Frost:

Opening to a much emptier theatre than on previous nights, Limpopo poet David wa Maahlamela recited a powerful poem called “Musina”, about the tragedy of poverty. “What do I do?” he asked, listing a host of social problems facing the poor in this town, concluding, “racism is still biting our fingertips to the bones”. His next few poems were in Sepedi, which sadly remained untranslated although the audience clicked its fingers in appreciation. Maahlamela said he believes poetry is “not a calling, it’s a skill”. In a poem called “How Do I Make Love?”, he declaimed, “I do it on a piece of paper / with every word, my pen penetrates”. Equally passionately, he ended with a poem addressing Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe warning, “perhaps you will realise a president is not a country / a country is its people”.

Looking every inch the archetypal poet with a grizzly beard and a paunch, next on was literary heavyweight Fernando Rendon, from Medellin, in Colombia. His poetry (translated from Spanish) was very much of the South American genre – wordy, abstract and filled with high romanticism. His mumbling, yet mesmerising delivery of a prose-poem about a sacred plant, the mushroom, was laborious at times but occasionally birthed lines of pure profundity, such as “we are a body woven by light, which oblivion and bad love unknit”. Rendon’s language, a paean to man’s interconnectedness with nature, was dense and sensual. “Swallows rule the summer: we have seen the tissue of paths in the air”. His second rambling (and at times obscure) poem was about a “Red Bough”, and had a message about the philosophical implications of writing: “In poetry, in the crucial writing of the poem, this mortal history is in all of us”.

Sandile Dikeni provided a subtle counterpoint to Rendon’s gravity. His wonderfully mobile face complimented a poem he recited called “Small Things”, where he noted “mostly it’s the laughter in your laugh / that makes children laugh”. Humble, but not unconfident, Dikeni explained, “I’m trying to move fast because I want to get out of here”. Ending with a poem decrying global corporate greed, he asked, “how much of a black comedy is Africa really / to the unity of nations”.

City Without PeopleAfter the break the implacably cheerful Niyi Osundare, from Western Nigeria, said that SA was very important for Nigerians, especially during apartheid. He read a poem called “Waiting for the Rain,” dedicated to musician Hugh Masakela. He said that his new book, City Without People, contains poems about Hurricane Katrina, which hit a week after he and his wife had arrived in the US. He explained that they were trapped in their attic by floodwaters for 26 hours until they were rescued by a neighbour. He read a poem about loss, dedicated to his daughter, where he said he had lost a house in the catastrophe, but “not a home”. I loved his “Longest Love Poem in the World” which comprised one word: “Yes”.

Oswald Mtshali closed the night’s proceedings, reading poetry written long ago, including an empathetic 42-year-old poem called “The Miner”. He spoke more confidently in Zulu and his English poems were read in a high singsong voice, which was hard to follow. His best and funniest contribution was a song poem he sang in a beautiful tenor dedicated to the Dalai Lama: “Dalai Lama I love you / I want to be your friend / why are you always so cool / when others are playing the fool?”

* * * * * * * *

Liesl Jobson was also at the event; she tweeted using #livebooks and #poetryafrica:

David wa Maahlamela next up on the programme recites poem, Mussina. Narrative of his home Nancefield. Great rhythm #livebooks #PoetryafricaThu Oct 20 17:56:50 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks Maahlamela respects every form of poetry, because rules can make you break your pen. Skill needed, not just the calling to write!Thu Oct 20 18:07:03 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks DWM: How I Make Love is next poem. Don’t be shy, take notes! Funny poem cuts to the bone. Great reception.Thu Oct 20 18:09:56 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks #Poetryafrica Fernando Rendon also started World Poetry Movement He reads. English translation on screen.Thu Oct 20 18:21:11 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks #Poetryafrica F. Rendon: We traverse death, with or without fear, to look at its underside. On the other side of death: life.Thu Oct 20 18:27:16 via Twitter for iPad

#sandiledikeni #livebooks Dikeni recites “It’s small things that make children laugh”, then “Guava juice”. Good audience, very appreciative.Thu Oct 20 18:50:48 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks #Poetryafrica The word is an egg from the nest of hawk and dove. Niyi Osundare reads with percussive vocal effects. Powerful.Thu Oct 20 19:20:21 via Twitter for iPad

#NiyiOsundare #livebooks Next poem has trumpet intro, dedicated to Hugh Masekela. Waiting, waiting for the rain. More melodious recitation.Thu Oct 20 19:24:40 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks #niyiosundare After Katrina I couldn’t sleep for 3 mo. Yoruba song: O beloved, come close to me. Call & response from audience.Thu Oct 20 19:31:10 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks #niyiosundare Driving rhythm of “I’m in the mood for love tonight” puts paid to myth that Africa doesn’t produce love poetry.Thu Oct 20 19:33:54 via Twitter for iPad

#livebooks #Poetryafrica Mtshali speaks with powerful conviction, great sense of theatre for “the voice of Mother Africa”.Thu Oct 20 19:42:18 via Twitter for iPad

#OswaldMtshali grumbles that his poem was stolen & turned into an airport! He never got a cent in royalties. #livebooksThu Oct 20 19:47:18 via Twitter for iPad

Book details

Image courtesy Centre for Creative Arts


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 22nd, 2011 @11:55 #

    "...the South American genre - wordy, abstract and filled with high Romanticism'? Oh goody, thank you for that. Now I understand the common thread that ties Neruda to Huidobro, Parra to de Andrade, Gelman to Bandeira. In future I will know how to read them.

  • Sarah Frost
    Sarah Frost
    October 24th, 2011 @10:15 #

    Glad to be of assistance, Kelwyn. I definitely heard echoes of Neruda in Rendon's reading. And now I have some new poets to track down, have not heard of Huidobro, Parra, Andrade, Gelman and Bandeira. When I heard Fernando read I was reminded of a book called Spell of the Sensuous - an eco-philosophical tract by David Abram, about how humans are interconnected with the natural world - this philosophy drives his writing, or at least, what he read at PA.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 24th, 2011 @17:20 #

    I think you will find there is no style that can be generalised to South American poets, Sarah. I am a little out of touch with what's going on now, but all of the poets I mention are worthwhile, and none are particularly similar to Neruda (Neruda and Huidobro didn't get on, just for starters). I would suggest Nicanor Parra and his 'anti-poems', to begin - the few Chilean writers I have spoken to rate him as highly as Neruda (he's the brother of Violeta); and I'd also suggest the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who has that rare ability to have been a great and popular poet at the same time.

    Let verses be like the key
    Which opens a million doors.
    A leaf falls; something flies by;
    Let all the eye sees be created,
    And the soul of the listener tremble.

    Invent new worlds and watch your word;
    The adjective, when it doesn't give life, kills.

    We are in the age of nerves.
    The muscle hangs,
    Like a memory, in museums;
    But we are not less for it:
    True vigour
    Resides in the head.

    Why sing of roses, oh Poets!
    Make them flower in your poems;

    Alone for us
    All things live beneath the Sun.

    The poet is a little God.

    - Huidobro

  • Sarah Frost
    Sarah Frost
    October 25th, 2011 @09:34 #

    THis is a fantastic poem, Kelwyn, thanks for sharing Huidobro. "the adjective when it doesn't give life, kills", strong words. I will look out for Parra too.


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