The 2016 Spier Poetry Festival, Dancing in Other Words, was a remarkable event, buzzing with vital, vibrant conversations, wonderful fusions of music and poetry, and powerful live performances by living legends.
This, the third festival curated by South African authors Breyten Breytenbach and Dominique Botha, brought local and international poets together for a series of vital discussions held at the wine farm and elsewhere over the course of a week. Saturday, 7 May, was a balmy late autumn day, perfect for the final outpouring of creative conversations that had commenced over the previous week in a range of places, both internal and external.
During the week they spent together, poets and songsters, writers and translators, publishers and academics, teachers and students spoke among – and sometimes at – each other. This conversation took place in the present and across the ages. It was old; it was entirely new. An inter-generational and cross-cultural dialogue unfolded, which sometimes resonated and sometimes rattled. This represents a continuation of the discourse commenced at previous festivals held under the Spier banner, and talks to other literary festivals where bright minds have sought to express themselves and wrestle with inconvenient truths.
The Spier Poetry Festival opened, once again, a space for a full and robust creative expression and celebration of that which makes us uniquely human.
Dominique Botha, Marí Stimie, Neo Muyanga, Catherine du Toit, Breyten Breytenbach, Georges Lory, Maram al-Masri, Efe Paul Azino, Yvette Christiansë, Keorapetse Kgositsile, James Matthews and Hans C ten Berge spent a week travelling The caravan of artists had travelled from Khayalitsha to Kayamandi, holding court with students at UWC and at UCT, and also engaging with rural communities in Darling, Kersefontein and Wellington.
As the caravan meandered along, another layer of art-making was added, as the journey was documented in a stunning dance of images by photographer Retha Ferguson. Their final day was spent at the Spier estate outside Stellenbosch where three final public discourses, all ambitiously and provocatively titled, were followed by stirring performances by the poets, some of whom were accompanied by musicians Neo Muyanga, Schalk Joubert and Laurinda Hofmeyr.
Breytenbach’s greeting, which opened the proceedings, was uttered from all present to those, known and unknown, who once had stood there and recognised those who had called poetry to life, literally and metaphorically:
We, the band of merry minstrels, dancers and shufflers of the word before the wind of eternity, nomads searching for the horizon of the unknowable, dry drunks, low-way robbers, apprentice tricksters, would-be revolutionaries … salute and hail you, our illustrious ancestors and companions who preceded us here to imbue these spaces with beauty and with dignity.
We send you our greetings and regards as we move through the paces and the patterns and the rhythms that you laid out for us. As we fit our feet into your shoes to walk the road, it is with the hope to have lived up to the quality of sound and sincerity that people around here still remember you for.
The ensuing discussion addressed the recent statue removal at UCT, enquiring whether this represented the armed wing of political correctness. “Does destruction of the symbols from the past bind the wounds of the present, or are we tilting at windmills?” asked Breytenbach. “A confident and secure government – and populace – does not find such symbols threatening.”
Breytenbach reflected on how the interrogation of authority is integral to art-making. He reflected how authority has historically imposed a “unitary view of truth, correctness, what we ought to doing, who we should be leading and who we should follow”. The taking down of the statue of Rhodes, the removal of art from the walls at UCT provided fertile soil for impassioned engagement.
Christianse queried whether an opportunity had been missed to explore South Africa’s colonial history, using the statue of Rhodes as a point to talk about the self-perpetuating, haunting nature of power. “Modernism taught us how to incorporate the fragment,” she said, citing JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which reveals that the fragment is a sign that history was a series of tremendously violent occurrences. “The law is created by violence. If you try to break the law, it will immediately come forward to smack you again. The responsibility of teachers is to show their students how to respond in ways that remain responsive and fresh.
“As conscious community we need to care that slippage doesn’t occur. The removal of statues is symbolically important, but the issue we must urgently address is what’s next? The removal of statue, becomes the removal of a painting, becomes the burning of a library.”
Conversation II: Taunting that powdered death called Respectability. The history of protest in poetry and song, fighting for revolution, against politics.
This session commenced with a slideshow containing images of Syrian refugees. The words of Syrian poet, Maram Al Masri, were read aloud in Arabic and appeared in translation in English.
A vigorous conversation followed, with the Nigerian protest poet Azino and Dutch poet Ten Berge, chaired by the French translator Georges Lory. The discussion focused on how poets speak to power. While Ten Berge was criticising the European response to the Syrian crisis, a member of the public interrupted the discussion, taking issue with him on poverty and racism in South Africa.
In Breytenbach’s words the “would-be revolutionary” had appeared. She was certainly interrogating the authority of those present, but her questions might better have been engaged with by the previous panel, where the topic had been more directly addressed.
The discussion was summed up by Yvette Christiansë who reminded the gathering and poetry organisers of their responsibility to attending to those in need of every form of articulation.
The day’s finale commenced with the Siyaya Choristers taking the stage. This young choir showed immaculate musical discipline. Dressed in red and black traditional kikois, they followed their conductor to the letter, singing with excellent intonation and exciting choreography. Their energetic performance was a perfect introduction to the reading by all the poets. Their works appeared in the original languages, projected onto the screen, alongside translations into isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English.
Liesl Jobson tweeted from the event: