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"I got inspired to write for children after I had my son" - a Q&A with poet Primrose Mrwebi

Nal’ibali Column 25: Term 3, 2018

By Carla Lever

Poet Primrose Mrwebi. Picture supplied.

 
You’ve written for magazines like Fair Lady, taught young up-and-coming writers and even performed your poetry at the opening of Parliament in 2004. Do you have a favourite experience of where your storytelling has taken you?

Every experience matters! Being a magazine journalist taught me a lot about looking at the world objectively, performing in Parliament meant that the whole country was listening to my voice and my art, and teaching young people gives me a spiritual feeling of finally coming to meet the purpose of my talent.

Now it seems you’re creating opportunities for others to find their talent. You held your own self-funded poetry competition – PrimPoetry – in Khayelitsha earlier this year. What was that like?

The competition left me with sleepless nights for days. I am so inspired by the talent that exists in our communities – the language skills of those poets are exceptional.

Why do you think it’s important for people to give back to their communities when they’re able?

It’s one of the ways that we can bring positive change in our world. It also eliminates the culture of complaining too much and doing nothing! One of my mantras is “If you want something and it’s not there, start it yourself and invite like-minded people to join you.”

PrimPoetry allowed people to enter for free and to perform poems in Afrikaans, isiXhosa or English. Why do you think we need more opportunities that are open to all, regardless of income or home language?

For so many centuries a lot of people have felt excluded due to their race or class. That’s not fair. If we truly want to live in a world without exclusion, we need to begin on a journey that leads us there.

Are there any more plans for competitions that people can enter?

We had one at the Rainbow Art Organisation in Delft on Saturday the 8 of September and we will be having others in the very near future. We always do a call out on our PrimPoetry Facebook Page, so keep an eye on that if you’re interested in entering.

Can you tell us a little about the children’s book you’re working on for isiXhosa and English learners?

I got inspired to write for children after I had my son. I suddenly wanted to speak in a language that children can understand. This is a collection of stories that I think will make an impact on children today. It’s also important that I write in my mother tongue because there is clearly not many books that are written in our home languages.

What kinds of resources and opportunities do our young people need to make sure they grow up loving books and confident about telling their own stories?

Children need to have libraries close to their homes. They need their parents or siblings to take the time to read to them, to be taken to storytelling clubs, book clubs or recreational centres. People like us need to bring the skills we have to our communities so that we can create that change.

Do you have any advice or encouragement for people interested in starting a poetry or storytelling event in their own communities?

Identify people that have interest in poetry and start a group. Share ideas and ask for advice from organisations, or people that work with poetry and literature. People are wonderful resources!

Nal’ibali’s annual multilingual storytelling competition is running this September for Literacy and Heritage Month. Aimed at reviving a love of storytelling amongst adults and children, and connecting South Africans to their rich and vibrant heritage, the theme of this year’s contest is South African Heroes. Enter by telling the story of your favourite SA icon, your personal hero, or a fictional hero in your language, and you could be crowned this year’s Story Bosso! To find out more about Nal’ibali and Story Bosso, visit www.nalibali.org, www.nalibali.mobi, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Launch: The History of Intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon (11 September)

The History of Intimacy is the fourth collection by award-winning poet Gabeba Baderoon. These poems render various intimacies and private hurts with eloquence and tenderness: the lost innocence of a child, a loved one in an ambulance, young passion across a man-made divide, a mother visiting her son in jail, elegies to an admired musician, mentor and poet, and the reverberations of past injustices in District Six, the Cape Flats and Hangklip.

Event Details

  • Date: Tuesday, 11 September 2018
  • Time: 6:00 PM for 6:30 PM
  • Venue: Love Books, The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, 53 Rustenburg Rd, Melville, Johannesburg | Map
  • Guest Speaker: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
  • RSVP: kate@lovebooks.co.za
     

    Book Details

Launch: The History of Intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon (11 September)

The History of Intimacy is the fourth collection by award-winning poet Gabeba Baderoon. Breathtaking intimacies and private hurts are crafted into lyrical form – in poems on desiring what is furthest from you, memories of a midnight swim, how children work out the laws of existence, the stakes of speaking a forbid­den word, elegies to a jazz prodigy and a beloved poet, and how not to be alone.

Event Details

Jozi Book Fair launch of Keorapetse Kgositsile's Homesoil in my Blood (2 September)

Via Jozi Book Fair

Xarra Books in collaboration with Jozi Book Fair will be hosting a fitting tribute to the late Keorapetse Kgositsile, a poet, author and political activist, affectionately known as Bra Willie. His latest book, Homesoil In My Blood, proudly published by Xarra Books, is a trilogy of poems. This book showcases a selection of poems from his remarkable cutting-edge poetry collection and features a foreword by Mandla Langa.

The launch will take place on the 02nd of September 2018 at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown Johannesburg from 16:00 to 16:50pm.

Kgositsile was born in 1938, and spent 29 years in exile, primarily in the United States. He made his return to South Africa in 1990 and was named South Africa’s Poet Laureate in 2006. In 2008, he was awarded the national Order of Ikhamanga Silver for ‘excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world’.

Kgositsile’s poetry includes “Spirits Unchained” (1969), “For Melba” (1970), “My Name Is Afrika” (1971), “The Present Is a Dangerous Place to Live” (1974), “Places and Bloodstains” (1975), “When the Clouds Clear” (1990), “If I Could Sing” (2002) and “This Way I Salute You” (2004).

Kgositsile was one of the first to bridge the gap between African poetry and Black poetry in the United States and he was an influential member of the African National Congress.

Bekendstelling: Asof geen berge ooit hier gewoon het nie deur Pieter Odendaal (22 Augustus)

Asof geen berge ooit hier gewoon het nie is ’n opwindende en verweefde debuut uit ’n jong digter se pen.

Met ’n eietydse en aktuele aanslag skryf Odendaal oor die politiek van verskil in ’n multikulturele samelewing, die natuur en ons ekologiese voetspoor, verganklikheid, menswees, die liefde, asook die onlangse studentepolitiek.

Ten einde vra hy: Re mang? Wie is ons? En wie is hulle?

Details

"One would be remiss to sleep on this collection" - Russell Grant reviews Megan Ross's Milk Fever

It would be easy to write about Megan Ross’s Milk Fever as strictly a collection of poems about young motherhood, and while yes, this is the case, and a very good collection about young motherhood it is, I feel there is much more to this collection than its subject matter.

Not more in the sense that its subject matter is somehow trivial or incidental, but more in the sense that, technically, Ross is a very good poet, and just what makes her poems good should not be something that we ignore.

Milk Fever is published by uHlanga Press, a name which has been doing remarkable things in the South African poetry scene of late. They are responsible for bringing to the world Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, a book which is breaking records in the South African poetry publishing game. Alongside Putuma, uHlanga have an impressive roster of poets including Genna Gardini, Douglas Reid Skinner, Francine Simone and Nick Mulgrew. Amongst these bright lights of the South African poetry scene, Megan Ross’s flame does not dim. Her work is mature and confident, despite this being her debut collection, and her growth as a poet is something we should look on with optimism.

It is almost a backhanded compliment in some ways to write of a woman poet that her work is Plathian. Whilst Sylvia Plath was a brilliant writer of verse, it can be a cliched and reductive comparison.

I do think Ross is Plathian, not because she is a woman writing about the deeply personal with a great degree of angst (which she is), but rather because the two both have a similar gift for effective, hard hitting imagery, and a knack for making the personal universal; for connecting the things that happen to us as individuals with the great big cogs of history, science, culture and language.

Ross’s opening poem, “Object” sets the scene:

“At night when it is the city’s turn to light the sky,
She dreams of creation splitting open under teacher’s pen,
Ink-spliced parts dictated by biology, geography, mathematics, cosmology.
(as if time really is an endpoint a corporeal destination as if seas really do part)”

It is a testament to the immense confidence that Ross has as a young writer to open with a poem that is so confrontational.

In it Ross lays down a challenge both to society in general (“even without sons we still are…”), and to language and poetry in particular: “punctuate us if you dare”. It reads like the voice of a woman claiming space for herself in a space which is yet to fully understand or accept her. In it the poem itself becomes a metaphor for an inadequate world in which, despite its inadequacies, one still wants to live.

Ross is trying to write herself both into and out of language and history. This ironic tension gives the poem its power, and lays down the themes of futility intermingled with hope that dominates this collection.

The groundwork for the collection’s focal imagery and symbolism is laid in the first few pages. Imagery and symbolism which is, arguably, exploded as it progresses. The middle part of this book is kaleidoscopic, as Ross fiddles with (nay, ratchets) form and meaning, diction and syntax, until the very fabric of the universe starts to come apart at the seams. For instance:

“Your milk comes apart   so it can   be held
Like soft frangipanis   inking   your skin”

Ross’s allusions and associations are strange, yet they are held together by an imagistic vocabulary that develops as the book proceeds. Images of dryness, wetness, bodily fluids, flowers, blades and a host more are developed and re-used and re-contextualised as the book goes on. The effect is surrealist stream of consciousness that somehow retains a sense of central logic.

These images and themes are used as vehicles to confront a range of topics, of which young motherhood is but one. Old relationships, platonic and otherwise, familial bonds, love, death, self-harm… these are all dealt with in this book, and it would be a crime to ignore all of these things in favour of the book’s supposed selling point, that is, a book about young motherhood.

There is a great deal to love about the middle portion of this book but also a great deal to miss if one is not careful.

Ross’s diction can be deceptively simple, and to truly do it justice would require several readings. Here, in the belly, Ross masterfully weaves a web of interconnected images and allusions which connect like strings on a conspiracy theorist’s pin board. It would take far too much time to break it all down here.

One simply has to dive in and trust that one will emerge unscathed on the other side. Or not. I don’t think unscathed is what you want to be when you emerge at the end of this collection, and I doubt that anyone actually would.

Ross manages to take us a fair distance from the shore in this collection, and the effect can be disconcerting. However, she does a good job of reeling us back in whilst doing minimal damage to the integrity of our psyches.

Whilst the middle of the book has a quality of formic dissonance to it, the end resolves like a melody settling on the first note of the scale. There are some truly memorable lines here, like, “In the drying there is life”, and “I know genesis has its place”, both from subsections of “Love in the Year of Bleeding”.

Both go a long way to heal the wounds inflicted by the beginning and middle. Dryness is synonymous with death in most of the book; the dryness of ageing, of the vast salt plains of youth we mistook for flavour but which ultimately drain us of our vitality; but here she offers us hope.

The same goes for “I know genesis has its place”, a deceptively simple, almost tautological line that alludes to the genesis of the bible, but also to genesis as a kind of change; change which can be violent but ultimately necessary and productive.

Admittedly, sometimes, Ross’s lines can get caught up in themselves, and some may find in this collection the kind of baffling deliberate opaqueness that makes much modernist and post-modernist poetry inaccessible. There are certainly instances of lines falling flat, or syntactic structures that repeat themselves just once too often, breaking the spell (“refrigerator eggs stained to teeth and bone” is one such syntactic device).

Overall, however, I think one would be remiss to sleep on this collection. Dive in, get lost, find yourself, and don’t for a second try to punctuate any of it.

Book details