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POETRY AFRICA 2003 (article first published : 2003-05-15)

Durban will come alive with poetry during the last week of May with the return of the Poetry Africa festival. From May 26 to 31, over 20 poets representing 13 countries present and perform nightly at the University of Natal’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre with wide-spread activities during the day.

Now in its seventh year, this international festival hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts (University of Natal) which has stamped itself on the international literary calendar, will showcase a wide variety of cultures and poetic styles. Audiences will enjoy sentences, sounds and syllables; they can expect vibrant voices, whispering words, and diverse themes that encompass love, politics, nature, history, personal struggle and the spiritual arena. Poetry with music and drama, brain-spinning convolution, introspective reflection, in-your-face attitude and directness; Poetry Africa will deliver a week full of poetry in motion.

Apart from the evening theatre sessions, the Poetry Africa day experience includes poetry seminars and workshops, poetry in prison, poetry with street children, linking with local poetry groups, performance opportunities for public, poetry in tertiary institutions, schools and other venues. Satellite events will also take place in Mpumalanga culminating with a Poetry Africa festival package at Nelspruit Botanic Gardens on May 24, featuring Lesego Rampolokeng, Jaap Blonk (Netherlands), Bob Holman (USA), Ray Phiri, Louis Mhlanga, Gogomagongo and others.

Poetry Africa will continue the Slam Poetry component begun in 2002, creating a special festival slot for Durban poets to test their poetic wits against each other in this fast-moving competitive approach to poetry. The festival also includes a schools-visiting programme to inspire interest in literature, and a scholars’ poetry-writing competition.

The poets come from different parts of the world, cultures and backgrounds. Jaap Blonk (Netherlands) is a self-taught composer, musician, voice performer and sound poet, who has developed an incredible non-verbal approach to poetry through expressive use of lips, tongue and larynx. He is the founder and leader of Splinks, a 15-piece orchestra playing his compositions, and BRAAXTAAL, an avant-garde rock trio with synthesizer and drums. The versatile poet and writer Cai Tianxin (China), has published nine books of poetry, essays, travelogues and biographies, and is founder of the poetry review Apollinaire which is now one of the most important underground magazines in China.

Writing in the 80’s, a bleak period in recent Romanian history, the award-winning Denisa Comănescu (Romania) had to smuggle her work past a brutal censorship as poetry was one of the few ways by which the enduring spirit of the Romanian people could be shown and celebrated. Edwin Thumboo (Singapore) broke fresh ground with his “modern” free verse as an undergraduate student in the 1950s, and his works continue to fascinate younger critics and continue to influence a whole new generation of poets from Southeast Asia. From slam poetry to hiphop, from performance poetry to spoken word, Bob Holman (USA) has been a central figure in the re-emergence of poetry as a potent public force. This “Ringmaster of the Spoken Word” has been the organiser of poetry festivals and events, clubs, television shows, and publications.

Renowned as a dynamic performer, Akeem Lasisi (Nigeria) has developed a distinctive style of experimentation with oral Yoruba and English poetry. Presently staff writer with TEMPO Magazine whilst still maintaining his poetry performing outfit, he has been described as a journalist by day and poet by night. Acknowledged as one of the finest poets writing in Ireland today, the poetry of Patricia Nolan reflects a perception of the world that is both familiar and strange. The private sphere is an exercise of tender memory while the public one is a form of reflection and a critique of contemporary reality which is full of irony, a world which is retold in her own terms through the art of poetry.

Anzhelina Polonskaya, (Russia) worked and travelled as an ice dancer before devoting herself to writing. Her lack of a classical literary education allows her to be freer and more experimental in her poetry than her traditionally-steeped contemporaries. Right from her first collection of poetry, Susan Stenson (Canada) appeared before the reader as a fully realized and mature talent. Three books later, the accomplished Stenson is still sweeping up awards with poetry that reveals an anarchy and authority, lit up by honesty, humour and an incandescent humanity.

Ugandan Timothy Wangusa is both novelist and well published poet alongside his academic career which included being parliamentarian and Minister of Education. “The need deep in my inside to put into words as rhythmic and concise and rich as possible, some moments of personal wonderment and the poignant experiences within my social context, made me become a poet.” The poetry of Zimbabwe’s seminal Musaemura Zimunya , while revealing an imaginative appreciation of the beauty of nature, also represents the feelings of a generation that felt marginalized and deracinated by colonialism. He writes about childbirth, love potions, randy sisters-in-law, mangy dogs, superstitions, avenging spirits, and the first sexual encounters of the young. The poems of Zrika Abdallah (Morocco) seek to break with the dominant concept of poetry as high culture and instead integrate the language of everyday life into literature. In 1978 he was sentenced to prison for two years for the “immorality” of his work. His poetry is non-programmatic, untrammelled associative speech with a spontaneity unsurpassed in modern Arabic literature.

There is a strong line-up of South African poets. Robert Berold, whose dedicated editorship of the poetry journal New Coin from 1989 to 1999 created an arena for many different poetic voices and styles to flourish in South Africa, publishing much of the groundbreaking new poetry being written in the 90’s. Poet, distinguished educator, and freedom-fighter Dennis Brutus was known as the ‘singing voice of the South African Liberation Movement’. His political campaigns led to his being banned from all political and social activity and his subsequent arrest and incarceration on Robben Island, where he spent time breaking stones with Nelson Mandela. His first collection of poetry Sirens, Knuckles and Boots was published in Nigeria while he was in prison. Brutus is still very much in the forefront of anti-globalisation campaigns around the world.

Diana Ferrus writes in both English and Afrikaans about personal, political, historical, and social themes. Known for her cultural activism, Ferrus was centrally involved in the repatriation of Sarah Baartman’s remains, an initiative sparked by her passionate poem Tribute to Sarah Baartman. Written as an act of rage, passion and reconciliation, ex-South African Norman Kester’s writings blur traditional boundaries of prose and poetry, richly interweaving memory, storytelling and history.’ He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1969 during the height of Apartheid, and his first major work, editing Liberating Minds: the Stories and Professional Lives of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Librarians and their Advocates, won rich praise from critics.

The knack for wry, eloquent, reality-twisting wit is second nature to the prolific Durban-based poet Keith Kunene, whose portal to self-actualisation is expressed though rapid-fire hip-hop. Kunene is part of the music outfit Blakfist of Garvey. Lesego Rampolokeng’s melds together resonances of dub reggae, political rap, street poetry, and seSotho talking songs into a distinctive unconventional dynamism. Sometimes regarded as the enfant-terrible of South African poetry, his incisive bitter-sweet bite and rhythmically crafted mix of subtleness and brazen bravado has earned world-wide acknowledgement and acclaim for this contemporary wordsmith.

Kgafela oa Magogodi is a popular Jozi Kwai-Jazz poet, Spoken Word Theatre Director, film scholar, academic and a budding screenwriter who regularly gives talks and workshops and performs with a jazz band in pubs and cultural festivals. In 2002 the Steve Biko Foundation invited him to facilitate poetry workshops, the highlight of which was The Writer Then and Now: South/ern African Writers in Conversation With Chinua Achebe held on Robben Island. The young performer, writer and facilitator Lebogang Mashile, is passionate about the ways that art can be used to bring about healing and positive transformation. Mashile has spent the last year working as a life skills facilitator, conducting numerous workshops on HIV/AIDS, gender, personal development, team building relationships, sex and sexuality.

After retiring to charming Mtunzini on the KZN North Coast, Evelyn Cresswell is making a comeback onto the local poetry scene. She has recently published a CD of her poetry which was also presented as a poetry evening at Kwasuka Theatre. Don Mattera is a renowned poet, writer, social and political leader and activist who was instrumental in the formation of the Union of Black Journalists as well as the Congress of South African writers. Mattera has worked as a journalist on The Sunday Times, The Mail & Guardian and The Sowetan, and this popular motivational speaker currently interacts with street children, gangsters and participates in the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners.

Poetry Africa 2003 has been made possible through sponsorship by the National Arts Council of South Africa, FNB Fund, Hivos, City of Durban, Royal Netherlands Embassy, French Institute of South Africa, Public Affairs Office U.S. Consul, Canada Council for the Arts, Pro-Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland, Foundation for Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, National Arts Council Singapore, Adams Campus Bookshop, Exclusive Books, BAT Centre, Ethekwini Municipality, Alliance Française, TransAfrica Express, KwaMuhle Museum, Diakonia Centre, Eagle Taxis, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre and the University of Natal. Book through Computicket. Tickets R15 (R8 pensioners and students). For detailed information, view the website www.und.ac.za/und/carts or contact the Centre for Creative Arts on 031 260 2506.




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