Monday, 30 June 2008

Contemporary South African poetry: at risk of being silenced

This piece originally appeared as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 11 and covered a panel discussion on contemporary South African poetry which took place at the first Cape Town Book Fair in 2006.
I think the issues raised are still relevant, if not more so.

At the 2006 Cape Town Book Fair, a panel discussion was held in which the situation of contemporary South African poetry and publishing was debated. The members of the panel were PR Anderson, Hale Tsehlana, Arja Salafranca, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Vonani Bila and Kelwyn Sole. The discussion was chaired by Helen Moffet.

PR Anderson kicked off by stating that commercial publishers in South Africa are reluctant to publish poetry, regarding the market for the genre as being ‘illusionary’. He said that as most poetry in South Africa these days is read in schools, the focus should be on how best to communicate poetry to this market. Electronic publishing via the internet was one means he suggested.

While I agree with Anderson’s basic premise – that commercial publishers regard the poetry market in South Africa as being illusionary – I question a few issues. Firstly, it is important to consider that commercial publishers would define a market as a financial equation (a profitable return over costs) as opposed to defining a market as a potentially receptive audience. I can understand the position of commercial publishers (considering that while they are in the business of publishing books, their primary objective is to provide shareholders with a return on investment) but it is regrettable Anderson did not mention the role of local independent publishers in getting poetry out to readers.

Secondly, by offering an argument about poetry being mainly read in schools, we risk running into a mindset whereby poetry is regarded as little more than a scholarly learning exercise.

Next, Allan Kolski Horwitz took us back to 1974, when a similar poetry panel discussion was held in Cape Town. Back then, the panel consisted solely of white males, and while one or two papers focused on poetry in a societal context (such as one on ‘Poetry and Africa’ by Douglas Livingstone) the majority tended to focus on topics such as ‘Satire in the poetry of Roy Campbell’ or ‘Satire in the poetry of Thomas Pringle’. In a nutshell: poetry as a topic for academic study, rather than as an activity intrinsic to the political, cultural and socioeconomic environment in which it is created.

Happily, Horwitz noted, we have moved on from there, as poetry of the 1980s-1990s can testify. However, in the past few years, there has a reactionary swing back to the notion of poetry divorced from the environment in which it is created, an academic-based poetry that tends to shy away from everyday topics such as crime, injustice, poverty and sex. Horwitz cited a title by Botsotso Publishing, Isis X, an anthology of poems and photographs by contemporary South African women. The anthology received an extremely negative review in The Sunday Times by a woman critic who regarded the anthology as an unfortunate by-product of the ‘new democracy’ that allows everyone to become a poet. The contributors were dismissed as performance poets (though none of the poets in the anthology could be classified as performance poets), adolescent and sex-obsessed. Clearly, the ‘new right-wing reactionaries’, as Horwitz calls them, regard sex as a topic unfit for poetry.

The contributions of the two women panellists were brief. Hale Tsehlana emphasised the need for women poets to publish their work, and Arja Salafranca endorsed Horwitz’s view of a reactionary tendency against a poetry that deals with everyday issues. Salafranca’s collection The fire in which we burn was attacked by a woman reviewer who objected to a personal poetry that dealt with issues such as relationships, sex and menstruation.

Kelwyn Sole also endorsed Horwitz’s views, but added a further dimension. For Sole, South African poetry is equally in danger from commoditisation. Recently we have witnessed an increase in government-sponsored poetry competitions dealing with issues such as HIV/Aids, and it seems government has recognised the value of poetry as a means of getting its message across. Furthermore, a poem criticising government policy would not be likely to win a government-sponsored competition. Poetry in SA is in danger of becoming a marketing tool of those in power.

I agree with Sole, but it is not only government that has caught onto the value of poetry – corporates have also leapt on the bandwagon. In an earlier newsletter on funding, I highlighted the danger of receiving corporate sponsorship for poetry publishing. After all, a corporate is hardly likely to wish to sponsor poetry that, for example, attacks the abuses of corporate capitalism.

Vonani Bila stated that as a black poet he is expected to sing the praises of the new regime. He has been criticised for writing poems that deal with crime, joblessness and poverty. He is expected not to criticise the government for failing to deliver on its promises. As Bila pointed out in the poetry journal New Coin, if the current government were to adopt the same totalitarian stance as the Nationalist Party, he and several other contemporary black poets would find themselves in prison.

Between the extremes of a reactionary mindset that views poetry as being divorced from the realities of everyday life and a mindset that views poetry as a marketing tool, true poetry – a poetry that is concerned with truth telling and engages with the environment in which it is created – is at risk of being silenced.

Gary Cummiskey
© 2006

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