Sunday, 31 August 2008

No brand-puppet poet

Producing poetry that is infused with a sense of social and political commitment may seem like a throw-back to the apartheid era for some, but for poet, editor, publisher and community activist Vonani Bila, the urgent need for poets — and all writers — to address social injustice remains as strong as ever.

Bila, whose fourth poetry collection, Handsome Jita, was recently published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, was born in 1972 at Shirley Village in the Elim area of Limpopo, into a family of eight children.

He says his parents instilled in him an appreciation of music and narrative.

“My father was a gifted singer and composer,” says Bila. “He even used to play the timbila (a finger harp that is associated with the Vatsonga, Vacopi and Machangani of Mozambique, where the Bilas originally come from).

“My mother didn’t attend any formal schooling, but she’s indisputably a living historian with an astute and impeccable memory of family and social history. My mother tells intelligent and humorous tales to her grandchildren with great passion. It is from her that I inherited the narrative command evident in my poetry.”

But he is deeply aware of the conditions of poverty and injustice into which he was born. His great-grandfather fought in the Second World War but, “like most blacks who served in the army, he got virtually nothing, except that his name got engraved on the walls of Elim Hospital”.
“My father died after working at Elim Hospital for almost 30 years, earning a paltry R300 a month at the time of his death.”

Bila went to Lemana High School, one of the reputable public schools in Elim, he says, but he had to walk 14km to get there.

He was 21 when his first poem was published. At the time, Bila was a student at Tivumbeni College of Education, where he earned the reputation of being a public poet. His involvement at the time with nongovernmental organisations such as the Akanani Rural Development Association sharpened his political views.

“It motivated me to want to join Umkhonto weSizwe in 1989. I took my passport, but when my father died, I couldn’t proceed with my plans. I guess a certain anger that is in my poetry is that of a guerrilla who fires with poetry rather than with an AK47.”

His first collection of poems, No Free Sleeping, with Donald Parenzee and Alan Finlay, was published in 1998 by Botsotso. He was impressed with the way in which Botsotso got him involved in the production, and this inspired him to start up his own poetry publishing venture, the Timbila Poetry Project, which has published collections by poets such as Goodenough Mashego, Makhosazana Xaba and Mbongeni Khumalo.

Bila has also published two of his own titles — In the Name of Amandla and Magicstan Fires — as well as an annual poetry journal, Timbila. He has also released a CD of his poetry, Dahl Street, Pietersburg.

Bila emphasises the value of the spoken word, and of the benefits of being able to listen to poetry. “If a poet can project their poetry well through their voice on CD and on stage, then they can easily communicate the feeling of the poem to a large number of people who wouldn’t necessarily have access to the book, given that poetry books are not widely distributed in shops.
“But SA needs books as much as we need CDs, printed T-shirts and posters bearing poems. When we explore new technology such as the internet, we must always remember there are millions of South Africans who don’t have access to that medium.

“SA’s illiteracy levels are shocking and for that reason, we will always need books.”

But despite this emphasis on the need to reach a wide audience, Bila does not see himself as a public poet.
“I am a poet who comments on life around and about me,” he says. “Yes, I confront the reader with stories of shame, degradation, retrenched workers, prostitutes in substandard conditions, the unemployed and beggars — these are stories few dare to tell with honesty, love and compassion. Instead they sensationalise them and further dehumanise these people.

“This sordid reality I feel nobody, especially poets, should be ignoring. Of course, there is a price one can pay heavily for raising such embarrassing questions of the government’s failure to take care of the poor.

“Where I come from, poverty hits you straight in the face and you wonder what changes (Jacob) Zuma or (Thabo) Mbeki or the African National Congress (ANC) will effect to improve the lives of the poor. All I see is politicians accumulating wealth, buying farms, sitting on several companies as directors, fixing tenders for their relatives.

“I comment on all these matters, not because it’s sexy to do so, nor because every angry young poet feels the ANC has sold out. I do so because I am a patriot. I care about finding the roots of social and political problems we are facing.

“Poetry is not a hobby for me. It’s a lifelong commitment, and I can only be true to myself when I express that which I believe in, without being a propagandist.”

Apart from disappointment over the government’s lack of service delivery, Bila is also troubled by the fact that the spectre of apartheid has not yet disappeared and that incidents of racist attacks are rife in SA’s rural areas.

“I am antiracist,” he says. “I come from a province rife with racism. White farmers chop off a farm worker’s head, throw him into a river, and say he was bitten by a crocodile. They mistake black people for dogs and baboons.”

His poetry has won him recognition overseas and he has been invited to countries such as Belgium, Sweden, Holland and Brazil. But one particular overseas trip was harrowing: last year, when arriving at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya to attend the World Economic Summit, he was detained for three hours for allegedly travelling on an out-of-date passport.

“It was a nasty experience,” he says, but also points to a lack of solidarity among writers in SA.

“If poets were organised, they would have spoken out against the Kenyan government’s trampling on my rights. But a writer could die in prison without other writers saying a word.”

Bila is encouraged that Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile is now SA’s poet laureate and hopes there will now be some dynamism in the country’s literary development.

He also says poetry would be better known if schools were studying local poets.

“Most schools exclude poetry. What is commonplace in the school and varsity arena are proponents of British and American modernism such as TS Eliot.

“With the exception of black consciousness-inspired poetry of the ’70s, those who teach poetry
pretend there’s a desert between 1980 and now.”

Bila, however, takes a critical view of work being produced by younger South African poets.

“They slam, and in their slam jam there’s little poetry. They mimic some of the worst US thugs and choose to ignore rich and unusual voices. To generalise is not fair, but those who appear to have become celebrities, whether (that status is) self-constructed or acquired, are worshipped by the youth because their faces are visible on TV and from time to time they are invited to perform at government and corporate functions.

“Some poets are happy to be commissioned to write about brands and labels; I’m not such a clown. They demand to perform at government functions, and they are paid good money. You’ll hear so and so was in Cuba, attending a writers’ conference. How they get there is through connections.”

But thankfully for South African poetry, Bila is no performing puppet and nobody’s clown.

First published in The Weekender 12 January, 2008

Friday, 29 August 2008

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Aryan Kaganof's Velvet - Helge Janssen

It is utterly impossible to view this short film and not be affected.

Art/film does not come more cutting edge than this.

But it is absolutely impossible to take Kaganof at face value. To do so is to get entangled in a web of personal likes and dislikes, revealing ones own psychological imperfections, and this serves no purpose whatsoever.

Never more so as in this 11 minute film.

The challenge then, if one feels up to it, is to empty one’s head of all psychological baggage, step into a clear space of NOW, and view what we are being shown in a state of heightened and relaxed alertness. (Tolle)

On an evolutionary scale I’d say that is a pretty high order.

Having said that, and even so, the emotion and the intellect are prodded to a point where they run amok, and the situation becomes an exercise in crisis management. Perhaps I am a ‘poetic epileptic’ for if I were an epileptic, these words and images would have had the same effect as a strobe.

And the words, the words, the words, hammering, hammering.....‘dirty girl’....not least of them by Gary Cummiskey.....drilling...the cut-up flashes of phrases coming furiously......all the while ‘emptying one out’, pausing just long enough to allow the viewer a foothold, then shooting off again, stripping stripping, stripping......becoming as naked as.....

....the visuals of Taylor Rain large, unabashed.....

....but Kaganof is not about to use the word ‘physical’ (introductory information) lightly, and herein lies the very reason why this film is not pornographic: a very pretty woman is exploring her lower orifices without apology, without taint, without trying to stimulate the viewer, she herself is not ‘self pleasuring’, she is matter-of-fact, controlled: she becomes at once her own 'doctor', a researcher and a pioneer....

As such Rain/Kaganof/Cummiskey together stab right into the heart of the matter: where’s the taboo?

This review originally appeared on KZNSA Gallery.

Friday, 08 August 2008

The distribution dilemma: how can small publishers sell books and reach their audience?

Probably one of the most difficult, and yet crucial, aspects of the publication process for all publishers – but particularly small publishers – is distribution. It is also worth considering what is precisely meant by distribution – does it mean simply ensuring the publication is adequately represented in bookstores, or does it mean ensuring the publication reaches its intended audience?

When distributing to bookstores, some small publishers may choose to deal directly with the bookstores rather than using a distribution agent. This approach may well be common in the case of a new publisher. However, certain bookstores – particularly the larger retail chains – may be reluctant to deal directly with small publishers. Purchasing managers are often extremely busy and, perhaps with reason, may be sceptical about dealing with a small publisher who may not – and probably does not – have a formal business infrastructure in place. To put it plainly, they may not wish to deal with what they perceive as being an amateur.

This leads to the issue of administration. Due to the proliferation of fraud, large chain bookstores have become extremely fastidious about controlling their creditors’ departments. Some are no longer willing to process payment purely on receipt of an invoice – in some cases, delivery notes and monthly statements may be required before they are prepared to do so. For a small publisher, this effectively means running the publishing operation as if it were a fulltime business, even though it may be little more than a ‘hobby’.

If a small publisher does have the time, resources and energy to sell directly to bookstores countywide, well and good, but if they haven’t – and it is unlikely they would – the best option is to get a distribution agent. While there are quite a few distribution agents in South Africa, they are not always cheap, and commission fees can range from 12% - 30% of the net selling price of the book (see below), depending on what the agent is prepared to do. For example, the agent may undertake selling, delivery, invoicing and collections, or only some of these functions.

But the overall costs of selling to a bookstore, with or without an agent, is particularly important because it carries equal weight in affecting both the publisher’s profits as well as the willingness of a customer to pay the gross selling price of the book.

For example, you publish a book that costs R20 to produce. As a publisher, you obviously want to make a profit, so you may add on another R20, selling it to the bookstore at R40 (this is without taking authors’ royalties or VAT into consideration).

But to ensure they too make a profit, the bookstore may well want a 40% discount on that price, which would reduce your profit – at a 50 % discount – to zero, and the bookstore will only pay you R20.

You should therefore add on a 100% mark-up, invoicing at a recommended gross selling price (the price at which the book is sold to the public) of R80. The bookstore can then deduct its 50% discount from the R80, and you will be paid R40, which is your net selling price. It is on this amount that a distribution agent will take their commission.

It is most important not to simply add on 50%, because a 50% mark-up will make the price of the book R60. Thus, when the bookstore deducts its 50% discount, you will be paid R30, and not the R40 you require.

It is also interesting to note that, unlike other industries, in the book trade it is the publisher who sets the gross selling price to the public, not the bookstore.

But now comes the burning question – will a customer pay R80 for the book? If customers are willing to, excellent; but if they are not, then it is likely the book will remain on the shelves for a year or so, only to be sold off at about R30 at the next book sale – at a loss to the bookstore. As a publisher, you are then faced with the issue of whether the bookstore will be willing buy more books from you.

This is a scenario that an experienced bookseller would probably take into consideration before buying the book, so immediately, as a publisher, you could be under pressure not to set the gross selling price too high; after all, you don’t want the reputation of a publisher of books that don’t sell. Remember that bookstores are not necessarily ‘lovers of literature’, they are retailers in business to make a profit.

So if you are pressured to reduce the gross selling price – from which as much as a 50% discount may be deducted – your intended profit is also likely to be reduced.

The other distribution option lies in selling directly to the intended audience, usually by mail order. Many literary journals do this by establishing distribution mailing lists based on upfront subscription. By doing this, you can take the costs of distribution and bookstores’ discounts out of the equation, sell the book at a fair profit, and still make it cheaper for the customer than what they would pay in a bookstore.

But mailing lists take time to build and their success depends on a number of factors, such as the regularity of publication. Also it takes time for a new publisher to build credibility and people may be hesitant to subscribe to a new publication from a relatively unknown publisher.

Consumers generally like the reassurance of being able to see products prior to purchase. And the more exposure; the better. I suggest that small publishers, especially new small publishers, regard neither distribution channel – whether through bookstores or directly by mail order – as exclusive routes to reaching an audience. It may be a good idea to try to obtain half distribution through bookstores and half through mail order.

Originally published as Dye Hard Press newsletter 1

Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Poetry and the future

"Writing poetry involves a fictitious leap into the posthumous.The poet has to anticipate a language, a mode of thought that will intersect with the continuous future."

Jeremy Reed, Isadore, Creation Books, 1991.

Saturday, 02 August 2008

Seedy world of sex for sale

Christmas Eve in Johannesburg is the setting for independent filmmaker Aryan Kaganof’s SMS Sugar Man, which recently premiered on the sidelines of the Grahamstown Arts Festival. The film, written and directed by Kaganof, focuses on Sugar Man (played by Kaganof), a pimp who is losing his grip on reality, and his three prostitutes, the Sugars, as they travel in his 1966 Valiant to hotels in the city to service their clients.

The film is unique in a number of ways, mainly because it is the first feature-length film to be have been shot on a cellphone camera.

“The natural evolution of film is away from film and towards digital projection technologies,” says Kaganof.

The cellphone camera provides film with its next great historical milestone, and evidence of this is that all over the world many festivals are springing up to advance this direction. Hollywood is also embracing the medium, with Spike Lee doing a cellphone film for Nokia.

“I am proud SA was the first country to produce a full-length feature film generated using this technology,” says Kaganof.

The film is a bit pixilated in places, but rather than signalling inferior quality, the pixilation adds to the sense of the seediness of Sugar Man’s world — one of sordidness, exploitation, kinky sex, pimps, prostitutes, junkies, pushers and gangsters.

It adds a dreamlike vagueness to the action, the reality of which is open to question, while simultaneously evoking a realistic and immediate feel, like a homemade film or documentary.

One of the central themes of the film is that of identity. In its first moments, the Sugar Grace (Leigh Graves) asks: “Who are you, Sugar Man?” Identities are mostly kept concealed throughout the film. The Sugars do not reveal their real names to clients, who in turn are simply referred to as Wallets.

It is an anonymous world where sex is merely a financial transaction, and who people really are is not important. The Sugar Selene (leading actress Deja Bernhardt) refers to Sugar Man as wearing a mask, which he says is his business mask.

The characters often use cellphone cameras in the film, almost interrogating each other with their questions, searching for the truth. This also suggests a film within a film, as if the characters are indulging in play-acting.

There are striking similarities between the figure of Sugar Man and Jesus Christ, especially in his relationship with the Sugars, which parallels Christ’s relationship with his disciples.

There is also the theme of betrayal by a favourite. Biblical references are frequent throughout the film, and one Wallet appears to be a vicar (“appears” because it could be fantasy role-play) who spouts biblical passages while receiving a blowjob.

Setting the film on Christmas Eve provides an opportunity to explore tensions. Christmas Eve might generally be a warm, traditional family occasion, but it is also, as Sugar Man points out, the most depressing time of the year — especially for the lonely, from whom pimps can make good money.

When Selene says to Sugar Man that she feels something bad is going to happen, his response is that it is Christmas Eve, so how could anything bad happen? But the sense of doom is reinforced by Atilla the hit-man’s insistence that he feels “bad things will happen”.

The film opens with the fairy-tale introduction of “Once upon a time”, but there is little that is innocent in this story. At one point, Selene puts a transvestite Wallet to bed as if he were a child, tucks him in and tells him a bedtime story while masturbating him.

The feel-good movie genre is one I have always viewed with a certain malevolent distaste,” says Kaganof. “This film introduces South African audiences to the feel-bad movie, a genre of my own that I have finely honed and shaped over the past 20 years.”

The film is filled with loneliness, such as that of Sugar Man and of the Wallets. In one powerful scene, a Wallet (John Matshikiza) calls Selene “darling” and asks her what her name is. Selene leaves without saying a word, leaving him to his loneliness.

“I have to give full credit to John Matshikiza for digging very deep into himself, as an actor and as a man, and finding a character that is recognisable and deeply tragic,” says Kaganof. “It was a great privilege for me to work with John, whose chemistry with Deja Bernhardt was, literally, heartbreaking.”

Kaganof goes on to quote French philosopher Jean Baudrillard: “Even good and evil dream of each other from the depths of their loneliness.”

Feelings matter little in this world of sex for money, and it is notable that none of the sexual encounters in the film result in penetrative sex.

“Real sex, penetrative sex,” says Kaganof, “cannot happen in a world of masks and screens, the world of simulacra. But this is the world of the new SA, the world of the spectacle, the world of the mall and the world of the reality of the illusion of freedom, the illusion of democracy, the reality of the illusion of progress. The illusion that we have choices that will make us happy.”

In the film, Sugar Man says: “Money is God.” There are several close-up shots of money being counted, and it is money that binds Sugar Man and the Sugars together. Sex, relationships, trust, and even life and death seem to be purely a matter of financial transaction.

Yet this sordid world in which the film is set is in many ways not very different from the “respectable” middle-class world of the suburbs, of what is “decent” and acceptable, or from the legal financial transactions that take place every day in business.

Kaganof says: “The underworld microcosm of the film’s milieu serves, of course, as a reminder that this is how it’s down here in the new SA, the cashocracy.”

One of the main presences in the film is that of Joburg: its streets, people, garages and convenience stores, the phallic Hillbrow tower, the seedy as well as plush hotels with their equally lonely and mysterious empty corridors. It is a setting reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s film, Alphaville, to which Kaganof acknowledges a debt.

Alphaville is a seminal film of the ’60s,” he says. “Nowhere is the extreme horror of the modernist dystopia better realised than in that film. What SMS Sugar Man does is update this dystopian perspective in Johannesburg.”

With barely a superfluous shot or word spoken, SMS Sugar Man takes us to the ugly heart of the city — a nightmarish, deceitful underworld in which human decency and self-respect are lacking. All that matters in this milieu is money and gratification, but it comes at a price.

First published in The Weekender August 2, 2008