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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well, even if you do not intend it to be sexy, activism always is, aint it?