Towards the end of September, The Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal organised the 12th Poetry Africa International Festival in Durban. About 26 poets and performers were invited from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, Mayotte, the Netherlands and the US to provide a showcase of poetic and cultural diversity, with approaches and styles ranging from written-word poetry to rap and hip-hop.
The main venue for the festival was the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, which has 400 seats, which for most of the five nights there were well filled. However, when taking into account the overall activities of the festival – which included visits to university campuses, schools and performances in public places – the organisers estimate the audience to have been about 4 000.
These numbers seem to go against the claim by many publishers and booksellers that there is no market for poetry in South Africa, but I say “seem” because there are those critics who feel that what is being showcased at Poetry Africa these days “isn’t really poetry”. In the past few years Poetry Africa has shifted its emphasis from written-word poetry to spoken word, and two of the performers this year – hip-hop trio Godessa and Jitsvinger – were definitely more singers/musicians than poets. And besides, detractors may ask, what effect does all this have on poetry readership?
For most of the festival there was a bookstall in the theatre foyer run by independent bookstore Adams Campus Bookshop, and for manager Cedric Sissing the effect of the festival was clear: for the five nights that the stall was open, he sold more poetry collections than the store would normally do in a year.
Revenue for units (books, CDs and DVDs) sold at the festival for the past three years was R24 288 in 2006, R27 366 in 2007 (a 12, 67% increase) and this year R21 013 (a 21,23% decrease).
Sissing says that while this year’s decrease can be directly attributed the sharp rise in the cost of living in South Africa, the increase in last year’s revenue is attributed to sales of books and DVDs by the Hindi Kenyan poet Shailja Patel. About 50 units of her work sold over the period.
This year the top book sellers were Megan Hall’s Fourth Child – winner of this year’s Ingrid Jonker poetry prize and published by independent Modjaji Books – which sold 19 copies, followed by Mxolisi Nyezwa’s New Country, published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, which sold 16 copies. Both of the books were launched at the festival. In third place were various titles by US rap poet Carlos Gomez, who sold 14 books and five CDs.
Of the total 108 South African units sold this year, 86 were books, with the remaining 22 being CDs.
Granted, these figures aren’t exactly earth-shattering, and Gomez told me that in the US, where he often gives performances at schools and colleges, he usually sells about 20-30 units a night.
But for Sissing the figures are a clear indication that in South Africa the sale of poetry collections has to be event- rather than retail-driven.
“Take, for example, the work of Patel,” he says. “She sold 50 units last year when she was a featured poet, but sold no copies during the year at the shop. Three copies of her work were sold at the festival this year, even though she was not featured.”
And on the subject of whether the shift in emphasis to spoken word is having any kind of effect on poetry readership, Sissing says, “It’s difficult to prove this on paper, but in the past five years, since the rise of spoken-word poetry, there’s no doubt that the spoken- word poets lift the patrons’ passion, thereby influencing them to buy more poetry. Not just spoken word, but also written word.”
And, as the figures show, book sales are still far ahead of CDs, so it is clear that written-word poetry is not in any immediate danger of extinction.
But in a nutshell what South African poets and publishers need to do is to organise more events. We need more readings, more launches, more workshops and definitely more festivals such as Poetry Africa.