Eminent global voices top Spier Poetry Festival line-up

International poet Ko Un at the 2013 dancing in other words Spier Poetry Festival. (Retha Ferguson)

International poet Ko Un at the 2013 dancing in other words Spier Poetry Festival. (Retha Ferguson)

Twelve international poets have arrived for the Spier Poetry Festival. Although widely applauded and heavily accoladed, most will be new to South African readers. Translations of their works are still hard to come by, despite the digital age.

Curator of the poetry festival, Breyten Breytenbach, has selected a mix of eminent global voices, several of whom are activists in culture, ecology or politics, and whose lives have often involved exile and dislocation. 

The line-up includes Homero Aridjis, the Mexican poet, novelist, environmental activist and diplomat; Chinese writer Duo Duo, one of the celebrated Misty poets; the young Russian-American star Ilya Kaminsky and Nimrod from Chad.

Duo Duo meaning “too much, too much” is the pen name for Li Shizheng, a Chinese poet born in Beijing in 1951. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he chose not to return to China, and instead lived in the West. In 2004, he went back, to Hainan Island to take up a teaching post at its university. His works translated into English include: Looking Out from Death – From the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square and The Boy Who Catches Wasps.

Sent to a farm at the age of 15 for “re-education” during the cultural revolution, Duo Duo would ultimately become known as a frontrunner and leading exponent of the Misty Poets. But he says: “It is not like art, like surrealism or expressionism. All the poets were different; there wasn’t a movement. They merely belonged to the same generation.

“I guess that was a special time in history, this bloody revolution.

“It was very cruel, and I was young, just 15 years old … You go to the countryside to be a farmer, to work. We knew nothing. No education ... We had paper and pen – that was all.

Another poet who knows dislocation is Nimrod Djangrang Bena, born in Chad. A poet, novelist and essayist, living in France, he teaches philosophy. In 2008, he received the Édouard Glissant Prize.

Asked why so many African poets leave the continent Nimrod says, “Of course, when you have such horrible countries as Chad. The war started there in 1963 … I went to Côte d’Ivoire for my studies. Because Chad would have meant death. Cesair and Senghor, neither wrote their great works in Senegal or Martinique, but in France.”

On the trend for young black South African poets to embrace spoken word, rap and hip-hop rather than written poetry, Nimrod holds MC Solaar up as an example young poets might take lessons from. “Solaar,” he says, “read a lot. His words are precise. You can hear Verlaine, Baudelaire, Gainsbourg. I don’t understand the rhythms of [some] rap, it’s like musicians who have no clear ear. Generally, a song is an eight syllable line, or six, not an Alexandrine. Many rappers’ lines exceed the normal rhythm and length to comprehend. But MC Solaar is very clear, you can understand him.”

Also appearing at the festival is the rising star, Ilya Kaminsky. He was born in Odessa in the former Soviet Union in 1977. His family moved to the United States in 1993. Kaminsky’s poems have been translated and published in Holland, Russia, France and Spain and his poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, won many awards including the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, the Dorset Prize, and was named Best Poetry Book of the Year 2004 by ForeWord Magazine. He co-founded Poets for Peace, which sponsors poetry readings across the globe to support relief work.

Asked about the importance to his work of his Jewish roots, Kaminsky says, “I’m more a Yiddish Jew, far more cultural than religious. I’m a believer, but not in organised religion. If you ask me if I believe in God, I’ll say, yes. If you ask me to describe it, I’ll struggle … My Jewishness comes from growing up in a Russian school and being beaten in the face because you’re a Jew – that’s how you know. So it was more about snowballs than matzo balls.”

The current crisis in his birth city and the Ukraine he finds hard to accept. “People were always friendly. It was not a fighting town,” explains Kaminsy. “It was the biggest international city in the whole empire, and the Soviets wanted to calm that down, so it became the humour capital of the Soviet Union. April Fool’s Day was a holiday in Odessa; the schools closed, we celebrated. In that kind of place, you never picture shooting from rooftops. I still think now the war is a conflict from outside. People spoke both languages [Russian and Ukrainian] for hundreds of years … I think it is the oligarchs fighting for business. They make it about language [but it’s not].  It’s an artificial and political question. That’s sad for me.

The Spier Poetry Festival runs from May 9 to 10. For more information phone (021) 809 1100 or visit www.spierpoetryfestival.co.za

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: www.meersman.co.za Read more from Brent Meersman


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