The write stuff

Taking the gap left for literary arts, the National Arts Council-sponsored Wordfest springs fully armed (as it were) on to the Standard Bank National Arts Festival’s fringe programme with a range of events from performance poets to debates on the politics of prose (July 1 to 8).

Envisaged as a place where readers, writers, journalists, publishers, performers, booksellers, script-writers and lovers of language can meet, Wordfest offers a high degree of interaction.

The visitor can start by leaving deathless graffiti on the Writer’s Wall, then attend Writing Yourself, Dorian Haarhoff’s creative life-story writing sessions, before restoring the blood sugar with fine grub from the Readers’ and Writers’ Tavern and perhaps letting rip during the open mic session (6pm to 8pm each evening).

Where to, Wordfest? (July 4 at 8pm) is another open time where visitors can contribute to the future shape and direction of the project. All this and more happens under one roof because Wordfest has the advantage of a natural home in Grahamstown: the gracious old red brick nunnery which now houses the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA).

Lectures include Andrew Renard’s exploration, Where Has the Love Song Gone?: Shakespeare to Bob Dylan, and a multi-media presentation by

the University of Cape Town’s Gabeba Baderoon on the dangerous minefield of reporting about race.

There will be story-telling in the attic, a ventriloquist and a chance to bone up on your slang in The Dictionary of South African English online display, Heita daar!

Exhibitions focus on two South African publishers — The Lovedale Press (175 this year) and David Philip. There will be seven book launches, including a celebration of Guy Butler’s new Collected Poems.

Laurence Wright, director of the ISEA and Wordfest, says there has long been a feeling that something should be done about the verbal arts at the festival.

”Without language, that most human of arts, we don’t have an engine for the other arts. Language is the most precise form of artistic expression and if we neglect that all the other arts languish and go fuzzy. Maybe this is part of the reason for a loss of direction in the South African arts scene.”

The idea has been debated for many years with major players and National Arts Council members. ”Last year we did a number of experimental projects just to see if we could generate interest and sponsorship,” says Wright.

A successful programme of traditional oral poetry organised by Richard Bowker from the National English Literary Museum was one of the results.

Seed-funding from the National Arts Council language and literature budget was one of the things that made this year’s full Wordfest possible. The other thing was a resounding response from wordsmiths to an invitation to participate.

Both Wright and Wordfest convener, poet Chris Mann, aim to attract a naming sponsor who can carry the work forward into a major launch at the start of the new millennium.

A national network of activities and events is the long-term plan. Once the Eastern Cape has taken shape as a role model, the project aims to promote activities at a community level throughout the country.

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