The state of verse

In 2006, South Africa’s writers drew the attention of the world. Lebo Mashile received the 2006 Noma Award for her poetry collection In a Ribbon of Rhythm. Maxine Case brought home the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book: Africa for All We Have Left Unsaid and Shaun Johnson’s The Native Commissioner won Best Book: Africa.
Mary Watson received the Caine Prize for 2006. The inaugural Cape Town Book Fair drew a massive 26 000 people to its roster of readings. In 2007 Kwela/Snailpress is broadening its continental reach by publishing a collection by the Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide, and a collection in Afrikaans by Loit Sols. With support from the government, writing in languages other than English and Afrikaans is increasingly being published. The Centre for the Book has helped to bring out the poetry collection Living on the Fence written by women refugees in Cape Town.

All the evidence shows that South African literature is flourishing.

What new landscape is poetry drawing? An engaged one, a tender one, a sexually expressive one, in which race joins economics in a complicated new set of realities. Read Makhosazana Xaba’s These Hands for love that is sensual, surprising and political. Xaba’s publisher is the heroic Vonani Bila, whose Timbila Poetry Project is a national treasure and whose own poetry collections are essential for any library of South African poetry. The pleasurable volume of Afrikaans poetry edited by Charl-Pierre Naude, My Ousie is ‘n Blom, confounds ideas of stilted verse and includes African writers of Afrikaans in its impressive lineup. The idea of a political love speaks directly to South Africa’s realities, because politics is no less urgent 13 years after the democratic transformation. To love, to include, to forgive — what more political questions can there be in post-apartheid South Africa?

There is another side to this promising picture. Illiteracy, apartheid’s ongoing legacy, abruptly removes millions of South Africans from the reach of books, and economics is an undertow pulling at our literary successes. South Africans cannot afford to buy books in quantities that create publishing opportunities to match our burgeoning interest in writing. For the better-off, books compete with the internet and a global culture in which the slow, interior pleasure of reading is a receding memory. Lastly, the awards season holds meager recognition for poetry, compared to the welcome stature of prizes for fiction and non-fiction. Aside from the Ingrid Jonker prize for best debut, there is no major annual poetry prize in South Africa.

Despite these realities, the successes are clearly resisting the undertow. The Nielsen ratings show a significant increase in the numbers of South African books sold in South Africa. An undoubted excitement among audiences about local themes is giving impetus to a vital writing culture. Here are some thoughts on how to sustain this pattern of achievement.

We need to write poetry tuned to the outer reaches of our reality. We need to surprise ourselves, the way Sello Duiker did with his novels before his impossibly young death. I recently heard the Indonesian writer Nukila Amal read her work. She combines memories of stories told at night by her grandmother about the landscape of the Moluccas, the Qur’an, legends of the medicine women who ruled the islands, and produces mesmerising new writing that sounds hundreds of years old. What memories and sadnesses are our ears tuned to behind the loud music of global television?

We also need new kinds of institutional support for poetry. The brief chance to do nothing but write is a far too rare thing, choked off by the need to earn a living. Translation is one of the great gifts we multilingual writers can give one another and the world. This is a necessity and also an opportunity in South Africa, and our country’s wealth should be measured in its support of such art. Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s Poet Laureate for 2007, is a powerful ambassador for the art, yet there is room for more such positions at different levels — City Poets, for instance. Imagine a City Poet of Johannesburg. What writing might emerge from someone whose task is to live, walk and write in a place? Universities can support Writing Fellowships. Literary festivals can appoint a Writer in Residence, as Poetry International in London has done with Lemn Sissay.

On the more practical level, we also need books that are better produced. Judging by the covers of Imraan Coovadia’s Green-Eyed Thieves and Antjie Krog’s Body Bereft/Verweerskrif, South African book designers have been doing an exquisite job. Such books are a pleasure to see and touch. Some, however, do their authors no justice. Spelling errors on the imprint page muddle the impact of poetry.

Editing is a crucial skill we need to nurture in the book industry. I have come to believe that the word ‘No” can be an invaluable response for authors if it is accompanied by good independent readers’ reports. This insight comes from hard experience. Two of my books have been published by Kwela/Snailpress, with whom I have a well-attuned, mutually respectful relationship. And yet I have had a collection turned down by them. In retrospect, that was the right decision. Each new collection should be a quantum leap in quality and imagination, concluded Nelleke de Jager and Gus Ferguson, and the manuscript was not. Their ‘no” will help to fine-tune my new work. Similarly, a book-reviewing culture that is a platform for honest exchanges and eschews celebrity culture is a resource for authors.

In the 1980s, between spells in apartheid prisons, Jeremy Cronin read his poems to students at Livingstone High School and made an indelible impact in the corridors of this 80-year-old school. I was one of the students who heard him read there. The experience shaped my sense of poetry, politics and love. Twenty years later, Lebo Mashile is a feminist heroine to millions of schoolgirls. Imagine a fully-fledged programme that brings writers to schools. Imagine poetry writing its scenes of political love for new generations.

Gabeba Baderoon is the author of The Dream in the Next Body and A hundred silences, short-listed for the 2007 University of Johannesburg Prize

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