Dancing in Other Words: Poetry in motion

Dancing in Other Words includes a weeklong, closed-door deliberation among poets and writers from many parts of the globe. The festival will culminate in open sessions, including both intensive discussions and expertly directed poetry performances.

The poets will be gathering in the Boland from Monday May 6 under the auspices of the Breyten Breytenbach-led Pirogue collective, in conjunction with Spier. The South African participants are a commanding lyrical foursome — Breytenbach, Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog and Petra Müller.

The “world” poets are the South Korean poet Ko Un, Carolyn Forché (United States), Yang Lian (China, in exile), Joachim Sartorius (Germany), Tomaz Salamun (Slovenia) and David Shulman (Israel). The discussion moderators include Kole Omotoso, Gunther Pakendorf, and Nigerian Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Dele Olojede.

After “travelling and translating” together, in conversation, the assembly culminates in a public programme at Spier on Friday May 10 and Saturday May 11. The day programme consists of afternoon conversations and master classes, with evening readings that will be stage-crafted and a musical performance under the guidance of the radical theatre director Marthinus Basson.

The final session at 9pm on Saturday is billed simply as “dancing”, with the R150 entry including both wine and food. A kind of Bacchanalian finale, thus, which promises to be a very interesting party indeed.

Embodied dialogue
The “conversations” cover the topics Lost in Translation, Found in Poetry (Van Niekerk, Salamun and the translator André Naffis-Sahely); What Has Ethics Got to Do with It? (Krog, Yang and Shulman, moderated by Olojede); Is the World a Decaying Metaphor? (Sartorius and Forché, moderated by Omotoso); and Is There a South African Way to the Great Nowhere?” (Ko, Müller and Osler, moderated by Breytenbach).

Conspicuous in the conception of this happening is an enhanced form of event design — one that combines a deep space for embodied dialogue between writers, translators and writer-critics, among themselves, in specially convened locales and interactions, with a public “outing” of this more intensive dialogue in open ­sessions.

In conceiving the event in this way, Breytenbach — with Pirogue and Spier — is clearly seeking to transcend the limitations of the more conventional arts festival format in which the public is “treated” to quick-step performances of public wisdom in very limited windows of time and space, both for the participants and the audience.

It’s almost as though the Dancing with Words event is seeking to combine two often mutually exclusive domains: the seminar room (with its workmanlike, thoroughgoing mining of ideas, a free-flow of thought shorn of excessive display) and the (often liberating but also occluding) space of public show.

In an interview about the festival with Litnet’s Francis Galloway, Breytenbach speaks of the “danger of making a norm of superficiality [vervlakking]”. He says: “That which is amusing, sentimental, crowd-pleasing, too often draws a thick veil [of primness] over the wilder and older possibilities of poetry. This is, however, not an accusation but rather a concern that we should not allow the spaces of not-understanding to grow too rank.

“And that does not at all imply that I’m arguing for a kind of snobbishness among the initiates. Rather, it is an argument for a kind of excellence and a creative fearlessness that takes you out of yourself. This leads to another paradox: that we can embody our fears only in fearlessness.”

Theatre director Basson comments: “The theme of wind and stone — something rooted to a specific place, something moving freely across borders, unhindered by constraints — will form the backbone for choreographer Ina Wichterich, artist Colijn Strydom and magician Geon Nel, who will be devising installations, shadow play, live animation, paper sculpture and small visual or performance ‘spikes’ to frame the poets. Neo Muyanga will provide music.”

Breytenbach says: “The space that we’re trying to create is one in which the need for a deep ethical imagining of — engagement with, celebration of — the most humble things (stones, doek, words, dreams, light, music) can once again be confirmed. It is a space in which such things can be enriched by the experience and the ways of seeing of ‘travellers’ and ‘strangers’ — people who come to us from far-flung places.

“And, as with the translation of poetry, we feel that this space [the product] will be created by the movement of thoughts and images and imaginings in a process of exchange.

“We do not expect that contradictions such as indigenous and universal will be dissolved. In fact, we know that ambiguities and even darkness are necessary — without them, it is not only our empirical realities that get falsified but our dreams too.”

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