Poets take issues to the stage
The 19th edition of the annual Durban-based Poetry Africa festival features 24 poets from South Africa as well as wordsmiths from the rest of the world.
They will participate in nightly readings, performances, book launches and workshops from October 12 to 17. The main venue is the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre.
This year’s line-up includes local celebrated artists such as Lesego Rampolokeng (who will launch his latest book A Half Century Thing), Aryan Kaganof, Lebo Mashile and Vonani Bila, along with international poets such as Kat Francois (the United Kingdom) and the Ghanaian performance poet, Nii Parkes.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to the festival curator, Tiny Mungwe.
The festival has been running for nearly two decades. How have your curatorial considerations changed over time?
While I have worked for the Centre for Creative Arts for more than six years, I have only been curating the festival for the past three editions, so I can only speak to my own approach in that time. Poetry Africa positions itself as a poetry festival that acknowledges and respects the myriad traditions of spoken word … and aims to preserve those traditions through our stages while remaining relevant to the young audiences, who are naturally and radically appropriating these traditions to form new vehicles for their words and their ideas.
As such, our line-up has written wordsmiths like Bila and Makhosazana Xaba sitting comfortably in a line-up with the young voices of Nova Masango and Mashile.
Music is a very important aspect of the festival as well. Lyricist such as Matt Wilson [who lets his words be accompanied by guitar riffs of his own making] and Mthunzikazi [Mbungwana, a harp player whose work is influenced by Xhosa traditions] present poetry that marries rhythm in such a way that you can scarcely imagine it presented in any other way.
Every night we have musicians playing at the Sneddon Theatre and, of course, the traditional festival finale always gives Durban audiences a chance to celebrate musically the end of a wonderful week of words.
What is most exciting about the line-up this year?
We have an unprecedented number of KwaZulu-Natal participants. This is testament to the developmental work in the province to grow a scene and nurture talent through various platforms, including Poetry Africa.
How does the festival try to keep up with the broad scope of poetic disciplines in this country and perhaps the world?
The internet has made that much easier, I think. It is now possible to see the performances of artists online and potential participants are able to send us books and material online without as many hassles as back in the day when you had to arrange for books to be delivered.
How does it try to respond to contemporary events?
We try to be relevant in the work that we do, always, and certainly that is influenced by events happening in the country and the world.
It’s a fine line we have to constantly balance to speak to issues of the time without prescribing to the poets what to base their performances around.
The community understands that we hope to curate a programme that speaks to issues of our times in all our festivals and, somehow, so far, most of our participants use this platform to address pertinent contemporary issues.
For example, this year’s Time of the Writer was the platform on which Thando Mgqolozana first spoke out about his disdain for the white-centric mechanisms with which the literary landscape works in South Africa. It’s worth noting that he qualified it with an admission that our festival is an exception to this as the ethos of our festivals is around community outreach and inclusivity.
What sets Poetry Africa apart from other poetry festivals?
The diversity of our programming, the relationships we with build with the communities we work with, and the professionalism of our team.
How does the festival interact with Durban, regarding outreach programmes and workshops?
Our festival takes place in and around Durban. We have an extensive community outreach programme that includes schools across the class spectrum, community centres that have year-round literary and poetry programmes as well as campus-based poetry groups that ensure that we are able to share our content with fanatical poetry lovers who look forward to the festival each year.
In addition to this, the Centre for Creative Arts enjoys the support of the City of Durban, which ensures that we are able to collaborate with stakeholders in poetry and literary development in different parts of the city and the municipalities.