/ 1 September 2017

Poets’ society revolution

Book theft in South Africa has recently been under the spotlight.
The community responded to the death by looting the shop and assaulting the owners. (Thulani Mbele/Timeslive)

A tiny literary revolution is taking over my bookshelf.

On its eager shelves are the humble beginnings of a library of young South African poets. It begins with a chapbook, a lean body of work compressed into 28 pages. The cover features a mosaic of faces that appear in a sea of blue hues. The title of Ashley Makue’s collection of poems is a declaration that boldly proclaims I Know How to Fix Myself.

Next to Makue’s chapbook, Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia has made a home for itself. The cover, now instantly recognisable, features a black woman dressed in black, her legs folded under her and a black skirt pools behind her. In her arms she clutches a white baby doll dressed in frilly white.

These two books are eagerly waiting to welcome Katleho Shoro’s poetry anthology Serurubele and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’s ice cream headache in my bone, which I have yet to purchase.

In the world of publishing, we are often told that poetry is not financially viable. In South Africa, an English work of fiction can expect to sell between 600 and 1 000 copies in its lifetime, according to a 2016 report by Nielsen Bookscan, which measures sales at mainstream retail outlets.

Arthur Atwell, a professional in the publishing industry, wrote specifically on printing poetry in the country, estimating that there are fewer than five publishers willing to take on poetry: “Those who are brave enough to publish collections of new poetry will publish one a year. These will usually lose money and be cross-subsidised by other publishing.” Add to the mix the fact that the literary landscape tends to be skewed towards older poets.

Now you understand the remarkable context in which a growing shelf of young South African poets emerges.

I Know How to Fix Myself, Collective Amnesia and Serubele are significant because the authors are all under the age of 30, all released debut collections and now have a body of work published by reputable publishing houses and initiatives.

Collective Amnesia was published by the small, independent uHlanga Press, a young press that has a knack for picking up award-winning titles, such as Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes and Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage.

I Know How to Fix Myself is one of the 11 in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Set, edited by internationally recognised African poetry scholars Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes.

The annual project, backed by the African Poetry Book Fund, functions as a searchlight for exciting African poetry, and can only contribute to the groundswell of voices rising on the continent.

Serurubele is published by the feminist press Modjadji Books, which amplifies the voices of Southern African women, slowly shifting the gender imbalances in publishing.

Putuma, Makue and Shoro are prominent figures on the performance poetry scene, with each of them holding at least one regional title in the past four years.

The endurance of the spoken-word movements around the country is noteworthy. In the past decade, movements such as Word n Sound in Johannesburg, Inzync, Grounding Sessions and the Lingua Franca Spoken Word Movement in Cape Town, Current State of Poetry slams and countless others have become spaces where young South Africans can grapple with the nuances of language in a visceral way.

The introduction to poetry in school is so often sterile, with poetry dissected on school desks, so alternative ways of connecting to the literary arts are more important now than ever before.

We also live in a country in which the majority of the literature published is in English or Afrikaans, even though the majority of South Africa’s youth speak these as second or third languages.

A 2016 report reveals that 58% of grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning. The growing gap in comprehension is only compounded by literary forms such as poetry, which require a high level of fluency to understand.

The publishing of young South African poets, especially those who come from a performance background, is exciting. It presents the potential to mix the oral and the written in a way that can aid understanding and literacy in a country that desperately needs both.

Performance poets offer us the unique advantage of not only understanding how words read, but also how they live and breathe off the page.

The recognition garnered by these young poets’ collections should make the publishing industry reflect on the state of South Africans’ poetic landscape.

The hope is that these titles challenge the narrative that poetry books are not viable in print — and that soon my bookshelf will be caught in a full revolution.