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Weight of a life makes the poem

Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile has been in exile since 1961, in that time producing eight volumes of poetry. He managed to be back in South Africa in time for the launch of his newest collection, When the Clouds Clear, published by the Congress of South African Writers.

When the Clouds Clear (one of six new books from Cosaw) is made up of poems Kgositsile wrote at various times during the past two decades of his life in America and Africa.

There were “positive things about exile, like being in contact with a wide spectrum of African, European — East and West — writers.” (He raised some hackles in the black consciousness movement in America, whose poets he told: “Your blackness is not an issue. It’s a fact of life. It cannot be endangered.”) Yet, he says, “Exile is a very abnormal life. All your preoccupations are about home — it doesn’t matter where you are. In that way it can be traumatic.”

There was also the palpable presence of the South African government’s assassins. In a Botswana raid Kgositsile lost a number of close personal and family friends. “It took my children a long time to accept that they would never see those people again. After that, you never knew if you were going to be alive in a few hours’ time. We distributed the children among friends, and we were not the only ones.”

He spent 13 years in the United States, 10 of them in New York. “I used to be impressed at the admirable reading habits of the Americans,” he says. “On the subway, for instance. But I later realised they use it to avoid communication.”

Kgositsile became allergic to New York, and moved to North Carolina, where, he says, “people are more relaxed”.

In those years he taught American, Afro-American, African and Caribbean literature, ran workshops for students and teachers of such literature, wrote freelance articles and, of course, poetry. Later he took his teaching skills to universities in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

He also edited a volume of African poetry, The Word Is Here (“I had to go through so much poetry that I couldn’t write my own”). He bemoans the barrier between South Africa and the rest of our continent, particularly in its effect on culture. “We hope that in the near future that barrier will be broken. The dynamism of cultural development is the result of contact with as wide a spectrum of cultures as possible. I almost go crazy when I hear someone talking about ‘African culture’ as if it’s some monolith, when inarguably there are different cultures, even within the same borders. Like in South Africa, despite the similarities, there particularities in different cultures that should be mutually enriching.”

He laughs at the comment that the word “Eurocentric” has become an insult in certain cultural circles. “The initial historical contact was bitter,” he notes. “And the history that followed was brutal. But everything European isn’t negative — we ought to arrive at a point where we can appraise both negative and positive. To write in a European language but to reject everything European seems contradictory to me, because the culture of a people is embedded in its language.”

Kgositsile is a founder member of the ANC’s department of arts and culture, which he feels was an important area that the movement had been neglecting.

“The leadership of the ANC for years didn’t understand culture as being integral to the struggle. Yet in talking about an alternative South Africa, they were talking about an alternative culture. I’m not sure that even today that is understood.”

Kgositsile is critical of the tendency to restrict the range of culture. “I would question the sanity of a resolution against flowers, or against love [in poetry],” he says. “Ready slogans appeal to sentiment — at the point of crisis historically, something is needed to rally people round. Slogans are appropriate at a rally, but after that rally we still need poems. Those who shout slogans are not beyond the resentment of their humanity being denied. As brutal as Chile has been, Pablo Neruda did not write slogans. As brutal as Vietnam has been, Ho Chi Minh did not write slogans. And they suffered no less than we did.

“When I write a poem, at the beginning I haven’t the vaguest idea what it’s about. But if the weight of my life is put into that poetic comment, my deepest concerns will come out no matter where I start. I believe when you write you are defining who you are, which might go through several mutations, but remains the same person. At the risk of some poets wanting to cut my throat, I’d say you write basically the same poem all your life — from different angles.”

First published in The Weekly Mail, October 2 1990

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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