A poet laureate, a servant of the people
In 2005, after shopping the idea around for a decade, the Write Associates got government support to institutionalise the office of the poet laureate.
“We wanted to start a uniquely South African awards literary scheme that would recognise the work of South African writers in all the official languages,” says Raks Seakhoa, the organisation’s managing director. “The category we started with as the South African Literary Awards was that of the national poet laureate prize, which, as you know, went to Prof Mazisi Kunene in 2005. After he passed away in 2006, it went to Bra Willie.”
Seakhoa says the appointment was made after a public call for submissions of candidates whose works rendered them worthy. The submissions were then considered by a panel of five judges, which included the likes of Mbulelo Mzamane and Mothobi Mutloatse.
When Keorapetse Kgositsile was named the national poet laureate, he was already working as an adviser to the then minister of arts and culture, Pallo Jordan, who gave the keynote address on the occasion.
Seakhoa says the reason for setting up the office was for society to have somebody to look up to — a champion for building up a culture of reading and writing, particularly of poetry.
“Besides encouraging a culture of reading and writing, his mandate was also to go around the country teaching poetry, not from the classroom as in university or anything like that, but like we did with Cosaw [the Congress of South African Writers], which was to take writers around the country and do literature workshop. Bra Willie did a lot of that,” Seakhoa says.
But besides having been in existence for a decade, the office of the poet laureate has little to show for it institutionally. Seakhoa says, from their side, the award came with a trophy and a once-off cheque of R100 000. The rest was left to Bra Willie’s enthusiasm and will power.
“When he started, there were no special funds to assist the poet laureate to travel, but it was through other programmes, through invitations, for which he was not getting paid,” says Siphiwo Mahala, who had started the books and publishing division at the arts and culture department shortly after Jordan’s arrival.
“He was always out there doing those workshops. Even when he had left the department, he continued doing them.” Kgositsile served as adviser for three ministers.
The appointment of two poets who had spent much of their productive life in exile did little to counter the impression that the award placed more value on the experiences of exile than on those of poets who had spent their lives keeping the home fires burning. Others saw the selection process as neither open nor transparent.
“It’s not that they didn’t deserve it, it’s just that the process needed to be opened up,” a former department official, speaking anonymously, says. “The award may be at a crisis point now because how it is realised going forward may hurt Bra Willie’s integrity and credibility.”
Author and poet Sandile Ngidi, who was there when the idea was conceived, says the plan behind the proposition was that “there was a statement that needed to be made about who we consider as some of the iconic black figures that this country must pay tribute to”. In addition, “it was a call to action for artists to lay down a new foundation for the new society” South Africa was seeking to build. “Him [Bra Willie], Mazisi [Kunene] and [Dennis] Brutus all fell within that category.”
Ngidi believes the award should have nothing to do with age and should be properly resourced.
“First and foremost, it is about the craft of poetry. For somebody to do poetry workshops and readings, they need to be able to travel and to earn a reasonable stipend and, using the most frugal resources possible, either from state coffers and other benefactors, help others realise and appreciate the importance of the arts,” Ngidi says. He considers Bra Willie as consummate in his role of poet laureate, primarily because of his talent as a teacher.
“Bra Willie was a great teacher, a teacher who didn’t impose. A teacher who made you realise that you think you know but you don’t know much. He had a beautiful way of showing you that in a manner that didn’t make you feel aggrieved or belittled. If you met him at a reading or workshops, he could easily give you a book if he had one with him.
“Artists must be present in real life and in the realm of other artists. And with Bra Willie you didn’t necessarily have to be a poet but you had to have a certain commitment or passion for the arts.”
Mahala, who travelled with him extensively as a result of their synergistic roles, recalls Bra Willie’s love for buying gifts and the humility he showed in sharing his work.
“He taught me how to love,” he says. “He was a very committed person to his family. I remember one morning he called me, we were in Cuba together. We would usually start our day off at 9am. This morning he called me to his room. He wanted to read to me something he had written. It was a letter to his wife. It was titled Letter from Havana (for Baby K). He was also a shopaholic. He would buy books, of course, and clothing. When he bought clothing, it was first shoes for his wife. After buying for his wife, only then did he consider himself.”
Mahala says, when considering Bra Willie’s legacy as poet laureate, we should aim to redeem ourselves retrospectively. He elaborates: “It is quite ironic that we have a poet laureate, whose books are not available virtually anywhere in the public domain. Exclusive Books does not stock his books, although they might start scrambling now.
“Since he came to the country, he published two books, If I Could Sing and This Way I Salute You. He published both with Kwela. But Kwela struck both off the roll because they were not selling.
So because of the commercialisation of literature we are unable to access his works. Now we have about 2 000 libraries that are publicly funded in this country. If all those libraries bought those two books, that would mean he can sell 4 000 copies, at least.”
Asked about a perception that, by virtue of being poet laureate, the implied relationship between the poet and the state may have cooled the fire that was Bra Willie, Seakhoa shoots me a brief, puzzled look, before saying: “I think his tenure as poet laureate speaks to that very question. Bra Willie was the most critical, free-spirited and bold-minded individual. Those fears, whoever had them, were quashed quite quickly.”
In Seakhoa’s eyes, Bra Willie was the poet laureate before there was even a poet laureate.
But his death leaves us with a few questions: What about the selection of the next poet laureate? Will there be a fixed tenure, or will they take the award to their grave? Will they come from the ranks of the governing party, as the previous two did? If not, will the office be given the required resources to flourish and remain unhindered whichever way the political tides turn?