Over the past couple of days I’ve been slowly processing my experience at this year’s Poetry Africa Festival. I think I can safely say it’s the best festival in which I’ve been privileged to participate. In terms of scope, ambition, focus and organisation it was top-notch from beginning to end. Hats off to Tiny Mungwe, festival director par excellence, and her crew. (Nomfundo, Mitchell, Stephen and all the others who worked so hard).
This was a young team but what especially impressed me was the maturity with which they went about their business; how they remained in control -even in the face of the inevitable twists and minor mishaps- while exhibiting a consistently chilled and laid-back demeanour. They were able to enjoy themselves (and perhaps even share a refreshment or two with the poets) while ensuring the transport ran on time and so on. Their relaxed but professional approach set the perfect tone throughout.
Of course a festival is nothing without comraderie, and here once again Poetry Africa was all but unparalleled. We were kept busy for most of the week -with pods of poets visiting schools, colleges, community centres and whatnot- and undertaking such work together went a long way toward fostering a fairly intense espirit de corps.
I’ll especially treasure the memory of a couple of ‘beach sessions’ with Rafael and Natalia, just sitting there drinking and smoking while clouds almost Irish in their succulence whipped in from the Indian Ocean. Natalia Molebatsi, whose set began so quietly with searching, shy and untitled lyrics only to end in an explosion of rhyme over Quash’s irresistible, irrepressible beat-boxing: Music tonight? Music all night, baby… Incredible stuff. Rafael D’Abdon, Italian by birth but truly a South African poet, whose Sunnyside Nightwalk contains several stone cold classics, including what is surely one of the most moving poems written in recent decades about masturbation…
What I found especially exhilarating was the blend of poetry superficially written ‘for the page’ with that written with an eye (or two) on performance. Indeed, at this festival such distinctions simply broke down. Vivek Narayanan, currently at Harvard’s Radcliffe Centre and destined -I’m sure- to be a global poetry figure in the coming years, writes a dense and myth-infused brand of poetry. But he wasn’t afraid to party, to stand up and release his work to the audience in all its colour, noise and strangeness. The same goes for the indomitable Sabitha TP, with her exquisitely delicate Celan-inflected lyrics. And for Khulile Nxumalo, whose long Pound-influcnced poem Khedzi I look forward to ingesting over the coming weeks.
Mandi Poefficent Vundla self-classifes as a slam poet but in terms of sheer linguistic vitality leaves most of the page-stuf I’ve read recently looking very wan indeed. Every time I heard this woman perform I felt the urge to stand up out of sheer respect. The multi-talented, multi-faceted Lex LaFoy produced a similar effect; this was another poet who operates in several different areas of woodcraft and shimmers seamlessly between them. Quotations from Witgenstein and electro beats? In the one set? What’s not to like? In terms of pure life affirming pleasure, though, it was Pura Lavisa who produced the greatest rush. If you ever get the chance to witness this bard of Port St John’s read, recite, dance and sing then take it. For this is another artist who excels in several media and I’m sure a world or European tour must lie not too far off in his future.
I think, however, that it’s the work of Koobus Moolman and Lesego Rampolokeng that will stay with me longest. These poets, superficially very different, are united by the intensity with which they approach the craft of verse-making, by their immersion in the very stuff of language. I was unsurprised, then, to learn they had recently undertaken a residency together. It’s a thrill to see Lesego recognised and greeted in a bar or on the street and realise his long history as a true rebel poet, to appreciate that you’re drinking with what is effectively one of South Africa’s national treasures. But perhaps Koobus, in his own quiet way, exerts a similar influence…
The Centre for Creative Arts is to be applauded for their continued support of this extraordinary event, now in it’s 16th year. I returned to Ireland pleasantly heavy with books, ideas and, above all, gratitude.