One of the great things about Poetry International this year is that the Street Genius placements not only got to experience new poets, but they also met the people being the poems, poets, programmers and also librarians. This video is part of an interview between Michael Oladeji and Chris McCabe from the Poetry Library.
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A NEW INTERNATIONAL LITERARY CONFERENCE LAUNCHED.
In the month of July I had the occasion to attend the launch of the Pan African Literary Forum (PALF) in Accra, Ghana, which is a new player in the international literary movement.
PALF was founded in 2006 by a group of writers and educators from the continent and the Diaspora. These writers and educators believed that they could make a difference by starting an international organisation to help African writers and those of African descent worldwide with training resources, publication, marketing and representation. PALF has its aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings in the writings and activism of W.E. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Frantnz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, and the many others who partnered to see that African and Caribbean writers were published, and furthered the struggle for democratic representation for African people worldwide. Also of concern to PALF is the historical under-representation and marginalisation of African and African Diaspora writers in the global literary community. The organisers announced that in the future PALF will host a series of annual conferences, and students will engage with established writers and literary professionals in a series of workshops, seminars and discussions uniquely focussed on both issues of craft (the art of writing well) and literary professionalism (the business of getting published) to provide developing writers with the extra push they need to achieve publication. Conferences will also feature excursions to historical sites, artistic events and informal gatherings, all designed to promote cross cultural dialogue.
The key note address was given by South African Poet Laureate, Professor Willie Kgositsile, who is also the Special Advisor to South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan. In his address, amongst many other issues, he bemoaned the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa against foreigners, and concluded with readings from some of his poetry, which were well received by the audience.
The Executive Director of PALF is Professor Jeffery Renard Allen, who earned a Ph.D in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Illinois, and is currently an instructor in the graduate writing program at the The New School for Social Research in the United States Of America. He is published in both poetry and prose, and has won several awards for his books, amongst which are the Whiting Writer’s Awards, the Chicago Public Library’s Twenty-First Century Award, and the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction.
This is a more than welcome development for writers on the continent because of its general lack of educational resources (such as the Masters if Fine Arts programmes in creative writing found at many USA and European universities) and limited access to important resources like literary journals, agents, publishing companies and grant making foundations, and also of the fact that non-African readers and writers everywhere have been long deprived of the rich variety of voices and viewpoints to be found within the Pan African Literary traditions.
In May of this year, a few days after the launch of my first book, a short story collection titled DANCING WITH LIFE AND OTHER SHORT STORIES (www.africanbookscollective.com/authors-editors/christopher–mlalazi), a stage play I co-wrote with a fellow writer, and titled THE CROCODILE OF ZAMBEZI, was banned by our government a day after the opening night, but after the production manager had been abducted by two secret police, taken to the bush out of the city and tortured.
– Oct 29
PEN strongly protests attacks against the cast and crew of satirical play The Crocodile of Zambezi and its banning by the police in Bulawayo. …
www.pen.org/printpage.php/prmID/1610 – 42k – Cached – Similar pages – Note this
The poem I am posting today, which I wrote last night, has been inspired by this incident, and the power sharing deal between our ruling party and our two main opposition parties, of which we are still waiting the results of, after two long and nerve wracking months…we are fed up!
It is very silent
On the surface
Of the Zambezi River
But deep underneath
A cyclone surges
Threatening to erupt
And engulf us once again
In vengeful crocodiles
And dawn disappearances
In my corner of the continent (Zimbabwe), things can get so hectic sometimes that one ends up losing sense of time – you are tottering around grim faced thinking deeply about surviving the today (bread queue, fuel queue, money queue) and you get a nudge – its tomorrow reminding you that hey I am here come on get out of the past and ‘ live’ in me also before you fall into a burst sewer. This is where for me music has a special place, as a reminder of other spirit elevating moments of life if politics has got you too pinned down to remember dates clearly.
I remember bonus time, and the thirteenth cheque, once when I was still employed – yuwi! This windfall usually came in the month of November, and oh how happy we would be to pay off debts we had accrued over the year, and also buy new fancy clothes for family that they would dance in come Christmas day. Not to be outdone, this was the month that most clever musicians released new music albums, and one would truly know that – YO! – Christmas was around the corner…
Ode to Christmas
The gramophone was positioned
Under the marula tree
In front of the red brick house
And, one two three
They all trooped out.
Mama in Nike sneakers
And a blue evening dress
That flashed bright strobes of light
As it caught the afternoon sun
A wicket slit on its side.
Papa is brand new
Bright orange miner’s helmet
A Spiderman t-shirt
And bell bottoms that teased the puppy.
Then next was son
In full khakhi school uniform
And O how they danced that day
They wildly swung their arms
As feet gone mad harassed the dust
And they all fervently cried out one word
Where Will They Be On Xmas day?
As our children
stare wide eyed
at glass cases of sweets
that their poor fathers
can no longer afford to buy for them
to sweeten their Xmas days –
where will the shefs* be on that day?
As mothers patch old clothes
that their children can cover their buttocks
and their husbands their crotches
between their perforated trouser legs
As cockroaches threaten mutiny
inside bare cupboards
faced by the beautiful face of hunger
in houses where once voices laughed
on sunny Xmas days –
where will the shefs be on that day
with their looted public funds?
*shef – party big shots
A frozen wave from the roadside
Between the dreamy trees marching backwards
A goat mercilessly tearing
At the petticoats of a tree unable to flee
Bloated cows crunching mouthfuls
Of helplessly trembling verge side grass
A boyman sitting on the coiling trunk
Of a fallen tree gone dry
Plucking on the fishing twine strings
Of a tin banjo
A soundless song for you as you drive past
Here’s my video diary from last night. Enjoy!
Tyranny still snarls
It’s fangs are vicious comets
Youth militia that stones at change
As what should be cowers in fear
In the bosoms of all our cowards
Those three hands shaking
And up from them
Three arms tentacling
In dark suit jackets encased
To three faces
Flashing white teeth
That tell nothing
Of the political thought
As that stone of the sky up there
Forever entombing us all
by Gloria Dawson
Valzhyna Mort seemed tiny on the vast dark blue stage of the Purcell Room. She read with directness and passion, throwing us “an acrobat in a fiery hoop” and white apples drowning in a black lake. Hard sounds sparked off each other but she always seemed to just keep hold of the sparks, hard and tight. I saw too, though, a healthy mistrust of the neatness of metaphor; the drowning white apples are just for the image, they do not necessarily mean. Recollection is not simple or hermetic either; she sees a wall, “blood invisible on its red bricks.” It’s these absent presences which make her a small Cassandra, bursting with intense cruelty and wisdom. Her work reminds us, as tragedy does, that suffering can be limitless, can be nameless and immeasurable; “horror no longer had a signifier.” But the poet can train their eye on the wall with the invisible stain; they can see the shape of the past, even when it has been scrubbed out. I can’t see or feel any whole poem that she read (and she didn’t fill her allotted time, either; I wish there had been more) – but images burn through, and I can see her sureness.
I was incredibly excited to see Mourid Barghouti, whose 1997 meditation on his life and his city, I Saw Ramallah, is one of the best books I have ever read. He was well-paired with Mort – both their poems tend towards concision, repetition, aphorism. More than with Mort, I found the running translation on the big screen above his head a problem. I wanted to watch every movement of his hands, his body, his lips; they shaped the poem as much as his vocal chords (I find Arabic effortlessly mournful, soft yet powerful, and I cannot match English to it at all. I have almost no comprehension of Arabic but I sense that its rhetoric often sounds clumsy and trite when rendered into English). Barghouti reminded me tonight that it is details that wound us the most – in them we see ourselves, and we can mark change, or consistency. Barghouti has a moral seeing rather than a moral saying. Take these last lines from ‘The Three Cypress Trees’:
Yesterday, in my sudden cheerfulness,
I saw their immortality.
Today, in my sudden sorrow,
I saw the axe.
The devil is in the details, but so too is God, or redemption. Meaning for Barghouti is not always permanent, but it is always true. The object is always the same, be it the cypress or the cloak of his grandfather in a vision, wearing ‘that cloak, not a different cloak, that same cloak’; the cloak that now hangs from the jaws of a bulldozer. The past is always now, it leaps over what happens after it. The hand of his grandfather, ‘the hand that opens in forgiveness’, is also ‘the hand that was amputated many years ago.’ The anti-chronological revelation is shocking, but not just that. It reminded me that gesture is always sincere. And it was said with such quietness and reserve.
After an interval, Jorie Graham and Mark Doty read. I was anticipating Graham with excitement and worry. I had not enjoyed her recent work, Sea Change, and had concluded, like the man in the record shop, that she has never bettered her early collections. She is, in some ways, deeply complacent; she knows that she is revered enough to spend ten minutes of her allocated time on a preamble about the importance of artistic imagination in allowing people access to the impending climate catastrophe (rather marred by easy side-swipes at Sarah Palin). Her work frequently seems abstruse, so in some ways the context she gave was helpful, although she could have been more concise. In my final year at university I spent some months studying Graham’s work, and never considered her ‘politics’ (I think I discovered John Kinsella at the same time and wrote her off against him).In fact, her lifelong projects of ‘undoing’ and of going against conclusion and direction sit well with tonight’s impassioned defence of the need for ecological understanding through art. In one of tonight’s three poems, the line ‘I multiply on the face of the Earth’ rings out. Here is the spreading of an artistic imagination that at least attempts omnipresence, whilst at the same time resting in the details as markers (in a rather different way from Barghouti);
Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve
blossoms on three different
branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring.
George said afterwards he found the reading dispiriting but I found there was light (there is always light in Graham’s poems) as well as darkness. A typically Graham-esque pronouncement flew out: ‘You have a wild unstoppable rumour for a soul’. Mercifully, Graham does not here indulge her tendency to get hung up about what she means. She simply says it. ‘I have become the action of beauty again.’ The relationship between making beauty and saying you see it – she has enthusiasm for this. And although she and Barghouti seemingly have little in common, they both reminded us that poetry is about the present – the past and future being far, being realized, in that present. Paradoxically perhaps, poetry can show us in a unique way the perversion of nature that is global warming – the tree fruiting and flowering at the same time, the seasons collapsed. It is very hard to write about what Graham does (doubly so if you’ve studied her) – some people would use this as central to their dislike of her. She is not marketable. But there is something alchemical in her best linkages and stoppages and she conjured tears from me. I find it hard to explain how or why.
I have never been grabbed by Mark Doty. He was warm, open and polished but I still eluded his grasp. Like Graham, he has a distrust of anthropomorphism, worrying in his first poem about ‘freighting [the bat] with something not exactly his’. His anxiety feels, though, self-regarding rather than world-regarding. And he wanted us to like him. Not entirely his fault, though, this bum note after such energetic and different readings. He is a poet of another cast entirely, and I would have left him off an already-crowded platform. I feel it rather an insult that two of the most significant living poets were then put with two other also-significant poets. After all, all four had much material to draw from. This felt like a rather tokenistic internationalism, a taster menu of four full-flavoured national dishes, the South Bank Centre perhaps biting off more than it could chew. Each one of these poets, especially Barghouti and Graham, deserved more time and consideration.
Just a note to amend my earlier prediction that I wold have read and had something to comment on this lecture by now. It is not yet on the web, and the Poetry Book Society is unable to tell me when they think it might be. So whether I had the wrong end of the stick or not I don’t know, but I apologise for raising expectations! I’ll comment on it on Baroque in Hackney as and when it becomes available.