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Poetry’s flickering flame

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With their warm, creative souls, they have lit the literary fires and never let the fires flicker out.

Where necessary, they have lived the pain of endurance.

It may, therefore, perhaps be high time poets lived the joy of victory; yes, time they earned the right of sitting with proud heads among other artists.

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After all, the flame of English poetry has flickered and caught the fire of public enthusiasm.

Tour of words

If ever Malawians needed confirmation that English spoken-word poetry has taken its right place in the court of public opinion, they need to go no further that the case of Qabaniso ‘Q’ Malewezi.

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Watching him recite at Chancellor College’s The Little Theatre during the ‘People Spoken Word Tour’ jointly organised by the Writers Workshop and No Child Left Behind on October 28, there was no doubting that the leaves of appreciation have sprouted from the tree of English spoken-word poetry.

Malewezi made easy meat of spoken-word poetry as he recited over 15 poems with nothing but his mind as the term of reference.

Some of the poems were, probably, composed in the rush of enthusiasm; some in the rush of anger, as when he talks of Malawi being “nothing”; and, yet, some were, probably, composed based on no real-time experience, as when things happen in the poet’s make-believe world, often on the fertile soil of imagination.

The encouraging aspect— an indication, perhaps, that many others are willing to board the poetry boat until it reaches the shore of public satisfaction— is that other male and female poets are willingly hauling their frames to the to the stage, to be weighed, measured by the unpredictable audience.

In the case of the ‘People Spoken Word Tour’ in Zomba, those who jumped on the stage of audience opinion included Lily Banda, Julius Jules Banda Jr., Phindu Zaie Banda, Argent Mpindamalata and Uchizi Carier Manda.

Gauging by the patronage, among the audience members being Malawians and non-Malawians, English spoken-word poetry has, surely, reached the age when its influence bursts beyond the bounds of expectation, as well as the bounds of physical geography.

Although there is no one-stop measure of public satisfaction, it may not be far from the truth that those who drank from the cup of ‘People Spoken Word Tour’ went back home with something new and undying.

The pioneering English spoken-word poets, those whose story cannot be told without meshing it with the contribution of Q Malewezi, have, surely, turned the rudder of poetry’s destiny in a new direction.

And, in line with the new sense of direction, days of posing with Q Malewezi for free are gone. A photo-shoot with Q Malewezi now costs K250 or more!

Spicing act

While English spoken-word poetry can be said to be in quarter or half flower, instead of being in full flower because patches of doubt here and there remain, its opposite – namely English written-word poetry– has had a foothold on the nation for a comparatively long time.

For example, the likes of Hoffman Aipira have published poetry books. The works of Stanley Onjezani Kenani, Zondiwe Mbano, Chimombo, Paul Sezzie, Silvester Chabuka, among others, are public currency.

But it is English spoken-word poets such as Malawezi and Yankho Seunda who have taken the genre to a certain, meaning elevated, level.

Seunda, well-known for poetry pieces such as ‘Expectations’ and ‘Cursed endeavours’ can recite one piece from memory for up to eight minutes— not to mention Malewezi, who seems to relish his every performance.

Malewezi seems to have grown with age, and experience. The award-winning Malawian spoken word artist has recited at big stages such as Poetry Africa, AfrWeka Poetry Festival, Harare International Festival of Arts, Word N Sound Poetry Festival and Lake of Stars Arts Festival.

Indeed, Malewezi’s exploits prompted Mzuzu University to honour him and he was duly awarded with an Honorary Doctorate for his masterly of creative arts in 2015.

For starters, though, the question remains: How long does it take for one to commit stanzas to memory — memory being, as it were, feeble sometimes?

Seunda once told Weekender that he had never thought about it [time factor].

“I am not very sure,” Seunda said.

Crossing the line

Is it possible for written word poets to ‘cross the floor’ and tread on spoken word poetry territory?

Written word poet [Chichewa, that is] Joseph Madzedze said he has never heard of a case where a written word poet does both written word and spoken word poetry, saying this could be because every individual has strengths and works towards consolidating such strengths.

“For me, I feel comfortable as a written word poet because this is an area I am strong in. I guess if someone moved from being a written word poet and spoken word poet, they would stick to being spoken word poet as that would mean they have mastered the techniques of reciting from memory,” Madzedze said recently.

Written word poet Silvester Chabuka, who recites in English and vernacular, said there is nothing wrong with written word poetry for one to think of making the switch to written word poetry.

He, however, observed that some written word poets like him sometimes briefly abandon the piece of paper or whatever material they have written the poem on, and look at the audience in the course of a performance— so long as the line being recited is short or well-known by the poet.

“Otherwise, I have been reciting at a number of events and I do not think the audience has problems with written word poets,” he said.

Taking poetry abroad

Poetry, spoken-word or written-word, has left its mark on local audiences. The journey, though, remains uncovered on the international scene as Malawian poets seem to have a dislike for international poetry events.

For instance, the absence of Malawian poets at the world’s biggest online archive of pan-African poetry, Badilisha Poetry X-Change, has been conspicuous, even when organisers have hosted live poetry events in Cape Town, South Africa.

Local poets have, in the recent past, not even bothered to participate in the Badilisha Road Trip – a trip into the African continent that aims at meeting and recording the work of the poets who live and work in Africa.

And, yet, the Badilisha Poetry Pan-African event has often featured a host of award-winning internationally acclaimed poets such as TJ Dema from Botswana and South African living legend, Professor Keorapatse Willie Kgositsile, thereby offering the opportunity for networking.

Tanzanian and Ethiopian poets have also benefitted from the event, which enjoys the support of the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

In 2015, the road trip targeted eight African cities. From Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, poets travelled on to Johannesburg, Gaborone and Maun in Botswana; then North to Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar and Addis Ababa in East Africa.

Its aim was to grow the archive of African poems.

But maybe, in a country where, according to Poetry Association of Malawi president, Felix Njonjonjo, “90 percent of the poetry works Malawians get access to are pirated”, it is easy to understand the local poet’s passive mood towards such events.

Why extend one’s body across the borders when the back is not covered? Maybe they need to cover their backs first, by fighting piracy, before exposing themselves to the stretching business of international events.

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