a recent, thought-provoking facebook post by nazlee arbee – a talented young poet from durban currently studying at uct – sparkled a discussion on two topics that lie at the core of the debate on spoken word poetry, i.e. the quality of today’s live poetry sessions, and the dialogue between poets belonging to different generations and geographic areas.
below you can find the original post by nazlee, and some selected responses to it, which have been edited and adapted for this column. this text in fact reproduces only a tiny fraction of the facebook thread, specifically the one that involves nazlee, wns poet mutle mothibe and yours truly (aka wolfman). there are many more interesting comments from poets such as vus’umuzi phakathi and siphokazi jonas, among others, which are not reported here. for further documentation, please visit nazlee’s wall.
i hope that this exchange of ideas will fuel reflections and generate responses from the wns audience, one of the most passionate and competent poetry audiences i have come across in my 10-year-long activity in the south african spoken word scene.
enjoy the read and… voice your opinion!
love, peace & poetry
nazlee arbee – 24 june at 22:51
“i can’t even sit through most poetry shows these days. everybody sounds the same: the same rhythm, the same nagging monotone, the same cliché social issues. give it up already. poets watch too many youtube video clips of american poets. read! wordsmiths are a dying breed”
nazlee: we need to stop trying to write “poems”, and write truths. the very idea of what a poem needs to be, what a poem sounds like, what shape and form and flow it takes is so problematic. south african poets literally sparked a revolution with the black consciousness poetry movement, we just didn’t catch aflame and left the revolution in the lurch with the liberal illusion of freedom. we need to write “bad” poems, ugly poems, disturbing poems. i have had it up to here with well written, eloquent poems that say nothing. there is nothing neat about our pain. it needs to sound the way we feel.
wolfman: amen. i wrote a poem titled “tell me stories, or else…” to express my discontent with today’s poetry sessions… most of these “poets” think that if you go on stage, throw a couple of flashy punch-lines and get some finger snaps from the cute girls in the front row, you’ve made it… another alarming sign is that young poets do not read other poets’ works (past or present), but limit their exposure to poetry to what they hear in live sessions (or to videos they find online). i saw a tv interview to a very popular young poet from joburg, the interviewer asked him: “so who are the poets that inspire you most?” and the dude answered by mentioning three guys that perform in his inner circle of poetry sessions! i found it very sad… to excel at something, you have to know the history of it: if you do not absorb the previous traditions, what other people have done before you, you will always be a mediocre “artist”. the community of young poets is too often self-referential, there is a lack of engagement with other poets, and with poetry in general, i think. this is one of the main reasons why the local poetry scene is becoming less and less inspiring, unfortunately… i came to south africa in 2006, and there were places like horror cafe in newton where the sessions where really hot. most of those poets are still around, doing great things (afurakan, khethi, flo, napo, etc.). i have been attending sessions in sa and overseas regularly since then, and the quality of the poetic offerings in sa today is much lower. these are general considerations, there are good poets even today, but usually poetry sessions are not as exciting as they used to be.
mutle: the politics of this art we joined will always be funny… someone is always dissatisfied with tone, pace, real, fake, fake deep, lies… all of it relative to where we are on our journey through life. i kinda get where you are nazlee, but could the people who say this generation is low on real wordsmiths please define what an authentic wordsmith is? give us guidelines or things we need to work on? what subject matter should one avoid to rekindle your interest in it? what distinct qualities we need to embody to have the right to refer ourselves as “poets”? which poets do we need to read and reference during interviews? explain in detail what an authentic south african voice sounds like? prescribe the best format for these “poets” to tell their truth?
wolfman: mutle, there are no guidelines or one-size-fits-all criteria for what poetry is, or what poets you must reference. this is about your journey, you’ll see what works best for your growth as a poet. in my humble opinion, poetry is all about the crafting of words. nowadays i see that too many young “poets” are preoccupied only with the theatrical aspects of the performance, and their works are just not imaginative enough to shake my senses. it is my personal opinion, i am not setting standards. in the last 10 years i have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands poets in action, old and young, good and bad, from sa and beyond, and all i am saying is that i hardly get inspired by what i see at the moment on sa stages. in a standard session i hear maybe one or two interesting poems, the rest is empty words. in the past i got excited more frequently.
nazlee: i do not have all the answers, but i really like those questions. i will keep thinking about them. i think we all need to. i agree with wolfman, that there is no set criteria. it is very subjective and what a true wordsmith is is very much up for debate. in my opinion, a wordsmith is a word artist that is innovative and creative to name a few characteristics. the “poets” that i’m referring to have failed to create and instead, replicate. poetry is a craft that needs to be worked at consistently. as wolfman suggested, it is a craft. from what i’ve witnessed, it seems that people are not fixated with trying to “master” the craft and hone their skills, what needs to be worked on consistently. pseudointellectual poems would be one to avoid to rekindle my interest. like one of the nowadays poets said: “just cause you’re confusing doesn’t mean that you’re deep”. with regard to subject matter, if you feel it, you should write it. i have witnessed disconnection from poetry in an attempt at receiving finger snaps. it irks me. i have commented on some of my ideas on format in the comments above.
mutle: i love that you said that… it’s a no-one-size-fits all, nor are there guidelines. it’s at times arbitrary, people making things up as they go along. totally agree… and even the very young poets mentioning cats from their circles is not a factual indicator that that is all they know of the art form they worship. i (being one of those poets who rarely mention the old school poetry totems when being interviewed) feel the current generation needs to be spoken of a lot more… i need to mention the current gems we have, but this does not mean i have not read, gone mush, studied, praised the mad formats the older poets applied and added to this art form… i guess we all come at this with different palates and i can respect your boredom. in all honesty, i stumbled into the scene towards the end of the horror cafe era, and was the kid who ran home just to listen to the rudeboy paul’s poetry session on yfm… and the little i saw and heard from that time vs the craziness i have seen this year alone… i feel sure the theatricks can sell silly content but maaaaaaaaaan!… there are crazy acts that could garner mad standing ovations if they were to grace the old school dope spots from your era: i am talking poet and mic nothing else.
nazlee: i have been in the same circles of many of these poets for years now, and somehow, they are still the very few names i can come up with when i think of authenticity. that is exactly my problem. it is the same group each time! that is why i believe that wordsmiths are a dying breed. i have personally not witnessed much drastic change and challenge since hearing many of these kats way back when. i am glad that you are in dire disagreement with me. for the sake of poetry and for what’s left of my sanity, i genuinely hope you prove me wrong! people sounding like me is definitely not something i look forward to. i understand that new voices take on another voice before finding their own, however, in the circles i grew up in, it was always something we were called out on and with the increased awareness, slipping into your own shoes is something you do hurriedly. i’m not saying that we can’t take from other poets. i’m all for intertextuality and i believe that nothing is completely new or original, but it has gotten to the point where poems sound like entirely regurgitated and far removed from the poet themselves. i am personally on a different pathway with my poetry. i have and still am debating with myself about the online thing. that is a debate in its own. however, from where i stand at present, it seems that the digitalization of poetry has had a definite impact on the commodification of the art. who poets are exposed to does not only depend on what is posted online. it has a lot to do with the ways in which we present the poetry, and it’s worth thinking long and hard about our channels of distribution instead of automatically resorting to the internet. yes, we live in the 21st century and it makes our art accessible worldwide, but i’m not really one for globalization in the first place. if people really want to be “exposed” to poetry, it might be helpful to put their cellphones down every now and then. you’ve already heard my suggestion of taking it to the streets. but aye, that’s just my opinion.
wolfman: with regards to my own excitement with performances (and with poetry in general), i follow only one criteria, the “emily dickinson criteria”: she said that “if i read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, i know that is poetry. if i feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, i know that is poetry. these are the only ways i know it. is there any other way?”. so, in my case, i just don’t get this feeling often at poetry sessions. but that does not mean that the poetry that does not excite me is not poetry. the fact that there are huge audiences that enjoy it is great. as for referencing or not referencing poets, i disagree with you. when you mention poets outside of your inner circle, you pay tribute to poetry as a genre, as a language of artistic expression, and not just to some cats you drink beer with. on the contrary, by not mentioning them, you fail to pay respect to those who were there before you, and allowed you to be who you are today, because they paved the way for you. i make you an example: i asked bra willie kgositsile and kobus moolman the same question in different occasions, and they said neruda and lorca, vallejo and transtromer, respectively (and not their peers like serote or ari sitas, for example). if i had to be asked the same question, i would not say nazlee, mutle and phillippa yaa de villiers: these are the guys i share the stage with, it is understood that i am inspired by them, otherwise i will not enjoy being part of their community!
mutle: i hear you and that emily dickinson criteria is hella dope. but on the topic of who to mention i disagree with you, i feel… sure give the greats their due credit if you want to, and i fully acknowledge and respect what they paved, but for now i am too inspired by the current generation, and my mind grabs what is near and dear and moving me presently so much so that when someone says… give me 3 names that inspire you, i have a feeling that 9 times out of 10 i will mention the current generation. i think the greats won’t mind if i don’t mention and celebrate the beauty of their efforts.
wolfman: on not paying tribute to the “old school”, another young poet once said: “i do not read other people’s poetry because i don’t want to be influenced by anyone. i want to find my own voice”. this means that when your idea is pushed to the extreme, it can generate such superficial attitudes towards the art of poetry. my point is that in order to master the game, you have to know its rules, even if it’s just to break them! i am not saying that one must not celebrate the young talented poets of this country… i’m one of the very few scholars who constantly supports and promotes the works of young poets in the academia, for instance (nazlee, you can confirm, can’t you? J). what i am saying is that, as a writer, i feel obliged to celebrate both old and young poets.
because i don’t belong to anyone
and nobody belongs to me”
… from time to time a sheep
leaves the herd
and becomes a lone wolfman
such a wolfman lives
on his own…
wolfman is a wandering poet
he was named by fellow wandering poet mandi vundla
his favourite poetry book is “the wolf texts” by lance henson
his favourite movie is “an american werewolf in london”
his favourite song is “born to be wild” by steppenwolf
his favourite pornstar is katrin wolf