Posts Tagged ‘Dancing in orther words’

Charl-Pierre Naudé. A view on two festivals

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

A view on two festivals –  “What is Poetry” festival (Gauteng) and the “Dancing in Other Words” festival (Western Cape)


Much has been written about two international poetry festivals, which took place in South Africa in recent months. Not least on this site, Versindaba, you can read about both of them (in Afrikaans, though).

     I decided to write this reflection on the two festivals in English, even though this is an Afrikaans poetry site: English was the linking language of the festival participants.

     In juxtaposing the two festivals you begin to see their various and variating significances, and some reading possibilities of both festivals emerge.

     Poems are very sensitive constructs and the hierarchy of their communications alters according to the changing contexts in which the poems are read (or reopened).     

     The two festivals represented contrasting contexts – even contesting – but not contradictory. I mention this because in the afterglow of the last of the two mentioned festivals, held in Stellenbosch, commentary arose on a Stellenbosch University-based website which is so typical of the either/or mentality found in South Africa these days as a kneejerk reaction to our complexity. (I will return to this discussion further on in my review).

     I had the good fortune to be involved in both festivals. I was asked to comment in my personal capacity, which means my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of my colleagues in either festival.

     With regard to the first – held in the northern provinces of Gauteng, Northwest and Limpopo – I was an invited reader. With the second festival, I was involved in the conceptualization, albeit on the fringe in my capacity as a member of the Pirogue Collective, one of the overseeing agencies of the festival.    

    Both festivals had a caravan component – i.e. they were roaming festivals, a kind of festival which utilizes the possibilities of changing landscape and the effect this has on the poetry. (I did not attend the jaunts of the Spier Festival into the Western Cape hinterland though, during which the invited poets translated work of one another. I heard it was riveting in its riches.)

     Both festivals functioned as an installment of a train of prior and intended further festivals.

     The “What is Poetry?” festival of South Africa 2013 was curated by Indra Wussow, director of the Sylt Foundation for the arts, Germany and Jozi Artlab, Johannesburg. This caravan roamed the north of the country from 23rd  April to 3rd May and the event followed on the Forum Penyair International Indonesia, a poetry caravan on the island of Java the previous year. (The Javanese caravan was curated by Indonesian poet Dudy Anggawi and German radio journalist and literature academic Silke Behl, one of the co-founders the Bremen Poetry on the Road festival).

     These two festivals were the first and second installments of the on-going international poetry project What’s Poetry? (curated by German poet Michael Augustin) – borrowing its name from a poem by British “Mersy-poet” (after the river of Liverpool), Adrian Henry.

     A caravan leg of the What’s Poetry project is currently being planned for mainland China as a third installment of the project.

     The reader will notice, hopefully with amusement, the slight diversion from the project name, What’s Poetry, as reflected in the name of the South African leg of the project – namely “What is Poetry?” It happened almost seamlessly, but a few quaint questions peel off. It is probably not surprising that the name morphed in the way it did while in South Africa, a country of passionate insistence (I insist on this, you insist on that). Suddenly the emphasis was on the verb. Words have a way of paying tribute to honesty while poets sleep. To build on an image by the South African poet Nadine Botha, they are the ants that carry the house off while nobody notices …

     The “What is Poetry” tour of South Africa had something catholic, in the sense of encompassing, to its intended ambit – like its forerunner to a lesser extent. The poets for the tour were drawn from South Africa, China, Japan, Germany, India, Indonesia (Bali and Java), and the German part of Switzerland, Botswana and Russia. As in the case of the Forum Penyair in Indonesia (Java) the previous year, there seemed to be a conscious emphasis on four points of reference as far as selection goes: the continental, the part within the national, the sub continental and the binational – four relationships/ tensions that shape identities of poetries and the appearance of the world as we know it.

     In the case of South Africa the “part-national” aspect (within the context of an aspiring whole), was reflected in a choice of poets from different languages and demography. Three examples: Vonani Bila (Tsonga), myself (Afrikaans), Rustum Kozain (English). It must be said though, that languages in South Africa are sometimes shared like flowing water among the participants, they flow in and out of one another, especially in the case of the black participants.

    Different binaries among the participating poets shared different first and second languages (either literary or first languages), and these multiple variations contributed to a surprise element and uniqueness in some ad hoc partnerships of performance and reading that emerged as the tour progressed. The practicalities of communication during the tour, as with the Indonesian caravan, encouraged the poets to additionally work in a second language suitable to them (if they were not doing so already), being so adrift on the currents of multilingualism.                      

     The working definition of the word “poetic” in this caravan was broader than in the case of the festival held at Spier (discussed further on). The reference of “poetic” is not only to the literary genre, but also to the “characteristic” as it reveals itself in multiple creative genres, including graphic, visual, conceptual and photographic art, and dancing. Leading agents in these other genres also took part in discussions and lectures.

     During the caravan on Java even “the poetic” in relation to food – which Indonesia is famous for – was implicitly highlighted. Food on this “continent” (it is more than a country!) is not only a matter of survival. Neither is it just a question of enjoyment. It is a proud form of expression palpably spiritual at best, and some restaurateurs and cooks are avowed food artists.    

     There are two further fascinating facets of the “What’s Poetry” tours I would like to draw attention to. The first focuses on different contemporary forms of poetry, which exist side by side. These are forms produced within the same historical time frame by forces typical of that time, but the respective rationale and ethos of the forms differ.

     The second is a focus on different historical forms of poetry – forms that are typical of different stages in human cultural development. These forms just happen to be existing side by side due to historical contingencies such as colonialism or some other reasons for a mixture of first and third worlds, the modern and the pre-modern. (I have never been in the Russian Federation but I can imagine similar literature anomalies existing in that entity as here in my own but possibly for very different reasons.) 

     Countries like South Africa and Indonesia lend themselves to this latter type of showcasing, and there is much to learn from experiencing such charming anachronisms first-hand, either as a participating poet or a member of audience. The enticing exoticism of the experience is the least! I want to give one example of both the first and the second facets mentioned above.   

     But first an explicatory footnote on the phrase “different stages of development”. This should not be interpreted in a teleological way, i.e. that the later stages are necessarily “more developed” than the earlier. Nobody would dream to describe say, Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s poetry as “more developed” than say Homer’s. It just would not make sense to say so, and it would be untrue.   Neither would the opposite supposition be true, which often enough is found in political stupidity: That all cultures, over time lines, should be seen as of necessity on the same level.       

     At stake here is that Enzensberger and Homer cannot be read with the same presuppositions even though some presuppositions will overlap.  The one is a poet of early premodernity and the other of late modernity. But, imagine now, seeing them side-by-side, as living people performing their work in the same room …

     Something like this happened on the “What is Poetry” tour one night in Soweto. And even though the “late modernists” among us weren’t performing on that specific night, they did find themselves in the same room as a Xhosa poet whose work is testimony to the shapes of a time far removed from our own.

     She is the enigmatic Madosini (Latozi Mpahleni), an internationally recognized singer storyteller, who delivers her searing melodies and tales in the traditional styles of the Amampondo people of the Eastern Cape.

     Personally I believe that the type of memory that Madosini embodies is crucial for the consolidation and continued spawning of contemporary and future idioms in African literatures such as Xhosa, idioms that will hopefully come to adequately reflect a tenuous historical memory short-circuited by the clash with European modernity and colonialism.

      Seeing Madosini team up with the Bali poet Samar Gantang was unforgettable – two traditional cultural frames divided by thousands of miles of ocean meeting one another in a jamming session, in an impromptu love song in two different languages, sang by two folk heroes of cultures that don’t know one another. You can view it on Youube at The words that the Xhosa singer sang to the Balinese poet were: “Who is this spirit who tickles me with his beard, and where does he come from?”

       An example of poetry forms from the same historical time but very different in ethos would be, say, the South African urban spoken word poetry of Kgafela Oa Magagodi (SeTswana) and say, Michael Augustin’s poetry (in German, mediated by English translation), which is steeped in European traditions.

     Seeing these frames rub up against one another makes for a certain type of poetry exhibition. And the questions and thoughts that get prompted by seeing this kind of exhibit have a very stimulating ripple effect on the consciousness of the reader.       

     I called it a certain type of poetry exhibition, because there are other types of exhibit. It is deeply important that other types of poetry exhibit exist as well. Different forms augment and compliment one another, and in their simultaneous and various ways they pay tribute to a multifarious world of literature.

     Which brings me to the second poetry festival of recent months in South Africa, held at Spier wine estate outside the Western Cape university town of Stellenbosch, to great acclaim: The Dancing in Other Words Festival.     



Poet Breyten Breytenbach curated the festival. (The conveners were writer Dominique Enthoven, and Spier executive Annabelle Schreuder.)  Two invited guests, Hans van de Waarsenburg and David Schulman, could not attend.

    The line-up in the end was (from overseas): Carolyn Forché (USA), Joachim Sartorius (Germany), Thomas Salamun (Slovenia), Ko Un (South Korea), Yang Lian (China) and Bill Dodd (Britain/ Italy). From South Africa: three leading poets, all three women, Antjie Krog, Marlene van Niekerk, Petra Müller. Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa) himself completed the local line-up.

     The festival chose several lodestars or guiding spirits: Jalalludin Rumi, Marthinus (Tao) Versveld (the South African philosopher), Cesaria Evoria and Aimé Césaire.

     The most prominent lodestar was not mentioned on the initial invitation letters – Heitsi-Eibib, the San visionary and half god, who in his silent and unnoticed way governs the subjected history of this part of South Africa where the festival took place: Western Cape. A symbolic grave now exists on the Spier estate for Heitsi Eibib, and the festival ended with a tribute of lights and dancing by all the festivalgoers – invited guests as well members of the public – at this “grave”. A large banner sporting the outline of a cloak with outspread sleeves with words by the poets written on the cloak, was hoisted above the grave, like a resurrection. This was not just an empty gesture. I think it better be taken seriously by whoever saw the resurrection, because it might have implications. 

     From this gesture it can be gleaned that the festival in part wanted to excavate side-lined and silenced historical memory; that all poetry is in part an excavation process from which to imagine new trajectories, as the light reflects off the old shards. (A parallel: The trajectory of Western culture would not be what it is today, was Troy never discovered.)

     This festival, the first of more festivals intended under the banner of Spier Pirogue, wants to dance in the words of others, and in words other than those that present themselves readily. The invited poets all embodied these ideas, sometimes in stark contrast to one another. But they also complimented an emerging context created by their collective presence.

     From my description above it can be seen that both festivals shared a certain “historical consciousness” or striving, but each achieved this in different ways.  The festival at Spier seemed to foreground the construct “region” – in the cultural and linguistic sense – above that of “nation”, and thus succeeded in narrowing the focal points to good effect. In the discussion topics the focal points broadened out again to include the national and the international, bringing back the balance.        

     The main difference between the festival/ caravan at Spier and the What’s Poetry roaming festivals lies in the selection criteria. Spier focused only on poets who stand prominent in their achievements within a late modern global literary context. (They may stand prominent in other contexts as well, and the chosen context is by no means necessarily uninclined to defer to those other contexts and to speak to them.)

    I mention this because of the murmurs that went up in certain Stellenbosch circles that the festival was “not representative” of South Africa’s “demography”. (Please see Section I above, on how complex the issue of “representativity” can be.)

     Now if there is one concept that in South Africa (and some other places) has equaled the self-mimicking, self-inflated levels of sheer delusion found in historic exercises of exclusivity such as apartheid – it is, ironically, this one: “demographic representativity”. This essay is not the right time to go into the topic. As Marlene van Niekerk said in her comment, I am tired …

     Suffice to say that one festival cannot do everything. It should do well in what it sets out to do.

     Suffice to mention that concerns of demographic selection run the risk of belying the very core of poetry itself: the belief that it is possible to identify with the other so intrinsically that it does not matter who is writing the poetry.             

     Suffice it to say there is a certain narcissism of “inclusion” afoot in some sectors in South Africa: Everything must at the same time be everything else, or else it has no right to exist. And this is then put forward as a threat, or in the form of blackmail, with a bottomless amount of ego and false indignation. No debate here, which is the procedural protocol of deferring politics, nothing of curiosity given embodiment, or the vision given flesh. It is simply demanded. There is something in this blackmail style of ethical demand that is akin to fundamentalist religiosity. Which, of course, was the father of apartheid itself.

     Suffice it to say: As long as moral indignation carries on reflecting a misguided hegemony as it presently does, or unilaterally elevated centers of purported “common” conviction, especially concerning the “ideal functioning” or “nature” of an activity such as poetry – it will fail to be an answer to the narcissistic delusions of colonialism and apartheid, and for a very simple reason: It remains a reflection of those delusions in the shape of its reflexes.

     Which brings us to poetry, to the festival of “dancing poets”, they of the Nietzschean star variety.

     Poetry is an “underlabourer” activity not unlike philosophy in this respect, which strives to address the wounds of our categories. Poetry can never be an answer to the physical wounds of the world as found “out there”. But take note of what it does to the categories, those demons and angels who initially created the world’s wounds. If we take note of this, we might be able to adapt our shadows to those messages, and our shadows might in turn adapt us, and then the world around us might be adapted. No, will be adapted.    

     These are meta-messages, which ironically have no words to describe them. Poetry is the words of “wordlessness”.

      I remember clearly when writing my first poems at schools, that I felt guilty about making aesthetics from something like a concern about justice. Aesthetics was something akin to adornment while justice, I thought, is “like God”. I was certain that I might one day have to repent for this adulteration. Years later it dawned on me that things are the other way round. Justice is, at its core, itself a form of aesthetic. It is precisely poetry’s way of knowing this instinctively that gives it its ethical import.        

     And in that Nietzschean undertone of the festival’s name, I sensed a pertinent retort to the charge that poetry must contribute to the world’s answers. Nietzsche was the philosopher of total hope and total hopelessness at the same time. The shape of the dance – its recurrent patterns, its concentric concerns – belies somewhat the linear hopes of the projects of modernity. Such as Marxian infused critique?

     But not the hope itself …


*To see the poets of the What’s Poetry? tour in Indonesia dancing on stage, go to  YouTube or type in: Forum Penyair Indonesia dancing poets. Maybe all poets should put away their laptops and just circle one another like planets, while the melodies change? Mr Ko Un, you have got some competition!  

Charl-Pierre Naudé

© Versindaba  2013