5 Questions for Linda Gabriel

Linda Gabriel
Linda Gabriel | Linda Gabriel © Masimba Sasa

To spoken word artist Linda Gabriel, poetry is like breathing. She talks to us about the universality of stories, the spoken word scene in sub-Sahara Africa, and the Spoken Word Project, an initiative by the Goethe-Institut.

Linda Gabriel, what is the meaning of poetry to you? Why is it so important to you?

To me, poetry is like breathing. Once I lose my breath that’s the end of me. It’s a treasure. It is my first best friend. In poetry I find healing. In poetry I have found family: a lot of sisters and brothers. Poetry has made me who I am today. It has opened doors that I never imagined opening for me if I wasn’t a poet. I have travelled to different countries with my work and connected with beautiful souls out there. In hard times I find refuge in poetry. Poetry allows me to express myself. Stories wander through the world, are passed between persons and easily transcend man-made boundaries.

The Spoken Word project travels through eight sub-Saharan African countries. Why is it that the spoken word art form is so popular today?

I think spoken word has always been popular within homesteads. Our grannies told stories around the fire or during harvesting corn. These stories were spiced up with singing and some involved a dance. Their stories were packed with counsel and weaved in such a way that even if we had heard a story more than ten times, we still wanted to hear it over and over again. The only difference for me is that today spoken word is commercialised and performed for huge audiences. And we get to pay our bills from it.

Today, spoken word artists tour to other countries. Certainly, spoken word goes beyond boundaries and actually doesn’t need a visa or passport to do so. Furthermore, some stories are bound to be someone’s story, no matter in which country this person lives - a lot of stories are universal. Come to think of it, someone in Swaziland listened to my poem “Sins Of Our Mothers” online. The poem matched this listener’s life, and now we are friends on Facebook. One should not underestimate the power of the spoken word. With The Spoken Word Project we are simply proving that this medium transcends boundaries.

As much as the stories are travelling in Africa, indirectly they are travelling the world. The Internet has made it easier for work to be exposed and to be shared with the world.

Do you consider yourself to be a poet first and foremost, or a performer? How important is the performance element in the spoken word art form? Do you practice your performances or do you improvise as you go along on stage?

I am a poet before anything else. I start by writing and sometimes it takes me many months to complete a poem. Only at a later stage do I consider a poem for performance. To me, performance is the end result. The term performance is what makes it spoken word, it involves sharing your work with the audience. Spoken word is not spoken word if it is not performed; without the performance element, it is not spoken but read. I do a lot of rehearsing for my work, it’s important. Sometimes I practice whilst bathing or walking in the streets. I also do some research on the theme I am writing on; hence I cannot improvise or do impromptu.

How has the spoken word scene in Johannesburg, and in South Africa, evolved through the years, and what are some current trends? Are you familiar with the spoken word scenes in other sub-Saharan African countries; is there an exchange of ideas between the countries’ artists? What is the relevance of The Spoken Word Project to this end?

In the four years I have been in Johannesburg, many poetry slam movements have emerged: House of Hunger, WORD N SOUND, Lover and Another, Penseed etc.; and a lot of young artists participate in these. Nearly every weekend there are one or more shows at different venues. This makes it hard to choose and I am sometimes left heartbroken because I cannot attend all of them.

As for other countries, I follow the spoken word scenes in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland and Botswana. The exchange of ideas happens during festivals when artists perform and attend workshops. I think The Spoken Word Project is the first if its kind; and most importantly, it gives artists a lot of exposure and a wider, global audience. The project allows spoken word artists to travel to one of the participating cities in Africa and thus helps them to fulfill their dream of becoming an international artist.

In addition to being a spoken word artist, you are an arts manager and you teach creative writing. What motivates you to mentor young artists?

I long to see the arts become a more recognized profession. A lot needs to be done for the future generation. Once today’s young artists start taking art seriously, then hopefully parents here in Africa won’t freak out if their children decide to become artists.