Spoken Word Project The Stage Is the Stage and It Has Its Requirements

The Spoken Word Project
The Spoken Word Project | Photo: © Goethe-Institut / Masimba Sasa

Score cards and the jury’s calculator – the new form of poetic expression featured at The Spoken Word Project competition may take getting used to, but don’t let it frazzle you. Remember: Poetry begins with noncompliance.

A wave of expectation sweeps the crowd. Eyes look in the direction of the jury who walk towards the stage in majestic slow motion. They are about to tell us who will be the voice to represent South Africa in the continental stand-up poetry exchange. Participants are waiting nervously as the three members of the jury stand on the edges of the stage to collect for their final announcement.

Soon, the first and the second jury step up the microphone coughing out a few familiar lines about the difficulty of poetry competitions. The words of the jury are well calculated to give contestants a warm skin-rub. Everyone’s voice is great but “judgement” must pass, the jury tell us, in the sweetest ways possible. Finally, Sbu Simelane and Sabelo Ayanda Lushaba are called to the stage – a tie in the second place. There is wide applause and fair amounts of jumping.

Sabelo Ayanda Lushaba “Juba,” Ghetto Fractions

The storm settles when the last of the member of the jury takes the microphone. After juggling up a few lines about the weight of choosing, she pauses deliberately. A thick silence assails the room. Noel Kabelo “KB” Ringane is named as the voice of the South African chapter of the Spoken Word Project. Waves of hugs, handshakes, handclaps and whistle calls erupt.

Two weeks later I stare into the blankness of the page and I reflect on the idea of poetry, the jury and championship. From the jump it becomes clear to me that time will have to pass for people of my vintage, or my ilk, to catch up with changes in the poetry scene.

The scene chops and changes

I grew up in an era where poetry champs, if at all, were shaped from word battles against oppressive regimes, or from street ciphers, from the weekly grind of open mike session and such. From Kippies poetry nights through Jungle Connexions and Horror Café it may have begun with the simple need to say something. To some it was about fuelling fires of rebellion wherever containment rears its ugly head – a breed that may claim to be heir to earliest practices of word warriors of old whom, with the force of spoken word, stood against forces of tyranny. And there’s also the praise poetry industry players who pretend to draw from long-standing African traditions of praising royalty. The scene chops and changes and new ways of eating the word show up very often.
Johannesburg is the starting point of The Spoken Word Project

And the poetry of scorecards and the jury’s calculator is among the new arrivals. It is a development that may have arrived through slam poetry contests. Now that there are poetry trophies to fetch and bring home, does it mean that an abominable trend has settled amongst the poets?

Time, distance and hindsight teach me that ways of hearing and seeing poetry are plenty. While someone else may begin elsewhere, to me, poetry begins with noncompliance. If you start by permitting anyone to give you permission to be a writer, you may end where you started. Besides, if the world had no teachers of verse, no schools of creative writing, no literary gurus and no poetry churches, what would you do? Clearly then, everyone will have to define poetry for themselves.

A vision of change

And I may have applauded quite loudly for the poetry champ that King-Kong night. I must look for the mouth with which to confess what arguably, is my own error judgement. Thinking through the pieces I heard, I often catch pictures of Simelane’s poetry roaming in the shadows of the mind’s eye. Probably, Simelane’s performance was not full chested. But upon reflection I must insist that Simelane commands his pen with fair amounts of sharpness and his journey must be encouraged. He has a way with word pictures. There are moments in the lines from his piece “The Second Coming” that grab the shirtfronts of my senses and force me to listen.

At home the stars seem closer
Because they are weighed down by the desperate wishes of 11 year old soldiers
Shacks shelter prophets read their dreams with lit candles

Simelane draws images of seers who bring light against a terrible darkness of an Africa riddled with violence; an Africa in which toddlers are raised to kill for the profits of people in power. This image alone brings into light the recent massacre of Bangui and the soldiers who return home in coffins. The poet says, “In the chapters of my childhood we played hide and seek on these streets/ No one knew that we would soon search for each other in hollow tombs.” Simelane presents an Africa where “Time is but an envious ghost that watches from a distance and wonders how they escaped.” Yet, Simelane presents the possibility of change. A change that is possible only in the refusal to die. Says the poet, “I sent my suicide note to forever to let her know that I’ve stopped dying.”
Sbu Simelane, The Second Coming

Simulane deploys the image of a “second coming” to interrogate a contemporary African reality. His poetry is spurred on by a vision of change – change that must be fashioned from fires of homes of Africa’s wretched.

On the other hand, the winner Ringane’s performance was artfully packed with theatricality. The stage is the stage and it has its requirements. On stage poetry travels through the body.

A great continental dialogue

Ringane showcased that he understands that magic is often possible when the writer abandons the page and gives the words totally to the body. With an invisible rucksack hanging heavily on his shoulders, his back turned against the audience he spoke his first lines away from the microphone:

Now who’s got your back when you’ve got your back backed against the wall with no back-up plan in your backpack? And you don’t even have a backbone to support your back. Boy, grow a backbone. Boy, grow a backbone.

He turned around with deliberate swiftness. His voice, now amplified as he clutched the microphone, rose to fill up the room. The musicality of the word was carried through a series of rhymed lines.
Winner Noel Kabelo “KB” Ringane, Lonesome Soul

The image of a boy in an orphanage plunges audiences into the blues, but a vision of victimhood may not offer much except to dramatize pain. Here we may wish to think through the limits of poetry of pity.

Generally, as the first leg of the Spoken Word Project, the Johannesburg episode worked quite brilliantly to celebrate South African artistic potential in the field of poetry and performance. The project promises to be a great space for spoken word artists across Africa to converse with each other’s writings and performance styles. I look forward to the promise of a great continental dialogue via spoken word artistry. A dialogue where Africa, through performance and through sharing stories, will reflect on the intricacies of the post colony.
The Spoken Word Project is presently in Yaoundé, Cameroon where the best artists from Johannesburg are joining the next competition. They produced new poems integrating an element from the previous contributions in their performances. The project will tour through another five African cities until December 2013 and bring different oral traditions and artists in sub-Saharan Africa together. Each of the performances can be seen in video clips on the project website.