Breaking traditions: Malawian storyteller Upile Chisala will be at Poetry Africa 2018 . Picture: SUPPLIED
Breaking traditions: Malawian storyteller Upile Chisala will be at Poetry Africa 2018 . Picture: SUPPLIED

Poet and academic Lesego Rampolokeng once quipped that, “if you don’t understand it, then it must be poetry”, to make a point about the different essences of the literary medium.

The 22nd annual Poetry Africa festival curated by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts in Durban will have a special focus on praise poetry, the indigenous depth of which may not be as readily accessible as its intent.

Naturally spontaneous, praise poetry tends to find the rhythm of its emotion, thought and words in the moment. As one of the surviving oral traditions evolving to find its place in a contemporary milieu, it will be tackled and deconstructed in a week-long workshop led by Zulu history custodian and praise poet for King Goodwill Zwelithini, BM Mdletshe.

Mak Manaka. Picture. SUPPLIED
Mak Manaka. Picture. SUPPLIED

Among the extraordinary range of poets to be featured at Poetry Africa 2018, are Malawian storyteller Upile Chisala and SA writer Mak Manaka, who have taken on  traditions and rituals to exorcise personal and societal demons and to find themselves and communion with their audiences.

Chisala’s poetry from her two self-published collections, Soft Magic and Nectar, resonates deeply with black women globally. In simple language, often very concise, she soothes, celebrates and facilitates healing with poignant lines. The resonance of her words, especially now when black women’s fight to own their stories resounds, suggests that they are necessary.

At 23, living and studying in the US, Chisala is of her time and offers an introspective extension to #BlackGirlMagic. It was in finding and confronting herself as an African in the US that she discovered her audience. But to own her story, she had to break some traditions and this is an constant process.

“There is a lot we don’t discuss among our families in Malawi. When it comes to having open and necessary conversations as families and communities, we are struggling,” she says.

“Earlier, I was afraid to talk about my depression or sex or intergenerational trauma or any of the other things deemed taboo for a woman to discuss in such a public way. This fear of being seen as uncultured or disrespectful to my family is so real. I am working on it and chipping bits of this fear away so one day I can tell my story fully and without shame.”

For Chisala, poetry is therapeutic — an outlet to step into the light. She writes intentionally with her audience in mind and with the awareness that not everyone will see themselves in her work. It all starts from within.

“I love the short form kind of poetry most as a tool for storytelling because it’s concise, powerful, raw, messy and incomplete,” she says. “When I write short poems, I think I leave room for the reader to fit themselves into the story, to relate.”

Manaka writes his poetry on a notepad, a ritual he picked up from his playwright and artist father, Matsemela Manaka. The backstory to how he encountered this tradition marks the tipping point of the deterioration of relations between his parents (his mother is dance practitioner Nomsa Kupi Manaka) and subsequently a defining moment in his life.

He recorded the story as an assignment from his lecturer as part of his studies for a master’s degree in creative writing. He goes back to that incident every time he writes. His work blurs the lines between the personal and political, at times reflecting distorted images of society, with glimmers of hope and determination.

“My poetry reflects life. In determining its role I ask myself where it comes from, who I am, where I come from and what my contribution to society is,” Manaka says.

“Society in essence is your family. How do we relate to with each other at home, before we relate to each other in the streets? What happens in society happens in the home and I interrogate those issues.”

His growth as a writer can be tracked in his anthologies, If Only, In Time and Flowers of a Broken Smile; and his maturity in his new book, Oncoming Traffic that will be launched at the festival in Durban.

A product of his master’s thesis, Oncoming Traffic articulates Manaka’s tormenting insecurities and confusions about manhood and disability. 

“This collection mainly reflects the silence in my personal conflict, meaning, writing what I cannot say … what it means to be a man raised by a woman, secondly my relationship with myself as a man with a disability and lastly as black man living in a dysfunctional or disabled society,” Manaka says.

Gcina Mhlophe, Lebo Mashile, Catalan writer from Barcelona Miriam Cano, Belgian poet and performer Philip Meersman, Palestinian poet and human rights activist Rafeef Ziadah, US performance artist Daniel Summerhill and many more are in the festival lineup.

Poetry Africa is at various venues and schools around Durban with evening sessions at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from October 15–20.