Writes Ashley Makue
As an avid lover of the arts- a reader and a writer, a religious film watcher, gallery walker, amateur photographer- I once found poetry to quench a specific, grave thirst in my soul. I was twelve years old, and I had discovered Sylvia Plath and Chinua Achebe. I did not know I had a thirst, until I had found the cure for it. I started searching out our little library at school, read every single book that I found. And then when I had no more books to read and my heart was still yearning, I took my pencil to a book and willed myself to do it. I wrote a complex sonnet about ice cream.
I returned to South Africa at the end of the year I turned twelve. Here, I found, I was more displaced than I was in Lesotho. I spoke both my English and Sesotho with foreign accents. I had the manner of an English Rose and the esteem of a churchman’s widowed mistress. There was nothing for me here, save a brand new library and books I would run to for cover, whenever I needed it. And I needed it frequently. And then I finished the books but I was still empty, this time needing for more than Mushrooms, Sonnet 116 and scripture. I needed affirmation. I needed to know that my beautiful was beautiful even if it did not look like all the images on the television. I needed to know that my love was love, that I was no freak for sharing my first kiss with another English Rose. I could not find any of those things in my high school’s devastatingly Eurocentric and cis-heteronormative literature.
When I was nineteen, I discovered spoken word poetry. Not the kind I had been doing at church, lying about myself, misrepresenting God. I found quenching. I found preaching that actually healed. In the years that followed, I found WordnSound. I found Modise Sekgothe, I found Mutle Mothibe and I found Gratitude Fisher. And then I found The Strivers Row; Zora Howard, Alyssia Harris, Jasmine Mans. It wasn’t until I found Warsan Shire, Vuyelwa Maluleka and Safia Elhillo that I found poetry.
The trouble, I have found, with spoken word, was that art business could not stand meaning. We always cry that they no longer make music like the blues, but we do not have soul like blues people anymore. We are not made with the sand that can take Nina Simone, take Etta James, take Muddy Walters and not bend. Yes, we can stand Adele, because she reminds us of fickle love. We can take Lana Del Rey because she has that kind of sexy sadness, does not call us to stop romanticizing melancholy. We can stand Kendrick Lamar, take Kanye’s insanity, call it irrefutable art. Take what glorified pop music that South African cool kids sell to us as hip-hop. We can take Thandiswa Mazwai’s faux consciousness masquerading as some depth, because spirit lets her sing meaning. This is what created the wave of poetry monopoly, pop-poetry, them and us, cool-poets family and the rest of us; the visitors, the lesser vessels when held up against punch lines and galaxy poems and half-baked political poetry, third-person rape poems, poverty poems by middle class “struggle artists” who have never slept on a barely half full cup of murky water, the self-proclaiming poetry gods and queens of the mic. The emotionally manipulative rhetoric that is the entire breath of Striver’s Row poetry. The Mandela screwed us narrative. The pun-infused prose. Narcissists incognito playing artists. Playing vessels but owning art. For too long there has been no one to tell the “art scene” people that art is no one’s mother, no one’s bitch, no one’s claim to fame, no one’s claim, no one’s horse, no one’s keep.
You cannot punch line poetry into emptiness. I was no longer looking for emptiness when I stopped attending poetry slams. I was no longer moved by “relatable” bullet point prose. I was not looking for galaxy imagery, or men-are-broken narratives. I was looking for poetry. I was looking for word from spirit. A good friend of mine said to try out CSP. So I did. And it has been refreshing. I cannot say that the slams are immune from rhetorical bullshit, but the judging is. The judging calls for poetry, and performance and consciousness. When Vusi says, “the breath of God is moving through this body, needing release”, “everything is energy”, I hear the old gospel of poetry that is not for fun or fame. I remember art as a spirit calling; I remember the cost of art. I wake up and travel to the workshops because I know how big art is, I know that you cannot master it until you know that you are only a pitcher. I know that poetry is not a toy, or a “vibe”, or a phase to pass through while at University. I know how far Vusi, Dr Thando, Dr Sarah and Thando dig within themselves to pour out the poetry.
I know that to whom art does not cost mental health, companionship, health, oblivion, unconsciousness, art is not present. I know that art is no one’s monopoly, no one’s close-knit clique, no one’s elitist club, no one’s personal politic. I know that art is god, and those who are not god while reading poems, are posers.