Poets dance with words at festival

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

For a moment, it seemed like nothing else in the world mattered more than poetry.

‘Dancing in Other Words’, a festival or poets and poetry, had gathered some of the deep thinkers of the literary scene. They had come to listen, read and engage the written word at the Spier estate in Stellenbosch earlier this month.

The festival ran over two days and featured poetry readings, music and dance performances as well as conversations with poets about their work.

South African poet Breyten Breytenbach curated the festival that dealt with a range of sensitive topics during the conversation panels. Breytenbach had lived in exile during apartheid and also spent almost eight years in jail for alleged terrorism during the country’s dark past.

“Poetry is our only mother tongue,” he said during his welcome address.

Retired judge Albie Sachs joined poets for a panel discussion on ethics. It asked: “Does poetry open a way to an awareness of being and dignity in the processes of political and cultural transition?”

Sachs reflected: “We are in the process of trying to build a moral society.”
“We’re almost reaching the stage where people from different communities are trying to understand each other… The poet is a bridge builder who connects people and communities who feel divided,” he added.

Sachs looked at the poets beside him and made a quick confession too.
“I’m not a poet. I’m accused of being a poet… which I bear with delight,” he laughed.

Alongside Sachs sat award-winning writer and poet Antjie Krog – who seemed mostly troubled – asking difficult questions.

“I see 100 boats on a stormy sea in South Africa and they are all going in different directions. I’m in a country that is deeply confused on what its ethics should be or is,” offered Krog.

“We agreed on a constitution and national anthem…. But one of the many problems is the many languages. We don’t know the words we use in our many languages. In what language do you letter these ethical thoughts that you have? Krog added:” No-one knows what people in indigenous languages are saying. How does that help us to understand what is ethically wrong with this country?”

She also lamented: “I don’t know how we can see a road when we can’t see an ethical concept of this country.”

Yang Lian, a Chinese poet, said his country also faced issues with its ethics. But this could be the making of good poetry, he added.

“If you feel the problem, this is the poet. Can you ask a deeper question?” he said.
The he somewhat urged the audience to all become poets.

“A poet digs a tunnel into ourselves and maybe we reach this diamond,” he said.

Lian said in China, as elsewhere, citizens were perhaps listening anymore to poets.
“Even in China people do not read. They all have mobile phones but no deeper thinking,” he said.

“It’s nothing but cynical entertainment. We are all in a similar situation. Individualism has been stopped by powerful and corrupt people.”

One of the poetry reading highlights meanwhile was Ko Un from South Korea. The 80-year-old poet celebrated his birthday in April this year, a month before he flew to the festival to deliver some of the most animated poetic readings.

“A mad house is a splendid place. And I’m its emperor,” he read via a translator.
The audience broke into laughter and applause.

Un dropped other witticisms: “Enlightenment is inconsistent.”

Other poets and participants traveled from Holland, the US, Slovenia, Germany and Nigeria.

Breytenbach said the gathering had been inspired by the likes of deceased singer Cesaria Evora and famed poet Jelaluddin Rumi.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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