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A world of sharp edges: Part Three

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This is Part Three of a triptych of blogs on the Dancing in Other Words Festival. Read Part One here, and Part Two here.

The story so far: Literary translator André Naffis-Sahely finds himself invited along on one of Breyten Breytenbach's poetry caravans in South Africa. The caravan culminates in the Dancing in Other Words Festival at Spier wine farm outside Stellenbosch, where the company of poets, international and local, spends two days engaged in panel discussions and performances.

The following afternoon, the third panel – featuring Carolyn Forché, the Dutch poet Alfred Schaffer, and Joachim Sartorius – assembled to discuss the topic: Is the world decayed metaphor? Does poetry shape the world, or is it but a pulse beat of reality? As the chair, Kole Omotoso, the Nigerian novelist and academic, started the conversation by asking Carolyn to regale the audience with a theory concocted by the German poet and “public nuisance,” Hans Magnus Enzensberger: “When Enzensberger wrote of the twilight of the literary public sphere, he claimed that literary culture is reduced to the simple reading of pleasurable texts by the true, actual public, a minority of ten to twenty thousand people. Enzensberger later reduced this estimation, stating that lyric poetry could only really count on a readership of +/- 1,354, meaning that a good poet can count on exactly as many readers in Iceland as in the United States” –probably explaining why, as Carolyn pointed out, Enzensberger’s first collection in English was entitled Poems for People Who Don’t Read Poems. “Yet,” Enzensberger said, “our seemingly anachronistic art form somehow always manages to surprise us.” Explaining that the so-called Enzensberger constant is quite well known in Germany, Joachim Sartorius also added that however minuscule a poet’s audience, by speaking in very intimate and subjective ways, poets nevertheless become the repositories of essential human qualities that would otherwise go lost. “Does poetry shape the world?” Sartorius admitted that shape was a very big word, especially in view of these 1,354 readers, and that the answer would vary from country to country. To clarify his point, he brought up the international festival held each year in the Colombian city of Medellín – Pablo Escobar’s former stomping ground – where he’d gone to read his poetry in the late 1980s, back when the city was deemed one of the most violent places on Earth. At the end of the festival, the organisers had distributed a questionnaire, which was headed by the following query: “Does poetry heal the wounds of the city?” “This is a question no German festival organiser would ever dream of asking!”

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Following on, Carolyn Forché spoke of her work as a human rights activist in various countries and how her poetry, formerly of a personal and intimate nature, had been radically transformed by the events she witnessed, leading to accusations from several quarters that she had become a “political poet.” “Being accused of being a political poet,” she stressed, “is not a happy situation in the United States. One must not be a political poet!” As one of the few contemporary poets who appears refreshingly unperturbed by the usual academic theorising as to the definition of –and boundaries between – the private and the public, the personal and the political, Carolyn seems to perceive the act of writing poetry as simply, borrowing a line from her Blue Hour, “opening the book of what happened.” Language, she explained to the audience, cannot help being permeated by the experiences to which we are subjected: “Everything that happens to mark us as a result of our experience, burn us, perforate us, change us, wound us, enlarge us, it also does to our language. Writing in the aftermath of such experience, whether implicitly or explicitly, the experience itself becomes somehow legible, traceable, there and present on the page.” Carolyn then suggested that with the “acceleration of the velocity of experience due to technological advances, our take on reality has become a high-speed flickering, and what poetry does, whether we read or write it, is to slow us down, enabling us to increase our capacity to sustain contemplation. It’s one of the greatest methods for increasing this capacity. It will be essential for our future survival.” This brought to mind a couple of questions Breyten had asked in a piece penned for the French daily Libération a couple of years ago: “Have we gained anything from knowing more, and instantaneously, about what is happening in the world? Are we being given to understand or are we solicited to partake of the race for drama beamed and blared by the media?”

I entered the hall to attend the fourth and final panel of the festival somewhat hesitantly. The topic was Is there a South African Way to the great Nowhere? The discussion features Antony Osler, a Zen monk and poet, as well as Ko Un and Petra Müller. While some found the nebulousness of the question beguiling, I most certainly didn’t. Although I admittedly knew little about Zen philosophy, having read only a handful of texts (mostly works by Gudo Nishijima and D. T. Suzuki) I had often been put off by the way Zen appeared to encourage moral detachment from the world and how its tenets, although nearly always poetic, in fact appealingly so, seemed to resist concrete verbalisation. It had always struck me as too complacent a theory or, rather, a way of life. A few months before heading to South Africa, I had read Arthur Koestler’s Drinkers of Infinity, where Koestler had spoken of the dichotomies between Western and Eastern thought in the context of the post-Hiroshima era. Speaking of the West, Koestler wrote: “It seems obvious that a culture threatened by strontium clouds should yearn for the Cloud of Unknowing. Abdication of reason in favour of a spurious mysticism does not resolve the dilemma.” This was why I was particularly pleased that Breyten, who chaired the panel, began by reading a translation of a speech Ko Un had prepared for the event, since he could not actively participate owing to his lack of English. Skipping some of the initial paragraphs, Breyten starts with: “I have not come to South Africa to open wide my eyes, I have come here to get drunk,” unleashing riotous laughter as Ko Un raised his full glass with mirth in his eyes. Then his speech took a direction that soothed many of my misgivings:

It would be paradoxical to set up a view of “Nowhere” or “Utopia” when we are faced with the appalling scenes of bloodshed experienced in Palestine or South Africa as well as the current situation on the Korean peninsula, yet it is a hugely sincere and necessary wish ... In fact, we have to consider how useless abstract concepts such as “Nowhere” and brilliant intellectual expressions of it are, how remote a form of discourse they are in the extreme situations of such regions.

Contrary to my initial expectations, this panel perhaps more than all the others eschewed the foreboding aura of the admittedly ambitious topics and truly attempted to do away with conceptualisation, allowing panelists to voice the direct insights they had accrued through the course of their lives. As Osler, Ko Un, and Breyten spoke, I began to conceive that Zen could, in controlled doses, become a much-needed tool to defend intuition – which in the West has been under attack since the Enlightenment and has been all but eradicated from our lives – against the monopolistic claims of logic, which (who knew?) might in the end help mitigate our biologically ingrained jingoism and remind us that we are mortal leaves on an equally mortal tree. Regardless, there was no doubt in my mind that Petra Müller provided one of the highlights of the festival with the following, which she enunciated in her slow, elegant drawl:

I started thinking a great deal on the places of loneliness in our country, of the lair of isolation that we all have in us whether we want it or not, and it struck me very powerfully that to be descended from colonialists is a very strange business, because one of the things that you get to know about is that however many generations have passed –and as you all know we Afrikaners are extremely historically-conscious – there is always a part of you, way back somewhere, which does not belong ... I came to a conclusion. There are three “texts” that govern us: the family, the Bible, and the gun. They are not enough for us in Africa ... It seems to me that we have not lived long enough yet and that we shall have to live for a much longer time on this continent, before we who came here as colonialists – who had to deal with people whom we simply did not understand and also did not know, who had developed knowledges, intuitions, and psyches that knew more about this place than the people who had come in those “big wooden houses,” as the bushmen called the first ships they saw – can understand this place. I suggest that the god whom we got to know in the Old Testament is not always suited to that endeavor. Fortunately, there are many gods: some are penetrable, others completely impenetrable. The world of the Zen is a world we have to get used to. Once we get used to it, we see, strangely, that we have been surrounded by it from the beginning, but it took us over three centuries to get to the word “Zen,” which quite simply means “attention.”

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Rightfully so, Petra’s speech drew thunderous applause and concluded the dialogic component of Dancing in Other Words. Yet in a sense, the dancing was still to come. Again at a loss to describe the elegance of Basson’s choreography and the quick footwork that Breyten and Ko Un displayed on the dance floor, here is Joachim Sartorius’s “The Palm Trees Tell Lies in Tunis,” in which the German poet evoked his youth in Tunis, where his father, also a diplomat, had once been stationed:

We don’t look that swell on the class photograph.
Alifa, star pupil with his ingenious mug, is blurred,
Monique, who I had a crush on, is wrapped in
scratchy silence. The photo’s so yellowed –
at head-level a horizontal irruption of light
(like the blond scraps of foam on the beach) –
that the viewer imagines he’s reading schoolchildren’s
cephalograms. In their midst is the teacher,
slender. Jusq’à l’os, I told her,
right down to the bone. She went red in the white TGM,
red as Monique’s nook in the boat off
the island of Zembra. Because no woman’s fairer
than the desire for a woman, my Arab friend
whispers. “The way she’s looking through her
legs. How tall she is!” and carves it into the wood
of the school-bench. Monique (father: Arab, mother:
French) walked home the same way as I did,
from the white station La Marsa to Gammarth,
beneath the furtive whispers of stocky, ancient palm-trees,
which still stand today, which don’t tell the truth:
That everything’s changed, each and everything.

*

The festival had come to an end, and although I had spent too short a time in so complex and stimulating a country, it seemed undeniable it was a place where assumptions, which are brittle by nature, knock against sharp edges and fall apart. Yet the constant hearing, reading, recitation – and one hopes retention – of poetry managed to soften those edges, slowing the mind down just enough to allow for at least a singling out of some of the crucial questions of our time, both in relation to the South African and the global context.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should perhaps mention that the absence of a major black African poet raised eyebrows among some in the audience, as well as a couple of the participating poets, who were surprised that three Afrikaners had been invited instead. While criticism of the sort is – and should be – welcomed, I do not agree. It seems rather natural for a festival held just outside Stellenbosch to feature Afrikaner poets, since that is where the word was first coined back in 1707. Furthermore, while I do not speak any Afrikaans and was therefore unable to understand Breyten, Petra, Antjie, and Marlene when they read out their work, I was pleased that they read in their mother tongue. At a time when Afrikaner culture is being marginalised – partly due to a myriad of understandable historical factors, partly due to the encroachment of a globalised broken English, this seemed to me particularly important. Still, where were the black writers? It may be controversial, but the fact remains that most of the country’s finest writers are still white. It is still largely true that readers versed in South African literature will have encountered the likes of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, André Brink, as well as Antjie and Breyten of course – but not Adam Small, Wally Sarote, Mandla Langa, Achmat Dangor, Kopano Matlwa, or K. Sello Duiker – whom, truth be told, I only learned about because he’d won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. Why? Here’s what Lewis Nkosi said about the matter in 1991:

The answer may lie in all the things we don’t want to talk about: a poor and distorted literary education, a political criticism which favors mediocrity over quality, and exclusion from all those cultural and social amenities which fertilise the mind and promote confidence and control over literary skills.

Add to this the general nonchalance of publishers in London and New York, embodied by the publisher I’d spoken to before leaving London. Nkosi’s books, for instance, are all out of print there, save for Underground People, which is published by the niche imprint Ayebia Clarke. That the question of language and ethnicity should provoke such debate was of course foreseeable. Communication is clearly one of the greatest challenges in the new South Africa, and translation will – or should – play a large role in that. It remains to be seen whether the ANC government will step up to the challenge, or whether they will leave this to the mercy of private philanthropy, as has so often happened elsewhere.

Yet once all the wine had been drunk, all the poems read, the tables cleared and the dancing shoes laid to one side, I reflected on how impressed I had been by the audience’s vivid reactions to the words and ideas on display at the festival. People in South Africa definitely seemed to have a more sophisticated palate. They did not look awkwardly away or resent the spice. As far as I was able to gather, poetry draws a full house and a brief look at literary websites like bookslive.co.za, litnet.co.za, or slipnet.co.za – the last of which featured a series of articles prompted by the panel discussions – stand as a lively testament to that. In addition, the model adopted by Dancing in Other Words seemed to me a rather congenial one in that it allowed for deep immersion, which in turn facilitated some truly thought-provoking discussions rather than merely a focus on aesthetics or, rather, the entertainment factor. After all, people who attend literary festivals pay good money, so they demand at least a laugh or two. It has sadly become overwhelmingly apparent that the majority of publishers, writers, readers – in short, people –have somehow come to view politics and philosophy as pollutants of literary work. Yet to carry on down this road is innately dangerous. Tolstoy had warned of this back in 1897 in his essay “What Is Art?”: “It is this supplanting of the ideal of what is right by the ideal of what is beautiful, i.e. of what is pleasant, that is the consequence, and a terrible one, of the perversion of art in our society. It is fearful to think of what would befall humanity were such art to spread among the masses of the people. And it already begins to spread.” Of course, it’s far easier not to listen. It is easier to relegate, delegate even. Ignorance protects us from the weight of our responsibilities. Yet if being confronted with past and present injustices during those days in South Africa proved heavy on the soul, it was also strangely uplifting. After all, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once put it, it is from the injustices of today that we can create the justice of tomorrow, as no doubt Albie Sachs would agree. In time, it may very well be that South Africa – a country that has left an indelible mark on world history: imperialism, concentration camps, and of course apartheid were all coined here – will eventually go the way of every other liberal capitalist society, succumbing to a nihilism, that as Octavio Paz once remarked, doesn’t “seek the critical negation of established values” but instead enforces “a passive indifference to values.” It may very well do so, but for the moment it strikes me as one of the most inspiring places to be.

*

On the return flight to London, I attempted to concretise this vague vibe or impression – the quasi-indescribable zest that “you could smell in the air,” as Carolyn said to me during the course of that week – and turned back to Albie Sachs’s The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, leafing over to the epilogue, which I had left unread:

There is an historic openness and suppleness of texture [in South Africa] that makes life intensely interesting, and fills it with extraordinary choices. Part of the pleasure of living in this country today is its openness, the feeling that it can go any way, and that each one of us can still have an influence. Nothing is ordained, yet nothing is out of reach. For many, this freedom is disconcerting. They would rather live complaining under the firm authority of a powerful state, which, love it or hate it, would take all decisions for them, than slowly achieve security through the growth of a richly textured, multi-universed, and organically vibrant society. They fear the openness of freedom and resist taking responsibility for their lives.

On a final note, it occurs to me that of all the sights and sounds I absorbed during that week, I hadn’t yet figured out – or paid particular attention to – why the festival had been called Dancing in Other Words. Perhaps it was because Paul Valéry had once said that poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking, but of all the dancing metaphors I’d encountered over the past few weeks, I took a particular shine to these lines from Jack Gilbert’s “The Spirit and the Soul”:

The spirit dances, comes and goes. But the soul
is nailed to us like lentils and fatty bacon lodged
under the ribs. What lasted is what the soul ate.
The way a child knows the world by putting it
part by part into his mouth.

Cape Town
August 2013

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