Conversation I, Dancing in Other Words Poetry Festival, 9 May 2014, Spier, Stellenbosch.
At last year’s Dancing in Other Words festival, Gunther Pakendorf commented that the conversation topics were too broad and vague and the conversations derailed due to this. If anything, this year the topics were even more obscure. It is unclear what “How to seduce an Angel. French as voyeur into Arabic, Afrikaans and Wolof” actually means. Therefore I hope the reader can excuse the unfocused nature of this report. The conversation itself was unfocused and while the anecdotes were interesting and often charming, no in depth discussion of poetry or language took place. I tried to identify the main themes of the conversation and structure the report around them: language politics, dreams and landscapes. The last section is less abstract: slam poetry.
I am not sure if I am the right person to write this report on French poets and translators. I only know the French words everyone knows: la vie, amour, liberté. As Georges Lory, the French translator of Gordimer, Krog and Breytenbach, and facilitator of this conversation, mentions, some Afrikaans words also made it into French: “kommando”, “veld”. Catherine du Toit, French lecturer at Stellenbosch University adds that her mother tongue (and mine) also gave the French language a few unpleasant words: “apartheid”, “boer”.
This is about as political as the conversation got. I found this surprising. Usually conversations about English in Africa involve a lot of talk about cultural imperialism and globalisation. Why isn’t the same true of French in Africa? Its presence on our continent is undoubtedly due to colonialism. It could be that Francophone Africans have taken ownership of the language, or it could be because France is not the global superpower that America is. In any case, after Breytenbach (who acted as interpreter) joked that Afrikaans might not exist in two years’ time, Nimrod, a poet from Chad said that we shouldn’t worry – his own mother tongue has less than 100 000 speakers and he has no fear that it will be wiped out.
It struck me that another reason why the participating writers – Nimrod, Jabir and Diamil, members of a Senegalese slam poetry collective – were positive about French, is because they choose to write in it. Some of their fellow countrymen might not feel the same way.
Still, as Nimrod also pointed out, it is thanks to French and interpreters that this conversation can take place, and he also sees in French the potential for different countries from the global South to communicate without this having to take place via the North (i.e. in English). Of course French is a European language based in the Northern hemisphere (Nimrod, after all, currently lives in France) but let’s leave politics and turn to one of the main themes of the conversation: dreams.
Not that dreams can escape the political: After Lory asks the participants whether they dream in their home language or in French, Nimrod answers that since the civil war in Chad he only has nightmares in his native tongue. Pleasant dreams are in French. Trauma therefore complicated his relationship to language.
Jabir claims that he doesn’t dream in any language, that his dreams consist of images but no sounds. Dream interpretation is important in Senegal, and as a child he would run to his grandmother as soon as he woke up, so that she could interpret his dreams. He was never satisfied with her interpretations, however. He thinks this was because he could never successfully put his dreams into words, in order for his grandmother to understand she would need to have been in the dream with him. While dreams are sometimes a source of creativity and inspiration, they can never be conveyed to another person exactly.
Diamil says that as a child he would dream of the airplanes he saw on television and in films, and that now, thanks to the festival, this dream has been realised and he could fly on a plane to South Africa. On the question of language, he says that his Wolof and French influence each other (it is also noticeable in his accent). Both his parents are illiterate, and Jabir also mentions that Wolof only very recently started to be codified into a written form. That is why, for both Diamil and Jabir poetry is something that is inherently French: they learned the “rules” of poetry in French.
Diamil feels that as you only know yourself through others, you can also get to know your own language in a different way through another. This has interesting implications for me when Lory and Du Toit start talking about translation between Afrikaans and French. Lory says that Breytenbach’s poetry is easy to translate into French, and he rhetorically asks whether Breytenbach’s Afrikaans has a bit of French in it. Du Toit, along with some of her students, recently published a selection of Michel Houellebecq’s poetry translated into Afrikaans. She is of the opinion that his poetry works better in Afrikaans than in English. As Lory says, it is unclear why this should be the case: the only things the two languages share are the already mentioned words and double negation. After this Du Toit asks Nimrod to comment on the important role that space plays in his poetry.
Nimrod says that South Africans are lucky that we have an ocean. Chad is the absence of ocean: the leftovers of the ancient ocean that once was there. He says that he finds traveling in South Africa interesting because he can now see whether all the places that he read and heard about correspond with how he imagined them. In answer to Du Toit’s question he says that he has never understood how you can go through a landscape without being affected by it.
In light of the space we found ourselves in at this time, a tent filled with heaters, surrounded by rain, Jabir comments that in Senegal there is a superstition that if you die while it rains you will go to paradise because your grave will be fresh. When Diamil is asked what he thinks of South Africa, he says that while he likes the mountains, spaces and fields, he is a universalist and humanist, and feels at home wherever there are friendly people. He feels especially in his element when surrounded by poets – he considers poetry his home.
I found Jabir and Diamil’s comments on the status of slam poetry in Senegal and their own views on what it is and should be, the most interesting part of the event. According to Jabir slam poetry developed in reaction to Rap. Rap stands for rhythm and poetry. Slam places the emphasis on the poetry. Where the message often gets lost in rap, it is the most important part of slam poetry. According to him slam poetry is bigger than hip-hop in Senegal, and children dream of becoming poets.
In the audience, Henning Pieterse reminisced about a slam poetry competition he once took part in at the KKNK. Jabir reacts by saying that while friendly competition can be good, he doesn’t want the “beef” vibe of Rap to come to poetry. Poetry should be inviting to everyone and Diamil sums it up poetically: “Poetry is not a competition, it’s a mission.” Jabir also doesn’t like the idea of people competing to write poetry in a short space of time, according to him it then becomes improvisation, which is something completely different to poetry. Diamil then refers to freestyle rap. According to him this sometimes delivers a few good lines, but “running after spirit, you gain idiocy”. In poetry every word should be important and meaningful, and this is not possible when you are making it up as you go.
I don’t want to be too negative about this event. It brought amazing poets and thinkers together and allowed a glimpse into their very diverse dreams and worlds. I just think that a more exact theme and better structure would have resulted in a better utilisation of all the fantastic resources: a comfortable space, interesting people, eclectic and inspiring poetry.