Open Book Fest

‘Page versus Stage’ an effervescent affair

The Distance Between Page and Stage, 21 September 2012, Truth and Coffee


In the rough underbelly of burgeoning Cape Town location, Truth and Coffee, the voices of a myriad of poets boom and interweave before a close-knit audience. The fusion of a multiplicity of voices, ranging in age and accentuation, is a moving and exciting experience that brings the tucked-away room alive. Hosted by Toni Stuart as part of the Open Book Festival, “The Distance Between Page and Stage” is an evening imbued with hope and galvanised with the energy of youthful potential.

In the initial panel discussion prefacing the performances, professor, poet and author Leon de Kock, and arts and cultural organisation founder Bulelwa Basse conduct a conversation which analyses the relationship between performance poetry and written poetry. De Kock raises the question of the permanence of poetry and its reception. The difference, he avers, is that written poetry enjoys a certain immutable status, while spoken word poetry delivers more immediately discharged affect. Basse expresses a more divergently defined perspective, including the action of writing in the definition of “performance”. The discussion that develops between the pair of aficionados expands to include the audience, and the debate meaningfully exposes ideas relating to poetry.

“Poetry is like algebra,” Basse suggests. “It’s a process of searching for ‘x’.” It is suggested that poetry is a process of documenting the human spirit. Questions are raised about perceptions regarding the validation of poetry, especially the different forms of validation for page poetry as against stage poetry. De Kock suggests that the problem is the hierarchisation of poetry, and that a compromise might partially be found in a democratisation of expression. This is made especially possible in a post-colonial, post-apartheid digital era. “Everyone gets involved, and the response is immediate,” he concludes. “The distance between page and stage is what we make of it.”

After a brief interval the performances commence. The stage becomes a terminal for an exchange of individual voices. An array of wonderfully vibrant and effervescent poets cross the stage, illustrating for the audience how the page might assimilate the stage. Basse and De Kock initiate the proceedings. Basse’s sonorous, articulate voice is triumphant and optimistic as she speaks in voice with guitar accompaniment, telling stories of love, feminine empowerment and victory. De Kock’s poetry is more skeptical. In his own words, his poem “Nee Fok Man” ventriloquises a certain type of South African: a middle class, Afrikaner drunkard bemoaning the illegitimacy of being a white man in postapartheid South Africa. His poem is riddled with commonly spoken obscenities that have the enthralled crowd giggling with shock. The two illustrate how extensively varied poetry can be.

Dawn Garisch is the next featured poet. She reads three of her poems. Her descriptions are bodily and unapologetic as she describes difficult emotional situations, as well as unavoidably physical experiences with food and decay.

Dawn is followed by Thabo Molefe – a young man, dressed from top to bottom in black – who rifles out his poems with rat-a-tat speed. He celebrates the heritage and beauty of Africa in his words, and decries the demise of humankind, nihilistic at times but hopeful at others.

The hopeful tone of his poetry is picked up in the poems performed by Roche Kessler. She analyses the difficulties and joys of blackness, and does a wonderful narrative of the future, with particular emphasis on how poetry will help raise her own children.

Following Roche is the animated, personable and charismatic Adrian “Different” van Wyk. His poetry is theatrical and affective to the point of giving one goosebumps. His social commentary is well received, and the audience is nicely fire up by the time he reaches his conclusion.

Jana van Niekerk takes the stage next, clothed from clavicle to ankle in a fuzzy pink dressing gown. Her poems are dedicated to her infant son who sits safely in his dad’s arms in the audience, while his mom lyrically utters hyperboles of love that can only be experienced by a mother.

The comfort and security of Jana’s poetry is contrasted by the next poet, Tozomane’s compositions. He performs dressed in the artistic clothing he himself has designed, but speaks of the difficulties of life in the over-populated, poverty-stricken townships of South Africa.

Poet Nick Purdon takes to the stage with an edition of his recently published works. He performs a random selection from the book, but the most arresting performance is the last one; a poem that chronicles a spiritual conversation between himself and his deceased mother.

Jenna Gardini lightens the mood after Nick. Her poems are wonderfully constructed, image-rich narratives that satirise society and take a candid look at her own life. The audience is in stitches in the wake of her intelligent and comical performance.

The resonant and stirring Omnyama is next to take ownership of the stage. Her poetry has the downy hairs on the back of one’s neck standing on end. Her acerbic critique of society implicates everyone in the room, including herself, booming her message fluidly, and fiercely challenging her captivated audience.

“Let’s see what this white boy can do!” announces Pieter Odendaal as he steps onto the stage. His poems are incendiary collections of fricatives and plosives and require the audience to think as they sit and listen.

Nikiwe is the last poet Toni Stuart calls to the stage before she herself takes her place before the audience. Nikiwe is a 19-year-old whose message is conveyed beautifully, in youthful naivety. She speaks directly and conversationally with the audience, unlike Toni, who seems transported by her own dazzling, mystical voice. Her poems are performed breathily and lyrically, which perfectly prefaces the final act: Winslow Schalkwyk and Glen Arendse.

The duo is a conglomeration of the music of the indigenous people of South Africa. Winslow’s eyes are wild and his voice charged as he wraps up the evening with a final passionate yell.

The event is a success, and all who attend concur: true poetry, “neither polluted nor diluted” as Winslow puts it, is all-encompassing, whether delivered via page or stage.