Open Book Fest

Social healing starts with personal healing

Poetica: Pen as Sword, 7 September 2013, Fugard Annexe 2. Malika Ndlovu, Clinton Osbourne and Adrian van Wyk in conversation with Dawn Garisch.


Poetica’s first event at the Open Book festival may have been labelled “Pen as Sword”, but the discussion turned more around the idea of “pen” as just the opposite: pen as plaster, pen as therapy or pen as muti – reinforced by the recurring references to the connection between poetry and the body. Host Dawn Garisch is no stranger to this idea, being a poet as well as a medical doctor, her 2012 memoir Eloquent Body a testament to her journeys in writing and medicine. She set the tone by asking her panel: “Can one have collective or social healing without personal healing?”

The answer was a unanimous no – personal healing is where social healing begins. Malika Ndlovu explained that as a black woman growing up during apartheid in KwaZulu-Natal, therapy was not something one had access to – therefore, creative outlets were used to express frustration, anger or grief. “My family used to tell me ‘write it out my child, dance it out my child.’” Ndlovu feels strongly about the connection between trauma and the body, and art’s capacity to heal. It has now been 15 – 20 years that she has used and cultivated art for healing through the organisation Drama for Life.

“My son used to have balancing issues,” she told the audience, “and I took him to someone who does body realignment. Once he had tested my son he said to me ‘are you sure you came for your son? He’s just going through a growth spurt, but how are you doing?’ He then realigned my body, and afterwards I felt the most incredible rage towards my mother, someone who I have never managed to confront before.” The result was her poem, “Spinal Secrets”:


“When you are creating, you have to look inside yourself in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise, in a way that may be uncomfortable, but which facilitates healing,” said Clinton Osbourne, who co-ordinates Young in Prison, a programme which looks after the emotional wellbeing of young men and women who have recently been released from prison, running, among other things, workshops in free writing. “When you are writing freely without pausing to think, plan or censor what you say, you are forced to confront the demons you don’t want to deal with. Writing is a way for people to be vulnerable, which is especially valuable in places like prison where they simply cannot afford to be, otherwise.”

“We have someone in our youth programme who is the child of rape,” said Adrian Different Van Wyk, who facilitates the monthly InZync poetry workshops for the Stellenbosch Literary Project, focussed on helping school children between the ages of 16 and 18 to become poets. “It has been amazing to see her personal progress through writing poetry,” he said.

“But how do we get people who have suffered severe trauma to be vulnerable,” asked Garisch, “when it is well-known that there is no money in poetry and no poetry in money? Are these workshops not, in a sense, preaching to the converted?”

“I think it is important to remember that poetry is not necessarily a page-bound or a spoken word literary art,” said Ndlovu. “It exists in the body, and writing or speaking is only the medium, the method, the channel. One’s body is the most incredible sculpture.” By the same token, she added, it can act as an armour against the world: “Language can become your cataracts of prejudice,” she said, “and grief can sit in your cells and affect your posture.”

“Poetry exists whether you write it or not,” reinforced Different. “What goes on in a minibus taxi is poetry in motion. Poets are just the ones taking note.”

“Poetry is effective when it is controlled,” a member of the audience noted, “but what happens when you are confronted by a poet whose rage or hurt is so overwhelming, it alienates you?”

“There is nothing more tedious than a raging black voice,” Ndlovu agreed. “Editing and tempering your poems is essential; it’s about a sense of responsibility to your audience – because sharing your poetry is a communal act.” And when poetry is effective, it moves people to much greater degree than prose can, Garisch reminded us.

That being said, poetry should matter to anyone who is willing to change their society, it was agreed. “We can’t think of saving the whole world,” said Garisch. “You can only look after yourself, and by doing so, you affect the people around you.”