A nation reimagined

17 June 2014

As a poet, Professor Kelwyn Sole has a "double vision": part teacher and part writer, with a keen eye on post-liberation South Africa, with its new social and cultural energy and possibilities: fresh lenses for poets to 're-imagine' the country. He recently spoke with Helen Swingler about the new generation of up-and-coming South African poets.

On poetic re-imagining

"Post-1990, poetry is gaining momentum. People are trying to imagine the future and the past through poetry ... On a general level, what you see post-1990 has been a discussion and acting out of the various roles that poetry can play. There's a strong belief among some poets, like Mazisi Kunene and Wally Serote, that poetry can be used as a tool of nation-building.

"After 1990, however, there have also been many poets critical of the new dispensation, often the black poets of a younger generation. In an interview, Serote says that in South Africa after liberation there will be a gap between the ideal and the real world for a long time. So there's this noticeable utopian - almost apocalyptic - tendency in some poetry after liberation. Poets like Seitlhamo Motsapi, Lesego Rampolokeng and Vonani Bila, and white poets like Karen Press, came into the 1990s and started measuring what was happening against what they hoped would happen, and this has given rise to a lot of critical perspectives. There's a lot of criticism of politicians, a lot of punning; they're called 'politishams', who are involved in 'politricks'. This is what interests me; there's an oddly sharp edge to a lot of liberation poetry."

On identity

"Quite strong among the younger poets is an urge towards identity; they are looking for ways to find self-expression and their identity through poetry. I'm noticing this particularly among slam poets and spoken-word poets. There are others who talk of poetry as having a healing function. Poet and publisher Rob Berold once remarked that poetry can act as a means to bring the fragmented portions of ourselves, and the fragmented portions of South Africa, together."

On poetic innovation

"There's a new spirit afoot; many of the new poets are playing with language, particularly second-language speakers who start punning and playing – Mbongeni Khumalo's remark to his audience that 'Your minds are full of fool-stops' is a typical example. These poets are also more formally experimental than in the apartheid years. Increasingly, in post-liberation South Africa, it's useful to see individual poets' consciousness as a kind of matrix where various influences are absorbed. There are poets who have knowledge of local culture and poetic traditions, but who at the same time are looking at the influences of other countries and other forms; and these come together in new ways in their poetry. "

On society and empathy

"I'm increasingly convinced that being human implies being aware of other beings as well. And it's not only human; in the past 10 years I've become a birdwatcher. You are also human by being more aware of your environment, more sensitive to what's going on around you, on micro and macro levels. In my work I've got a strong sense of trying to make readers more critical, more aware, more self-aware. I suppose that's my utopian goal. I want readers to have to work. I like strong reactions, even if they're negative ones. The point is, poetry is a place to start imagining; you don't have to write a whole novel to do this. You can start at a smaller [scale]. Writing poetry is, I think, about struggling to become more human; more fully human, more tolerant, more interested in being alive; that's what I hope it can do."

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