How women’s untold histories shaped South Africa’s national poet



Keorapetse Kgositsile with US author Alice Walker, 1996.
Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University and Uhuru Portia Phalafala, Stellenbosch University

Keorapetse Kgositsile, the South African-born poet who passed away in 2018, lived in exile in the US from 1962 to 1975 and was at the centre of the country’s 1960s and ’70s Black Arts Movement. Informed by his South African and Tswana background, the poet makes a case for multiple inflections of voices, geographies, and histories in the making of transnational black modernity.

Analysing his work offers ways in which African poetry can disrupt dominant thinking on Black Atlantic studies, particularly Paul Gilroy’s
1993 text The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. The Atlantic world referred to by Gilroy tells the histories of Europe, Africa and the Americas, two hemispheres joined by the Atlantic ocean and exchanging influence. Kgositsile’s poetry can be read as challenging the direction of influence from north to south.

Uhuru Phalafala considers the rich oral traditions passed on from Kgositsile’s grandmother and mother as a key system of knowledge that informed and shaped his black radical imagination. Aretha Phiri interviewed her.


Aretha Phiri: Your colloquium paper situates the celebrated poet-in-exile at the centre of and as uniquely influential to the Black Arts Movement?

Uhuru Phalafala: It was a time when African Americans were seeking to define their identities, with Africa as key metaphor. Kgositsile happened to not only come from that continent, but also used his mother tongue, Setswana, spiritual practices, and music from southern Africa in his work. By interweaving Tswana vernacular with the black diaspora parlance, he affirmed African America’s legitimate affiliation to the continent, as seen in the example of his influence on “the grandfather of rap music”, The Last Poets.

He also came from a mass liberation movement that was experienced in politics of armed confrontation, generated solidarities with other liberation organisations, and adept in decolonial politics. His work became a resource for his contemporaries. Today, when we look at, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s influential album, To Pimp A Butterfly, and the number of references to South Africa in it, we must understand it as grounding itself in the foundation that people such as Kgositsile laid in the sixties and seventies. South Africa will always have an enduring place in the African American imagination.

This is diaspora consciousness. He also admired Nina Simone’s sound, which he called “future memory” to signal that it is not new or emergent, but reminiscent of the protest tradition of South Africa.

Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), 1975, best known member of the Black Arts Movement that embraced Kgositsile.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Aretha Phiri: In focusing on the oral traditions inherited from his female lineage, you make a case for the specific use in his poetry of a “matriarchal archive”?

Uhuru Phalafala: The colonised come from different conceptions of time (temporalities). Colonial temporality is not only racialised but also gendered. The arrogant coloniser inaugurated the beginning of history in his assumption that we did not have a history before he arrived. “History” began with the arrival of the coloniser, and marched forward in a linear fashion. With time, black men accessed modernity’s time – through missionary education and working in the mines – at a different period than women.

We now know that when anti-colonial wars were fought they were primarily and solely about the emergence of the black race from subjugation. When women and queer people attempted to bring the particularities of their oppression to the agenda they were told to wait. When independence was achieved those doubly and triply marginalised did not attain their independence at the same time with their countries because they continued to fight against black patriarchy.

If we backtrack we can then make certain observations. A type of double location of time was constructed when the colonisers’ history was instituted: theirs and ours. Because of lack of contact with missionary education and industrialisation, loosely speaking – of course there were women who accessed modernity – women occupied a different temporality. One of continuity from precolonial to colonial time, with its attendant way of life, philosophies, worldview, oratory practices, etcetera.

Aretha Phiri: In describing this archive, how do you guard against potential accusations of advancing a gendered essentialist claim?

Uhuru Phalafala I do not wish to rehash gendered essentialist claims. This is just historical process. My grandmother never set foot in a classroom but has a world of knowledge, so to say. Men who were later ferried to missionary schools, or those who went to work in the mines en masse, existed in a double location of time. The flow from precolonial to colonial time was interrupted by modernity’s time, fashioning a coexistence of the two.




Read more:
Black and queer women invite the Black Atlantic into the 21st century


These men came face to face with the colonial alienation and “first exile” from their home cultures which were denigrated by colonial assumptions of superior culture. This is how temporality is also gendered. The women who suffered the blows of this history, mostly in the rural countryside, continued to live life on their own terms, without their men. They continued to practise their indigenous ways of knowing – which are not an event but an ongoing process.

These knowledges evolved with time and did not freeze in some dark past. They progress, transform, and evolve as humans do. Today when we call for decolonisation we are actually wanting to retrieve this knowledge that was silenced and erased by the multiheaded hydra of colonialism. Where can we find it if not from those who had little contact with this hydra? In my view black women, in the context of southern Africa, are that “matriarchive”.

The book Black Radical Traditions From The South: Keorapetse Kgositsile and the Black Arts Movement by Uhuru Phalafala will be published shortly.

This article is part of a series called Decolonising the Black Atlantic in which black and queer women literary academics rethink and disrupt traditional Black Atlantic studies. The series is based on papers delivered at the Revising the Black Atlantic: African Diaspora Perspectives colloquium at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.The Conversation

Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University and Uhuru Portia Phalafala, Lecturer, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Beauty in code – 5 ways digital poetry combines human and computer languages



Joshua Sortino/Unsplash, CC BY

David Thomas Henry Wright, Nagoya University

Since lockdown, everyone has had to rely heavily on digital technologies: be it Zoom work meetings and lengthy email chains, gaming and streaming services for entertainment, or social media platforms to organise everything from groceries to protests. Human existence is now permeated by non-human computer language.

This includes poetry. Digital technologies can disseminate and publish contemporary poetry, and also create it.

Digital artists combine human and computer languages to create digital poetry, which can be grouped into at least five genres.

1. Generative poetry

Generative poems use a program or algorithm to generate poetic text from a database of words and phrases written or gathered by the digital poet.

The poem may run for a fixed period, a fixed number of times, or indefinitely. Dial by Lai-Tze Fan and Nick Montfort, for example, is a generative poem that represents networked, distant communication. It depicts two isolated voices engaged in a dialogue over time. Time can be adjusted by clicking the clocks at the bottom of this emoji-embedded work.

A still from generative poem Dial (2020) by Lai-Tze Fan and Nick Montfort.
nickm.com

The recent web-based work Say Their Names! by digital artist John Barber generates a list from more than 5,000 names of Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans who have been killed by police officers in the United States from 2015 to the present day. No judgement regarding the victims’ guilt or innocence is made. Each name is simply spoken – in a sometimes incongruously cheerful tone – by a computerised voice.




Read more:
Listen to me: machines learn to understand how we speak


2. Remixed poetry

Nick Montfort’s generative poem Taroko Gorge was inspired by a visit to Taroko Gorge in Taiwan.

Montfort writes: “If others could go to a place of natural beauty and write a poem about that place, why couldn’t I write a poetry generator, instead?” Scott Rettberg then took the code from Montfort’s poem and replaced the vocabulary to produce Tokyo Garage, turning Montfort’s minimalist nature poem into a maximalist urban poem.

J.R. Carpenter undertook a similar transformation – replacing the nature vocabulary with words associated with eating.

There are now dozens of Taroko Gorge remixes. By inspecting the source of Montfort’s poem, one can carve into the code to remix one’s own version.

Scott Rettberg’s Taroko Gorge remix.

3. Visual verse

For centuries, poets have combined poetry and images. In the late 1700s, William Blake combined poetry with engraved artwork in his conceptual collection Songs of Innocence. Contemporary poets use digital technologies to similarly adorn poetry with imagery.

The title of Qianxun Chen’s work Shan Shui means mountain and water in Chinese, and landscape when combined as shanshui. It also refers to traditional Chinese landscape painting and a style of poetry that conveys the beauty of nature. With each click, a new Shan Shui poem is generated with a corresponding Shan Shui landscape painting.

Shan Shui (2014) by Qianxun Chen makes a new illuminated poem with each click.
elmcip.net

Visuals also find their way into poetry performance. The Buoy by Meredith Morran is a poetic work of auto-fiction that uses a series of diagrams to create a new form of language to address political issues involving marginalised identities.

Morran combines abstract images, performance and PowerPoint presentation software to indirectly address a personal history of growing up queer in Texas.

A Brief History of How Life Works (2017) by Meredith Morran.



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Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


4. Video game poem plays

The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of text-based computer games, such as Zork, the source code of which is archived at the MIT libraries.

Queensland digital poet Jason Nelson has created a number of works that fuse these two modes. One is called game, game, game, and again game, which Nelson describes as “a digital poem, retro-game, an anti-design statement, and a personal exploration of the artist’s changing worldview lens”. The work disrupts commercial video game design with the player not striving for a high score – but instead moving, jumping, and falling through an excessive, disjointed, poetic atmosphere.

A still from game, game, game, and again game (2007) by Jason Nelson.
elmcip.net

The emergence of virtual reality games, such as Half-Life: Alyx, has also met with poetry.

Australian digital artist Mez Breeze’s V[R]ignettes is a virtual reality microstory series. The audience can experience this work by donning a virtual reality headset or viewing it in 3D space in browser. Each V[R]ignette combines poetic text, 3D models, and atmospheric sound design. The reader (or user) can navigate by clicking on the “Select an annotation” bar at the bottom of the screen, or simply look around in 3D space and freely explore the work.

A still from V[R]ignettes (2019) by Mez Breeze.
elmcip.net

5. Coded messages

Code poetry is a genre that combines classical poetry with computer language.

Code poems, such as those compiled by Ishac Bertran in the print collection code {poems}, do not require a computer to exist. However, they do use computer languages, so to comprehend the poem one must be able to read computer code.

Like so many untranslatable Russian and Chinese poems, these works require a knowledge of the original language to be appreciated.The Conversation


Ignotus the Mage/flickr, CC BY-SA

David Thomas Henry Wright, Associate Professor, Nagoya University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Know your place – poetry after the Black Death reflected fear of social change



Chaucer commended those who followed their societal roles and condemned those who didn’t.
Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

Stephen Rigby, University of Manchester

The sharp fall in population caused by the waves of plague which followed the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 led to one of the most dramatic periods of economic and social change in English history. By 1377, the population was around only a half of its pre-plague level but for those who survived there were new opportunities.

With a great deal of land now available, peasants could obtain larger holdings and rent them on more favourable terms. Likewise, those who worked for wages could take advantage of the labour shortage to obtain higher wages enjoy more varied diets – with more meat and dairy – and buy a wider range of manufactured goods.

The second half of the 14th century was thus a period of rising living standards, social mobility and increasing class conflict as the lower orders now sought to obtain improved terms from their landlords and employers.

The dramatic social changes of these years drew several responses from contemporary poets. In the medieval period, imaginative literature was often seen as having an ethical function by teaching virtue, which was defined as fulfilling the expected tasks of their social order. Modern literary critics often see imaginative literature challenging dominant ideologies or providing a sanctioned space for the expression of social dissidence. By contrast, the work of poets in the post-plague era often sought to buttress the social hierarchy against the threats with which it was now confronted.

Langland and Gower against the peasants

Such sentiments are to be found in William Langland’s allegorical poem, Piers Plowman (B-version written c. 1380). Here, the poet expresses his sympathy for those who were genuinely poor or hard-working but echoes post-plague labour legislation and attacked those who, he believed, preferred to beg rather than work.

There had been frequent complaints in parliament about labourers who preferred handouts to work or who took advantage of the labour shortage to demand higher wages. In response, a series of laws were introduced to reduce labour mobility and freeze wages at their pre-plague levels. Langland also calls upon the knightly class to defend the community from those “wasters” who refused to work and criticised the labourers who impatiently demanded higher wages and refused to obey the new legislation.

Contemporary moralists complained about those who rose above their allotted station in life and so in 1363 a law was passed that specified the food and dress that were appropriate for each social class. In line with such attitudes, Langland railed against the presumption of labourers who disdained day-old vegetables, bacon and cheap ale and instead demanded fresh meat, fish and fine ale.

John Gower depicted as an archer in Vox Clamantis.
Berkley

Similar views are expressed in John Gower’s poem Vox Clamantis (the Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness) where the peasants are attacked for being idle and utterly wicked. The common people had fallen into an evil disposition in which they ignored the labour laws and were only willing to work if they received the highest pay.

When the lower orders refused to know their place, as in the Great Revolt of 1381 (also known as the Peasants’ Revolt), they were denounced by contemporary chroniclers as wicked, treacherous, and diabolical. In line with such criticism, Gower’s poem includes an allegorical account of the rising that portrays the rebels as farmyard animals rising up against their masters. They subsequently turn into monsters that attack humanity and becoming followers of Satan in their attachment to wrongdoing and slaughter.

Chaucer’s difficult voice

However, if Langland and Gower were openly hostile to the aspirations of the peasants and the labourers, Geoffrey Chaucer has proved more difficult to read. For many critics, Chaucer is a writer who prefers to present his readers with questions rather than providing them with stock answers. To them, his use of multiple voices and shifting perspectives pose a challenge to the accepted contemporary beliefs and exposes the kind of ideology found in the works of a Gower as partial and inadequate.

Instead of committing to a pious life of study and prayer, the monk pursued the pleasure of hunting.
Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

Yet for other critics, Chaucer is much more conservative or even, as the medieval scholar Alcuin Blamires puts it, reactionary in his outlook. After all, among the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, those who are presented as admirable are the ones who dutifully perform the traditional functions of their social estate. For example, the Parson is a good shepherd to his flock, the Knight is a chivalrous crusader, and the Plowman works hard and faithfully pays his tithes. It is those who fail in their duties or seek to rise above their station whom Chaucer satirises – as when the Monk prefers hunting to a life of study and prayer or when the Wife of Bath seeks female supremacy in marriage.

Certainly, the Parson offers us a socially conservative message when, at the end of the Canterbury Tales, he preaches that as part of the divinely arranged cosmic order, God has ordained that some people should be of higher social rank and others should be lower. People should, therefore, render honour and obedience not only to God but also to their spiritual fathers and their secular superiors. Nobody should lament their misfortunes or envy the prosperity of others but rather should endure adversity in patience in the hope of obtaining joy and ease in the next life.

Given that medieval literary theory regards the ending of a text as being particularly important in conveying its meaning, we may perhaps regard Chaucer’s views as being in line with his Parson. If so, then Chaucer’s response to the social change of his day may have been rather closer to the views of Gower and Langland than many of his modern readers would like to admit.

Read and listen more from the Recovery series here.The Conversation

Stephen Rigby, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Social and Economic History, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Moth Poetry Prize Winner


The link below is to an article that reports on the winner of the 2020 Moth Poetry Prize.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/05/01/149857/obrien-wins-e10000-moth-poetry-prize/

A thousand yarns and snapshots – why poetry matters during a pandemic



Kenrick Mills/Unsplash

Christopher Wallace-Crabbe, University of Melbourne

Why do we have the arts? Why do they seem to matter so much? It is all very well muttering something vague about eternal truths and spiritual values. Or even gesturing toward Bach and Leonardo da Vinci, along with our own Patrick White.

But what can the poets make of, and for, our busy, present lives? What do they have to say during grave crises?

Well, they can speak eloquently to their readers for life, in writing from the very base of their own experiences. Every generation has laid claim, afresh, to its vital modernity. In the 17th century, Andrew Marvell did so with witty lyrical elegance in his verse To a Coy Mistress. Three centuries later, the French poet René Char thought of us as weaving tapestries against the threat of extinction. Accordingly, he wrote:

The poet is not angry at the hideous extinction of death, but confident of his own particular touch, he transforms everything into long wools.

In short, the poet will, at best, weave lasting, memorable, salvific tapestries out of words. The poems in question will come out live, if the poet is lucky, and possibly as disparate as the sleepy, furred animals caged in Melbourne Zoo.




Read more:
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What is truly touching or intimate need not be tapped by elegies, for all that they can fill a mortal need. Yet the great modern poet W. H. Auden wrote in memory of poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman:

There is one, only one object in his world which is at once sacred and hated, but it is far too formidable to be satirizable: namely Death.

As William Wordsworth and Judith Wright both well knew, in their separate generations – and quite polar cultures – the best poetry grasps moments of our ordinary lives, and renders them memorable.

Poetry can give us back our dailiness in musical technicolour: in a thousand yarns or snapshots. Poems sing to us that life really matters, now. That can emerge as songs or satires, laments, landscapes or even somebody’s portrait done in imaginative words.

Yes, verse at its finest is living truth “done” in verbal art. The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once insisted “nothing ever happens later”, and the point of poetry in our own time – as always, at its best – is surely to shine the light of language on what is happening now. The devil is in the detail, yes. But so is the redemptive beauty, along with “the prophetess Deborah under her palm-tree” in the words of the Australian poet, Peter Steele.

Poetry sees the palm tree, and the prophetess herself, vividly, even in the middle of a widespread epidemic.




Read more:
Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection


Modern poetry is an art made out of living language. In these times, at least, it tends to be concise, barely spilling over the end of the page: too tidy for that, unlike the vast memorised narratives of the Israelites, the Greeks or even the Icelanders. But what it shares with the ancient, oral cultures is its connection with wisdom, crystallising nodes of value, fables of the tribe, moments or decades that made us all.

In the brief age of a national pandemic, poetry’s role and its duties may come to seem all the more important: all the more civil and politically sane. The poem – even in the case when it is quite a short lyric, even if comic – carries the message of moral responsibility in its saddle bag. Perhaps all poets do, even when they are also charming the pants off their willing readers.


Christopher Wallace-Crabbe is judge of the ACU Prize for Poetry. Entries close July 6.The Conversation

Christopher Wallace-Crabbe, Emeritus Professor in the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article that reports on the shortlist for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/heres-the-international-shortlist-for-the-griffin-poetry-prize/