Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.
But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.
Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”
Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia
In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.
Nonetheless, throughout the 20th century, Black Appalachian writers like Nikki Giovanni and Norman Jordan continued to write and wrestle with what it meant to be both Black and Appalachian.
In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.
By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”
Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.
It caught on.
In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.
Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.
Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.
Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:
He told me
of my great uncle who, Depression era,
loaned white townspeople venison
and preserves. Later stood off
the same ones with a gun
when they wanted his property.
An Affrilachian future
We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.
Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.
In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”
Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.
Pondering the now no-longer Dixie Chicks – renamed “The Chicks” – Amanda Petrusich wrote in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Lately, I’ve caught myself referring to a lot of new releases as prescient – work that was written and recorded months or even years ago but feels designed to address the present moment. But good art is always prescient, because good artists are tuned into the currency and the momentum of their time.”
That last phrase, “currency and momentum,” recalls Hamlet’s advice to the actors visiting the court of Elsinore to show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” The shared idea here is that good art gives a clear picture of what is happening – even, as Petrusich suggests, if it hadn’t happened yet when that art was created.
Some excellent COVID-19-inflected or anticipatory work I’ve been noticing dates from the mid-20th century. Of course, one could go a lot further back, for example to the lines from the closing speech in “King Lear”: “The weight of this sad time we must obey.” Here, though, are a few more recent examples.
Marcel Proust’s “Finding Time Again,” an evocation of wartime Paris from 1916, strongly suggests New York City in March 2020: “Out on the street where I found myself, some distance from the centre of the city, all the hotels … had closed. The same was true of almost all the shops, the shop-keepers, either because of a lack of staff or because they themselves had taken fright, having fled to the country, and left the usual handwritten notes announcing that they would reopen, although even that seemed problematic, at some date far in the future. The few establishments which had managed to survive similarly announced that they would open only twice a week.”
I recently stumbled on finds from the 1958 edition of Oscar Williams’ “The Pocket Book of Modern Verse” – both, strikingly, from poems by writers not now principally remembered as poets. Whereas a fair number of the poets anthologized by Williams have slipped into oblivion, Arthur Waley and Julian Symons speak to us now, to our sad time, loud and clear.
From Waley’s “Censorship” (1940):
It is not difficult to censor foreign news.
What is hard to-say is to censor one’s own thoughts,-
To sit by and see the blind man
On the sightless horse, riding into the bottomless abyss.
And from Symons’ “Pub,” which Williams doesn’t date but which I am assuming also comes from the war years:
The houses are shut and the people go home, we are left in
Our island of pain, the clocks start to move and the powerful
To act, there is nothing now, nothing at all
To be done: for the trouble is real: and the verdict is final
‘Return to what remains’
Dipping a bit further back, into Henry James’ “The Spoils of Poynton” from 1897, I was struck by a sentence I hadn’t remembered, or had failed to notice, when I first read that novella decades ago: “She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.” James uses infection as a metaphor; but what happens to a metaphor when we’re living in a world where we literally can’t leave our houses without peril of exposure?
In Anthony Powell’s novel “Temporary Kings,” set in the 1950s, the narrator muses about what it is that attracts people to reunions with old comrades-in-arms from the war. But the idea behind the question “How was your war?” extends beyond shared military experience: “When something momentous like a war has taken place, all existence turned upside down, personal life discarded, every relationship reorganized, there is a temptation, after all is over, to return to what remains … pick about among the bent and rusting composite parts, assess merits and defects.”
The pandemic is still taking place. It’s too early to “return to what remains.” But we can’t help wanting to think about exactly that. Literature helps us to look – as Hamlet said – before and after.
I start with a disclaimer: I am a UWA Publishing poet. I have published a book of poetry with them (as well as a novel), and have two books forthcoming with them in 2020 — The Weave, a collection of poetry co-written with Thurston Moore, and an edited and introduced volume, The Collected Poems of C.J. Brennan, the great, Sydney-dwelling, symbolist poet (1870-1932).
Now, with UWAP on the verge of being shut down, partly through what I and many others see as a misguided sense of what constitutes an interface between universities and the broader public, the fate of these books is unclear.
The University of Western Australia has proposed that “UWA Publishing operations, in their current form, come to an end” to be replaced by an open-source digital publishing model. The jobs of its employees and director Terri-ann White would likely be “surplus to requirements”. In a statement released late last week it said
Current publishing works already in train this year and next year are expected to continue, as will consultation on innovation that will assist UWA Publishing to adapt to the demands of modern publishing, with options to examine a mix of print, greater digitisation and open access publishing.
But even if contracted books are published, the closure of this publisher would be catastrophic for Australian poetry. It would be as if those books didn’t exist as something connected to a future vision of writing with purpose and community. It’s a way of killing a humanistic, inter-cultural conversation. It ignores the people who do so much to make these conversations happen.
UWAP, especially since 2016, publishes many poetry books a year — a very unusual act of creative support and belief. Its dynamic list includes such essential voices as Ania Walwicz, Candy Royalle, Peter Rose, Quinn Eades, Kate Lilley, David McCooey, and so many other voices of the now, along with collected and selected “greats” like Francis Webb, Lesbia Harford, and Dorothy Hewett.
Yes, I speak here from the inside, as an author. Yet I also speak from the outside as a reader of poetry, and with the incredible feeling of loss I get as a reader, at this ill-thought out proposal.
UWAP publishes many “big name” writers and scholars, but also many marginalised voices and/or voices that might find it hard to publish through purely market-driven publishing houses. It is part of the country’s literary and scholarly collective conscience.
Poetry is an active ingredient of social justice not only in what it can say and talk about, but in the way that it places language under pressure, and questions how expression is used in general discourse, and why. Words of oppression are so easily accepted — poetry questions the uses and “deployment” of language.
UWAP, under Terri-ann White, is part of a clutch of poetry publishers in Australia — and there are not many — who make a commitment to poetry beyond the canonical, and with a strong sense of the need to enact this scrutiny of language. What is said in poetry is seen to matter, and I believe it does.
I will never forget speaking to the late Fay Zwicky in 2017, in her last weeks, about her forthcoming Collected Poems (UWAP, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin) and her discussion of proofs and the book itself. A life’s work — one of the great bodies of poetry produced in Australia.
Zwicky had published volumes of poetry with other vital publishers in the Australia poetry community, University of Queensland Press and Giramondo. And then the collation of a life’s work — a big project that required so much attention and goodwill. It was clearly necessary, if not essential, to her.
One of the many titles on the UWAP list that had a remarkable effect on so many readers, and which I noted in the Australian Book Review’s 2018 Books of the Year feature, was a collation of Lisa Bellear’s poetry — Aboriginal Country. As I said then, “the emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through.” Not to have had access to Bellear’s work is unimaginable now we have encountered it gathered in this way.
There is huge engagement in seeing such a work through to press. It was edited (by Jen Jewel Brown), supported and seen onto the shelves via UWAP. An act of belief and support, among many such acts in a given year; all necessary.
Vitally, UWAP’s poetry list effectively manages that seemingly complex interaction between local work and that from the rest of the country. It seems too often assumed that a WA publisher will necessarily only publish WA work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a total believer in local publishing, but there’s also a strong necessity for a publisher that brings many localities together, as Magabala Books in Broome does with Australian Aboriginal writing.
UWAP publishes poets (and writers in general) from all over the country, and brings in some overseas titles as well. Terri-ann White actively takes her lists to readers and publishers outside Australia, and is an energetic and steadfast voice in international publishing for her authors, and for Australian and world literature.
To close UWAP would be a damaging of shared difference, of making community and discussion out of diverse voices.
While I have had the good fortune over the years to publish with some of the major poetry houses around the English-speaking world, I am especially proud and excited when a book of mine is selected for the UWAP list.
Shutting down UWAP would sever many ties and disrupt many conversations just begun, or prevent other conversations, especially of conscience, ever taking place.
Just as fiction’s George Smiley made sense of the world – and even made his baffling way about a world at war through knowing the works of minor German poets – our own very real Michael Sharkey (who has an equally resonant and unlikely name) has found that his passion for a certain strain of minor poets also intersects with history, war, intrigue, political resistance and troubling nationalism.
But why civilian poets, and why women? In the spirit of redress, Sharkey has uncovered expressions of how the war felt, how it was imagined, and how it was negotiated as a moral, political and deeply personal though socially shared phenomenon by those who were doubly separated from the conflict — through being so far away in Australia, and by the fact of being women.
Paradoxically, such a project, he suggests, makes a lot more sense and is closer to home for Australians than reading anthologies of poems by British soldier-poets. Like the best writers and researchers, Sharkey went about producing the book that he wanted to read.
We know that difficult times and extreme events can take us to poetry, and perhaps this impulse was embraced in the early 20th century with more grace, confidence and a deeper conviction of what is fitting than could have been the case earlier or later, especially among women.
A natural expression of thought and emotion
As an anthology of largely unrecognised minor poets, the reader’s interest is inevitably drawn to the limitations of the works selected, and to their representative significance. It seems that many women were not only capable of turning to poetry, but that there was something natural, even expected about this avenue to public expressions of thought and emotion. Sharkey notes in his introduction that the 24 women poets included, and the many others whose poetry was not, were consistently eloquent and technically competent, a testimony to the high standards of education early in the 20th century.
Universal education though, brings with it inevitable nudging towards “prevailing tastes” and narrowing of the imagination. These poets, working with readers’ and editors’ expectations, were themselves heirs to 19th century English traditions in poetry. Hence, as Sharkey observes, much of this minor poetry tends to read to us now as “lilting or lolloping”.
Against this observation (and taking a lesson from it), the current vogue for a colloquial, free verse in English language poetry might read in the future as a sign of how far contemporary poetry has drifted from song and lyric.
Some lines that might suffice as an example of the skill and musicality in this poetry come from Nettie Palmer’s 1916 poem, Birds, a love song from a wife to a soldier-husband, written when Nettie lived at Emerald in the Dandenongs.
The rhyming on a falling meter at the moment of each stanza’s inserted couplet, together with the dramatically long line following a two-beat line, work to bring both delicacy and the sense of a faltering, yearning spirit to lines that can’t help but touch our hearts:
At morning, when white clouds like leaves drop down
Filling the hollows,
And make vast, milk-white lakes and silence follows,
There on a stump some laughing jackass clown
Stiller than wood thought all the world his own.
But all the world was ours! The birds were ours,
Because we knew them,
The trees were ours, because our love passed through them,
And every dome of cloud and all the flowers
And mountain mists that built our silent bowers.
Enough, we had been jubilant too long,
The gods have judged us,
Such vital joy their tranquil eyes begrudged us.
You fight in France: here when the thrushes throng
How can I bear alone to hear their song.
The poetry in the anthology ranges, as we would expect, from imperialistic nationalism rife with improving sentiments and sentimentality all the way to poetry of open protest against the war. In the many nuances of reaction between these extremes, Sharkey perceives that the sheer quantity of poetry by women in response to that war “pointed to a catastrophic intellectual and emotional crisis experienced by the poets.”
There was so much of this poetry that any plan to publish it would be not only grandiose, but uneconomic. Hence, the interestingly narrowed state focus of this anthology: Victorian Australian women poets: presented in alphabetical order, with each poet introduced by several pages of historical context and life history (each one meticulously referenced).
Wit and sympathy
Beatrice Vale Bevan (1876-1945) is one of those whose poetry might lilt and lollop through its paces, but nevertheless what shines through is her wit, her sympathy and her plainly human reaching towards a language that might come somewhere near sensing and expressing how deplorable death had become.
At the end of her poem debating William Locke’s statement, “Human nature is only capable of a certain amount of deploring”, in the poem that offers the book its surtitle (Many Such as She), Bevan reflects upon the flowers on the twin graves of a soldier in France and his young widow at home who, it seems, had suicided: the final stanza goes:
And he and Margaret, now above,
(since heaven’s above?) no loss deplore,
But love each other more and more!
Why say we ‘dead?’ ‘Immortal dead!’
‘Immortal living!’ some have said,
When was this violet in my hand,
When summer scorched and dried the land?
As the wife of a high ranking Congregational minister and school headmaster, Beatrice’s climactic questions, and even her asides, are hard won and bravely spoken, and do go some considerable way towards expressing a vision of widening circles of deplorable grief that a war leaves in its wake.
Among those whose poetry sees death and life as equally noble when offered to the cause of the empire, are Marion Bray (1885-1947) who offers in a short poem a simple pair of knitted socks to a soldier far away, Muriel Beverley Cole, Martha Coxhead, Violet Cramer and others.
War sprung sprightly into tripping verse
Mary Bright, a deeply committed poet and spiritualist with many publications in her lifetime, and like several of the women here, one who had lost her husband and a nephew and cousins to the war, was unafraid of imagining herself into the maddened, bewildered and patriotic minds of soldiers being killed and maimed on the battle fronts:
… we couldn’t find our mates.
They were all scattered far and wide
Through death’s untimely gates.
…. We didn’t want to die—for fame
Nor for glory did we care.
We had to go, our country called—
We did but do our share.
It can be difficult to know what to make of such verse. It can be a chilling experience to find that war sprung so sprightly into tripping verses. But this would be, perhaps, to mistake the tone of public literary activity in these years.
The poetry does not pretend to more than papering over what is beyond the deplorable and nearly beyond meaning. We do read tragedy between the lines here, and there is no reason this would not have been the case in 1916, perhaps especially through the prism of awareness regarding imposed and self-dictated censorship in public utterances.
This situation makes the poetry of Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) remarkable for its outspokenness:
In many a cot the woman,
With the babe on her shelt’ring breast,
Is nursing his limbs for battle
A-crooning her son to rest.
All over the world the women
Give service and love and life;
While over the world the tyrants
Are brewing the brew of strife.
-From The Targets
Among the bereft was Phyllis Lewis (1894-1986), a gifted teacher and briefly fiancée to a certain Robert Menzies.
Her one published poem, 1918, was a eulogy to her brother Owen, killed in a plane accident near Amiens: “Oh lawless howling wind—/Oh darkness none can lift—Oh hopeless night—/Oh gibbering shadows making heavy flight—/Oh soundless gloom of mind!” her long four-part poem goes when she must face what the war took from her and her family.
Recently my father died and I have inherited some boxes of papers that detail a kind of family history. Among these papers is the telegram informing my grandmother that her son, my father’s brother, died in action in New Guinea in the last week of WWII on that island.
This loss hung over my grandmother and over the whole of her family, for that war really could not stop reverberating until they died with this loss still in them. Such reverberations are the true subject matter of this anthology, and giving them our attention might be more important than we could ever suppose.
Sharkey is to be thanked for finding a way to present these 24 poets to Victorians and to Australians, and for giving us another way to understand and hear our own history. Walleah Press have done a fine job of packaging the anthology as a sturdy paperback.
Many such as She: Victorian Australian Women Poets of World War One, is edited by Michael Sharkey and published by Walleah Press.
Poetry has played an important role in the history of Wales. From the medieval courts, to the ongoing National Eisteddfod (the largest music and poetry festival in Europe), writers have used verse to document the land’s culture. But while male writers, such as the 12th century poets of the princes and more recently Dylan Thomas, have presented one perspective of Welsh history and culture, female poets have documented a very different take on Wales through the centuries. Here are four who bring a different perspective.
1. Gwerful Mechain (est.1462-1500)
Gwerful Mechain is one of the few Welsh medieval poets from whom a substantial body of work has survived to this day. One of the loudest voices speaking up for women of the time, Mechain was also one of the first poets in Wales to write about domestic abuse. To Her Husband for Beating Her is a poignant and powerful poem full of enraged language and energetic imagery.
Born into a noble family, Mechain was free to explore her own poetic interests without the pressure of securing patronage, unlike many of her male contemporaries. She became a prolific writer who was not restricted to one style. Her work includes religious, humorous and socially conscious poetry. One of her most well-known works, To the Vagina, chastises her male counterparts for praising a woman’s body from her hair to her feet but ignoring one hidden feature. She was bold and did not shy away from what some may consider crude imagery, as in her poem, To the Maid as she Shits.
Pob rhyw brydydd, dydd dioed,
Mul frwysg, wladiadd rwysg erioed,
Noethi moliant, nis gwarantwyf,
Anfeidrol reiol, yr wyf
Every poet, drunken fool,
Thinks he is just the king of cool,
(Everyone is such a boor,
He makes me so sick, I’m so demure)
2. Katherine Philips (c.1632 – c.1664)
Born in London, Katherine Philips – who later wrote under the moniker “The Matchless Orinda” – moved to Wales when she was around 15 years old. From her home in Cardigan she became a significant female British poet, as well as the first woman to have a commercial play staged, Pompey.
Despite the stigma against women publishing their work, Philips succeeded by circulating handwritten letters and volumes, as her male contemporaries did, while upholding supposedly feminine virtues such as humility and chastity in her works.
Sarah Jane Rees (also known by the bardic name Cranogwen) is perhaps one of the most pioneering poets in this list. Born in Llangrannog, west Wales, she spurned all attempts to enforce gender stereotypes – her family wanted her to work as a dressmaker – and instead joined her father on board his ship for two years after leaving school. She continued her education, eventually gaining her master mariner certificate. Returning home by the age of 21, Cranogwen fought against opposition to run her old school, and taught children as well as providing navigation and seamanship education to young men.
Ah! Annwyl chwaer, ‘r wyt ti i mi,
Fel lloer I’r lli, yn gyson;
Dy ddilyn heb orphwyso wna
Serchiadau pura’m calon
Oh! My dear sister, you to me
As the moon to the sea, constantly,
Following you restlessly are
My heart’s pure affections
4. Lynette Roberts (1909-1995)
Lynette Roberts was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina to parents of Welsh origin. A friend of Dylan Thomas, during World War II Roberts moved to Carmarthenshire with her then husband, journalist and poet Keidrych Rhys, and stayed in Wales for the rest of her life.
Although now her work is seeing a resurgence, for a long time Roberts has been overlooked. She was a poet ahead of her time and her use of language is refreshing. Roberts was influenced by the rich colours and landscape of her childhood, which she entwined with the rural landscape and culture of Wales during a time of upheaval – World War II.
Roberts’s poem Swansea Raid is perhaps one of her most powerful and insightful works. It depicts a snapshot of a relationship between herself and fellow villager Rosie and the tension between war and home. The changing technological world of war brought out warm, colourful language in her work, setting the colloquialisms of quiet, rural Wales against the starkness of bombing and constant threat of loss. Her most influential work has to be the heroic poem Gods with Stainless Ears, on the war’s disruption of domestic life.
It’s a little more than a year since the death of Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s first post-apartheid poet laureate. Kgositsile, born in Johannesburg in 1938, became a prominent and vocal activist for the African National Congress (ANC). In 1961, at the behest of the ANC, he went into exile, initially to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and subsequently to the US where he became involved in the Black Arts Movement.
In 1990 he returned to South Africa and in 2006 was appointed Poet Laureate. In the many volumes published during his exile and after his return, Kgositsile repeatedly and fearlessly addressed the crimes both of apartheid and of global racism, advocating a revolutionary politics of resistance.
Kgositsile’s death in January 2018 was mourned across South Africa and indeed across the globe.
In a moving tribute in the introduction to Kgositsile’s final volume Homesoil in My Blood the poet, novelist and activist, renowned South African writer Mandla Langa draws attention to Kgositsile’s poetic skill and to his unwavering conviction,
“that art to mean anything must be involved in social activism.”
In a short aside Langa notes Kgositsile’s fertile association with prominent activists and writers across the globe like Pablo Neruda from Chile, and Cubans Nicolás Guillén and Nancy Morejón. The brief mention of Morejón belies the importance of the relationship between two activist poets, one which has rarely been addressed.
A consideration of Morejón’s engagement with Kgositsile as a fellow poet – and her visit to South Africa – shed new light on her poetic practice. It allows too, a reaffirmation of Kgositsile’s uniquely South African voice and to highlight the reach and impact of his transnational status.
Morejón, born in 1944, is, with Guillén, among Cuba’s most important revolutionary writers: internationally renowned for her work as a poet, critic and essayist, she has been widely translated. In 2001, Morejón was awarded Cuba’s National Prize in literature. Issues of race and gender are central to her oeuvre. Through her poetry she acknowledges the centrality and complexity of her Afro-Cuban identity from both pan-Caribbean and pan-African perspectives.
Morejón addresses the origins of her relationship with Kgositsile in a telling anecdote in her essay, “Viaje a Suráfrica” (Voyage to South Africa). In 1987 she attended the International Conference of Writers held in Congo, together with the Cuban poet and translator of African poetry, Rogelio Martínez Furé. She wrote:
We went to drink coffee with one of the writers who had intervened very boldly. He was a small, petite man, with broad and thick lips, with a physical fragility that contrasted with the strength of his word and his overwhelming sympathy.
Furé … decided to ply this new friend with questions. The last question was filled with anguish since we both expected a tragic response: ‘Do you know the whereabouts of the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile from Johannesburg? The only thing we know is that he is one of the poets who has been the longest time in exile and we have not heard from him for so long … Many fear for his life…’
With a smile full of mischief, our interlocutor, impassively, replied: ‘Keorapetse Kgositsile… that is me.’ At that moment my personal history with South Africa was born.
(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay)
The anecdote conveys Kgositsile’s frequently noted playfulness and the affection he commanded. It equally suggests the high regard in which he was held amongst the global community of writer–activists.
The importance of Africa, and of South Africa in particular, as a focus of Morejón’s poetics of resistance, and the extent of her identification with the struggle is evident in her 1989 volume, Baladas para un sueño (Ballads for a dream). In the poem “Silent Lullaby for South African Children” , Morejón addresses the iniquities of South Africa’s pass laws:
Mommy had no pass
and there was no bread.
Daddy had no pass
and he was punished.
Mommy had no pass
and there was no bread.
Daddy had no pass
and he died, slaughtered.
Mommy had no pass
and there was no bread.
(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay and Karin Berkman)
The poem makes clear the impossibility of any peaceful sleep for the child who voices the lament. Its evocation of the simple vocabulary of a child and its spare, plaintive refrains serve to accentuate its concern with the poverty and violence that are the legacies of apartheid.
Travelling across South Africa
In June 1992, in the dying throes of the apartheid regime, Morejón was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual conference of the Congress of South African Writers. After the conference she travelled across South Africa, giving workshops and lectures. She was accompanied throughout by Kgositsile, whom she terms her “cicerone” (guide).
In her essay on this journey, Morejón expresses her wonder at the beauty of the South African landscape, and her pleasure at the fraternity she develops with the poet and with her new South African friends. At the same time, her confrontation with the terrifying realities of apartheid induce in her a profound, almost unbearable sense of estrangement. With Kgositsile as her guide, she visited Crossroads, the shantytown near Cape Town.
She describes an intense loss of bearings, a “sensation of living in Hitler’s dream”: the public toilets at the edge of the camp are indefinable, part sarcophagi, part public amenities. The location loses its specificity, at once a dumping ground and a cemetery, the evidence of apartheid as “a diabolical aberration”.
Morejón closes her essay with a tribute to the people she encounters:
South Africa pulses in my memory for the same story that runs through my own veins, for its art and literature, for the friends of the Congress of South African Writers, for the travelling musicians, the muleteers, the stevedores, the sangomas, the maids who told me their griefs experienced under apartheid, their hopes of making it disappear even after its theoretical death.
The joke among poets is that it’s never a good thing when poetry makes the news. From plagiarism scandals to prize controversies, casual readers would be forgiven for thinking the so-called “poetry world” exists in a state of perpetual outrage. In a recent article, The Guardian reported that an essay published in the magazine PN Review “has split the poetry establishment”.
Rebecca Watts’ contentious essay, The Cult of the Noble Amateur, first appeared in the magazine’s print edition in December. In it, she laments social media’s “dumbing effect” on recent poetry, and a “rejection of craft” that is fuelling the success of what she calls “personality poets”. In particular, Watts criticises Rupi Kaur, whose bestselling verse initially found an audience on Instagram, and Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest, whose performances have garnered millions of YouTube views.
To some extent, the only surprise in this latest debate is the wider media interest. Within days, what might have passed like so many online squabbles had prompted further coverage in The Guardian and Bookseller, a segment on Radio 4’s World at One, and an interview with Watts herself on BBC’s Front Row. It’s with no small irony, of course, that the essay’s viral spread came only after it was posted on PN Review’s website, then shared on Facebook and Twitter.
But by focusing on the false opposition of quality and popularity, both sides have been reluctant to see the debate itself as a symptom of the media’s growing interest in the art form. As Watts’ essay admits, poetry is more popular than ever. And over the past few years, news of scandals has increasingly been replaced by celebrations of its renewed relevance.
Within days of the 2016 US presidential election, for instance, the LA Times, CNN, Buzzfeed, Vox and dozens of other outlets were offering what The Guardian called “poems to counter the election fallout”. The Atlantic declared “Still, Poetry Will Rise”, and Wired warned: “Don’t Look Now, But 2016 is Resurrecting Poetry.”
The political impetus for poetry’s media “resurrection” has also fed into a more general sense of its coolness. In the same week that inspired so many election poems, “London’s new generation of poets” were seen “storming the catwalks of Fashion Week”. Meanwhile, Teen Vogue offered a slideshow of young poets who “are actually making the genre cool again” and a Guardian columnist who has written in the past about coconut water trends assured us that poetry is now “the coolest thing”.
For some, this visibility might seem to justify Watts’ worry that poetry like Kaur’s (which featured among The Guardian’s “coolest things”) has become a form of “consumer driven content”. Like some jazz or comic book devotees, certain poetry lovers remain uncomfortable with its widening fanbase. Indeed, in his mapping of the cultural field, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggested that poetry’s economic priorities are “reversed”, and that relative obscurity has long been part of its caché.
Desperate to preserve that, perhaps, Watts begins her attack by suggesting that poetry’s “highest ever” sales over the past two years are to blame for declining standards. But she’s not the only one to bristle at poetry’s growing currency, or to assume it proves that “artless poetry sells”.
After Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke went viral in 2013, Adam Plunkett, writing for the New Yorker, sneered at her “crowd-pleasing poetry” for its appeal to the “lowest common denominator” online. A similar cycle of praise and censure was repeated last month, when Kristen Roupenian’s short story Cat Person earned a seven-figure book-deal after going viral in the New Yorker itself.
Celebrities trying their hand at verse have been another easy target for the preservationists. The Independent declared that Kristen Stewart had written the “worst poem of all time”, after her piece appeared in Marie Claire in 2014. And in November 2016, Cosmopolitan called on Harvard professor Stephanie Burt to explain why the poems included in Taylor Swift’s new album didn’t really work for her as poems.
Yet, beyond poetry’s appearances at Fashion Week or in financial adverts, there are signs that hang ups over its popular appeal are losing their grip. Beyoncé’s use of Warsan Shire‘s work in 2016’s Lemonade, for example, was met with few claims that it was dumbing anything down. Just as tellingly, the week that saw such heated battles over the PN Review essay also saw the singer Halsey’s moving Women’s March poem go viral to unanimous praise. And there was hardly a peep from the “poetry world”.