Giving poetry life: a new competition to celebrate poets and poetry

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Celia van Druten

The rains down in Africa drummed a new rhythm on 18 September 2014 when Poetry for LifeTM was launched at Somerset College, in the majestic Helderberg Basin in the Western Cape.

Raindrops on the tin roof… and then the resonant voice of poet extraordinaire Malika Ndlovu1 filled the Boonzaier Hall at the college. Moving fluidly from the spoken to the singing voice, the powerful words of the renowned poet reverberated deep into the souls of every person present. No one left the evening the same – they were enriched by words, by culture, by South African poetry – they had all received a vibrational blessing.

An august gathering engaging with words

Students, poets, teachers, academics from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits),2 the University of Cape Town (UCT)3 and the University of the Western Cape (UWC),4 district officials from the Western Cape Education Department (WCED)5 and scholars from all types of schools were present to engage with words. Many shared their own poetry in a manner that made the audience know that there is powerful talent in this land. Ndlovu, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers6 and Koleka Putuma7 were the professional poets at the event, and their presentations were interspersed with poetry by Somerset College students and students from the Insync group, who impressed the audience with their powerful words. Fazeela Haffejee, the deputy chief education specialist for English in the WCED;8 head of the English department at Somerset College, Su Nightingale; and lawyer and poetry enthusiast, Celia van Druten;9 as well as academics from Cambridge University and dean of arts at UWC, Duncan Brown,10 had all put their weight behind the launch.

The birth of ZAPP

Poetry for LifeTM11 is the sum of many collaborations – not least with the South African Poetry Project (ZAPP),12 a collaborative project between the Centre for Commonwealth Education (Faculty of Education, Cambridge University )13 and various other universities, poets, teachers, academics and writers in South Africa. ZAPP’s chief aims are to promote the teaching of South African poetry in schools across South Africa and the United Kingdom (UK), to include South African poets in the Poetry Archive,14 and to ensure that the fruits of the project are long-lasting and sustainable. From this collaboration, it is hoped an anthology will be borne that will reflect some of the exciting poetry of the country, and that there will be increased and renewed enthusiasm in the teaching and learning of South African poetry.

South African poets are part of our country’s heritage, and we would do well to celebrate their voices and their truth. The concept is not new. Poetry has its roots in oral tradition. In ancient Greece, mousike15 referred equally to music, dance and poetry – all of which were closely connected with the preserving and passing on of wisdom.

Various discussions in the embryonic stages on how best to create a South African Poetry Project were held and, building on Cambridge University’s success with the Caribbean Poetry Project,16 ZAPP began to emerge under the careful and gentle guidance of Dr Georgie Horrell17 from Cambridge University.

Poetry for Life and by heart

One aspect of ZAPP to emerge from initial discussions was the idea of having a competition for students to present poetry along the lines of the UK’s Poetry by Heart18 competition. And so it was that the seed for a similar project in South Africa was sown, brought back to South Africa, engendered and given the name: Poetry for LifeTM.

With Horrell firmly behind the project, with Poetry by Heart helping with the complex aspects of rules and the way forward and the Commonwealth Education Trust suggesting the possibility of an international competition in August 2015, the sudden exigency of the project created a momentum of its own. All interested parties – from parents to teachers to business managers at Somerset College – were roped in to give life to a project that will hopefully awaken more and more scholars to the beauty of poetry and the value of learning poetry for life by committing carefully crafted words to memory.

Poetry has a profound ability to mock barriers. In a country still defined by so many intangible yet entrenched obstacles, South African poetry is a means to access different cultures. It plays an important role in terms of educating beyond the impediments of race, class, gender and culture. Poetry for LifeTM has no truck with those obstacles – it allows those who are prepared to commit poetry to memory and to share it passionately with others, to showcase their talent and their love of words.

Can you recite a poem by heart?

Poetry for LifeTM has a long way to go. Ideally, it needs a funder who will extend it beyond the domain of schools to a more national space. For now, the project is being nurtured by a few passionate people in excellent schools, who want it to serve all high school scholars in this country by affording them an opportunity to engage with poetry.

Poetry committed to memory makes both the poem and the memory continually available to each other for mutual elucidation. It affords the presenter of the poem to inhabit the world of another person through imagination and, in so doing, develop his or her own sense of self. Further, it engenders a sense of ownership of the words that facilitates understanding of individual poems and a love of poetry in general.

Poetry for LifeTM requires students to learn by heart an English poem from the list generated by Poetry by Heart in the UK, and to commit to memory a South African poem from a list generated by ZAPP, and to present them both in a meaningful way. The finals will be held at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May 2015. From 2016, the rules may be adapted to include an original poetry section, and additional poems will be added.

Poetry humanises and enriches

Hopefully, many people will see the value in this initiative that celebrates poetry, our country and the arts through words that transcend the barriers of the past. In an era that seems so disjointed, it is time to let our students find a space to bring a different and dignified understanding to the world. Poetry humanises and enriches. Poetry accesses truths that often lie deeply hidden. Poetry is powerful and our world needs it – desperately, because poetry dignifies.

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Category: Autumn 2015

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