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Poetry can save your soul

| March 16, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Fiona De Villiers

Outside, a basketball slams onto the ground and then hits the rim of a hoop to the shouts of students enjoying their lunch break.

The noise does not break the respectful focus in the second-floor library overlooking the court. Here, a group of extraordinary South Africans sit around a large table: on one side, two stalwart ‘struggle’ poets and on the other, some pupils from Ntsika Secondary School in Extension 7, Joza township, Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape.

The pale ray of sunlight that hits the table accentuates the magic happening on this late April afternoon in 2015. Poets James Matthews and Mongane Wally Serote are meeting with the Ntsika Reading Club, a project founded and run by Professor Sam Naidu, who lectures in the Rhodes University (RU) English Department.

A tribute to James Matthews

The day before, RU celebrated the life and work of Matthews. In front of a packed house, he and Serote discussed the sources of their poetic inspiration, their understanding of art and the continuing struggle to create a new democratic society where the people shall govern – and the place of love in this struggle.

A volume of Matthews’ poetry, entitled Gently Stirs My Soul, was launched at the event by the RU Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) and the RU Cory Library.

The university’s Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA), English Department, School of Journalism and Media Studies and History Department co-hosted the tribute.

The visit to Ntsika Secondary School is a more intimate affair and, in many ways, more moving. It’s rare, after all, that schoolchildren have the chance to meet writers of this calibre.

Genesis of the Ntsika Reading Club

Naidu explains the genesis of the Ntsika Reading Club: “Since 2011, I have been a member of the Friends of the Library (FOL) committee, which works to promote literacy and literariness in the Makana municipal area. One of the main tasks of the FOL is to administer the Henderson Bequest [money bequeathed by a former Rhodes vice chancellor, Derek Henderson, to libraries in Makana]. FOL decided to use part of the bequest to assist public schools which did not have fully functioning libraries. I was assigned to Ntsika Secondary School.”

Lending a hand to FOL member Cathy Birkinshaw and other volunteers, Naidu helped establish a working library at the school. Then she turned her attention to the Ntsika Reading Club, a joint venture between FOL and the RU English Department.

“Every Wednesday afternoon we meet for an hour,” says Naidu. “I am supported by some RU postgraduate students, and together we have been working with the same core group of young Ntsika readers since they were in Grade 8. Most are now in Grade 10 and a couple are in Grade 12.

“Their confidence has grown enormously. When we started the club, most students were too shy to read aloud.

“Today they have the courage to stand up and read in front of two esteemed poets and other members of the community.”

Close collaboration

The meeting with Matthews and Serote kicks off with introductions. The students are shy in the face of greatness. They are there to read some of Matthews’ and Serote’s poems, ask the poets questions and to read some of their own work, inspired by these two literary icons. Many of them are reading from Pass Me a Meatball, Jones – written in 1976 when Matthews was imprisoned at Victor Verster Maximum Security Prison in Paarl in the Western Cape.

Sipokazi Damane is first up. “I’m a writer,” she says softly, before reading Serote’s famous ‘City Johannesburg’. Serote’s simple response indicates clearly that the reading has moved him. “Thank you for reading it so well,” he says, after explaining that some of the images in the poem are references to life under apartheid.

Sipokazi’s own poem is entitled ‘City Grahamstown’ and includes these lines: “My soul has found a home/and I believe that I am the saint/I am the angel/the angel… pushing away the sadness, anger…”

Rising to the occasion

As each Ntsika pupil rises to speak, backs become straighter, voices more confident, questions more probing. Matthews is loving the interaction.

“I was in detention when I write that poem [‘Birds’],” he tells another pupil. “After completing the poem, I felt much better, as the lines say, the last lines, ‘I can now fly, I will be free’.

“I liked the way you expressed my feelings through your reading.”

As he listens to a rendering of his own poem ‘Boredom’, an old pain crosses Matthews’ face. “Well, this poem, for me, speaks about the fact that when you are prison, you are not going anywhere, and you are bored, you can’t even speak to yourself, you just sit there.”

However bad the situation, though, hope was always with him, Matthews tells the Ntsika pupils.

“In these poems, I’m trying to relate how I feel. There is an underlying feeling of sadness, but it does not make me feel that I have given up.

“I did not allow being where I was to vanquish my spirit. Constantly [in my poems] I bring across the fact that no matter where I am placed, I will never be bound… I constantly talk
about stars and things that delight my soul and using those words saves me from despair.”

The same struggles

The poems written by each pupil speak directly to their own personal struggles while acknowledging the parts played by Matthews, Serote and other artists in the fight for political freedom in apartheid South Africa. Says young Siwe: “My poem is entitled ‘No-one knows my struggle’.”

Matthews responds: “Have you got a copy of it that you can sign for me?”

At this point, the group is caught up in a moment of reflection. Everyone (including RU postgraduate students and long-term volunteers with the Ntsika Reading Club, Theo Coetzer and Manosa Nthunya) is trying to process how feelings of loss, deprivation and longing are prevalent in all the poems, despite the years that separate their writing.

The reflection deepens as Caitlin Stobie, RU English Honours student and short-term volunteer with the club, reads one her own poems about Grahamstown.

Serote sums it up aptly, pointing at an Ntsika pupil across the table: “You see the distance between me and her, but we are writing the same thing…”

How to save your soul

“I have been asking myself a question. There is still so much violence in our townships and young people are dying. So I’m sitting here and thinking what more should be done?”

Naidu takes up the issue, addressing the Ntsika pupils directly: “Mongane has raised a very important question: our country is obviously in a lot of trouble. Do you think poetry can
make a difference? Can literature help people to think differently and behave differently?”

It’s a question that can’t be answered in detail off the cuff for these young thinkers. Generally, they agree that writing poems helps them to clarify their feelings. It’s a topic they’ll take away and tease out further.

In the meantime, with twinkling eyes, Matthews advises: “The first thing you do as a poet is to free yourself. Don’t let anything restrain you, just write. Poetry can explain almost anything. Even if you’re angry, you can write it out of yourself.

“My mind is filled with thunderous thoughts and the words I utter are hammer blows directed against those whose doings offend me.

“Poetry can save your soul.”

An extraordinary generational dialogue

Over refreshments, ISER director, Professor Robert van Niekerk, shares his thoughts. “I was immensely impressed by the tremendous efforts the learners working with Professor Naidu had made to grapple with and understand the poetry of James Matthews and Mongane Wally Serote in advance of the visit of these two well-known poets to the school.

“Today I had a sense of something unique unfolding as one student read their poem, ‘City Grahamstown’, directly to Serote, in response to his original poem written in 1972, ‘City Johannesburg’. Both poems, although separated by time, geography, age and experience, captured the pathos and discontent of the black experience in a marginalising city environment dominated by an exclusionary experience of whiteness – and defiantly not succumbing to that marginalisation or exclusion.

“The look of evident appreciation on Serote’s face as he listened to the retelling of this poem of his 37 years later through a new experience, spoke volumes. So, too, the simple and affecting question of a learner to Matthews about whether he felt lonely in prison, as his poems, written while in political detention, conveyed a sense of deep loneliness to the young reader.

“I think everyone here today felt a sense of privilege, as this extraordinary generational dialogue unfolded through the lens of protest poetry and the affirmation of both the learners and poets in the process.”

Educational engagement

“A special mention must be made of the role of Professor Naidu in the success of the event. She demonstrates the power of educational engagement that is heartfelt and aims to be meaningful for the learners, with no preconceptions of what has to be learned and how it is to be learned – instilling a sense of joy in both reading works of literary value as well as the process of learning.

“The fact that almost all her group of young learners, many from impoverished backgrounds, now desire to study at Rhodes University, is perhaps the most powerful testimony of the success of her educational approach and indicative of the real as opposed to rhetorical decolonisation that is possible at a university institution established originally for an elite.”


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Category: Autumn 2016

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