Reflecting on poetry, safe spaces and difficult conversations at the Abantu Book Festival

In the heart of Mofolo’s Eyethu Centre, it made perfect sense to host a literature festival in a chillas spot. What calls out more to writers and readers than a cold brew and languid intimate conversations after bearing your souls in a room together for the past hour? Lebo Lebese reflects on the session, The Poet Ethic (II), that took place on Saturday at the Abantu Book Festival.

The session started on time at 1pm, the air conditioner balking along in the crowded room. Even for such a hot day, the little room carried expectation and had us all holding our breaths a little.

The session was curated by Koleka Putuma, a poet from the University Currently Known as Rhodes.

Vangi Gantsho opened the space with poetry about “small girls”. The theme carried out for her 20-minute performance, touching on issues of rape perpetrated by men in the family and how these traumas are dressed up and hidden behind ugly flower pots. How these small girls stay burning from the trauma all of their lives. It was a moving and very sincere performance of newly debuted work that she said would appear in her second book.

Mak Manaka, a fully enterprising human being, combined elements of spoken word, singing and theatrical presentation into what can only be classed as honest performance. His voice vibrated off the walls before sinking into people’s skins. He talked of class struggles embedded within blackness, that freedom and democracy are just words when you are poor. Doing away with polite finger snapping he encouraged the audience to stomp and ululate when a line stuck them at their core. The performance became a celebration, back and forth between poet and audience.

The closing performance by the great Lebo Mashile was everything audiences have come to love her for. She talked of being a mother and raising sons within patriarchy. She talked of how muthi is another way of healing, of bonds with our ancestry and history.

It was repeated by both audience and poets that they felt the creation of safe spaces for difficult conversations across different platforms of literature was necessary. But that is the beauty of poetry. To hold a room in rapture, to bloodlet in every word. By the end of the hour, there was no dry eye in the room. It was clear why spaces like this are important for learning and healing. We cannot understate the importance of being surrounded by performers and audiences that look like you.

Lebogang Lebese trades words on pages.

Featured image via the Abantu Book Festival on Facebook