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Playing with words

Kojo Baffoe


Playing With Words is a newsletter still in its infancy, but designed eventually to serve as an information and opinion source on matters related to poetry in SA, with initial focus on, but not limited to, Johannesburg. It was born out of a desire to create further platforms for poetry and, while it does publicise events (and the like), it is not meant to be a marketing tool. Just me and my humble keyboard.

Here’s the latest issue of my newsletter. If you like what you see, please e-mail me at kojobaffoe@mweb.co.za with “Playing With Words” as your subject and your message merely containing the word “subscribe”. If you’ve had enough, you can unsubscribe just as easily by e-mailing the word “unsubscribe”.

And if you know of poetry events, etc., please pass on the info. Thanks.


Kojo Baffoe


Playing With Words


  1. thoughts
  2. the past
    a. 10 years of democracy programme
    b. Sedibeng World Book Day Celebration
    c. Presidential Inauguration Gala Event
  3. the future
  1. Thoughts (this one is long)

    The past week has been an interesting one for poetry — as a collective — and I definitely feel like there is a quiet buzz that is getting louder. Our voices are gradually creeping out beyond the traditional “smoky, grungy” venues into other areas. Depending on whom you are talking to, this is either a positive thing or a negative thing. Where you fall is probably influenced by your ideas on the “purity” of poetry … kind of like the whole “keep it real” thing that permeated the hip-hop scene globally. It is a difficult one.

    The way I approach it is that we are all coming from different places and spaces, so we need to work from different premises. My opinion? I believe poetry has the potential to penetrate all facets of our society — from business and music to the stage (case in point: I mike what I like) — and at the end of the day, beyond the wonderful ideals, we all need to live. If you can live off what you are passionate about then it’s cool. If you are doing it out of some twisted ulterior motive, then one might question your intentions, but otherwise I say go for your dream.

    This whole topic has been nagging me over the past week with the elections and the whole “10 years of democracy” celebrations through literary and oral art. How does one become involved in a process without being swallowed up by it? If you are writing and performing for a client, must you adhere to their views? You have various options: (1) find a balance; (2) go with what you believe; (3) go with what they believe; and (4) do not go at all … The choice lies with you.

    Now for a subject change … As I mentioned earlier, there was a suggestion that this interaction (very one-sided right now) be expanded into a discussion forum. I have been looking into that and asked a number of people for advice. One of these people (who runs a discussion group) replied and I would like to take the liberty of including their comments (it has been edited to exclude their particulars, out of respect, but I do believe that it is something that we need to look at). At the end of the day, a discussion forum is dependent on everyone’s contribution, otherwise it becomes dormant. This is discussed in the piece below.

    Comments on Discussion Forum
    Hi Kojo (and all)

    Your notions on creating dialogue on South African poetry, and therefore helping create community around it, are very sympathetic with the spirit that drove us to develop *** and its precursor group, ***, starting over a decade ago. We found that communication begets community — something that seems obvious today, but since we lacked the communication power of the web before then, we had not realized. However, there is the matter of actually keeping that community going once it has begun. The quality of your sustaining effort determines a lot about the community you actually get in the end.

    I don’t want to damn your process at the outset — rather, I want very much to see you succeed. But experience compels me to warn about some of the challenges and myths in this.

    It’s very easy to instigate a community. Launching a discussion group online? [bam!] You have a community. Are you able to identify a group of people with a common experience? [bam!] There’s another community. But you’ll find that the substance of that community will be a product of more than the communications and identity processes within it.

    Communications and identity are merely those processes that instigate a community, or cause it to be recognized. Beyond that, there must be a common will, a shared desire to pursue something collectively, and not do so in a passive/receptive way.

    One of the paradoxes about online community is that it is so easy to start but, because it’s on a video screen, it is also so easy to relate to it in passive ways, as if it were television. One watches, reads, even finds their interest peaked, but not necessarily enough to join in and add anything to the dialogue.

    Please don’t read this as blame, but as an example, Kojo, since you even mention this effect yourself  ...

    … Been silently part of the process  ... reading with no input  ...

    Input matters, because that determines the sustaining vitality of a community. As instigators, we can do a lot with our media to bring people together. But once those minds are together, they have to take their own initiative to speak not only to a few core members, but among the whole group. At under 60 members, *** may be a little too small to get very loud. While I wish it were a more active group, it’s OK for most of our purposes. But the “loudness” of a community has a lot to do with the quality of dialogue you encourage. Smaller groups can be noisy. Larger groups than ours can be downright sleepy. What makes the difference?

    I believe it’s a product of the need for the membership to have an audience, and the quality of the audience that any member can expect to have. Sometimes the need for an audience can be legitimate, and giving members a chance to share their views is one way a community advances. But an individual’s need for audience can be destructive at other times, and it’s far easier to be destructive than constructive in these matters. Egotism, undue neediness, immaturity, and polemicism are significant ways that individuals degenerate a community, and these are common human traits. So, almost by definition, a human community is an unstable thing.

    When *** was a member of ***, for example, we had someone who could provoke us to react out of his sheer conceit. I confess that I allowed him to hang around in spite of the complaints I heard about him. I thought that having him in the group was good for keeping up the dialogue, because I didn’t comprehend the quality of the responses he provoked — I was merely interested in seeing responses. What I didn’t understand back then was how he retarded us as a collective, how we spent so much energy defending our ideas against ever-more obvious assaults, instead of advancing. I didn’t realize my own complicity in ***’s ego in allowing this to go on, in spite of my own disagreements with him. (I apologized for that then, as I do again here.) Finally, I saw him as regressive, destructive, and given to ridicule, regardless of his differences or rare agreements with anyone in our group. He had to go. But the damage was done by then. We lost time against our own progress.

    This is not to say that differences in a group are bad. On the contrary, you need them because they spark the kind of problem-solving that keeps a group alive and evolving. The trick, it seems, is in finding ways to channel those differences into productive debate instead of flame wars. You need to count on maturity among your community members and, if it’s not there, find ways to cultivate such maturity among them.

    Finally, because we are talking about poets who, as a class, tend to have big egos — their egos’ fragility notwithstanding — you might do well to direct your contributors’ creative responses into a forum that won’t obscure your more significant dialogues or draw you off-topic. You want participation, but not at the expense of your mission. The progress of equality and democracy in South Africa is extraordinarily important, and it’s a rare moment for writers to participate in such a positive role, as you indicate. The response by the nation’s poets is obviously going to be potent, historical writing. That given, you don’t want to present this through an open, unedited blog. You don’t want the trivial matters (like random, unsolicited poems in e-mails) to fill up the blog to the point that readers cannot find the more important things. There is equality on one hand — allowing everyone a chance to signify. And then there is the recognition that some people really do have the art of saying something well — editing a journal allows you to promote the best, and so promote the welfare of your community.

    I suggest creating a channel where unsolicited public input (creative release?) can be seen and shared, even critiqued, but not become a source of major confusion. Your duty would be more to dissipate some poets’ vanity than to worry about or promote their intrigues. But also, you’d want to watch this channel for important issues that recognized authorities do not address, and use these issues to stimulate discussion among them. Keep in mind what is productive discourse and what is not  ... don’t become mired in the same problems I had with ***. Use a little journalistic sense in reporting and editing the written contributions you receive.

    I know the letter is long, but I did find it explored certain things that I had not thought of. At the end of the day, our deciding to set up an avenue for poets — and like-minded people — to discuss, communicate and share is dependent on the desire to do so. I would be really interested in hearing your views on this subject, and whether you feel it is worth taking the time to go ahead and set something up. At this point, I see my role in the whole poetic experience as being one of the many cogs in the wheel. I do not exist in a vacuum and I do not operate out of a desire to take centre stage — yes, I do have an ego that needs feeding, like everyone else, but I have come to the conclusion that, for the WORD I so love to travel beyond our cranial cavities, we all need to pull together and push it along. Any contribution is a contribution to the collective.

    We need to build a culture of brotherhood and sisterhood in poetry … for example, a surprise birthday picnic was organised for Lebo Mashile a few months ago and it was the first time I felt like I was part of something larger than myself. Poets just … interacting, sharing, playing, laughing … a beautiful thing. And without the underlying competitiveness that tends to creep through (admit it, it affects us all sometimes).

    Anyway, please drop a line or two on what you think about the setting up of a poetryza discussion forum (electronic). Also let me know if you would like your comments to be included in our next Playing with Words.

    Enough mumbling, what’s been going down?

  2. The Past
  • Ten years of Democracy Celebrations
    The programme for “10 Years of Democracy and Freedom Celebrations Through Literary and Oral Art” has come to an end. This was something that caused murmurs to ripple through the poetry scene, and created debate around the issue of writing according to someone else’s theme. I am not going to get into that. I had the opportunity to perform as part of the Schools Tour at PJ Simelane in Dobsonville with Flo. A full day of activities and the poetry went down well, I hope. Flo was a hit with the kids and I heard that at one of the previous schools, he was mobbed. For those of you who have seen Flo perform, you will know that he has the wonderful ability of drawing the audience in from the time he gets on stage. The students also performed poetry and other creative activities and it was an inspiration to see them put so much heart and soul into it. As we pursue this “career” called poetry, it is easy to lose your underlying purpose. Listening to the “next generation” was a wonderful reminder.

    Last Saturday, the celebrations culminated with a “Freedom Bash” at the Windybrow, featuring, amongst others, Bonginkosi (previously Prophet JD), Chigo (with Afurakaan and Khethi), Flo, Mac, and myself. An all-round enjoyable experience with the audience so packed, people were sitting in the aisles and standing in the back. First time I have been in front of that many people and been given such beautiful energy to work with. Needless to say, it ended with smiles all round.

  • Sedibeng World Book Day Celebrations
    I was invited by Sedibeng Book Club to come out and perform as part of their celebrations of World Book Day “as we go back in history”. I won’t lie … I was a bit reluctant to give up my Sunday rest day, but did not regret it at all. Also on the programme were Asante Turner, who spoke about the role of women and mothers in African society, and Mmatshilo Motsei, who also spoke and shared some of her poetry. She has just published a book called hearing visions, seeing voices, which I am currently reading. Read it if you get the chance.

    Anyway, picture this … Relaxed Sunday afternoon; food and drinks; sunlight reflecting off the pool; and the sharing of experience. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was welcomed with open arms. Intimacy and the space to interact directly with an audience is probably the best space for poetry. They are based out Edenvale side and if you’re interested in communicating with them, please let me know and I will forward your details.

  • Presidential Inauguration Gala Event
    Those of you who got to see the Presidential Inauguration Gala on telly will have noticed three of our very own performing in front of the State President and countless dignitaries at the event, with one of the fathers of SA poetry, Don Mattera. I haven’t got words … I was proud, excited, inspired. Lebo, Ntsiki and Mac truly showed the world what we have to offer as poets on the dusty streets of Mzansi. I really do feel like there has been a shift … things are starting to happen and this experience convinces me even more.

3. The Future

Okay, Playing With Words was really long this week. We continue to mutate, chasing form, praying for structure and hoping for happiness. Same as every one … pass this on to those who might be interested. Share any thoughts you may have … poetry-related. Let me know what is happening in your area. Dream. Believe. Live.

LitNet: 11 May 2004

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