In this one instance, the live poetry performance, members of the audience drawn from various hamlets are brought within the orbit of this one human being churning out words of modern wisdom from the margins of an old piece of paper.
Whether the platform is Chitsinda cha ndakatulo or Chiphweremwe cha M’tsangulutso‘’, a death-like stillness still envelopes the ‘auditorium’, with some of the patrons growing pale, sick, or anxious under the burden of suspense. The audience comes here convinced that the poets and poetesses are the masters and mistresses at their game.
Through radio programmes such as Joy FM’s ‘Patsinde’ or Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Nzeru N’kupangwa, in which poems are recited either exclusively or are just a fragment of the programme’s content, members of the audience are convinced about the competencies of the artists.
In fact, they are here to just make their convictions practically certain.
The anxious moment finally comes, ushered in by the Director of Ceremony who introduces the first poet or poetess to appear on stage. The silence grows to a tense as the hopes, wishes, aspirations, and convictions of the audience members now centre upon the frame of this one artist.
Much to the bewilderment of the audience, the poet smiles at them, telling them how good it feels to see all of them gathered there to partake of the creative cocktail bundled in carefully mounded stanzas.
The surprising moment then comes! The poet or poetess fixes their eyes on the piece of paper carefully unfolded in their hands, almost as if their entire life depended on it.
What was supposed to be a poetry recital ends up as being another reading session. No action, no drama.
Unfortunately, this is what has become of poetry festivities such as Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo in Malawi. Though such gatherings are aptly called ‘poetry recital performances’, there is nothing like a recital, as the reading and, sometimes, stammering becomes more evident than the mark of artists who have mastered threads of their creative works; nothing like a performance, since there is no action attached to the sharp edges of the words.
Is this the way things ought be?
Stanley Onjezani Kenani, the only Malawian to have been nominated for the 2012 Caine Prize and attend the July 2 presentation ceremony held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK, observes that the audience should first understand the type of poets it is dealing with, before jumping to judgements.
“To begin with, there are two types of poets: spoken word poets and written-word poets. Quiet often, written-word poets find it hard to memorise their poems for recitals,” Kenani says.
That means written-word poets can be excused for paying more attention to the piece of paper than the audience members. In fact, it is agreeable the world over that the written-word poet is, typically, the natural enemy of all active and violent passions on stage.
Here are poets who love moderation, delight in compromise, and are almost careful to avoid falling into the trap of emotions on stage. Their performance, like that of Malunga, is patient, supple and insinuating, only resorting to extreme means in cases of absolute necessity. It seems as if civility helps to diminish the sharper edges of their words.
Just patronise a Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo event and it becomes evident to the audience that reading from a piece of paper seems to make them independent of the audience, hence it makes them inclined to liberty but disinclined to the passions of the stage that seeing them on stage is as good as hearing them during Joy FM’s Patsinde or MBC’s Nzeru N’kupangwa.
Often, written-word poets focus on the academically acceptable aesthetics of poetry, while spoken word poets often dispense with the academic definition of a poem.
Kenani says, however, that spoken-word poets do not have to rely on reading from a piece of paper.
“Well, it's spoken word; so, I guess, they don't have to read,” Kenani, a written-word poet, adds.
In Malawi, one of the well-known spoken-word poets is Kadzako Singano, while veteran poet Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga has always been a written-word poet, even though he often appears during live poetry performances.
Kenani draws the line between the two types of poets. “The venerable Malunga - excellent at performing his poems - always reads from a piece of paper (while) South Africa's Napo Masheane - the best spoken word poet I have ever met - never reads from a piece of paper.
“(But) both Benedicto (Wokomaatani Malunga) and Napo are awesome in their own way,” he says.
Poet Sylvester Kalizang’oma observes that interaction between the poet and the audience is vital. He says the piece of paper should merely guide the poet.
“Eye contact is very important. It is important that poets should not fix their eyes on the paper throughout, but should also look at the audience members. For example, the poet can look at the first verse, and then focus on the people. This will help them live what they are saying by showing some action,” Kalizang’oma says.
However, Kalizang’oma says it is not easy for poets to cite from the heart on the ground of poem length.
‘In the first place, people should differentiate between poems and songs. Unlike a song, a poem has no chorus- where an artist repeats the same message- and often has a number of stanzas, sometimes exceeding 10. How does one memorise all of them?
“The other aspect is that some poets compose a poem in the past 12 hours, and they have to recite the poem the next day. Or, put another way, a poet may have more than two poems to recite at any one particular function, and it becomes difficult to memories the lines. Even well-known poets such as Mutabaruka fix their eyes on the piece of paper,’ Kalizang’oma says.
Chisomo M’dala, one of the founders for Chiphweremwe cha M’tsangulutso while at Chancellor College, agrees with Kalizang’oma. Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa, as he is known in the poetry cycles, says while interaction with the audience is desirable in live poetry performances, Chichewa poems are especially longer to be memorised.
He says this is why, in the early days of Chiphweremwe cha M’tsangulutso, a poet used to be accompanied by a cast of actors and actresses who would dramatise the poetry performance.
“Dramatisation used to be the key to our performances because interaction with the audience is something we have to grow into, however. With additional time, it is possible to do that. A poet needs to interact with the audience, look at them, and this creates a sense of gratification,” Nyamalikiti says.
Patsinde presenter-cum-poet, Evelyn Pangani, says most poets glue their eyes on pieces of paper because Malawi poetry is still in its infant stage.
“As you know, we are still in our infancy stage. But this is possible, and something we have to get used to,’ Pangani says.
Pangani, one of the country’s handful poetesses and organiser of Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo, revealed that she has never managed to recite a poem from the head.
Kenani offers crews on how to reach this stage. “ When you have read the poem to an audience -- and indeed to yourself -- many times, the piece of paper is mostly a mnemonic. So the trick, as you can see, is to read it many times before going to an audience with it.
“As to what our spoken word poets can learn, I guess they have to go deeper philosophically. Because it is spoken word does not mean it has to be trashy poetry. Linton Kwesi Johnson does spoken-word poetry, and it is immensely reach and philosophically uplifting. Poets should always reach for deeper meaning, words that should stand the test of time,” Kenani says.