A cacophony of cheers ripples around Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC). Not that the poetry performance has ended; it is merely the end of one more stanza in Robert Chiwamba’s sensational poem, ‘Mudzafa Imfa Yowawa’.
After him, poet Joseph Madzedze will come and convert his tongue into the tyres of a sports car: mesmerizing the audience with his fast pace and carefully stitched message. Madzedze seems to have mastered the art of weaving long messages into one stage performance.
And, if it’s Madalitso Nyambo’s turn, the cacophony of cheers will still ripple around the BCC. One poet after the other, the cheers never die.
This concert of diversity- where poets work around the traditional poem instruments such as theme, rhymes, sentimentality, use of images, metaphors and similes to concoct messages - has not always existed as, as recently as six years ago, new generations of poets could imitate those who came before them.
In fact, the likes of Benedicto Okomaatani Malunga, Gospel Kazako, among others, served as frontiers for various poets, with their reciting style fixing for a long time the lines of creativity in poetry.
Vernacular poems revolution
“It is true that in the past most budding poets were copying from the established ones. I feel one of the main contributing factors was limited media for performance poetry. You will agree with me that we did not have local TV and there was only one radio station (MBC) where poetry was covered,” Felix Njonjonjo Katsoka, Poetry Association of Malawi (Pam) president, says.
He says the other factor that has assisted to unearth new talent in poetry is the numerous recitals that Pam, institutions such as the Malawi Writers Union, and individuals like Q Malewezi have helped revolutionise vernacular language poems.
“Most poets are reciting in own style. As I have already said, we need to appreciate that budding poets can be forgiven when they imitate someone. I can cite an example here. There was a time when Sylvester Kalizang'oma was trying to recite like me (and) this was healthy and look at how matured he is now,” Katsoka says, adding that the country has begun appreciating poetry.
However, Katsoka says poets should not get excited with the new-found creativity, but should follow established rules.
“Yes, Chichewa poetry, just like any other poetry, is guided by rules and can be critiqued using the basic elements and forms of poetry. However, Chichewa poets have no limits in terms of composition and performance. Poetry should be different from story telling much as sometimes both are spoken word. I feel that some of the poems we are enjoying now are mere story lines from which, with expert guidance, good poems can be developed,” he says.
For that to happen, he says, there is need to have the cultural policy in place. There should also be more financial investment by the government and private institutions in poetry.
One of the country's few female poets, Evelyn Pangani, concurs with Katsoka, but offers a different explanation on the cause of the poetry renaissance.
“Indeed, in the past people used to imitate the likes of Okomaatani. However, the change in trends can, in my view, be attributed to advancements in education among poets. Most of the poets went to university and are making use of the knowledge acquired. This has led to a shift in thinking among poets, who are reciting using many forms of poetry,” Pangani says.
Pangani, who produces Joy FM’s ‘Patsinde’ poetry programme, says even poets who have never been to university have learned to perfect their game, a development she attributes to the exposure enjoyed by poets nowadays.
“More importantly, what has changed is the mentality. Poets used to think that a good poem had to have advice embedded into it. These days, poets are coming up with pieces that border on jokes, or act as a social critique. Style, in terms of speed and tune, has also changed for the better. You will also have traces of humour, whether it is a sad or celebratory poem,” Pangani says.
Kalizang’oma, on his part, says things have really changed in poetry circles. He says this is partly because poets have learned to adopt some of the devices employed in foreign language poetry into vernacular poems.
Says Kalizang’oma: “We have seen Malawians trying a hand at visual poetry, acrostic poetry (a poem or series of lines in which certain letters, usually the first in each line, form a name, motto, or message when read in sequence) and other forms of poetry.”
This, says Kalizang’oma, is a far cry from the days poets believed that a convincing poem had to have high-sounding words, idioms, and such other appendages.
Kalizang’oma says it has become possible to use plain language and still scintillate the audience.
“We are marching forward. We have moved away from the mournful poems of old, and are ready to use the imagination to come up with unique products,” Kalizang’oma says.
That, too, is how Katsoka views the situation. He says there is need to consolidate the gains made by, among other things, conducting monthly recitals, supporting the production of audiovisual materials from its membership, open a library where all works of poetry will be accessed by the general public, and targeting student-poets from our secondary schools by establishing and supporting poetry/writers clubs.
“Poetry just like any other form of art is dynamic and will continue to develop. As Pam, we feel that we have taken a good path. The future looks promising for this oldest form of art. Through the initiatives that I have already highlighted, new and exciting poets are yet to emerge.”