There will always been poetry; sometimes forgotten, sometimes remembered.
In the case of Malawi, however, poets seem more forgotten than remembered by policymakers, a development that has seen them miss out on national lists of honours.
Consequently, while poets are capable of making the hardest heart dance to the beat of emotions, their industry seems to be a soft spot as their needs are often forgotten in the scramble for national development.
So, despite poetry’s power to create lasting impressions through cadence, rhythm, imagery, among other elements, the Malawian poet remains present, and absent at the same time, in national affairs.
This state of flux puzzles Poetry Association of Malawi (Pam) president, Felix Njonjonjo Katsoka, who acknowledges that the country has invested little in the task of keeping records of local poets and their contribution to society.
And the danger of investing in memory, as opposed to documents, is illustrated by Katsoka who, when asked to name the pioneers of poetry in Malawi, acknowledges that a few prickle his memory.
“To me, they (pioneers) are many but I can only recall a few, G.W. Ngwengwe, Professor Steve Chimombo, Professor (David) Rubadiri, Professor Francis Moto, Jack Mapange., Stanley Onjezani Kenani, Q Malewezi and Chigo Gondwe are slowly becoming heroes as well,” says Katsoka.
The only solace is, therefore, hope; the hope that poets would one day be accorded the respect they deserve in society.
“As a country we will one day regard poets as heroes or heroines. For example, one day the country will realise that, through poetry, Jack Mapange actively participated in the struggle against oppression and fight for democracy,” says Katsoka.
But, until that sunny day, the poet’s place remains obscure.
It is like the poet’s hand has been too short to lay a grip on the national cake of recognition, with only a few institutions of higher learning keeping records.
“Academic institutions such as Chancellor College (University of Malawi), Mzuzu University are a good source of information where one can get the background of local Poetry. Chancellor College library, for example, has a lot of literally works on Malawian poetry,” he says.
Which raises the question: What have the poets done this far?
“However, so many poets in Malawi have not preserved their works as such it is not easy to find this information. This can be attributed to lack of resources to either publish or record their work,” says Katsoka.
The challenge of records’ keeping aside, Katsoka says poets deserve a place on the national honours’ list?
“Just as musicians and other artists, poets have a great role to contribute to national development. If we are to sample Malawian poems, we will discover that most themes tackle issues of national concern, especially emerging ones. These include human rights [child, women as well as minority rights], acceptable cultural values, economic empowerment, family and religious values, good governance and labour relations.
“Of late, [we have had] poems on homosexuality, protection of albinos, federalism and sexual morality including rape. A good example is Robert Chiwamba’s Mudzafa Imfa Yowawa. [Of course] Individual poets have not actively participated in mainstream politics but poetry, through recitals, print and electronic media, has managed to reach out to the larger public,” says Katsoka.
Katsoka adds that poetry has been used as a tool for advocacy, community mobilisation and communication in general, citing the May 2014 Tripartite Elections.
Indeed, records at the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) indicate that Chisomo Mdala, popularly known as Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa, was accredited to conduct civic education last year.
“Malawian poetry has been part of the syllabi in all literature courses at all levels of education; for instance, Akoma Akagonera and Ndidzakutengera Kunyanja Ligineti in secondary schools. There are also poems on education and health in general,” says Katsoka, adding that the government acknowledges the role of poetry in national affairs.
Among other recent developments, Pam is now a one of the rights holder associations in Copyright Association of Malawi (Cosoma).
This means poets are represented in activities taking place in the arts industry.
“This includes (involvement in) the arts cooperative that Cosoma has just instituted, policy formulation such as the Cultural Policy and lobbying for formulation of [an] Arts Council, participation in arts festivals such as Lake of Stars, Bwalo la Aluso, MacFest, Blantyre Arts Festival and, of course, Land of Poets,” he says.
Adds Katsoka: “There has also been tremendous support from the media. Radio and television stations have poetry programmes on their menu. Even the print media have space for poetry. Poetry is also enjoying better support from the corporate world. Companies have been sponsoring poetry activities. A recent example is UGI, which just sponsored the poetry competition organised by Times Television.”
Defining the poet
The only Malawian to have been nominated for the 2012 Caine Prize, Stanley Onjezani Kenani, is on record to have told Weekender that, in spite of their diversity, poets fall into two groups, based on the way they deliver the message.“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.
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.According to Kenani, spoken-word poets do not rely on reading from a piece of paper, saying, “Well, it's spoken word; so, I guess, they don't have to read.”
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 Ben [Wokomaatani Malunga] and Napo are awesome in their own way.”
Whatever the orientation [written-word or spoken-word poets], Katsoka calls for a shift in focus in the industry.
“As poets, we need to operate as a business. This requires a degree of professionalism; therefore, we must woo experts who will help us develop tangible business plans and assist in managing them. Musicians have managers and promoters; the same should be adopted in the poetry industry in order for poets to leap from their sweat,” says Katsoka.
Katsoka suggests that it is possible to entirely survive on revenue generated through poetry. He, however, observes that, locally, poetry in local languages is mostly accessed for free despite the production costs incurred.
“With the increasing appreciation poetry is currently enjoying, poets should remain united to avoid being exploited by promoters. Ideally, every poet was supposed to belong to Pam, which could have been mediating in any activity involving its membership. This is not the case [and] as a result poets have on numerous occasions been exploited,” says Katsoka.
Katsoka says this is necessary for an industry plagued by lack of support.
“Almost 90 percent of Malawians access poetry through piracy. Despite the tremendous contribution poetry is making, the support from the government and the corporate world is minimal. Poets are not receiving loyalties from any media house. Currently, Cosoma is not collecting loyalties on behalf of poets while musicians are enjoying [the same]. [We also have a] small number of female poets. Potential female poets do not want to expose their talent,” laments Katsoka.
To solve the problems, he says, Pam has piloted poetry clubs in some schools in the cities of Mzuzu, Lilongwe and Blantyre.
“The encounter has shown the potential that female students have in poetry composition and even reciting. However, upon completing secondary education, such budding female poets disappear without reaching full potential,” says Katsoka.
He suggests that poets need also to register their work with Cosoma so that there is a true census of poets in the country. This, he says, would give Cosoma the impetus to offer poets the same support offered to musicians.
Katsoka also asks poets to join Pam in order to promote unity and uniformity necessary in curbing exploitation from the media and promoters.
The government, he points out, should hasten the implementation of the Cultural Policy by instituting an Arts Council.
“There is need for more support for all programmes that are promoting poetry skills among females. For example, poetry school clubs established should be supported by all stakeholders. The programme should also be scaled up so that it is rolled out throughout the country including at primary and tertiary levels of education,” suggests Katsoka.
He also calls for increased awareness on the perils of piracy, with stiffer penalties being given to perpetrators.
All these efforts are premised on the idea that there will always be poetry: Sometimes forgotten; sometimes remembered.