Poetry, despite being guided by some universally agreed principles, remains a personal endeavour, in which the poet— even when performing before a large audience — is lost in his or her own world.
One would, therefore, expect that, while lost in their own world in the course of reciting before a crowd, poets would be so flexible that they would be individualistic in their approach to stage performance.
But this seems to not be the case with the majority of vernacular language poets and, in some cases, local poets who recite in second languages such as English and French. It is as if, despite experiencing the mushrooming of poets and the multiplicity of poetic voices, the concept of multiplicity is quickly diluted through the monotonous nature of their approach.
It is, again, as if the majority of the local poets have come across poet Bouterweck advice that:
Bend the tender stem of a reed;
Bend it too much and it breaks.
He who attempts too much attempts nothing.
So, maybe, the local poets are simply trying to stick to the script written by veteran poets such as Wokomaatani Malunga, Hoffman Aipira, Jack Mapanje, among others, by gluing their eyes to the piece of paper on which the poem is written, instead of maintaining eye contact with audience members during a stage performance.
It does not matter whether they are reciting on stage or on air [radio or television], it is often clear that their eyes are glued to some piece of paper. In fact, it does not matter that it is Malunga reciting ‘Ndidzakutengera kunyanja Ligineti’, Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa doing ‘Bwenzi pa pepala’, Mlakatuli Membe reciting ‘Ugonja’, Hudson Chamasowa doing ‘Ku Kwaya’, Mollen Nazombe reciting ‘Ukakhala ulibe ndalama’, or Silvester Kalizang’oma performing ‘Unkalindanji moyo’.
It does not make a big difference either— in terms of style of delivery— if it is Abiti Mutinti doing ‘Milandu pa keliyala’, Kenneth Kondiwa doing ‘Adaponda ndi mapazi Satana’, Deus Sandram reciting ‘Galimoto za kwa Manje 2’, Gerald Mangame doing ‘Zida’, Joseph Madzedze performing ‘Ulosi wa Yoswa’, Hudson Chamasowa reciting ‘Mukapanda Kuitsitsa mbendera’ or ‘Ndende ya Mizimu’, Grecium Kamphulusa doing ‘Chipatso Changa’, Issa Zuze doing ‘Kwadza ma filimu a Chichewa’, Salimu Wyson doing ‘Zapadziko’, Evelyn Pangani-Maotcha reciting ‘Nyonga za bongo’, Yohane Pangani doing ‘Mudabadwa Malawiyu atatha’, or Aipira reciting ‘Dad’, among other poets. All of them prefer maintaining ‘eye’ contact with a piece of paper, or poetry book, to maintaining eye contact with members of the audience.
The exception could be English spoken-word poet Q Malewezi and, sometimes, Madalitso Nyambo. Malewezi has just finished working on a spoken-word poetry compilation which serves as yet another example that it is possible to stick to the stanzas when one understands their lines so well that they register them in their mind.
No wonder, then, that, often, while in the course of a poetry performance, Malewezi will be seen to emphasise the punch of a line with the movement of his hands. He sometimes sways his head as if it were a dry leaf tossed left and right, up and down, in the air by heavy winds.
As for Nyambo, he is sometimes capable of showing members of the audience that some pieces are effectively delivered when delivered directly from the mind, other than a breathless piece of paper stuck between the fingers. He does this well when performing ‘Ndapha buluzi’ to a live audience or in recording sessions, but turns back to his ‘beloved’ piece of paper when the poem is long.
The question is: Why do almost all vernacular language poets seem to be written-word poets, as opposed to spoken word poets?
Aipira says poets who fix their eyes to a piece of paper throughout a performance have good reasons for doing so.
“Mostly, it is because the poet wants to deliver a professional, fault-free performance. The poet does not want to make obvious mistakes because that may put their reputation on the line and portray them as myopic or amateurish. So, a poem decides to stick to the piece of paper to avoid compromising the quality of the poems,” says Aipira.
Put to him that it does not make sense for a poet who has been reciting the same poem for, say, 20 years to keep on reciting it from a piece of paper, Aipira has a quick fire response:
“You see, a poet is not created to recite the same poem forever. A poet worth his or her salt composes a number of poems, some for special occasions, and some tackling general issues. It, therefore, becomes difficult for a busy poet to know all the lines and stanzas in his or her poetry pieces. Therefore, a poet would, rather, recite from a piece of paper [in order for them] to be sure than compromise their performance simply because they want to maintain eye contact with members of the audience,” says Aipira.
Another poet, Madzedze, observes that written-word poets stick to a piece of paper to maintain the touch of their poems.
“It does not matter whether one is reciting from a piece of paper or not, so long as the poem captures the imagination of the audience. I do not think members of the audience have problems with that. I hope they understand that, sometimes, poems are too long that, in order to be exact, one has to recite from a piece of paper,” says Madzedze.
Perhaps, with the introduction of poetry DVDs/videos, the visuals will shield the poet who recites from a piece of paper from eye contact and, therefore, public scrutiny. Kalizang’oma has set a precedent after launching his ‘Unkalindanji moyo’ poetry DVD, which shielded the fact that he was probably reading from a piece of paper when reciting the poems in the DVD.
But Kalizang’oma observes that producing a poetry DVD is no mean thing as, “It takes time and a lot of resources”.
Indeed, it took more than four years for ‘Unkalindanji moyo’ poetry DVD to see the light of day.
But this does not stop poets like Madzedze from planning to launch their own poetry DVDs.
“I have embarked on such a project [poetry DVD production], in fact, and people should expect something good,” says Madzedze.
It remains to be seen, though, if the era of poetry DVDs will help shield poets from criticism that they seem to care more about the papers on which the poems are written than the audience— especially now that poetry DVDs have started appealing to the eye!