Poetry comes in many forms and tongues, but one thing brings lovers of the genre’s diverse audiences together, namely the communion of feeling. However, RICHARD CHIROMBO was the witness to an embarrassing episode when some, apparently impatient, less accommodating audience members at the land of Poets Festival shouted a well-meaning foreign poet down, only to eat their own words because poetry is one genre that should not be diluted in the liquid of translation
The man in front of the stage, Germany-born poet Richard Schuster, stood still, tactfully escaping the violence unleashed by slashing tongues by staring, long and hard, at the white piece of paper tightly held in his stable hands.
Never, during those four embarrassing minutes when some isolated audience members shouted poetry down, did he look at the crowd. The piece of paper passionately held in both hands was, surely, more patient than the unreasonable— in the context of poetry—audience members who preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar.
On that point, Schuster scored two obvious points: One, that he is a hardened poet, and; two, that he is a written-word poet.
Of course, it was rather apparent that some members in the audience felt that the four-minute poetry piece he recited in German did not fill an urgent need— namely, the isolated audience members’ call to partake in vernacular language poetry, or for him to quickly leave the stage.
Now, if ignorance about the nature of poetry creates discord that is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances, it was catastrophic in this moment of audience madness.
One could have hoped that the alien aspect of shouting a visiting poet down would be tempered with a little bit of the warm-heartedness that Malawians are known for. Not this Sunday afternoon, though, as— instead of at least enduring the lashes of a foreign language— they, with their slashing tongues, howled at the top of their voices.
They were outright rude;that ‘thick’, dark temperament that clings to the ceiling of good-will and gives humanity a bad name.
But, somehow, a moment of sanity from the poet on stage— Schuster—rescued the situation and spared ‘genuine’ poetry lovers the embarrassment of seeing their beloved genre being spoiled by the unappreciative element of impatience.
It was a moment— somewhere between 03: 45 pm and 3: 50 pm—very rich in irony because,while some audience members, clearly unaware that language is only one of the vehicles poetry uses to create a sense of understanding, wanted him to shrink to half his size, the pint-sized Schuster was not one to back down easily.
Instead, that moment of madness seemed to make him get more focused than before; even louder than ever. And the piercing shrieks, though they continued to rain down, came to naught.
Package of ironies
Ironically, this was supposed to be a moment of celebrating diversity through poetry; a moment, also ironically, of honouring one of the greatest vernacular poets in the country— Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga.
Ironically, Malunga did not comment on the incident, which unfolded in front of him as he waited to receive his award, but was surely shaken to the core; taken unawares by the callousness of some audience members who demanded that the German’s poet’s pieces be translated into Chichewa or English.
Ironically, too, it was the man who presented a token of K60, 000 to Malunga, namely Malinda Chinyama, who started it all, when, while seated in the second line of concrete seats, right behind me, stood up and, while pointing at the poet and gesturing that he could not understand any German word, shouted:
“We cannot get anything. Someone should be translating. No! No! No! Why recite poetry in German when you know that no one will get what you are saying? This is what is killing poetry in this country!”
Ironically, I threw off the ‘costume’ of journalism and was the first to tell Chinyama to “please get the feeling” he poet wants you to get.
Ironically, Chinyama retorted back, as well-travelled poet Babangoni watched: [Pointing at me] “It is people like you who are responsible for the downfall of poetry in this country. You see nothing wrong when foreign poets come here and selfishly recite in their mother tongue. You accept it when people come from a far and recite poetry in German and other languages— languages you cannot understand. It is the docility you show that encourages these people to recite in foreign languages, yet they know that we will not understand any of the words they pronounce. No. We cannot accept this. That man needs a translator or he should recite in a language we understand. Period!”
Ironically, Babangoni— himself a well-travelled poet who has been to Germany— came to placate Chinyama. Babangoni found himself in an ironic situation where he could not reason with a man who, in his reasonableness, had decided to present a token of appreciation to Malunga, for service to humanity through, mostly, vernacularlines and stanzas that Schuster cannot understand.
Ironically, Schuster had politely reasoned with the audience— in the manner of a prophet who has a sense of what may come, and the patience to see what was foreseen actually unfold before his eyes— that he would recite in German, and that “I hope you will get the feeling”.
Ironically, the issue of interpreting poems recited in foreign language resurrected when Land of Poets Festival organising committee chairperson, Hoffman Aipira, invited Malunga and, by extension the presenter of the K60, 000 monetary token Chinyama, to the stage.
Ironically, the issue resurfaced when Aipira emphasised the need to honour the country’s greats while they are alive. But, against hopes that the issue of interpreting poems recited in foreign language had died down the moment Schuster left the stage, from nowhere Chinyama was at it again— this time, in front of the audience.
Ironically, Malunga was standing close by, waiting to receive his ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ when Chinyama-the-well-wisher said: “Allow me to say just a word. I was arguing with a certain journalist there that what that poet did, by reciting in a language we do not understand, is not acceptable. We should not condone that sort of behaviour.
“It does not make sense for someone to recite a poem in a foreign language. I did not get anything when he [Schuster] was reciting. We need to have interpreters. It does not make sense that someone can recite in a language nobody understands. You must think of introducing interpreters,” said Chinyama.
Ironically, like Schuster’s German poem, Chinyama overemphasized his point for some time, taking up a minute or so.
Ironically, other audience members were apparently fed up with what he was saying.
Ironically, like he did when Schuster was reciting his poem in the German language, members of the audience shouted him down.
Ironically, unlike the German poet who did not back down but continued reciting, Chinyama bowed down to the audience’s pressure and went straight to the business of the day: presenting a token of K60, 000 to Malunga.
Ironically, Malunga, who spoke immediately after accepting the award, did not touch the touchy issue of hiring the services of interpreters during poetry performances. He did not want to dignify trivia with his authoritative voice.
Ironically, it is Schuster who was frank enough to discuss the issue in an interview later.
Poetry as a feeling
Schuster said his quick take on the audience is that the Malawian audience is different from the German audience he is accustomed to.
“What I make of this foreign audience is that, here [in Malawi], people are very loud. It provides good feedback, though. So, I value the feedback I got so much. It’s like, when you perform before a foreign audience, sometimes you do not know what to expect,” said Schuster.
However, Schuster disagreed with those who are advancing the idea that interpreters should be engaged whenever a poet is reciting in their mother tongue— which happens to be someone else’s foreign language, by the way.
He regards poetry as a human need— like food, like water, like shelter, like clothes, like love, or something like these.
“Humans need poetry. Poetry is a feeling [and not a foreign language]; from the inner to the people,” observed Schuster, who is in the country for 10 days.
Schuster might be speaking from experience. He once tried his hand at music, and was, for close to five years, a member of the German band, Eli Eight.
He quit to concentratehis energies on generating the feeling called poetry.
While Schuster played down the incident with some members of the audience at the Land of Poets Festival, it was clear that this was on the surface.
Deep down, it was clear, he was still reluctant to play very deeply within the dream-space of a demand that was so strange it was outrageous. In fact, it’s a culture that does not befit poetry.
When he said “poetry is a feeling”, he did not mean it to be a reprimand but an indulgent complaint. The very cultural exchange purpose that propelled him to come to Malawi was being put to the test.
More so because words from a poet’s mouth are primarily an affair of the heart other than the ear; so that, in cases where a foreign poet has travelled all the way to be with you, inflection of voice, facial expression, gesture, among others, become the folk of delivering the hard part of the poem to the mouth-of-the-heart.
No wonder, poet Babangoni, in his traditional coffee-coloured attire, looked on as the events unfolded— without showing any sense of amused benevolence. But the dispassionate audience can be excused for being puzzled by the paradoxical meaning of poetry, as a universal feeling, when an incomprehensible language is used to convey that feeling.
Next time, though, it would be rewarding to focus on the beauty of poetry other than the validity of the language used.
More so when chairperson of the Land of Poets organising committee, Hoffman Aipira, hinted that a number of foreign poets could grace the stage next year.
“This year’s event was better organised and more successful than last year’s, which we held on Independence Day. But, in terms of foreign poets, we did not have. We hope to have a number of them next year,” said Aipira.
While Sunday’s events are gone and buried under the rubble of history, it cannot be forgotten that self-righteousness, that Sunday afternoon, conquered not just the judgements but souls of those who shouted Schuster down, turning them into willing accomplices to selfishness in a globalized world.
They shouted him down under the influence of that compulsive and ruthless animal called fury. Although the despicable behaviour might have delivered a mild culture shock, it did not shake Schuster’s faith to the foundations. Thanks poetry, Schuster did not stop.
The benefits of poetry, it can be said, are abstract, and the whole landscape does not suddenly change because a poet has spoken, or rather recited, in a local language.
It was obvious that, if he had powers of his own, Schusterwould have been willing to work some special magic on his tongue so that he could turn his German into Chichewa.
But, then, Land of poets— which was a heroically crammed one-day schedule— was just a Malawian affair in name; the style of delivery was exclusively universal in that it was feeling-based.