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it doesn't have to be poetry

variation of a talk presented at the launch of three books:
earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow - Seitlhamo Motsapi (Deep South, 2003; the second chapter - Lesego Ramplokeng (Pantolea Press, 2003); requiem - Joan Metelerkamp (Deep South, 2003).

"Shrapnel! Fuck the laws of poetry" - Phillip Zhuwao

Seitlhamo Motsapi - earthstepper/the ocean is very shallowSeitlhamo Motsapi's book was first published back in 1995. It has since sold out, and has received incredible praise. This re-designed edition is otherwise an exact replica. If you want some lame buzz-words to describe Motsapi's poetry, try anti-globalisation, anti-imperialism. But also try spiritual & religious (in an African sense and leaning towards the old rather than the new testament of the bible), even at times, messianic.

In short, an empathic therefore necessarily political poetry which is never doctrinaire, didactic, or conceited in its content.


again it's love that sweeps me in
urgently stancing me into the whirl of the seasons
with their inevitable rainbows or weals
above my anguish that dances on
with the tenacity of a drought
the moon comes out to play
        as it shd
& calls at us in half forgotten languages

i go on singing of those who die & are dead
& won't have rains growing out of their defeated mouths
i go on singing of those who slip in the mud
& immediately holler to the green skies in their hearts
because that is where the hymns pile up
like weary storms that suddenly become contrite

i go on singing of you
who are wasted into a sigh & a dream of rebirths
because the rocks arrogantly insist on being rocks
& not suns or embraces or beginnings
so our home can be in the ancient boulder
that rolls overhead, softly from truth to truth
asserting the slow eternity of all
who dream of pastures & songs

soon the wounds will start looking
like people we know
soon the yells will remind us of unknown loves
soon the forests will be dancing into our screams
& those of us who refuse to forget
their names or strengths
will take over the altars & the skies

If Seitlhamo Motsapi's poems are somewhat humanistic, Lesego Rampolokeng is the anti-humanist from Orlando West currently residing in East Malvern Gauteng - or as he puts it, "to the thought control tower: please let me out. I'm, trapped inside your head".

Whereas Motsapi will sometimes create portmanteau words like "assnologists" for ethnologists, and "michael jerksin the spepsi sperm" for Michael Jackson's Pepsi Perm - Lesego Rampolokeng has abdicated whatever distance exists between words and their meaning in favour of a subjective presence which pushes subjectivity (not to mention language) to the extreme. It is no idle coincidence that much of his poetry is intensely difficult to read. The writer who ablates himself, who eschews humanist notions such as identity and representation, becomes a singular voice, an absolute presence. There are many pretenders, and many imitations of what is considered to be his "style". None succeed. As he has said in a radio interview: "I connect with the world from the inside out". If one can even talk about style in relation to his work, it has to be an anti-style, a style that when imitated or assumed, ends in death. Sorry, wrong prescription , wrong dosage. The patient is dead.

Lesego Rampolokeng - The second chapter"The second chapter" is Lesego Rampolokeng at full throttle. If his previous book "The Bavino Sermons" (Gecko, 1999) is volcanic rock, this is the red hot lava it once was. This book also contains some of the poems on his "half ranthology" CD. If you've not yet heard the CD, you absolutely must get a copy. It is without parallel.

But here's Rampolokeng formulating an astute and succinct statement on his poetics in a very straightforward manner:


it's the age of the automatic storyteller machine
& the rent-a-poet enterprise
you can talk conscience/mission station
but every walk has a price         every talk its lies
like talking head-bopping         toe-tapping
walking decapitation         amputation
that's not rapping that's diarrhoeared crapping
that parley in parliament

         NOW poet is pose with a rose
         backyard bard becomes long-distance poet
         Pontius pilates the WORD in the poetorium
         i'm talking prose

between assimilation & alienation they don't ban
they throw the switch on communication
& from selling-out to buying in is a grey-matter line
                         the monstrosity is regent
now poetry is beauty pageant
jump the class fence & land in affluence
but what lies beyond the prettiness of the performance
when gangrene sets in after the applause?

rigor mortis on the blindside
the WORD sticks its head up the highest rectum
nothing is banned the WORD itself must bend
in people's power's broken wind...
it takes the schizoid to survive rule sacred by universal sanction...
'create a ghetto & manipulate & control...':
WORD from guru-titties suckling poetry puppies...
it takes little to make war         more to lick off its gore
so tongues hit the street

& what does this say to the teeny-poeming one
that none comes out golden on the spoken-WORD-line
waiting for THE END / AMEN to come flashing on?
'unto dust' said bosman         last WORD to the whiteman

We've already seen how Seitlhamo Motsapi uses the position of the poet in relation to his fellow man (the gendered formulation is intentional) via a specifically African spirituality (comprised of a heterodox mixture of religion, tradition, and nature), and how Lesego Rampolokeng uses the notion of identity to effect a diabolical interface between the macro-politics of representation and the micro-politics of subjectivity.

What I'd like to offer now with regard to Joan Metelerkamp's poetry, is the mechanism of what happens when we read such poetry.

For a poem to mean anything - or for any piece of writing to mean anything at all, it first has to do something. It has to cause a change in the reader. We must remember that a writer is always also a reader. So in order for a piece of writing to cause a change in a reader, the writer must enable the conditions for this change to occur. The writer must produce or create a space or capacity for something to happen. There must be reciprocity.

In order for a poem to mean anything, it has to do something first. And what it does - is its meaning.

One of the reasons school and especially the university kill poetry very dead is because the order gets inversed: poetry first has to mean something in order for it to do something. And JM Coetzee is again wrong when he wonders in his book Youth (2003), whether it is not time for "poetry to catch up with music". Poetry - any writing for that matter - is music. It is always already music. But you have to listen very actively. You have to read very actively. Lazy writers and lazy readers know nothing about desire.

A lot of bad poetry or bad writing is written precisely because it was intended to be a meaning-vehicle, rather than an incendiary device. The poet wished to convey something, rather than to allow or open a space through which something could be conveyed - a space in which or upon which something could happen.

Joan Metelerkamp's requiem is by no means a sentimental remembrance of her suicided mother. Mother comes in, she goes out. Mothers mother too, makes an appearance. The poet as mother, comes in, goes out. Children, husband, family - all these relations and people criss-cross a divide, or a space, whilst constituting or producing that divide or space at exactly the same time. They form a type of holographic tapestry that has no beginning, no end, no centre, no periphery. The poet herself zig zags all over the place. The Requiem Mass these poems are structured around, is merely an anchor, or a canvas, keeping all the stitches in place long enough for something to happen.

Joan Metelerkamp - requiemIn one of the poems, the poet writes of "the freight of nothing to lose everyday". Having nothing to lose is at once both a painful burden or even a terror and a liberation or relief. Sometimes it takes a suicide to show the living that the possible, that that which is possible, has to be made - it has to be produced.

It is perhaps for this reason that requiem differs from the poets earlier collection into the day breaking as well as from the poems written subsequently - specifically in terms of rhythm. There is a haltingness, an unevenness here, and the poet herself has stated that the book should really be read as a single, long poem.

This haltingness or unevenness is by no means a criticism or negative point. It is in fact a vital interruption. requiem oscillates wildly between two crucial and critical poles: the relief of the "freight of nothing to lose" and the absolute terror this can have on one.

It creates a space in which "the reader" becomes the momentary, utterly provisional embodiment of possibility. And we remember that "the writer" is always, also "the reader" at exactly the same time. Some call this desire.

Another poet, Nadine Botha has written a poem called "it evokes a future language" which to my mind perfectly explains Joan Metelerkamps poetics, and through which now, I'll try to demonstrate how a writer relates to her reader, when she in fact is also a reader.

It evokes a future language

There is time in value
that makes memories,
ties you to space
without time
until then,
you live with yourself.

It evokes a future language: the word "evoke" means principally to call, but is most commonly understood as to summon from the past. For our purposes here, I prefer the more active implications of this word, which are - to provoke, and more importantly, to produce. To produce a future language, a future.

There is time in value / that makes memories: This is the first pole in the oscillation between relief and terror Joan Metelerkamp expresses as "the freight of nothing to lose". The relief is positive, it provides the first impetus for the active production of the present as well as the conditions required for the present to pass.

We shouldn't be scared of, or put off by the term "value". It is being used here in a very loose and flexible way, and could be substituted with the term "meaning".

The poet Nadine Botha states that memory is produced only through the intersection of time and value, time and meaning, or put another way, value is laden with time, but is only memorable some of the time. Hence the assertion that meaning is not objective, static, or even demonstrable.

ties you to space / without time: here we're dealing with what is discarded - the absent time in value or meaning which the poet tells us is not memorable, not worth remembering. Not so much the absence of desire as the circumscription of desire - turning desire in on itself. It is not the second pole of the oscillation we've identified as characterising "requiem". It is not terror or pain. That is still to come. Rather, it is what we can learn from terror or death - it is what allows us to "reflect" or think through, or be aware of death because the space without time is properly speaking, death. We learn from death, we steal bliss, comfort, and habit from death. This is also where bad poetry or bad writing comes from because here, some try to erect meaning, try to overdetermine value through for example, the reliance or over-dependence on others, and everything becomes memory, or nostalgia. A world of phantasm.

until then, / you live with yourself: these two little words "until then" are crucial because they link up with the "it" of the title thereby combining two instants which constitute the present as a space to be actively produced.

Isn't this the difference between the writer who is always also a reader, and the writer or reader, who is only ever either a writer or a reader?

The two instants constituting requiem are the two poles of the poets expression "the freight of nothing to lose" - relief and terror. If requiem were bad poetry, if it was a failed book, if it was a book written by an author wishing to convey or represent rather than to create, it would've got bogged down in the attempt to express two protracted moments within time, rather than creating a "time", or space, for expression to run its course.

requiem is the record of a perpetual and ceaseless interruption the poet Joan Metelerkamp produces. A constant opening of the present so as to allow the past and the future to pass. As she has written: the only task a poem ever points to is life itself. Just as a poem never means anything without first having done something, so we never live with just ourselves: we are always in relation, always in the middle.

The point is not that death interrupts - rather, it is life which must be ceaselessly produced so as to interrupt.