“If you see a friend without a smile; give him one of yours.” ~Proverb
The performance poetry has been going strong for years now. Well, for a while it seemed to lose it’s steam but these last two years, it has been on the comeback. There are some special voices out there but it’s not often that poets really shine. It’s not often that poets bring something to the stage that moves souls and galvanises minds in a genuinely epic way. A performance that’s honest, free of any airs or any of that bold arrogance lasts in the minds of the audience. And every time, I encounter poets that do that, my love for poetry performed is strengthened.
Last year, Likwid Tongue staged a poetry festival with the University of Johannesburg – Izimbongi Poetry Festival (I still say that’s an odd name). On the bill, there were a few names I was excited to see like Mak Manaka, Mutle and Rantoloko. Then there was this name ‘21 Poets and a Poem’. I hadn’t heard of them before but the name was interesting enough for me to want to see what this was about.
I didn’t know what to expect. It’s important to state that often groups or collectives don’t really work well. And too often people come together for uninspiring reasons. They are neither inspired nor inspiring. I quickly learned that where 21 Poets and a Poem is concerned, inspiration is king. So after leaving me in awe with their honesty, their dedication and their inspired performance I really needed to know who they were. Most importantly, I needed to know if there were really twenty one poets and just one poem.
When performance poetry works really well, it gets you excited about poetry. It inspires you and urges you to write. This is what happens when you encounter 21 Poets and a Poem…
21 Poets and a Poem is a dramatic poetry performance directed by Mlindelwa Lilli Mahlangu and features the following poets, singers and actors: Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Lilly Million, Lesego, Matome Mmola, Simo Majola, Lethlogonolo, Donald Mokgale and Sne Zungu.
I sat down with the performers to find out what, who, when, why and how…
[restrict …]So the obvious question, are there 21 of you guys?
Donald: There were 21 poets at the 2010 Drama for Life poetry slam. Every single poet that competed had been pre-auditioned. They were supposed to select 15 but there was a lot of talent and they selected 21. On the day of the performance, one guy was running late so, in the end, only 20 poets performed. As we were all backstage rehearsing our lines, with everyone in their own little space trying to remember their poems, there he (Lilli) was sitting in a dingy corner watching everyone. He had this epiphany, 21 Poets and a Poem. He called everyone individually to talk about the concept. At the time about 14 of us accepted the proposal. Others didn’t. In the first season, there were about 14 or 15 of us. There were never 21 of us. I think Lilli kept the name to honour that idea that God gave him at the time. Maybe the idea is to get to 21, we don’t know.
Lilly: The rest of us, like me, Lesego, Matome and the musicians got picked up along the way. The concept was purpose driven: what is our purpose as poets and writers? What are we supposed to be giving to the audience? It just grew from there to where it is now.
Simo, why did you want to be part of this?
Simo: The first reason was love for poetry and knowing that I’d be accompanied by other great poets. I was part of the Slam with Donald and Obakeng and others. So when Lilly told us about his plan, after the Slam, that he has this vision to have a full production of poetry. I had hardly seen a poetry production, at the time, so that was interesting. [And] to know that I’d be part of a production with other great poets that you envy.
Sanelisiwe, what do you bring as someone how sings and does poetry?
Sanelisiwe: I’m an actress, so I really believed that it was going to help me in terms of writing and performance. I thought the poetry and writing [element of the production] would help with my acting and it has helped quite significantly. It has helped me grow.
Was Lethlogonolo here right from the beginning?
Lethlogonolo: I wasn’t here at the beginning. Lilli saw me at another event. He said, “I recognize that you have that malleable spirit about you.” I took him up on his offer and joined the first season when the performances were in Pimville.
Are you all poets and singers and actors and… or is does somebody only see themselves as one thing?
Lesego: I’m a musician. Writing was something I only did occasionally. One of the reasons I was really keen on joining this [production] was because I knew Lilli from church. I’d always tell him that I wanted to work with him. So when he said he was starting this and asked me to join I said, “yes, let’s do it”. Then I started writing some more and I think it helped because now I can say I’m a singer and a writer and an actor.
Matome: I bring the musical aspect to this production.
Had Matome and Lesego ever worked writing poetry?
Matome: No, when I was approached and learned that I’d have to write poetry as well, it was hard to adjust. I don’t think I had much faith in poetry. But I can say I’m relatively good at poetry.
Lilly: I used to do poetry when I was a teenager but then I got tired of the scene because it became repetitive. I branched off into music, which is where my heart really lies. I’d still go to sessions; I was still interested [in poetry]. When this concept came, I thought it was really fresh. It’s a really different spin and it’s for a purpose. It’s not just going on stage and “these are my lines and I’m so awesome”. The fact that there was a strong God element behind it, I think that’s why it has been so effective for people that see it. I went back to writing poetry. It’s different from what I used to write. I started acting a bit. I think it’s cool because you get to explore the different facets of performance.
Lesego: I can relate to what they are saying. I was into music and only wrote occasionally. But since I joined the group, listening to how [others in the group] write and how they do everything, I’ve learned quite a bit. This has helped me grow. I’d always been interested in drama but here we had that platform to write and create our own characters. That was a whole lot of fun. To create a character and define where the character goes but also having the director’s guidance to say come back. I’ve learned and I’ve grown.
What is the process when you work with a group?
Sanelisiwe: Lilli and the other director, Jefferson, have always been open to suggestion. If I had an idea, I could bring it in and perform it for everyone else. I think that was what made it so raw, the fact that we could fall and fail and it could be perfected if it needs to be but we are in an environment where we have the opportunity to bring something that could be either great or perhaps isn’t that wonderful but can be made better. So the process is to always bring what you have – your ideas, your experiences to the table and say this is me and this is what I’ve been through. And we are grilled on [what we bring in] because they are trying to get to the heart of what you are saying, the heart of your experience.
Simo was saying he thought was the idea of working with other poets and being part of the group was great. Now that you know each other and have worked with each for a while when bringing your ideas, do you now feel like you have to pick up your game or competitive?
Donald: Not at all. In the process, we’ve become like a family so instead of seeing each other as competition, we see each other as inspiration. We love each other’s work so much; we never get tired of each other. We [may] be rehearsing for a full two weeks with each other but when Simo is on stage and I’m backstage and I’m listening to his part, I’ll be screaming. Whenever you hear a beautiful line you want to ask “how did you write that?” We ask tips from one another, we help each other. We don’t see each other as individual poets; we see 21 Poets and a Poem. Every poem that’s written for the production is for the production and not [for individuals]. There’s no individual poet who shines here. There’s this unity that makes us different from other productions and poets out there. It’s really the production that shines.
Lethlogonolo: The environment we’ve created, as Lilly said, is very spiritual. We use each other as frames of references in terms of what the benchmark [for good poetry] is. What we write here is something we’d never write outside of this environment. I want my work to be equally as good [as everyone elses] so that we’re on the same platform. We complement each other. That’s the best element of this production and I don’t think it’s found in other productions.
Lilly, would you say this production has influenced your growth in writing now?
Lilly: I think I became more of myself, or rather who God wanted me to be as a writer. As a young person, I’d see all these poets and thought they were amazing and wanted to be like them. [But] when 21 Poets came up it felt like I could do anything. Everyone [here] has their own [style] and I think that’s why we complement each other so much. I’ve felt like it was ok to just write the way I wanna write which can be a bit quirky sometimes, it can be strange but it’s ok. It’s ok here. And that’s being true to yourself. Being true to who you are. If that’s what we’re doing then we exude that to people [when] on stage.
Now that you have this support system, how do you deal with a writer’s block?
Matome: I forget. I put it on the side. I move on to something else. There was one particular poem I was struggling to write for the first season. I just couldn’t get it. So I spoke to Donald and he gave me the first line and from there I took it on. At times, it’s a case of taking a walk, talking to someone, having a conversation. I play the piano as well, so I get onto the keyboard and play hoping that it will stimulate my mind somehow. Sometimes when you’ve taken a break, ideas come. Once I’ve left it, the mind gets all these ideas come, sometimes too fast. After I go back to finish and sometimes I find the direction is different. That can be a good thing.
Donald: I struggle quite a bit with that because I [always] try to push myself creatively. It becomes difficult because I try to beat what I’ve done before. I normally pray, I pray before I write, whenever I have a block I pray. And Matome’s process is one of the best, I also leave. Quite a lot of [my] poems I started, left them and [later] came back to finish. [The urge to write} comes back in various ways, through conversation, through music and other activities that stimulate the mind. The subconscious mind is fascinating in that even though you’ve left it, subconsciously you’re still working on it because you know you want to complete it. There are various ways but primarily I pray. Prayer is the best because I feel God should write everything for me.
Lesego: I don’t experience writer’s block in this production because of the atmosphere that’s been created.
Simo: For this production, I’ve also never had a block. 21 Poets gave us a chance to break out into other elements of art. I’m a theatre person so it’s easier to do stuff as an actor [rather] than a poet. But outside 21 Poets I may experience a block because I feel limited. In 21 Poets you can do a monologue, using poetic rhymes and explore it in character. And with other guys that are part of the production, you may envy their work not as in jealous but because you’re in awe. You want to match that and keep the same standard. We’ve written poems to be performed at rehearsal, together. That for me was amazing. That’s when you realise that poetry is not limited.
But what happens when you’re not working with the group?
Simo: It’s a challenge. As much as I write poetry, I’ve never really performed solo. My first solo performance was the DFL competition in 2010. The guys there could pick up that I am a theatre person and it was my first time. While being in this group I’ve been able to write more outside the production and performed solo because I’ve grown from being around all these guys. We inspire each other because we all have our own style of poetry. I’m influenced by theatre, Donald is a full on Slammer so when you’re around his company you just want to bring everything [you have] to come up with something new. I was thinking the other day that because of 21 Poets I’ve been resurrected as a new poet. Influence from 21 Poets has made me become a better poet than before.
For the poets that never performed outside of 21 poets, how has your performance been influenced from being watched by a director?
Donald: It’s been a monumental experience. I’ve always been able to take constructive criticism. I’d worked with directors before as an actor but not with poetry. But here, I’ve grown so much. It’s been amazing. When working alone you may think that your work is great but at the end of the day you’re in a vacuum. And I know that in society, in life, you don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s always room for growth so working with a director allows you to see other aspects of yourself that you don’t see as a poet when writing alone. If anything, I don’t ever want to stop working with a director because of this growth experience I’ve realize that I can never achieve alone.
Lethlogonolo: Getting into this production has been quite interesting because I worked with Lilli and Jefferson (second season director). When they direct I don’t see it as them bashing me or criticizing me I see as them trying to bring out the best of my work. It’s good because you get someone who here’s to listen to what you’re saying and help you to take it to a higher direction because when you work alone you use your own discretion and sometimes your discretion is very limited. At times they give you angles you could never see alone. Like Donald, I feel it will be difficult to work without a director as I’ve seen the advantage of a director.
You guys speak about spirituality and about God being part of this group and part of this production’s purpose.
Simo: God has been part of this production full time. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve gone on stage alone. There’s a piece of mine, The Unborn, I wrote it ‘unconscious’. I only realized when I presented it to my director that I realized what being God-centred means. As much as I was not that close to God at that time, this production has done so much to me as an individual on the God perspective of things. knowing His existence, knowing that He’s there – we are creation and then we create. with that in mind, as much as you can be good, dope and all that, you need something to just fuel that. God has been a catalyst for me. And having guys who actually acknowledge God, his presence in space and time… there are times when we’ve felt like leaving rehearsal and just go home. We’d rehearse till late in the night, at that we’re exhaust and we feel like going home. If we were just on our own we would’ve left that space.
Lethlogonolo: countless times
Simo: Lilly would say this is God’s work, everyone would just say ok let’s work and we’d do it. It’s not that we’re saying we are saints but we acknowledge His presence and we know that He’s instrumental. I’ve seen my poetry evolve from just writing for publishing to performance, I wanna touch hearts. I’m not writing just to be dope. I wanna trigger something in the audience member. I think you can’t achieve it through the God almighty on your side. Whatever you call Him, you need Him. and 21 Poets and used Him in a way that works for us and for audience members.
Lilly: Before 21 Poets I saw God as a religious figure – we go to church, we pray, we are part of the choir, there was a lot of law. But when I came around these people I saw God’s face. I saw that God works with people individually in a unique way. That is why you have to be honest in your poetry. That makes the next person in the crowd, who is perhaps going through your experience, have a different ending rather than an ending that wouldn’t have been good. A lot of poets have God but I wonder if it’s a religious thing or a thing where you feel his presence here. You understand His presence is moving, that God isn’t in the sky but He is here. He writes with you. He directs you, He influences your words. He is your articulation. I think this is what 21 Poets did. It [got rid of] the idea of people only finding God in church or that you can only find God amongst churchly people. You can find God within art. I feel like because art is basically everywhere, what better way to find God than in art. That’s what I’ve experienced in 21 Poets. It just goes back to the question you were asking if we ever get jealous of each other. It’s difficult to get jealous of people who heal you. Every time you go rehearsal and hear Simo’s poem – the unborn but the living – and you take it back to your life, because it was so honest [and] so real you realise that you’ve just been healed. When you come here you receive God.
Lesego: I saw God in how different as we are our pieces came together. One of the cast members who’s not here was saying that our pieces are so prophetic because the director would listen to my piece and maybe Simo’s piece and then make us collaborate and as we’re working we see how they actually interlink. I was so amazed that most of our pieces would just flow one into the other. You could be writing in your own places, at home or thinking of these lines, driving to rehearsal or write in rehearsal and then it flows with what Matome has or Hloni has. I just feel that this is God.
Lilly: I remember there was a time I was working on a song that’s probably going to be in the next run called Dreamer Dreamer that Matome wrote. I was driving here and was supposed to have written a song and hadn’t done it. I was like ‘ok, God, you need to give me something’ and I literally came up with a few lines. I got here and was like ‘hey, dude I’ve got this song’. Matome starts singing this song he did and you’d swear that we had written this song together like we were in the same room. This shows that you can find God in art because you are supposed to find God in art. We really are and there are a lot of poets and musicians and writers and actors all performers that are out there that are so powerful but are so limited because it’s all about them. We need to realize that art is so loud, it’s got the loudest voice. Art can cause a revolution if it wanted to and I think when people acknowledge that and acknowledge where their talent comes from. That’s when you see their talent being used to the highest capacity. That’s honest when you acknowledge god. I believe that’s why the production has gone as far as it has. And like Samu said we get healing from it.
Lethlogonolo: I think the first thing is to acknowledge the birth of the idea itself and the kind of idea it is. It’s not like we are trying to promote theatre or we’re trying to promote poetry. We’re delivering a message. A message that neither one of us were able to think of on our own. The idea itself, it was an epiphany as Donald said. So each and everything thing we’ve done from there has been evidence of God’s work. We had a very short time to prepare the two-hour show, it’s nothing short of miraculous. For the second season, we had two weeks. We came from the holidays, minds still banging from the loud music, we came in and what we did interlinked quite beautifully. If that’s not evidence of God’s work I don’t know what is. And spiritual growth is something that’s been monumental through this whole journey. We’ve got to that process where we’ve all acknowledged god and we’ve discovered that we can glorify him through the many gifts that we can not for individual growth but to touch hearts and induce change in people’s lives. It’s been a journey.
Matome: The biggest experience that I’ve had is to see people be taken by whatever we were offering on stage. You know tears don’t lie. We’ve acknowledged that we are God in ourselves, mind body and soul, father son and the holy spirit. We really just let God speak to the souls that came to see the show. Just by being in front of them, the tears drop. It’s like the begging scene, we know that people beg and it never really touches you. I ask myself why it can’t touch you outside when the person is really coming because they are hungry. But now you are in this production and seeing people playing a part but the tears drop shows the power that God has given us to just awaken or have a little spark in that person’s soul, to the possibilities that they have themselves in terms of purpose, and giving to others of considering to give. People then go off to what their purpose is in life and some people have told me that they’ve dropped whatever they were doing before to focus on their passions. By mere utterance, we can change lives.
Donald: As the guys were speaking I was a thinking about where we’ve come from as a cast – from the idea to the first season. I’m a Christian, the fascinating thing was we came to the production not knowing who’s faith lies where and for some reason, I met Lesego and (Lucky) Hloni for the first time on the day of the first performance. There was that immediate love for every single person. It just overwhelmed me, cause I thought, how come I feel this way. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or feel the need to impress them. There was just love there. I just know that God was there. 21 Poets and Poem allowed me to experience God differently. I’ve always dedicated my work and my art to God but this production allowed me to do that to the best of my ability. There’s power in the collective, in the fellowship. The amount of frustration we’ve gone through, the highs and the lows, God has always been there. The second season was directed by Jefferson and his method of directing was whimsical, very unusual. The first week and a half we spent it exercising. No writing. We didn’t know what was happening. Three days before the show and we’re exercising and he says ‘don’t worry’. I was thinking this is not practical. They laugh but we were all thinking it. And we’d go home and write. We were given freedom but because we knew what the message was about we just wrote from the heart whatever we felt and there’s a piece that Lucky writes about Your Worth that I also wrote. It’s so interlinked and you’d swear it’s the same poem. Everything just flowed, there’re no contradictions, now disagreements. I’ve grown spiritually even from the love and unity perspective, I’ve been able to take it home and to my friend. I’ve been able to love unconditionally.
Saneliswe: I remember us getting together and saying this is what we need to say to the director. We had a plan but we’d asked each other if it was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. It’s important to have a leader like the directors and producers who are also Godly because the things they’d bring forth even though it only made sense later, you realise that the experience tapped into the audience’s psyche.
Now you guys are recording, in your second season, this is a vehicle that’s moving and not stuck in petty issues… where do you see this vehicle going?
Matome: We might not see the fruits but I think people will be affected and touched. Because this could go beyond just individual impact. In actual fact, it could change governments, change the way the world has moulded itself. There’ll be a lot of forces coming up against a show like this but we might not be in the production at that time when the who world changes. To be the first seeds of this is more than enough for me.
Sne: I think more than just changing the world it’s amazing to see part of myself in other people who are in the same boat or dealing with the same kind of issues. I don’t want to say this is like a support group because it sounds very AA but it’s great to see people in the same place as you are and they are succeeding.
Lethlonolo: Whenever the greatness of this production hits me is whenever someone asks me “what’s this thing? is it a play?” I’ve always struggled to answer because it feels like a new genre. So it has that capability to change the world because it’s something that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of it.
Lilly: I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. I believe that what 21 Poets comes with hasn’t even broken the surface of what God wants to do with the production. I see it going to Broadway because there’s a message I believe the world needs to hear from this generation of poets, musicians, and actors. And if ten years from now 21 Poets is going on and I’m going to watch the new cast, I wouldn’t be surprised. 21 Poets is just going to be that thing until everybody hears this. I believe everyone needs to hear this.
Donald: I believe this is our legacy. because this is ordained by God we didn’t bring ourselves together. I don’t think we would’ve even thought about working with each other. We would’ve been competing with each other. We might have developed relationships and become friends but there’s no way we would’ve thought about doing this particularly with the state of poetry at the time. This is an anomaly, it’s weird they are thinking “why are they doing this” but at the same time it’s forcing them to listen. They find themselves listening and being moved. So, I think this is a legacy that will never stop and will go overseas because it’s a message that infinitely relevant. It never changes because now we’ve aged. It’s about purpose. Purpose will always affect every single person.