Poetry Potion: Where do you come from and how did you get here?
Andrew Manyika: I was born in Zimbabwe in the 80s. When my dad came to SA for work, he brought his family with him. I was fortunate to be part of that collection of people. I was also coming to study.
PP: So Manyika is really your last name?
AM: It’s my government name!
PP: Oh, I thought it was like …
AM: Like “ma nyikka”, like I’m trying to be cool.
PP: Like Andrew my nigga but he thought let me not go for nigga?
AM: Like I’m so rough (does a pose as I laugh). Like I was being cool. So I can keep it? Because I was trying to decide if I should go in the direction of an AKA!
PP: keep it!
PP: When did you start writing and did you start with poetry?
AM: I remember those essays we had to write at school. [But] really started when I learnt to read, the day I started to read, I remember this. [The teacher] would give us a list of words to learn and we couldn’t get the actual book unless we knew every word on that list. I remember it was around Easter my mum was doing my sister’s hair, or vice versa, and I as lying on the floor going through my list. I remember the word aeroplane was on it and finally I could read it and was so excited. The next day, I got the book to read.
Ever since then, whenever I get a book I always read more of it than I’m supposed to at a time. That’s when my relationship with reading, or with literature began.
Writing just came naturally from that because it was something I had to do at school but then my tastes in literature always veered towards the weird like Greek mythology, science fiction. I remember writing poetry from when I was twelve.
PP: A lot of people don’t enjoy writing assignments or poetry at school. did you enjoy it?
AM: I grew to love it. I remember Form 3 (grade 10), I was that kid in class with the highest marks and my favourite subject had always been English because I loved reading. But obviously the initial pressure of coming up with the story [was there] but then once you start, the story sort of writes itself. My job is just to make sure it stays within certain bounds. i would always get the highest marks with these compositions. My high school English teacher once called me out of Prep and I thought I was in trouble and he said “I wanted to see you in person because I really liked your story but you need to work on the size of your letters and, you know, cross your ‘T’s, please.” That type of experience instilled confidence me because it was like “clearly I’m not the one enjoying my stories.
From that point onwards there might’ve been a bit of an unfair bias because they were expecting me to write good words. So there more bombastic word i put in i would get a mark. But [writing those essays] kept me on my toes in terms of writing because you only forty minutes to writer and only got the topic at the beginning of the lesson.
PP: And the poetry, how was that first experience of poetry in school?
AM: It was nice because it wasn’t formal [at first]. I was writing poems just because I liked writing poems. It was cool, very pressure free, I wasn’t competing with anyone. I didn’t even have to read my poem. And then we formally started doing poetry when I was in Form 3 and there was this very nice anthology called ‘Many People, Many Voices’ and it had an impact on my writing because it taught me a bit of what I like and don’t like. I don’t like poems about nature. There was a poem in the book called ‘Sorghum’ and every time I got to that page I was like “Sorghum, really? I supposed you were inspired”. But, then it also shows you other things that you didn’t know when you explore the structure and such.
PP: After high school, was poetry still part of your life. Were you sharing it yet?
AM: Yes, I was (still am) a bit of an amateur philosopher. There were these stories and poems that I would write for myself. I would share them but not in a public forum just with friends. In my third year, I joined the on-campus poetry group. I occasionally shared my poetry there but I was still very much a reader because I believe there’s a space for the written word and it needs to be as respected as the performance or spoken word.
Towards the end of the year, the International Student Society had a poetry competition where you would win a camera. The brief was “If not for the borders, Africa would be…” and then you were supposed to finish that off with your poem. I wrote a poem and I won. I won a camera, that kind of thing has helped to inspire me to keep at it.
Prior to that I had a deep epiphanic moment, I think the year before, when I knew that my purpose was to write. I was reading Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, he went to my high school. He managed to go abroad on the strength of his writing. He managed to get worldwide acclaim on the strength of his writing. And my thing had always been – “ can i eat if i design to pursue this all the way” and I realized it was who I as meant to be.
PP: What drives you?
AM: Telling stories. My mission is to create and capture moments and memories. I document and chronicle what’s happening around me. I don’t put any pressure on myself to be a preacher or a teacher to the world. I don’t put any pressure on myself to be the most creative, abstract poet in the world. I get an idea and work on it until I’m happy with it and then I present it to the world and the people who like it will like it and the people that don’t will proceed with light.
PP: Most of us don’t ever think of applying mission statements to our writing so what made you do it?
AM: My philosophy on the arts is that art is important because it’s not important. I think there are things that don’t appeal or have no [physical benefit for us] but we feel badly for. And I think because art goes to that place, it allows for a person to be reached in a way that other things will not reach a person. [But I don’t think] you should put pressure on yourself to think of a vision or a mission – I think write if you wanna write.
My relationship with poetry was on and off for the longest time, I would write and stop for like six months or a year and then start again. Then in 2008 i decided “pens up”. But now I’m on.
PP: How did you come to fuse the comedy and poetry? Where you always a funny kid?
AM: No, just funny to look at sometimes. I’d go around thinking up things that I thought were witty and then think maybe I should write that down. But even before that I would think these weird things but never write them down. Then one day I [started to] write down the ideas and put them away with no intention of showing it to anyone or showing it to the world. Then I wrote what was my first comedy set in 2007 but didn’t show it to anybody it was just to see if I could write anything funny. But then I put it together, invited two of my friends over and performed for them right here at home.
I’d hardly call it a performance but I was reading these jokes trying to see a reaction. They thought it was funny. One of my friends suggested I try for the UJ Night of Comedy. I was reluctant, it was a big venue and Trevor Noah was headlining and I said no. But next year my friend said if “you’re scared to go alone then let’s go together”. We ended up performing at Roxy’s – I was not horrible but I was not at my funniest. It was sort of like a slip and slide, you get them and then you lose them. So yeah, I didn’t bomb but I wasn’t great. I got better, the next year I came back and started going to Cool Runnings [comedy nights] and they gave me a slot. I was received very well, John Vlismas was there. I spoke to him before going on stage and he gave me some advice saying the only advice he could give me was not to take anybody’s advise including his own” and that’s some pretty solid advice.
I’m just trying to keep at it, keep writing material and get myself out to the people because [I’m planning] a one many show for later this year. It’s gonna need people to be aware who I am.
PP: When writing, does it always come out funny or witty or do you every feel like not being funny today?
AM: By and large, most of it isn’t funny. If you look at my poetry it’s not stuff that will make you laugh. It has a level of layering and depths, I’d like to think but of course I’m biased. Some of them are humorous. It’s harder though, for me to pull out a funny poem than a serious one. I actually have to make the decision that I want to be funny today when I’m writing a poem. Because poets are depressing, we’re heartbroken, we’re angry, we are just not happy people.
I remember the first time I asked myself “I wonder what a happy poem would sound like that wasn’t written by a six year old. We ignore the other emotions on the spectrum of human emotions and we’re here where it’s dark but there are things that make us happy and I like to explore those aspects. I think that’s why people avoid poetry shows. They don’t want to come out depressed. That’s why people prefer comedy shows cause they want to be happy.
PP: At what point, did you decide to merge the comedy and the poetry?
AM: It was never really a conscious decision. I just realised that I don’t know anybody that does both comedy and poetry so I thought, let’s give the people something different. I wanted to see how it would go. But I also think it will be well received because it’s never been done before so I can carve out a niche for myself.
My understanding is that comedy does pay more than, pretty much, all the other forms of performance arts besides music. People are open to comedy, they will sponsor comedy and they will receive a comedy. So this is about creating an avenue to take poetry beyond poets.
What I’ve noticed about poetry shows is that it’s mainly poets that come to the show. You rarely get a man off the street. Everybody will come to a comedy show because everybody laughs. So if you can infuse the one with the other then people might see that maybe this poetry thing is not so bad. People worry that we’re going to bombard them with abstract images and aren’t going to be talking to them. Since it hasn’t been done before, it will be nice to pioneer it. This is my present objective.
PP: Talk about your writing process, from idea phase?
AM: It’s different from poetry to comedy. Let’s start with the easier one: Comedy ideas come from something that’s funny, something observed or read somewhere. In my mind something happens that gives [what I’ve observed] a comedic twist. I write that and what usually happens is as I write that, I start to see how I could add to it. It sort of just avalanches from that.
Sometimes, I hesitate from writing comedy because there’s so much happening [all the time]. But that’s a good problem to have. So much comes out and then I have to go and read through it and sort through it. I don’t like writing the entire joke because it can get too long. So mainly I just write the gist of it then I have a list I know as I’m rehearsing roughly how long each joke takes to do.
With poetry, there are three ways. First, and this is the best way, the poem comes to you almost fully formed and you just write it down. The harder way is when maybe I have one idea, one line, one sentence or one thing I want to convey. I’ll approach it as a puzzle, allow myself to think, not even very actively around the idea and allow congruent ideas to come to me then write them down. After a few days I then start to look at how these ideas come together – this is not a very organic way. The more organic way is to write to a melody and some nice poetry can come from there. There are so many ways but I limit myself to these three ways.
PP: How do you approach a writer’s block?
AM: By not trying to write. Because it gets frustrating. But I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been very blessed. God has been kind because at the end of last year, I sat down and wrote all the ideas of poems and then my phone was stolen. I had over two hundred ideas.
I wanted to stop writing, stop dreaming, stop aspiring but then God gave me a second wind and that’s when I got DFL and when more poetry opportunities came through. When I got my new phone, I wrote all the ideas into the phone I ended up with sixty concepts that were just for poems never mind comedy and tv ideas. So a writer’s block won’t be a problem for the foreseeable future.
PP: What is your future in writing?
AM: I studied Marketing Management and Strategic Management so I have many ideas for business. But if I could just write full time or work on my own projects… I’m working on a way to do that full time. A business approach to everything. That’s why I’m glad I studied what I studied, thank God for my parents who enabled me to do it and support my dream presently.
PP: Talk a bit more about this business approach?
AM: The business approach to anything will allow you to think of ways to make money but what we do, unfortunately, we tend to approach this as something that happens to us as opposed to something that we can impact as well. I decided to take this approach with this whole performance thing and not just for corporate gigs. Mutle is one of the poets that I admire, he does this full time and has a rigorous schedule that he keeps to everyday that goes to making him a strong performer. It’s about being meticulous and disciplined in how you approach it that will enable you to eventually see a reward from it. Unfortunately, a lot of people will work full time jobs and then write after hours. But then, you’ve spent 8 hours pushing someone else’s dream and you get tired, being human, then you’ve only got about an hour [to focus on your dream]. An hour a day, if you write everyday, and who does? You’ll find that your dreams will get you to a point where you will maybe see some money. It’s not going to be you making a living. It’s not often that you get to the level of poets like Lebo Mashile.
But the key, to get poetry to the point where it pays as much as comedy, because comedians get paid, the key is business thinking.
PP: At what point did you decide that you’d look at this as a business and not just some flighty, when the muse comes into your head sort of thing?
AM: The desire to eat! More than anything else, I have other projects, business projects, that I’m working on but I thought if I’m going to do performance because it requires so much from me then it needs to have that type of philosophy applied to it. Jeff Tshabalala, when he was preparing us for DFL last year, said “if you came to share the word then you’ll share the world and leave but if you came to win then you will win.”
Number one, you prepare yourself in your mind and then do the things that are necessary. So that’s the philosophy. If you wanna share your word out there, you have to look for the channels out there. And the channels pay because it is worth it but you can give it away – good for you. If you can find these channels and approach them to find a way to move forward in a way that’s beneficial. This decision was based on the strength of what I studied.
PP: Where do you see yourself in a few years time?
AM: International. With merchandise, in fact, I intend to sell more t-shirts than John Cena, Spiderman and Ben 10. It’s going to be a lot of work but I’ll do it. Touring worldwide both comedy and poetry.
I’d like to start a mentoring program. For a long time, Christian art has been considered, and sometimes rightfully so, to be mediocre because people didn’t apply themselves as rigorously as secular artists do. So it will be about raising the bar, spreading the message of Christ through arts in a forum that is noteworthy because of how it’s executed in addition to the message we are carrying.
And writing, not just touring. Because before getting on stage, I was a very shy child and that’s why books were such good friends. Before getting on stage, I’m a writer, so definitely I want to have a few published titles under my belt.
PP: What would say to someone else who’s watching you being able to get on a stage, publish and put together your own show. What would you say to those that are too shy to sell themselves?
AM: Not every poet is a performance poet. I feel that the written word is the ultimate form of poetry. For me, literature has always been a constant.
Look for an avenue that suits you and if you’re up to the challenge [take it]. I was dreadfully shy [before] but here I am. It’s not because I’m super dope but because I have had people to guide and help me like Jeff, Afurakan who’s provided the platform and so on.
There are workshops being held constantly, so look for people to help if you want to perform. Don’t ignore the other avenues through which poetry can be spread, the internet is available. Set up a blog even a Facebook profile but be careful because your work isn’t protected. Write a book, submit to magazines, do a manuscript or an anthology and submit to publishers. If they say no you move on to the next one if they say yes you’re in.
Andrew is working on a one may show for November with poetry and comedy called the Drewmann Show.
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