The announcement of Prof Mongane Wally Serote as South Africa’s 3rd Poet Laureate has drawn a weird mixture of both praise and ire from poets and some in the literary world. To say the decision to have Ntate Serote as our next Poet Laureate was a predictable one is an understatement. For those who do not know, Prof Serote is a seasoned writer, he was an integral part of the anti-apartheid movement and is an ANC Stalwart. So was his contemporary and predecessor Professor Keorapeste Kgositsile. And so was his contemporary and predecessor Mazisi Kunene. It could just be a coincidence. Right? (side-eye)
Some hoped for (Insert your preference here). Because (repeat your preference here) is the obvious choice for Poet Laureate, because (List achievements and extent of public affection toward aforementioned preference here). It turns out not many knew who makes the decision to elect or award the title of Poet Laureate. Poets were literally waiting for some unknown entity to make the announcement at some unknown time. Not too soon after the passing of Bra Willie of course, but also not too long after. Enter the wRites Associates.
“Formed in 2000, the wRite associates is a one-stop events & project management company with a particular focus on the arts, culture and heritage realm. South Africa’s and Africa’s literary heritage remains one of the major focus areas for the company.”
In partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture, the wRites Associates founded the South African Literary Awards(SALA’s) in 2005. The SALA’s boasts 5 legacy programmes: Miriam Tlali Reading and Book Club, The Keorapetse Kgositsile lecture, Poet Laureate Literary engagement Programme, Creative writing skills development Programme and the African century international African writers conference.https://writeassociates.co.za/about-us/
Founder and managing director of the wRites Associates Raks Seakhoa described some the responsibilities Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile assumed during his tenure.
“Besides encouraging a culture of reading and writing, his mandate was also to go around the country teaching poetry, not from the classroom as in university or anything like that, but like we did with Cosaw [the Congress of South African Writers], which was to take writers around the country and do literature workshop. Bra Willie did a lot of that,”https://mg.co.za/article/2018-01-12-00-a-poet-laureate-a-servant-of-the-people?platform=hootsuite
A few days after his appointment, in an interview with Zamayirha Peter (City Press) Professor Serote explained his role:
“I see my role as being a very serious responsibility, and it needs me to find a way to work with all South African cultural workers in the different art genres and hopefully have consensus that one of the most important things is to restore hope to our people, remind our people that, as a constitutional democracy, the beauty of who we are has been recognised in that Constitution … Let us find a way through various art forms and mobilise them to give back to our people.”https://city-press.news24.com/News/meet-sas-newest-poet-laureate-but-some-say-it-was-a-womans-turn-20181112
The poetry community took to social media to discuss, defend, suggest alternatives and reimagine what a Poet laureate should look and move like in the 2018 version of South Africa. As fleeting as the uproar was (as it goes with all things social media ) two clear, conflicting rationales presented themselves. Scores congratulated Dr Serote and acknowledged his immense contribution to South African literature and noted how he makes for a suitable candidate for the position of Poet Laureate. And then, without a breath, that lovely conjunction, “but”, reared its pretty head, followed by a million reasons why someone younger and preferably a woman, is more suited for the job. “Yes, you, but not you!” basically. I love it!
Many have bewailed the continued exclusion and erasure of the women who are actively changing the world and inspiring a generation of young people to be better through their poetry. You would have to be a blind and deaf mole living under a rock under a hill, under a mountain on some remote undiscovered island in the middle of the ocean not to see the work women are doing (That’s the only acceptable excuse)
In the same interview with City Press Prof Serote noted; “I am extremely moved every time I go to poets’ sessions and find that there are young women from different parts of South Africa who have allowed themselves to think deeply about this nation, and allowed themselves to contribute to consciousness and solution. So I have no doubt that, very soon, we will have a young woman who is a poet laureate. I have no doubt, I know it is so.”
Prof Wally’s appointment became a catalyst for dialogue (albeit among ourselves) where the poetry fraternity finally asked some questions they were too polite to ask in the presence of Prof Keorapetse Kgostsile. Questioning the role and appointment of the last two Laureates. Asking whether that office is only reserved for old men linked to the liberation movement.We asked some poets a few questions to figure out whose laureate is it anyway?
Sarah Godsell: I have the utmost respect for Ntate Serote. He has contributed immeasurably to poetry in South Africa, and globally. His poetry is inextricable from the struggle for freedom, and he was part of the making of South African protest poetry. His canon is extensive and should be more closely studied and integrated. His work post-1994 is also iconic.
Mak Manaka: I think Ntate Wally Serote, is deserving of being the country’s Poet Laureate. Whether we want to admit it or not, Ntate Wally’s work has been influential in shaping our writing. The question I ask myself is; is popularism the basis from which a Poet Laureate is chosen? Or is it from how much work the poet has contributed to the library of our literature throughout the years? By definition, a laureate is a person who is honored with an award for outstanding creative or intellectual achievement’. And I believe that when it comes to the study or growth of literature in South Africa, Ntate Wally’s work has been outstandingly influential, so much that, he and many others like him (Matthews, Mattera etc. must be honored. As much as Ntate Wally deserves to be Poet Laureate, it also important to remember that the onus is on us as poets, and as a people, how do we keep works of Serote, Mattera, Matthews alive for the next generation? And how do we keep their voices relevant to the psychology of our present literature?
Thandokuhle Mngqibisa: I like Serote’s work. I like how much he tries to keep abreast of what poetry is doing in 2018. I respect him. And if we aren’t challenging the actual ethos of the appointment itself, then I’m satisfied. I would’ve preferred a womxn poet, though
Siphokazi Jonas: I think that he is an important part of our history but not reflective of the current energy of SA poetry. I am disappointed that the third poet laureate is a man again.
Vus’umuzi Phakathi: My initial thought was that Ntate Wally Serote is too old for the post, and is not well in touch enough with the SA poetry community at large to know where poetry is and where it needs to and can go. My current thought, however, is that there ought to be an effective Office of The Poet Laureate, where Ntate Serote can work with a young vibrate and knowledgeable team; I trust that with the vast leadership and literary experience he has, the Poet Laureate can be an incredible leader.
Sarah Godsell: my understanding that the poet laureate position is a functioning and working position, and should go to someone involved in the development and furthering of poetry. See the description of this as from the SALA website. Ntate Serote, at 74 years of age, does not seem best positioned to do this work.
The issue for me is, is this a lifetime achievement award? In which case it is well deserved. Or, as it is claimed to be on the website, is it a functioning position to promote poetry in South Africa and abroad? If it is the latter, then someone younger, someone with a clear and present voice currently in poetry spaces, nationally and internationally, and someone committed to and capable of doing the work should be awarded the position.
Mak Manaka: What is the responsibility of a Poet, period? And I doubt that there is only one answer to this question. I think, before we can talk responsibilities or duties, we must first understand the meaning of “Poet Laureate”. For me, a Poet Laureate is one whose vast literary works have had an impact in shaping & influencing the writings of different generations past and present. So to even question whether Serote is the right choice for the award or not, is a clear indication firstly of how ignorant we are to our own literature and second, how much we misunderstand what it means to be a Poet Laureate. So far most of us are complicating ourselves with how other countries are defining it for themselves, as opposed to us defining it for ourselves. “A re mo states mo”. To me, the question of a Poet Laureate’s duties and responsibilities falls not on the poet’s shoulders but rather on our own as literary practitioners. I think our duties and responsibilities as writers first lie to the honing of our craft, and in doing so, we must look to past and present works that shape and sharpen our voices.
Thandokuhle Mngqibisa: Shu. I think the responsibility should be to promote poetry amongst the young. To make it interesting and exciting for them. To make poetry visible and to assist with making poetry a more “lucrative” career. Or just a career. Lol. I think it should be to represent South Africa in spaces that require a poet of high standing. To participate actively in endeavours like securing funding and funnelling it towards poetry. To create space for more poets (not just a handful) and to support merit/talent/calibre of work in addition to popularity. I’m sure there’s more but this is what’s important to me right now.
Siphokazi Jonas: It is to be connected to and instrumental in the direction of SA poetry. They must not only know where we are, but also where we are going, and at the forefront of that progress.
Vus’umuzi Phakathi: There is a standard international responsibility of a Poet Laureate, and that is to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry”. Moreover, because of a brewing industry in the country where poets are beginning to make a living out of their art, I believe the Poet Laureate needs to spearhead the rise of a successful poetry industry.
Sarah Godsell: I think the idea of a youth poet laureate is excellent and exciting. A space to award excellence and channel resources to help grow poetry- which is a clear expression and release space for young people.
Thandokuhle Mngqibisa: Definitely would’ve preferred a younger poet. Not too young. 20s and 30s are too young for me. 40s, maybe 50s is more appropriate. The role should have a time frame attached to it. Not just forever. I would’ve preferred the role to be given to a womxn. Womxn, in general, are better poets/writers than men in South Africa. And they also have a more empathetic approach towards creating spaces. Especially the young ones who have had to experience the struggle quite recently. The culture of poetry doesn’t generally promote poets who don’t slam. And many womxn prefer not to be involved in that style of poetry and that leaves them unacknowledged. Those spaces have to be created. And I think a womxn and a younger laureate would be better equipped to do that. Having said that—I know Wally Serote isn’t ignorant of the landscape of poetry in South Africa in 2018. So the ethos of the appointment required an old man. And he was probably the best option under those terms.
Siphokazi Jonas: It is a must. Obviously. Also, is this a lifetime appointment?
Mak Manaka: It seems that South Africa is mostly concerned about how it appears in the world, and not to herself. So for instance, because America knows what a Poet Laureate means to them, they can give the laureate to a young poet. And because we want to appear to be as progressive as other countries, we rather disregard our ideologies to part of the global society but not for ourselves. It is said, “tsela e botswa ko ba pele”, meaning, we can only ask or receive directions from those that have walked this road before us. For me this saying answers the question of a youth for Poet Laureate, and it substantiates why ntate Wally was awarded.
By current and contemporary standards being Poet Laureate is a demanding position that asks the poet to be an active participant, creator and director of poetry programmes around the country. To engage with poetry in its myriad incarnations. On all levels, primary school to universities, rural villages to congested fast-paced urban spaces, from wielders of the indigenous tongue to poets that dance in the queen’s language. The Laureate is charged with actively creating an environment for poetry to thrive. Professor Keorapetse was an active Poet Laureate. He was visible and accessible and served the office and poetry well. The glaring insinuation suggests some young poets think Prof Serote might not be up to the challenge. But as fellow poet Phillippa Yaa de Villiers suggested, let’s give Prof Serote his 100 days. And then we can take to the internet again. Maybe we are right. Maybe we’re just ageists.