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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

TJ Dema on the spoken-word movement and cross-cultural interaction

Bibi Slippers - 2011-10-26

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TJ, your performance in Cape Town was really great! Lebo Mashile calls you "the face of the spoken-word movement" in Botswana. How did you get involved in the spoken word scene, and what attracts you to this medium?

Lebo is an amazing poet and a very generous spirit. Being on tour with her was fantastic, especially because there are probably many parallels between the paths that we have chosen to walk as poets. I got involved in the spoken word scene both organically and deliberately. In one sense I've always loved words, from childhood folk and fairy tales to my discovery of books and the worlds contained in them. But I also actively participated in creating a platform and building an audience for the spoken word in Gabarone (Botswana), and eventually that passion grew into a movement.

Last year some of your poems were selected for the anthology No serenity here, a collection of contemporary African poems published alongside Chinese translations. Is this sort of cross-national and cross-cultural interaction important to you?

Cross-cultural interaction for someone coming from a country with only two million people is everything. Being exposed to different writers and their work, specifically Wole Soyinka and Kearapetse Kgositsile, whose work I read s a child, is an unexpected and beautiful gift. Collections like this also open you up to a new audience, to think that somewhere in China someone is reading my story in Mandarin.

In the Poetry Africa programme you are quoted as saying, "I have always taken words – especially the spoken word – very seriously." How is this attitude towards words reflected in your life and work, and is it important to cultivate a similar seriousness among a younger generation?

I hope it’s reflected in the way I carry myself on the stage, in the care I take to make sure that I don't underestimate the audience's ability to smell a con a mile away. I have also retired from corporate employment and redirected to poetry full-time as a performer and arts administrator – this is how committed I am to my craft.

The young should be what they are – young – but there is room to commit to honing their craft by reading voraciously and practising their writing without the pressure of trying to make a living from it.

Many poets seem to believe that poetry can change the world. I am sympathetic toward this sentiment, but interested in the mechanics of it all. How does it work? How can a poem make a difference? (Maybe this question is particularly pointed when asked in Africa, where we are surrounded by so much suffering and hardship.)

Yes, poems/poetry can contribute towards changing the world. By this I mean that anything that positively affects an individual's worldview, from therapy through telling their own stories, to reading a poem, to listening to or watching a poet, will impact beyond them and effect change. This is something governments have always recognised, and there are poets who have been killed, tortured, arrested because someone realised the power of words to overcome the human condition. It was Nigerian poet and distinguished professor Niyi Osundare who said, "We have a lot of work to do in Africa. The world does not listen to silence."

Besides being entertaining, why are events like the Poetry Africa festival and tour important?

From a personal point of view the whole concept says someone out there, from the funders to the organisers, believes that poetry is important and that's an affirming experience. Some of the poets have taken me under their wing and that alone is an end, or rather beginning, in itself.

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