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The third AVBOB Poetry Competition:  a place of healing and a living repository of local tongues    
Wed, 11 December 2019



The third AVBOB Poetry Competition ended on a crescendo – a peak of poetic craft – where over 7 000 poems were entered in the final week, as the competition drew to a close on 30 November 2019. On the last day alone, some 2 224 poems were submitted. 
 
It’s a remarkable feat – and a revealing figure: there are countless poets out there, perhaps uncertain of their abilities, perhaps a little reluctant to expose their inner world on a public platform, perhaps struggling to find time to write in the daily grind of life. But what matters is that we have thousands upon thousands of poets who have found their voice, and who speak the varying truths that make up this marvellous, meaningful land of ours.
 
The competition’s editor-in-chief, Johann de Lange, observed that “if the poetry project achieved nothing else it has brought people, young people, back to writing – and reading – poetry. The benefits of this will grow and become apparent in the years to come. It has transformed and will transform lives.” The AVBOB Poetry Competition, at the close of its third year, demonstrates the deeply transformative role that poetry plays in our lives, and, once again, it’s value as a significant social resource – it’s value, indeed, as an absolute good
 
Much has been written on the therapeutic benefits of poetic craft – both for the creator and the reader – but, beyond that, poetry has evolved from an elite form of literary scholarship (it still may be that – it is, of course, a multiplicity of things) to become the mode of expression for the ordinary man and woman on the street. 
 
Poetry provides us with an ‘alt’-language, an alternative discourse that allows us to explore other avenues of being, other frames of reference, other realities. It has become the lingua franca of our lives, a common tongue – and an expressive vehicle to connect to others across the distances of identities, geographies, and cultures. In the formative year of the competition, the tagline ‘write something, reach someone’ was the galvanising principle: it cemented the connective power of the craft. And therein lies its special superpower. In an age of infinite disconnect, of increasing virtualisation and disembodiment, poetry brings us back to ourselves, and back to each other.
 
A poet sitting in isolation in Stilbaai, at a local internet café in Soweto, or at a community centre in Siyabuswa can craft words that cut across distance and speak directly to the hearts of others. Poetry in that sense is unmediated, direct, a voice box, a bandstand, a loudspeaker for the people.
 
And that was what informed the vision for the project since its early adoption by outgoing AVBOB CEO Frik Rademan: “It was always about the people, always about our people. We stand as guardians at the gate of that universal ritual of burial, that final rite of passage, and it was in that time of need that we understood what we were required to create for our people – a way to speak about their loss, a way to heal.” Mr Rademan’s pioneering vision in launching the project laid the foundation for its electrifying growth, and for its social utility.
 
In the launch year, 20 000 locally crafted poems poured in. There was no limit to how many poems could be entered, but each one published on the platform received a R300 usage payment. In Year 2 of the competition, a limit of 30 poems per poet was set, to somehow attempt to ease the editorial load. In spite of that, almost 30 000 poems were registered on the platform, a 50% growth from the previous year. In the third year, the entry limit was set at 20 poems per individual poet. And yet the total number of entries at the end of November this year stood at 30 573 – a 5% increase on last year’s staggering results. 
 
There was an allied growth in the number of poems published on the platform, which grew to over 3 700 this year, up as well from the previous year (3 572). On top of this, our active poet base has grown each year, suggesting a vast untapped pool of talented poets out there, just waiting to find voice and commit to entry:
 
  Year 1 (2017) Year 2 (2018) Year 3 (2019)
Number of active poets (poets with at least one poem submitted into that year’s competition)  
3 858
 
4 851
 
5 807
 
Carl van der Riet, incoming CEO of AVBOB, is impressed by the numbers: “The growth in the competition, year on year, has been remarkable to witness. But growth speaks not just to volumes – as an actuary, I appreciate those increases! – but, more subtly, to the growth in stature of the craft itself, the growth in the quality of the poems submitted, and, more importantly, the growth in entries in our many vernaculars – which we see as a hugely important objective: to create a living repository of local tongues, to build literacy in long-overlooked languages. This was something Mr Rademan intuitively understood at the very start – that we needed to preserve our spoken and written languages. And we’re committed to championing this cause.”
 
The growth is borne out in other areas, and the statistics map out clear areas of prominence:
  • There are now 16 690 registered poets in total on the system
  • Female poets outnumber male poets by three to two
  • Almost 80% of active poets are under 40
The language entry changes were revealing: all languages remained relatively static in terms of total contributions, barring isiXhosa, which rose from 1 129 entries in 2018 to 1 980 entries in 2019. Similar trends in the submission rate held sway, with a surge in the final week, and on the final day:

It seems our community of poets tend to welcome the pressure of a fast-impending deadline in order to get those creative juices flowing! But this trend speaks to another, deeper truth, so eloquently expressed by Johann de Lange: “Poetry may get lost in the shuffle of living, but we always return to it.”
 
And so, we invite our poets – and all South Africans, as a poet resides in each one of us, and we all have a story to tell – to return to poetry in 2020, as the fourth AVBOB Poetry Competition launches in the coming year. 
 
For more information, and for the finest poetry in South Africa, in all 11 mother tongues, visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za

 


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