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Smells like teen spirit, sounds like poetry – poetry and the youth generation    
Thu, 11 June 2020



Young people have often been the first to sow the seeds  of social change – and you’ll find them right in the frontlines of protest and demonstration. Many of the great social movements of the past – and today – began in school corridors or on university campuses. It’s a decades-long arc from Hector Pieterson and the Soweto Uprising to Malala Yousafzai’s rights of the girl child, and Greta Thunberg’s Extinction Rebellion. And poetry is the perfect performative for their impassioned protest. Poetry, by definition, has the capacity to question, to challenge and disrupt. A language that lives outside daily discourse, it has the potential to speak truth to power, to dismantle orthodoxies and topple hierarchies. 
 
But beyond placards and protest, poetry is also deeply personal. In their always-on, angst-ridden world, poetry offers troubled tweens and teens a vent and an outlet. Raw and real, unfiltered and uncensored, it has an immediacy and an honesty that speak to the very heart of teen rebellion, passion and vision.
 
And youth poetry is a pivotal part of participatory culture. Simplifying somewhat, this cultural formation is a kind of counter-culture, an antidote to the consumer culture we know, where producers make goods, stuff, ideas and ideologies which consumers passively consume. In contrast, participatory culture is co-creative and collaborative. 
 
In Foot Soldiers of Modernity: The Dialectics of Cultural Consumption and the 21st-Century School, Paul Willis describes a culture where “young people creatively respond to a plethora of electronic signals and cultural commodities in ways that surprise their makers, finding meanings and identities never meant to be there.”
 
From manifestos to memes, poetry to placards, blogs, vlogs and everything in between, young people are the new prosumers – a wonderful neologism which collapses production into consumption. 
 
And poetry may be seen as a form of produsage. What informs this produsage? Media analyst Henry Jenkins, along with several co-authors, delivered a white paper on this topic in 2006, and arrived at the following formulation: participatory culture offers low barriers to entry and participation – both artistic and political; it provides a supportive culture of sharing and exchange; it brings a built-in mentoring element, where the experienced participants share with and guide newcomers; it creates a place of validation and significance, and, finally, it opens up a space for social connection.

Put like this, it sounds pretty much like a rough definition of poetry. And certainly, a sound description of The AVBOB Poetry Project and its online and social platforms, where poets of all ages, in all 11 of our mother tongues, can come together and exchange poems. And that’s precisely the key factor that distinguishes poetry from, say, novel writing. You don’t need to have lived long and experienced much to be able to speak your truth in the form of a poem. Poetry, unlike many other forms of artistic expression, seems to collapse the conventional cordons between the elite and the everyday, between elder and youth, between high art and pop culture. 

And the poetry entered into the AVBOB Poetry Competition by under-16s proves this most powerfully. Prescient and precocious, our junior poets manage to create riffs and rhythms that tell a story of youth in an age of quick change and flux, of early exposure and accelerated wisdom. In Grandma’s Motives by Akhona Bushula, and Move On byNomfundo Skosana, our young poets have already learnt that pain is transformative and may be used as a catalyst for creativity:
 
Grandma's Motives by Akhona Bushula 
 
Be a record breaker
Shut your ears when darkness calls your name
Be no uniform
For success awaits the unique
Step on top of every dirt
Because every future has splashy roads
Grieve and pave the way
For enemies to laugh and pass
Let the bruises they leave
Be a story for your future novel
 
 
Move On by Nomfundo Skosana 

Move on, you'll find a home.
First, dust off those memories you own,
The one’s that made you smile
When you were all alone.
Remember what broke you down?
All the curve balls life had thrown?
Yet so fragile to take that fall.
You know you could break that wall,
Yet still you wait in the empty hall,
Camouflaging your smiles,
With your failures and new trials.
Move on, you'll find your own
Waiting somewhere
In the little time you’ve loaned.
 
And in an age characterised by a sensorial overload of information and images, by a newsfeed that never stops, young people have to navigate their increasing exposure to cyberbullying, social isolation and societal scrutiny. As a result, anxiety, mood disorders and suicidal ideation are on the rise in the younger generation. And that’s where poetry truly works its magic. It is a place to reclaim one’s voice, to assert one’s truth, and to unburden one’s heart. In Astral,Tlotliso Taoana refuses to be defined on anything but her own terms. And in A Thing Like No Other, Kai Lamond encourages his audience to lose their angst in favour of hope, to get off their tightrope and embrace their inner strength and courage.
 
Astral by Tlotliso Taoana 

I know how they stare at me
as if I have no eyes,
I already know I'm the one they despise
but they don't know I'm in disguise,
waiting for them to finally realise
that I'm the one who sees the skies,
who hears the lies,
who isn't that wise,
who's been minimised
by everyone.

Should I really be sympathised
because I'm terrified,
terrified of being categorised
put in a place because of my race
and yet I still embrace,
embrace the fact that I am in deep space
waiting to be erased,
erased from mankind
just to be redefined
from my mind
and put this all behind,
just to realign my state of mind
and finally be at peace
in soul and heart
and never fall apart
because I am a work of art
that can never be redesigned.
 

A Thing Like No Other by Kai Lamond 

When the future seems dreary
And nights seem cold,
Listen to me dearie,
Its time to be bold.

There's a thing like no other,
A force strong of might,
Used by one another,
It shall win any fight.

A force so deep and great
It dominates all sorrow,
Like a door or an open gate
It’s a thing to define tomorrow.

If your time is nigh
And death is in the air,
If faith isn’t high
and all you smell is despair,

I believe that it is time
To bring in some hope;
It isn’t a crime –
So get off your tightrope.

These are powerful words from young people who will be tomorrow’s policymakers and politicians, citizens and savants, leaders and lawmakers.
 
The 2020 AVBOB Poetry Competition runs from 1 August to 30 November, and is open to all poets of all ages in all 11 official languages. Visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za and follow our social platforms to find out more.


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