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Shakespeare, rap and rural KZN: The power of the pen is liberating youth poets on the International Day of Education    
Thu, 21 January 2021



“Poetry education is absolutely relevant!” says Xolani Shezzi, a young poet from Mandeni in KwaZulu-Natal, ahead of the International Day of Education (24 January). Learning to wield the power of the pen during lockdown transformed his life. “Poetry is healing; it’s opened me up to process my anger and loneliness. Poems don’t judge me. They provide a place of understanding for my loss and for my joy.” He shared his poem, ‘Letters to heaven’ to illustrate the point:
 
Letters to heaven
Let us go to heaven
Letters to heaven
May you reach
Heaven; find my mama’s haven 
And dine with her
Tell mama I think of her
 
This week, as South African students return to their books, the AVBOB Poetry Project explores where reading, writing and teaching poetry is happening. “Power of the Pen”, an online class for youth poets, and a container library in rural KZN are two spaces where language and learning are being nurtured under difficult circumstances.
 
Johannesburg poet Frank Meintjies responded to the COVID-19 crisis by facilitating online sessions with up to 60 participants at a time. Students of poetry develop the ability to understand different perspectives, thus expanding their worldviews. This development of empathy enhances respect and understanding of other cultures and traditions. With support from the National Arts Council, this course is helping poets grow and improve their technical skills.
 
Meintjies engages youth already interested in poetry who want to take it to the next level: “This masterclass focuses on sound, structure and meaning. We introduced the combination of Shakespeare and rap as a tool to fine-tune rhythm and meter, taking our cue from The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company in the UK,” he said.
 
Having the freedom to express oneself is an essential human right, but people need to find the forms and phrases that give voice to their own experience. Reflection and deliberation are higher-order cognitive skills that enable one to weigh the words that best articulate their reality. This is an added benefit of studying poetry. Poetry education is immensely valuable in our divided society and a potent tool for promoting societal cohesion.
 
Meintjies explains the concepts of structure and meaning. “Students must think carefully about their composition. I challenge them to look at how the poem is organised on the page. What choices does the poet make? What is the poem about? What does it mean? How does it hold together?”
 
He asks the students, “Are you expressing a mood or an idea? Is it a particular feeling in a specific time? What are the different ways in which you can hold meaning? How did other poets hold similar concepts together?” They analyse poetic devices used by Lebo MashileAlfred Qabula and Diana Ferrus, as well as the sound and structure of Meintjies’ poem written during lockdown, ‘I Can’t Breathe’.
 
After introducing the learning method, participants would spend 10 minutes writing to a given prompt. Sessions lasted an hour and participants wrote in real time and then shared their poems, making comments on each other’s work, observing what did and didn’t work. “We also explored opportunities for poets to build a career and earn from their work, with terrific input on monetising poetic performance from JahRose Nthabiseng Jafta of Poetic Blues.”
 
During the process, Xolani successfully submitted a poem to the literary journal Botsotso. This publication affirmed and reassured him: “Seeing my words in print is the best feeling ever. Editors only publish work that meets their criteria. When you’re given a platform, it’s a Mozart moment!”
 
He is mindful how many scholars still struggle to get the basics of spelling and grammar in place. Schools in his region have pupil teacher ratios of 70:1. Xolani wants to motivate young learners to read, but acknowledges a shortage of libraries in townships. “You must work hard to become a poet, to increase your knowledge so that you can communicate with ordinary people. You must read!”
 
At the nearby Ekuphakameni Primary School, school principal, Nontobeko Jali, contemplates the challenges her learners face on the International Day of Education. “COVID-19 is difficult, but the AVBOB container library is a game changer. Our learners love to go there during break. They have a real appetite for books. Poetry is taught as an activity in the classroom, but there aren’t many poetry books for children in isiZulu.”
 
The library impacts foundation phase learners significantly. “They develop an enthusiasm for books right from the start, and learners with a firm literacy base stand a better chance of completing secondary school,” she said. “During COVID-19, our revised timetable means that the library is a great space for learners who are often found reading quietly.”
 
Xolani believes that Meintjies’ input and his recent publication successes prepared him to enter the AVBOB Poetry Competition this year. He has started crafting his entries already. Xolani has a dream to share his knowledge with young poets and hopes to host a short workshop with Ekuphakameni learners in the container library. “Perhaps, once COVID-19 regulations permit, I can help these kids find the joy of poetry too.”

 



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