Young Zimbabwean Poet Tafadzwa Chiwanza (left) with Heart & Soul TV literary host Khumbulani Muleya
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The refreshing diversity of new Zimbabwean poetry

At a small press, the poetry series features easily recognisable names from showbiz and media, and few National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) recognitions. But the refreshing development is younger poets moving beyond pre-occupation with national politics to venture into themes like sexuality, philosophy and cultural memory. Sibonginkosi Nkala interviews three rising stars of Zimbabwean poetry.

Kwanele Khumalo, currently a journalism student, was nominated for the National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) Outstanding Poetry Book this year. In his debut, Who Killed Grandfather? the mysteriously deceased patriarch personifies the indigenous values of his Kalanga people in Matebeleland. His work was widely reviewed as a breath of fresh air for its grounded folk approach. He shares highlights of his progress in the genre.

SN: Tell me about the talking animals in your poems. Your work shows this strong folk element.

KK: Animals fascinate me as figures of bare life. In the current regime of biopolitics, animals exist to be displayed or for what is to be extracted from them by humans. They remind me so much about our own species.

There is a dimension of my writing that is primarily about culture. Technology uprooted us from soil and spirit. I want to see how much of that I can claim for my fellow youths through poetry.

SN: How did your early life experiences in Tshankwa, Plumtree, shape you as a writer?

KK: Tshankwa defines me. No bird has ever been clever enough to forget its own way of singing. I have a duty to tell stories about the place that raised me. I grew up at a time when fancy food was only bought at Christmas. Having to pass around the little that was there encouraged unity and peace in the community. Although I grew up in a poor environment, I didn’t think about life in those terms until I came to Bulawayo. We were working just to eat everyday but we were happy. It’s better to be poor and at peace with yourself and your community than to have a lot of things but rely on pills to go to sleep. According to tradition, Tshankwa is the name of an old man who used to stay in the area, which got passed on to our largest river, the dam it fed and then the whole area. My poetry patiently chronicles these things.

No bird has ever been clever enough to forget its own way of singing. I have a duty to tell stories about the place that raised me

SN: What do you want to capture with your future work.

KK: My new book, Vendor Logs is out in July. I focus on the ordinary lives of the poor in our communities I portrayed. There is a side of it that is structural but I am also saying to my people, let us live. Let’s celebrate all the hard work and love that goes around the community, our attachment to nature and simplicity. Embracing the regular is also my way of speaking against the criminalisation of poor people by modern cultures.

SN: You have only been on the scene for two years. How has been the welcome?

KK: For my first book I was nominated for National Arts Awards. I have sold a lot and it’s an honour to be hearing from PhD candidates from outside Zimbabwe about my book while I am still on attachment.

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Andile Sayi, an informatics student at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), represents generation Z, popularly known as ama2000. She arrived on the poetry scene last year with calm control and a depth of field that belied her 20 years. Sayi shares her perspectives on the themes of diversity and acceptance that run through her brilliant first work, The Book of Anon.

SN: Is there a binding concept around your first anthology, The Book of Anon?

AS: The Book of Anon is an anthology of poems that speaks from all shoes possible without fear of judgement. It allows different people to share their point of views anonymously, where unapologetic, hilarious, stupid and highly emotional opinions can be comforting, including things deemed despicable or unimportant.

SN: What themes are you invested in?

AS: Love and the different views around it, social perceptions, the coming-of-age theme as well, self-awareness before reaching maturity.

SN: Social exclusion seems to recur in this book, particularly so around sexuality. Is this something that’s been addressed well enough by older writer colleagues?

AS: Social exclusion, especially around sexuality, is rarely addressed in our society. As a young writer I have made it a point to address such issues and how they affect certain individuals who wish they could get the same treatment and participate in social, especially cultural life. 

Being a gen Z who grew up around millennials and on the internet, there has been the rise on issues concerning sexuality, which is why I felt the need to find individuals who are facing such challenges and get their perspectives on the subject.

SN: Who are your writing influences, in literary or outside?

AS: I was inspired by the American actress Hailee Steinfeld’s character in the American comseries Dickinson. Hailee’s character is meant to resemble the life of the great American poet Emily Dickinson who was little-known during her life. I fell in love with Hailee’s character because it was just different. I think she was weird, but the cool kind of weird I could totally relate to. She had a mind of her own and she was easily misunderstood. She wrote beautiful poems and I just wanted to write like her. One of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems is “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” It led me to grab a dictionary and write my first line. Which wasn’t so bad.

SN: Did anything point you towards writing before this moment of discovery, in childhood, maybe?

AS: I entered multiple essay writing competitions back in high school and won a few including the CoverToCover Essay Competition 2016. Eventually, I grew up to question my purpose in life and avoid multiple mid-life crises before the age of 25 (Sayi is 21 now). It’s easier to put things in writing, where a paper and a pen weirdly possesses the ability to channel my thoughts and what I really feel.

SN: What’s the journey of your book, the process and the reception?

AS: I would be lying if I said writing this book was the hardest thing I ever did. It just starting off as a hobby, where I found writing poetry a relief. When I realised how these poems had something in common, I decided to just compile them into one book, and found an editor who helped me through the whole process. The publishing house, Underclass Books & Films, helped me publish the book. 

I made it a point to get feedback from individuals who purchased the book and the reception has been heartfelt, expressing how they appreciated how absolutely relatable the poems were. I got a few sponsors from Australia who applauded me for my first publication and helped me print more books that I managed to sell.

SN: Which direction have you taken after The Book of Anon?

AS: I’m currently working on my first screenplay that I can’t wait to complete.

SN: I notice interest in dance and fashion design. How do you connect them with poetry?

AS: The idea of expression in both. It all comes from a place of how you feel and how you want to portray yourself. Poetry is also feelings and ideas. I wrote poems like “World Of Dance” and “When Being Yourself Is Uncomfortable”, giving perspectives on why certain people dance or dress a certain way.

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Tafadzwa Chiwanza‘s first poetry book, No Bird Is Singing Now? is a dark meditation, which draws on classical philosophers and nods to the king of esoterica, Dambudzo Marechera. While Chiwanza is invested in ideas, he is not interested in the explicit use of language to express them. His language functions on the level of images but these are “broken images” that demand the opening of the read’s third eye. The challenging but rewarding poet, currently studying accounting at the University of Zimbabwe, opens up on his approach and influences

SN: What did you picture going into the book cycle of No Bird Is Singing Now?

TC: I wanted to present a book of questions. You would note that most of the poems in the book end with a question. It was a deliberate endeavour to poke the reader’s mind into trying to find an answer. The idea was to have the poem echo in the reader’s mind long after the full stop.

SN: What was the journey of your first book like, the process and the reception?

TC: I began working on the book around 2018, using different working titles. The project at first was more ideological than poetic. You see, I was at that point in my life where the mind was beginning to develop a mind of its own. Thinkers like Franz Fanon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emmanuel Kant and Karl Marx just to mention a few, were beginning to introduce themselves to me. The results of intimate conversations with these men were endless strings of questions from which I and my poetry had no choice but to dangle.

I rewrote the book over a dozen times. After each thorough edit, the book would appear to me as a photo-shopped version of the original idea, an idea I knew I had but whose face remained obscure. It was through interaction with writers that I felt were the best contemporary writers, the likes of Tanaka Chidora, Onai Mushava, Edward Nzonze, Obey Chiyangwa and Brian Muringisi, that I began to allow the poems to exist in their “imperfections,” Having learnt that a poem isn’t one because it is perfect but because its imperfections complete it.

After my book was published by Underclass publishers, the reception was overwhelming. The people who had managed to penetrate its complex structure and language had a lot of praise for the work. Those who did not were not entirely indifferent; they showed a keen interest to understand what madness I had scribbled.

READING WRITER: Chiwanza reads Dambudzo Marechera’s books, a major influence on his poetry

Of course, the sales could have been better, but I am not disappointed at all. The book was an intellectual exercise, and its main rewards are not necessarily pecuniary.

SN: What has to go wrong in life for one to become a poet, haha?

TC: Poetry is an expression of struggle. It is a silent scream of a void, lost somewhere in the universe. My poetry is my struggle and has been carved into shape or formlessness by my biological background.

I always say it is not possible for an “African writer” to write poetry in the same way as a “European writer” would. The African writer’s use of language tends to be more violent and fast-paced like a series of sword jabs while the European’s tone is usually more subdued and soft. I can almost always tell the nationality of the writer of a poem by an analysis of their use of language.

The African writer’s use of language tends to be more violent and fast-paced like a series of sword jabs

My point is that when it comes to writing, we are all products of where we are coming from. That is what makes our work unique and easily traceable to us. Think of it as the identity of poetry.

SN: What about the poetry scene in Zimbabwe – what’s the energy at and what could be changed?

TC: Poetry is at a stage of resurrection in Zimbabwe. The country had snubbed its poets and they in return had neglected their country. It is however pleasing to note that there is a lot of poetry activity on social media and frequently you see a new poetry book being published.

One thing we need to improve on is the elasticity of the readership. That’s one area we have been lacking locally. The real meaning and worth of a work of art is truly known to the artist and the whole world when it comes in contact with a consumer. Then and only then will we have succeeded when our poetry provides a two way communication between the writers and the readers. Without that, we are merely playing with words.

SN: Is Dambudzo Marechera important to your work? 

TC: Ah, Dambu! I owe a lot to the work of that guy. I remember when I picked up a pen; I wanted to be just like him. I know I am not alone in this sentiment. For young writers, Marechera remains the yardstick of great artistry.

For young writers, Marechera remains the yardstick of great artistry

In my first book, I dedicate a few poems to his memory and influence. Poems like “Doppelganger” and “Poetry Intercourse”. These were in a way, an attempt to find my footing next to his great statue.

However, on my recent project, I have tried to distance myself from him. I felt like I needed to be free of his large, but a warm shadow. 

SN: What is this new project you have been working on? Besides that aspect of inspiration, how does it move beyond No Bird Is Singing Now?

TC: Thank you for the question. I am currently working on an anthology I have titled, The Rest Is Silence.

You see, my first book,  No Bird Is Singing Now? was an attempt to introduce the artist in me, firstly to myself and then to the world. The whole idea was to discover literary realm that I could retreat to when the toil to question my reality proves futile. An attempt to garb in visibility, to stand before the flood of Sun’s warm gaze and to be truly self-aware.

In other words, my first book was a delicate balance of poetry and philosophy. The latter part of its dual identity made the work somewhat obscure, elitist and deeply profound. On the other hand, The Rest Is Silence is an attempt to illuminate emotions within the writer. Think of it as lighting the path that leads to undiscovered depths of the writer’s psyche. What I hope I have managed to do with this particular collection is to give a story that is firstly, poetic and secondly more accessible.

SN: Outside literature, who has also influenced you? 

TC: I am greatly influenced by Bob Marley. His ideas are revolutionary. Other influences include my mom, Letricia Matanda and my twin brother, Takudzwa Chiwanza.

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