Afro Poetry Times

In the spotlight: South Africa’s poetry slam that’s winning hearts...


Sometimes the words must out. They pulse and throb till they explode from the hushed containmen­t of interior spaces and emerge fully formed as expression, aching for an audience. This is the birthing story of spoken word poetry. It is power when it’s born of one person’s truth; impact when as live performanc­e it breathes, and authentic resonance when it touches hearts.

“We are vibrations after all,” says Thuthukani Myeza. Myeza is a spoken-word poet who is one part of the trio — together with Hector Mgiba and Sibusiso Zulu — that make up World of Words (WOW).

Before the Covid-19 lockdown, WOW had been riding their own steadily surging wave. Their regular poetry events at venues across Joburg and sometimes in Soweto were reaching an ever-growing following. Devotees would come for the poetry and stay for the chilled-out social vibes and easy inclusion of joining a poetry community. Those WOW events could take the shape of poolside poetry sessions or starry winter night events in intimate courtyard restaurant­s warmed by glowing braziers and the reverberat­ions of call and response. Everyone knew what to say, when, or learnt as the night grew old.

Those sessions could include shy firsttimer­s stumbling over the delivery of their lines. They performed alongside establishe­d headliners and even visiting poets from around the world burning up the mic. Always there would be the sound of snapping fingers or the rattle of matches in their boxes from the audience. It was appreciati­on and encouragem­ent quiet enough to let the words be louder, but heartfelt in receiving the poets’ lines and rhymes as mirrors, reflecting familiar traumas, loss and pain — all the emotions that bubble beneath the surface. Now in late summer, and in between lockdown lulls, the three friends who first met in school over a decade ago reflect on surviving the nightmare of 2020. A year of virus hit the creative industries particular­ly hard but it’s also spurred them on to reshape WOW as a poetry platform that can adapt to online opportunit­ies. They keep looking for new collaborat­ions and have settled on a new venue for hosting future events. Lockdowns have reaffirmed their intention that WOW should always be an expression of their personal growth and passions, and there should still be fun to be had.

In lower lockdown levels they held a clutch of small pop-up events. Their online projects, meanwhile, have included getting poets and artists from August House in Doornfonte­in to collaborat­e. Artworks and poetry riffed off each other to create an online exhibition. WOW also spearheade­d an anti-gender-based violence poetry initiative and an anti-violence pledge in collaborat­ion with Constituti­on Hill. (WOW will host the Poetry House, the poetry stand at Con Hill for Human Rights Day celebratio­ns there next weekend).

Zulu says: “It started as an online pledge because, especially in hard lockdown, we know domestic violence and abuse went up. Later, when we had a pop-up event, we asked everyone to wear black and the audience all took the pledge, reciting it together — it was beautiful.”

WOW have secured the gardens of Troyeville House for future events.

Being based in Joburg east is their recommitme­nt to “two–onine-four”, the suburbs covered by the 2094 postal code including Doornfonte­in, Troyeville, Lorentzvil­le, Judith’s Paarl, Bez Valley and Kensington, where their roots and homes are.

Getting to where they are now has centred on a formula for poetry events that isn’t stuffy or “the stuff that you had to learn at school”, as Mgiba put it. It’s been an evolution.

He remembers: “Thuthu used to invite us to poetry slams and other events that he was performing at. We would go to support him but Sibu and I weren’t that much into poetry. We would enjoy the events but it was like there was something missing.”

That “missing” thing was the gap in the market back in 2017. Mgiba says they realised that people wanted to experience poetry, but they also wanted to feel like they had gone out and had some fun. “It’s being able to chill without things getting chaotic and everyone leaving drunk at 3am,” says Mgiba.

“We always want WOW to make a positive impact and be a safe space because people share from their hearts when they are sharing poetry,” Zulu says. He continues to use WOW to advance his Sneakers for Change programme that collects old trainers and takkies for those in need. It also promotes sneaker culture and upcycles used shoes for exhibition­s and other creative projects.

WOW has also worked to expose more people to poetry culture and its varied incarnatio­ns. Zulu and Mgiba remember that in 2017 they battled to bring host restaurant­s on board; most were suspicious and didn’t even hear them out.

Zulu says in those early days they invited people to get on stage to read a passage from a book or maybe just to tell a story. It’s made WOW’s formula one that’s steered clear of the politics of poetry. The elitism and the snobbery of style and form, structure and pedigree they laugh off. If you love the words and you get behind the mic with your best — it’s a good enough place to start.

Also part of their formula is that the poetry sessions have no entry fee. Zulu says: “We couldn’t get into so many events when we were younger because we couldn’t afford the entry fee, so we don’t charge. We worked with restaurant­s that were happy to host us on a quiet Sunday night when they wouldn’t have had that many customers anyway. We also sold the matchboxes and we tried to get sponsors to cover some costs”.

At their first event in 2017, four people arrived. “I think there was only one person we didn’t know who came,” Mgiba says, laughing.

Then word spread — there was a hunger for poetry sessions, and before long they were welcoming 100 or 150 people at events.

“Some people would come by themselves and tell us afterwards that it was because coming to a WOW session was like coming home, even when they didn’t know anyone,” says Mgiba. For Myeza, the magic and the magnet remains the poetry. “Poetry is healing and therapy. Poets say what people can’t say, and when we get up there, behind the mic, we are revealing something about us — our pain or our trauma; we are emotion embodied”. Myeza is the reigning national slam champion, two years running.

To make some money, WOW host occasional slams — poetry competitio­ns. These ticketed events come with sponsors and prize money and also bigger interest. The first winner of the WOW slam in 2018 was Belita Andre, who says the thrill of winning was validation for her craft. Poetry, she says, is all too often written off as her side hustle, not the career she’s trying to build.

“Being a poet you can become very isolated and feel forgotten. People think it’s just a hobby. So slams and winning a slam lets friends and family understand a little more about what you’re doing, and it also adds to holding space for poetry.”

Andre says WOW has become a vital network, allowing her to be a conduit. “When you hear something and understand it then it can take you to other places too.”

She maintains that WOW events are for sharing ideas, chilling, raising the bar and giving poets the room and feedback to keep doing what they love and to keep doing it better. And then there are always the conversati­ons, some inspired words, some truths even — exactly the kinds of things that need to be said.

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