“Hi Mandi: Just found out that we have more days for the poetry show on SAfm. Would you be willing to do it?” Myesha Jenkins
When I read this message in my Facebook inbox, I had to take a moment just to breathe a little. Feminist, immigrant and activist, Myesha is no stranger to the poetry community, the contribution that she has made goes far beyond that of just being a poet. We chat to her about the role she continues to play in our industry, and we find out how she managed to get poetry on TALK RADIO.
“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and i could think on my feet to come up with the right idea” Jenkins
1. Safm is one of South Africa’s leading talk radio stations, how did you manage to convince them that poetry on the airwaves is a good investment?
I’m sure you’ll think I’m lying because the story is so magical it just doesn’t seem like it could possibly be true. The preface is that it was the Year of the Dragon, known for things getting whipped around by that powerful tail, turning things upside down, profoundly changing reality.
I had been out of the scene for a couple of years and had lost many contacts. It was 2011 and I was coming to grips with losing my vision in one eye but at the same not wanting to hide away. I had produced a new poetry collection, had launched it at Poetry Africa and needed to break back into the Joburg scene. I had a friend who was in production at SAfm, so I called Geoffrey Matenji to see if we could meet. My goal for the meeting was to get some suggestions of shows I could approach to do interviews to push my book.
When I got there, he had arranged for the Community Liaison to meet with us, which I thought a little strange. So we did a little chit chat about poetry, my collection, the work I was doing with Jozi House of Poetry and then she said, “So how can SAfm help your organisation?”
I went blank. I hadn’t come there with Jozi House of Poetry in mind so I had to think …. Real quickly. Maybe they’d like to sponsor our monthly sessions. Maybe they’d like to fund a book of our regulars. Maybe they’d like to record some of our sessions. I was literally pulling ideas from the air, ideas that could build Jozi House of Poetry.
“Yes”, she said, “lets explore that idea a bit.” So I described our sessions, the diversity, the mixture of page and stage poets, the goal of promoting poetry to a community whose reference was Daffodils and Clouds. She liked the idea of recording poetry sessions. “Lets get Julia from Drama to come down.”
As we waited for Julia-Ann Malone, Geoffrey and I did a full on pitch for my personal legitimacy and longevity in the poetry scene. They had to know I wasn’t a fly-by-night character and that Jozi House of Poetry was a credible community based institution. I gave her my book but then after all that hoorah, i humiliated myself by not even having a pen to sign it with. (I’d cleaned my purse that morning and forgotten to put the pens and notebook back in.)
Luckily Julia-Ann arrived at that point. We talked further about recording Jozi House of Poetry sessions, refining details. She had experience, recording poets in the 80s and knew that the producer of those shows was still around. They had some space in the audio drama schedule during August, so it made sense to try and create something for that time to focus on women.
I jotted down some of these ideas (yes, I had to borrow a piece of paper too) and we exchanged email addresses. I promised to write up the notes from the meeting and Julia promised to check if the producer was available. That was it.
I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and i could think on my feet to come up with the right idea. SAfm wasn’t committed to poetry, they had no idea of its popularity and of the scope of contemporary writing but they liked how I presented myself and they were looking for something new.
They were clear, there was no money for this and I willingly accepted that because I was thrilled at the national exposure we could get for poetry.
Of course I went home and wrote up the notes, then shared them with Phillippa Yaa DeVillliers and we refined the notes into a proper proposal that was submitted and approved. Phillippa came up with the name.
When the MOU came it was clear that SAfm was not really engaged with the concept as we were limited from using the material in anyway and SAfm retained all rights. But still, we knew the value of such a show, even if they didn’t.
That’s how Poetry in the Air came into being.
What inspired Poetry in the air?
You can see there wasn’t much thought that went into creating the show. Nevertheless, Jozi House of Poetry had been operating for a number of years and by 2011 was in a second incarnation. Its explicit purpose was to provide a platform for poetry, particularly to create a safe space for women writers who didn’t always get much attention in the male dominated world of spoken word. We also wanted to encourage writing, reading and developing the skills of written poetry. We also placed a value on authenticity and poetry that spoke of personal truths and emotion.
The inspiration for Poetry in the Air then, was to expose the nation to that ethos, to promote the work of primarily black women writers. The added kick to the show would be that women would be reading their own work and responding to questions about it, so listeners could hear the writers’ intention, intonation and her personal voice.
3. How did poets adjust to the dynamics of performing poetry for radio as opposed to being on the stage?
Radio is very different from stage performances and some people battled. Poems had to be shortish (the ear gets tired easily), they had to have different rhythms and themes. One could over emote but the work had to convey emotion. Imagine, two people sitting across a small table from each other with a huge microphone dangling between them, only able to speak when the red light came on. No props. Some found that terribly intimidating. As well, some were uncomfortable with the editing process and that someone was going to maybe cut out some of their words or change the order of the interview.
In addition, poets were asked to suggest music that would be used in the show, music that reflected them and the material. After editing, the music was added to the introduction and it served as a link throughout show. Many people hadn’t thought of their work from this perspective and had a hard time.
We were lucky to have a producer, Posy Buckland, who is extremely experienced and skilled. She was the person Julia had mentioned, who’d worked on this kind of poetry show in the 89s but from years of putting together radio dramas, she was a skilled editor and had a sensitivity or rather sensibility to use just the right music to enhance the words
4. What can we expect from the line up for poetry in the air?
This is the third year of the show and we wanted to add a new element. The previous two years used local Johannesburg poets but this time, we also included three poets from Cape Town. It was a big thing organisationally for SAfm to link from studio to studio but it all went well without any problems.
In the second year we added males to the line-up and that was continued again.
The theme was pretty vague though everyone had at least one poem addressing the strength and experience of women.
Specific poets for 2014 include: Khadijah Heegar, Ouaz Roodt, Vangi Gantsho, Nova Masango, Sarah Godsell, Conelius Jones, Natalia Molebatsi, Khosi Xaba, Afurakan, Mandi Vundla, Toni Stuart, Phillippa Yaa DeVilliers, Dejavu Tafari, Mutle Mothibe and Myesha Jenkins
5. You have continued to play an influential role in the poetry community, what keeps you inspired?
I like the idea of building poetry so I’m interested in seeing our community expand in numbers, in platforms, in types … all of it. I think it’s important to express the reality of our lives. So my inspiration is in building that community, supporting writers, encouraging more people to express themselves through written poetry and spoken word.
6. You are also the co-founder of Jozi House of Poetry, tell us more about this platform.
Jozi House of Poetry is a monthly session that provides a safe space for women poets and encourages authentic, personal, reflective kinds of writing. As a woman-friendly space, kids are also welcome, i.e. you don’t have to take the baby out. You don’t have to memorise and people can read their work. And it’s not about competition and looking good. We usually have a theme and discussion which allows both poets and non-poets, just lovers of the word, to share their opinions and ideas and their poems as they fit into the discussion.
We are now in the third incarnation of Jozi House of Poetry. It was first started by Feela Sistah in 2003 and ran till 2006. It was housed in the old Couch and Coffee in Newtown. We Then started again in 2011 and operated for two years at the POP Art Theatre in the Maboneng Precinct. In January of 2014 we moved to the African Freedom Station in Westdene where we currently have a much more open and relaxed atmosphere.
7. What has been the greatest highlight of your poetry career?
Personally it was receiving the 2013 Mbogodo Award in the category of Poetry. The Mbogodo award honours women making meaningful contributions to the arts. Winning that was very special.I’ve also enjoyed performing at Poetry Africa. The first time was in 2004 as part of the Feela Sistah Spoken Word Collective with Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile and Ntsiki Mazwai. The second time was in 2011 when I launched my second book, Dreams of Flight. I worked with jazz musician, Bradley Maponya.
8. Name 3 writers you can’t live without?
Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, and Warsan Shire and locally it’s Gabeba Baderoon, Khosi Xaba and Phillippa Yaa Devilliers.
9.If you could improve anything in the poetry communities, what would it be?
More cross fertilization and sharing of knowledge. More sharing of technical skills. Less competitiveness. Expanding to reach all the provinces. More intergenerational platforms. Somehow seeing ourselves as branches of the same tree … the PO E TREE.
We thank you Myesha for all that you do. Catch poetry in the air at the end of the Ashraf Gardia show, from 11h45 to 12 noon, Safm (104 –107 fm) Monday through to Thursday. (The first week starts on Tuesday, 12 August and we go into September, ending Thursday, 4 September.
Tuesday, 12 August Khadijah Heeger
Wednesday, 13 August Quaz
Thursday, 14 August Vangi Gantsho
Monday, 18 August Nova
Tuesday, 19 August Sarah Godsell
Wednesday, 20 August Conelius Jones
Thursday, 21 August Natalia Molebatsi
Monday, 25 August Khosi Xaba
Tuesday, 26 August Afurakan
Wednesday, 27 August Mandi Vundla
Thursday, 28 August Toni Stuart
Monday, 1 September Phillippa Yaa DeVilliers
Tuesday, 2 September Dejavu Tafari
Wednesday 3, September Mutle Mothibe
Thursday, 4 September Myesha Jenkins