There is a difficult place in Malawian literature. A seat that can pass for a hot one – literally and literary. That, of a critic.
To start with, Malawian literature is just a difficult place for anyone. For the writer, it is a space riddled with a dying publishing market, a less (actually non) paying market and of course a shrinking pool of opportunities for writers.
For the reader, it is a place where original and refreshing literature is unavailable. A place where you really have to dig hard and harder to find something appealing; when you do find it, it is hardly affordable – the price!
However, much as the two groups face those challenges, none can be equated to the agonies of a critic. The critic of Malawian literature lives in a place not enviable.
It is worse if that critic, at some point in time, was also attempting to write. It means that all one is left with is criticising friends’ work. And, no one takes criticism worse than a Malawian writer. There are few, countable with half of the fingers of one hand, who are open to criticism. The rest either personalise the criticism and take personal offence or personalise their response and intend to offend. So, to criticise Malawian literature is to burn bridges. To make enemies out of pretentious friends.
At the same time, Malawian literature has come to be treated with kid gloves. Any outsider peering into Malawian literature comes with a certain kindness, a certain sympathy. It is understandable. Outside the exploits of Stanley Kenani, Muthi Nhlema, Shadreck Chikoti, Beaton Galafa, Q Malewezi and a few others, there is hardly anything to celebrate about Malawian literature on the global or regional scale. In a way, it is as if Malawian literature does not exist.
So, for anybody patient enough to accidentally land on something like literature from Malawi, they feel that obligation to nurture it. In the end, in appreciating Malawian literature, we do not appreciate the beauty or the skill, we sympathise with the passion. We want to nurture the hard work with the hope that, miraculously, it will mutate into something we can be proud of.
In the end, really, honest (and add: brutal) criticism for Malawian literature lacks.
I am writing this having finished reading a so-called poetry anthology by the Poetry Association of Malawi (PAM). It is beautifully titled A letter for Gumbi town and other poems.
The time I read on social media that Poetry Association of Malawi was calling for poems to compile an anthology, I was thrilled. I thought: finally, we would be able to have a feel of what current Malawian written poetry is; because, now what serves as poetry is mostly either performed or recited.
More than once, some mischievous feeling kept tempting me to submit mine but when I remembered that the best I have ever gotten from poetry is misunderstanding it, I told myself to keep calm, let ‘poets’ own the stage and not embarrass myself like the last time I contributed something-like-poetry I do not want to be associated with for some anthology.
But…I should have sent in mine.
From what I have seen in the anthology, everything that anybody wrote passed as poetry for that anthology. I am not hallucinating.
Actually, in the foreword, the editor just falls short of congratulating himself for including every
received into what had to be a heartbeat of current Malawian poetry.
Of course, the editor mostly knowing that what he was doing was traversing the sacred path of literature, he quickly disclaims: Defining Malawian poetry can go a long way to the numerous examples in this book and other collections. As such, we cannot agree completely on what should constitute a good poem. As far as poetry is concerned, we shall accept all the definitions including those that are self-contradictory.
It is a safe claim, you would really think. However, for anyone who pays keen attention to art and literature, that claim is as vain as it is unsatisfying. It is, in a way, a similar excuse a paedophile would use to justify his perversion: 'that love (like it is even love) sees no age; it is incomprehensible'. Useless!
It is just a lame excuse that, as one of the sources I interviewed in my newspaper days once said, is used by men playing football (using their feet, head, chest and everything but hands) on a netball court yet still insisting that what they are playing is netball – not football! Anybody, really, would see the funny composition of such an argument. I am really surprised how a whole Vice President of a Poetry body would make such an outrageous claim which, if it is to be paraphrased, basically reads: everything you feel like poetry, it is poetry. We would laugh were such a claim not outrageous.
However, in line with that conviction that poetry is anything, including what would just pass for gutter sentences before serious people who know that poetry has a definition and any variance brings such adjectives as dub and spoken word before the noun ‘poetry’, the PAM anthology really carries everything. It is a dustbin of mutilated sentences, abused language and attempting-to-be-suave thoughts.
That collection carries lame unartistic sentences that simply metamorphose into poetry because they have been chopped midway for them to start on the other line or paragraph. They lack any tools or style that would really pass for poetry. For them, it is enough that they flow in something you would forgivably call a stanza yet the metaphorical approach of presenting issues lacks.
I will just present examples, randomly selected and advance my case (this does not mean these are the only worst ones or the very worst, just random selection):
is not stupidity
does not announce death.
There is plenty of breath.
In all honesty, what strengths can one pick in the above to say it is a poem? Wait, I will help you around that question. It is because there is a misguided rhyming pattern in the last two lines, because the sentences have been chopped off and some articles have been left out, because it has been arranged in what appears to be a stanza – it is those ‘qualities’ that earned it a place in an anthology that is meant to reflect what poets in this country are. It is a shame, if we are to be honest.
But that ‘Poet’ is not alone in simply butchering lines and then shove them down our throats as poetry. Actually, I can argue that if we can just take out four if not five poems out of the 45 somethings that make the anthology, the book is just a collection of sentences ‘surguried’ by a bush doctor with no skill, no training, no anesthesia whatsoever.
Look and see
Look and be
Look and feel
Look or flee
Look, it’s free
I do not know really what this thing is communicating. The only thing I am sure of is that the person who scribbled those lines has excellently failed at being sophisticated. You know what they say about poetry: it should be sophisticated. There, you have it. Your poetry. Sophisticated and rhyming. Worthy publication in an anthology.
They say love is blind
But I disagree to this saying
Love has got ears
Love has got eyes
Love has goat heart
If you agree with me that Jesus is love
And love is Jesus
You will also agree with me
That love is not blind
Allow that joke, in the last four lines, to go 'un-commented'. It is not worthy any serious attention. Read it and laugh with a glass of water nearby. You may choke. Let me, however, take you to the words I have underlined, as picked directly from the anthology. What is that, really?
Is it not a shame that a mistake as huge as love has GOAT heart would pass unnoticed and be published in an anthology by a body that claims to be an umbrella for all poets in Malawi?
I will leave you to judge.
A bitter bite but still on a bended knee,
Ones pride on a swallow against all odds,
Instant despair then indignation,
Suspicion, excited, mortals start to murmur in ugly stares,
In a scene of picking up pieces of love.
Ask the owner of the lines above what is poetry. I can bet they will go by the new ironically-named ‘Poetry’ Association of Malawi definition that Malawian poetry (as though Malawian is some genre) cannot be defined. Or, most likely, they will say it is just re-arranging of words in a sentence to make them as confusing as they are senseless; that the sentence swallow one’s pride against all odds does not qualify to be a line in a poem until the poet – in all his skill – confuses those words and comes up with something unintelligible like Ones (there should have had been an apostrophe of course between one and s but in Malawian poetry who cares?) pride on a swallow against all odds.
That one, is not alone. Here is another set of confused words:
Transparent our shrouds are
Our faces beam with deceit
We open to speak when conversations in us with evil thoughts are
A people we talk but divided we sit
Promises we share: trying to conceal the only truth not afar
Hearts we break as with hurt we hit: closing the love jar
Once again, this was laughable were it not disastrous! But the disasters are many in the anthology.
This is how far the road has taken us
By far the wealth has led us
The intelligence has guided as to
This is by far our mistakes have made us
Like they are tools fixing our lives
This is how far the food has kept us
What is happening above if not just a meaningless play of words? I tried to bring two stanzas to maybe create an impression that the future of the thing is clear but, nay, it is not really. The whole of that thing, any poet writing poetry with a stable and proper definition, would condense into two lines and communicate whatever the thought behind those words wanted to communicate – effectively!
I could have picked many but they hardly are deserving of the space and time that it would take me to dissect them all and leave the reader to decide what is not poetry in them. Somewhere, here, I should stop.
I will stop with lines stolen from Felix Mnthali’s short story, Fragments, which appears in the anthology, The Unsung Song:
I returned to the desert
to embrace the miracle
dancing in the whirlwind
and perhaps to stumble
on the memento of millennium that was
when I discovered to my joy
a butterfly conversing with the sun
There, I think, you have managed to dilute the raw hard stuff I have subjected you to with some real poetry. There, for aspiring Poets, I hope you can learn the art – not from the shame that PAM is serving us as poetry.