They say curiosity kills the cat. I, however, have always tended to disagree and found myself one Thursday night, armed with a bottle of wine, dragging two of my friends out to an Open Mic poetry evening in the city of Pretoria. Held at one of my favourite venues serving up arguably the best pizza in the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite my tendency to be slightly late usually, I managed to arrive on time, only to discover – to my dismay – that all the seats had been taken up on a day I opted for the stylish, not comfortable, option in footwear. Nonetheless, we had a great night of listening to poets and spoken word artists share their craft, of snapping fingers and entering a different world with each poem. I found myself marking ‘attend’ to more and more events on Facebook. I had – it seemed – after more than five years living in this city, discovered an almost hidden world of poetry in Pretoria.
As is life, I met new people through these events and discovered that people I already knew were involved in the circles of poetry. I started asking questions and showing interest and, naturally, found someone I could talk to about all of this: Lebogang Lebese. I had met Lebo in a completely different context and had no idea of his involvement in poetry and spoken word. Without meaning to sound redundant, I had no idea really what to expect when I met up with him but I certainly did not expect to have the interview/conversation we had. Founder of Soul Ink – a poetry company that started in 2014 – Lebo shared with me the deep and amazing insights of what poetry and spoken word is in Pretoria currently, the potential for healing it has and the general beauty it encapsulates.
Whereas the poetry scene in Pretoria is currently experiencing a boom like never before, Lebo started Soul Ink when he went to university in 2014. For a lack of platforms on campus to share your poetry and meet like-minded people, he took the DIY approach and formed his own poetry group: “I wanted to share my poetry and I was sure there were other people who felt the same way and so we started Soul Ink. When it started there was an exponential growth because for a while we were the only ones doing active events. I’d like to say there’s been growth consistently but there’s also been times where it just tapers off because I’m not investing so much into its growth. But this year has seen us grow the most because I’ve actually had more time to actively pursue it after I decided to register Soul Ink as a company.”
This company, he explains, is run by a whole team because his thing is writing and he claims he’s not good enough at enough things in life to run a whole company. Soul Ink also collaborates with other poetry companies such as Black Suburbia, Poetoria and Blurred Lines for events such as Say Something held at the end of August. These partners hosted a poetry slam and invited two of the big names in the poetry scene, Xabiso Vili and Modise Sekgothe, to hold an “exhibition” of their poems. As Lebo explains, “that’s us all coming together going hey, we really like this poetry scene in Pretoria. We are very community-driven. A lot of projects that happen in Pretoria are very collaborative.
I was unaware that Soul Ink had been registered as a company – it’s not something I’d heard of before: a poetry collective turning into a company. What I found intriguing is the reason behind it and the vision Lebo has for the company. I wanted to know if it has developed into something more.
Lebo: “Most definitely, otherwise I don’t think you can do the same thing so long. I’ve always been very interested in how art and the process of creation of art can foster healing. I think we’re a very messed up society as South Africans – there are pains that run deep and I think art offers a way that is accessible to a multitude of people without having to fork over a lot of money. I think art, like spoken word, is quite rooted in a lot of our culture. There’s a very big link between what you say and your spirit. There’s even a saying that when you speak you wash people with your spirit. So with all of those things hanging in the back of my head I finally decided that no one has captured the market of using art as education, as a therapeutic tool and as a healing tool quite yet and we’re in a society that needs all the help we can get in terms of education for as many people as possible – a society that breeds healing, that understands, that doesn’t judge, that doesn’t prescribe for you how to heal.”
“My vision for Soul Ink is to eventually become a company that partners up with governmental institutions and can be found in high schools running programs that allows children to let out their voice, to actually experiment with creating art.” He explained how he would like to become involved in initiatives that help kids understand things like Maths through the use of story-telling and using contemporary African poets and poetry, not Shakespeare’s sonnets:
“I realised this is what turned a lot of people off from poetry – even in varsity. I would say I’m doing poetry and people will be like “Eh – Shakespeare, no thank you, I’m black” and I’m like no, come through, we’re talking about relevant stuff. There will be Fees Must Fall poets, there’s the system must go down poets, there’s patriarchy must fall, there’s poetry about violence, about lived experiences, about love. I think that culture is finally catching on and it’s in no small part thanks to the Fees Must Fall movement.” As he puts it, people have been encouraged to find different avenues of self-expression.
When I asked Lebo if he thinks poetry is a hip thing now, his reply was:
“Yeah, but I think it goes beyond that. I think it’s the whole woke experience, the intellectual experience like oh, they drink wine and they snap at poetry. But in the same breath it connects with people because we’re telling our stories. I think when you stick close to the truth art just becomes good because you’re sharing so much of your own truth. When you can move people, that’s the biggest thing…the most interesting part of art is where you can actually be like “I had an honest conversation with this person.” You have three to five minutes on stage to put together a message, to put together a whole story of lived experience that is either your own or someone else’s. In that timeframe the audience wants something that will take them on a journey. And I think that’s why I love it. It’s compact but in those three to five minutes you can go through so much, so many emotions. There are people you leave crying and they don’t even know why they’re crying.
When Soul Ink holds slams they offer cash prizes to the winners and for this reason artists turn up because they know that their work is valued and they will be thanked for being good at what they’re doing. “We’re still in the phase of building an industry where people have to understand that I take spoken word as seriously as a job. I take it seriously in terms of when I have bills to pay. There are so many people willing to give their stuff out for free. I think you have to believe in your artwork, you have to believe in your craft, that you’d be willing to pay for this and actively target your market”. Lebo explained that it’s like people not expecting a painter to hand out his paintings for free. For Soul Ink and the other poets of Pretoria, this is part of the dream: not only being recognised for your craft and your talent but actually being able to make a living off of it. That said, next time you come across a poetry event in the city, make the effort to go and, if need be, pay that small fee. You never know what waits to be discovered.
Poetry Platforms to look out for:
Soul Ink: @SoulInkZA
Poetoria Corporate Art Society: @POETORIACORP
Spoken Sessions: @SpokenSessionsZA
Tshwane Speak Out Loud Competition and Festival: @SpeakOutLoudZA