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“revolutionary poets have become entertainers”
Lesego Rampolokeng is the honored guest in this, the third installment of my Political Poetry series here at CounterPunch.
Rampolokeng was born on July 7, 1965 in Orlando West, Soweto. As he pointed out in our interview, seven days later South African writer Ndazana “Nat” Nakasa jumped to his death from a seventh story window in New York City.
“two sevens clashed/ got heaven’s womb slashed/ torn/ & I was born/ another seven flashed nat nakasa gone/ flown down a new york mental block/ dove to the hawk/ much love to the cock/ crown on jongwe dawn.”
Much of Rampolokeng’s poetry and writing is filled with references to the heroes and victims of black South Africa’s struggles for freedom. For me, researching the names and places was an invaluable history lesson, an awakening to apartheid’s legacy and what’s happening not only in South Africa now, but in the entire post-revolutionary world. Rampolokeng’s poetry and writing were a revelation.
As Mphutlane Wa Bofelo said in a review of “bantu ghost,” Rampolokeng has a “commitment to taking poetry out of the elitist enclave of ‘high-art’ to make it speak to the concrete issues affecting individuals, communities and the world we live in.” (I recommend you check out Bofelo’s review as an insightful analysis of what Rampolokeng is doing.)
As Bofelo explains, Rampolokeng is “recreating language, overturning idioms\concepts\terms, giving birth to new words and developing new proverbs to deal with “new” realities.” He’s always contrasting “the bling-bling, opulence and crass consumerism of urban suburbia and the squalor, wretchedness and hopelessness of township life.”
Rampolokeng is indeed staging a figurative “no-wash” protest reminiscent of the five-year, “Dirty Protest” staged by Bobby Sands and his comrades in the Maze Prison and the Armagh Women’s Prison in Northern Ireland. Here’s how prisoner Pat McGeown described conditions inside the prison:
“There were times when you would vomit. There were times when you were so run down that you would lie for days and not do anything with the maggots crawling all over you.”
Desperate people do desperate things to communicate their despair. Poets make their point too. Like a prison riot, Rampolokeng’s word usage and word plays are not cute or tricky, they are rebellious, subversive. As Bofelo says, he “shuns romantic portrayal of his motherland’s past and present (and future). He uses graphically surreal images – and definitely not politically correct lingo – to interrogate post-freedom dreams and nightmares, slogans, rhetorics and realities.”
The power of Rampolokeng’s poetry is that it is filled with the sights, smells, sounds and “jargon” of the Soweto ghetto. Here are the first ten few lines from The Bavino Manifesto (Ars Poetica versus the Arse-Poet-Dicker), in which Rampolokeng describes his rendering return:
Back to the Genesis: A dread return. Soweto: the yuck factor on the South African mindscape,
cosmetic-rendered as the tour guide may make it…
‘World environment day…Trees for Soweto’ runs the headline.
To counter carbon monoxide emissions. Bandage for perforated lungs.
Whitewash, but the walls are rotten.
Vain proposition, pollution pumps in its veins. System born damaged.
poison gas forever in the breeze blowing thru the ghetto,
it pumps out of the goldmine…settles in the water reservoir…
dysentery pulses. burst drain-pipes. The stench hits where Soweto sits.
Wriggle the nose & it plunges inward.
As Rampolokeng explains, “Until I went to that bush college called the University of the North to study law (which I gave up when the law started studying me more than I studied it) the only white people I had any dealings with were my Catholic priest, the doctor at the local clinic, and…the policeman. Meaning, one for my spiritual health, the other for my body, and the last to take care of my criminal inclinations, natural since I was bred in a set-up designed to foster such.”
Black South Africans did not achieve “freedom” until 1994. Rampolokeng’s poetry speaks of this struggle, as it attacks racism and colonialism. It is the opposite of American poetry. Mainstream American poets know that success requires supplication, being artfully inoffensive to power, especially to the academics and magazine editors who convert radical impulses into Tupperware meditations on the yin and yang of Coke and Pepsi. Such poems, Jayne Cortez said, “are like flags flying/ on liquor store roof/ poems are like baboons/ waiting to be fed by tourists.” The next six lines in The Bavino Manifesto are an example of Lesego’s punch in the gut poetry:
Compare the blocked toilet of South African politics.
And prepare to appreciate my sewer-bound poetics.
they say the Orlando Power Station doubles as a crematorium.
Differently put, it burns bodies under the energy guise.
the community gets high on the stench…gets air-lifted out to less crowded space.
by the time it reaches the northern suburbs the burning flesh-fumes are an aphrodisiac…
Here’s how Rampolokeng describes his early, formative life in Soweto.
LR: “The laws of the land said that I could only be born, schooled, grow up, get medical care, worship, have human relations, etc., in a specific area set aside for people blessed/cursed with ‘x’ amount of melanin. Well, Soweto was and is a slave-labour camp set to the southwest of Johannesburg city. This side of the mine-dumps and furthest away from the centre of finance (the city-heart)…how things lie around these parts is; from the onset, the centre of the city was white and things got deeper the further outward you travelled. White – brown—black and in-between whatever colours played themselves, from honorary-white (talk Asia) to navy-blue.
“Anyway, I was baptized at Regina Mundi, Catholic, by a Father Coleman. Now, Regina Mundi was later to provide shelter, solace, whatever protection it could to the activists that tossed their beings outward from before 1976 onward. That is where I encountered “Black Consciousness.” The art that shattered my little English gentleman stuck in the Soweto-ghetto pretensions.”
Rampolokeng’s pretentions were shattered, indeed. In one of his poems, he famously claimed to “shoot the English with bullets that are British.” In another piece of work, Riding the Victim’s Train (title of the CD / album is “The H.a.l.f Ranthology”), he calls himself “a leper cast out in the desert, and cold, without a snout or paw in the pot of gold.”
I asked him about his education.
LR: “I got the worst formal education this side of the 20th century. The architects of apartheid, and by default Bantu education, sought to make me and mine “drawers of water and hewers of wood.” They deemed mathematics, for instance, beyond my grasp. Said it would crack my skull. Calling up butt-bare-crap-faced eugenics, they said my brains were more watery than those of white people. And thus I was unfit for the empirical shit. They said it was “useless” to have me chained to a school-desk when I could more usefully be out in the fields of the white man digging holes and sowing his treasures, or pulling them up out of the earth in South Africa’s blasted mines. At any rate, Bantu education was a crime against humanity, I will say until the end of my days. “Though my soul be black as sin,” for me “bah bah black sheep,” …trust me, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone you could, in all sanity, align to a sheep in Soweto.
“I was sexually active by the age of 4, not because as the craniometer-wielding anthropologists would claim (black people are over-sexed sub-humans, all flesh and no brain, that is, bound to the skin) but that with not a single brain-cell rattling thing to do in that pavlovian compound, children’s bodies turned into laboratories among themselves, which indeed they were to white supremacists wielding some power-drunken god’s will. And blessing.”
Rampolokeng’s poetry, prose writings, and “Jargon” music carve out a distinct black South African identity from the ruins of apartheid. And yet, his influences include Keats, Shakespeare, and Burroughs. Consider these lines from his prose-piece “THE WORD is in ME” in the Phefeni Chronicles (from his lecture “writing the ungovernable”):
vonnegut’s dresden burns in my brains.
in vain i hold my steel encased copy of das kapital over my head. out of fashion. the stains i leave on the carpet are blood. red carpet treatment.
“everytime i ‘ear the soun’…”
i turn around try to run but the homicide’s already inside. trying to get out. of my mind. ‘pummeling into the ground, kicking behind the head…my being a poet won’t stand between me & a gunshot.’”
Life is Soweto left a lasting impression, and Rampolokeng had the privilege of being there during the “uprising” of 1976. As he recalls:
LR: “June 16, 1976…Hector Pieterson the first child victim of the apartheid beast, was shot 200m meters away from the house where I was born (7758 Ngakane Street, the street itself named after the man seen as the father of African cinema in some quarters, Lionel Ngakane opposite the house of James Mthoba, who introduced ‘experimental theatre’ to these parts and died some years ago under mysterious, violent circumstances.
“My mind feeds on human bits and pieces strewn gratuitously about. I have carried the smell of blood in my nostrils for as long as I can remember. I remember, as a child, saying to my mother than I wanted to be a gynecologist, and she was proud…then endless knife-fights and torn flesh, skin pulled roughly apart under okapi and butcher-knife tearing, tomahawk-slashings and the air heavy, wet and warm in some perverse kind of exsanguination cured me of that. Still…the stench of the life-fluids stays with me.”
Consider these lines of prose from “BURREALITY. PHEFENI Dawns”:
soweto sons know no butt-slap from parental palms lubricated on the streets’ vaseline. It’s an idiotic mentality equates crime with slimed. Get the silver rattle & the paper-flash & bask in the shine. The WHY falls in line further than second.
whiteness owes…from da gama salted & peppered snot spiced up nose & beyond van riebeeck’s punctured ship rolled up for a push southside of things melanin-lack comes with darkest debts. descendant affluence is made to pay. designed for the credit-mine. & when knives flashed there was clarity about deep-blood diving.
oppression pushed the cash-balance deeper than flesh-codes.
public service announcement : townships listen up….tonight suburbian has surplus funds for the black dregs…we go collect.
LR: I grew up watching my mother get her face split under the fists and boots of a multitude of men, who, when she (I imagine) could take no more, were pushed on to expend whatever excess anger, energy, fury-fueled by their own emasculation they had left on me. I carry the scars on my back, face, body as a reminder. anyway…I am here. what more do you want to know?
How, after June 16, 1976, I stood at the door of a gutted bottle store, dressed in slippers torn so that my toes showed and I had my nose full of tear-gas with a case of beer on my head even though I had never tasted alcohol in my life…and as I walked out, across the way was police truck…and there were teams of uniformed officers-of-the-gore standing there throwing dead bodies into the back of that blasted police vehicle? I was 11 years old.
No, scars are not medals. Should never be. Never should anyone’s art be ‘relevant’ or of consequence because they went through this or that bullshit. A child getting its skull cracked by mortar-fire in Afghanistan, another scraping and scratching the lice off trying to grab a crumb of bread in Rwanda and another dying because some bureaucRAT, you know, some rabid rodent in a high office some place other wiped its arse on 25 million rand should all be equally valid. So too, some kid munching on an apple in some crap American suburb praying to the tooth-fairy. So too, a couple making romantic love as some psychopathic misogynist is splitting some woman’s genitalia apart in some hidden corner of the world. All those are part of our human experience. And here is a thing. That talk of obscenity? Imagine you drop bombs someplace in the gulf, out in the desert, bodies in bits and chunks all over the place, mutilation, here is one with his arm cut off from the rest of him, there is a another with her legs meters away from her…and while they crawl to gather their limbs you drop food-parcels on them, so they may eat while they are about it, THAT to me is pornography… Anyway…yeah, where do I come from?”
Lesego Rampolokeng writes about the well he springs from and the world he inhabits. I recently asked him some questions about his poetry.
DV: What led you to poetry? To writing? Was it the possibility for smashing conventions we see in the works of, say, Bill Burroughs?
LR: I grew up in a community where there was not much reading happening. On one hand people believed that if you read much you were bound to go insane. they would point at a couple of psychiatric-ward characters in the street as evidence. At home I had this aunt who would freak out if she found a book (I guess she had no defense against schoolbooks) and throw it out into the yard where it would get rained on. She said books bred rats. And roaches.
Imaginations were locked-in behind those claustrophobic, unfit for human habitation structures that were snout to butt, were called houses. Throughout that age it would never even occur to one to look at the sky, unless if it was to check the threat of rain, perhaps. I guess that is why even today I can only think of the vegetation in terms of how much it (and all humanity) stands to be destroyed by acid rain. And all the filth dumped by capital into the world’s waters. I digress…so, rewind…& back & black track it. for proper perspective’s sake:
I jumped onto literature like a staffrider on and off those trains carting people like beasts of burden to go work in their own degradation in that city powered by racism called Johannesburg.
Being one of the child-soldiers armed with neither programme of action nor ideological vehicle to carry their anger, frustrations, but with the need to go against the perverse monstrosity that was dehumanizing them, armed with stones and trash-bin lids against armoured vehicles and live bullets I had to burst out somehow. The people I grew up, laughed and fought with ended up violently dead, in prison or hooked on all sort of killer-chemicals. Drunkards. Junkies. well, a few found religion and…my way out was books. I write.
DV: You use the pen name Bavino Bachana for your prose writing. “Bavino” and “bachana” are terms of endearment among males of your Soweto-generation. One is a diminutive of “’boys,” the other of “nephews.” Where do you live now, what other poets and writers influence you?
LR: Where do I live now? I am a professional parasite and an unapologetic hobo. Well, we can be ‘decent’ about it and say I am a nomad. No matter, I carry Orlando West and all the other places I’ve lived in wherever I go. I spent years in various parts of Europe. I have travelled all about…and still, I remain a Sowetan.
no writer influences me. I draw inspiration from across the entire spectrum of the world’s literature, fine arts, music… painters Fikile Magadlela, Dumile Feni, Lefifi Tladi, Thami Mnyele have always been crucial to my writing. Visual artists with social conscience. And writers who cut out and stomp on whatever literary conventions enslave, from Lautreamont, Artaud, Pasolini and onward.
The South African blue notes musicians (Johnny Dyani, Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana, etc) and where they took the music of this land, revolutioning the euro-jazz scene. Franz Fanon is my father. The ‘Wole Soyinka’ of Ogun Abibiman. I came to black consciousness via Mafika Gwala. Burroughs is central as daddy formal innovator, plus. I carry Aime Cesaire in my head. That is the company I keep. Reclusive as I might be. walking these deserts of the soul out here.
My ghetto-youth bibles? Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s ‘Call Me Not a Man’ and Mbulelo Mzamane’s ‘Mzala’. Matshoba first dealt with ghetto reality at whitelight, searing, excoriating, burn-the-place-down line-them-up-I’ll-shoot-them level, Mzamane made me realise that life grows, even at the most despicable, revolting, down in the sewer sucking on faecal matter level. Life is and will be affirmed. Even at the most below the back of beyond level. This is no romaticisation of deprivation but a look full on at how things were, are and will be. Peter Tosh and Fela Kuti said they would be here beyond the ticking of clocks. millennia-long & so far…well, they are.
& coming up and out of that, my gutter anthem was the ultimate poem of my black consciously-reaching-for-selfhood days….Afrika My Beginning by Ingoapele Madingoane. He died with an axe in his skull, sitting on a toilet. It tell stories, that, about our ends.
Anyway, I initially tried to engage with one book of a writer i much respect, the Congolese Sony Labou-Tansi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_Lab’ou_Tansi and of course the journal I wrote it for rejected it.”
DV: Here are a few samples from Rampolokeng’s “dub writing : sony labou tansi’s ‘a life and a half”:
The necropolis and the psychiatric institution meet congestion and diarrhoea in this text. Runaway brain mangles much. What beautiful ruins. It is a gross-out, scat-splat, liquid fiery shot to the senses whose cordite smells like Mondo films in places, yes. And that is a great scent, in this context, because this is a gore-fest without gratuity. Rare. And raw. An ideology, tentacles flying, multi-pronged/fanged/fangled and liquid, seeps out with the human-gravy as this work hurtles, manic, through the flesh-draped, doom-laden night of it all, towards an aborted dawn, without let-up, breathless.
Omnivorous, Labou-Tansi eats up all schools, fishy or otherwise. Here is revolution flying without flags. And sans maps. Carried on the waves of a bloody exhilaration into both delirium and tedium. Writing schizophrenia even as mass slaughter makes Bataille’s corpses stack up. Albee’s corpse here is not content with just getting bloated in the living room but multiplies and with Van Wyk’s, floats up, on liquid amphetamines, into the courtroom of the world. Repulsive images jostle for space with an electric urgency that makes for a deranged read. Harnessed lightning. Cumulus, its impact. Writing with both sledgehammer and scalpel. Dissect-and-smash, hoof-on-fire all the while. No murder like language. This side-show freak should be canonical. Poetry of the Damned. Amen-tract.
Sony Labou-Tansi has said, elsewhere: ‘the revolution has been postponed’…death. too. here. stabbed, chopped up, machine-gunned…no matter, expiration promises…never arrives.
DV: Much of your writing, including your “writing the ungovernable” lecture, is a roll-call of revolutionary poets, writers, artists and musicians, set to the rhythms and sounds and metaphors of life under the boot. Tell me a little about the process.
LR: Each piece I write births itself in its own way and waddles off in whatever direction it chooses and after a fashion of its own choosing. the best I can hope for is for it to bear the stamp of my ‘voice’. i do not have a ‘piece’ that I believe is representative of my work, as such. Let me start out by saying that “writing the ungovernable” is not a poem, at all. Robert Berold and Vonani Bila, working on new coin poetry journal, decided that it is and want to publish the whole thing as such. I have no problem with that. Let me run the genesis of it down, though. Last year I was writer-in-residence at Rhodes University. Of course that institution is named after mister Cecil John ‘I prefer land to niggers’ Rhodes. The man without whom the Kimberley Hole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Hole wouldn’t have swallowed so many souls. The Cullinan Diamond wouldn’t be nestling in the crown of that queen in Sinland. Johannesburg wouldn’t have been built on human bones. anyway, they have an MA in creative writing programme there, hence my invitation. To engage with ‘workers of/with the word’ in an academic setting. As part of that I was to deliver a public lecture. I chose to speak about the factors, social, economic, political, cultural etc that had brought me there. Central to that, of course, was the artistic food (poisoned and otherwise) I fed off as I set out, and that came out as that bit of writing. I was not trying to write ‘poetry’ but just track my own steps from the circumstances that led to my BEING…to that moment.
“These two fragments from my ‘phefeni note-book’ are again, bits of my life, mutilated, might show something.”
Fragment 1 (re-formatted):
my muse Violence incarnate (less tongues lick than castrate)
I Fell out of Ghetto Con-struction
(Effervescent blood-on-brain reminiscent/remembrance
I crawled out of destruction machinery
I come from Gut-Excavators
n back n front hole–loaders ball-cutters
What elevation no cranes but De-brainers
(Scissors to bloomers
N Jesus they Julius Caesar the screamers
creamers off frock-lifts on fuck-shifts with force
then the slaughter-trucks,
Degraders & Death-wagon stacks
Where) Baby-boom mean explosion in infanticide
(they bleed tracks in the wake of the ride
High-on-a-lie rollers shot-bawlers are short-life callers
giant to midget compactors
Horse-dick headed bosses n faeces-trailers
So, Eternal mule -dozers n permanent sleepers…
I bring the sleep inducers from here to hell
aborted revolution’s flotsam dead ideals jetsam …
Hallelujah chorus of the gone. & the unborn
liberation come with no virgin-birth phantom death a living sham
stench-filled corpulence debt to the worm payment in rot-sum-
corpses of petty freedoms putrescence’s reform
the dream ripper comes debt collect off a capital cursed continent
souls in corporate vaults international perjury fund
spirits grown rank in the world bank
(i’m coming down the power-hell-way cutting thru earth-crust
digging for heaven
past lumps of carrion otherside my nation’s human-dumps
where) the light went out of life when the lamp came on
Kimberley Joburg Cullinan
DV: Thank you, Lesego Rampolokeng. It’s poetry – great poetry – to me.
Lesego Rampolokeng is the author of: “Horns for Hondo”, “Talking Rain”, “The Bavino Sermons”, “Blue v’s”, “End-Beginnings”, Blackheart”, “Whiteheart”, “The Second Chapter” and “Head on Fire”.
For information about Doug Valentine and the Political Poetry series, visit his website www.douglasvalentine.com or email him at email@example.com
One of Lesego Rampolokeng’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014). Please email John Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about pre-ordering the anthology.