Malawi’s poetry has recently appreciated new dimensions which have left many debating on what poetry entails. In this interview, Our Reporter Brian Itai, engages longtime poet, who is also registrar of the University of Malawi, Benedicto Okomaatani Malunga.
: What is your definition of poetry as an art?
: To me, poetry is an art form which expresses deeply felt emotions and thoughts laconically in a language that is tremendously profound and is, therefore, able to make familiar things unfamiliar and vice-versa, while eschewing the conventions of normal grammar.
Before I advance my definition of what Chinyanja poetry is, I would like to pomp out that anyone wanting to see how the definition I am about to offer at work should take time to read the late E.J. Chadza’s Ntchito ya Pakamwa and Timphunzitsane Chichewa; J.W.D. Gwengwe’s Ndakatulo’ and Timpunza Mvula’s Akoma Akagonera. In the books I have cited, one can read genuine Chinyanja poetry written in conformity with what constitutes patterns of poetry.
Beyond this, Sitima’s book Mtondo goes to great length to unravel what vernacular poetry is. I have had to state the foregoing because anybody who wants to write sound poetry needs to acquaint himself/herself with the works of masters in this literacy realm.
: What do you make of the current form of poetry that has gained popularity in Malawi?
: Although we have witnessed massive production of Chinyanja poetry, not all of it can be arguably called poetry. Actually, if one took it to justify why what they churn out should be called poetry I do not think that they would be in a position to give a convincing response. Actually, when the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation was the only radio station in this country with very exacting standards as to what would be aired as poetry most of the cheap stuff we are being bombarded with nowadays would not have been featured. In short, if the brutal truth is to be said, we now have more quantity than quality in as far as Chinyanja poetry is concerned. This should be a source of worry to our nation because instead of progressing in this regard we are retrogressing.
: In your view, where is the current crop of poets getting it wrong and what do they need to do to improve?
: One has to be careful by avoiding overgeneralisations. Hence, my answer will be provided in several parts. The first one is that some radio producers handling poetry programmes are not stringent with their standards to the extent that almost anything that comes their way is aired as poetry. The challenge with this is that those listening if they are not discerning will tend to think that for as long as it has been aired, it must be poetry. Additionally, if the listeners are those that want to become poets they begin to believe that writing poetry is easy because they have seen that anything goes. The result of this is that more substandard poetry is produced and aired. Worse still, when such writers are confronted by seasoned consumers of poetry who tell them they have gotten it wrong, they defend themselves by saying that if their works were indeed poor, how come they were aired and liked by their uncritical audience.
The poetry that resonates with the definition I have advanced earlier requires a deep mastery of one’s language. Against the background of poor education standards, it is not easy to achieve such projection unless one is committed and dedicated to the perfection of one’s art.
I get the impression that most current writers are just after fame/popularity without critically considering whether what is making them popular is credible and appropriate in the eyes of literary critics who analyse poetic works.
: Should we consider the resultant material we are consuming as by-products of modernisation of the poetry science?
A: Contrary to what you have said, nobody can cheat me that what we are getting as half-baked poems is a by-product of modernisation.
Not at all. In my view, what we are experiencing is fastardisation of authentic Chinyanja verse. The rhyming which some amateur poets are obsessed with that it jars the mind is not an innovation worth celebrating in a Bantu language where words end with one of the vowels a, e, i, o, u. In English, rhyme is decorative device because words do not end with vowels but with consonants. Hence, there is greater latitude in the exercise of coming up with both musical and meaningful rhyming patterns. Real Chinyanja poetry is a free verse which thrives on deliberate and systematic violation of grammatical rules for purposes of firmness and lyricism. n