Tuesday, February 08, 2005

South Africa to African America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #7)

08 February 2005

Brother Vonani,

As we enter the final week of the residency, this is the 7th of our correspondences. I feel a bit anticlimactic by concluding when things are still rolling. And, boy, aren’t they rolling! Today, I am scheduled to go with Terri and Ros on an open car ride through a game reserve.

“You can’t say you’ve been to Africa and not seen any animals!” Ros insisted.

So, I’m rather excited about the promise of rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and whatnot.

This business of land ownership you raise is a tricky one. Ros explained that this game reserve is actually privately owned by an individual. On the way back to Caversham from the Bushmen caves, you explained land ownership as it relates to the typical rural village – that the villagers do not own their properties, but rather receive it under some sort of lease arrangement from the chief; that the chief does not own the property either, but rather serves as custodian.

Something seems wrong with one individual owning enough land for a game reserve while there is no individual land ownership at all in a village of thousands. And it is all the more tragic when the people who live in a village next to a state-run attraction (Drakensberg/Giant’s Castle) - and all of the cultural wealth it contains - cannot even afford to visit it.

By the looks of things, the only way for a Black person to get in the park is to work in it!


Is Peter Clarke, in fact, human? I’m beginning to question it. It wasn’t enough that he didn’t need a respirator from all of the breathtaking scenery, but the man is still climbing mountains at age 76!

But more specifically about the Bushmen Caves, my eyes have never seen anything so old. Taking the long walk through the hillside and up the mountain – through the aloe and protea, over the gurgling streams, through the maze of trees and up, up, up the rocks - gave me a much greater appreciation for these red and yellow ochre figures I’d seen pressed between book ends. How amazing it is that these figures endured rain and wind and fire (and, most remarkably, man) for our eyes after thousands of years. It spoke to the importance of art in documenting societies – how it survives much longer after its creators are gone.

(NOTE TO SELF: Be careful what you publish!)

(NOTE TO SELF, PT. II: Who’s documenting the three village boys squatting at the roadside, even now – eternally - the green hills rippling into mountains beyond them – as they wait. Waiting for a car, a truck, a spirit - any one, any thing to stop time and bring the sweetness of the outside world. Who will document their dung sculptures of cows? Their ankles of dust? Their open hands? )


Zulu is such a curious language. Last night, Gabi taught me a word which uses the sound. In English, this one word translates into roughly seven words.
NGQONGQOSHA – to carry a child on your shoulders

Days before I came here, I searched for Zulu language sites on the internet with little success. Now I see why. How does one teach the GQO and the XCQ to someone who has never heard the sound before?

(You’ll have to give me a word a day to learn in your language, so I can take it back to the States.)


Crunch time is here. Now’s the time for us to stop all of this dialoguing and actually produce! I must say that the change has seemed rather abrupt. Suddenly I feel all of this pressure, but it’s a good pressure, though.

There’s the pressure about what to actually produce, whether it will successfully get produced.

At first I was debating whether I would produce a small chapbook, or if I would just do a few prints of individual poems. I decided against the small chapbook idea because I just couldn’t justify having a book for which the print run would be under 40. I could sell out of that in like 2 readings. And then what? The patrons just stick the books on their shelves? I figured, for something in as limited an edition as this, I’d get more mileage out of it if I produced something that could be more visibly displayed and thus appreciated by more eyes.

Once I sold myself on the idea, Malcolm approached me about whether I would do 3 prints or 5. As I was initially intimidated/overwhelmed by the visual element of the process, I told Malcolm I’d aim for 3 – one poem written here and 2 that I’ve written in the past year. He suggested that I try handwriting the poems for a more personal/artistic touch. What he didn’t tell me was just how labor-intensive that could be.

What didn’t go wrong? My handwriting was too wispy, then the page margins were too short, then the image wouldn’t scan, then the printer wouldn’t print, then I printed on the wrong type of acetate, then the ink began to smear. And here I thought I was going to have problems with the images!

Now that I see how much work is required in pre-production, I can’t wait to see the final product. (Your book, by the way, looks fantastic.)


So, now that we’re in the home stretch, what would grade would you give our class as it relates to collaboration? I’d say a C-minus. Unless I’m missing something, the only collaborating really happened with us, the writers. Here we have these 7 letters where we dialogued. You have a book in which Peter provided graphics. I have one print where Terri assisted me on an image another in which Gabi is providing an illustration.

But I’ll have to admit, if it were the other way around, and we were working in the print (literature) medium, I probably wouldn’t be jumping at the chance for the visual artists to help me compose words.

Nonetheless, everything in me wants to try to collaborate with Peter Clarke on one print, but I don’t think there’ll be enough time.

So, this is officially the end of the 7th day of correspondence. But I don’t think it has to end here. And besides, I’m notoriously terrible at endings. We should continue this dialogue, after the residency is over. We’ll have to trade addresses.

Besides, I think I owe you some poems.

M. Ayodele Heath
08 February 2005

1 comment:

BLUE said...

what is the real measure of successful and meaningful collaboration? when someone can point to each collaborator's contribution in the final product? or when you the artist know that your interactions/feedback/dialogues with another artist have led you to your final product? makes me think of CHOPS and all the ways the Berwyn Hung is present in that project without really being *present*. he was a strong collaborator who did not do only the stab binding, or only the printing, or only the imposing images over the poems. this book really was a dialogue between the two of us. it carries my name because i wrote the poems. light!