Botsotso. An anthology of contemporary South African poetry
edited by Allan Kolski Horwitz and Ken Edwards
(£12.50, Reality Street)

I suppose this book will get lost in the UK in the scramble for attention of British poets, and in the narrow focus of mainstream publishers, conditioning what readers read, but it shouldn't do.

I have enjoyed the variety of voices and the more I have enjoyed them the harder it has been to find a way into 'reviewing' the book. Partly this is of course because of circumstance, their local world is not mine, and what follows from this: voice (many voices), styles, presence, not least politics, the mix of upheaval and complaint, bad vibes, new life, with most of all a joyousness in the making of the poems. My own writing has not been so joyous.

So I am not going to try to quote from any of the poems, some in an original language with translation, and some perhaps sitting awkwardly in a book - voice, voice - and with such diversity. No extract would convey the rolling on or unravelling or accumulated rhythm or telling-it that these poems have essentially.

Web sites are easy to find, for BOTSOTSO (the organisation, the magazine, their books) and for Reality Street to get perhaps (the way it happened for me) more quickly to this book.

From which I am cribbing names and prose - these days easier to cut and paste than copy from the book itself:

BOTSOTSO was founded in South Africa in 1994, following the end of apartheid, by the Botsotso Jesters, a poetry performance group. Its first printed manifestation was as an insert in the New Nation, a now defunct weekly newspaper. Following the newspaper's demise, Botsotso became a magazine in its own right and a publishing house.

This anthology of 12 poets gives BOTSOTSO a platform outside South Africa for the first time. The contributors are: Donald Parenzee, Makhosazana Xaba, Bongekile Mbanjwa, Vonani Bila, Kobus Moolman, Anet Kemp, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Ike Mboneni Muila, Lisemelo Tlale, Clinton du Plessis, Sumeera Dawood, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya.

And from a page into Allan Kolski Horwitz's introduction:

'Artists in extreme societies often find such contrasts offer wide and substantial subject matter, while, at the same time, also causing great personal trauma and insecurity. But there is another angle to consider. If, as Oscar Wilde famously said, 'All art is quite useless', what does it matter, as an artist, if one is living in an economically and socially divided, and often violent, country which in broad terms reflects all the major human imbalances plaguing our planet? After all, the primary impulse behind art making is not didactic, utilitarian or wealth-creating. We make and appreciate art because a 'germ', some seemingly irrational impulse to express and give voice and form to our agonies as well as our joys, and to provide definitive philosophical and moral commentaries, forces its way out of our beings. And if in the process of making art one tries to right the wrongs of the world (a romantic and youthful pastime?) that is hardly the stuff that either keeps middle class societies on what they believe is the upward curve of social and personal liberation, or amuses patriarchal tribal ones that do not wish to be challenged.

In this vein, the key literary polemic from the early 1970s onwards was whether 'protest' or 'struggle' poetry qualified as 'real poetry'. The academic establishment and most reviewers generally slated such work as sloganeering and propagandistic simply because its main focus was to expose the evils of the social system and to mobilize the victims to resist. Such subject matter was said to lack elegance or subtlety and to be crudely expressed. Purity of language and non-political themes were held to be the ideals that were to be structured in the forms that emanated from Britain, and to some extent the United States. Poetry written in South African English was frowned upon - particularly when languages were mixed and local jargon used. Now at that time such narrowness was to be expected because in the alienated, elitist society that was Apartheid South Africa, artistic norms were set by the ruling (white) nationalist/colonial class. Only as an afterthought, were a tiny number of black writers or radical writers (radical in subject matter, tone and style) admitted into the canon - their acceptance being hard-won, and in most cases only achieved (certainly with respect to Black writers) by dint of their having absorbed the colonial/ metropolitan models and demonstrated proficiency in reproducing them.'

One need hardly say that for the book to be part of BOTSOTO's vision, it does not deal in boundaries, is not about us and them, doesn't deal in cultural divides except in the healing of them. How remarkable this is really, if other parts of the world, if the world's poets, etc etcÉ. But then it hasn't been the poets (I like to think, it's true, isn't it?) who have stirred up hatred, consolidated cultural and national divisions; the manifestos of poets have been for something more fundamental, lovelier, visionary, more fun, more open to each other, us.

      © David Hart 2009