By Tinashe Mushakavanhu
In high school, I hated poetry, especially the English poetry that more often than not did not relate to my experiences, set in the ghostly marshes of a distant utopia. I crammed it to pass exams, but while an undergraduate English student at Midlands State University, my then lecturer of Zimbabwean literature, Josephine Muganiwa, made me yearn to discover more about local poetry.
I grew up hearing and reading poems from a very young age, first as sounds, repeated, musical, rhythmically, satisfying in themselves, and the power of concrete, sensuously compelling images. The Bhundu Boys, Oliver Mtukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo, James Chimombe and Simon Chimbetu. But soon, poetry became more than music and images; it was also revelation, information, a rite of passage. I thought it could offer clues, intimations, keys to questions that haunted our existence, questions I could not even frame yet.
There’s been some incredible poetry written in this country that has never really been promoted. Irene Staunton, once observed that ‘Zimbabwe is a country of poets. Zimbabweans write poetry, speak it and sing it in Shona, Ndebele, Tonga, Shangaan and other minority languages; we have poetry in English, praise, performance, oratorical, and declamatory poetry. Perhaps as many as one in six people writes poetry or takes pleasure from trying to do so.” And yet what is interesting is that this mine of talents has largely not been explored. Except for a few obvious names, production output of poetry books by our local publishers has been very low. In fact, poetry remains the poorer cousin of the novel and the short story in Zimbabwe. This is not just English poetry, but poetry in the various indigenous languages as well.
Most of our anthologised poetry (Zimbabwean Poetry in English, And Now the Poets Speak, Patterns of Poetry in Zimbabwe and State of the Nation) has often been incredibly sad or angry, bitter or ironic. Memory Chirere has characterized most Zimbabwean poetry to be ‘melancholic.’ But a recurrent theme in much of the writing is the indestructibility of poetry – poems as songs of resistance radiating an indestructible Zimbabwean spirit.
In recent years, it was difficult to write and be too critical while in Zimbabwe. To discuss Zimbabwean poetry that was being written and performed, was to do so in the shadow of the political turmoil as well as in the glow of the energy unleashed by the struggle against it. This tension was deep rooted. It permeated all aspects of our lives. And yet, this has had a positive eff ect on the quality of writings produced as the environment encouraged innovation in the poets in their use of language, images, symbolism, irony, allegory whilst others abandoned political issues to focus on other ‘human’ issues.
Perhaps, that is why the new book Sunflowers in Your Eyes is a breath of fresh air. A remarkable collection of some of the finest young women poets in Zimbabwe today. Zimbabwean poetry has always been very masculine and male dominated.
There is a culture in Zimbabwe to anthologize its writers and poets, and while understandably it is a cost effective broadcasting method of ‘a collective voice’, it is stifling individual talents, as some of our writers never get to blossom individually. Who is collecting and publishing the poetry of the now deceased Phillip Zhuwao, Stephen Alumenda, Reuben Pakaenda or Ruzvidzo Mupfudza; Zimbabwe’s young and lost voices? We remember them and we know them as fragments, never in the wholeness of their genius. Rather than being treated and appreciated as individuals, there is often no space to articulate their own creative visions.
Zimbabwean publishers, please give poets and poetry a chance!