To pasture, to pasture

There are only two white South African men on the programme of this year’s Poetry Africa Festival. This means I can officially say my nominal cultural group is being ‘represented’ at an event. What’s more, my one representative is Stephen Gray, which is a bit like being represented at a conference of super-heroes by Father Christmas.

Astonishing: there are only two white South African men on the programme of this year’s Poetry Africa Festival. This means I can officially say my nominal cultural group is being ‘represented’ at an event. Usually, white men are ubiquitous, and everyone else gets to be ‘represented’. I’ve got to say, it’s a new experience. I’m still figuring out how I feel about it.

What’s more, my one representative is Stephen Gray, which is a bit like being represented at a conference of super-heroes by Father Christmas. And the other is Iain Gregory Robinson, but since he goes by the name Ewok he also gets a seat at the super-heroes’ ‘Yeah, right’ table.

I could ask where all the white male poets have gone. But to mean it I’d have to like having the competition. Poets hate competition. When another poet releases a good collection into our genre, it’s like a knife in our big poetic hearts. If only they would all go away. I could be the token white male poet of my generation. If I just wait for Stephen Gray to make some terrible blunder in the literary press, I could swoop in like a Christmas elf to the throne.

It can happen more quickly than you think. My former mentor himself, another Stephen, jumped from a tall literary building quite recently. He tackled the Goliath of white South African poetry and flailed himself with his own sling. It can happen to anyone. What my kemosabe forgot is that white South African men don’t get to be provocative anymore. We just sound like the old man at the party telling the farting joke. When you’ve had it as good as we have, provocation is a privilege, not a right.

What we do get to be is a repository of the great tradition of mainstream formalist poetry. No one else seems particularly interested in it, so it’s sitting there like the pretty lady who didn’t hear the farting joke, asking for a dance. And let’s face it, we can all do a great Frost impression. Formalist poetry is always a sucker for a good Frost impression.

Sure, we won’t get to many poetry festivals doing covers of ‘Mending Wall’. You could try your hand at a ‘Howl’ or even a ‘Body Electric’ remake, but that’s as much use as wearing your bell bottoms to your daughter’s twenty-first. Who’re we kidding? Good old formalist poetry is the one thing we do well. And no one gets offended by our getting on with it. It’ll be our little pastoral holiday.

Our time will come. The poetry world is a fickle, ever-whirling place. Even the ubiquitous Gabeba Baderoon isn’t on the Poetry Africa programme. If things can change for her, they can change for anybody.

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