Poets speak on new anthology

John Eppel reading his poem from 'Textures'

John Eppel reading his poem from ‘Textures’

Beaven Tapureta Bookshelf
The Harare launch of ‘Textures’ (AmaBooks Publishers) an anthology of poetry written by the duo John Eppel and Togara Muzanenhamo carried a classic feel of writerly openness about rare and significant background detail which is never revealed in the written work by the poet or author.

The launch was held on May 21 at the Book Café. The evening was enjoyable. The good of a book launch is in its meet-the-author segment which involves conversation or interaction. The conversation provides an opening through which readers get to hear the writing ‘secrets’ of the actual author who normally hides behind the ‘implied’ author of a work. The actual author rarely comes out in the open to explain his or her work and when he/she does, readers are surprised!

Ignitius Mabasa, a writer and publisher, handled the conversation with Eppel and Muzanenhamo after the two poets read selected poems from their anthology. Mabasa’s observations, mingled with critical bits picked from current reviews of ‘Textures’, were penetrative, and the poets’ responses enjoyably revealing!

Bulawayo-based poet John Eppel is best known as a satirist and yet as a white poet he thinks readers and critics misunderstand him or his satire. He has been rebuked by critics for being hypocritical or racist but despite the negativity, satire has been a tool for his moderate ‘revenge’. He describes it as “the revenge of the weak”.

One of the poems Eppel read is titled “Giving up on the Rains in Curious Rhyme” which is part of a sonnet sequence “The Hillside Dams in Bulawayo”. In his introduction to “Textures”, Dr Drew Shaw says, “With this sequence Eppel said he was responding – at least partly – to David Hughes, author of “Whiteness in Zimbabwe” (2010), who accuses white writers, including Eppel, of appropriating African landscapes, fetishising nature and imposing Europeanised aesthetics as a means of escape.”

The conversation with Mabasa excavated more ‘valuables’ from Eppel, hidden details helpful in understanding the misunderstanding that stalks him as a poet.

“You have also been described as ‘sad and lonely’ by one reviewer of “Textures” and he (the reviewer) said one can tell this from your poems. Are you lonely?” asked Mabasa.

This reviewer of ‘Textures’ Mabasa referred to happened to be writer Memory Chirere who posted his fresh review on his blog.

“I am sixty years old. I am bit of a loner but I am pretty happy although I am coming to terms with mortality. I am a subconscious poet,” Eppel says. And he would add detail to his answer later during open discussion in a response to the question from the floor: Is there a history to your popular remark that ‘I mock myself’.

Waking from deep thought, Eppel says, “I am rebuking the culture that produces me as a white settler. I was born in Africa and grew up in Africa but I have all sorts of guilt which I still haven’t managed to deal with. One of them is I can’t speak an African language fluently — something I am ashamed of. We were, as you would know, brought up in my time speaking this lingua franca called chilapalapa. We would communicate in this language without any sense of guilt, everybody, black and white, conversed in this language. It was only much later in my 20’s when I started to realize what this is all about. It’s so hard to unlearn these things. As I began to get more conscious, my poetry became ironical.”

I felt, and maybe there were others who felt the same, that Eppel had more to say, a bundle of literary wisdom learnt from decades dedicated to writing. Having failed to make comment during open discussion, I sit down with Eppel and probe him further. I ask, “Sir, why are you interested in satire? Has it sort of given you relief from the guilt you were talking about?”

“I love satire partly because of my situation as a white person. I have no tradition to be proud of and so I can’t be romantic or epic. The only genre that suits me is satire. Unfortunately, satire is misunderstood and readers often conflate the characters with the narrator in a satire. For instance, if I write a story about a racist white person, people think I am racist. They don’t see that I am actually criticising racism. It surprises me because Zimbabweans are complicated satirists though not in the novel but in drama (street drama) and music,” said Eppel. His voice carries lamentation. He adds, “I’ve been criticised a lot by the Zimbabwean academics for being racist and so on but they fail to see that in my writing I don’t criticize people on the basis of their skin colour. I criticise behaviour.”

Satire, which dominates Eppel’s prose and poetry, is a form of irony normally defined as “a witty language used to convey insults or scorn, especially saying one thing but implying the opposite”. Various books about the process of writing maintain that distortion is one of the satirist’s chief weapons. By skilfully using ‘flat’ characters/personae as opposed to ‘round’ characters, the satirist exposes man’s follies and in so doing makes fun of them.

For Eppel who has been writing since the 60’s, satire has protected him in some way. “It has given me a cocoon where I can be vindictive. But it then backfires when people misconceive it. To me, satirists are moderate people who don’t like extreme behaviour on either side,” he says. Togara represents the younger generation of Zimbabwean poets. The experimental poets, so to speak! He read four of his poems in “Textures”. One outstanding feature of Togara’s poems is the universality. Dr Drew Shaw, in his introduction again, rightly says Togara’s work is “well researched and carefully planned (pre-meditated as it were)” whereas Eppel’s work is “frequently spontaneous”. Mabasa also echoed what Chirere discovered in his review, that Togara does not put much of local context in his poetry. One has to read, read and re-read to get to the substance of the poem.

Togara shed off the criticism that he overlooks local milieu by saying his poetry collection “Gumiguru”, published late last year in the UK, is all about Zimbabwe. “Gumiguru” is based on the Zimbabwean natural seasons or calendar, he said. One of the poems which Togara read at the lunch is titled “Bluegrass Country” which was inspired by the great African-American jockey Isaac Murphy (1861-1896). There is a story behind the poem and yet one may ask: does Togara care about the reader who enjoys poetry without the accompanying difficult of research?

During question time, Chirere confronted Togara with this concern: What is your attitude towards readers who might not be able to unbundle your poetry which is compact? Do you go the Marechera way to say all those who do not understand your poetry are lazy?

Togara said, “It depends on what level you want to enjoy the poem. If you want to enjoy the poem on a superficial level, that’s fine. If you want to do more research to understand it, then that’s fine. It’s, however, you want it.”

The interactive launch was attended by various writers, poets, literary journalists, academics and book lovers. British Council Zimbabwe, one of the sponsors of the book launch, was represented by its Director Samantha Harvey. In her address, Harvey said her organisation sees the promotion of writing or literature as an important part of its work and therefore it is looking at ways in which it can add value to the literary sector and provide meaningful support. Another sponsor of the book launch was the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust.

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