The Literary Corner: Introduction to African English Poetry with Brooks Robinson (side a)

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Brooks B. Robinson: The Literary Corner: Black Writers of the World.

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A series of analyses and interpretations of Black World literature.

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Today you'll meet South African exiled poet, Dennis Brutus.

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Brutus is an expert in African poetry and on apartheid.

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He's author of 4 major works including Sirens, Knuckles, Boots; Letters to Martha; A Simple Lust; and Stubborn Hope.

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He's presently Professor in the English Department at Northwestern University.

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Now, an interview with Dennis Brutus.

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It begins with an explanation on how and when he started writing poetry

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and became a Black Writer of the World.

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Dennis Brutus: I don't really remember what started me off

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except that my answer is the fact that my mother was a school teacher

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who liked poetry and recited it and encouraged me to do so

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may have been the beginnings for me.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Now, do you remember your first work?

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Um, many people write that first work and that's something that they really um, become proud of,

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or some push it into the background and say that it's no good at all.

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Dennis Brutus: I think I remember what was my first work.

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I certainly didn't preserve it.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Mm-hmm
Dennis Brutus: I think they were 4 lines written in the autumn fall, uh, at moonrise one evening.

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And I tried simply to capture the image of the rising moon without any comment at all.

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And um, I think that--

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Brooks B. Robinson: Okay, but since that time you've written many poems, and

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many of them interwoven with the struggle in South Africa.

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Dennis Brutus: That's true.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Would you go into your experiences there?

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Dennis Brutus: Well, I was banned from writing poetry

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and I was banned from publishing poetry,

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but my banning order came as a consequence of my activity in other fields.

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I was opposing racism in education, racism in housing,

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the ghettos of South Africa, and particularly racism in sport.

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The fact that the South African Olympic team was an all-white team

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and Black athletes were excluded was a thing that made me very angry and I worked on it.

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I formed an organization with about 60,000 members. I was the secretary of it.

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We challenged the apartheid structure, we tried to force Black athletes into the Olympics,

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and when the racists refused, we got them expelled from the Olympics.

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As a result of that activity I became very unpopular with the apartheid government.

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I was banned in various ways and forbidden to write,

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and eventually arrested and sent to prison, so that my involvement was only partly as a writer.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Now, some of your works deal with those particular issues and matters.

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Would you like to read maybe one of them now and we'll go back to them a little later?

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Dennis Brutus: I'll have to read some of the contemporary stuff, it's the only things I have with me today.

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But before I do that I would say that my work does fall into phases.

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My first collection, "Sirens, Knuckles, Boots", was published in Nigeria while I was in prison,

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and it deals essentially with the ghetto experience.

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After I came out of prison, Robben Island, I had a collection published in Britain, called "Letters to Martha".

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Dennis Brutus: addressed to my sister-in-law, my brother's wife, Martha.

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And they deal mainly with my prison experiences.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Why did you write directly to her?

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Dennis Brutus: Um... I didn't in fact write directly to her, but they were-- the letters were intended for her.

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And I call them letters because it had become a crime for me to write poems.

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It was criminal for me to write poetry.

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But by calling it letters, I could get away with it.
Brooks B. Robinson: Mhm.

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Dennis Brutus: And subsequently, these were collected together with the poems I wrote after I came out of South Africa.

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--I was exiled which means I can come out but I can't go back except to go to prison.

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And many of those such as poems from Algiers and Strains were collected together in a book called The Simple Last.

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Since then I haven't written a great deal, although I have a new book coming out called Stubborn Hope.

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But the poems I'm going to read are poems written subsequent to those and they deal very much with the contemporary South African experience.

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The first one I might read is a very short one, written after the massacre of the students in Soweto in June 1976.

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When the South African Police machine-gunned the students in the streets of the ghettos, cape town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, East London, and especially Johannesburg. Particularly Soweto.

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This is a short piece for the children who died in Soweto.

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{Speaker name= "Dennis Brutus" } [[music]] For the corpses of Soweto and swear an oath for Soweto Their deaths will not be forgotten Their lives will purchase our freedom

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{Speaker name= "Brooks B. Robinson"} Beautiful very beautiful.

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{Speaker name= "Dennis Brutus"} Thank you. Should I go on?

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{Speaker name= "Brooks B. Robinson"} Sure, go right ahead. {Speaker name= "Dennis Brutus"} Around about the same time I wrote one as a tribute for Steve Biko. In fact I have written a number dealing with him and around his life. And this is a short one which talks about Soweto after the 1976.

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In the dark lanes of Soweto Amid the slush the mud the squalor

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And among the rusting tin sheets of the shacks The lust for freedom stubbornly survives Like a smoldering defiant flame And the spirit of Steve Biko moves easily

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{Speaker name= "Dennis Brutus"} Another beautiful one.

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{Speaker name= "Brooks B. Robinson"} Thank you.

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{Speaker name= "Dennis Brutus"} Now, your form, your style, who influenced you, were there any influencers at all?

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{Speaker name= "Brooks B. Robinson"} Yea, that's a long story, I think. I come out of the fairly traditional English mainstream in terms of my experience to poetry as a student and as a university student, missionary college Fort Hare where we--

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Dennis Brutus: John Dunn down to Tennison on Browning.

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So much of my work, I think, has a fairly conventional pattern.

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But I was also exposed to the African tradition

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A tradition of praise poetry, satirical poetry, poetry which deals with history, and indeed, occasional poetry

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Poetry for a wedding, for a birth, for a death, for a birthday.

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So I think my work is a fusion of these two streams.

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The style I think has undergone a major change.

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When I began, I wrote in a formal kind of pattern, of rhyme and metrical structure.

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Um, partly because of the period I spent in prison, when I was in isolation and I had the time to reexamine my own work.

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I decided that I needed to write a much more simple, more direct, a more immediate kind of communication.

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So I think that there's less ornament and less self-conscious craft.

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I like to think that the poems work better as a result of trying to be more direct.

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Brooks B. Robinson: In the future, where do you see your work going? Are you contemplating changing themes or will you continue to write basically about the same concept, issues, themes that you've been writing?

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Dennis Brutus: I think I live in the present.

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I don't think I can predict. I don't think I particularly want to try to predict.

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Um... In the past, there were many times when I--

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Dennis Brutus: to have no longer any creative impulse and they usually I discover that I was wrong, that subsequently I wrote again.

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What I think becomes clearer to me all the time is that if I am going to write poetry at all it will be a functional poetry,

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it will be a poetry which responds to particular stimulus, is an attempt to communicate a particular idea or perception.

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I don't see myself becoming a professional poet who spends his time working on the craft and turning inward.

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I think my poetries is part of my general existence the attempt to communicate with others and poetry is just one way of doing it. [[music]]

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[[music continues]]ƒ

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Bright water glistening over smooth, hard pebbles.

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Sparkles coruscating in the festive [[presidio?]]. Such bright grace, such luminous charm and the clear, brave eyes shining with tight curved sorrow.

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Now they say the brightness is quenched and the elegance crumpled. Strange and stranger yet they say the bright courage failed

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Biko you know resisted the terrors. Confronted by them he braced hims--

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Dennis Brutus: As their clubs pulped his brain, the will to die may have been his last fragmentary concept.

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Only a diffused defiance remaining as they killed him.

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Brooks B. Robinson: A sequence for the late Beatrice Alleandae by South African exiled poet, Dennis Brutus, our guest today on the Literary Corner: Black Writers of the World.

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Technical assistance by Bob Cham I'm Brooks Robinson. The Literary Corner was made possible by funds from WHA Radio Madison, Wisconsin, a service of the University of Wisconsin extension.

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