The South African poet Breyten Breytenbach has been a regular participant in PEN World Voices events, but although I had seen him on panels I had never had the chance to hear him read and discuss his work on his own.
Earlier this month Idlewild Books invited Breytenbach to read and discuss his work, and it was a pleasure to hear him and speak to him in an informal, even intimate setting. Dressed in jeans and a shirt with angular patterns in shades of black and white, he read from his two 2009 titles: Intimate Stranger from Archipelago Books, and Notes from the Middle World from Haymarket Books.
These books of essays — the first revolving around issues of writing and the writer in the world, and the second more plainly political — were originally part of one big project that Breytenbach found he had to split into several volumes to make it more manageable. The first draws on his experience teaching at NYU, and his efforts to make his students bring an awareness into their writing about what it means to live in a country that is having a powerful and often destructive effect on the rest of the world.
Breytenbach made several references to the need to make “creative spaces” in the world. I was ready to dismiss them as pure rhetoric until he began to describe his work with the Goree Institute in Senegal, which is devoted to promoting poetry and other culture as well as to addressing the causes of conflict. One of the institute’s more remarkable projects was a safari of poets that began with a festival at Goree Island and proceeded to Timbuktu in Mali, now a remote city threatened by sand dunes, but in the Middle Ages the site of 32 universities.
Like Henry Louis Gates in his film series Wonders of the African World, Breytenbach is trying to raise awareness of the priceless 12th century manuscripts kept in Timbuktu, and the need to raise money to protect them. (Some of these, like the dictionaries of insects and of winds, sound like something out of Borges.)
Though Breytenbach writes essays in English and grant proposals in French, his poetry happens in Afrikaans, he said. Afrikaans, he explained, is essentially a spoken language, a creole language of the land and the sea. It is tactile, rough, expressive, and rich in similes. There are certain things he could imagine writing in Afrikaans that he could not write in English.
I came away with a signed copy of Windcatcher, a collection of new and selected poems that spans four decades. This is from “self-portrait,” one of my favorites:
It’s someone else who can translate
all the words of La Traviata into German.
Nelson Mandela does not count me
among his close hangers-on.
I seldom use lipstick but do sometimes grimace
like an orangutan with toothache in a mirror dulled by breath.
Years ago I wore a number seven shoe
and also believed in the equality of all people,
and listened to the turbid tales of canaries
in cages in the corridors of dark cities.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.