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It’s a feast of verse and rhyme for Kenyan and German poets

Friday November 22 2013

German poet Josefine Berkholz. Local poetry got a boost last week with the inception of the Spoken Worlds — a week of workshops, talks, recordings and live performances in Nairobi, which brought 16 artistes from Kenya and Germany to explore collaborations. PHOTO/COURTESY

German poet Josefine Berkholz. Local poetry got a boost last week with the inception of the Spoken Worlds — a week of workshops, talks, recordings and live performances in Nairobi, which brought 16 artistes from Kenya and Germany to explore collaborations. PHOTO/COURTESY 

By KINGWA KAMENCU
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The exposure is critical. And it’s not exposure where you get absorbed into other people’s styles, but you show yours, says Muraya Ogutu.

Local poetry got a boost last week with the inception of the Spoken Worlds — a week of workshops, talks, recordings and live performances in Nairobi, which brought 16 artistes from Kenya and Germany to explore collaborations.

The first chapter, which hosted German poets in Nairobi, will be followed by a second one where Kenyan poets will be in Berlin in April 2014.

This literary exchange comes on the heels of the Spoken Word poetry competition, Kenya chapter, also organised by a German group, the Goethe Institute, which held contest across Africa.

The 16 artistes who took part in the Spoken Worlds — eight from Nairobi and eight from Berlin — were required to select material from their counterparts in the other country and using these, to create new works in a translation cutting across genre, language and technique.

NAIROBI AND BERLIN'S FINEST

Nairobi was represented by some of its renowned poets, spoken word and hip-hop artistes — Checkmate, L-Ness, Ogutu Muraya, Wanjiku Mwaurah, Namatsi, Sitawa Namwalie, Octopizzo and Poetic Bee while Berlin featured Josefine Berkholz, Diamondog, Erko, Christian Filips, MC Josh, LMNZ, Joe Madog and Sabine Scho.

Organised by Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, Maono Cultural Group and Kwani Trust in cooperation with Goethe-Institut Kenya, the event is funded by the Turn fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and supported by Goethe Institut, Auswartiges Amt, and Gangway e.V.

Set in the mould of an experiment with no particular expectations or restrictions for what emerges, each artiste was free to decide who she or he wanted to work with.

“We are not expecting anything in particular, no results, the meeting and working together is the real thing,” Anna Jaeger, manager for the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin Nairobi office said.

Jaeger spoke of how previous interactions in the Kenyan cultural scene had led to her and her team noticing the versatility of Kenyan artistes engaging in varied genres compared to Germans, whose genre engagement was more singular.

“Kenyans jumped on this before us, seeing actors also doubling as poets, spoken word artistes, rappers and other things. For us it was the question of if it was possible also for German artistes,” she said.

While translation is a key element, it looks at the inspiration the artistes spark between themselves rather than word-for-word translation.

Producer and rapper LMNZ (pronounced Elements) one of the artistes from Berlin, looks at it as an opportunity for the artistes to teach each other.

With a background in hip-hop, he avers that the opportunity where he’s met with poets, spoken word artistes and beat-boxers has been an eye-opener.

“Maybe I’ll go back with more courage to experiment,” he says. In the five days he was in the country, he worked on eight collaborative tracks with Kenyan artistes.

COMFORT ZONE

Local thespian and story-teller Muraya Ogutu views it as an opportunity for Kenyan artistes, who have previously been locked in and insular to take their work internationally.

“The exposure is critical. And it’s not exposure where you get absorbed into other people’s styles, but you show yours.”

He also sees the manner in which it forces the performers and composers out of their comfort zones and leads to growth as they negotiate working with artistes from different cultures, speaking different languages and working in different genres to theirs as important to growth.

“Getting out of your comfort zone challenges you as an artist to constantly rethink things, push yourself and come up with something new. It’s very much about the process of the work even more than about the end of the work in itself,” he said.

Part of the Spoken Worlds includes the shooting of a documentary and the recording of an album, which will be launched when the Nairobi artistes land in Berlin next year.

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Young Berlin poet claims her space in the spoken word

Germany is one of those countries you can’t help but envy for its wealth of literature and philosophy.

The home of Goethe (of whom the cultural institutions around the world are named), Schiller, Rilke, Kant, Brecht, Mann and other thinkers, it has been the scene of numerous contestations on ways of being, a question central to culture and the humanities.

It was thus exciting to sit down with Josefine Berkholz, one of eight poets from Berlin that were recently in Nairobi for the Spoken Worlds project organised by Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, Maono Cultural Group and Kwani Trust.

At just 19, Josefine has already claimed her space in the German spoken-word scene, as evidenced by her selection to be among the eight representing the country in Kenya.

In 2010, she came second in the German Poetry Slam Championship finals and has conducted slam workshops for young people and regularly performed on radio and with various cultural institutions.

THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY

One of her pieces dealing with the question of identity, existence and reality was particularly thought provoking.

Performed in German, she introduced the background to the poem thus: “I finished high school last year and a lot of people asked me what I wanted to become when I grew older. My reply to them was that I had no idea because in the first place I didn’t even have a clue who I was at that moment.”

Josefine, who lives in Berlin, has been writing poetry from as far back as she can remember, taking spoken word up as a serious pursuit at 15 when she first started performing at poetry slams.

What got her into writing poetry?

“There was never the option not to write, it was something that came naturally (to) me. It may sound cheesy but it’s like poetry choose me rather than me choosing it. It was not a decision that ‘from today I’m going to be a poet’.”

Before Josefine began writing, she told stories a lot. It was an incident that occurred when she was 12 that she remembers may have set her off.

“I was angry and wanted to do something with the anger, I needed to vent. It just came out as a poem not as a story.”

She explains: “Poetry for me is a way to put out something very personal in code. People who read my poetry and don’t know me probably couldn’t tell how personal the poem is and what it has to do with me. I put something personal into a poem, and then someone else takes something else, getting their own meaning in it. That’s the great thing about poetry, it can be looked at from different perspectives and still be relevant.”

Her concept of poetry as an abstraction of thought is compelling.

“Writing a poem is already a way of abstracting something, taking it to the level where it is important not just for you but others. Otherwise I would give people my diary but what would they get out of it? So I take myself out of it.”

What she says signals to one of poetry’s attributes. “If I left no gaps, the reader would not get into it; I would take away the work of the reader, the enjoyment. If a poem explains itself to me, why do I want to read it? It’s like a novel that tells you how it’s going to end on the first page.”

The young artist gives a quick translation of parts of her poem, which is an eerily intense and evocative exploration of the universal question of identity and one’s place in the world:

“What do I want be?/ I ask myself what I am… 68kg….6,935 days old/ that’s not true. I’m dreamy, restless, chronically in love/ I’m often asking myself what this year is going to be/and in that I ask myself what we are. Dreamers, dancers, fighters, human, usually human/ we are here, but if I look/ We’re always out of time/ always chased by this ticking noise/we are borrowing dreams and out of space truths/ our doubts build a line with all our unclarities/ and find ourselves in spaces that disappear under our feet/ and the latitudes of our pretty assured world can never be enough for ourselves/ But I don’t want to believe in what I can’t see, if it scares me/ What if all that doesn’t exist?”

REALITY OF BILLS

Currently studying creative writing at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig, Josefine figures she will take the remaining three years in school to think about how she will make a living as well as continue with her art after school. It’s tough to live off poetry.

Some of her friends who do poetry full time survive by giving workshops for children, giving readings and publishing.

“I don’t want to be at a place where I’m stressing like I need to write a piece to pay rent, though. So, maybe I would get another job to get me a bit stable cause I don’t want to underestimate the reality of needing to earn money.”