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The Evolution of 'Sing Like A River'
by Graham Mort
Download 'Sing Like A River' (Word format)
The original version of Sing Like A River emerged from a performance poetry workshop that I ran at the Beyond Borders festival in Kampala in October 2005. Over a period of three one-hour sessions, a group of African writers took part in a process designed to produce a collaborative ‘choral’ work.
I arrived at the festival without a clear thematic focus for the poem, though I did have a technique of composition and assemblage through metaphorical writing – or poetic ‘imaging’ – that I had tried and tested elsewhere. By the time the first workshop took place, language itself had become the focus of many discussions at the festival, especially the troubled relationship between English and indigenous African languages. At a festival representing 17 countries, each with a complex linguistic culture, English is a necessary lingua franca - but it is also a language metonymic of empire and the oppression of colonial rule.
I chose language itself as the theme of the workshops and asked the participants to write down all the words they knew - in any language - for speech or utterance. Since most Africans speak two, three, or even four languages, the result was a charged mass of words in languages ranging from Arabic to Sepedi, English to French, Afrikaans to Luganda and Kiswahili. We then began to work in English from a sense of common curiosity at finding ourselves at the confluence of linguistic and poetic cultures, assembling a draft of our poem through a process of personal endeavour, collaboration, negotiation, editing and re-drafting.
The resultant performance piece was regarded as a ‘score’ available to interpretation rather than as finite, stable, or finished text. The poet Val Bloom, who writes in Jamaican patois and English, worked with me to create a performance that retained many improvised multi-lingual elements whilst being mediated predominantly through English. Those verbal linguistic elements were, of course, underpinned by the performers’ body language – that universal gestural system.
The poem was performed at the festival and the writers involved in its creation dispersed. But I remained interested in the poem and decided to re-draft it as a piece that might work on the page, removing some of the rhetorical flourishes that had been devised for performance and tightening its focus a little. Then I wanted to see if the poem could become fluid again when translated back into some of the languages from which it had been precipitated by my workshops. I wanted to know how the poets involved would feel about that process and how they might talk about it. Could English act as a catalyst for indigenous African languages, rather than always occluding them? If so, what kind of polyphony might emerge?
The results, I think, are a fascinating account of a process that indicates the possibility of opening up the troubled interface between English and indigenous African languages through a creative dialectic.
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