Enchanting poetry in Melville under candlelight

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

The glow of small white battery powered candles created a mood that would make lovers on a dinner dirty happy. The room of Spilt Milk Social Café was therefore darkly lit, giving a façade of a smokey bar. The audience, mainly poets did not seem to mind. In fact it must have been the first time that all of us who congregated in this venue like Loadshedding. More accurately we did not mind the power cut that happened at 6pm, exactly the time the poetry reading and performance was to start. In fact one audience members in response to a question from the host Janine Hudson, actually confessed that they preferred performing their poetry in semi-darkness.

Karen Lazar

We were at the Tuesday Poetry event launch on Tuesday, February 21 in Melville, to witness the start of what promises to be an interesting poetic journey going forward. An idea that came up with books publicist and owner of coffee shop Spilt Milk Social Café Hudson, Poetry Tuesday will add a new dimension into Melville’s vibrant social and cultural life.

Shorty “Melville Poet”

And boy did we enjoy the reading and performances from the poets Karen Lazar, Gary Cumminskey and Arja Salafranca, that were featured for the evening. Meville’s well-known homeless poet Shorty, who actually goes by the name of Melville Poet was featured as a guest poet for the evening.

After being welcome with a glass of wine, we were and later fed a light meal, we were ready for a poetry reading and performance that one has not seen in Johannesburg for a long time. Never mind the little bit about the dark room. In fact we loved it that way as it created the right mood to enjoy poetry that in fact ranged from the dark to the light spaces. It blended so well with the mood of the lighting in the room as fate would have it.

Gary Cumminskey

First to go ‘on stage’ to read her poetry was Lazar, and just like the other three poets that later read and performed after her, most of the pieces she chose to read are deeply personal. Wheel chair-bound, the result of a stroke she suffered some years back, she took us into the pain of being in that condition. The poems were probably not speaking about her personal circumstances that life threw at her, but others out there who are probably in the same condition.  Through her evocative poetry, Lazar took us through her journey of rehabilitation, including the struggles of others in similar conditions in hospitals undergoing the same journey.

One could feel the pain of others through her poetry. Her poems are really moving to listen to and read. And the good thing is just like Salafranca and Cumminskey, she had her book available to purchase by the audience. In fact that is Janine’s idea that the poets featured on this programme come with their books to sell to the audience, and thereby creating a marketing and distribution channels for published poets. Lazar just like the rest of the poets on the night have glorious literary pedigree and integrity. She is a lecturer in English and professional literacies at several actual and virtual campuses in Johannesburg. In her poetry collection Echoes, Lazar offers the world from the seated and off centre view”. Indeed we had a dose of that on Tuesday.

Arja Salafranca

Then after Lazar came ‘on stage’ Cumminskey, a veteran of the written word, who traces his poetry publishing debut to that one time literary classic  which defined apartheid and published alternative and cutting edge literature that was not found in mainstream publishing  spaces that were constrained by policies and censorship of the apartheid publishing monitoring and polices of the time.

His poetry traverses the dark and the light. His track record in poetry and publishing is something worth emulating. A poet and publisher living in Johannesburg, Cumminskey founded Dye Hard Press in 1994. To date he is the author of several poetry chapbooks. His selected poems, Outside the Cave, was published in 2021. Through he readings on the night, we travelled with him into intriguing and even uncomfortable spaces, such as contemplation on mortality and his travels around the world.

Salafranca then came on stage. Her brand of poetry, at least the pieces that she chose to read, deal with a variety of themes, but very personal. For example, the issue of identity comes through most prominently in her poetry. This may have something to do with her complex background, born of a Spanish father and a South African mother who brought her to South Africa when she was young. This means linguistically she had to try and master two languages as she grew up, Spanish and English. Talk of split identity. However through her poetry reading on TGu8esday, she shared that part of her life with the audience, and the process allowing us into her private space. Private being.

The last poet to take the podium was Shorty, The Melville Poet, who chose to speak her poetry instead of reading. Through the four poems she performed in a spoken word format, she took us into the world of those that find themselves on the margin of society, such as the homeless and poor. These are people that are very much a common feature of Johannesburg’s social life. But often they are neglected as society chooses not to see them. “At Christmas when Johannesburg is deserted, this girl is left alone wandering. Hopeless. Nobody cares,” she said.

She also took us into poverty stricken Alexandra where an unnamed young girl was abused and raped “after her mother had passed on.” This was really touching stuff. Poetry that comes from the heart and not the mind. We connected with it immediately. Shorty’s performance proved that she is talented. Homelessness does not equate to talentless-ness. We were left with that understanding as socialised and got to know each other after the performances for a brief moment before we called it home.

One thing though, it was indeed an evening to remember. Intimate atmosphere. Darkly-lit but pleasant environment to tickle one’s intellect and creative faculty. We were enchanted.

.The next Tuesday Poetry will be on March 28, 2023 at 6pm. Poets who would like to be featured can contact Janine on 081 079 5436. Email: bookings@spiltmilksocial.cafe.

Spilt Milk Social Café at Shop 1, 7th Street, Melville.

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