David Mungoshi Shelling The Nuts
While blowing one’s own trumpet does not always endear people to their peers, the very act of doing so is offset by the assertion in the proverb that says, “Faint heart never won a fair lady.”
Looked at another way, what life teaches us is that very often you do have to think of yourself and even brag a little about the things that you can do. But humility is an imperative in all this.
It is seldom true that a man alone can make a difference. This is something that Ernest Hemingway in “To Have and Have Not” illustrates convincingly through Harry Morgan. Morgan lives a hard life and is so brutalised by it that he moans: No matter how, a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.
We all need each other. I recently was reminded of this when a pet project of mine finally reached fruition all because friends and family came on board.
I had wanted for so long to claim my literary space as a poet in Zimbabwe, but until very recently, that dream seemed to elude me.
It seemed to me that a poetry anthology with my name was no more than just a chimera — a pipe dream that elderly men like myself, with nothing to do but doze in armchairs, may sometimes have.
But I suppose I learnt my lessons well in the days when as marble-eyed primary schoolchildren we chorused stanzas from “Persevere/Try Again”, the William Hickson poem:
‘Tis a lesson you should heed–
If at first you don’t succeed,
Then your courage should appear;
For if you will persevere,
You will conquer, never fear,
Once or twice though you should fail,
If you would at last prevail,
If we strive, ’tis no disgrace
Though we did not win the race–
What should you do in that case?
If you find your task is hard.
Time will bring you your reward,
All that other folk can do,
Why with patience should not you?
Only keep this rule in view,
True to Hickson’s advice in the proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again”, I kept working on my poetry over the years until now I can say I have succeeded.
Contrary to what puritan bigots like Oliver Cromwell and his ilk during the Commonwealth of England that was set up after the beheading of the English King, Charles 1, poets do have room in society.
Cromwell must have been reading Plato’s “Republic”. In his book Plato describes poets as a nuisance and that there is no room for them in the ideal republic. For Cromwell, fiction was a sin, as was poetry.
Yet the world owes so much to poets, nevertheless! Many pithy and memorable proverbs in the English language have their origins in works of poetry: True love never grows old; familiarity breeds contempt and so on.
I first came into contact with poetry through a teacher who made us recite mournfully the words, “Fair daffodils/We weep to see you/Haste away so soon . . .”
It goes without saying that none of us had any idea, whatsoever, what daffodils were or why we should shed tears when they wane, wither and die. Yet the sound of the words was unforgettable and appealing. In time one became conscious of the refined world of poetry.
At about the time that I was entering my teens, that age when everyone thinks they know it all, I began to read “The African Parade”, a popular monthly magazine that carried what one might call people’s stories.
One day as I was going through this prestigious magazine I came across a poem written by Tafirenyika Moyana. He called the poem “A God’s Error” and in it described a girl so beautiful as to be aesthetic, a girl with “a lean wasp waist” and other attributes that set her apart from the rest.
Yet, wrote Moyana, “for such a one, what a clogged brain”. He concluded that the girl must be a god’s error. The poem had me all tied up in knots and thrills. I had never thought it possible that anyone could write so well.
Thus, in later years it came as no surprise when Toby Tafirenyika became the mentor of several well-known Zimbabwean writers and poets, Cuthbert Takawira Gwarinda and Chenjerai Hove included.
Moyana was a gifted thinker, academic, writer and critic. He could be so frank and acerbic with his critiques that if you were one of the uninitiated you would feel violated. At one book fair I heard him accuse Nuruddin Farah, the revered Somali novelist, of spewing forth streams of verbal diarrhoea.
Such crisp frankness is the stuff that good writing is made of. A good poet can speak like the people and can truly depict their experiences. These are the things I strive for.
Round about the time I was marvelling at Moyana’s poem, the Manhattan Brothers, a South African group led by Nathan Dambuza Mdledle of King Kong Fame, were making it big with a song that said “Kweminye imizi kugcwele ifenisha, kodwa abantwana bayalamba” (Some homes are choking full with furniture while the children go hungry).
The image of useless excesses juxtaposed with those of hunger and famine made me very sad and led to the creation of my very first published poem, “Real Life — An Interpretation”. This poem was edited by Kizito Muchemwa and published in the Rhodesian literary magazine “Two Tone” in 1976.
This was followed by Muchemwa’s “Zimbabwean Poetry in English” published the same year. I had two poems in that collection. But hardly anyone took me seriously as a poet, although I went on to publish more poetry in recent years. Then came my big break. Those who aspire for fame and recognition probably relate quite well to my story.
Over a period of some eighteen months I took it upon myself to work to a punishing routine during which I wrote poetry as a matter of necessity rather than as a matter of course.
Hundreds of poems were written in this phase, a phase that Memory Chirere called my purple patch. Willy-nilly I find myself humming the chorus to the Beatles song, “With a little help from my friends”.
Collaborations are common among musicians and less common among creative writers.
The title of my poetry anthology is “Live Like An Artist” and was inspired by my reading of artists and their struggles for fame and fortune, and how they go on living and hoping in spite of the many obstacles that they encounter practically on a daily basis.
Most people hate anyone who seems to live on his wits. The unlucky thing is that those of us who engage in the art of writing have no visible sweat to show. No one sees the intellectual sweat that is characteristic of our labours.
My view is that if everyone lived like an artist there would be fewer conflicts in the world and because the imagination would reign supreme, life could in some ways be a dream.
If you emulate the artist you learn to hope against hope that things will work out one day, no matter how long that may take. If you learn to live like an artist you learn to be happy and at the same time thoughtful regardless of your circumstance.
You start believing in miracles and in the creation of something out of nothing. This is why some of us only get recognition after we have passed on.
That is if we are so fortunate as to have someone taking a critical look at what we leave behind and going on to appraise us in a way that makes the world sigh in utter disbelief, lamenting the fact that it allowed such a gem to go unnoticed.
I thought of these things as I sat with friends at a popular artists’ rendezvous in Harare. Ignatius Mabasa and Memory Chirere had lasagne, while I went sweet. I had tea with cake and samoosas.
On another occasion I spoiled myself with Irish coffee while my friends opted for something else.
These are the friends with whose help, my dream of a solo poetry project has become reality. I thank them for reading, editing, and critiquing my manuscript.
Perseverance pays, yes! But we all need luck, goodwill and friends. “Live Like An Artist” had more than its fair share of these things.
Friends and colleagues in the writing community voluntarily contributed to our comfort as we discussed weighty issues of publication in a restaurant. Everyone and everything is a poem. All I had to do is read people and things, and let the poetry speak for itself.
David Mungoshi is the writer of the recently published poetry anthology “Live Like An Artist”. Here he reflects on the creative processes that led to his first solo poetry book.