Andrew Manyika: Poetic Nomad

Andrew Manyika is a Writer, Performance Poet & Comedian from Johannesburg via Zimbabwe. As a writer, he first came to prominence in 2010 when his submission for the University of Johannesburg International Students poetry competition emerged as the overall winner.  We spoke to him about his native Zimbabwe, being a comedian and the importance of influence. 

Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in writing and poetry performances?
My love affair with written words began when I learned to read as a kid. We were taught to read from a series called “Sunrise Readers” and our homework was always to read 5 pages every day. I always read more because I really enjoyed storytelling. That was me at 5years old, and when I was 12 is when I first remember dabbling in writing poems. Performance didn’t come till 2011, so in that intervening period, I had a lot of time to hone my skills as a writer, which is what I consider myself to be first and foremost. I entered properly into the performance poetry-scape through entering the DFL Slam. It was through their workshops in the run-up to the competition that I began to become a performer.

You are a poet and comedian what value do you think these performance arts add to each other?
I think they lend different perspectives to the performance and writing aspects. A poem for me is set, in the sense that I have to perform what I wrote. A comedy set is more flexible in the sense that I may not always write out the full joke, but the essence of it (layup; punchline; callback etc) and will deliver it differently depending on what feels most organic on stage. My poetry-writing process is for me. I write only what I enjoy and then hope someone out there will like it or appreciate it. With comedy though, I write what must amuse both the audience and myself. One of the biggest lessons from both though: the importance of ambience. It helps to have the audience on your side.

Poetry is often seen as ‘serious art’ yet you embed a lot of homour in your poetry why have you chosen this?
Well, I’ve never really felt like there’s much humour in my poetry. What I do as I introduce a poem on stage is break the ice with the audience with a joke or something, but the poems themselves tend to be serious. I do try to not repeat myself, by bringing fresh concepts to my poems, or fresh perspectives to old concepts.

You are competing this year at the Word N Sound slam, why did you choose to enter this competition?
Because I am confident in my ability and anointing to win. Also because I can envision Word N Sound’s future, and it is, in my opinion, the premiere poetry show in South Africa. Other people will catch onto this in the future, but what I see at present is a great opportunity to “get in at the ground floor” as it were. Word N Sound is gonna be huge and I wanna be a part of it.

You are now in the top 10 at the series, tell what this means personally for you as a writer?
As people become wise to the calibre of poetry showcased at WnS, It’ll be a great platform from which to be introduced to the literary world at large. Although right now I think it does more for me as a performer than as a writer. However with the WnS Anthology in the pipeline, the writing will come to the fore.

Tell us a bit more about your writing style, what informs it?
Concepts and experimentation. I write around an idea, and I get ideas literally from everywhere (Make-Up was based on an episode of CSI) books; conversations; the bible and life. My favourite poets are from the Romantic era, so I guess once I have the idea I write in that mode, but I also try to experiment with different styles and themes.

As a slam poet how much preparation goes into what you do on stage and how do you go about preparing yourself for a performance?
So much prep, so so much. You see, I distinguish between poetry (literature); spoken word (recitals of literature); performance poetry (incorporation of props and dramatic elements) and slam poetry (competitive performance poetry, incorporating colloquial language; contemporary slang and departures from traditional poetry). Sometimes, I don’t know what type of poem I’m writing till it’s written. Sometimes I’m writing for a slam, which by definition is competitive so I’m writing to win. In that case, my process is that I write the poem (which can take weeks); I rewrite it (in an attempt to memorise it); I record the poem; and I listen to it repeatedly. Then I start looking for how to bring my body to the part. It’s quite a painstaking process and I’m sure this’ll be the last year I compete every single month.

You won the 2010 edition of the University of Johannesburg International Students poetry competition tell us a little bit about that and what made you enter that competition?
Oh, I heard there was a poetry competition in the run-up to the international festival. The theme was “If not for the borders Africa would…”I decided to write & submit a poem, hoping very much it wouldn’t be a performance based competition because I was no performer back then. They read the poems and on the day of the festival (to which I arrived late) I was informed I’d been announced as the winner, and now, I have a camera.

As a poet I am sure many strange things have happened to you, tell us a little bit about some of the experiences you have had as performer?
(laughs), I live quite an ordinary life when compared to the stereotypical imagined existence for a poet. There was one time though, when I was coming from a radio interview and I was in an obscure part of town and I bumped into a guy in the street. I don’t know him from Adam but he was at a show I did the previous week. So he comes at me with arm extended and I didn’t know if this is a hostile gesture or what and as I’m about to cross the street to avoid him (Joburg tendencies) he says “I’m a fan dawg”. I was all sorts of relieved, humbled and excited.

You spoke earlier about being influenced by the Romantics. What other books authors or books would you say have had the most influence on you personally and how?

The Bible, as it informs my spirituality and that informs everything else about me. Alexandre Dumas who wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo”- one of my 3 favourite books. Oscar Wilde “The Picture of Dorian Gray”- an excellently written book which has phenomenal wit and that (plus Boston Legal) helped frame my sense of humour. Tsitsi Dangarembga-“Nervous Conditions”. That book is just beautiful for eons, like eons. They all influence me in the sense that, given my love for storytelling, they showed me ways of doing it and inspired me. There was a poetry anthology called “Many People, Many Voices” we studied it in High School and it opened my eyes.

As a young Zimbabwean based in South Africa who is based do you feel more South African than Zimbabwean?
I’ve set down roots here, but I can’t say I feel more South-African. I’m Zimbabwean. The truth is I feel, less poignantly now, but I feel the seclusion of being in limbo in the sense that although I’m Joburg based and speak Zulu, Setswana & English, I’m also Shona, and have family and a life in Zim. And going there or coming here means always having to say goodbye. And “goodbye” is a word built like a granite slab, it hurts.

Have you visited Zim recently or ever performed there?
I’m in Zim every couple of months, but I’m yet to perform there.

Your are part of a growing community of young artists from Zimbabwean that are making a name for themselves in SA, Is there any pressure in you personally to represent that part of your heritage?
Not at all. I am Zimbabwean, and I believe everything that I am shows itself in my work and my work ethic. If I felt I had to “try” to be Zimbabwean that would feel to me like “trying” to be black and I feel no need to do that, because it’s in me. As for influencing my writing, I try hard not to let outside opinion influence my craft. Everyone is welcome to partake of the work I put out, and I hope they do, but the right to decide what gets put out goes to the artist.

When interacting with other young Zimbabwean creatives in SA, what is the general feeling within the creative community about the crisis in that country?
I don’t strive to interact with SA artists anymore than I do with Zim artists. I simply put my art out there in the environment wherein I am, and whoever is drawn to it and to me, is who I interact with. So there’s been no “caucuses” as it were among Zim artists (or I didn’t get my invite). Here’s what I know about Zim, for our country to come right we have to win the battles spiritually then economically, and that is what’s happening. We are on the turnaround path.

How do you as an artist channel that through your art?
The mission of my art is to create and capture moments and memories. So if it speaks to me, I’ll write about it.

Looking forward what are some of the projects and initiatives you are working on?
Poetry won’t grow into an industry till it is embraced by the consumers. The media informs most people of what is cool to embrace. The largest agent through which they do that is TV, so I’ve got my eyes on that. As well as a 1-man show for late this year or early next, and definitely getting in studio to record a CD. For the remainder of this year though, I’m the MC of the Gospel Revolution Concert on Oct 7; then I’m performing with Divine Adoration on Oct 20th. And of course, The Word N Sound Poetry & Live Music Festival. See you there

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