A poet for life

"Poetry is my career and has
been for eight years. I am not a
part time poet, but a poet for life.
It is not just a job or a livelihood,
it is my life. It connects me to
everything."

I met Mak Manaka in Melville at a snazzy venue with jazz playing in the background and the sounds and smells of the street wafting by. He is swigging an Amstel, while I
sip on a cappuccino. He smokes one cigarette after the other as he launches into the story that is his life.
He is only 26 years old, but – as we all do at that age – thinks he is very grown up for a number of reasons. Mainly, of course, because he has published a book of poems and is about to launch his second book, but also because of certain experiences in
his life.


The first occurred when he was 13 years old and a wall collapsed on him and six of his friends. One of his friends was tragically killed in the accident, while Mak injured his shin and lost his mobility.
His second experience is one that many South Africans have experienced – some to a much greater degree than Mak, and others to a lesser degree – racial discrimination.
It was largely the discrimination and “being treated special” [because of his disability] that led to him becoming a poet. He went to King Edwards (KES) in a wheelchair after his mother called Mary Metcalfe and the school was given a choice – let Mak study there or face certain consequences.


His classmates would carry him up stairs to his next class early in break and there he would sit, outside the classroom, alone and left to his own devices. “Poetry became my escape. I found comfort in the words as they formed on the page in front of me. I
found something to fi ll my emotions. Today, as back then, poetry is still my source of escape.”
His first foray into publishing a book came about when he wanted to go overseas to have a gap year. The chairman of Eskom, a family friend, funded the book, throwing in a trip overseas and working for the state energy concern, enabling Mak to achieve his gap year ambitions.
If Only
The book – If Only – was launched in 2003 and sold out (1 000 copies) in the first night of its release. Since then more copies have been printed, but Mak is still surprised that the book sold the way it did – “especially considering that it was self published”. He is convinced that stage performing played a key role in the success of the book.


“When I decided that I was going to launch a book, I decide people needed to know who I was and that I was a poet, so I began performing poetry in small clubs and parks. I performed everywhere so that people would know who I was.”
In fact his debute as a performer was at the age of 15 (in 1998) when, on crutches in Lugano, Switzerland, he performed a tribute for his late father. When he did perform, however, he did not use his family name – his father was the late Matsemela Manaka, the well-known artist, poet, playwright and Black Consciousness activist (Mak describes him as a renaissance man) and his mother, Nomsa Kupi Manaka, pioneered African dance in the country.
“I came from a talented and successful family, and that cast a big shadow over me, but not anymore.”
An eye-opener
The oldest of two brothers, Mak grew up in Soweto where he lived with his grandmother. When he finished school he remained in the township.
“That first year after school I just hung around Soweto. I realised that, while I had gone to school every day, many of the young people my age did not attend school, but hung around the neighbourhood all day walking around, chilling and smoking weed. I found myself doing the same that year – but at least I had finished school.”
The year was an eye opener for him. It was also inspirational and he wrote many poems during, and about, that time.


“At the end of the year, I needed to go away,” he says, “The township can swallow you – and it nearly did swallow me.”
His book and performing saved him and his reward was that the book sold out and he was able to travel the world.
It was only the beginning.
In 2004, he toured Cuba and Jamaica with poets Don Mattera and Lebo Mashile representing South Africa as part of the 10 Years of Democracy celebrations. He was nominated for The Daimler Chrysler Poet of the Year 2005 Award and, in the same year, also performed in Holland, at the Crossing Borders Festival, and in Germany. Mak returned to Germany the next year where he performed for the heads of state at the closing ceremony of the 2006 World Cup.
More recently he appeared at the acclaimed International festival of Literature in Italy’s Mantova, with two of South Africa’s (and the world’s) most loved writers, Nadine Gordimer and Gcina Mhlophe.
“All this made me think: don’t let this go to your head, rather try to make sure you know why and what you are writing for. What is the reason for you being a writer?”
As the breeze blows the jacaranda flowers around and the lunchtime traffic increases, with his funky white sunglasses lying near his smoking cigarette, his voice waxes on, explaining what his poems are about.
Inspiration
“They are about life, about everything. My poems are solution based. In this country we must solve things, in a sense, through my poems. I don’t write about topics, but what comes to me. Like now, I have lived without a cell phone for two weeks, while my grandmother recently passed on. Both have inspired me to write.”
“My poems also allow me to speak for you and say what you want to, but feel you cannot. Poetry is my career and has been for eight years. I am not a part-time poet, but a poet for life. It is not just a job or a livelihood, it is my life. It connects me to everything.”


He feels that, too often, African poetry is associated with liberation.
“Poetry can be about family for example.”
That said, he believes that poetry should serve a purpose and it is here that he uses his craft to inform society about disability.
Disability
“Disability is a great part of me and I cannot move away from it. I can run in my mind. In my poetry I can dip my feet in the ocean and feel the cold sand between my toes, while my feet are still here. So my disability becomes another form of looking at life – realistically speaking.”


“If you dissect the word disability then you realise we all have a disability in our lives. If a disability is something that limits a person then you realise that we all have disability in our lives. A fear of heights is a disability.”
And disability, for Mak, can be overcome. After spending the first year and half after his accident in a wheelchair, he decided it was enough. He then, as he says, defied science and through sheer will-power and a positive mental attitude, replaced his
wheelchair with crutches.
“I believe you can overcome anything in life. I had the mental capacity to change my life and I am not sure why, but I know that poetry was the source of that mental strength."
Going Forward in Time
His second book – In Time – is about forward movement, about growing up and being a better person, living your life and moving on.
“Peace is within yourself and, in time, we all find peace and prosperity. We are born from love and not hate. Love is truth. When you love someone you can climb hills and skip an ocean. If you could learn to love yourself that much, then you could stop stuff from hurting you.”


“Think of it realistically, the love of my family supported me and gave me the strength to carry on when it really mattered. Love conquers all – a cliché I know, and especially from a poet, but there is the truth. Love is greater than all of us; look at a mother and child’s love for each other.”
“I believe we are a community of great potential, that we are a team in this life, while we are born and die alone. Death is the articulation of the human condition.”
For this reason he is perplexed at the dash between the date we are born and the date we die as placed on a person’s gravestone (e.g. 1950 – 2000).
“That dash is the stuff in between being born and dying and is what mattered. It is what you leave behind. We are all moving and death is another way of moving forward.”


“To be alive is to have energy. On stage I try to bring across this energy, so that people see that energy and not my crutches, and if they do see them, they see them as a strength.”

A Feeling Like This
by Mak
She tickles me,
Yet I find it harder to laugh
Coz it’s a feeling
Of a thousand Jazz-men flowers,
A sunset of different colors
Cady coded on her finger tips
As she touches.
She is not late night
With Msizi Shembe
Coz her beat on my heart
Pounds the rhythm of a djembe,
And I know....
That my pain will cease
Once my arrogance
Learns not to resist
Her fiery kiss
Simply because,
She is that calming serene sent
Of bliss
How
Can
I ever
Forget
A feeling like this.

Columnist Photos