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Keorapetse Willie kgositsile
National Poet Laureate
 Poet, educator and activist Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile left home in 1961 as one of the first young African National Congress (ANC) cadres instructed to do so by the leadership of the liberation movement. At the time of his departure he was on the Johannesburg staff of New Age under the editorship of Ruth First. In 1974 he was a founder member of the African Literature Association together with Es’kia Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Daniel Kunene and Mazisi Kunene, among others. In 1977, Kgositsile was also a founding member of the ANC Department of Education and, in 1982, its Department of Arts and Culture. He also worked in the underground structures of the ANC under the command of its Political Military Council (PMC). He did his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in the creative writing programme at Columbia University in New York . The recipient of many poetry awards, he taught Literature and Creative Writing at a number of universities in the United States and in Africa, including the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of Nairobi, the University of Botswana, the University of Zambia, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He has also been visiting professor at several universities, including Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Fort Hare.Kgositsile’s work includes This Way I Salute You (2004), If I Could Sing (2002), To the Bitter End (1995), Approaches to Poetry Writing (1994), The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live (1975, 2nd ed. 1993), When the Clouds Clear (1990), Freeword – with Katiyo, Davis, & Rydstom – (1983), Heartprints (1980), Places and Bloodstains (1976), A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing – with Brooks, Madhubuti & Randall – (1975), The Word is Here, ed. (1973), My Name is Africa (1971), For Melba (1971), Spirits Unchained (1969).

Kgositsile’s poetry ranges from the political and public to the lyrical and confessional. He believes in the symbiotic relationship between poetry and politics, whereby “the poet articulates the dream of a people to be free and the liberation movement fights to make those dreams a reality”. Another strong part of his work is the recognition and celebration of his influences, and friendships with other artists and his deep love of blues and jazz. His poetry scintillates and vibrates with quotations from songs, references to music and to musicians including Billie Holiday, Ntemi Piliso, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Gloria Bosman, Johnny Dyani, Hugh Masekela, Pharaoh Sanders and more. His verse also celebrates his country’s renowned writers such as Dennis Brutus, Es’kia Mphahlele, Can Themba and Mongane Serote.

Kgositsile’s wistful collection If I Could Sing celebrates music as the purest of art forms. The title carries a sense of a yearning to be a musician. This, of course, tinged with irony, since one of the most notable characteristics of his verse is its own subtle musicality. This Way I Salute You, a selection of previously published work and some new material, provides a simple sample and a useful introduction to his work. Echoes of the ancient tradition of izibongo/maboko resonate through this volume in a series of poems dedicated to jazz musicians, activists and fellow writers. Cultural icons as diverse as Aime Cesaire, Mongane Serote and Gloria Bosman, in addition to the others mentioned, are honoured. Most are his personal friends; all have been a source of inspiration to him. And by invoking these names, Kgositsile acknowledges the power of memory, and the legacies that survive. In “For Otis Redding” he writes: “Your voice still walks among us / wherever you are, hear us now.”

In “When Things Fall Apart”, in reference to Achebe’s most famous novel and in his tribute to the novelist he writes:

In the silences of the night
often past the midnight hour
when my voice dries up behind my tongue
behind corpses that rattle in my mind
I wonder where the wind is.

Kgositsile is most celebrated for taking the resources of poetry from the African universe to the African Diaspora in North America and returning the resources of African American poetry to the continent. He is a bridge figure in another important respect. Lebogang Mashile, one of the youngest authors ever to win the Noma Award for publishing in Africa , has expressed her indebtedness to Kgositsile, who is often seen sharing the stage with the new spoken-word poets to whom he has been passing on the baton. His influence and inspiration is also acknowledged by more established authors such as Mongane Serote, Mandla Langa and Mbulelo Mzamane. Kgositsile served as the special adviser to the former Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr Z. Pallo Jordan and continues to serve in the same post for the current Minister of Arts and Culture, Ms Lulu Xingwana.

Kgositsile was honoured with the South African Poet Laureate Prize in 2006 by the South African Literary Awards, a project of the wRite associates, in partnership with the national Department of Arts and Culture, Sowetan and Nutrend Publishers.

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