The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Performance poetry comes to Pretoria!    
Wed, 27 November 2019

Poet laureate Robert Pinsky once famously quipped: ‘There were poets long before there were printing presses.’ In fact, poetry dates as far back as prehistorical times, when oral poetry was considered a socially binding act, a way to transmit tradition and remember culture, a way to educate and entertain, to instruct and induct. And the more powerful the performance, the more enduring the message.
From the griots of Africa and the lyrical bards of ancient Greece, to the Harlem Renaissance and American civil rights movement of the 60s, spoken word poetry has always been with us, and has always served a socially symbolic function. And, as a contemporary art form, it serves a similar, yet heightened purpose – to address pressing social issues, to give voice to the marginalised, to provide a place of catharsis, and to catalyse change.
Spoken word, performance and slam poetry all share similar tropes and verb forms – it’s all about onstage performance, and so it smashes through the conventional constraints of poetic form, with an emphasis on rhythm, free-flow association, puns and word play, slang and the language of the streets. It’s raw and real and powerful – and has the potential to push for political and social change.
And on a balmy Thursday evening, the AVBOB Poetry team found themselves at Spoken Sessions in Pretoria, hosted by poets Puno Selesho and Mwamba Chileshe, and Sam Bear Morrison. Spoken Sessions marries music and poetry – in perfect adherence to poetry’s ancient origins: the earliest poetry along the Nile, in Niger and the Volta river valleys found poets performing their work to the accompaniment of mbiras, djembes and koras.
That evening, in a vibey student district, poets, guitarists and rappers took to the stage in turn, making the most of the open mic – mirroring the ancients and echoing the wandering minstrels and troubadours of medieval Europe. Music and poetry have always been entangled – and Spoken Sessions honours that symbiotic relationship.
The quality of the poetry and music at Spoken Sessions was breathtaking, showcasing the talent we have in such abundance in South Africa. The audience was young, engaged and eager. The performers were bold and brave and fearless. The themes explored everything from unrequited love to the current state of SA, from feel-good free-flowing verse to angst and regret. Craft and cause, form and function, poetry and purpose were fused in the spoken word. It was certainly soulful, stirring stuff.
And that’s exactly the sort of poetic work that you’ll find at The AVBOB Poetry Project and The AVBOB Poetry Competition provide a brilliantly inclusive platform for written word poetry in all 11 of our official languages. They serve as a place of profound catharsis and as a free bereavement resource for all South Africans. But we celebrate initiatives like Spoken Sessions, which seek to take poetry off the page and onto the stage, connecting to communities and building bonds amongst musicians and poets. In Pinsky’s words: ‘Poetry's proper culmination is to be read aloud by someone's voice … it is almost as though we sing to one another all day.’ Long may the poets of SA sing to us!
For more information on Spoken Sessions, find them on Facebook or on instagram (@SpokensessionsZA), and email them at
For more information on The AVBOB Poetry Project, and to enter the third AVBOB Poetry Competition (closing midnight on 30 November 2019), visit