Stubble bearded and glass-eyed, dressed in army-green knit sweater and soil-brown slacks, author Imraan Coovadia cut a weary figure on Wednesday evening at WISER’s discussion of an initiative, to put poetry on Johannesburg taxi’s, that sprung from Coovadia’s 2012 novel The Institute for Taxi Poetry.
But he steadily warmed to the occasion. And while the mercury dropped in Braamfontein’s solemn streets, the temperature inside WISER’s modern conference room climbed, as the concept of Taxi Poetry was “uncoiled in the ears” of the attentive, expectant audience. The University of Cape Town creative writing professor was at the tail-end of his Joburg lecture tour and looked like he was courting exhaustion.
The WISER event was billed “From Fiction to Reality”, and sought to “present and explore the Taxi Poetry project that has resulted in poetry being written for and placed on 70 taxis in Johannesburg over the last few weeks.”
In Coovadia’s experimental book unusual tales are told of poets and a form of poetry that emerges somewhere beneath the skin of Cape Town’s murky taxi industry –ruled and populated by some of the most imaginative and cosmopolitan characters to be found in South African literature.
Director at WISER and collaborator on the project, Sarah Nuttall, spoke in her introduction of a “tradition of transportation poetry in South Africa that was mostly found in trains”.
It was this idea, and a meeting with Coovadia in Cape Town about the possibilities of his novel, that led to the conception of Taxi Poetry.
The result: a group of Johannesburg poets wrote pieces about Johannesburg; a line each from the poems was transposed on to large “fridge magnets”; and off the poets went into CBD to convince taxi drivers to display the poetry on their taxis.
“The idea of magnets came from realising that in Joburg taxi drivers don’t have the agency to intervene on the taxi,” explained Marie, who did research for the project by collaborating with a Durban taxi driver to produce a music video about his taxi- Big Boss.
The main difference, Marie said, was that “in Durban most drivers owned the taxi they drove, while in Joburg drivers worked for owners who owned large fleets [of taxis]”.
Kgoleng picked up the thread where Nuttall had left it, and spoke at length of poetic inspiration and its relationship to the “aspirational quality of Joburg”.
“Poetry is the medium which the personal can become public,” she said. “Coovadia has used his creative licence to characterise the poet as a player in the taxi area”.
And from this, the poets were able to take poetry and expression outside of the commercial realms and return it to the people.
When Coovadia addressed the audience, reading now and again from his smartphone, his energy was palpable.
With artful simplicity, he explained the complex process that his book both captured and unleashed. A concept that all the speakers on the night had alluded to, that of the fragmented associational patterns that emerged in small, overlooked pockets of our urban society.
“Novelists are like carthorses, and poets are grasshoppers”, he said describing how the process of writing the novel had pushed him into different areas of expression and working with others.
“You realise that social reform is possible precisely because of how human feeling can pass from one person to another,” Coovadia concluded.