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Artist of the Month: Gabeba Baderoon

by on January 25, 2017 5:00 AM

“I like writing in my journals with a pen. The act of writing and the physical contact with pen and paper gives me inspiration,” says Gabeba Baderoon, a South African poet from the city of Cape Town who joined the departments of Women’s Studies and African and African American studies at Penn State as an assistant professor in July 2008. “I never thought I would be a poet until I came to Penn State in 1999.”

Baderoon is the author of three collections of poetry: The Dream in the Next Body (2005), The Museum of Ordinary Life (2005), and A Hundred Silences (2006). When she first came to Penn State as a Visiting Fellow in 1999, she decided to take some creative classes, including drawing and creative writing. One of the best creative writing classes she took was poetry.

“It was a beginner-level class. But it was a life-changing experience to me,” she says. “I discovered a new way of using language — poetry. It taught me to think of language as a creative act rather than an analytical act. It was absolutely incredible.”

When asked about the secret of being a good poet, she thinks for a second and says, “Listening. Listening to your audience is one of the most crucial parts of being a successful poet. When I read a poem in front of an audience, the feeling between us tells me whether it is good or not. As a creative writer, learning from your audience is a difficult skill to acquire. It is one of the biggest challenges that all poets tend to face throughout their career. You have to keep a balance. You can’t be too stubborn, that way you will close yourself off and stop improving. But you also have to be just stubborn enough to keep your own perspective and originality.

“I remember when I published my first book, I had to choose a few poems from the ones I had written over the years. My editor encouraged me to include a particular poem that I had left out. I didn’t understand because I didn’t really like that poem. But interestingly enough, a lot of people loved that poem when the book was published. You see? In some cases I know better, but in some other cases I don’t. So I think in terms of creativity, the worst thing is to close things up in a rigid way. Creativity is all about asking yourself questions you’ve never thought of before. That was a really good lesson to me.”

As technology keeps advancing in a rapid pace, more and more people are being exposed to poetry. There are poetry festivals, television, Twitter, blogs, radio, etc. After her first poetry book was published, Baderoon was invited to multiple TV programs and poetry festivals.

“My audience is surprisingly diverse. I have had people come up to me whom I never imagine would be interested in poetry,” she says. “Poetry has its own way of touching people’s consciousness. It has the power to create an audience in its own way. Although poetry is a rather unique form of literature, with the technologies we have today, it can really reach a broad audience base.”

Memories are Baderoon’s biggest source of inspiration. From time to time, she sits down and looks through her old photographs. To her, memory is not simply about everything she left behind. It teaches her about how she evolves as a person.

“I like the feeling of being distant in time and distant in place,” she says. “Looking at old photos takes you back in time, but yet you are not there.”

Growing up in Cape Town during the 1970s and 1980s was not easy for Baderoon and her family. At that time, South Africa was governed by apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination against people of color.

“It was painful and sad,” Baderoon says. “There was severe racial discrimination in every part of our lives, but my family and community really tried to protect us from all of that. So my early childhood was very bright and full of happiness. For that I am grateful.”

Her mother was a medical doctor who also went to University of Cape Town. She was Baderoon’s hero.

“She was so powerful. I remember seeing her receiving so many letters from her patients and people from our community, thanking her for what she has done for the people. She was inspiring to me,” she says.

Because of her mother’s influence, Baderoon was planning on going to medical school, but at that time she met an English teacher who inspired her, and she changed her mind. While her father was anxious about her pursuing a career in writing, her mother was supportive.

“Because my mother was a doctor, she has very little time for her own interest,” says Baderoon, who is publishing a new book of poetry called Axis and Revolution in 2017. “Back in the 1950s, my mother didn’t have much of a choice but to make a living, and since she wanted to help people, she become a doctor. So she wished that I could do something that I truly love.”

Gabeba Baderoon will read some of her poetry at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County as part of the “Out Loud” series.

Poetry for Beginners

By Gabeda Baderoon 

In the evening poetry class for beginners

in the community hall during the introductions

a girl looking down behind her hair

and a thick brown coat she doesn’t take off

breathes in deep and risking

something says fast

my boyfriend’s in prison and I’m here

to find out how to write to him

through the bars

and someone laughs

and she pulls herself back into her coat

and from inside looks past us

and the next week doesn’t

come back

and I think of her for years

and what poetry is

I think of her long pause

at the beginning

her silence before

and her silence after

and I think this is my origin

where poetry is risk, is betrayal

and the memory of the first question

how not to be alone 

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