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Words, power and sound

ROI KWABENA was born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 1956. As a cultural activist, he has lectured, performed and conducted workshops at the request of numerous governments, city councils, universities, schools, libraries and cultural bodies across the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. A former opposition Senator in his place of birth, he was Poet Laureate of Birmingham for the period 2001-02. To learn more about Roi and his work please visit  http://nefertamu.tripod.com


Samantha Duncan, literacy tutor at City and Islington College met the poet and cultural activist Roi Kwabena to discuss Re:vision.

On writing Re: vision - stirring curiosity

I was commissioned to write Re: vision for reflect and it is a great honour and a pleasure to have written it. I was asked to write something on the journey of learning and the whole connection it has with our being.  

On education - erudition is vital for mutual survival

Education exists to ensure that we are abreast with each other on what is happening on the planet. The more that we can learn about ourselves and the universe the better; this should be our goal for education. The more educated we are about ourselves, our environment, and the cultures in which we live, the better the world will be. But it is how education is used by certain agencies and politicians and governments that we need to look at.  

On adult literacy teaching - an eternally evolving landscape

We live in a particular time and space whereby we have recognised that there are a lot of people who are referred to as 'disadvantaged' who fall through the net. I do not think it is in the interest of any society, culture, empire or nation to want people to fall through the net, because it would not be working in their interests if people are uneducated. You notice the poem is entitled Re: vision.  This title could mean 'revising' how we look at literacy education and it could also mean 'reference to the vision,' the vision that we should all try to embrace, for more people to be included in what we refer to as life today.  

A lot of people are excluded. Every person should be given equal access to education. We have governments fighting to raise literacy levels all over the world and yet what a lot of people have overlooked is the need to harness the cultural literacy resource of the country, the resource of human knowledge. Any country needs this human resource in order to achieve the sort of success and goals it sets itself. You've got to have people involved; the welfare of a nation is not about buildings, it's not about machines, it's about humans. I am of the opinion that, as my poem says, 'the multitudes still denied'. Yes, they are still denied; there are a lot of people who are denied, through no fault or reason of their own sometimes. And so we are all denied. 

On functional versus cultural literacy - acquisition of dexterity

What do I mean by cultural literacy? Cultural literacy is a necessity and, though we hear more about functional literacy, the two are part and parcel of the same thing. Functional literacy is usually defined as being able to do the reading and writing required to live our daily lives in the societies in which we live. Functional literacy would not be legitimate without cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is about knowing and caring about different cultures. 

On the role of poetry in adult literacy teaching - an uncharted ocean

Poetry is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Some people refer to poetry as a 'higher language,' but poetry is life itself. For me, poetry is a necessary medium to communicate with people, to harness their creative potential, to allow them to explore things about themselves that they have never explored before, to give them a tool for self-realisation, a key to open doors hereto foreclosed to them. That's what I see poetry as; that is what it has meant to me all my life.  

Poetry is very important in the literacy classroom. If poetry is not included, it is not a literacy class at all, because of all the missed opportunities that could have occurred. Imagine a class of students representing different cultural groups. Can you imagine the wealth of information there that could be brought out by discussing song and poetry?  

Poetry helps to highlight the spoken word within the written word. There is a problem or an argument that you often hear people bringing about - whether the spoken word or the written word is more important. Societies that held oral traditions in high esteem have traditionally been denigrated. I believe that the spoken word and the written word are one and equal, and poetry embodies this. Sound and the ear are important.  

Poetry is essential in terms of promoting a better understanding of different cultures - that's cultural literacy - in terms of writing, spelling, sound, the way words work. Once you can get the student to express themselves, you are miles ahead in the learning process, because people can be all bottled up inside. In adult literacy classes you need to cross barriers, and poetry can do this. Job applications, form filling, more 'functional' literacy is all relevant but you need to use poetry or creative writing to reach that target. 

On poetry, memory and adult learning - effective relocation

Poetry unlocks our potential for self-expression. This works by tapping into the memory. Now, the greatest possession any human being could possess on the face of this earth is his memory. Memory is a precious resource that gives adult learners a whole wealth of information and experience to draw on. In fact, when, in workshops, we do harvesting of memories, we discover that people are stimulated not only to discuss things that they would not normally discuss, but to go away and explore further things about their memories and their creativity.   

On introducing writing poetry to a class - sheer bliss of awareness

I am constantly asked how I engage learners in the classroom. The answer is simple - by writing poetry. It's very easy. What you do is very clearly show them the link between their popular culture and poetry. For example, rap or the popular songs that we sang as children, these are poetry. You have to break the ice and show them that the songs that they listen to and sing are poetry. 

I work with different people, elderly people, prisoners, business people, all people who may not normally be writing poetry. It's easy to get them started. First of all I read them a poem I have written. I work with a drum as well; this has its own impact, because I use this for caller response, for emphasis on sound. Words, power and sound - these are important things.  

On writing poetry - unfoldin lingu within/without

I write poetry for different reasons. Sometimes I write because of sadness, like the sadness that is taking place in New Orleans. But it's not just sadness that makes me write. I write poetry for different reasons. I use poetry to send people on their way at funerals, I use poetry at naming days, I use poetry at schools, universities, government agencies. I use poetry for celebratory occasions, birthdays, performances and political occasions as well. 

On the future of literacy education - advance to master

Of course this is an optimistic poem. Is it a sad poem? 'As multitudes are still denied...'. This is a fact. It should be the goal of all involved in literacy to cut down these multitudes, to cut down the number of people that are falling through the net of education. I know sometimes people get all caught up in the 'ILPs' and the 'codes' and the 'targets', but this poem gives clear advice to literacy teachers; we should provide good practice: luxury of time, space, a listening ear, advice, patience and support.

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