uHlanga: On the Birth of a South African Poetry Press

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor


Nick Mulgrew discusses the birth of his South African poetry press, uHlanga, which he hopes will open the doors for young poets to develop their careers.

Nick Mulgew recently appeared at a Publishing & Art talk, organized by David Krut Projects at the AVA Gallery in Cape Town, to talk about his projects, uHlanga and Prufrock.

The following text is the continuation of the speech — read the first part here — which he delivered at the event. Here, Nick focuses on his small, poetry press, uHlanga, and the poetry publishing scene in South Africa.

By Nick Mulgrew

I’d like to talk briefly about uHlanga, which started as a magazine but is now a fully functioning small press.

In working at Prufrock, I found another gap in the literary imaginary that I wanted to address. Thanks to Prufrock, I read a lot of poetry. A lot of it is awful, but some of it is really fantastic, and, to my mind, should be read more. Poetry is the easiest way, in my opinion, to inhabit the consciousness of someone who is not you. The mental switch that happens when you read poetry is unlike any other kind of literature. It short-circuits your brain. You inhabit another person’s worldview, their idiom, the structure of their thoughts in an incredibly intimate way.

In other words, it’s what South Africa needs a lot more of. Which is ironic, because we are a poetic society. Our national anthem is a sprawling univeralist poem. Our public gatherings are usually interspersed with poetry. And I’m willing to bet that a lot of you here work in copywriting and advertising, which, with slogans and pitches and catchphrases, is another kind of poetry – although in service of selling things, mostly.

The point still stands: we boil in a sea of poetry, in Tumblr posts, in rap songs, in image macros, in motivational quotes, at funerals and weddings and in the notes you pass to people you want to love one day and who you want to convince to love you.

Modjaji Books

But, like other forms of literature locally, poetry is in the doldrums. Commercial publishers don’t do poetry, really. Few publish it, and even fewer publish it if it’s not to do with textbooks or the school market. Modjaji Books, African Sun Press and until recently Snailpress are the main exceptions, although there are a few others. Kwela is also known to publish some good poetry, but even then it’s usually in collaboration with another press.

So poetry is mostly the realm for the small presses to work in. But based as most of these “bigger” small presses are in Cape Town, poetry in South Africa in recent years has become very Cape-centric.

Failing MathsI started uHlanga as a magazine that sought to address the lack of representation for artists from and art about KZN.

The first magazine was small and cheap and cheerful. Fifty bucks, beautiful construction, one ink throughout. I got three hundred submissions and a lot were good. I put the magazine together, in the classic Faber & Faber proportions, used the same paper as Prufrock, then went home during Poetry Africa last year to launch it. And it went well.

But something happened that kind of killed the magazine just as I started touting it.

By the side of the stage, while some of our poets – Sihle Ntuli, Joe Spirit, Pravasan Pillay – were reading, this clutch of high school kids gathered at the side of the stage and started freestyling. They got out their phones, laid down some beats, and rapped, and gave each other kudos, and had a way more authentic experience than what I was offering them.

That’s because poetry is individualistic, and the more individual room you give to someone, to flex and stretch and find their voice, the better it is for writer and reader.

The uHlanga magazine eventually sold modestly and was even taught at a school in Umlazi, which is pretty much my best moment in my publishing life ever.

But I decided then to pivot to instead publish single-author collections of poetry, in order to give young and new poets an opportunity to get a publication under their belt, to make themselves eligible for grants and prizes, and to help them start their poetic careers in earnest.

Matric RageUsing the magazine’s original model as a proof of concept, I applied for funding and got enough from the Arts & Culture Trust and Nedbank Arts Affinity to publish two books under the new uHlanga New Poets series: Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage & Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes. I hope that these two books is the start of a going concern, and the beginnings of another poetry press.

The long and short of it is that I hope to help make the literary industry in South Africa more equitable, more accessible and more interesting than it currently is. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even very quickly; in the meantime, I hope projects like the ones I am involved in – projects of the sort that people can get involved with and start on their own – can help train young writers, editors and publishers in the service of making sure the change we need happens quicker than it’s currently coming. Thanks for listening.

Nick Mulgrew is a British-South African writer, editor and publisher. He is the associate editor of Prufrock, the publisher of uHlanga, the deputy chair of Short Story Day Africa, and the author of two books. He lives in Cape Town.

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