Because he was a radical poet, Jack Mapanje was imprisoned without trial or charge by the dictator Hastings Banda of Malawi for nearly four years. The themes of his poetry range from the search for a sense of dignity and integrity under a repressive regime, incarceration, release from prison, exile and return to Africa, and reconciliation with torturers, to the writer in Africa and the continuing African liberation struggle in a hostile world. While often deadly serious, Mapanje’s poems are lifted by the generosity of spirit and irrepressible humour which helped sustain him through his prison ordeal.
‘Political progress, the poem reminds us, is not by polite invitation: there’s no outstretched hand from authority, no sharing of rope by the prison guards. It has to be conjured up, energised, and repeatedly re-energised, from the mind and body of the activist. Skipping with the imagined rope, Jack Mapanje, as man and poet, makes a creative force of anger that sounds through the world’s many starless nights.’ – Carol Rumens, on ‘Skipping Without Rope’, Guardian Poem of the Week, from The Last of the Sweet Bananas
‘Jack Mapanje’s early poems, written under Banda’s dictatorship, had to be cryptic. Poems written in prison and published after his release were, necessarily, very angry. His latest work is mellower and more mordant in tone. But the conscience, the wit and the craftsmanship which it displays have characterised his work from the beginning. His wholly original, unsubdued voice is still unlike that of any other poet writing in English, from Africa or anywhere.’ – Angus Calder
‘The poems have a raging clarity; the chameleon has become the chattering wagtail…Don’t read this because Mapanje was detained, another human rights victim. Read it because he made poetry out of the experience – sardonic, inventive, lyrical testimonies to a generous and enduring spirit.’ – Landeg White, Stand
‘Given the regime, Mapanje’s satire can seem strangely generous, impressively blending the memory of terror with a sense almost of farce when he considers his captors.’ – Sean O’Brien, Sunday Times.
‘An African talent whose poetry effectively overthrew the dictator’ – David Rubadiri, Vice-Chancellor, University of Malawi
Co-published with The Wordsworth Trust
Jack Mapanje: prison poems
Jack Mapanje reads three poems relating to his arrest and incarceration in Mikuyu Prison while recounting his prison experiences, telling how he and his fellow political prisoners were completely cut off from the outside world, denied visitors for long periods, with their loved ones knowing nothing of their fate. He describes the appalling conditions they had to survive while maintaining their sanity, humanity, self-belief and resolve not to be broken, and how much of that was down to solidarity, singing and grim humour. The poems are: ‘Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu Prison’, ‘Skipping Without Ropes’ and ‘Your Tears Still Burning at My Handcuffs, 1991’. Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed him at his home in York in November 2014. This film is from the DVD-anthology In Person: World Poets, filmed & edited by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley (2017).
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