I am a poet. But as someone once said, “who we are has many faces, but these faces are not who we are.” I love this quote because it solved a lot of problems for me many years ago.
My real name is Fungai Tichawangana. I have two home towns; Harare and Bulawayo, both in Zimbabwe. Bulawayo is where I grew up. Harare is where I was born and later lived for about 20 years. There was a time when I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a photographer, or writer, or poet, or engineer, or goodness knows what else. When I came across this saying, it hit me. All these things I am interested in are me, but neither one of them alone is me. One of my weaknesses is that I take on a lot of projects, experiment with too many avenues at the same time; run of the mill Gemini thing, so I have consistently considered dropping the poetry or the photography or the writing so that I could focus on one thing, but inevitably I have gone through life picking up other titles instead; web developer, entrepreneur, journalist, husband, father ;-).
A lot of these things do not exist in isolation (for instance, being a parent is Entrepreneurship 101 – all that resource mobilization and marketing to the litte ones and teaching and planning, etc) and I have always felt most fulfilled when I’ve been engaged in projects that demanded multiple skillsets. For example, in 2008, I started Zimbo Jam, an arts and culture website which demanded my web development, writing and photography skills along with other new skills I had to develop along the way; heaven. And the Gemini thing; I don’t believe in horoscopes, but every time I read character profiles for Geminis I’m weirded out by how accurately they describe me.
What does Iz Mazano mean?
My real name ‘Fungai’ means ‘think.’ I wanted a pseudonym which was related to my name in some way and it had to by in my first language, Shona. ‘Mazano’ means ‘ideas.’ So after trying a ton of names and words, that one stuck. And Iz? Where’s that from? Ah, that’s a secret. If you speak Shona, you may be able to guess it correctly.
Why I use a pseudonym
In 2013, when I first started thinking that I wanted to write poetry under a name different from my own I struggled with the idea. Of course, I wanted my real name to be associated with my work, but I had this niggling feeling that I needed to do some liberation, something to get out of the way of the art. If that last bit doesn’t sound a bit unintelligible, that’s exactly how my thought processes around this felt at the time. It was in 2015 when I finally made my move; I decided on a pseudonym. In July that year I registered the domain izmazano.com and set up the social media profiles for it, so I was 100% in – or so I thought. Then doubt began to creep in. At one point I thought I would do all my writing under the name Iz Mazano (since I had made such an investment in online collateral). The first Iz Mazano website (2017) was an attempt to bring all my work under one roof and in 2018, I even submitted a play to the BBC International Playwriting Competition under this name (the play went on to make it to the top six out of 1,500 entries). The moment I clicked submit for that play is when I realized I did not want to use Iz Mazano for all my work, just my poetry. It suddenly became clear why it needed to be this way. You see, for all my life, poetry has taken a back seat to all my other work and I needed to create a space where it could stand up by itself, breathe its own air, travel its own journey. I didn’t want it to be crowded out by any other endeavor. It needed to be poetry on its own. With its own big wings. With permission to shoot off to whatever galaxies it pleased and a blank check to explore the furthest extents of creativity. And so the poet, Iz Mazano, was finally born.
The 600 foundation poems
Throughout my adolescence I wrote poetry (and short stories and other things) consistently, in neat exercise books protected with plastic covers. I remember, in 1996, leaving home for the University of Zimbabwe (where I was heading to study Electrical Engineering – go figure) and being very worried that all my notebooks would be safe. I stored them in a box on top of the wardrobe in the room I shared with my two brothers. By this time, I had written about 600 poems – which you will probably never read because they are shockingly bad. Let me retract that. I thought they were awesome when I was a teenager. Now I realize just how cheesy and clichéd and in need of revision they are.
Anyway, those poems were my foundation as a poet. Whenever I doubt that I actually am a poet, I think of those days, when my younger self lay on the floor of our house in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, scribbling away, awed by stanzas that just flowed from my pen as if they had been crammed in there with the ink, waiting for someone to pick it up. Whenever I am stuck, as a poet, I also think back to that time. Poetry flows easy when you forget the rules, when you don’t put pressure on yourself, when you just let the words come as they will. Be very nice to yourself when you’re writing. The brutality comes at the editing stage.
Poetry put me on a plane and showed me the ocean!
In 2004, I entered a writing competition which was run by Sable Lit Mag. I sent in some poems and friend of mine, Adrian Ashley entered some prose. The prize for the winners was an all-expenses paid trip to the United Kingdom for a writing retreat that took place at 16th-century manor house called Totleigh Barton in Devon (I only know those details because I just checked their website and it said so). Both of us got into the retreat! I couldn’t believe that the short poems I had sent in had won me this amazing trip. It was my first time on a plane. When I got to the UK, I took a bus trip to Scotland with some friends. The bus stopped for recess in a place called Portobello and we went for a little walk. Suddenly, there it was, the ocean. It was the first time I was seeing it. I was so happy the joy literally bubbled out of me. I started running up and down the beach, whooping like a little child, high on sugar. A few days later, at the retreat, I met a poet called John Lyon whose words about writing groups struck such a strong note that I repeat them to everyone who will listen.
An awakening while on tour with Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi
From 2013-2015, I was fortunate enough to tour with Oliver Mtukudzi, Zimbabwe’s best known musician of all time. Sadly, Tuku passed away in 2019. While I was on tour with him, documenting his work photographically in Zimbabwe South Africa and Swaziland I was struck by how hard he worked.
Sometimes he would have four shows in four different cities and two different countries in one weekend. He was also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and ran an arts center which he built in Norton, just outside Harare. He mentored other artists and toured extensively. The small part of his schedule that I was able to be a part of was demanding enough and he managed it all – in his 60s.
In 2018, as I was helping a fellow poet put together the marketing campaign for her new collection, it struck me how much work was needed and how many people we needed to involve to do a campaign well. I thought back to that time with Tuku and wondered if there was a poet anywhere in the world who worked as hard at their craft as the top musicians do at theirs.
I started thinking about how much work musicians put into branding, promotion, touring and the actual production of their music. What would it do for poetry if poets put in the same amount of effort into their branding and work?
I thought about how music had evolved to keep up with technology, about how musicians were such brand ambassadors for their work and yet poets seemed to just throw their work out there and hope it would fly. I wondered if poetry was innately a more laid back art form, if demanded less of its makers, if the very art form shunned exuberance or flamboyance. And then I had another awakening.
The house of many poets
Around 2003, I had had my first exposure to spoken word poetry through the Book Café in Harare. This was a performance venue cum bookshop cum restaurant cum center of numerous forms of artistic and civic insurrection. They held a spoken word poetry slam every month, themed ‘The House of Hunger Poetry Slam’ after Dambudzo Marechera’s famous book. I had walked into one of these slams with my camera to take some photos for a writers website I was developing.
The poets on stage were not reading. They knew the poetry by off by head. Many were not holding anything back in their performances and used all sorts of antics to entertain the audience. As they came on one by one, they mesmerized me with their energy and passion. Some were overly energetic. Others were calm and measured. But the passion was always evident. I had never been to a poetry event like this. I attended more slams and loved them.
Even before I knew that I was getting an education, poets like Chirikure Chirikure, Xapa, Godobori, Mbizo Chirasha, Batsirai Chigama, Ethel Kabwato, Zaza Muchemwa, Theresa Muchemwa, Aurra Kawanzaruwa, Larry Kwirirayi, Police State Poet, Shoes Lambada and others showed me that poetry could exist at all sorts of energies, pulsate at frequencies high and low and still be awesome.
So, in 2018, when I was wondering about the default energy of poetry, I thought back to those Saturday afternoons at the Book Café and the answer was clear. Poetry is not innately low key. There was no way it can be. You see, poetry was initially an art of the spoken word. Before humans learnt to write they fascinated each other with the way words rolled off their tongues and melded into each other to create the naughty and the wonderful, to express the painful and the delightful.
Poetry was then, for our ancestors, and is now, for us, a reflection of life and as such, must take on all the hues of birth, death and everything in between. Poetry is obliged to carry whatever energy is required to convey the message it carries. It’s like physics. It’s like magic. Poets on the other hand, are not obliged to do anything. And herein lies the challenge and a question I ask myself often; how can we rise to the energy our work requires of us?
Being an arts & culture journalist challenged the artist in me
Thinking back to my time with Tuku, a lot of the other artists I have covered as a journalist come to mind. I think about the amount of work they do and I realize that most of us expect results way before we have put in enough work. I’ve interviewed singers who wrote one hit song and were angry that they didn’t get enough press coverage.
One rapper once told me he’d given up on journalists because we were all useless and biased and didn’t cover talented artists like him. I’ve spoken to writers who had beautiful work that never got any mileage and wondered why this happened while all the time they could see writers whom they considered less talented getting lots of press and selling more books.
All these experiences challenged me. I used to naively wonder how I could help other artists, how could I make them see that there was a lot of work to be done and no worldly success was ever assured. All we are asked is to do the work, to rise to its demands and hopefully as we mature we redefine success for ourselves.
But I should have been asking those questions of myself. How can I help the artist inside me? How can I rise to the standard that the ideas I have demand? How can I show up for my art? If I do this well, it will help others.
There is clarity in doing
I still don’t have concrete answers. It’s a journey. What I do know without a shadow of a doubt is that whenever I’ve stopped doubting and just done the work, the path has become clearer. So no more second guessing myself about my status as a poet (If you’re in the same boat as I was, read this article about excuses we make to not write poetry). And as I reflect back to the House of Hunger poetry slams and find other poets who eloquently explain the beauty and power of poetry, I know I am in good company
Action brings clarity. The pathway reveals itself with each step we take. This website for instance. When I started it, I had no I dea how I wanted it to work. Would I put full poems up or just parts of poems? What if people copied my work? How would I use the site to reach out to other poets? To lovers of poetry? I didn’t know.
But slowly, the answers are starting to reveal themselves. And so here we are. I’m on a journey. I have given myself permission to let go and let the poetry lead. I, the poet, pray I will have the energy to always hold it up, to be a worthwhile supporting act.