Primrose Mrwebi is a writer, poet and performer. She has written and edited for titles such as Cosmopolitan, Fairlady, Bona, Abafazi, Student Life and many others. She has directed and performed in a number of poetry productions and has facilitated writing workshops at several festivals. She is a frequent contributor to Book Week for Young Readers at Franschhoek Literary Festival as well as a facilitator at the Northern Cape Writers Festival. Primrose is a contributor to Black Tax, edited by Niq Mhlongo. She is the director of the PrimPoetry Foundation and a participating author in this year’s Open Book Festival.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I used to work for somebody who used to be a writer. As a teenager, I worked for Marina Petropulos who is a children’s writer and I think essentially that’s kind of where I got the idea that I might just do this. But more personally, it was about finding women who were Black and who were inspiring and who were talking truth to power; your Maya Angelous, your Toni Morrisons and your Gcina Mhlophes and all those kinds of people who were writing back in the day were really inspiring to me.
What is your earliest memory of writing?
I think I was a kid. I was at the Waterfront Theatre School at the time, as a teenager and I used to feel left out of a lot of things because I was in the minority at the time. I remember starting writing from that space. I must have been 13 years-old.
Did you think about pursuing a performing career?
I did because I was at the Theatre School. Throughout high school, I was at the Waterfront Theatre School doing Dance and Speech and Drama. I eventually did my licentiate through the Waterfront Theatre School. At that time, I was really going to become an actress and somehow the writing never left me. I always did think that I was going to end up in the arts industry.
Writing and poetry can be such a passion, but it’s also your full-time job. How do you keep that passion alive?
I think because essentially you write all the time whenever you feel something. You can be commissioned but with poetry, you always write because of what you are driven by politically or socially or whatever it is that makes you write. You write all the time. It’s kind of like a standard thing that you do. It’s like breathing. And then you have people who commission you and because you have to lead as well, you have to have a job. It was easy for me to turn it into a full-time job because I love it so much.
You’ve participated in the Open Book Festival on several occasions. What is it that you love about the festival and what are you looking forward to this year?
I think what I really like about the Open Book Festival is its ability to be inclusive of writers of all creeds. You have your poets, your upcoming poets, you have your legendary people, you have your award-winning writers, you have international people. For me, Open Book is always inclusive and I like that. I’ve been to so many literary festivals and somehow they are different and I think what I like about the Open Book is that it’s open, it’s a very chilled kind of venue, you don’t feel like you have to enter into academia, you have everything that anyone could want entering into a literary space. But I do like the fact that they have the Book Lounge which is so chilled and conversational. I’m looking forward to the new people that are going to come. They have new authors coming through. They have young authors coming through and I always look for someone to listen to who I haven’t heard or read before just to get a sense of what kind of writer they are. For me, it’s always amazing to discover a new writer and a new voice within the space. I’m looking forward to that.
In what capacity are you participating in the festival this year?
This year I’ll be running a poetry workshop with the PrimPoetry Foundation and I’ll also be doing a curated poetry performance. We are also launching the book Black Tax which was edited by Niq Mhlongo.
Not only do you write and create your own work, you’ve also performed your work and directed others. What are the differences between working in those three different mediums?
Performance is my ultimate love. It’s the thing that makes me lit. I love performing and I love what it brings to people. Every time you perform poetry and you watch people watching you, it’s always an amazing feeling. It’s like goosebumps stuff. I love performing. I love the nervousness of it. I like that you have to become vulnerable when you perform. When I direct other people, it’s also a very similar feeling because you are discovering someone else’s talent and they are bringing it to you and trusting you with their work and their emotions and everything. Directing is totally amazing. I think it’s scary as well because people are different and people express differently. I think, for me, it’s always a gift to discover those things from people. It’s scary in a sense that you don’t know what’s going to come out but every time when it comes out, it’s an amazing thing because it’s not your own voice. It’s their voice but you’ve helped them bring that forward. When I teach, I think that’s why God made me. To have the privilege to teach someone is like a total work from the heart and I love it.
Do you have a specific writing process?
With poetry, it just comes. It just comes because it’s what you feel, it’s what you think, it’s anger or love or life translated in words. It just comes at 3am or 4am, it doesn’t matter. I just wake up and write. I think when I am commissioned, I do a mindmap depending on word count and who I’m writing for. The processes are different. If I’m writing for magazines, for example, I would find out what it is, what is their target market, what is their readership and then I would write that feature according to what it is that they are looking for. If I’m writing something else which is completely different, it depends on what the publisher is expecting from me. For example, when Jonathan Ball asked Niq to edit this book, they just gave us a word count. The processes are different but with poetry, it comes more naturally to me.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced it. For me, it’s about just doing your job. Just do your job. You say you’re a writer, write. You might be blocked on a particular idea but it shouldn’t stop you from writing because you can write something else. A friend of mine who is a writer said that he was trying to write a novel but it just didn’t happen. So he wrote short stories and then he did a compilation of short stories and he got a book out. If you are not able to write this, write something else.
You are the founder of PrimPoetry. I would love to know a little bit more about the formation of that foundation as well as how it’s evolved over the years.
I started the foundation to promote poetry within the literary space because I always feel that in literary festivals, poetry is paid very little attention, if any. I thought that if we are going to be serious about poetry, we need to create platforms for poets to come and exist within them. Essentially that is why I started the foundation. I did competitions at different spaces to discover new talent. I was quite overwhelmed by it as well because I didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal and it is a big deal and it is making a lot of people excited about poetry again. When I started performing, the people who are my age were the people occupying the space and I was missing the young people. It was like, “Ok, we were here but where are they?” I needed to create a platform for poets to exist, to be excited about performing again and to create a culture of performing again because I felt that it was fading. I also felt that if we are going to be very serious about this, we need to create spaces within literary festivals to be able to showcase poetry in a very bold way. Like I was saying about the Open Book Festival, it’s one of the very few festivals that actually give poetry a prominent place within the space. That’s what PrimPoetry is about. I am so excited about it. I’m still excited about it. The new young people that are writing in mother tongue is a big deal. I write a lot in English and I do my mother tongue and I could kick myself but it’s a mind switch that needs to happen but at least we are giving the opportunity to these young people to express their natural way. I’m very excited about PrimPoetry. That’s what we do. The core business is to bring young people into poetry spaces.
As a poet and writer, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?
Keep on reading. Expand your vocabulary as much as you can. Read as wide a variety as possible. Read all sort of writers. I think that is the best thing that expands your own horizon in writing. Just read.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
I think it was that first byline. That is one of the proudest moments that I have. But also, I think one of the most heartfelt things was when I started writing about my son. When I conceived my son, I got employed at Parent24 to write about him. It remains one of the most amazing moments in my life, just to be able to look back about what was written about my child. He is 11 years old now and I started writing about him when I conceived him. That always makes me very happy. The other things are just career things but that first byline and writing about my son are the most amazing things.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Bongi Ndaba is a totally amazing writer. I like Cynthia Jele. I like Zukiswa Wanner, Angela Makholwaand Sisonke Msimang. There are so many.
The Open Book Festival will run from the 4th until the 8th of September 2019. For more information and tickets, click here.
For more information on the events that Primrose will be participating in, click here.
You can follow Primrose on Instagram and Twitter.
Special thanks to Christine Skinner.
All photos were taken at the Fugard Theatre on August 7th 2019.
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