Archive for October, 2013

A lot of interested African poets may find this press release useful. Why not read through and perhaps, send in entries too? Read:

The $3,000 Brunel University African Poetry Prize is awarded to an African poet for a selection of poems.  The prize which is now in its second year and is sponsored by Brunel University and partnered by Commonwealth Writers is aimed at the development, celebration and promotion of poems from Africa.

Bernadine Evaristo - Prize Initiator

Bernadine Evaristo – Prize Initiator

Bernardine Evaristo, award-winning British-Nigerian writer, initiated the prize in 2012. Bernardine teaches creative writing at Brunel University, is the author of the critically acclaimed Mr. Loverman(Penguin, 2013) and a 2013 judge for the Golden Baobab Prizes for African children’s literature. On the importance of a prize exclusively or African poetry, Bernardine explains,

I have judged several prizes in the past few years, including chairing the Caine Prize for African Fiction in 2012, an award that has revitalised the fortunes of fiction from Africa since its inception in 1999. It became clear to me that poetry from the continent could also do with a prize to draw attention to it and to encourage a new generation of poets who might one day become an international presence. African poets are rarely published in Britain. I hope this prize will introduce exciting new poets to Britain’s poetry editors.”

Apart from the $3,000 cash prize, winners of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize will have some of their poems published by Prairie Schooner, one of the leading literary magazines in the USA and Wasafiri, the leading British journal of international writing. The first winner of the prize was Somali poet, Warsan Shire, who describes the impact of the prize on her writing career:

Warsan Shire - Inaugral Prize Winner

Warsan Shire – Inaugral Prize Winner

“Since winning the prize I have travelled to six different countries to teach poetry and read my work; I’ve had interest from different literary agents and publishing houses; and I was  appointed the first Young Poet Laureate for London, definitely sure that the last one wouldn’t have happened had I not won the prize. I have a chapbook due out in America and small collections of my poems translated and published in Estonian and Danish.”

The prize is currently open for entries and will close on November 30th. The winner will be announced on 28th April, 2014.

For more information on the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, visit their website: http://www.africanpoetryprize.org/.

 

No Respite Here

Posted: October 24, 2013 in MUSINGS
Tags: , , , ,
Coffins

The dead from the Lampedusa tragedy. Pic. credit: Qantara.de

 
We have laughed before
On the morning when we were born.
I was not there but they told me I laughed.
With careless glee, taking all the world in my gums.
And these ones
I heard them laugh
That early morning when the midwife brought them here
Telling tales of shot mamas and arrested papas
Certainly never to return.
I did not see them but I heard them laugh
Laugh at the world, laugh at all our world
Which would not laugh back.

Why do you ask us to laugh now
Here, at the brink of this water
Coming and going, calling us?
Why do you ask us to laugh
With a burnt village behind us
And drowned brothers before us,
On our way to Lampedusa?
What is humorous about paddling over the place
Where your brother’s carcass lies
Grinning up above at you
On your way to freedom,
And Lampedusa, death.
Wherein is the humour of overtaking your brother?

We sail away, our heads full of dreams
Dreams that come to us only by daylight
For where we stand,
We cannot sleep at night
And try as we do,
We have forgotten how to laugh.

24th October 2013 – For the 350, maybe more, who perished on their way to freedom.

I wrote this poem to remember Africans who died earlier this month off the coast of Lampedusa while fleeing difficult conditions in their homes. All they wanted was a better life.

Ghana Flag

Ghana Flag

This year, I have anticipated Ghanaian Literature Week more than any of the other previous times there have been. I have realized that slowly, and as opportunity brings itself, I have become an advocate (especially at Barcamps all over the country) for Ghanaian contemporary writing from people I know and who are good writers but are just not writing enough because of work, laziness or just plain disinterest. I want to see a lot more writing from Ghana and I hope that many young writers especially will wake up and join the revolving mill of the writing landscape we already have.  It is not very pleasant that since Ama Ata Aidoo (first published African woman dramatist), Afua Sutherland, Kofi Anyidoho, Frank Kobina Parkes, Raphael Armattoe, Meshack Asare (more contemporary though born 1945), Kobina Sekyi, Kojo Gyinaye Kyei, Lade Wosornu, Michael Dei-Annang, W.E.B du Bois (Ghanaian for a few months before his death), Kofi Awoonor, Kwesi Brew and the host of former-generation writers, Ghana has not produced another bigger band of writers of our generation who are sweeping the headlines like these people did even though we have never been more schooled, more numerous and more laden with stories of our collective future than at any time in our life as a country. Five million Ghanaians at independence certainly did not have more visionary writers than twenty-five million Ghanaians fifty-six years later, did they? So it’s always a joy to celebrate Ghanaian writing and writers, hoping that through it all, the known and unknown new generation will come through.

As usual, Ghanaian Literature Week will be hosted at Kinna Reads and will be the 3rd in the series, scheduled for Monday, November 11th – Sunday, November 17th. I will be contributing poetry reviews here on this blog. The guidelines for participating are quoted from the announcement;

  • ‘Read one or more works by a Ghanaian author or an author of Ghanaian descent
  • Both fiction and non-fiction works are allowed
  • All forms and genres of fiction are allowed.  These include novels, novellas, short stories, children’s literature, poetry and drama. Literary fiction, faith-based works, romances, and, mysteries.
  • The length or topic does not matter except that it must be connected to Ghana or touch on some aspect of Ghanaian life.
  • The material must be published as a physical book, an ebook, in a newspaper, in a journal or published online.
  • I encourage those with websites to please review the works that they read. Short or long reviews, it don’t matter.  Just please do comment on what you read.
  • Please link your reviews to the review database, which [Kinna Reads] will put up on the first day of the event
  • Join us for a Twitter chat (the time will be announced later). We will use the hashtag #GhanaLit on twitter.
  • And please have fun.  It is the most important rule.’

This year, I planned to celebrate Kofi Awoonor’s works for Ghanaian Literature Week to mark his passing. But in going through my poetry collections, I decided to probably add a few by Kofi Anyidoho as well. Regardless, if anything changes and I find any beautiful poetry especially from the younger breed of Ghanaian writers, I will do well to add it for review, like I did for Agana Agana-Nsiire’s ‘A Bird in Me Heart’ the last Lit Week. I hope to discover new poets from the other posts Kinna will aggregate too.

Why don’t you join us? There will be events both online and probably offline too. Join the conversations and read a Ghanaian writer. If you’re Ghanaian or in any way connected to Ghana, why don’t you even start a blog about this beautiful country? Let the writing and reading of Ghanaian Literature begin.

*This article has been edited from an earlier version that advertised ‘Ghana Literature Week’ to ‘Ghanaian Literature Week.’

Poet’s Profile

jp clark J.P. Clark has been one of those principal Nigerian poets whose works have been studied far and worldwide. He was born in Kiagbodo to Ijaw parents in 1935. He schooled in Nigeria till his first degree in English from the University of Ibadan and then went on to work both at UI and then later at the University of Lagos. While in these two places, he was actively engaged in literary activity, being founder of the student poetry magazine The Horn at University of Ibadan, and also coeditor of the literary journal Black Orpheus when he was lecturer at the University of Lagos.

Clark studied a year at Princeton, after which he published America, Their America (1964), which was a criticism of middle-class American values and black-American lifestyles. His works also included Poems (1962) and A Reed in the Tide (1965), His Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (1970) which talks about the Nigerian civil war, Decade of Tongues (1981), State of the Union (1985, as J.P. Clark Bekederemo), and Mandela and Other Poems (1988). He wrote and published plays as well.

As one of Africa’s leading authors, he has continued to play active roles on literary affairs even after retirement, resulting in his receipt of the Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence in 1991. Howard University published his two definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems 1958-1988. He held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States. The poem reviewed here below is one of his most studied. This poem should not be confused with another of the same title by Wole Soyinka, the other Nigerian great.

Abiku

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.

Review

The title of J.P. Clark’s poem is a store of meaning for the poem itself since it gives us understanding of many of the sentences we will encounter in the poem. The word Abiku is Yoruba for ‘spirit child. It refers to a child who must die and repeatedly be reborn again and again. So, Clark is talking to one of these Abiku.

The poem opens by Clark sounding a denouncement to this Abiku who probably has just been reborn, for ‘coming and going these several seasons’ (line 1) to mean that he gets born, and when the family thinks that he is here to stay, he dies. And he does it several times so that Clark seems so fed up as to tell him to ‘stay out on the baobab tree’ (line 2). In Ghanaian cultural tradition and I should suppose same for Nigerian too, the baobab tree is suspected to be the meeting place of all manner of spirits, witches and wizards who work at night. This is because the tree is usually huge, grows tall and has thick shrubbery that gives it a mystical look especially at night. By asking Abiku to stay out on the baobab tree, Clark is asking him to stay in the spirit world and not be reborn. In the third line, Clark emphasises this by asking Abiku to ‘follow’ where he pleases his ‘kindred spirits’, which gives a sense that Abiku keeps coming and going from a community of like-minded spirits. This should be so, as Clark says, if ‘indoors is not enough’ for Abiku (line 4). Indoors refers to normal life among men when Abiku brings joy at birth, only to bring sorrow at death soon after.

Clark goes on to explain the modest conditions in which they live, if perhaps that is what keeps Abiku going away. He confesses that it ‘leaks through the thatch’ (line 5), a roof of grass and straw used as matting for a poor home built usually of clay, when it rains till ‘floods brim the banks’ (line 6). At night also, bats and owls tear through the eaves (lines 7-8), making sleep difficult. Then when the dry harmattan of the West African dry season comes, the bamboo support of the house is torn down to make fires on which the poor fish caught for the household is dried up on the rack (line 9-11). Maybe Abiku keeps going because he is born into a poor home. Clark makes this excuse and still insists that Abiku should stay out nevertheless because regardless of how poor they are, the house is the ‘healthy stock’ (line 12) to many more people who are born and stay, and others more who ‘reach to the sun’ (line 13). I will translate this reaching to the sun to mean that they grow up, each growing taller bringing them vertically closer to the sun. Abiku never stays long enough to grow up.

Clark continues that Abiku should make up his mind, no longer should he ‘bestride the threshold’ (line 14), meaning he should no longer stay with one foot indoors and the other out on the baobab tree; an indecision between life and death, this world and the other, ‘but step in and stay. For good’ (line 15-16). Henceforth, Clark mentions a few things we will need to understand by understanding the culture of Yoruba.

When an Abiku comes and goes a couple of times, a frustrated family gives the Abiku scars at birth so that being now made ugly, it will displease the gods and spirits to have him return to the spirit world. This makes the child stay alive and end the sorrow of the family that is burdened to bear that child over and over. Clark says that they can see and ‘know the knife scars’ (line 16) running ‘down [his] back and front’ (line 17), ‘like beak of the sword-fish’ (line 18). They have made their mark on him so that when he has now been reincarnated with those scars, they recognize him ‘as a bondsman to [their] house’ (line 20), having also ‘both [his] ears, notched’ (line 19). In pastoral communities, cattle owners use ear brands and notches to indicate which cattle belong to them. These notches look like huge, coloured earrings on which specific alphabets or even the colour, serve to identify one man’s cattle from his neighbour’s. Clark says that these very evident marks are ‘relics of [Abiku’s] first comings’ (line 21). They are not mistaken; they know him as the one.

Finally, Clark tries to convince Abiku to ‘step in, step in and stay’ (line 22), for the woman who bears him is now ‘tired’ (line 22) of his many reincarnations and so tired that her milk now is ‘going sour’ (line 23). This souring only happens to milk that has grown old and we will assume this to mean that the woman is now growing too old to keep up with Abiku’s treachery and may no longer have a strong body to bear him. Clark tries to make it not sound so bad, by saying that it is with this same milk that ‘many more mouths’ (line 23), presumably of those other people who stay and ‘reach to the sun’, have ‘gladden[ed] the heart (line 23). Which heart? The hearts of the family which have not hurt because these other people lived on and also the hearts of these ones who lived on to gladden themselves with the milk of this woman’s breast!

This is a great poem by all standards and there is no doubt why it is one of Clark’s most studied.

I had one good day yesterday. Prof. Kwame Dawes, a Ghanaian-Jamaican poet who was with Kofi Awoonor at Storymoja Hay festival where Awoonor was killed, passed through Ghana for the funeral. Afterwards, he asked to meet the literati in Accra to confer on this and that. It was a good gathering attended by bright lights like Ama Ata Aidoo (@AmaAtaAidoo), Nii Ayikwei Parkes (@BlueBirdTail), Esi Sutherland, Kwame Dawes (@kwamedawes) himself and the creme of the Department of English of the University of Ghana.

Kofi Awoonor (L) and Kwame Dawes (R), at Storymoja Hay Festival on the eve of Awoonor's death

Kofi Awoonor (L) and Kwame Dawes (R), at Storymoja Hay Festival on the eve of Awoonor’s death

Picture credit: Msingi Sasi

I felt privileged to be in the company of such great advocates and proponents for the African literary voice and the hour and half felt like very good investment for the 73km I had journeyed to get to the venue. Prof. Dawes was making his point for the African Poetry Book Fund, the Sillerman Prize and other possible activities that could be put together to push African literature through the university system and partnerships with the Univeristy of Nebraska. It was refreshing.

There were mentions of Awoonor, who had been the reason why this meeting had been at all possible and I was elated that when I got up to speak and introduced myself, Ama Ata Aidoo recognized my name. She later mentioned how Kinna had read to her my previous post in tribute to Awoonor. There was suppressed laughter after the event, masking our general elation for being able to keep the conversation on African literature going, while also having to privately mourn, as a community of literature lovers, one of the best poets of African extraction. I joked with Prof Dawes at how he and the judging panel of the Brunel poetry prize could not see the brilliance of the entries I submitted. Warsan Shire totally deserved that award, let it be said.

Today, I publish this poem which has taken me all of three days to write; not because it is difficult, but because I have had to gather myself since the last post, to come to terms with Awoonor’s passing. Yesterday’s event at the Department of English broke me through. I title it;

Word On The Street

Why do we kneel here,

Here, windswept paths of a day gone by

Contorted ways begging forgetfulness

 Of the feet that strayed this way just yesterday.

Why do we kneel here?

We can make here no penance or sacrifice.

The lamb has already been carried home

The shearers and feasters pick dry teeth

Our teeth and all their teeth set on edge.

While tears lick our faces dry.

Why do we kneel here?

Asking what if and what not if and why not

Why do we kneel here, why do we clutch this place here,

This ground, this senseless ephemeral patch

Ready to disappear into the dirges of our dreams?

 This dirty patch aborted of its tree

Why do we come in response of sorrow that summons us

Our lips, ready to weep but silent

Afraid to offend him.

Why do we kneel here?

This here lies his body

We have seen it for ourselves

And our knees fail to prop us

We kneel here

This here is Awoonor!

This is no more word on the street.