Archive for the ‘GHANAIAN POETRY’ Category

Phillippa and I at Citi FM

Phillippa and I at Citi FM

On Sunday, I was on air with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and some other artistes on Citi fm 97.3fm in Ghana, reading two poems. I wrote this response to the first and only Caribbean poem I have posted on this blog and I want to share it with you. Roger Bonair-Agard’s original poem How Do We Spell Freedom posted here and my Nigerian blogger acquaintance Ibiene’s How Do We Spell Nigeria, posted here, are exciting predates to this one that you should read if you want more after this.

How Do We Spell Ghana?
(for Roger Bonair-Agard)

We began to spell Ghana in 1957. In Two thousand and fifteen, this is where we’re at!

A is for Answers
B is for Black Star in the middle of a half mast
C is for cut, cut, cut! Cut the drama and the lights.

Who dared us dream of utopias?
Unrepeatable dreams dreamt only yesteryears
By a generation before us?
They were ready to manage their own affairs
We, are not!

So D is not for dreams.
D is for Deception.
D is for ‘Do you believe it’s the same Ghana?’
D is for Dumsor
And this is where we’re at!

A could have been for Akosombo
But A is for Answers cos we need answers now
Or even for Aboadze, Asogli or Akuse
But just give us Answers now.

Just yesterday,
Elite and De-light were two innocent pieces of grammar
But today you’re e-lite if you have not been Dee-lighted
And if you still don’t get it,
A is for Answers!

E is for ECG
E because, that’s just enough said
F is for FPSO
This one makes me laugh!

There was another Ghana nobody told you about
So G is not for Ghana, or which one do we mean?
G is for governments
And the chameleon-skin-type-two-sides-of-the-same-coin-none-better-than-the-other-whichever-one-you-have governments!

H is for Hospitality
Because you don’t want to know the state of the hospital.
I is for Independence
At the same time J is for Just a little dependence
Are we getting anywhere with this?
Because I just don’t know!

K is for Kwame Nkrumah, Osagyefo Emeritus
But let a man’s name rest
K is for Kofi Annan, Busummuru and a few other things
But please let a man’s name rest
L is for Lamentations
M is for morning off, till tomorrow morning, on!
And if you still don’t get it, remember
A is for Answers!

O used to be for Opportunity
But after we wasted it,
O is for Opinion
O is for the Circle we’re caught in, like a circus of name-calling and pointing fingers
P is for pointing fingers.

We could have the other Ghana back if we work for it
Q is for Questions, remember? Those questions for which A is for Answers!
R is for Rise and rise and rise
S is for the sorrow of all that could have been.
But there is a T for which
T is for tomorrow
And maybe because of tomorrow
D is back on for Dream!

In 1957 we learnt to say our alphabets
In Two Thousand and fifteen, this is where we’re at!

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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Image via BooksLiveSA on Flickr.

I am happiest when I am able to make connections with other writers based on the work I do here on my blog. I should tell you this story.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is one of South Africa’s acclaimed poets. I say South-African even though she is Ghanaian/Australian by birth. There’s story behind that. I’ll tell you a summary as I have it from her wikipedia page.

Phillippa was born to a Ghanaian father and Australian mother but was adopted into an apartheid-era white South African family when she was 9 months. She grew up to 20 before she knew she was adopted, and did not meet her biological father till years later. Her writing has reflected her obvious internal struggles of identity. Phillippa lectures creative writing now at Wits University in Johannesburg. She has published two poetry collections, Taller than Buildings and The Everyday Wife, among a host of other featured publications.

Well, back in January, having discovered this blog, Phillippa got in touch with me and we begun discussing literature and the common language of our poetry. After so many emails back and forth, guess what? Phillippa is in Ghana! And we are going to be on radio together on Sunday reading and talking poetry on Writers Project on Citi FM 97.3. That’s more exciting than I just made it sound..haha! Please tune in to us at 8:30pm GMT on Sunday 26th April or online at http://www.citifmonline.com.

And not only that! She will take Dr Mawuli Adzei’s writing class at the University of Ghana on Monday 27th at 3pm and then we have the German Goethe Institut hosting her for a reading of her works and book signings on Wednesday 29th at 7pm. Good immersion into the arts scene in Ghana, this should be. All times are in GMT. Thanks to Martin Egblewogbe and Nana Yaw Sarpong of the Writers Project Ghana for making all this possible.

Please tune in online to the radio event if you’re not in Ghana and attend these events if you are. I am happy when blogging jumps from the screen and translates into tangible realities of literary adventure. I will be back to share the fun with you when the week is through.

Kofi Awoonor

Kofi Awoonor

The smart professionals in three piece
Sweating away their humanity in dribblets
And wiping the blood from their brow

I was among the very first people who heard the news of his passing, I should suppose, because when I did, nobody on my twitter timeline had tweeted it. I waited for confirmation and watched a few government and official feeds but found nothing. Finally I read it again from one very trusted source and that was it. Kofi Awoonor was dead.

We have found a new land
This side of eternity
Where our blackness does not matter
And our songs are dying on our lips

Today, he would have been 79. I will be celebrating him in a series of tweets and posts along with Kinna of Kinnareads. The hashtag to use is #Awoonor79.

Standing at hell-gate you watch those who seek admission
Still the familiar faces that watched and gave you up
As the one who had let the side down,
“Come on, old boy, you cannot dress like that”
And tears well in my eyes for them
Those who want to be seen in the best company
Have abjured the magic of being themselves
And in the new land we have found
The water is drying from the towel
Our songs are dead and we sell them dead to the other side

He was a fighter who took on life in the most activist of ways. In this poem, Kofi Awoonor tells of a period when the African identity was gradually stolen. Those ‘smart professionals’ (line 1), the elite, gave up their tie and dye for ‘three piece’(line 1) suits, while wiping the blood of their essence from their brows (line 3). They copied the whiteness of their colonizers, in a usurped ploy ‘Where our blackness does not matter’ (line 6). He calls them candidates at ‘hell-gate’ (line 8) seeking passage to this death, while ridiculing the ‘magic of being themselves’ (line14). He cries for them (line 12).

But from line 15, Awoonor sympathizes with the guilty and now says, ‘the new land we have found’ (line 15). He makes himself a part of the redemption because he concludes:

Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of the Moon
And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.

In those two lines, Awoonor talks about Rediscovery of a true self that he joins his brothers to pursue, “relearn[ing] the wisdom” (line 19) of the generations that went before.

His death has been a great loss and we shall tell of his legacy till we ourselves are gone. Happy Birthday, Kofi.

Illustration by The Black Narrator of Awoonor and his bibliography

Illustration by The Black Narrator of Awoonor and his bibliography

Ghanaian Literature Week comes to an end today. Very thankful to all you who have read this blog and taken part in the activities for the week by reading a Ghanaian writer, poet, literary work or anything connected to Ghanaian literature (and that includes this blog, thank you). When Kofi Awoonor died, I curated a Storify (also embedded as a tweet down the page) to mark responses by twitter users. Please click here to see and re-live the announcement and immediate responses. I will end the week by sharing with you a couple more tweets that have come in tribute to the man Kofi Awoonor who has been the center of my study for the week. Many of these will lead you to blog posts and news responses from which you can read tons more responses from the literary world. His death has been a great loss. Thanks to Kinna Reads for putting the week together and you can read all the shared posts on the week here. Maybe you never had the opportunity to express your condolences or share your thoughts on the man. By adding a comment on this post, you would have fulfilled it. Keep reading African poetry.

Awoonor and Anyidoho courtesy Nana Kofi Acquah (@GhTog)

Awoonor and Anyidoho courtesy Nana Kofi Acquah (@GhTog)

Permit me to sneak in this poem by Kofi Anyidoho before #GhanaLit Week comes to an end. I should have left it entirely to your own interpretation but I talk too much, forgive me. It’s very simple and very short so ride along with me as we review ‘The Last Dinner’. This picture of Kofi Awoonor and Kofi Anyidoho above, taken by Nana Kofi Acquah should be archived as a national treasure.

For Ghanaian Literature Week, I had intended to focus very heavily on Kofi Awoonor’s work but I have added two poems from Kofi Anyidoho, his cousin and Ghana’s other great when it comes to Ewe poetry. I hope I gain audience with Kofi Anyidoho the next time I am in Accra since I realised that his Wikipedia page is greatly under-updated. I could volunteer a week to gather as much info on him as his schedule would permit and probably stuff up that page. It’s time we took our writers more seriously in Africa as a whole.

The man Anyidoho has six published anthologies: Elegy for the Revolution(Greenfield Review Press, 1978), A Harvest of our Dreams (Heinemann 1984), Earthchild (Woeli, 1985), Ancestral Logic and Caribbean Blues (1992) Africa World Press, Praise song for the land: poems of hope & love & care (2002) and The place we call home and other poems (2011). He has contributed to and edited essays and papers on African literature. Among other prizes, his poetry has won the Langston Hughes prize, David Nicholson Prize and the BBC “Arts and Africa” Poetry Award.

The Last Dinner

I am the helpless fish
Frying in your bowl of cooking oil
You lean against the kitchen wall

Smiling with the thoughts of coming feasts
But nature in time will call
You’ll render account squatting on your heels
Your hunger returns with new demands
And I will not be there to
Feed the needs of
Recurrent appetite

REVIEW

This is a short poem by Anyidoho that seems to be a casual celebration of everyday life. But look deeper and you will see a ragingly deep meaning belying layers of seeming carelessness.

The poem is about a meal spoken from the perspective of the meal, for a break.  Anyidoho is talking to us as a fish, which calls itself ‘helpless’ (line 1), while frying in a ‘bowl of cooking oil’ (line 2) that belongs to the one who cooks. ‘Smiling’ (line 4) with the expectation of ‘coming feasts’ (line 4) and satisfaction, the cook leans ‘against the kitchen wall’ (line 3). Anyidoho’s fish is sneering at the cook for what will come next because he tells him ‘but nature… will call’ (line 5). The cook will ‘render account’ (line 6), almost hilariously reminding that the cook will face judgment day for eating him up.  But that account will be in a ‘squatting’ (line 6) pose on his heels, a response to the call of nature that will see him emptying his stomach of the feast long eaten. After that, new hunger will set in and with glee, the fish prophesies to him that ‘I will not be there’ (line 8) any longer ‘to feed the needs of recurrent appetite’.

This sounds like a poem written for humour but let us reason something out. Go back and take a look at the title: The Last Dinner. Usually this phrase refers to two historic things. Firstly, it is the name given to the meal last eaten by criminals who have been sentenced to death. You have a last meal that is prepared at your request. After that meal is eaten, your judgment day has arrived and your cup is full; away to the gallows. In this light, look at this fish, too talkative for a last meal, mocking the criminal on the way to his death! “Eat me today and there shall be judgment for you when I am gone”. A brilliant analogy.

The second, and probably more profound analogy, is the reference to ‘The Last Supper’ that Jesus and his disciples had on the night that one of them betrayed him to his crucifixion. That image has been reproduced in works of art by the great painters of the Renaissance era and this title is an echo to both the last supper that led to Jesus’ judgment and the works of art that were spawned from it. Judas the betrayer ate the fish and had to pay the price when his own judgment came, as he bought a field with the blood money he got and hanged himself. There are themes that echo in this poem and that story.

I hope that even though it is short, this poem’s resonance across time and application to not only a casual everyday thing as hunger but also concerns as grave as the last day of a condemned man, make it a worthy study of the literature of Kofi Anyidoho and a fitting contribution to Ghanaian Literature Week.

Awoonor : Flickr Creative Commons DanJSullivan

Awoonor : Flickr Creative Commons DanJSullivan

Today, I shall review a poem by our fallen poet, Kofi Awoonor, whose works I have decided to highlight for Ghanaian Literature Week. A lot has already been read, shared and reviewed for the week and you can follow the ongoing conversations on this aggregator post at Kinna Reads. The picture of Awoonor here is an artist’s pencil work of the picture I used on this previous post I reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week. Credit to DanJSullivan for the pencil work and Nana Kofi Acquah for the original picture.

Rediscovery

When our tears are dry on the shore
and the fishermen carry their nets home
and the seagulls return to bird island
and the laughter of the children recedes at night
there shall still linger the communion we forged
the feast of oneness whose ritual we partook of
There shall still be the eternal gateman
who will close the cemetery doors
and send the late mourners away
It cannot be the music we heard that night
that still lingers in the chambers of memory
It is the new chorus of our forgotten comrades
and the halleluyahs of our second selves

REVIEW

It is somehow poignant to be reviewing a poem on death and mourning by a poet who is dead and being mourned. This poem is one of Kofi Awoonor’s most studied poems and I will err if I don’t review it during this Ghanaian Literature Week in particular.

The poem is quite an easy read and so I will leave much of it to your own interpretation.

By saying ‘our tears are dry’ (line 1), Awoonor is telling us that his poem has something to do with mourning but then also, it is about hope. He goes on to paint different images of mourning for us, about “fishermen [carrying] their nets home” (line 2), “seagulls [returning] to bird island” (line 3), and the recession of the laughter of children at night (line 4).

Rather than be only about mourning, this poem is about hope, for which reason it is titled, ‘Rediscovery’. Awoonor says that after all the mourning has been done, there still will remain “the communion we forged” (line 5). The word ‘communion’ belongs to a class of words known as kangaroo words, being that, they contain another word which has the same meaning as themselves. In this case, ‘communion’ contains ‘union’ and they both mean same. Awoonor stresses that after those persons who we mourn have gone and we have left the mourning grounds, there will still remain the “feast of oneness whose ritual we partook of” (line 6), with them while they were alive with us.

The parting will not be easy, so that “the eternal gateman” (line 7) has to “send the late mourners away” (line 9). Awoonor’s staunch belief in a man on the other side of the life and death divide is also seen in his poem The Journey Beyond, which I have previously reviewed. He talks about ‘Kutsiami’, a boatman who will ferry him across to the other side. Going on here, he tells us that the memory of what will remain most, after the communion feast we shared, will not be the music that accompanies their funeral but rather “the new chorus” (line 12) of those who have left us, “our forgotten comrades” (line 12) and in response, “the halleluyahs of our second selves” (line 13). The ‘forgotten’ are not forgotten literally but he uses the word to say that they have passed on. These last two lines allude to the Christian belief that anyone who dies and makes it to heaven, will spend eternity with the host of heaven, singing new songs. The ‘halleluyahs’ he refers to, comes from a Hebrew word that breaks down quite literally to Hail-Yahweh”, which translated response churches usually give as “Praise the Lord” after a song has been sung. The second selves Awoonor talks about makes me believe that he meant that with every person that we lose, we still stay connected to them by an inner, higher being, or the better us, responding to the chorus they are gone on to sing. We Rediscover our inner selves – the title.

Just read the poem over again with this understanding and reflect on the fact that today, it is Awoonor who is our forgotten comrade, who is singing that chorus, to whom our second selves must needs obey his leading here, and respond the necessary halleluyahs.

Rest in Peace, Awoonor. One day, we shall all sing that chorus together.

Kofi Awoonor - Portrait by the amazing Nana Kofi Acquah

Kofi Awoonor – Portrait by the amazing Nana Kofi Acquah

Two months ago, we in Ghana woke up one Sunday morning to the news that our own Kofi Awoonor had died in the senseless massacre of civilians by Al Shabaab militants in the Kenyan Westgate mall attack. It was a difficult loss for us in the arts here and I have decided to review a couple of his poems for readers who may not be used to the man and his style. My luck is that I share the same mother tongue with him and if I translate along in my head, it makes me see better what he intends to convey in his poetry, even when it is written in English. Primarily, he wrote for an Ewe audience and is hailed with Kofi Anyidoho (also reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week) as the two principal voices for Ewe poetry. Read this tribute I wrote a day after Awoonor died and while at it, visit Nana Kofi Acquah’s photo blog for amazing photography from Ghana as we celebrate literature from Ghana. I will do other posts on Awoonor as the week proceeds, hang on. I want to dedicate this #GhanaLit week predominantly to his works and memory.

Kofi Awoonor was one of Ghana’s leading poets and wrote previously under the pen-name George Awoonor Williams. He is probably cousin to Ghana’s other poetry great, Kofi Anyidoho and both of them have shared poetry in which they were talking to the other.  Awoonor was born in 1935 at Wheta, in the Keta district of Ghana and had his schooling variedly in Ghana, the UK and the US. He taught literature also in the State University of New York, Stony Brook and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He has acted on stage, written for radio and been the director of a film company. At one time, he was Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil.

The distinction Awoonor’s poetry makes is its strong use of vibratory and rhythmic Ewe pronouncements. He is credited with popularising Ewe poetry and folk songs and many of his English poems have been twined with Ewe words in the right places. That is his open invitation to all who read his works to come to the understanding of his roots. He shows that primarily, he thinks in his local lingua and then in English, if it so requires. His published works include Rediscovery and other poems and Night of my blood. I review here Harlem on a Winter Night.

Harlem on a Winter Night

Huddled pavements, dark,

the lonely wail of a police-siren

moving stealthily across

grey alleys of anonymity

asking for food either

as plasma in hospital jars,

escaping fires in tenements

grown cold and bitter,

or seeking food in community garbage cans

to escape its eternal nightmare.

Harlem, the dark dirge of America

heard at evening

mean alleyways of poverty,

dispossession, early death

in jammed doorways and creaking elevators,

glaring defeat in the morning

of this beautiful beautiful America.

 

REVIEW

Usually, I don’t do literary style and device criticism of the poetry I review but look at the structure of the first three lines of this poem. I have been studying a bit about styles of poetry and I came across a style known as imagist. Imagist poems paint pictures and let you see scenery by contrasting ideas. This style of imagist poetry originated with the Japanese in their haikus and anyone seeking to read haikus should hop over to Celestine’s blog at Reading Pleasure for tons of them. Why am I talking about haikus? Because Awoonor’s first three lines are written to mimic a haiku. The way you identify a haiku is by checking to see if it is 3 lines usually unrhymed, with syllable count by line at 5-7-5, adding up to 17. The opening three lines here make that 5-9-7, adding two syllables each to the last two lines, but they should pass as some sort of flawed haiku for their structure, imagery and unrhymed three lines. Don’t stretch that too long though; it’s just a personal observation. In any case, haikus will end on the third line.

The poem is a description at winter time of Harlem, a district of New York on Manhattan Island. Awoonor is describing this district to us and in his first three lines, he immediately tells us that the pavements are dark and huddled (line 1), expressing a sense of loneliness. He emphasizes that in line 2 by calling a blaring police-siren ‘lonely’ as it steals its way across town.

In the fifth line onwards, Awoonor tells us why he writes this poem at all. Harlem is one of those poor districts, probably taken for granted by authority and consequently, overridden by criminals and gangs. There are poor people ‘asking for food’ (line 5) ‘as plasma in hospital jars’ (line 6). This gives a feel that they are destitute, so poor they need reviving food like life-blood, served as supplements on hospital handouts. They escape ‘tenements’ (poor housing with only basic amenities; line 7), which themselves have become too ‘cold and bitter’ (line 8).They would rather seek food in ‘community garbage cans’ (line 9), living like stray dogs and cats in order to find some solace and escape ‘eternal nightmares’ (line 10). Is this America? Yes. Awoonor is not mocking Harlem. He is mocking America and sympathizing with Harlem because he goes on to call Harlem ‘the dark dirge of America’ (line 11). He is almost asking if, surrounded by all the abundance, a suburb could be so neglected. The dirge, ‘heard at evening’ (line 12), is an allusion to the siren-blare from line 2 which he also calls a ‘wail’. That wail of the siren is like the dirge of all Harlem, paraded stealthily across the streets like a funeral procession for a neighbourhood that has no reason to be poor. He talks about ‘alleyways of poverty/dispossession’ (lines 13-14) that evoke robbery and impersonality. The ‘dispossession’ could refer to people getting robbed of their possessions in the district or America in subtle denial that it knows Harlem. But Awoonor is not asking America for explanations for Harlem. He has concluded that Harlem is ‘glaring defeat in the morning’ (line 15), after the night has passed, ‘of this beautiful, beautiful America’ (line 16). America, too beautiful, too developed, too rich to have as poor a suburb as Harlem. In this context, ‘beautiful’ is not only literal but also refers to the country’s economic might. His emphasis on the word ‘beautiful’ is to buttress the utter disbelief he feels that America has a slum, a Harlem unlike any he has probably seen in his home country, or continent.

Awoonor can never be forgotten. Rest in peace, wise old man. We shall tell your stories to our children.