Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani’s Introduction to Eight New-Generation African Poets
New Yorkers: Don’t miss Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani during the PEN World Voices Festival at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 East 3rd Street) on Thursday, May 7, at 7:00 PM. Click here for more information.
The plan is simple, as publishing plans go. Publish seven to ten chapbooks by African poets each year. Promote said chapbooks. In ten years there will be seventy to one hundred chapbooks by African poets that might not have existed before. Oh, and make sure the work is first-rate, representative, and new. This plan only works if there are seven to ten really gifted African poets who have not yet had a major publication. This only works if you know how to find them. This only works if you have a team of brilliant editors willing to help select and, where necessary, nurture these poets. This only works if you have the resources to do it. With the inimitable and generous Chris Abani as coeditor, and with a supportive team of editors—Bernardine Evaristo, Gabeba Baderoon, John Keene, and Matthew Shenoda—to assist in the selection and introduction writing, we had the team that could make this happen. Finally, with a great bequest by Laura Sillerman, the project had the funding support needed to make it all possible.
In our first year we collaborated with Slapering Hol Press to produce an exciting box set, Seven New-Generation African Poets, with a roster of poets who were already positioned to embark on impressive publishing careers.
Of the seven poets included, four are currently anticipating publication of their debut full-length books. The other three will see first collections in the next two years. We dare not take credit for these successes; that was never the point. What we take some joy in is the fact that the series has generated the kind of interest in African poetry that we have not seen in a long time. This is a good thing. Any anxiety that there is not ample talent to sustain such a project has proven to be absurd.
This year, Akashic Books has assumed the role of publisher and has brought its remarkable savvy and creative brilliance to the project. This year’s lineup of poets has grown to eight, and the quality of the poetry remains as stellar as ever. Eight New-Generation African Poets features poets from the Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Angola, as well as the US and the UK where some of these poets now reside. The poems open up spaces of the African imagination that are varied in their topical interests, but consistently alive with surprise and energy. Several of these poets reflect the more recent African diaspora, and so they offer us a complex of identities that are negotiated though the demands of the poetic project of using language to somehow express their sense of the world.
For some people who follow African poetry, who have attended readings by poets in clubs and halls in Harare or Cape Town or London, these names will not be unfamiliar. For people paying close attention to literary journals and online poetry sites around the world, these names may ring a bell. The point is that these are poets whose work reflects a striking clarity of voice and aesthetics that speaks to their long experience at the craft in some instances, and to their uniquely refreshing genius in others. At the end of the day, the chapbooks are a delight to read and continue to reinforce what we have been certain about since this project began, that African poetry is rich with variety and poetic complexity. Of course we went out in search of the poets. And we got important help along the way.
Many of the poets we considered were introduced to us by people like the writer and literary activist Beverley Nambozo of Uganda. Others came from writers in the UK and the US, and still others came to our attention in contests like the Sillerman First Book Prize and the Brunel University African Poetry Prize. We scoured venues like the Badilisha Poetry podcast site to find voices that might engage us. We read manuscript after manuscript to narrow things down to these eight.
We can conclude that African poetry is varied, vibrant, earnest, and brimming with the energy and intelligence we enjoy in the best poetry. But each of these writers demonstrates something else—a distinctive voice that is fresh and compelling. These are urgent voices as engaged with the politics of human existence as with the beauties of the world we live in. If you read these chapbooks, I am confident that you will not quickly forget these names: Liyou Libsekal (Ethiopia), Vuyelwa Maluleke (South Africa), Amy M. Lukau (US/Angola), Inua Ellams (Nigeria/UK), Viola Allo (Cameroon/US), Peter Akinlabi (Nigeria), Blessing Musariri (Zimbabwe), and Janet Kofi-Tsekpo (UK/Ghana). The art gracing the covers of these chapbooks comes from the remarkable Nigerian artist Imo Imeh.
Our hope, though, is that we are not simply introducing these poets to a Western readership, but indeed, first and foremost, to an African readership. One of the sad ironies of the situation with poetry in Africa is how infrequently published work crosses the borders of the various nation-states and regions of the continent. Some of the writers are part of a growing circuit of spoken-word poetry in larger cities, and for those able to attend festivals there is a chance to hear some of these poets. But given the challenges of publishing and distribution on the continent, the books are not making that journey, and while one can overvalue the importance of the published work, one must never underestimate its value as a critical source of artistic and cultural memory for our societies. This box set, we hope, will do that work in meaningful ways.
I am often nostalgic and like to return to origin stories. About how this set of books, this publishing intervention, was fleshed out during the Poetry Africa tour we were part of. While in Zimbabwe, we encountered the most beautiful moments—being able to touch Paleolithic rock paintings made by our ancestors so long ago it beggars the imagination—and a generosity amongst poets and writers that we could all use. And also an anger, a justified one. Zimbabwe (like many African countries, including my own) is a difficult place to live, much less to make art—the result of misguided leaders. Africans are engaged politically and humanely with the need to find languages and modes of confrontation with this overwhelming difficulty. But that anger often lacks the shape and the language or even aesthetic framework that it needs.
This became sadly evident when Kwame Dawes was about to give a talk at the Book Café in Harare on Bob Marley—as poet, as musician, as political activist, as artist—and the house deejay was playing bad club music. Kwame asked repeatedly for the music to be changed to Bob’s discography. Bob was a sellout, the young deejay said glibly. Kwame delivered a stern talking-to about the misguided ideas the young man had, about the inability to see a craft that was truly African, an aesthetic response that had been thought through rather than delivered blithely, angrily even, as a sound bite. Chastened, the deejay let Bob’s “No Woman, No Cry” fill the room, the very song that Nobel Prize–winning poet Derek Walcott had said was a poem he wished he could have written—that very moment a revelation in itself, of hope and the transformation of our own selves by our own minds.
It bears saying that everything in African poetry and even music reminds one of the way reggae music, in its three and a half beats over four per bar count, dips into the “chekem,” as Kwame Dawes explains in his book Natural Mysticism: Towards a Reggae Aesthetic. That lyric dip contains all the ineffable expression of the middle passage, its attendant melancholy, and the condition of trying to shape a new national identity for Jamaica, and yet it retains all the glorious transformative history of Africa. The turn that transforms reggae songs into poems of endless yearning that oddly satisfies us, where the yearning is the arrival and not the satiation. A turn that allows a simultaneity of expression, sometimes contradictory, to exist, making a reggae song part praise, part sorrow and lament, part political chant, part love song, and much more.
This is the turn we find in this new African poetic moment. A poetics that struggles to connect the global sweep of Africans with their ancestral past, with their possible future, all Achebe, all Ifa chant, all hip-hop, and all simultaneous: a simultaneity embodied in that moment in which I stood next to Lebo Mashile, in front of an ancient Neolithic rock painting of an elephant, reaching across a small trench to touch it, while listening to Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” on my iPod, while the guide who brought us was wearing a FUBU tracksuit with dress shoes—a true “chekem” if there ever was one. This is a turn in reggae that has its roots in Africa and that made reggae the formative musical form of modern African political identity, from Egypt to the Cape. So always we are confronted with new ways to think about being African, to think about that term at all and not limit ourselves to definitive ethnic nationalities, but rather to spread wider. In these new poets, clear, strong, and prominent voices, we begin to see the negotiation of a kind of modernist thought on the continent that the early rush to nationalism and to nationalize nascent states interrupted. It is always reassuring to me to see this being struggled with by the continent’s writers, who I have often called the curators of our humanity.
Here in these chapbooks, in the lyrical composition of the poets, I welcome you to a new African lyric dip. At once lament, at once protest, at once love song, at once incantation of hope and a clear future, at once entertaining, at once a new direction and a link in a chain of a human African achievement, an unending lineage of light.
KWAME DAWES is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror, as well as two novels, numerous anthologies, and plays. He has won Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy, and was the 2013 awardee of the Paul Engel Prize. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. Dawes is the associate poetry editor at Peepal Tree Press, the series editor of the University of South Carolina Poetry Series, and the founding director of the African Poetry Book Fund. Dawes teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is director of the biennial Calabash International Literary Festival. He is the author of Gomer’s Song; translator of Go de Rass to Sleep; and editor of So Much Things To Say and Eight New-Generation African Poets.
CHRIS ABANI’s prose includes The Secret History of Las Vegas, Song for Night, The Virgin of Flames, Becoming Abigail, GraceLand, and Masters of the Board. His poetry collections are Sanctificum, There Are No Names for Red, Feed Me the Sun, Hands Washing Water, Dog Woman, Daphne’s Lot, and Kalakuta Republic. He holds a BA in English, an MA in gender and culture, an MA in English, and a PhD in literature and creative writing. He is the recipient of a PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, a Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond Margins Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award, and a Guggenheim Award. Born in Nigeria, he is currently Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University, in Chicago. He is the editor of Eight New-Generation African Poets.
Posted: Apr 29, 2015
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Chris Abani, Kwame Dawes, Poetry, Akashic Insider, Africa, South Africa, Bernardine Evaristo, introduction, limited edition, poet, Eight New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, Eight New-Generation African Poets, chapbook, African poetry, Slapering Hol Press, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Liyou Libsekal, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Amy M. Lukau, Inua Ellams, Viola Allo, Peter Akinlabi, Blessing Musariri, Janet Kofi-Tsekpo, Imo Imeh, box set, PEN World Voices, PEN World Voices Festival, Nuyorican Poets Cafe
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