Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani’s Introduction to New-Generation African Poets (Tatu)
Introduction in Two Movements
by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani
But Who Is Counting? We Are.
It is impossible to introduce the third box set of chapbooks by African poets without reflecting at least briefly on what has transpired since we embarked on this splendid adventure. In short, good and exciting things have been happening. African poets are being published and their work is encouraging us to think about aesthetics, poetics, and the business of publishing in useful and necessary ways.
Since each chapbook in this box set has been introduced with insight and generosity by a cluster of remarkable poets, our reflections here will not assume the traditional role of looking in close detail at the work you will find in the collection, but instead, we reflect, albeit tentatively, on the position of poetics in African writing today. These collections are demanding from us exactly this kind of discussion, so we hope that these thoughts will trigger even more discussions around this subject in the future.
To date, Warsan Shire, Clifton Gachagua, Ladan Osman, Nick Makoha, and Len Verwey, all poets from our first box set, have secured contracts for full-length volumes or have already seen released their first full-length books of poetry. The African Poetry Book Series will release four new titles in 2016 featuring poetry we have solicited or have received over the transom by some remarkable African writers, as well as a new volume of our “New and Selected” series from a major African poet, Gabriel Okara. Our third Sillerman First Book Prize winner, Mahtem Shiferraw’s collection Fuchsia, will also appear in 2016. We are, understandably, I think, quite excited about these developments, and that excitement increased this year when we started to receive the manuscripts of poets recommended to us from contacts around the world, and poets we had encountered in the various prizes we have judged that feature African poets for this box set.
I was recently at the Berlin International Poetry Festival, which, along with its counterparts in Rotterdam and Medellin, happens to be a regular meeting place for poetry festival directors from all over the world. The ambitious and hustling “world poet” does well to be at these events in what can often feel like a setting for auditions, networking “encounters” in the style of a poetry job fair since these directors are, one senses, constantly in search of new talent for their events. It is, of course, a good thing. But it is also an occasion for these directors, punters, and scouts to talk about the challenges they face. So many people came to me first to thank the African Poetry Book Fund for allowing them at least one central place where they can find a number of African poets; and secondly for the fact that these box sets and the books we have been publishing have allowed them to seek out the African poets through a mechanism other than the usual web crawl through YouTube and Vimeo for examples of the performances of these poets.
I have a complex of feelings about this development since, on one hand, I value greatly the rich tradition of performance that thrives in African poetry today; and on the other, I do worry that more often than not, publishers, programmers, and other players in the poetry world have felt comfortable with the circumstance that relegates African poetry to performance only. They do so sometimes for noble reasons, like respecting the importance of the oral tradition and the explicitly stated views by many African poets that their work is written primarily for performance. However, the effect of this position is hardly noble, nor is it, in fact, a product of genuine examination.
A quiet debate taking place among African poets surrounds the “authenticity” of this notion of performance as it pertains to the wave of spoken word performance that dominates much of what one could ambitiously call the poetry stages in many African countries today. Several African poets have made it clear that their emergence as writers, their empowerment as performers and poets, owes a great deal, if not everything, to the explosion of spoken word performance that emerged in the US in the late 1980s and 1990s with an explicit rootedness in the hip-hop aesthetic and culture. Many more do not say this explicitly, but it is clear from their work that this is the dominant influence on their ideas of what is valid poetry. The conscious performers of that generation were fully aware that spoken word poetry predated the emergence of hip-hop, but all would agree that hip-hop was the core aesthetic of the spoken word movement which, like hip-hop, spread its tentacles all over the world.
And this is not to undervalue the role of great artists like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Gil Scott Heron and the hundreds of artists who mastered the art of performance. The power of hip-hop has been its capacity to be adopted and adapted to various cultures around the world, and the countries of Africa have been no exception. However, it is important to recognize that the spread of hip-hop is inextricably tied to the spread of American capitalism and broader corporate imperialism, and to recognize it as another of the many inevitable sociopolitical forces that have come to shape most modern societies even as they have either embraced, mimicked, resisted, or reinterpreted those forces to suit their own realities and their traditions.
That last sentence, of course, should be tempered by a recognition of another important fact, which is that the spread of hip-hop and its attraction to African writers as well as writers of color around the world is part of a larger and positive Pan-Africanist movement that celebrates (and has for centuries) the ways in which Africans from around the world are finding common ground and connection through shared ideas of art and culture. If we do away with the notions of “purity,” we may be able to celebrate the persistence of solidarity between people of African descent despite systematic efforts to break that connection. However, I point to the fluidity of cultural influence and change because it demands of us a willingness to recognize that Africa’s heterogeneity of history and culture is elemental to the art that is created there.
In other words, the efforts to presume that the “Africanness” of “African Poetry” is defined by performance, while “African Poetry” that is written and published amounts to an imperial colonizer’s imposition, is reductionist, limiting, and insulting, as it underestimates the extent to which, in dynamic and evolving cultures, the artists are willing to engage a range of possibilities to advance art and its relevance to their times and to their societies. Culture is flux, flux is culture.
Above all, what we hope for is a poetics that is more African than it has ever been, but we are in the business of trusting the African poet to discover what this Africanness means. It may well emerge as something quite specific, something located with a particular tribe, ethnic group, neighborhood, or community, or it may grow out of some visionary insight into the ways in which Africa as a continent is changing.
The African Poetry Book Fund is a project, then, that seeks to undermine the easy ways of reducing Africa to notions that do not recognize the complexity and variety of experiences and practices that constitute poetry written by Africans. In many ways, it would be tempting to try to offer some definitive statement about what African poetry is, but this would be a silly thing to attempt, and, at the end of the day, such exercises belong to our colleagues in academia and not to us in our capacity as editors. It strikes me as more critical to at least make us see what African poets at home and abroad are writing. All of these poets share one thing in common: they consider themselves Africans and do so not as individuals of the historical diaspora, which created new nations of people of African descent in the Americas and in parts of Europe, but as individuals who have an immediate and very recent connection to Africa, either as residents or as what we like to call immigrants. It is important that they consider themselves Africans both for academic reasons and for practical reasons: the project is called the African Poetry Book Fund, after all.
Yet even as I am unwilling to offer a prescription of what makes an African poem African, I certainly am enthusiastic about observing that African poets are writing poetry of great variety, range, and complexity in terms of styles, forms, and subject matter. I am enthusiastic about the ways in which the varied backgrounds, language groups, cultures, and histories that make up this diverse continent are all reflected in the poetry that these poets are producing.
But I do not want to pretend that the editing of this box set and this series has not been a product of the distinctive tastes of Chris Abani and myself. By this, I mean there is nothing unusual about this series, as series go. Editors have their biases and inclinations, and these are reflected in the selections they make. They are also reflected in the ways we have edited the collection. But we are also teachers, editors of long standing, and serious readers of poetry from all around the world and within the long tradition of African poetry. Thus, we come with a broader sense than most of what might prove interesting and effective in poetry. We are also as interested in taking the aesthetic inclinations of the poets seriously and challenging them to bring to these goals a full command of craft. We believe that the more options an artist has, the greater the choices he or she will make. And so we are proud of the eclectic nature of the work in this box set. There is no prescriptive content at work here, but instead, above all, we find the work urgent, well-crafted, and beautifully and movingly evocative.
Perhaps it was subconscious doubt that led us to name the first box set in a manner that did not suggest a series that would go on to be published each year for at least ten years as we initially conceived of it. We simply called it Seven New-Generation African Poets. Since the second was distinguished by the increased number of poets featured, we kept up this pattern of ignoring the fact that at some point we would need to find other ways to distinguish one volume from the next, and called it Eight New-Generation African Poets. Due to the fact that we had managed to come to an agreement with Akashic Books to publish with them three iterations of the box set before reviewing the relationship, and the more practical fact that this third box set contains eight featured poets, we were prompted by Johnny Temple of Akashic Books to tackle the issue once and for all. By tagging on to our new title the word tatu, a Swahili word denoting the number three, we are codifying our faith and confidence that this is truly a series—and our ambition to ensure that it continues to exist in the world.
Contending with the Ghosts
In the tradition of written poetry in Africa, in recent times, and within the Anglophone tradition, Christopher Okigbo stands tall. Very few continental poets, in any language, have approached his power (with the exception perhaps being Kofi Awonoor and Dennis Brutus), in terms of the prophetic, the singularity of voice, and the ability to meld so effectively the Western forms of his education with those of the traditional forms he came out of—proverbs, song, chant, and incantation. In this, perhaps, he surpasses all others of his generation and even generations to come. In his poem “Come Thunder” (and the slim volume of poems titled after it), we see the full effects of Yeats, of the Romantics, but also of the funerary chant of the Igbo, the invocatory chanting of traditional priests and something else, something entirely Okigbo.
I bring this up not to pit the written text against the oral, or to suggest that the only way forward is the merging of Western and African poetic aesthetics (even though we have seen Wole Soyinka do it effortlessly in drama), but rather to say that intertextuality can only enrich what is already rich tradition. I also want to draw attention to the efficacy of the written form, in terms of distribution and endurance and therefore influence.
Part of our decision to publish as many emerging poets as we can comes from this desire to ensure that there is a body of work available to generations to come.
While it would be naïve and perhaps untrue for me to pretend that positioning African poetry in the Western imagination in new ways is not important, what is more important for us is creating a conversation among the poets working continentally and across the diaspora, not just about what is or what isn’t African poetry, but to open up aesthetic expressions not previously encountered.
It is already a limited project in spite of the fact that (with this collection included) we have published twenty-four new poets (and, as Kwame Dawes notes, some of whom have gone on to publish first books and create careers), because to truly be as Pan-African as Kwame and I see it, we would need to be able to translate work from the many languages that written work is produced in on the continent, from Hausa to Shona, and also from the main languages of colonial conquest, like Arabic, French, and Portuguese. Yet we must begin somewhere and hope that this momentum will help our goals expand and grow.
Many of the African freedom and anticolonial movements had their formations in the slave revolts of Jamaica and Haiti, and later the civil rights movements of the United States. Some of what it means to be a modern African has been shaped by conversations started in the diaspora, and so it seems only fitting that the aesthetic conversation within African poetry include those voices in the dialogue.
African fiction has already broken through this in ways that leave us all with no doubt that African novelists rank amongst the best in the world, from Mozambique’s Mia Cutto to Nigeria’s Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie. For obvious reasons, like the economies of scale involved, African poetry has received no such investment and therefore lags behind the African novel in global recognition.
That African poetry still has a strong link at least in the academic sense to the oral, is not to say that orality is holding it back. Or that orality doesn’t have clear structural and formal elements like those found in the written. This is not really about that kind of conversation. One only has to look at the body of oral poetry that comprises the Yoruba Ifa religious corpus, including Ijala and Iyere, among others, to see that there are clear forms and rhyme schemes, slant rhymes, punning, and the lean into the ineffable. The only difference between oral forms and written forms is the nature and range of improvisation that the oral allows.
The problem with the poem in Africa staying rooted in the oral is more political in ways that can defeat aesthetic growth. But that impulse is a ghost left over by the Negritude movement, which, all of its successes notwithstanding, created a false impression of African literature and art forms as expressions of the soul that stand against and in opposition to Western forms of the mind. This is of course not true, and yet it has persisted such that the opportunities for growth in dialogue with literatures from all over the world have been squandered.
Where hip-hop and attendant spoken word traditions tend to emphasize the performativity (as already detailed by Kwame), another form that had early influences on African artists is reggae. Where hip-hop grew out of the streets and lends itself to more improvisation and plasticity in the application across culture and country, reggae was a highly rehearsed and studio-produced form that, while embraced by musicians like Lucky Dube and Majek Fashek and bent toward the indigenous, has seen little borrowed from it other than in the political sense.
And so here we are again, eight more chapbooks and poets in, with aesthetics and politics of such differing range that they strain to come together cohesively in one collection—but they do; no doubt about it. New forms, linguistic play, and formal approaches proliferate. These books represent a strong emerging conversation, one that seems to be able to balance the text and the performative and remain fresh and new.
Kwame and I believe that by the time we reach perhaps the fiftieth chapbook, we will be able to finally track the trends and developments and new possibilities and even a future for African poetry. For now, it is humbling and personally enriching to be able to curate this series with Kwame Dawes.
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, Eight New-Generation African Poets, and New-Generation African Poets (Tatu).
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 and New-Generation African Poets (Tatu).
Posted: Apr 13, 2016
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Chris Abani, Kwame Dawes, Poetry, Akashic Insider, Africa, series, introduction, limited edition, poet, Eight New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, Eight New-Generation African Poets, chapbook, African poetry, box set, Tatu, New-Generation African Poets (Tatu), New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu)
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