African Poetry Book Fund Spotlight


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Welcome,
welcome to the Library of Congress. I’m really very happy to see
you all here for what promises to be a very exciting program. I’m Mary-Jane Deeb,
chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division
here at the Library. And I make a little
ad for our division. Our division is made up of
three sections, the African, the Near Eastern, and
the Hebraic Sections. We’re responsible for materials
from 78 countries in the Near East, Central Asia, the Caucusus as well as from the entire
continent of Africa. We also serve these
materials to patrons here in our reading room
and around the Library. And we organize programs, exhibits,
conferences and other activities that highlight these collections. And that inform our
patrons about the countries and cultures these
publications come from. The African Section has been
partnering for the past five years on a special series entitled
“Conversations with African Poets and Writers” and has been
partnering with the Poetry and Literature Center at the
Library and the Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa. So we were delighted to meet
with Kwame Dawes, founding member of the African Poetry Book Fund
and editor of the Prairie Schooner, a couple of months ago over
dinner and we began discussing and planning this very special
event today on African poetry which fitted right in with
what we had been doing for the past five years. So I very much hope that this
program is only the first, on the beginning of
many programs to come that we will all be doing together. So now, I would like to
recognize Professor Kwame Dawes and to thank him for bringing
the African Poetry Book Fund to the Library. I would also like to thank
all those who have made this and all the other programs
in the series possible. Of course, Rob Casper, the dynamo,
the head of the Poetry Center and Anya Creightney, the partner
in this endeavor who has worked so very hard on the Library side
to put the program together. As well as our long-term partners in
the Conversations with African Poets and Writers, the President of the
Africa Society, Patricia Baine, and the Chairperson
of the Africa Society, Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater —
who unfortunately due to trains and, you know how they work,
has not been able to — will not be able to join us. I would also recognize — I would
also like to recognize my own team, Dr. Angel Batiste, Specialist
for West Africa, Marieta Harper, Specialist for Francophone
Africa, Laverne Page, Specialist for Southern Africa, Eve
Ferguson, the Reference Librarian for East Africa, many of whom are
here today and took a very active — were very active in
the whole program. And now, let me pass the
baton on to Patricia. Patricia Baine, President
of the African Society for the National Summit
on Africa who is going to make a few remarks as well. Patricia? [ Applause ]>>Patricia Baine: I
guess it’s good afternoon. Hi, a very warm welcome to
all of you and especially to our poets and writers. The Africa Society is a nonprofit
organization that works to educate, inform, and advocate on
behalf of Africa in order to create understanding and to
promote meaningful engagement with Africa that will encourage
partnerships on culture and education and technology
and commerce. This is why we are very supportive
of [inaudible] education. With increasing advancements
in technology that continue to bring people closer to us, we
appreciative to you, our writers and our poets for your literary
contributions that communicates and continue to interpret the
world for generations to come. We all know the power of a book and how a good book can transport
you to a different world. And while you’re there, you
will inevitably learn something about the author’s world. And to us, that is why African
literary work is essential in our efforts to educate
about African continents because when I was growing up, all I knew about the west
was what I read in a book. And so now, we have the same
opportunity as writers and poets to communicate our world
to the rest of the world. We will, at some point here
today, have some students who are on their way [laughter] and they are
extraordinary educator who’s part of one of our other flagship
programs, Teach Africa. They are from the School
Without Walls. They are very excited to be here
today so when they are speaking to you, you’ll understand
why they are very animated. They are all, as I understand
it, aspiring writers. So enjoy the program and
it’s good to meet all of you. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Rob Casper: Thank you,
Patricia and thank you, Mary-Jane. It’s been wonderful to work with
the Africa Society and the African and Middle Eastern Division to make
this program in this year possible. I’m Rob Casper. I’m the head of the Poetry
and Literature Center here at the Library of Congress. Just a couple of things, let me just
ask you to turn off your cellphones and any other electronic
devices that you have that might interfere
with this event. Second, please note this program is
being recorded for future webcast. You might participate and
you give us permission for future use of this recording. So if you look at the program,
that should be on your chair, you’ll see the list of the great
poets who are participating. I’m not going to go in and do
much in terms of introduction of the panelists or the readers. What I do want to say is as much as
I try to be dynamo in this world, I could never match the
wonder of Kwame Dawes. Kwame Dawes, for those of you
who’ve ever had the chance to meet with him, and especially, for those
of you who had the chance to talk to him about what he
is doing on behalf of the African Poetry Book Fund. Know that the kind of ambition he
embodies is the kind of ambition that can change the world and I feel
like he should be up here instead of me introducing his family which are the other editorial board
members who will be participating as moderators of discussion. We’ve also asked him to come up after the moderator discussion
section to introduce all the poets. All I can say is thank God for
Kwame Dawes and please welcome him. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Dawes: Okay, thank
you, thank you, thank you Rob. And it’s good to be back here. This is — it’s just
a fantastic space. It’s a fantastic — first of all,
it’s just a beautiful room, right? But secondly, you know, I came
to the Library of Congress for the first time in 1986. And I think — I remember
writing in my journal there is so much information
and knowledge here and I already have quickly
discovered that things that I’ve been looking for
in the Jamaican archives that I couldn’t find,
I was finding here. And I just thought, “With so much
information and knowledge here, if we pay attention to it,
we really shouldn’t mess up too much in the future, right?” And so, for us to be here
and for us to be able to celebrate African poetry in
this space, I think it’s fantastic. And our hope is that
it is the beginning of a really continued
relationship that they’ve been — there’s been some great
work done before. If you just go online and see
some of the writers who have come through here, it’s fantastic. But also, it’s to create interesting
conversations and to piggyback on other conversations with other
centers and so on and so forth around the world especially
in Africa. So that’s the exciting thing. And I’m really, really grateful to
all involved, you know, from Rob and Mary-Jane Deeb and,
you know, it’s been a — it’s been a fantastic thing. So I’m just going to
say a few quick words about the panelists who’ll be here
and really to say that for me, people ask me, Kwame, how are you?” And I say, “Man, I’m good, man.” And they’ll say, well, why? [ Laughter ] And I say, “I am involved
and working with some of the most amazing
people that I’ve ever sort of worked together as a group.” And that’s the team
that is responsible for the African Poetry Book Fund. It’s the editorial team and here are
the characteristics of that team. They are all brilliant like no joke, like really exceptionally
brilliant and bright. They volunteer like
their time at time when they shouldn’t but they do. They volunteer their time and then
they are the most proactive people who are really about community. We don’t fight. We don’t argue. And if today, I just sent like a
text and I said, “Guys, I need this, that and that and that,” literally,
in a few hours, people in England, people — they’re responding
right away. It’s — I’m not kidding you. This is one of the most
amazing teams of people. So you’re going to meet a
few of them but I just want to mention everybody
on the editorial team of the African Poetry Book Fund. We’ve just added two people to our
group, one of whom you’ll meet. One is Phillippa Yaa de Villiersis
who is based in South Africa and she just joined
the team this fall. And she’s a wonderful poet, really a
tremendous poet and a great actress. She’s done some tremendous
theater in South Africa. So she’s there and you know,
we do everything by you know, psychic communication [laughter]. The other person who is
not here is John Keene. John Keene is an African-American
poet and thinker and just brilliant all-around guy and a translator of
no joke about that. He’s a serious and
gifted translator. And one of the most
generous people in the world. Bernardine Evaristo is
a powerhouse in England. She’s literally on her own sort
of energy transformed the position of black writers and black writing
in Britain at so many levels and so she’s on that team as well. And then Gabeba Baderoon who is
from South Africa, wonderful poet, just all-around fantastic
person and so she’s on the team. So the two — the three
people that you’ll meet today, first of all, Chris Abani. And typically one need not, you
know, introduce Chris Abani. But out of politeness, I will. Chris — Chris [laughter] —
first of all, Chris has been like, the co-partner in the
beginnings of this discussion. And Chris, we tease Chris and say, he’s the most generous
man in the universe. We’re teasing him kind
of but he kind of has that — that gets in him. That’s just a part of him. But above all, Chris
is a brilliant poet. And he writes novels and
people think it’s great. But he’s really like a
[laughter] far better poet than he is [laughter] —
than he is a novelist. And if you haven’t read
his book,Sanctificum, you should because it will
transform you and make you think of poetry in different ways. Chris originated from
Nigeria and Chris lives and works here in the States. Also coming on stage
is Aracelis Girmay. And Aracelis just joined
the team recently. I’ll give you a simple example. Aracelis has just joined the
team and immediately, she’s — she didn’t know that
the team volunteers to mentor people just
automatically after they look at work that is sent to us. She didn’t know we do that. And sometimes, the volunteering
is not really volunteering like I tell them, you need
to go mentor somebody. But typically they just and
spontaneously after our first sort of go-around, she writes me and
says, look, I really want to work with this person, and
I go, “Hallelujah. It was like, this is perfect. And Aracelis is an amazing poet. I don’t know if you know her work. But her work is just
powerful and moving and full of heart and full of beauty. And she’s, you know,
just a person — she’s just smart and
thoughtful and fantastic. So it’s great to have
her on the team and she’ll be here talking to you. And then finally, Matthew Shenoda, who is essentially our
security and bodyguard. [ Laughter ] He doesn’t smile a lot,
that kind of thing. [ Laughter ] Matthew is somebody I trust
implicitly and explicitly. I’ve known Matthew for many years. Matthew is beautiful poet, great
thinker and always thinking ahead for what we can do and so on. The funny thing is Matthew
probably looks like a 50-year-old but he’s really 26 [laughter] and — but he has twins so that
explains the problem. But these are fantastic people
and you’ll get to know them and you’ll get to see the
spirit of what we are doing and the excitement of it. So I welcome them to come on stage
and the discussion will take place. All right, so Chris Abani, Matthew
Shenoda and Aracelis Girmay. [ Applause ]>>Chris Abani: Good afternoon.>>Good afternoon.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: And
then we’re all here and we need to put this thing on. Okay. So I was going to say — my
first question was going to say, it was going to be —
why are you involved with the African Poetry Book Fund? But now you know [laughter]
after having heard Kwame speak, you know, why they’re involved. But I’m still going
to ask the question. I want each of you — I’m going to
ask each of you to say something about themselves but also
in addition to Kwame Dawes, why did you, why are you
part of this project? Why, what you think your role
is, should be and, you know, how you feel you’re
contributing to this project?>>Chris Abani: Okay,
hi, you can hear me? All right, I always have
to check like a big man with a small voice [laughter]. And so, I think for me, perhaps
historically among the group, apart from probably Bernardine,
have known Kwame the longest. And it’s on to more
than 20 years now.>>Kwame Dawes: Yeah.>>Chris Abani: And
what people don’t know but my first ever poetry workshop
was with Kwame Dawes in London and so Kwame started something
called the Afro Star School of Poetry and he would
come to London, black British poets had no mentors. And he would run this workshop. And we all were kind of very cocky and assumed we knew what we
were talking about and then like I think the first hour, Kwame
sent everyone into like panic. He’s, you know, people were
like, yeah, I’m a poet, you know. Like I’ve been writing for 15 years. And Kwame was, “Oh,
that’s interesting. What is your typical
syllabic count per line?” And they’re like what. So Kwame, I sort of have
known and sort of — I have seen Kwame do things that
Calabash started as a conversation with Colin Channer in this
aisle of a supermarket. We were buying orange juice and we couldn’t find the
large orange juice in England. And Colin said, I’m so tired of
the way the English would put on — no big orange juice, you know. [Laughter] It’s just like them for
small, small festival and things. And Kwame said, “Want me to
do a big festival, you know.” And so I was coming up
behind and I said, “Oh, we’re going to need
a calabash for this.”>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Absolutely.>>Chris Abani: And
so, what is it is where other people have planning
meetings to have planning meetings, an idea occurs and from
the moment of the inception of the idea is already the
planning and implementation of it. So this idea that Kwame has
always had which is to give, that we as a particular generation
of writers, did not always benefit from a generation that
came before us. And so his commitment from
the beginning has always been to provide access and to try to
create an institution around access that will sustain itself beyond
an individual generosity. And that’s why I bought into it. It’s very simple.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Wonderful. What about you, Matthew?>>Matthew Shenoda: Hello. Sometimes, I do smile [laughter]. You know, I think quite
similarly to Chris. For me, I think it has been — I’ve always been someone
who’s believed very deeply in institution building and in creating something
outside of one’s self. And I think having met Kwame some
years ago and seen what he does when he first approached
me with this idea, I knew that this would
actually happen, right. So that was the other
thing, that the investment of this energy was
going to go somewhere. And that we would be
able to create something that we hope will live beyond us which I think is something
I was always raised with. I was always raised with this idea that you can’t just
do what you do, right. That that you have to
take an active role in building community in some way. And I think for many of us, as
writers in this country who come, you know, from various
places and lived in this kind of diasporic space,
we’ve not had that. We have not had the space. And so I love the kind of audacity
of the idea of making a space where we could fit into a space
that would actually hold us, a space that would be a
foundation for the future of who we are and what we do. And then of course, just
the incredible need. There is, to me, an incredibly like
simple practicality to all of this, right, that there is no space that is publishing
contemporary African poetry in the English language
in any sustainable way. So the idea is just brilliant in
its simplicity and I think all of that alone and then working with
these folks — as Kwame said — I have never — I’ve
worked in a lot of places. I’ve never worked with a group of
people this easy, this committed and who just don’t — you know,
nobody asked questions in the sense of why are we doing this? Everyone is just there and doing
the work and laughing through it which I think is important as well.>>Aracelis Girmay: Thank you. Can you hear me?>>Yeah.>>Aracelis Girmay: I —
I mean, as Kwame said, I’ve just joined the editorial board
and was thrilled to have been asked and I’ve gone to the first cycle. But before I joined the board,
I remember getting my first box, the little Chapbook box and just
had been so excited and [inaudible] and all that and thinking, which am
I going to read first [laughter]? And lamenting but it was
a short-lived lament. Lamenting the fact that I
hadn’t grown with these voices and then realizing as somebody
who believes that time is strange and complicated that
these were voices — these are voices that
are raised in me. And stretching my vision
and my languages and so I just feel immense gratitude
to everyone who has anything to do with the poetry book fund and out
of love and greed maybe to listen as much as I can and to be a
part, you know, no question. That’s why.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: That’s wonderful. So — And so I’m going — I’m
going to read out the mission of the African Poetry Book Fund. It has a very broad mission. “It promotes and advances the
development and publication of the poetic arts of Africa through
its book series, contests, workshops and seminars and through its
collaborations with publishers, [inaudible], booking agents,
colleges, universities, conferences and all other entities
that share an interest in the poetic arts of Africa.” Being the head of a small
division of poetic people, I think that this is an
enormous — an enormous task. So looking at the three of
you, I just wanted to ask, do you see yourself
as performing a part, a specific part of
that overall vision? Does each one of you
have a different part or a different role in that mission? Usually when one sits on the
board, you know, you say, okay, these are the strengths
of the people or this person or that person. They complement each other. And each one, in a way,
does something else. I might be — I might be asking a
very non-poetic question, a very — but I was wonder, as you are
leading this organization and this initiative which is it’s
very, very exciting, very new. Do you see yourselves as
performing a specific role?>>Chris Abani: I actually like to
— I don’t know how many of you know about Rastafarians but
I think in a way — we have a friend that talks
about being a secular Raster and the idea is that Rasters don’t
— there’s an implicit understanding about a network and
about a hierarchy. But it is not a western
notion of hierarchy. So like we have to meet or at least,
I have been around for a length of time where Kwame
has two nicknames. One is Father Dawes
because he’s the father. And the second is Noah
because he knows everything. [ Laughter ] So I think it really
works like this. The father puts out a call.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Okay.>>Chris Abani: And
the disciples answer. So sometimes, when Kwame — I don’t
sleep but Kwame doesn’t sleep at all and so I’ll wake up at — I
don’t know, like 8:00 A.M. and they’ll have — you see the
first email from Kwame and it goes out and says, “[Inaudible],
we need to do this. Who can help?” He has twins so he’s
always up next [laughter]. And then you’ll see a response
where maybe Kwame says, “We need to do something at AWP. I need a proposal written.” I wake up and within 10
minutes of that email going out, he has detailed a proposal which
then goes to Kwame who then sends it to me and then within two-and-a-half
hours, it’s already at AWP. So it’s the same — Kwame
may say, “We have a Library of Congress event,” and so
it’s sort of like everyone, there are things we are all — we do better than others
but I think it’s just — it’s never really thought
of in that way. Instead of this is a house we’re
all building, whenever you wake up, you pick up the shovel
and you start doing it. So there’s that part of it. But I think that it’s really
this idea that what we’re trying to create is a living archive. We don’t think of the archive
as something that is just there. It’s alive all the time and it kind
of goes into what you are talking about this notion of a
strange idea of time. You have to imagine the
thousands of entries we get and then you get assigned
60 to a hundred and it’s like we need a turnaround in a week. It’s something that’s so — you
start reading it and then you come across voices like these
voices sitting here. And you — something happens —
there’s a real humbling that happens to us reading it because
you start to — you know, there are moments
when Kwame would just call me and be like, hey, listen
to this line. And he would read me
a line from Safia. And I said, “Who the
hell wrote that?” And he’s like, your cousin. [ Laughter ] So I think that what the scope of
it, there is a whole and you know like Matthew told [inaudible],
the Pan African notion of this because oftentimes you find
that literature tends to kind of have been very focalized
around West Africa and Southern Africa
coming from the continent. But we don’t subscribe to that. But I think what sustains
in this context of creating this is
that we are transformed. It is not — I don’t feel like
we are giving things to people. I think that they are
giving things to us. They make our works –>>Mary-Jane Deeb: So
it comes both ways.>>Chris Abani: It comes
more towards us, I think, than people can often
really imagine. It transforms your work. It transforms your notion of self because you’re encountering African
voices you didn’t even know existed that articulates in an experience
for you that you know at a DNA level but have never thought to
articulate in this way. So all of it is really about — it’s more for me, the
gift that it expands us. And that, in turn, expansion
I think sustains this idea of the global expansion
and so it makes it so easy to pass the mission statement. I think what that says
is not even — it doesn’t even come close
to the gift it is to people who work within this field.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Okay, lovely.>>Matthew Shenoda:
Yeah, I think for me, the thing is that the work
always comes first, right. And I mean the work of the poet. That is at the center of this. So in terms of a division of labor, I think we all just do
whatever needs to get done. We all have certain skillsets
— or you know, I mean, for me, I also work in higher
ed administration so doing certain logistical things
in this case is actually enjoyable. And so it’s easy to do them quickly. But at the center, I don’t think
any of us ever lose sight of –>>Mary-Jane Deeb: The whole.>>Matthew Shenoda: — of the
core, of the work of the community that we’re building,
of as Chris said, this work that feeds us, right. Because at any moment,
even in logistical things that could get tiresome or annoying,
we’ve got a ton of work to look at that inspires us and
reminds us of what we’re doing and what we’re trying to build. So I don’t know that — and the interesting thing is as
Chris says, there is no hierarchy. We’ve never — I don’t think we
have ever had an organizational discussion actually. I don’t think we’ve ever
said, here are the things. We just kind of worked and we
say, Chris is good at this. Aracelis is good at this. This poet is someone that
Bernardine would absolutely resonate with so let’s assign
this person to her. We just kind of moved through it without much conversation
actually which, you know, like I — there’s something about the spirit
of this that just allows it carry on without us needing
to think of an orchard.>>Aracelis Girmay: I don’t know
that it destroys the [inaudible]. I don’t know what, if I have
anything different to add but I guess I’ll say I just —
something that I said earlier. I just feel like it’s my work or
job or commitment to try to listen as closely and as deeply
as possible and I mean, I’m looking at Tsitsi now. But I’m just thinking of just the
— the idiosyncratic imagination and sound and the worlds and
to allow that to be a school and to keep asking, you know,
what is it that I’m hearing? What are the projects
that I’m seeing? How is this — you should
just go as a listener, I mean, going back to what Chris
said about humility. So I don’t — this is not going to
answer the question about hierarchy but I feel like that’s all I can
— that’s what I know or how I know to be here and to contribute
is to try to practice that.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: And so all you — you all feel as if
you can communicate. You can go to a university and say,
we’ve got this fantastic project that we’d like you to look at. I mean, any of you would do that. Any of you would call
out someone and say, we think we should be
working with you on that. I’m looking at it in
terms of how that works, in terms of organization really.>>Chris Abani: I think all
of us are competent at that. You know, I also occupy a very
high position in academia, an institution, fundraising
is not a problem. Talking to donors is not a problem. I wear multiple hats. I can speak to anybody. I could be very English
when I need to be. I could be very [laughter] — I could be extremely Nigerian
when I need to [laughter]. You know, I can guide people
very quickly to their checkbooks when I need them to [laughter]. So and I have no — this
is a thing too that I have. I cannot ask for things for
myself but I have no shame asking for things for other people. But I’m not even asking
things for other people, I’m asking for the support of
an institution, of a thing, of an entity that is almost
alive that is beyond individuals. It’s really not about
individuals at all. I’m not asking for money for
Tsitsi’s book or Mukoma’s book. I’m asking for something that should
exist already and that I’m asking for it is already out of sync. So I have no difficulty. There is no hierarchy but
we — this is the thing. We trust Kwame implicitly. And this is why I think
also articulate in there. There is no ego involved. It’s not like well, you didn’t
mention that I did all this stuff. You didn’t mention [laughter]
— in fact, you know, Kwame is always trying to
deflect attention and credit. And we’re always trying to
like push it in his way. But we entrust — so even yesterday,
we sat down, the three of us — Matthew, Kwame and I — we
were having a cup of coffee and Kwame said just,
“Okay, gentlemen. So what’s next?” And I think we talked for like
20 minutes and I was taking — one of us was taking notes. And then we all kind
of know now what’s next and it will start evolving. But just so that I
know, we try not to — the fact that there is no hierarchy
and no defined plan, it’s not — we’re not running it, you know, like
a Nigerian storefront, you know. Hey, you [laughter] — where
you’re running to five different who will tell you the same five
different things all the time. It’s very — it’s a choreography,
but it’s a choreography where we trust implicitly that sort
of like sometimes, we’ll be talking and Kwame will say to
Matthew, why don’t you do this? And Matthew will, I
think Chris is — why don’t you handle that
and I’ll handle this? And there’s no [inaudible]. It just gets done. So there is definitely, we
look to Kwame as the hub. And we trust implicitly. He has an intuitive understanding of
the spirit of how things can work. And then he knows how to execute it. So there is definitely
that part of it. I hope this answers the question.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Yes. No, no, no — it does,
it does, it does. Okay, so I am going to ask
you something else now. Why don’t you say something now? Why don’t you tell us something
about the poets that we’re featuring because after all, you have been
the people who have selected it and how do you as editors respond
to the Chapbook winner’s work and what have you done from this? I mean, you’re being involved
with this for quite a while and you’ve made a selection
and how does that come about? So you see I’m sort of
building from organization to –>>Chris Abani: Yes,
to the editorial.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: So you see from
the general to the more specific.>>Chris Abani: I should also point
out that the Chapbook box sets which are remarkable are
only part of what we do. We do first book prizes. We do — we kind of
reintroduce poets that may have been
forgotten over time. And we bring into existence
people who were not like in Patricia’s [inaudible]
who have a body of work but who we realize can — that
what we can do is position in a particular way that
allows the full range of who they are to come about. So I mean, the very basic thing
is we get all these submissions and everyone gets assigned
a reading list. And then we narrow down to finals
and then we talk about that. And it’s always kind of incredible that there’s never
really a lot of debate. It almost — it’s almost
instinctively you find the books that work. And then what Kwame
and I would do — because we primarily focus on
the Chapbooks is then to go through books of work almost ready
for book but aren’t quite ready. And then we begin the conversation
with the poet where we say, look, there’s this option
we can offer you. Are you interested? And what we do is offer — because
we’re dealing with not just people on the continent but also
continent — a kind of — a kind of way in which writers of color are not always offered
respectful mentoring which means that we hold you to
extremely high standards. But we hold you to those standards
with an intuitive understanding that if you do what we’re asking you
to do, you will become excellent. And this is how we just live anyway. So we do that and we’re very strict. When we give people deadlines
and there, we have incidents where people don’t meet the deadline and then we just roll
over to the next poet. And they come back, you know,
[inaudible] next try, next year. And so it gets around
but you know, you go — we do a lot of international
festivals and you — I was recently at the
Ake Festival in Nigeria. And this young man comes up to me
and says, “How much do I owe you?” And I said, “Who are you
and what do you mean?” [Laughter] Not because, you know — because I was thinking well
how much can I get from you? No, I was kidding [laughter]. So he was one of the poets. I had never met him that we
had mentored in this way. But the idea is that
he couldn’t understand. He actually thought there was going
to be a bill for the amount of work that went into mentoring him
and the fact that he’s going to get these books
and they’re published and he gets all these copies. And the notion that
he doesn’t have to — that all is required of him
is to step into his own power. Sometimes, it’s something
that is foreign. And so that is part of how — so the
editorial process is not just a — it is also about the poems
but it also becomes ways in which inadvertently you’re work
shopping people into an acceptance of how powerful they are. And so it becomes easy
for us in that way. And then we get together
and then Kwame says to me, I need your introduction. And I’m like, when do you need it? Well, yesterday would
have been nice. [Laughter] And you know, oftentimes,
we work under such high pressure but it’s very easy and
it’s a back and forth. And then we have incidents where
we assign particular writers to other — you know,
editors who and we say, work with this person specifically. We have Helen Yitah who’s been work to help really bring Amah Ata
Aidoo’s work back into public. And sometimes, we’re
asking poets, you know — we’re asking poets who — you
know how hard it is to say to [Inaudible], I read this poem and
I think you should change this line. [ Laughter ] So — well, I’m asking people
whom you’re kind of holding in a certain kind of reverence
at the same time to like –>>Mary-Jane Deeb:
To make the changes.>>Chris Abani: To
make these changes. And what becomes really beautiful
about it is that they respond to you in this way where they realize
they too have been hungry for a certain conversation. And not just, you know,
then being –>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Not
just being up there.>>Chris Abani: Yeah, that they –>>Mary-Jane Deeb:
My folks [inaudible].>>Chris Abani: Yeah,
then no one talks to them. They want people who could — so
it works on all kinds of levels in this way and I don’t
know if you –>>Matthew Shenoda: I mean, I
don’t know that I have much to add to that other than the fact that that cultivation is very
important for us, I think. And for the young writers
especially those on the continent, we know they have limited access
both to a certain body of literature as well as to workshops
and these kind of things. So we spend a lot of time back and
forth with them doing, you know, critiques and line edits
and this kind of thing. But even for the writers in diaspora
and here in the United States, those of us who have
published extensively in this country also know the
lack of an editorial criticality that exists in the U.S. publishing
as it relates to African writers and writers of color in general. And so I think there
— that has opened up for me some really
beautiful conversations. Like you know, Bob
Marlowe once said, “If you know who you are then you
would know where you’re coming from then you wouldn’t have to ask
me who the hell do I think I am.” [Laughter] I think in a way, that’s
almost a model for the relationship that we have with people
because there is — there is a kind of foundational
sense of who we’re working with. And who they’re working
with as editors that we can immediately move
the conversation to a new level and actually engage in the
work, engage in the aesthetics, engage in the craft
and what is happening. We don’t have to ask these questions about like what does
this word mean — or what’s that or where do you
find this country on a map? Or I mean, this is stuff
where frankly I’m — you know, look, I mean when I
published my first book which was through a great publisher
here in the United States, I remember clearly my, you
know, white editor said, “This is really interesting
but I don’t — I don’t think that I can
say anything to you.” And I said, “Well, you’re an editor. Isn’t that your job?” [Laughter] And he said, “Yeah, but,
you know, like it makes me nervous.” And he was very honest with me. He said, “You know,
from critiquing this, I don’t know about the
cultural this and that.” And I just thought, all
right, we’re not going to have a real conversation
here, right? Because I can’t — you know,
there’s too much behind that that needs to
get a word through. And so I think that you
know, one of the great things about our team too is that we’re
an incredibly diverse group of people, right. We represent the diversity of the
African continent and its diasporas. We represent it in terms of,
you know, gender, ethnicity, language bases, aesthetic
practices, all of these things. And so I think that there’s
always one of us who can connect to a writer in a very
meaningful way.>>Aracelis Girmay: I
don’t have a [inaudible].>>Mary-Jane Deeb: And
those writers, do they — do they have an input
in other writers’ works? In other words, let’s say
you’ve worked with someone and you’ve published that person,
you go back to that person and say, well, you know, I’ve
read something, you know. I’d like to have your
opinion on that. Do you do that sometimes? I mean, is there more than –>>Matthew Shenoda:
Just a group of us.>>Chris Abani: Yeah.>>Mary-Jane Deeb:
Than the group of you?>>Chris Abani: Well, we’re working on a great anthology
with Tsitsi here. So we absorb people all the time. But what has been most beautiful
to watch is the conversation that happens amongst the poets. We had a reading last year and to
see Warsan Shire, Safia and Ladan — sort of an East African coalition of
female poets having a conversation on a street in Chicago is you know, as if it were — this
is — it’s done.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: And how did
you come about meeting them on the street in Chicago?>>Chris Abani: Well, because
we all organized an event.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Oh, okay.>>Chris Abani: But what I’m
saying too is that you find that when you start —
because we’ve been — so we have almost 50
Chapbooks in the world now. And Kwame and I would have said that by the time we have a
hundred Chapbooks floating around, that we will stop to have — to be able to sort of think
about what are the trends, what are the conversations. But 20 Chapbooks in, you start to — you’re reading a Chapbook
and there is a poet in Nigeria referencing
Ladan’s poem in his poem. And you start to realize
that the conversation — this is what I mean by
it’s a living archive. And we don’t need that
part of it too. You don’t need to — you
don’t need to organize it. It happens naturally. You see conversations happening
between Patricia’s work and you look at a line and you think, wow, that
must have been reading Patricia. Mukoma and so you notice of this is
a living tradition in its own way. So and that is what has been
most beautiful about it is that the poets are having
these conversations directly or indirectly in amongst themselves. And so that each book that comes
out essentially changes the pattern of the next book that comes out. And the quality of the books
that are coming out make people who haven’t had access to being
held to a certain accountable level within the aesthetics because these
poems is — they’re not just saying, okay, we’re going to
publish some African poets because they’re African. These poets stand.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: They stand out.>>Chris Abani: And I would say that
they stand better than American — I put my money on this, you know. And so, they — you started — it sort of is affecting
the quality of the entries. The qualities of the entries
are getting higher and higher because there is a conversation
happening that we’re not in control of and we don’t want to be
in control of in that way.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: And is
it, again, I’m off the theme but your conversation
is so interesting because I want to continue. Is it something that those poets
are bringing in terms of imagery, in terms of language, in
terms of looking at a reality which everyone sees but they
can express in a different way? What is it that stands out that
immediately grabs you and says, okay, that’s someone
we want to publish?>>Aracelis Girmay:
I mean, I’m so — I’m so new so I hesitate
to say it but just to somebody who’s been
following from outside, I had a bit of anxiety
thinking about how to talk today or be a contributor today. And say anything about
African writing or poetry because I have trouble saying
anything about poetry and I know that that’s something
that people still — I’ve heard Kwame, and Matthew,
and Chris talk, you know, about how difficult it
can be to find any trends. But I’ll say that as a
reader, I’m struck by — it depends on each
person’s work, right? I’m struck by sound. I’m struck by image. I’m struck — but one of the
things that keeps moving me and surprising me especially with
the new three books that came out but it’s with all of
the books really — is what happens with place, and with
ancestry, and lineage and thinking about — I’m thinking of Ama Ata
Aidoo writing towards Bessie Head. And so hearing this,
getting to kind of listen — put my ear to the door on this
communication between poets but also how and I don’t
think that this is specific to the poets published by APBF but how many places each
poem, each person holds? And at once and all the various
ways that Ladan is doing it or Safia is doing it or — and
that again, I’m not quite — it’s not particular to this group
of people only but I’m struck by the places being held in poems
in English because I have it. I had access to that — or heard
those exact places or the kohl under the eyes with that. I hadn’t had access to those
families outside of my imagination in family and that
strikes me especially.>>Chris Abani: Just to add to that. I always think of poems
as automaton. I think of a poem as a virus. And the job of a virus
is to mutate endlessly and to resist any control of it. And this is what these
poets achieve with language. Just with language alone. In both Ladan and Safia’s work,
there is a simultaneity of language where fracture would
normally lead to loss. Fracture here becomes a way
of multiple embodiment, right. So that what would
normally be [inaudible] — there is not that there
is not a melancholy but this is what I
love about melancholy. Melancholy is not lost. Instead of a bittersweet desire,
it’s sort of you know, it’s like — it’s like when you cut
yourself and it scabs, I mean, you pick at the scab when
you shouldn’t and it bleeds but it’s such a delicious thing? [Laughter] This is melancholy. And so — and all of
these poems, you know, the way in which Tsitsi’s
work embodies a thing that you would not think
would make sense in poetry. The idea of a zebra clan that exists
in western English style poetry, but sustains not only sort of
this idea of stripes like the way which a zebra’s body is
already multiplicities, right. But that these multiplicities
aren’t in the skin. They’re actually on
the skin and you know, zebras aren’t colored on the hair. It’s on the body and can hold
that but then use that to talk about simultaneity, about
patriarchal reduction but also like a feminist resistance. It’s the simultaneity of it all. And it’s done linguistically with
Arabic, with Shona, with English, with line ends, with blind fractures
so that what you end up with are all of these beautiful cartographies
that don’t amount to loss. They actually amount
to a tremendous hope. And that is what we look for and
we find it endlessly existing.>>Matthew Shenoda: Yeah. I’m just going to add very briefly to that is this is
very exciting to me. I actually — one of the things that
I find most incredible is the way that this newer generation of
poets has embodied their complexity as a fundamental part of their
humanity and as kind of broken out of certain modernist
traditions around the notions of identity and honing these things. And what this has done for me in
particular, I think about this as a professor contemporary
and [inaudible] poetry. This has fundamentally
shifted poetry, period, right? It has changed the way that
we relate to language, right. And of course, they’re not the only
ones who have done this, right. There’s many traditions of,
you know, Native American poets and other poets who have
kind of moved through that. But the way that it is shaping the
English language is very exciting to me. So it’s almost like a new English.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: And
that’s the reason — that’s the reason why I had asked
because I had read something about French doing — French has
been enriched by African literature. And someone was commenting,
the imagery is different. The language is different and it
has added to the existing body of the French language
and literature with new ways of looking at it. So you actually are
answering my question. So I had asked something about how
do you feel and this is something that would be in asking all
our writers as they come. How do you feel that your mission
connects to the American — to the American literacy? What does it add to the
existing American — and I’m saying in the broader sense,
American in all its shapes and forms and ethnicities and [inaudible]? What does your own work, the work
of the African Poetry Book Fund, what does it add to
the existing trends? What do you feel it adds?>>Chris Abani: Oh, I would
just really start by saying that to be American is not
to be from the United States.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Yeah,
it’s from the world.>>Chris Abani: Right
and that everything that is American has to do with –>>Mary-Jane Deeb:
The rest of the world.>>Chris Abani: Yes. And in the ways in
which a particular kind of ideology may have been exported. But it has been reconstituted
and given back to you. And this is what allows America. There’s even this boast of
freedom, this boast of inclusive — all of this is not because
of a particular sort of way in which America existed. It is because America is
continuously being reformed and not reformed here. If you walk through Nepal,
there are people listening to Michael Jackson and
drinking Coca-Cola. And they have a very clear
idea of what America is. And whether we realize
it or not, when you — that is also being absorbed
back into Americanness. And so I would say
fundamentally then that what these poets are
doing is reshaping America. Now there’s also and I just
want to put this out there. There is no African identity
without early Caribbean and African-American movements
towards self-articulation. All African independence movements
are predicated on the work that was done by Marcus Garvey,
that was done by Martin Luther King, Jr. It was done by
writers like Ellison. Most of the Nigerian where
the First Republic started and how were they started
in America. Early West African politicians
came home and wrote books about how they would shape
the modern African identity. This kind of modernist
way of thinking exists so what’s fascinating
is that even the concept of the modern African has
been articulated and begun in absence of the continent. It is started by Africans
who lived in America. So most of us are musically — all of [inaudible] has to
do with these musicians — African-American blues musicians
arriving on the docks of Ghana in the 19th century and
teaching [inaudible] to kids who then incorporate it. So there’s really no way
to be a modern African without already being an American. There’s more to being American
without being an African. So we’re not just articulating
[inaudible]. We’re also articulating a
kind of African-Americanness because that conversation has
already been started for us. So we’re starting to look
at the idea of what it means to be a global black person. And to have equal access even to
things people say you don’t own. And not in sentimental
ways but in this case, in fully embodied beautiful ways. So that — those are just two
things I would throw out there.>>Aracelis Girmay:
Gosh, I mean, it’s so — I love and returning to what
Chris said about fracture and not fractured into
loss but to something else. And what I keep hearing and
thinking about is the story of — I keep thinking of the story
of ISIS going and looking for the different parts to
put [inaudible] together and all I can say — I just
the possibility of returning of ourselves to ourselves,
to possibility. What might we do in language? How might we be in language? What is a page? What is a — I mean,
I keep referring back to the three new books
that just came out. And I said to Safia,
I can’t — I can’t — the genuine [inaudible] is just so
stunning to me and also each page. And like I just think,
oh, a page might be a sea. A page might be a —
what is a mark on a page? I just feel like the —
the more we have access to each other’s imaginations
and places, and ways of accessing our
imaginative strategies, the more my person, my being on this
Earth is stretched open and returned to my imagination is grown. And so I can’t help but think
even though I tend not to think on a kind of national level. I can’t help but think that
this place is just continuing. It’s going through a trajectory
of being enriched by everywhere. But I cannot point and have names. The shape is not [inaudible]. It has never been but now I have
some names to [inaudible] to that. Okay.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Thank you. And now, for the last question
and then we move to the speakers. So I’m going to ask
each of you anyway, what you hope to accomplish
in the coming years. You’ve already all done so
much and published and edited and created this fantastic
movement, I would say. What — when you look in the coming
years, what you hope to accomplish?>>Matthew Shenoda:
It’s a big question. To take over the whole
contemporary literature [laughter].>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Oh, wow!>>Chris Abani: That’s why
he works for [Inaudible]. [Laughter]>>Matthew Shenoda: You
know, I think that — I think that we’re all committed to
a sustainable systemic structure, an institution building
that allows for this work to carry on for many generations. And I think that that will
include a lot of things. I mean, we’ve talked
quite a bit and, you know, we’re all connected to
universities as well. So we’ve talked about the
scholarship pieces of this and the importance of creating
pathways for certain kinds of scholarship about
this work to emerge. We’ve talked about the
intersections especially with much of this contemporary work with
film and the ways that we will need to kind of find spaces to embrace,
you know, other media as well. And of course, the visual
arts — I think that you know, aspirationally we have
very big ideas on what we’d like to see in the coming years. And I don’t think that
it’s — that’s not APBF. I think that that is the dream of
this work going out into the world and doing its own thing which we’re
already beginning to see, right, that the work itself
will create new things. So I mean, I think from my
standpoint, that’s what I hope. I hope that my children, if any
of them were to become writers and I hope not because I’ll
have to read [inaudible].>>Mary-Jane Deeb:
You have this whole — this whole group out
there [laughter].>>Matthew Shenoda:
But I hope that they — that they will have a
structure to plug into like, a community that sustains
them and that mentors them at a different level
than what we had. And it’s not that I lament what we
had but I think that, you know — I hope to see that evolution. And I think, you know, this
is very interesting to me. I mean, this is very —
it’s scary in a lot of ways. Not necessarily for us but I think for this society in
particular, right. I mean what Chris and Aracelis
were just talking about is also about the absolute, you know,
dissolve of certain borders and canonical structures which
is what this work is doing. It’s actually erasing things
to create brand-new things that people don’t yet know how
to wrap their minds around. And I think — you know, I’m excited
to see what it does on its own. I think that it’s a
very organic thing that will grow certainly
without any of us.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Thank you. What about you?>>Aracelis Girmay:
I mean, I love — I love what you said and
I also — again, I just — I feel like I need to
do some more listening to what it is already before I say. But I believe in what you
said that the momentum — the momentum of it already
and just being excited to see what organically
comes of that.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Chris?>>Chris Abani: So when
people think about terms — the terms of humanity that we bring
to other people, we — what we — and we do this through race, class,
and gender, disability, body — we like to imagine that people have
a different inner life than we do, that a person who works at
McDonald’s does not have as rich or even a richer inner
life than we do. And therefore, we think
we cannot access them. But the truth about literature
— and this is my hope always — that I became a writer because
of James Baldwin, right, because I read “Another
Country” when I was 10 years old. And the fact that there is no way
James Baldwin could have imagined my existence, that his book would
travel 6000 miles through time into an African country, and that
a young boy would read this book, and who — his entire aesthetic will
almost mirror Baldwin’s in this way. So what his books are doing
is that they are proving that their inner lives, that there
is not African, there is no other. There is just human. And so my hope is that five years from now a 12-year-old white
boy will wander into a store, and in a discount bin if necessary,
find “January’s Children” by Safir, and when he is 21, and he’s
signing a book and someone says, “What book made you
want to be a writer?” He will say Safir’s inner life
made my inner life possible.>>Mary-Jane Deeb: Wonderful. Well, thank you. And I think we should
all give them a big hand. [ Applause ] And now Kwame Dawes will come
and introduce our ten speakers. I’m still very shaken
by all I heard, and I hope you have all been a
little transformed by our speakers, and you will now with our eight. Eight? Yes, okay — seven. Okay, seven.>>Kwame Dawes: Okay, so we’ve got
— I’m counting, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven
fantastic poets. Listen, I want us to use the balance
of the time to just hear the poets, because the truth is, that’s kind of
the proof of the pudding, isn’t it? Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so you’ve got programs. Everybody’s got programs? Yeah, so read their — read the
details about them at your leisure. Yeah, you can do that [applause]. Yeah, and so what I’ll do
is I’ll just name them. I’ll give you their
names, and that kind of, you know, ladies and gentlemen. And then they’ll come one
after the other to read in the order they are
introduced, then. All right, so Chekwube Danladi,
Safia Elhillo, Tsitsi Jaji, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Ladan Osman, Hope
Wabuke, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. They’re going to all read, all
right, one after the other. And you’ll be moved, flabbergasted,
astonished, and stunned. And I thank these guys for
their fantastic conversation and discussion and yes, we
are taking over the world. Let’s hear it for them. [ Applause ]>>Chekwube O. Danladi: I
didn’t realize I was first, so we’ll see how I do. Yeah, can everyone hear me well? Okay. All right, I’m going to start
with a poem called “Salt, Alum.” You can touch me. I’ve been so good. I have been especially
still, all this time, each of my palms made a
bed for your untucking. Me, the meal made from
reused chicken grease, eased and always saying yes. Gender is cunning; the ruination
unwitting — a stolen position. I have been bent over, the
beast dug out of me, the jewels. Pleasure light pops the eyes,
obsidian sticks in the throat, even this body doesn’t register. The knuckles fold toward Lake
Michigan, the gut hardens, oxalate builds in the kidneys,
the tongue is a grateful peasant. For a beating I can
answer to a middle name. This poem is called
“At the Lavender Farm.” Fingers already spent, but lingering
on my hips, a sexual pal obsessed. We travel down past the docks,
take rest on a patch of grass. The batik print cloth
is laid out beneath us, our beers leaving footprints,
rings, sloppy circles of a local Wisconsin brew we
are happy to designate home. We enact our slovenly myth-making, the hybrid names we leave our
children, something Russian, something Ebo [assumed spelling],
the natural meanings queered. Your voice momentarily
dulcet, you edge the sentiment and ask me to love you forever. I swallow, my mouth sour, say,
“Ask me something difficult.” It’s here we love pretending
to be old, love twisting this coaxial
longing into reality. We are trying. No one else we know
is this gullible. Around us the lavender stocks run
the risk of being too beautiful. At dusk they, too, seem
to embody their condition. The smell of purple,
another kind of useless joy. Hair nestled on your
chest, stroking scars. I understand the risk of excess. I sniff your tufts of armpit
hair because I adore your musk. I’ve left myself, [inaudible] as
generously as how much I gift you, perhaps an evidence that
I am always this easy. If I am mewing on your
behalf, scold me better. The moon meets us, its carmine
fate is trite, tomorrow, returning to exile draws new
lust and brings us to our feet. We toe the spume of the lake,
the water an impossibility. My hand at the back of your
neck, I want to remind you for our sake, nothing good is banal. This poem is a little gross, so I
hope you guys will bear with me. Not too bad. It’s called “Deer Head.” Fall has unleashed its yellow, love
a solace extenuated from its bearer. On my afternoon walk,
alone this season, I come to the elementary school. There in the butterfly garden a deer
head rides on its carnal prolixity, flesh skimmed in some
places, dark color ablated by November’s hard sun,
white bone exposed. I’m drawn to its sickness,
flies and all, the fetid odor leaning in to speak. My hand finds its muzzle,
mandible exposed, the hanging offal where the carcass has been severed. Prone to uttering absolutes,
I say nothing is more natural than this, and remain undeterred. Your eyes still intact and
expressive, I arrive honest with my desperation, my
claim unsophisticated. Buck, I am the son you want,
my own eyes thick as amulets, the hard edges of me cloven, all
of these tensions bifurcated. With opportunity, I would not
have left you in such uneasy rest, dead with the solitude
of lesser creatures. As most progeny may
attempt eventually, your decomposition is now
a lesson for my grief, the distress of my medic
souvenir of identification. We two flexing the
fiction of temporality, our time that cannot be
broken, this image of us. Around your antlers curl
newly-bloomed clematis, and I am reminded that this
month later it will snow. My head and yours will
be blanketed, washed. “I Used To Be Called Olivia.” I dug my own unbecoming
as much as you. Thirst became ritual, the wallop
of water soaking into the earth, myself wafting off as dust, an openness invited
inward, blue, and enough. I imagined childhood a swamp. Wet, my small self, nappy
hair doubled by cockleburs, easy name [inaudible]
spineless and clean, muck-suckling the shame quickly,
new abode forming, holding. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Dawes: We’re going to
have a little change of order, and wanted to say something
about Patricia, who is amazing powerhouse poet. And she has to leave early,
so she’s going to read now. It is our honor that we could
get to publish Patricia’s work, and she has been a great
champion — a fantastic champion. And like, you know, she’s the mother
like hardcore, like real deal. And I’m sure you’re
going to enjoy her. Patricia, thank you so much, yeah. [ Applause ]>>Patricia Jabbeh Wesley:
Yeah, please forgive me, my younger sisters and daughters. I’m becoming the grandmother now. Yeah, and I’m so grateful
to this team. When I was coming up for tenure,
my university decided to — the letter they sent me, they
decided to quote some lines from the external reviewers —
lines that put the university on, you know, like [inaudible]
university for, you know, why were they [inaudible]
the treatment I was getting? But one of the things one of the reviewers said is what
Kwame is doing right now. He said — and this is a professor who is a distinguished
professor at Tennessee. He said, “Fifty years after Patricia
is dead before scholars will know what she is doing to
American poetry, that she’s bringing [inaudible]
Africa in America, in the West and Africa to converse
on the same page.” And that’s what Kwame is
doing in multiple books. And that’s why I’m proud. This is a newer poem
I will start with. It is — I am going to this order,
reading the powerhouse reading of protests in the
next hour is starting. This poem is entitled “Too Many
Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost.” Let us open the doors. Let us lift the shuttles over
the threshold of the doors. Let us remove the bars
from the doorposts. Too many chickens are
coming home to roost. And it is not the storm. It is not the August
or September hurricane. It is not the storm that’s driving
home all the angry of heart, all the hate that like aged-tar or broken pavement has
lifted onto the roads. And now too many chickens
are coming home to roost. Let us open the doors
not to let them in. Let us open the doors
to let them out. Do not turn down your lights. Do not go to bed with
your eyes closed. Do not let out your young sons. Do not wander into unknown places. Do not listen to the wind. Too many roosters have come
home to drive us away from town. We who came running from the fires of our homelands are now
being told to flee again. Too many roosters have
come home to roost because it is not a thing
we can hold in our safety. It is not a thing we can place a
finger upon to sooth away hurt. It is as hard as a
[inaudible] stone, as hard as pain as an open sore. Now I will read from — you know,
the problem is if you follow a poet, you know, from town to town, you
will end up being very bored — [ Laughter ] — because when they find out
that a particular poem works, they will keep reading it over, and
over, and over until you get bored. So keep following us,
you will have problem. When I was a — when I was growing
up, I didn’t know I was talkative. It was my stepmother who was — and
she was a mean, mean little witch. So everybody knew she
was a mean witch, okay. So whenever she said, “Shut up!” My name is — “Marie, Shut up! Can you just shut up your talking?” And I always said she hates me. And then I grew up and
went to high school, and the bullies told
me I was talkative. So here’s a poem I
wrote for my stepmom — memory of my stepmother,
“When I Was a Girl.” My stepmother used to
say, “Shut up, Marie. Shut up! A woman should be quiet.” So I tried shutting up one
minute, two minutes, three, but then something inside my belly
began to rise up like sourdough, rising, rising slowly, rising. Something tightening up like
a big knot, the kind that ties up forest branches as if something
needed knotting up for the trees and the branches not to know
movement, not to know air, not to know the freedom
a bird knows. And my belly will say to me, my little tiny 14-year-old
stubbornness, the kind that lets a
stepchild know she has power. And before she knew it, sitting
there next to my huge stepmother, her heaviness of heart and body led
to the heaviness of slapping hands. I had to remember what
my pa told me, “A woman shouldn’t
be shut up, Marie.” And then four minutes, I’d begin
talking again, talking fast, talking fast, carrying
on like the pepper bird in the Liberian dawn, a
bird without business. And the knot at my
bellybutton would loosen, and before I could speak again,
I’d hear her say, “Shut up, Marie! Something will shut you up someday.” And I’d look across from her,
sitting on a dented stool, somewhere in our old kitchen a
huge pot, boiling without worry. And I’d stare into her fine,
mean eyes, and I’d say, “All right, Ma, all right.” But before she swallowed
in satisfaction, I’d begin chattering again,
chattering on with friends, chattering about the worries
of a 14-year-old stepchild. Okay, where is my poem? Oh, I thought I found
my poem, and now, okay. “Send Me Some Black Clothes.” Well, one of the cultures
that we have in Africa is that when your father
dies you mourn for a year. You wear black. You wear black for six months, and then you wear [inaudible]
mourning for six months. And when your husband dies, you may
mourn for what, two years, you know. And when you take off the
black people will want to know why you’re
taking off the black. So I wrote this poem just
before the Liberia Ebola. And I wrote it because I went home,
and I had so many people to bury. And then few months after I left, what this poem is saying actually
happened, that people were dying by the hundreds and
thousands, of Ebola. “Send Me Some Black Clothes.” Elegy for my homecoming. Sweet sorrow of family reunions
around the dead, so I get dressed for another funeral where I’m
almost ashamed to burden my friends with news of another dead relative,
as if I were some storehouse of dead people, as if I could earn
a living announcing news of my dead or dying brothers and sisters. I returned home walking into
a place of dead bodies here. In Monrovia, only corpses, the same
manner in which I left decades ago, walking through dead bodies
of my people during the war. Someone please send
me some black clothes. Liberians are dying like earthworms
after a long, rainy night, dying the way centipedes crawl out
of a burning shed to die quietly. They say love has many
zigzags, many harms. They say if you live long,
you will see something. [Inaudible], the woman named
after [inaudible] of whom I sing in my poems, of whom I’ve strung
these scribbled words around verses. [Inaudible] namesake has died, so
Uncle [inaudible] travels 500 miles of rugged terrain by road and
dust because there is no room to make excuses not
to bury your sister. So here I am, lost daughter
come home for something else, and I find myself standing
among caskets. Life has rotted away
the remains of lack. When a country decides to
rise up not from their uncles, but from their head, as those
at the ankles die of lack. As if living in lack where
it [inaudible], I say, “Send me some second
mourning clothes so to spread along the footpaths
so millipedes can crawl. Send me some second mourning
clothes, my people, please.” Liberia smells again of corpses. The poor are burying their dead,
so let the rivers swell in rage. Let drums cry dirges
against the wind. Let mutiny break out upon the dawn. There is too much death in town,
so I asked for the town crier. He, too, is dead. I asked for the horn blower. He, too, is dead. I asked for the [inaudible]. The [inaudible], too, is dead. I asked for the young
virgins and their suitors that used to line the roads. They are all dead. Someone please holler for me. Someone please send me
some black [inaudible] to cover the ground
in the Harmattan dew. I will read two more, and then I
will sit down — or I will walk out. [ Laughter ] Then I will walk out. “For My Children, Growing
Up in America.” One of the saddest things about life
is that you never know tomorrow. You know, in Africa you
say nobody knows tomorrow. Nobody knows tomorrow,
Mama, oh, you know. So when I was 30, 31,
32, we built our house, and I planted 20 coconut trees. I planted mango, breadfruit,
papaya, everything. And now my son has cut down
half of the coconut trees. He says they are — you know,
they’re going to fall on the house. But — and my dream was that my
kids would climb these trees. And then we fled a year
after we built the house and planted the trees. “For My Children, Growing
Up in America.” Wishing you more than the
sunshine, more than the trees, more than the hills rising,
as if hills didn’t only grow but also talked, and walked, and had
time for climbing hills themselves. Wishing you all more than you could
ever wish to hold in your hands. Wishing life were a bed you
could unmake and remake, covers to roll under, lift off,
or roll all over until sunrise. Wishing you could stand along the
old river that still flows back at home, where the Atlantic
still carries its patience as a woman carries a newborn
on her back, a woman who knows that the navel string is as tender
as dewdrops in the Harmattan. Wishing I could still hold you,
and keep you, and make you cry until all your eyes were free
again, the way you used to be free. Wishing that the sun
were not just up above, something we could all
keep for ourselves, so when the clouds got all cloudy, we could let out our
own little sunshine. Wishing that the trees
I planted in my backyard in my early years were here. Trees I dreamed my children
would climb and fall from, and then we would rush them
to the car to take them to the hospital right up the road. Wishing they would be
there for their cousins who outnumber the grains of sand on
the beaches along Sinkor’s shore. Wishing you, my darlings, had grown up where the trees do
not lose their color, where color does not
lose its brilliance, where color is not the defining
line, where today is before us as if today were tomorrow, a
never-ending day of winding roads and deep footpaths, leading
us back to Cape Palmas. I’ll read the last one, and
then I will give you your thing. Okay, I will read — I will
make sure I read a [inaudible] of the poem that, you know,
that follows me around. When you get bored, just
throw something at me. “I Want to Be the Woman.” I don’t want to be the other woman. Don’t want to stay up
nights for the phone call. Take your excuses and pour them
down some rusty drain as if from a wine bottle, and
kill yourself at dawn. I want to stay the woman
who stands there waiting, so her husband’s lies rest like dust
on the windshield of an old car. I want to carry deep scars
of brokenness all my life, like our mothers’ mothers’ mothers,
who did not learn how to kill that old African polygamy,
but killed it anyway. I am the woman, the maker of
the bed, the unused love keeper, the breeder of fine children,
scarred only by broken dreams in the broken places where
our foremothers found company with other women, and buried their
babies’ naval strings with hopes that someday, someday
something would happen. No, I am already the woman, Khade
Wheh, head wife, the housekeeper, Khade, the owner of the afterbirth
and the afterbirth pains, Khade Wheh, the holder of hot
pots, the keeper of the homestead, the fireplace holder, the
powerless powerful African woman after the old paths of lonely
women betrothed too early to unknown ugly men. No, I am not looking for love. This body is too old
for lovers to hang out in my dreams or
in my daydreaming. Don’t lie to me. I am too beautiful for you. Don’t fool yourself,
I do not need love. I do not think my [inaudible] new
love, and I used to hear her say that love could not make a farm. My [inaudible], whose bare feet grew
thorns from walking back and forth from farm to farm homestead, from
farm to town, from tilling the land like a husbandless wife, [inaudible]
who entertained all the small wives of an already blind husband. My [inaudible] who was not too
blind to sleep with multiple wives. But [inaudible] had only one
husband, despite the crowd of wives populating her marriage. Yes, I want to be the
villain only to my husband. I want to ground my last
years under a cold blanket to guard my woman parts
from your invasion. I want to greet my
ancestors, our mothers, with this old piece
of my brokenness. Yes, I am Khade Wheh,
the mother of mothers. [ Applause ]>>Safia Elhillo: Hi.>>Hi.>>Safia Elhillo: I feel absurdly
lucky to have this fairy godfamily who have made all my dreams come
true, and also are very nice to me despite the fact that
I’m a ridiculous human being.>>Can you tell us your name?>>I’m sorry?>>Your name?>>Safia Elhillo: Oh, my
name is Safia Elhillo. “A Brief History of Silence, or the Last time Marvin Gaye
Was Heard in the Sudan.” True story — just kidding. At the musician’s club in Omdurman
a singer is stabbed to death for playing secular music. The month before, a violinist on
his way home is beaten by police, his instrument smashed to matchwood. All the bars in Khartoum are
closed down, all the alcohol in Khartoum poured into the Nile. A new law forbids women from
dancing in the presence of men. Another bans song lyrics
that mention women’s bodies. And at a party in Omdurman, lights
strung among the date palms, my not-yet mother, honey legs
in a skirt, opens her mouth, and the night air is
the gap in her teeth. She sings in the lilting English
to a slow song while bodies around her pair off and press close. Before he is my father, my
father smokes a cigarette and shows all his teeth
when he laughs, wants to ask the dark-gold girl
how her English got so good, what the words mean, and could
he sing something sometime into the gap in her teeth. But first, police arrive, rip
lanterns from trees, and fire a shot through the final notes of the song. And tonight, my parents do not meet. My mom is a very like polite,
cute hijabi Muslim lady, so she’s very scandalized
by that poem. Sorry, Mom. “Talking to Boys About
Abdelhalim Hafez at Parties.” Who decides the equator is real? What marks the end of my body? What if I do not want to bear fruit? Where does a father go to abdicate? Where does a folktale go to die? The first time I heard Abdelhalim,
I found an affordable glamor. I prefer the mythology. I prefer to perfume my hair,
and say no, and mean no. What makes a man a man and not
a rumor I haven’t yet decided. What if I do not want to go
home at all, let alone with you? Let alone, I got a girl from
the land of milk and honey. You’re so beautiful, may I ask? Okay, but mixed with what? But if you’re from
Africa, how come — do you know my country
conjoins a split Nile? Do you know how my parents met? I’d tell you, but there
are plenty of songs. And I’m sorry, what was your name? I’m a big hit at parties. “Second Date.” So I understand why you
did not call me back. I peel, and peel, and
cannot undress. I wear my grandfather, and
my left eye turns to milk. My grandmother and the
curl unravels from my hair. I smell a flower, and
dill, and acidic perfume. I wear my mother and remember
a garden with magnolia flowers. A scarf packs up my heavy hair. I wear my brother, and a bullet
is assigned to me at birth. I wear blood in my mouth where a
man’s name or a language should be. And for my last poem, “Second
Quarantine with Abdelhalim Hafez,” who’s a very hot and very dead
Egyptian popstar, for context. “Second Quarantine
with Abdelhalim Hafez.” [ Inaudible Audience Comment ] [ Laughter ] The lyrics do not translate. Arabic is all verbs for what
stays still in other languages. [Speaking in foreign language],
to morning, what the translation to awake cannot honor, cannot
contain its rhyme with [speaking in foreign language], to swim, to
make the night a body of water. I am here now, and I am not buoyant. I’m 26 — in the book it says
24, but it’s an old manuscript — I’m 26 and always sick, small for
my age, and always translating. I cannot sleep through the night. No language has given me
the rhyme between ocean and wound that I know to be true. Sometimes when the doctors
draw my blood I feel the word at the edge of my tongue. Halim sings [speaking
in foreign language], I am drowning, I am drowning. The single word for all the water
in his throat does not translate. Halim sings, “Teach me to
kill the tear in its duct.” Halim sings, “I have no experience
in love, nor have I a boat.” And I know he cannot rest,
cannot swim through the night. I am looking for a voice
with a wound in it, a man who could only have
died by a form of drowning. Let the song take its time. Let the ocean close back up. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Tsitsi Jaji: Thank
you all for being here. It’s so wonderful to
be among family. And I just want to say it’s
especially great to get to read with Mukoma, someone I met at 18
when he told me that he was going to write the next great
American novel. And he’s written several
novels as well as the poetry that just came out. I dedicated this book to my husband,
and I want to start with a poem that I wrote on the
occasion of our marriage, “Our Embrace, After Brancusi.” Our embrace is monumental, a bloc
representing the phalanx that is us. Tending toward each, other than
the word our communal well utters, we envision silence singly. This one sense is our plenty, a
sense of more than common sense. God helped us, one might
say, were misprision not, in its own house, taken
for language. Our tongue in common remains
unknown to the greater world. We bound this region true to our
word, braced for the impact of wind, dust, time, force, removal. Schooled hard, we hold fast,
and this is the unrushed sense that speeds us into each
other, where we intend to rest. It’s true, it gives us pause. Metallicized, it present us, Eia!,
with all we did not need to make in order to be here all along. Sandstone is not specified. Boulder overstates this plain
monument to the two in one, now us. The other poems I’m going to
read are from a series in praise of my ancestor VaNyemba, who’s one
of the founders of the Zebra clan. [Speaking in foreign language],
these are Latin vulgate terms. I have no idea exactly what they
mean, but I found them online. So anyway. Tete sits me down and tells
me the story of our ancestors. She says it with a hard K. I
squelch my sass and listen. Our ancestors were
hunters of the Zebra Totem. There were two brothers and
a very beautiful sister, as sweet as a sugar bean,
so they called her VaNyemba. They came all the way
from Mozambique to this place, tracking wild game. When the chief saw
VaNyemba’s beauty, he granted his brothers
leave to hunt on his land. They set out to hunt early,
leaving VaNyemba to tend the fire. She was very beautiful. The chief surprised her. She screamed, but her
brothers were far, far. He was a heavy man, and as
he thrust himself inside her, he found her penis. Our VaNyemba hanged
her busted, bare body. When the chief saw
it, he was afraid. He stripped off his
regalia and fled, leaving the land to her brothers. That is the land they buried her
in, and that is how we came to live in Chihota, the land
of sweet potatoes. I’m sitting next to Tete, wondering if I will ever eat a
sweet potato again. [Speaking in foreign language]
Ground nuts, field peas, black-eyed peas, split pea, cowpea,
chickpea, kidney, pinto, red, red lintel, yellow lintel, nyimo,
navy, garbanzo, butter bean, lima bean, green bean,
salt, peanut, salt peanuts. Sugar bean, honey. Nyemba, VaNyemba. [Speaking in foreign
language], come, let us eat. [Speaking in foreign
language], come let us pray. [Speaking in foreign language],
our grandmother, VaNyemba, we bless you [speaking
in foreign language]. Grandmother, we sing
your name in the fields and in the mountains
[speaking in foreign language]. You died for your land,
but you were victorious. Praises, Grandmother, high praise
[speaking in foreign language]. Give us this day plenty of
sweet potatoes [speaking in foreign language]. Oh, how we rejoice to eat
your sweet potatoes [speaking in foreign language]. Oh, and how we love to eat
your sugar beans [speaking in foreign language] VaNyemba. For you are — we are
your great grandchildren, raised at your breast
[speaking in foreign language]. Yes, we come from the land
of sweet potatoes [speaking in foreign language]. Praise be, sweet sugar
bean [speaking in foreign language] VaNyemba. I want to thank my father who
helped me correct some pretty terrible Shona. And the last one, [speaking in
foreign language], oh, Daddy Rex, you horn-billed bronze,
shake that mane, baby. Flash that strobe-colored coat. Dazzle us, old guinea eyes, all
black, and white, and red all over. Let me hear you do that
njenjenje, you earth rambler, you. Kick up a storm, sweetheart. Kick with your mouth. You, highway-robbed
of you, endless gift. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Mukoma Wa Ngugi: Hello.>>Hello.>>Mukoma Wa Ngugi: Yeah, now I just
have this image of me and Tsitsi, we have known each other
since, yeah, the early 1990s. I just had this image of us 20 years
from now walking with walk-sticks, you know — you know,
walking sticks. And then say, “Yeah, I’ve
known her for 40 years now.” And so I’m only going to
read two or three poems. But I have another event at
3:00, so please most of you come with me when I’m leaving. All right, okay, I’ll
stop the jokes. And I do believe all poets at some
point wanted to be comedians, but. Yeah, I just wanted
to say, you know, nobody has ever asked me how
I ended up getting published by the Africa poetry book fund,
but what happened, though, is I came across a — one of the
books they had previously published by Clifton Gachagua
called “Madman at Kilifi.” You know, and I read it, and I
was seized by a rage of jealousy, so I compiled my poems
and sent them off. No, actually, no I was
consumed by a — by — you know, because he’s much younger
than me, so it was more of a — of feeling a sudden
embrace, you know, from the African literary tradition,
something along those lines. So you know, of feeling
that poetry is safe, so I could send mine
out to the world again. And so the first poem I’ll
read is called “Hunting Words with My Father,” which
is poem I wrote for him for his 70th birthday
instead of buying a present. You know, it’s cheaper to write. But anyway, “Hunting
Words with My Father.” He’s also a writer, so you know,
I’ve said this elsewhere, but –>>Yeah, right.>>Mukoma Wa Ngugi:
[Laughter] Yeah, you know. Yeah, he’s also — he’s a
somewhat-known writer from Kenya. “Hunting Words with My Father.” One morning I burst into
my father’s study and said, “When I grow up, I too want to hunt. I want to hunt words, and giraffes,
pictures, buffalos, and books.” And he, holding a pen and a cup
of tea said, “Little Father, to hunt words can be dangerous. But still, it is best
to start early.” He waved his blue pen, and his
office turned into Nyandarua forest. It was morning, the mist rising
from the earth like breath as rays from the sun fell hard on
the ground like sharp nails. “Little Father, do you see him?” my father asked “No,” I said. “Look again. The mist is a mirror. Do you see him?” And I looked again, and there
was a Maasai warrior tall as the trees, spear in hand. “Shadow him, feign him,
feign his movements, shadow him until his
movements are your movements.” Running my feet along the
leaves, I walked to where he was, crouched like him so close to
the earth, feet sinking deeper into the earth as if in mud,
turning and reading the wind, and fading into the mist until
I become one with the forest. For half a day we stayed
like this, tired and hungry. I was ready for home, but my father
said, “I did not say this was easy. You cannot hunt words
on a full stomach.” And just as soon as he spoke, there
was a roar so loud and stomping so harsh that hot underground
streams broke open like a dozen or so water pipes, sending hissing,
steaming water high into the air. I turned to run, but the
warrior stood his ground. As the roar and thunder came
closer, his hair, braided and full of red ochre, turned
into dreadlocks — dreadlocks so long that they seemed
like roots running from the earth. When the transfiguration
was complete, before me stood a Mau Mau
fighter, spear in one hand, homemade gun in the other, eyes so red that through the mist
they looked like hot molten cinders, the long dreadlocks a thousand thin
snakes in the wind, the leaves, and the grass, and
thorns rushing past him. “You must help him. Don’t just stand there, help
him,” my father implored. But just as soon as I had closed
my little hands into fists, the lion appeared high up in the
air, body stretched the whole length as the Mau Mau fighter
pulled the spear like it was a long
root from the earth. The lion, midair, tried to
stop, recoiled its talons to offer peace, but it was too late. And he let out another roar as
his chest crushed into the spear, breastplate giving way until
the spear had edged its way into the heart. Dying, then dead, it continued
its terrible arc, and landed. I waved, and the picture
stood still. My father came up to me and asked,
“Why have you stopped the hunt?” I said, “But we killed it. I have what we came for.” I pointed to where the Mau Mau
warrior was pulling his spear from the carcass, but my
father shook his head and said, “You have done well,
but look closely. How can you carry all
that in a word? How can we carry that home? It is too heavy.” I laughed and said,
“Father, you’ll help me.” But he pointed to the ground, to
a steady flow of a bright, thin, red river furiously winding down the
grooves of the spear to the earth. I too pointed, unable to speak, the
beauty larger than my imagination. I was confused. I had no words. “Come, let us go home,
Little Father. When you are of age you shall
find the words,” he said. “But always be careful. To hunt a word is to hunt a life.” So when I wrote —
most of these poems, when I wrote them I wasn’t
writing them with a [inaudible] — they’re the poems I think
I wrote because I had to, because of things that
were happening. For example, my daughter’s birth. You know, so in that sense,
it’s not poems I was writing with the idea of a collection. Though I don’t — I’m
not going to lie and say that I was writing
for myself, you know. But yeah, so it was for — I wrote most of these poems for
things I couldn’t quite grasp. And this is for my daughter,
who is here somewhere, whom we named after my
late mother, Nyambura. So this is a play around her
name, which means bringer of rain. “In Your Name.” Bringer of rain, I know
someday I will learn to call you by the name your mother and I
gave you, but for now the myriad of little names will do,
[speaking in foreign language], all names that amuse us now,
so often as they will not you. [Speaking in foreign
language] Let’s face it, even hate me for having
them in a poem, but [speaking in foreign language],
Little Mother, you’ll not abandon. Yes, it will first tie you
down, tongue-tie your teachers and friends, but one day your
name, Nyambura, will free you, and that which was once like a
prison will be a warm embrace, and that past from which you
come from will be an anchor and not a chain, each syllable
a reminder and an echo. Let me read my last poem,
you know, because, you know, even though I wrote the poems
before the age of Trump, I just have to say something
about Trump, you know, and I have this joke that
I was thinking about like if you really want to hide the
nuclear codes from trump, you know, put them in a library,
or [laughter] so, right.>>Oh! Oh!>>Mukoma Wa Ngugi: But you know,
but the poem is really about, you know, for most of us, you know,
who have not been in the U.S., we’re the first-generation Africans, and we have been here
for a long time. You know, around questions of
identity that I think, you know, the Trump and his anti-immigration,
then you know, brings these questions
back to the forefront. “My Two Names.” I have tried, but I’m never hungry
in Nairobi and full in Boston. No matter my will, the
parallels will not collapse. It’s a [inaudible] my
stomach, this one we share. Sometimes I try for daylight
here to surprise nightfall there. By riding the divide of night
and day, the sun is large in such a place that I’m always
awake here and asleep there. I am without a name,
yet I bear two names. I am without a name. I bear four names. I’m nameless. Always outside my window,
my shadow restless like a ghost calls me
to find its parallel. When I left home, I found
it dancing here with a rope and an effigy outlined in chalk, and we took turns being
shadow and being. When I close my eyes to
this sun or moon burns teal, the world around me keeps
changing form, and I make a home. But flight, too, has a
shadow, and I fall back into things I cannot name or touch. What I cannot name, I cannot touch. One day I’ll have to
speak for myself. One day in my bones, marrow-deep,
and complete like a grenade, I find remnants of
ghosts that have walked and lived hard before me
[speaking in foreign language], all born in times when
the modern collapse of parallels was a
stretcher as is treason. Home is longing not to
be in two places at once. This morning, there I woke up to
sounds of mourning and tear gas, graves as shallow as
my writing paper, deep like diamonds and coal mines. This morning here, I awoke to
a cup of tea with fresh ginger and mud, someone’s black blood. There this morning 30 years ago, I witnessed Kamadi’s
[assumed spelling] hanging. This morning here, 30 Puerto
Rican Nationalists were hanged. One day I will have to
speak to all of ourselves. I thank you. [ Applause ]>>Ladan Osmun: Good afternoon.>>Good afternoon.>>Ladan Osmun: It’s always an
honor to read with the Book Fund. Thank you so much for the work that
you do, the editors, writers there, the partnership with
Prairie Schooner. So I wanted to chill a little
bit, but I could not be so close to the Supreme Court and not read
this newer poem which is written for Mohammed el Gharani who was
a juvenile Guantanamo detainee from Chad. When asked what it was that he
wanted, he said, “An apology.” And because there’s a sense that
he’s categorized as a non-person for this form of detainment and
torture to work, it doesn’t appear that that apology is forthcoming. Okay. And I want to start
with an introduction, an excerpt from Laura
Marling’s “What He Wrote.” Forgive me here. I cannot stay. He cut out my tongue. There is nothing to say. Love me? Oh, Lord, he threw me away. He laughed at my sins. In his arms I must stay. He wrote, “I’m broke. Please send for me.” But I’m broken, too, and spoken for. Do not tempt me. Her skin is white, and
I’m light as the sun. So holy light shines on
the things you have done. The title of this poem comes from something a female
interrogator said to Mohammed. “Think of Me As Your Mother.” It’s the Ides of March, and
I have too much longing. Lions and gales replace speech. My mind breaks in a stone courtyard. It echoes as if played from turrets. They admit me. They put my clothes in a bin and
search my skin for marks, cuts, and bruises, verify my eyes, hair,
toes, and knuckles are black. They remove the string
from my hoodie so I won’t make a noose of it. I’m too tired to laugh about that. They offer me rice. They say, “The rice is
good,” and watch my face. They think they know Africans. I say nothing. They give me medicine, two kinds. I get free and yell, “I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! I’m black! And I’ve never been to a wedding.” After the medicine, I keep seeing
my black and yelling, “What is that? What is that? What is that? What is that?” They don’t answer. A woman tells me to move it. She’s pretending a toy
keyboard is a lie detector. I bumped her hands, and now
she has to start all over. After the medicine, I can see my
black, and it can’t stop talking. It says, “I’m not a demon. I’m a ghost. They’re doing the wrong
rituals on me.” They took inventory of
my Keds, my Dickies, but I’m still found
without shoes or sheets. My chin stays bruised, and a sore in my mouth makes me remember my
wisdom tooth surgery when I was 17, and I had my first Muslim doctor, and he made a mistake
and gashed my cheek. And to keep from crying, he bid me to stop crying, even
though I wasn’t. They’d given me cackling gas. He cooed, “Everything will be okay. Everything will be all right. Everything will be okay. Everything will be all right.” I screeched, “I love myself,”
in my best Kendrick voice, spin like my feet are arabesque. They shoot me. After that medicine, I stop rapping
on tabletops and go to my bed. The mattress receives me. I think of dark hair on a soft bely. The blanket hugs me. I think of my baby sister
sleeping on my mother’s back. I stay in my bed all day
and miss all my prayers because the bed says yes and yes. I want it to say no. So it’s yes and yes is real. Can you rape a bed
sleeping stubborn in it, even if its springs
tell you to get out? Tell my mother to bring
me some grease and my pick and to hide my hot hair
curler in her skirt. I already know my hair
better be laid when I lie in this therapist’s face and
tell her, “I just got confused.” They release me with
three brown paper bags. All their handles break. They want me to look crazy in
these streets, but I just hum Badu in the parking lot, and on the bus
break the high note, “Pack light.” Every city built by the
water is way too turnt [sic], from Chicago to Istanbul, the
thin caterwaul of stray felines from mid-morning to dusk, the geese
that flew nowhere all winter holler in a knotted field
at a devilish hour. Then there are gunshots,
police cracking ribs. The volume is up too high,
too high in black ears. What do you do when a whole
city is dog whistling? A woman curses her young son. His blink is blank. They face each other hard-eyed. They have trouble translating
the Quran into English. Hell is the burning fire. Hell is pain of mother losing child. In many places on Earth, both
definitions hold at the same time. I took my medicine, both kinds,
and don’t yell out the window, “Rise like dust in
a Maya Angelou poem and the voice of a kid reciting it.” Rise like [inaudible]
concerts when they were tossed out the compound windows or
like [inaudible], or Mandela, or anyone whose knees, or shoulders, or skulls were clubbed
in a dank prison. I wish I could take
you into my belly. I think it’s the only
safe space for you. Come into my womb. You might find cinderblocks
and mixed metal. You might find teeth, and discrete
ejaculations, and rancid tears, and salvaged bits of scripture. Come into my placenta, my
electric water via dream submarine. I will throw the key into the ocean. I am infinitely generative. You’ll find your grandson
guarding you. When you’re ready to leave,
he’ll call to you, “All the best. Good-bye. Good-bye.” Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Hope Wabuke: Wow. It’s always the worst
to have to read after Ladan Osman,
because she’s amazing. She really, really is. I want to thank you to Kwame, and
Chris, and Matthew, and Aracelis, and Patricia, and Mary-Jane,
and Rob, and everybody at the African
Poetry Book Fund, and the Library of Congress for making this
wonderful event happen. Tsitsi said it really is like
being around family, and it is, just the work that everybody does. So I wanted to read a few poems
from my tract book “Believing,” which ABPF published, which is an
excerpt from a large poem manuscript in progress, similar [inaudible]
called the “The Body Family,” which explores my family’s escape
from Amin’s genocide in 1976 in Uganda, where he massacred
about 300,000 people and I’m lucky that my parents were
able to come to America. So it felt timely with
what’s happening right now. The first one is called
“If Not David.” When the British came, they
brought their guns and their Jesus. They took our oil and diamonds. They sent our men to fight
their wars in Europe, did not send the bodies home. Amin was 18. He learned his lesson well. Kill the other. Take what is his. When Amin and his cronies
drove the British out, our country in chaos,
those already ignore. At first his killings were called
a natural byproduct of events. His buddy Obote, the new
president, promoted him. Said, “Kill more.” But later, when his killings grew
too much and Obote said, “Stop,” Amin went after him too,
took the throne, and laughed. “No one can run,” he said,
“faster than a bullet.” At times, so many dead
bodies were thrown into the Nile River the
water stopped flowing. “Hitler,” he was fond of
saying, “had the right idea.” Can you hear me okay? Great. This next poem is called,
“Goliath,” also about Amin. Names given, His Excellency Idi
Amin, the Butcher of Uganda, Conqueror of the British Empire in
Africa and Uganda in particular, Field Marshal Alhaji, Doctor,
Big Daddy, President for Life, Lord of all the beasts of the
Earth and fishes of the sea. Weight, 250. Height, 6-4. What his former British
commander said, “A splendid type, a good rugby player, and a reliable
soldier, cheerful, energetic, and an incredible person
who certainly isn’t mad.” First instance of torture, 1962
Turkana Massacre, burying alive, beating to death, et
cetera, overlooked. Promoted to head of
armed forces, 1963. Awards, distinguished service
order, Victoria’s Cross, Military Cross, Doctor of Law. Seizes power backed by Israel
and Great Britain, 1971. Number of wives, four. Mistresses, 30. Abused, 34. Number of soldiers employed in
special death squads, 18,000. Number of villagers
wiped out, unknown. Kill count, 300,000,
or 1 in 26 people. Flees to Libya in 1979
after losing war with Tanzanian forces
and Ugandan dissidents. Motto, in any country, there
must be people who have to die. This one is called “Exodus,
Fathers, Americans Superheroes.” Because certain death, because
genocide, he leads them out. He is Moses and Jeremiah
when no one else will try. The faith to move mountains and get to America keep them
secret, keep them safe. Raise up his body family. Begin again. This one’s called “Mouth.” They pack nothing to
escape detection. One change of clothes. No books, furniture, or photographs. My father’s lab specimens
are sewn into his pants. A day trip with our daughter,
they will say at the border. We will be right back. This one is “Breath.” They never speak of the dead,
the massacres, at school. Friends and family disappeared. How they got word they were next. The crossing to Kenya, then America. What happened to those left behind? This poem is called “Numbers.” Mother makes the doll
after their baby boy who would have been
my older brother dies. She sews his bits of curly black
hair on top, pricks his finger with her needles, paints his
blood on the cotton-stuffed face. Two circles for eyes, two lines for
nose and mouth, and she is finished. All the time father is away,
she will hold baby boy doll and hum the many melodies
she learned to sing when a hospital nurse
back home in Amin’s war to the skin-thin shivering
rib caged infants, tiny orphaned fists flailing
to eat their last bit of feces that would not keep
them alive another day. The lightness of their bodies in
her arms, no heavier than the breath of air that was her song. And that one came from a dream I had
when I was pregnant with my own son and I began to have all these
memories I couldn’t know and that was one of them. And I called my mom and I
said, “Did you tell this to me about being a nurse and
the babies, orphans, newborns not having enough milk
because their parents were dead and them dying of hunger?” And she said, “No. I didn’t tell that you.” But somehow, that memory came up and that fascinates me,
that cultural memory. So this one’s called “The Nerve.” I’ve never read this one before
aloud, but, again, it seemed timely to be here in this
town, in this place, at this time and read this poem. So it’s a little long. So bear with me and I’ll just
read two more after this. “The Nerve.” When I was a little girl, you and I were the best of
friends, dear father. As I followed you down the
long test tube flanked aisles of your laboratory
funded by the same people who had enslaved your grandparents
and bankrupted your country and would deny them the
medicines you were discovering, still following you in stores, still
sending cops to watch our house, because those niggers have been
up to no good since we moved to our town, I wanted to know why
and wrote down everything you said as truth until I began to think for
myself and you couldn’t have that. So you began to beat at me
like a housewife does a stain, as if that would get
the education out. The doctors have said you will
spend this year dying and I want to tell you so many things. But yesterday, they
let free that white man who killed a little brown
boy just because he was brown and the day before that, they
took away our right to vote and the day before that, they released a study
saying the radiation from a nuclear disaster exploded
in Japan has already jumped in the water, swum across the ocean,
up through our faucets, our hoses, into our earth, plants, and animals, our bodies now dying,
infected already. And there is not enough medicine
for everyone and you know who there will not be enough for. This morning I had to stop while
doing my yoga and curl into a ball, hold myself to keep from shaking. All day long, I felt terrified. Little spasms down my spine
and central nervous system. As I remember taking
my seven-month-old son for our daily walk because he loves
outside, outside, and I love him, walking with him pressed
against my body, still feeling my bones realigning,
muscles unwinding from giving birth to him, carrying him, and the old
white man who lives in the house on the corner yelling
he would shoot us like that other white man had
the other little brown boy just because we are brown too. And all I could think was breathe. Breathe. There are
people’s small horrors too. A friend who was trying to get
pregnant, another miscarriage, says it feels like meeting a ghost without ever having
met the person before. And I just want you, my
father, to protect me, teach me how to protect my son,
because they have put in a law that says the last man standing can
say, “I felt threatened,” and shoot to kill and then walk free. And they always say they
are threatened by us and they have taken away the other
law that says they cannot stop in front of our path — step in front of our path to
the voting house and stop us. And they have never
stopped trying to stop us. And I wonder what is to
stop them from firing, knowing their whiteness is their
ticket to not guilty, to be set free of having to feel their rage of
having a man who looks like you in their White House again. This one is called “Refugee Minds.” And my son had [inaudible]
one of his little friends and we was talking to her
mom and she was telling me about the banyan tree that grows
in Hawaii and I never heard of it and it’s the tree that grows up
and then its roots and limbs, instead of going outward,
grow back down into the ground and then it grows up again. And that image stuck with me
and said exactly what I needed. So I have to thank my son for
choosing really wonderful friends who have really wonderful
moms who give me poems. So “Refugee Minds.” They thought believing would
be like the banyan tree rising to spread wide, branches turned down
become root again, grow new life. But there is work that must
be done to connect deep and strong inside alien ground. You must speak. You must let yourself be
known by these new children and all your glorious
tangled mess of becoming. Your culture also. Burrow down deep in this. Else for there are
always storms coming. Rootless, apart, you break. And my last two poems, very
quickly, this one is “Naomi.” When grandmother listens,
my mouth is alien, foreign waters lapping
at a foreign shore. I have only the language
of her conquerors within just one small island. Kuhu [assumed spelling], Kuhu,
her name repeated become a song. And my last poem I wanted to read
for you, “Slow Dance with Bullet.” Again, felt like I’m here
in this town so I needed to read this poem to you. “Slow Dance with Bullet.” This is when you become political. This unarmed black boy shot,
this white killer cop not charge, but given three months paid
vacation, plus $1 million in thanks for this job well done. This happened yesterday,
too, the day before that. They used to say this,
“Dance, nigger, dance, and empty their guns laughing.” This was their theory. If you can rise fast enough, the
bullets would not hit your feet. This, the weight of five centuries
that did not break your back. This, you are scared of, then. This, you stiffen silent and bored. This will happen again
tomorrow, different city, different dead black boy body,
but now, the straw needle. Oh, how your baby boy
loves to dance. His legs, though, are little. He could never jump enough. Thank you so much. [ Applause ]>>Let’s just hear it for
all the poets who read. [ Applause ] I just want to name a few people
that — we do all this work, we publish this work, but, frankly, the funding to make
this happen has come through a most generous benefactor, Laura and Robert Silaman
[assumed spelling] and they’ve been incredibly
generous and supportive, and that’s how we are able to pay for these publications
and these books. So it takes money and it
takes the support of them. I also must mention
Ashley Strosnider. Ashley is the managing editor
for this series and, of course, with Prairie Schooner,
and Ashley’s over there. She runs things. Ashley is fantastic,
amazing, and is Paul here? Paul is our Web editor for Prairie
Schooner, but also the Web editor for APBF and he’s been doing
amazing work and so on. I want to say that the University
of Nebraska Press, the publishers for many of our books
and [inaudible] books. They are publishers
for many of our books. We have a partner in Senegal called
Amalian [assumed spelling] Books. And then, of course, we’ve worked with Slapering Hol Press
for the first box set. So that’s been fantastic. We’ve had — all our book
covers are by African artists. So we celebrate African
art in exciting ways. We’re working on other
partnerships that I can mention. For instance, we’ve got support
from Ford and, of course, we are getting started
to have a conversation with the African Center in New York. So a lot of exciting things going on and we want you to
keep supporting us. Right? You know, buy the books
and tell people about it and — for me, it’s all about
this writing, isn’t it? It’s beautiful and that’s why we
are really pleased to do this. So I thank the folks here
at the Library of Congress. Hope we didn’t cause too much
trouble and thank you for having us. Okay. [ Applause ]>>So, again, thank you. Thanks for this fantastic program. When I was on the phone with
Quami Warding [assumed spelling], he told me everything would be
fine, everything would be wonderful, and he was absolutely right. There was absolutely no
reason for me to fret. Now, I would like to first of all thank again the absolutely
wonderful, wonderful poets, and thank you Kwame, thank
you Chris, thank you Matthew. Thank you, Aracelis. You’ve been all fantastic. And now, I want to invite you. There is some food here and also the
books are for sale in our bookstore. So thank you for being
here and please come again. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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