Verse Africa: The Malleable Poetics of Some Contemporary African Poets

Clockwise from Top: Ama Ata Aidoo, Aracelis Girmay, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Clockwise from Top: Ama Ata Aidoo, Aracelis Girmay, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Taking stock of the African Poetry Book Fund’s project to bring contemporary African poetry into the fold of contemporary anglophone literature, Matthew Shenoda highlights the work of several African women poets who are changing the way we read and engage poetry in English.

Over the last several years as a writer, reader, editor, and educator who teaches courses on global poetics, I have been deeply struck by the significant emergence of female poets with roots in Africa. While African fiction is widely known, poetry has been largely ignored, and the female voices, as is so often the case, have been poorly represented in publishing efforts. But in the quiet corners of the literary landscape, this group of women has been hard at work challenging and expanding our understanding of contemporary poetics. There is a new and inspiring wave of this work, and what is evident is that this incredible range of poetry coming from African women has been here for a long time, perhaps waiting for the world around them to catch up. And so I wish to focus here on one of the contexts that has helped bring this work into the world and, in the process, give the reader a brief dive into the poetry and poets themselves by highlighting a few of the critical voices in contemporary African women’s poetry.

In 2012 a group of poets, writers, and thinkers, led by Kwame Dawes, decided we would embark on an idea that some of us had been toying with for some time. What we hoped to do was to bring contemporary African poetry into the fold of contemporary anglophone literature, and with our tentacles reaching worldwide, we would base these efforts in the United States. Along with Dawes and myself we teamed up with Chris Abani, Gabeba Baderoon, Bernardine Evaristo, and John Keene along with, more recently, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and Aracelis Girmay, to form an internationally recognized editorial team that could speak to the breadth and significance of African poetry. We defined African as those born in Africa, those who are a national or resident of an African country, or those whose parent(s) are African. It was an idea that though somewhat audacious in scope was simple in concept. We would work to broaden the literary landscape and show the necessity of African poetry as a central agent in contemporary poetry. After all, when we talk about Africa and all of her diasporas, we are talking about a significant piece of the globe, a recognizable population. But the thing is this: at our core we wanted this idea, an idea straightforward in some ways, to be done in a considered and intentional manner, sustainable and with a global scope. What existed of contemporary African poetry in the English language before this effort were largely single volumes championed by individuals who had broken through in one way or another, editors who had taken interest in an individual book, but few things systemic had been done before and nothing that allowed for a sustained effort aimed at longevity.

This is the new generation, insistent that Africa itself is a global and malleable concept, a small thread always sewn in the mind and heart of the sojourner.

And so we established the African Poetry Book Fund (apbf). This umbrella organization became home to the African Poetry Book Series; we started a debut book contest (the annual Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets); we created an annual chapbook box set of emerging African poets; we began publishing the collected works of iconic African poets and the midlist works of well-established poets; we, in partnership with poetry communities across the continent, established contemporary poetry libraries in Botswana, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda; we planted the seeds and began working on a digital humanities project that will highlight the breadth of contemporary African poetry worldwide; we laid the groundwork for a massive forthcoming anthology of contemporary African poetry; and, to date, have published nearly fifty African poets in internationally distributed and accessible books.

And, I would argue, we have ever so slightly changed the face of contemporary anglophone poetry. We have complicated the landscape of contemporary American poetry, given rise to the way American and other readers have access to African poetics, and have created viable and rich transatlantic communities of poets that have begun a deeply nuanced and engaged conversation with one another and with their literary siblings the world over. To be clear, I am biased, but I am afforded that right. This is not a scholarly endeavor; this is a project of passionate advocacy, of a craft-centered engagement intended to show all that poetry has to offer, intended to highlight the critically missing works of so many, and it is timely in a moment when such advocacy and reminders of our multiplicity could not be more necessary.

So, as I take stock of the work we have done over these last five years, I realize that we have made accessible the immense and significant works of so many contemporary poets both on the African continent and in its varied diasporas, and in that process we have specifically seen the cultivation of the female voice as an unquestionable barometer of the health and vibrancy of these poetic traditions. And so I wish to highlight here a group of anglophone African women poets, most of whom we have published, most of whom have lived or do live in some diasporic reality, all of whom are changing the way we read and engage poetry in English. Women who have cultivated their craft without bounds, borrowing and sharpening from every corner of the globe; trading on the stories of their own mothers, shaving at the verse of the canonical Europeans, building on the power of American poetry, challenging the language of the colonial and the patriarchal; our sisters who have dissolved the expectations set to limit them and have instead shown us a boundless verse.

I begin with the iconic Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo as a way of necessary context. A pathbreaker coming of age in the 1960s, Aidoo is an elder stateswoman of contemporary African poetry, and her work can be seen in its incredible breadth in After the Ceremonies: New and Selected Poems, edited by Helen Yitah (2017). In the tradition of so much of West African poetry, Aidoo often writes poems of praise and naming, directed to individuals and places, a way to address the realities of life (both human and otherwise) head-on through her poems. One such poem is the beautiful long piece “Ghana: Where the Bead Speaks.” In this lyrically playful poem, Aidoo illustrates the idea that the bead (often used for various rituals and divinations) shapes the lives of contemporary Ghanaians, that this object is more than an object, that it is a talisman of sorts, or perhaps more accurately, a kind of barometric mirror for day-to-day life. She writes:

Elegant and enchanting bead,
flowered, flawed, folded, or fielded,
you are the true frame of our feasts,
our festivals, fetes, and fiestas.

Give me a bead that’s wrapped in joy;
find me a bead to carry my grief.
We sing of beads, and sing with beads;
just see how well they show on us. [. . .]

Don’t tell me if there were no beads
something else could meet our needs.
Something what? Something where?
Please keep it there, even if it’s rare.

In this poem we see the ways that Aidoo takes tradition and the sociocultural and spiritual practices that have existed for generations and centers them as the subject of her poetry. But perhaps more importantly, Aidoo takes the poetic tradition of much of modernist European poetry, the metrical and lyrical traditions, and renders it anew in an African context, and in many cases a particularly gendered context. As an early forerunner in contemporary anglophone African poetry, her work became a critically important way to establish a global readership and make a space for the generations to come, to work in the anglophone traditions and continue to push their boundaries by recasting the form into a context that was at the time largely unknown in the West. A conversation had begun, even if uninitiated by the West, where African poets began to speak across the Atlantic and carve a space for themselves, despite the realities of history and power.

Aidoo is followed by many incredible poets in the generation after hers, poets who took the framework she provided and continued to complicate and stretch the possibilities. One such person who comes to mind is the Liberian poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, whose most recent book is When the Wanderers Come Home (2017). In Wesley’s poetry we see the immense power of a poet working to express the human complexity and grief of a nation and her people often defined by war. Wesley is a poet working to find language that can help show the fractures and fissures of a postwar nation and the personal realities of displacement and return. This sentiment is beautifully illustrated in her poem “What Took Us to War”:

Every so often, you find
a piece of furniture, an old head wrap
or something like a skirt
held together like a rusty pin.
Our years, spilled over all the ruggedness
of this war-torn place,
our years, wasted like grains of rice.

Relics of your past, left for you,
in case you returned accidentally
or intentionally, in case you did not
perish with everyone else.
Something hanging onto thread,
holding onto the years
to be picked up, after locusts
and termites have had their say,
the graciousness of looters,

the graciousness of termites
and temporary owners of a home
you built during your youth,
during the Samuel Doe years
when finding food was your life goal.
How gracious, the war years,
how gracious, the warlords,
their fiery tongues and missiles.

Here we see how Wesley takes note of the lived realities and evolutions of civil war, of the subtle distinctions of what it means to be from a place completely transformed and ravaged by violence, and the lasting and personal invasions it causes. Emblematic of her aesthetic style, Wesley often pays attention to the ephemeral, the things both culturally symbolic and domestic, a line often blurred in many cultures. But what’s more is that she uses the framing set by the generations before her to create poetry that not only speaks to her realities as a Liberian woman and survivor of the civil war but a poetry that implicates her own grief, allowing her a fully humanized space on par with the works of anglophone writers from all over the world. In this vein Wesley, representative of a kind of “middle generation” between Aidoo and the emerging writers of today, helps break ground for a myriad of both content and style.

This is a poetry destined to make us as readers whole, to tear asunder our misconceptions of what it means to be alive on this earth, in this moment as members of a continuum.

As we then begin to look at the next generation of poets, we see an incredible bourgeoning and further expansion of craft, especially by many who were raised in diaspora, poets like the Eritrean, Puerto Rican, and African American poet Aracelis Girmay. Girmay’s most recent book, The Black Maria (2016), dives into a meditative exploration of the refugee migrations from East Africa to Europe and creates a poetic migration for the reader to see, again, the internal humanity of these people who have so often been relegated to the position of media subjects. And perhaps what we see most in Girmay’s work is that understanding of the intricate nuances of human inflection, the things that make us viable and resonant. Her poems often pull at these intricate nuances and establish a relationship between speaker and subject that is at once quiet and urgent, pressing and vibrant. But her poems are also populated by a people rooted in an antediluvian space, made rootless, or perhaps sent in search of new roots, by the political changes of a postcolonial globe. They are forever resilient regardless of their tribulations. And when we meet these people in her poems it doesn’t take much time to see that each of them has tucked away the ancient roots that make them whole. That each of them carries a culture and a land within them. They keep trees and flowers in their pockets, frankincense and bread flower in their shirtsleeves, stories and language in their mouths, and the seas they have traveled in the pools of their eyes. This is a poetry destined to make us as readers whole, to tear asunder our misconceptions of what it means to be alive on this earth, in this moment as members of a continuum. It forces us to engage one another and the earth we occupy with a firm footedness and a light but anchored spirit. As she writes in her poem “to the sea”:

But there is no mistaking laughter.
It is laughter.

strange earth, strange
that we will die into

this bright, blue oblivion
though the day is beautiful

& later, the night will
also be          (beautiful)

with the noise of crickets who,
even as we lose & lose make

their bodies creak
with desire & the dusk,

& we will call these sounds
“the future continuous,” us

Ladan Osman. Photo by Tariq Tarey.
Ladan Osman. Photo by Tariq Tarey.

As we then begin to look deeper at the work of emerging poets, the “future continuous,” as Girmay puts it, we find a group of women who have clearly immersed themselves in the study of poetics well beyond their individual spheres and generations, poets who have made it a habit to borrow from the best elements of contemporary poetry. We are introduced to writers like Ladan Osman from Somalia, whose debut book, The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (2015), is a book of vision and investigation. Layered with the testimony and collision of the Somali diaspora in Middle America, this is a book that privileges the optics of the otherworldly while remaining deeply rooted in the female body of the present. Hers is a poetry with a piercing gaze, always looking, finding beauty in the fading light, reconciling our sense of humanity in what is always askew. Here is an excerpt from her poem “Western Gate”:

They say women’s dreams stay indoors.
These days I dream an ocean under the bed.
I wake up and watch its tide.
I’m myself but also a large black bird,
like the crows near oceans.
I sit up in bed. I perch on the concrete sill.
I’m big enough to slap pavement on impact,
take running steps to land.
I shout for myself to fly
but only look back at myself
and the water rises
so the whole room smells like salted water
and soaked beans. Have you ever tried to walk
when the water recedes, leaving a chainmail pattern
in the sand, feet sinking? Have you ever
tried to walk watching water move
and fallen right into it?
The sinking woman will try to make waves
a column, its froth a steady handhold.

This poem challenges the notions of domesticity inasmuch as the imagination remains free: “I’m myself but also a large black bird,” a bird that not only soars but serves as a symbolic representation of the health and viability of a community. And here Osman extends the very long and complex history of African feminism, a realignment of matriarchal lineages that are subject to both internal and external definition. Here, the duality of being both individual and representative is presented as a kind of declaration of freedom and a refusal to be caught in the space of simplistic binaries. It is a searching for new definition that drives much of this work and makes it so rich.

Safia Elhillo
Safia Elhillo

Following in this trajectory is another debut poet, the Sudanese poet Safia Elhillo, who entered the contemporary poetry scene with a striking linguistic force. Writing in English with deep Arabic-language inflections, she moves between the two languages to not only illustrate a cultural perspective but critique the space of race and the Sudanese position in relation to the north of Africa. Often referring to the asmarani, the one who is darker skinned, her work pulls from the personal and the historical to create a synergistic relationship with the navigation of the borderlands between the Sudan and Egypt as well as the United States. Like the coal-charred corn often eaten on the streets of Cairo, her poems contain those layered elements of sweet and singed always playing off of one another and wrapped in a protective and inedible layer that somehow feels reminiscent of her present diasporic position in America. In her debut book, The January Children (2017), named for the children born in Sudan under British Occupation, her aesthetic pronouncement is made clear from the inaugural poem, “asmarani makes prayer”:

verily verything that is lost will be
given a name & will not come back
but will live forever

& verily  border-shaped wound will
be licked clean y songs naming
the browngirl n particular erily she
will not heal but erily the ghosts will
not leave her alone verily when asked how
she got her name f telling the truth he
will say a woman died   everything
           ants a home]

From the start this idea that everything lost will be named, and not that it will come back but live forever, is perhaps deeply emblematic of the position Elhillo’s generation takes on ideas of migration and diaspora. Like the poet herself, the journey in her poems takes on the multiple elements of her path from Sudan to Egypt to America, and we learn to name this new being, this new person, so as not to become lost. But what is critical here is that the idea of return is less at the center, less the desire as it was for past generations. For Elhillo the new person will live on, continuing to shape the diasporic African identity, in this case through poetry that at once recognizes its deep-seeded African roots but does not engage in a nostalgia or essentialism as had been done with previous generations’ African poets. This is the new generation, insistent that Africa itself is a global and malleable concept, a small thread always sewn in the mind and heart of the sojourner, perhaps the very thread that holds it all together, despite the ways things may sometimes appear.

We embody the notion that the world can change, that its axis, though formidable, is somehow malleable.

 

Mahtem Shiferraw
Mahtem Shiferraw

And this idea of an evolving Africa is again reiterated by the Ethiopian poet Mahtem Shiferraw in her debut collection, Fuchsia (2016). Illustrated beautifully in her poem “Twenty Questions for Your Mother,” we see the way the conceptual, though anchored in a deeply specific space, can travel; how this use of the question and its subsequently expansive answers can create a sense of the malleable African. She writes:

When armed men came, where did you hide
I didn’t. I was taught to stand. They were
looking for
something in the dark, and I was the light.
Even now,
their footsteps can be heard right before sunrise.
I see only morning lights.

What about your father?
He sits on a cloud. I grieve every day.

And your mother?
I woke up at dawn to wash clothes
and stretch them to dry. I cleaned,
cooked, and warmed the house. The mornings
were so quiet I could hear my heartbeat. And
merchants traveling from Karen. I hid behind
open doors to read and write. She was awake.

Tell me about your friends.
Some got lost in the fight. Some brought back
children not their own, others were promised
to men in silk suites and lovely pastries. We ate
ice cream and went to the cinema. We spoke
other languages. We rushed back home before
curfew and never questioned the strident noise
of bullets that came afterhours.

Who saved you?
God was always there.

What of your children?
I taught them how to read
so they didn’t have to hide. [. . .]

Who are you?
I am free.

And so they are free. No longer held to a standard undefined by their own realities, it is evident that these women, each of them both earth and lightning, have engaged a poetic space that not only helps define contemporary African poetry but works in tandem with the flourishing worlds of contemporary African American and Caribbean verse. It is a moment of a true global synergy, and here you have seen just a small sampling. These poets are joined alongside many others we have published, poets such as Botswana’s TJ Dema, Ethiopia’s Liyou Libsekal, Somalia’s Warsan Shire, Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Jaji, Kenya’s Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Morocco’s Yasmin Belkhyr, Ghana’s Victoria Adukwei Bulley, South Africa’s Ashley Makue, and so many more. As you find inroads into each of their works, you will begin to see the conversations happening with poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander, Ishion Hutchinson, Evie Shockley, Safiya Sinclair, and so many others. In the end what has become perhaps most astonishing is a cross-continental fertilization that has created a sense of African unity, that through its use of language has ignored all borders while not erasing the distinct and necessary lived realities of each of these writers and their homelands. The poems of these women have helped shape a global African poetic that creates a sense of unity without subjugation, a celebration of the words of Bob Marley when he sang, “How good and how pleasant it would be, before God and [wo]man, to see the unification of all Africans.”

As with all things worthwhile, risk and form are at the center; the why and how, the deep-down belief that the world can only shift, even slightly, if we are the ones to push it. And so we nudge, sometimes shove; we embody the notion that the world can change, that its axis, though formidable, is somehow malleable.

Columbia College Chicago


Photo: Joe Mazza

Matthew Shenoda (www.matthewshenoda.com) is the author of the poetry collections Somewhere Else, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, and Tahrir Suite and with Kwame Dawes is editor of Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden. Shenoda is currently dean of academic diversity, equity, and inclusion and professor of English and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and is a founding editor of the African Poetry Book Fund.

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