an abbreviated version of this was posted to goodreads on July 27, 2015:
I am saying that I have finished reading this rich collection of poems only because I read from the first page to the last but I am still reading it. I continue to ponder its mysteries, and massage favorite lines, passages and startling perspectives. Maybe with some more readings I will write more fully about the impression Ladan Osman‘s fine, fine, finely-crafted poems are making on me. I mean this is a process happening in my heart and mind right now in the present.
Read this poem, “Trouble,” from her full-length collection, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony:
I have a chill on my womb.
I have a child in my wound.
Everything is massed up. The sea doesn’t blow.
The wind rivers the sea in the wrong direction.
How will I get along with this man wolfing me?
How will I get alone? He herd me.
It never bordered me before,
what I got as a regard.
We used the hardest language.
We cast threats. We’ll born in hell.
Some of us fall by the waistside
and some of us sore to the stars.
As Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, notes in her piece “Stop Pigeonholing African Writers” for The Guardian, “It seems that African literature is the literary dish du jour, like the Indian (more Lahiris!) and Middle Eastern (more Hosseinis!) dishes before.” Indeed, authors representing many African countries are becoming mainstays of literary booklists and awards the world over. But let’s be real. Africa is a continent of 50-something countries and more than 2000 languages! Whatever writings we are reading in English turns out to be not-so-big a number. And usually its all about the novels.
But on July 9, 2015 I was very fortunate to be in the audience for a heart-lifting program of dynamic readings featuring five “new generation” African poets: Warsan Shire (Kenya), Ladan Osman (Somalia), Amy M. Lukau (Angolan heritage), Tsitsi Jaji (Zimbabwe), and Viola Allo (Cameroon). What a treat! The evening was brought to us courtesy of The Poetry Foundation, Poetry Society of America, and African Poetry Book Fund.
New Generation African Poets Series editors Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani were there in conversation with Matthew Shenoda (who wrote prefaces to TJ Dema’s Mandible, Peter Akinlabi’s A Pagan Place, and Inua Ellams’ The Wire-Headed Heathen). Just in front of the readings, they talked about the origins of the New Generation African Poets Box Sets, inaugurated in 2014 and dedicated to the memory of Kofi Awoonor (1935-2013), the Ghanaian poet, who was killed in the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
To quote Kwame Dawes from the Introduction in Two Movements to the inaugural (2014) box set:
“We established the fund to fill a gap. Until the African Poetry Book Fund was established, one was hard-pressed to find a publisher devoted exclusively to the publishing of poetry from Africa. We decided to change that with a simple but effective plan: four books a year, a series of partnerships, an African base, a U.S. base, and a network of associations to make this work happen.”
In thinking about this post I asked myself what am I looking for when reading works by authors, poets of the African diaspora? Call me romantic and naive, but I’m always listening for the voices and the news from an ancestral kinship. How are black people around the world experiencing life? What do they have to say and how are they saying it?
To quote Chris Abani from the Introduction in Two Movements to the second (2015) box set:
“This is the turn we find in this new African poetic moment. A poetics that struggles to connect the global sweep of Africans with their ancestral past, with their possible future, all Achebe, all Ifa chant, all hip hop, and all simultaneous: a simultaneity embodied in that moment in which I stood next to Lebo Mashile, in front of an ancient Neolithic rock painting of an elephant, reaching across a small trench to touch it, while listening to Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” on my iPod, while the guide who brought us was wearing a FUBU tracksuit with dress shoes—a true “chekem” if there ever was one.”
I know that poetry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it is one of mine. Whether sipping [it] or slurping [it] (—rarely do I gulp it!), reading and attempting to write poems are things I like to do. I study and un-study it. Poetry fascinates me and puzzles me; angers and heals. In some hands, though, it does nothing for me.
Prior to the event at the Poetry Foundation I had been reading Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony for two months! The fierceness and the freshness of these poems were taking me to unexpected places and I really didn’t want to read the collection quickly. I hoped that hearing her read her poetry live would give me some insight to the content of her poems.
Seeming slightly shy and yet, armored with intensity, the poet clamped her fingertips to her pages and read to us in a voice that was like a dam keeping the full force of her waters from flooding the place. My admiration for Osman’s work increased. And hearing her read alongside Viola Allo, Tsitsi Jaji, Amy M. Lukau, and Warsan Shire was all the more electrifying for the variation in their styles, their moods, their shaping of language, the sounds of their voices. What I felt they most had in common was warmth and skill, depth and sensitivity, and creative passion.
Throwing-down my money for the two box sets added to the headiness (or was that light-headedness?) of the evening and I was home before I realized a question that I had intended to ask. Of the 15 chapbooks included between the two box sets, five of the poets are men. Was the decision for only women to read on this particular occasion intentional? Will there be opportunities to hear the other 10 poets read in the future? I know these things cost money.
Meanwhile, I look forward to having a New Generation African Poets tea party. Care to join me?
These box sets feature wonderful artwork by Adejoke Tugbiyele, and Imo Nse Imeh.
Cover detail of The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism (after Sylvia Wynter) by RJ Eldridge.