Liminality–The Inbetween Space  

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Hope Wabuke, whose poem “Leviticus,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between a parent and child.

ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

WABUKE: Poetry was my first love, but it took me a long, circular time to be strong in the work. I wrote my first poem when I was six. It was about an elephant named Elephy. More followed. Poetry was a sort of sanctuary for me. In my education, from kindergarten through senior year of high school, we only read white European and American writers, usually male, and finding Brooks and Giovanni and Lorde and Baldwin and Hughes and others gave me something that sustained me. I have played music for most of my whole life, and I was always attracted to the musicality of language. But I studied film and fiction writing in college and graduate school instead. The idea that you could get an MFA in poetry was beyond my comprehension at the time.

A few years ago, I returned to Los Angeles to spend time with my parents, who were both ill, and with my grandmother, visiting from Uganda. My grandmother was 96; I knew that might be the last time I saw her. I became pregnant and began to think even more about my body family—the growing of life brought up so many feelings and memories; it was a paradigm shift too, in terms of what I thought important, in my writing. My baby boy is probably my biggest inspiration. He opens up my world and makes it so much richer, so much more interesting and meaningful than I could have ever thought possible.

ABR: Your poem which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize has an interesting title, ‘Leviticus’ what was the inspiration behind the title?

WABUKE: Leviticus is one of the Books of the Christian Bible, in the Old Testament. It is considered the book of laws. A lot of the Mosaic code—and our modern sense of morality—come from that book. So I was thinking loosely of the law according to my father, what, according to him, are the rules for living. For him, it is working. My father comes from a culture where the measure of a good man is how hard he works. He started working on the family farm when he was three. He is now in his sixties. He has never taken a vacation. Like many immigrants, this is what he needed to do to survive in this country.
In The Body Family as a whole I reckon deeply with the Christian faith I was raised in—the book is organically becoming a feminist, decolonial revisiting of the Bible. When I was younger, I turned away from Christianity—not just because of the sexism and racism I experienced in Christian spaces in my own life firsthand, but also the larger systematic violence that had been done by people in God’s name—the European colonization of Africa, American slavery and other forms of racism, sexism, and genocide throughout history. It was only after I became a mother that I understood the importance of a spiritual belief system, of meaning larger than oneself—of the sacred. I realized, also, that the terrible things other misguided people had done in the name of God had nothing to do with my relationship with God. I did not have to give other people that power over my life.
I understood what it means, in times of terror to have a sustaining belief—for in what moment of first-time motherhood are you not terrified for the well-being of your fragile newborn? And so all this was there.

Continue reading “Liminality–The Inbetween Space  “

History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Bernard Matambo, a Zimbabwean poet whose poem “The City,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between spaces and people.

 

ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

MATAMBO: I started writing poetry in a serious way when I was 14. Before this I had always read everything near, and written short pieces for school or for myself. A lot of things were happening in my life at this age, sudden changes that led me to question a lot of what I had understood to be true and factual. Inevitably my understanding and reading of the world seemed to lack placement in the world around me. Poetry became a way of looking, a way of reading and synthesizing what was occurring within and around me at that age.

ABR: Your poem The City which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize seems to touch on issues of history, oppression, reclaiming spaces, and possibly how spaces can be a record/ keep the memories of peoples who have ever dwelt there. Can you share your inspiration for this poem and what you wanted it to be representative of?

MATAMBO: “The City” is part of a circle of poems I started working on in 2008. Part of my objective was to have the poems communicate with each other, thus creating a potential narrative arc when read together. Yet I also wanted each of the poems to standalone and exist without the others.

In this poem I was thinking of reclamation of internal and external spaces.

While the anguish of political oppression can be humbling, it can often too engage us with unsavory aspects of ourselves.

It often becomes effortless to dehumanize each other, for instance. I was thus interested in how a society would go about not only forgiving itself after the harder parts of a prolonged season of anguish, but also reconcile, reclaim and establish new selves. The physical scape in the poem then, is by and large symbolic of what has occurred internally within such a society during this prolonged season that has not quite ended. While it is not always palatable, history’s shadow will often hover over the future.

Continue reading “History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future”

I am from pass your exams in ten subjects: Viola Allo

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Viola Allo, a Cameroonian poet, whose poem “From Farm to Schoolroom,” provides an in-depth look at growing up in Cameroon.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Viola Allo

ALLO: The thing that inspires me to write poetry is mysterious. I have a hard time trying to describe it. What I know is that writing poems makes me happy. I love the joyful feeling I get from the process of crafting a poem, even when the process is frustrating and unpredictable. I am committed to writing poetry, and I am committed to staying with the creative process. At times when I don’t feel inspired, this commitment keeps me going. Lots of things inspire particular poems, and sometimes multiple things come together to inspire a poem—events, memories, dreams, people, conversations, emotions, images, stories, poems by other poets, objects, places, ideas and issues I want to work through or speak about. Being a poet has helped me see life as something filled with countless poetic possibilities.

ABR: Your poem, “From Farm to Schoolroom,” which is a finalist for the Brunel African Poetry prize, describes growing up and going to school in Cameroon.  Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of compiling so many different things to produce an in-depth snapshot of life there?

ALLO: I love the way you describe my poem. It makes me feel that it is a success—that you were able to read it and see things in it that I see. “From Farm to Schoolroom” is a “model” poem. I wrote it five years ago, as part of an assignment in a poetry workshop. I modeled it on George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From.” That was the assignment the professor gave to our class of community college students—to read George Ella Lyon’s poem and then come up with our own versions. It is a classic “list” poem. When I began working on the poem, I wrote down my list of things that I thought would describe what it was like for me to grow up in Cameroon and leave the country after so many years of being educated there. The poem evolved as I created my list and revised it.

I have several versions of the poem, and I titled one “Education” because schooling emerged as a central theme in the poem. School was a big part of my life in Cameroon. School is a big part of life for many children in Cameroon.

Education is more than simply valued by many Cameroonians—it is celebrated. Education just made sense as the central theme for the poem.

Food is also an important theme in the poem. I come from a very agricultural region of Cameroon. My ancestral homeland is a fertile place, and the farm itself is the first schoolroom. Life there, in essence, revolves around food and farming. Also, plantation agriculture is an important part of the Cameroonian economy, especially in the tropical south. If you visit southern Cameroon, some of the first things you will notice are the vast, seemingly endless plantations. The cultivation of food and the preparation of food for consumption are so central to life and community in Cameroon, I couldn’t help but have the poem begin with food and some of the utensils used for food preparation.

Many of my poems about Cameroon are descriptive in a very subtle or deliberately ethnographic way. It’s not just my background in anthropology coming through. It’s my desire to give my audience a “snapshot” or an intimate view of things, even if only through my eyes.

 When I think about things, I am always shifting perspectives, zooming in and then zooming out, trying to make sure I see everything, if possible. I am looking at my experiences but also thinking of other people, thinking about history, about contemporary issues.

The poem is so multifaceted because that’s the way my mind works—and the way life works. In life, many things happen at the same time and affect each other. As human beings, we are products of so many different forces and factors coming together. Local and global things shape us. The past, present and anticipated future are powerful influences in our lives. We cannot measure all the forces and events that affect us, but we can be aware of them. In this sense, “From Farm to Schoolroom” is a very ambitious poem. It contains an awareness about many things, and the result is a bit messy and straightforward but quite comprehensive.

Continue reading “I am from pass your exams in ten subjects: Viola Allo”

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: An Interview With An Ethiopian Poet

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with the winner, Liyou Mesfin Libsekal, an Ethiopian poet whose fun poem revolved around the influences of tradition, modernization, and globalization on Ethiopia’s rapid development.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Libsekal: Writing is something that allows me to sort through thoughts and gain some sort of personal understanding. I’m inspired by what is happening around me, by my environment and my own experiences as well as those of others.

Liyou Libsekal

ABR: Your poem “Riding Chinese Machines,” which is a finalist for the Brunel African Poetry prize, juxtaposes motorcycles (‘mechanical beasts’) and lions (‘natural beasts’), to discuss the tensions of modernity and tradition. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of writing it?

Libsekal: The inspiration for “Riding Chinese Machines” came from observing Addis Ababa at this moment in time; the poem is a result of living in a city that’s in the midst of an economic boom and immense transformation. There is overwhelming infrastructural change, with old roads being broken up, new asphalt roads being laid out, and much much more. So Addis has become a city of detours and congestion, of construction and ever-present foreign machines. That’s where the inspiration came from; from observing roads spotted with massive equipment, workers and operators, from noticing changes in lifestyles and landscape; it’s impossible to be in Addis and not be affected in some way by these projects and progresses and questioning the process is a part of it all.

ABR: As an Ethiopian poet, how has Ethiopia influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Ethiopia is? What ideally would you like it to be?

Libsekal: Ethiopia is one of the biggest influences in my writing. I’m really an observer so my surroundings are what I draw from. It’s fascinating to witness such intensely visible changes that the country is so rapidly experiencing; there’s a lot of progress and naturally, there are also a lot of problems, there’s so much hope and frustration at the same time. It’s a critical time in our history so it’s impossible to ignore.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African books/ books by African authors? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you just love for some reason?

Libsekal: I read a lot of poetry and Kwesi Brew is among my favorite poets, African or otherwise, simply because his poetry is such a testament to how powerful and relevant the medium is, or can be. I’m really drawn to his work and admire how effective it is in so many ways because his poetry is a reflection of his identity and that really appeals to what I value about poetry.


Liyou Mesfin Libsekal 
 was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University, with a minor in international affairs and a concentration in international development. Liyou found her way back home to Ethiopia after spending a short time in Vietnam. She writes about culture and the changing environment of her rapidly developing country for the Ethiopian Business Review. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Find more of her work here. 

Amy Lukau: An Interview

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Amy Lukau, a poet of Angolan descent whose poem touched on love, loss, and resolving the tensions that come with both.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Amy Lukau

LUKAU: What inspires me to write poetry is the injustice prevalent in our world. Similarly, the beautiful moments found in life.

To be present in the world is a reactionary endeavor

This fact alone is the sole impetus of my inspiration for poetry. Everything inspires my work, from cooking, global news, civil unrest, a conversation between strangers on the bus when I’m on my way to work or school, you name it. Taking a seemingly banal subject such as cooking or cleaning (although to some it may be enjoyable) and giving it new meaning- a nuanced purpose- are some of the things I live for in my creative work. I always attempt to push my writing beyond the boundaries of what most people would think possible via form and content.

ABR: Your poem “Thoughts of Isaac,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, uses religious overtones to discuss the separation of two lovers. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of writing it?

LUKAU: “Thoughts of Isaac” is a deeply personal poem. The inspiration for the piece was the passing of a friend who was a potential ‘lover,’ for lack of a better term. He was killed in an auto accident four years ago. This poem was homage to him and what could have been if he were still alive. The religious overtones are my way of coping—I believe there is power of allusion.

Being able to speak of oneself and close encounters without giving too much away. This is one of the many reasons why I write: I can used codified language to articulate personal experiences. A novel take on confessional poetry? Maybe…

ABR: As a poet of Angolan descent, how has Angola influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Angola is? What ideally would you like it to be?

LUKAU: Being a poet of Angolan descent has had a definite impact on my work. My father immigrated to the United States to escape the communist government in Angola. Similarly, my mother’s family immigrated to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire and before that the Belgian Congo). I consider myself in a lot of respects a bi-product of the transnational border scene.

Identity becomes complicated to those not intimately familiar of where I am coming from. I grew up in Arizona, a state in Southwestern United States where Spanish is spoken as much as English is. Saying this I do not know what the future of Angolan poetry is, I do know it has been one of resistance. Resisting colonial rule from the Portuguese to declaring independence in the 70s to espousing communism.

I would like all poetry in Angola and elsewhere to be a space where people can express themselves freely without fear of prosecution from governments. I believe poets play a salient role in society, to steal a quote from Salman Rushidie, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

ABR: Do you have any favorite African books? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you love for some reason?

LUKAU: I do! I love the book So Long A Letter” by Mariama Ba. It’s relatively short but so powerful and beautifully written. Ba addresses a lot of societal issues in the book while remaining witty— it’s a wonderful read. This book influenced me because I read it about six years ago for a course I was taking on women in Islamic Africa. It shows and explicates how sometimes religion and culture become indefinable.

Books that I have also read lately include “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “We Need New Names” by Noviolet Bulawayo. I also love the poem “Immigration RSVP” by Lemn Sissay. I loved his anthology which I read about seven months ago “The Fire People: Collection of Contemporary Black British Poets.” This is not an exhaustive list but some of the work I’ve been reading by African authors as of late.

ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?

LUKAU: Some things that I am working on involve a lot of translational elements. An attempt to blur the ‘lines’ between collective memory and reality. It’s a concept that continually appears in my work and I am attempting to put together cohesive work on the topic. Other than that, poet plays which have been a lot of fun.

Amy Lukau was born in Tucson, Arizona to Angolan parents.  She graduated from Arizona State University with a BS in Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology & a BA in Religious Studies with certificates in Islamic Studies and Religion & Conflict.  She is the Executive Director of Girls Education International, a non-profit organization based in Colorado that supports educational opportunities for underserved females in remote and underdeveloped regions of the world.  Amy is currently an MFA candidate in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.