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?
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.