Interview with American Poet/Spoken Word Artist, Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre

April 28, 2017

GuantePress1Brief Biography:

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre is an MC, two-time National Poetry Slam champion, activist and educator based in Minneapolis, MN. His work explores the relationships between identity, power, and resistance, and has been featured on Upworthy, Welcome to Night Vale, Everyday Feminism, BBC Radio 6 Music, MSNBC, the Huffington Post, and beyond. Garnering over ten million views online, Guante has also performed live at the United Nations, the Soundset Hip Hop Festival, and countless colleges, universities, and conferences. He serves as a teaching artist on the rosters of TruArtSpeaks and COMPAS, and regularly facilitates workshops and classes on a range of subjects. Guante completed his Masters studies at the University of Minnesota with a focus on spoken word, critical pedagogy, and social justice education in 2016.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a Page Poet or Spoken Word Artist? In your view, is there any difference between the two?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: There is a lot of baggage to that question. Personally, I consider myself a spoken word artist, in that the bulk of my writing is explicitly meant to be performed, and has a somewhat different “life” on the page. I can only speak for myself, though, since there is an enormous overlap between the two approaches/forms/communities– some page poets are incredible performers, and some spoken word artists release brilliant books. Some reject those kinds of labels entirely, while some embrace one or the other in beautifully contradictory ways.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you start out as a poet?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: I began like many do: just writing in a notebook, playing with language, messing around with form and content. I never thought it’d be anything beyond a way to kill time while sitting in the back of the class. But through relationships, through people bringing me with them to open mics and slams, it kind of snowballed into an actual career.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it easy to stand in front of an audience to perform?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: I don’t think that it’s ever easy for me, but it becomes less difficult simply through preparation and repetition. I am not a “natural” performer or an extrovert, so a lot of the basic stuff (like projection and enunciation), I just had to learn, over time, through trial and error. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about spoken word as a community–most of the elements that make someone a great performer can be learned; you don’t have to be born with it.

I am not a “natural” performer or an extrovert, so a lot of the basic stuff (like projection and enunciation), I just had to learn, over time, through trial and error. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about spoken word as a community–most of the elements that make someone a great performer can be learned; you don’t have to be born with it.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the inspiration behind your poem, “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist”?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: If one function of poetry is to “make the invisible visible,” I wanted to write something that explicitly addressed how racism is a system and not just a behavior. That’s a basic concept to people who study race and racism, but it seems like it’s a weirdly radical, challenging idea to a lot of people who don’t. So I wanted to present a series of metaphors and images that could bring that idea down to earth a bit. My hope is that it can be a useful tool in educational settings–probably not on its own, but in conjunction with other resources, readings, and dialogue.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you earn a living as a poet?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: My work is very much interdisciplinary, and my “work” reflects that. I spend some time traveling to colleges and conferences to perform (and also to facilitate dialogue around the issues that my work addresses); I also spend some time engaging in residency work at high schools and middle schools; I also manage my internet presence and sell books and CDs that way–like many artists, for me, making a living is a complex, multi-headed endeavor. But the bright side to all of this is that there is an audience for it; I work at that intersection of poetry, education, and social justice, and these are times that call for that sort of work.

Geosi Gyasi: Ezra Stead of ‘Eat Sleep Drink Music’ once said of you as “One of Minneapolis’s best and most important rappers.” Do you agree with him?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: I do, in the sense that just about all of the rappers I know in Minneapolis are talented and important. I think a lot less about my art as competition with others, and much more about how it contributes to a larger conversation. My goal is never to write the “best” poem or song; it is to use my perspective and style to add something to our collective body of work that does not already exist. This goes for music and poetry as well.

Geosi Gyasi: This question is at the core of the hearts of many of your fans, I think. What is the inspiration for “Man Up”?

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: This is a small thing, but I always like to remind people that that poem is called “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up,” and not just “Man Up,” since part of language is its effect even out of context and intention. But I wrote that poem to push back against what I saw as the exploitation of my insecurities by companies trying to sell me things–“buy this or you’re not a REAL man,” etc. In the process of writing it, though, it grew into a piece about how that exploitation is directly connected to the oppression of women and gender-nonconforming people, since men’s insecurities are so often based in power, dominance, and control. On some level, it’s a poem about how “small” things are connected to larger realities of harm and violence.

Watch Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre perform “Ten Responses to the Phrase “Man Up” here.

END.

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Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Nick Makoha

April 27, 2017

NICK-6050Brief Biography:

Poet Nick Makoha is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow and a Fellow of The Complete Works in the UK. He won the 2015 Brunel African Poetry Prize and the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize 2016 for his manuscript Resurrection Man. His poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Rialto, The Triquarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri. Find him at www.nickmakoha.com

Geosi Gyasi: Following up on our interview in May 18, 2015, you said in one of your answers that, “I remember quitting my job and burning all my bank suits” when you realized you were not doing what you loved. My question is, do you now feel accomplished as a writer/poet?

Nick Makoha: The word accomplished suggests that I am an artist who is highly trained and skilled. However to be honest if we equate writing and being a poet to that of the martial artist I am only at the beginning of my training. What you see as accomplishment is my love and passion for the work I do. Think of Derek Walcott who passed away recently. Many of us remember him for his great work Omeros. This epic was published when he was 60 years old. Then there is my countryman Okot Bitek, his great work Song of Lawino was published when he was 35. You should apply the word accomplishment to these writers all the likes of TS Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Terrance Hayes, Rita Dove. I am merely the student in comparison.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know what specific ingredient(s) makes your poetry stand out from other poets?

Nick Makoha: Honestly no. Writing can be a wilderness or a black hole when faced with an empty page. When I write I cannot be certain of what I will create. But I know when I have stumbled upon something magical. That revelation does not occur at the point of writing. It occurs a few months later when I read the poem back aloud and I am moved. At this vantage I am able to engage with the poem the way the reader would, as I am detached from my writing self. The poem almost occurs as a new thing. Not all the poems that I write survive this process. The ones that do l keep and the ones that don’t l let go of.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about how you selected your ten poems for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Nick Makoha: With great difficulty. Many of the poems were not fully finished. I was still revising them during the last week of submission. Luckily for me I had just come out of a fruitful period of writing. Six or so poems from that period made it in plus four others that seemed to speak to the six.

…to be honest if we equate writing and being a poet to that of the martial artist I am only at the beginning of my training. What you see as accomplishment is my love and passion for the work I do.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a Fellow of The Complete Works in the UK. You would do me a great favour by telling me about what The Complete Works is all about?

Nick Makoha: There was a report written on poetry called Free Verse Report, it found that less than 1% of Black and Asian poets were being published. When publishers were approached about this they all defended their position by saying it was a matter of taste. The Complete Works is a national development for 10 writers  of colour. It is now in its third cycle. Each poet gets access to a mentor, workshops and a writing retreat. Each cycle culminates with an anthology called Ten.

Geosi Gyasi: How important is this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize to you?

Nick Makoha: As a writer of colour and as an African, to be acknowledged by an award of this magnitude would be a humbling reward in an industry that can be very difficult to navigate.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you make of this year’s shortlisted poets for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize? Are you familiar with any of the shortlisted poets and/or their poetry?

Nick Makoha: It is a great list. I only know one of the writers Kayo Chingonyi personally. But one of the benefits of this prize is that the shortlist introduces us the writers and the listening world to the voices across the diaspora.

END.


Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Sahro Ali

April 26, 2017

Sahro-AliBrief Biography:

Sahro Ali is a Somali-Australian hybrid. Her work explores ghosts of the diaspora, memories and trauma. She is a managing editor at Kerosene Magazine, a fledgling literary magazine created by and for marginalised artists. Her work is forthcoming in an  anthology of anti-Trump work called CONTRA, which will be published by Kerosene. She is inspired by the women in her life who encourage and cultivate radical writing. She hopes one day to make them proud. She tweets @sahroaIi.

Geosi Gyasi: First, tell me about the kind of work you do at Kerosene Magazine?

Sahro Ali: Kerosene was created through 2AM discussions between 10 friends last year, we were all diving into the literary world and quickly found out that it wasn’t for us. The mainstream writing community is elite and inaccessible–submitting to magazines, entering contests, and attending workshops all cost money and these fees act as a barrier to those most affected by poverty–LGBT people of colour. We’re trying to smash those barriers.  Our main mission is to nurture and give spaces to marginalized voices. We’re currently working on our first issue and a special project titled CONTRA or ‘’against’’ which features anti-white supremacy, anti-capitalist, and anti-trump art. However, we have plans that go beyond CONTRA. We hope to create online workshops for LGBT women of colour that will be free. Nothing is set in stone though!

Geosi Gyasi: I understand Kerosene Magazine supports marginalized artists. How do you define marginalized artists?

Sahro Ali: Artists who teeter on the periphery and aren’t given equal consideration and respect as non-marginalised artists are given.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write predominantly for women?

Sahro Ali: I don’t like the idea of writing for someone other than myself. Not all women have the same experiences, and since I mostly derive inspiration from my own experiences and memories to say I write for women would be inaccurate. There’s a quote from Gloria Anzaldua that explains my relationship with writing far better than I could: ‘’I write to discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, and to achieve self-autonomy.’’

The mainstream writing community is elite and inaccessible–submitting to magazines, entering contests, and attending workshops all cost money and these fees act as a barrier to those most affected by poverty–LGBT people of colour.

Geosi Gyasi: Which women writers do you admire?

Sahro Ali: So many! My friends, Elisa Luna-Ady, Diana Khong, Shirley Wang, and Ayame Keane-Lee. Who I am so grateful to know and be able to watch grow and interact with. Then there are women I love and admire from afar. Gloria Annzaldua, Warsan Shire, Zadie Smith, Safia Elhillo, Trinh T. Minh-ha and so many more!

Geosi Gyasi: How did you hear about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and what inspired you to enter your poems?

Sahro Ali: Two of my favourite poets were past winners (Warsan Shire and Safia Elhilo), I was lurking the internet for all of their published work and stumbled upon the poetry prize. I was tentative about entering but my friends pushed me to do it and gave me the courage to enter. They’re always my source of inspiration and I always say this but it stands true, I would not be the person I am today without them.

END.


Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Rasaq Malik

April 24, 2017

Rasaq-MalikBrief Biography:

Rasaq Malik is a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including Michigan Quaterly Review, Poet Lore, Spillway, Rattle, Juked, Connotation Press, Heart Online Journal, Grey sparrow, Jalada, and elsewhere. He is a two-time nominee for Best of the Net Nominations. His poem was among the finalists for the 2015 Best of the Net Nominations. Recently, Rattle Magazine and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. What did you study at school and how relevant is it to you as a poet?

Rasaq Malik: I studied English Literature at the University of Ibadan. I spent my undergraduate years reading literary texts recommended in the class and the ones outside the four walls of the classroom. However, my poetic peregrination started at Blue Crescent International College, Iseyin. My literature teacher, Aunty Lizzy would read Kofi Awoonor’s poems to us and other poems that, till now, breathe in my heart and reoccur to me whenever I engage the transient nature of the world, the lost ritual of kindness and humanness as regards our daily activities as pilgrims on the road of life. I wrote my first poem for the late lawyer and activist, Gani Fawehinmi, when I was in SSS II. I would also say that University of Ibadan provided a platform for me to grow in my own way. After reading Nigerian poets like Niyi Osundare, Remi Raji, Olu Oguibe, Jumoke Verissimo, etc, I realized, repeatedly, the urgent need to pursue writing as a form of jihad, as a tool to deploy for the liberation of the people, as a map to trace to reach the promised land. So, the chain of my poetic sojourn started in school – secondary school – and stayed with me till I graduated. Today I still write and find solace in the literary aesthetics and how poetry informs and reforms, innovates and renovates, incites and instigates, resides and inhabits, propagates and stirs the world to embrace love and peace.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poetry speaks to the reality of the issues bedeviling a country with a painful past and present: of wars, bomb blasts, lost relatives, and many other horrors. How does it really feel like living in such a country?

Rasaq Malik: It is not palatable to wake up to the news of bomb blasts somewhere in Kano and Maiduguri. Even when I deafen my ears to the news and live without burdening my life with someone else’s tragedy, I realize that it is pertinent for me to document the social realities and the diverse quagmires cum casualties that wean us, that victimize our collective passion for peace and safety in the times of danger. I know that living in Nigeria is like walking a dark path, treading a thorny path, watching your children leave home to return as bodies folded like a prayer mat. I realize that it is the same everywhere, but there is this reality of death that haunts me. In other countries – especially the third world countries –there is a tendency for tragedy to emerge anytime. People are weary of living under an oppressive government, paying taxes that end in politicians’ pockets, dying in prisons as innocent victims of an unjust society. In Nigeria, it is the same case. People leave their houses at dawn; people return to meet wrecks and bodies piled on bodies at twilight. Some of these unrecorded casualties inform my poems. In addition, I would like to reecho what Yousef Koumayaka said when interviewed by Tod Marshall about race and war. Responding to the question about the acceptance of the responsibility of poets to speak against violence during times of war, he replies: “I feel that the artist or poet – more than the politician or professional soldier – is condemned to connect to what he or she observes and experiences.” Reacting to this insightful and thought-provoking response, I agree with Koumayaka that we are bound to view the world through the lens of our writings. We should act the role of an observer and a literary tourist, a historian and a storyteller. It would go a long way in creating an important awareness in a world riddled with trivial events.

Geosi Gyasi: “Home is no longer the peace

we crave as we wake up every day to hear gunshots

in the air, to see ambulances racing to the scenes

of bomb blasts, police cars swarming the streets

like insects lured by the magic of light.”

             (From the poem, “We Don’t Know Where We Belong”)

From the above lines, do you ever feel proud referring to Nigeria as home?

Rasaq Malik: I love Nigeria as a country. To me, referring to it as a home is another level of semantic interpretation. It takes a courageous heart to say this country is a home. However, writing transports my heart to another realm. Writing, to me, is a decisive means of creating a beautiful landscape out of a country wallowing in a sea of war. As a Nigerian poet living in Nigeria, I remain unshaken to the cause of working for the growth of my country. It is still a home inhabited by people who succumb to the heart-wrenching sound of bomb blasts. This question reminds me of Olu Oguibe’s “I am bound to this land by blood.” He writes:

“I am bound to this land by blood

That’s why my vision is blurred

I am rooted in its soil

And its streams flood my veins

I smell the sweat of its men

And the million feet that plod

The dust of its streets

Leave their prints on my soul.”

In this poem, Olu Oguibe’s admits to the fact that he is bound to this land (Nigeria) by blood. This is synonymous to saying that in spite of the enormous problems surfacing every day, his land remains paramount and dear to him. Growing up in Nigeria has exposed me to many things. Also, being among the proletariats is another angle to address it. Every day we hear on the radio how politicians embezzle money and fly abroad to build gigantic houses for their unborn children. Every day we find it unworthy to develop a passion for a country that reeks of corruption and favoritism on the part of the government while the masses toil and clamour for peace. So, like Olu Oguibe, I am bound to this land by blood. This land houses my umbilical cord. It bears my footprints and my sweat and the sweat of my grandfather.

I know that living in Nigeria is like walking a dark path, treading a thorny path, watching your children leave home to return as bodies folded like a prayer mat. I realize that it is the same everywhere, but there is this reality of death that haunts me.

Geosi Gyasi: My best pick of your three poems shown on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize website is “Being a Mother In The North”. How did you come about this poem?

Rasaq Malik: The poem was among the poems I wrote when exploring the aftermath of the incessant bomb blasts that occurred in the Northern part of Nigeria on the lives of people living in places like Kano, Maiduguri, Kaduna, Borno, etc. In Nigeria, there is a thin difference between someone who has experienced, say, the killing of his father or the kidnapping of his sister and someone who hears the news about people bombed when observing Subhi prayer in Maiduguri. To me, the writing of poems to depict war is an inevitable task in a country like Nigeria. To me, the victims of these needless bombings could be anybody. The victims could be my brother, my sister, my uncles, my parents. I think this is what harmonizes us in this country. This is what unites us as a country populated by poverty-ridden people and witnesses of varying degrees of unrest. J.P Clark’s “The Casualties,” resurfaces at this stage. I think the poem portrays it better. In spite of geographical gaps and tribal differences, we are all sufferers and casualties in this present war. We are all trying to find comfort by switching on our radios, our ears hoping to hear good news amidst the deluge of bad news engulfing our hearts.

Geosi Gyasi: To date, which of your poems would you consider as your best or most important?

Rasaq Malik: I write every day. I do not really know the poem that grips my heart to the extent of crowning it my best poem. I would like to say it is quite difficult to select the best. Every poem has its own soul and spirit.

Geosi Gyasi: Of all the shortlisted poets, whom do you think deserves to win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Rasaq Malik: I believe every poem is important. Every poem has something to say; something striking and piercing, something shocking and excruciating, something engaging and electrifying, something awe-inspiring and something taken by the reader as what speaks to him/her or what paints his/her thoughts or desires. Brunel, through poetry, has been able to define arts and plays an indelible role in propagating it. I have read the shortlisted poems and I am wowed by the dexterity deployed in the handling of language by the poets. The poems are beautiful and appealing. So, I would leave the judges to select the winner(s) and award the best entries.

Geosi Gyasi: You seem to have been published in some major magazines across the world. My question is when will your debut book come out?

Rasaq Malik: I believe in the art of honing my writing and revamping my poems. I once read about Thomas Hardy publishing his first poetry collection titled Wessex Poems when he was fifty-eight. Robin Coste Lewis, the author of Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015) and the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry did something similar. Jumoke Verissimo’s ‘I am memory’ spent years before she published it. I mean these poets did not hurry to publish. They worked on their manuscripts and did well in editing and erasing and agreeing and disagreeing before getting these manuscripts published. I am looking forward to publishing my manuscript when the time is ripe.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to end a poem than to begin?

Rasaq Malik: I find it difficult to begin a poem than to end it. I spend time trying to begin with lines that will captivate the attention of the reader. I think writing is like childbirth. It takes time, energy, and endurance. Another thing is that it takes a skillful hand to disentangle the web of diction and write a canonical poem. It is not easy.

In Nigeria, there is a thin difference between someone who has experienced, say, the killing of his father or the kidnapping of his sister and someone who hears the news about people bombed when observing Subhi prayer in Maiduguri. To me, the writing of poems to depict war is an inevitable task in a country like Nigeria.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a poet living in Nigeria?

Rasaq Malik: The inability to explore the fertile literary landscapes of other countries has been a major bane to me. It is quite difficult to get those books here in the country. In the past, I used to message writers whose books I found interesting and engaging after reading, say, snippets and reviews of the books. I remember messaging Hayan Charara, Hala Alyan, Danusha Lameris, Tohib Adejumo, etc. These poets and literary enthusiasts have written poems that reflect humanity and aid the better understanding of the world we inhabit and the world that troubles our dreams and aspirations. They continue to inspire me and stir me to do better. I remember the accommodating and supportive Laura Kaminski and her world of kindness and hope. Over the years, Laura has been able to send books to some of the emerging Nigerian poets. She has been able to show us a world characterized by love and friendship. She has been able to spread love across borders, not minding the blurriness that exists between the physical world and the virtual world.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any dream to travel outside Nigeria, to pursue further studies in writing and/or to pursue your dream as a poet?

Rasaq Malik: I have a potent dream to study writing outside Nigeria. I think opting for MFA is the best available medium to learn other things about writing outside this country. So, I keep praying that everything works out well. I would love to learn more about writing. I would love to be a better poet.

Geosi Gyasi: What would you use the prize money for when you win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Rasaq Malik: I have many dreams, you know. However, I have always been praying for the gift of life. I once messaged a friend to remember me if I died before Ramadan, in 2015. Well, I survived. Being on the Brunel shortlist has become a major reminder that my society is indisputably paramount and necessary in my voyage in life. I have to continue the art of creating pictures of the happenings and events around us. If I win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize, I intend to invest in the propagation of literacy and liberation of the minds by buying books and gifting people some of these books. In addition, I have never had the opportunity to help orphans the way I would have loved to do. There are friends doing this already. Vincent Adeoba Joytohumanity is an exemplary leader and humanist whose passion for empowering others has inspired me. Olufunmi Adebajo is another selfless individual whose humanitarian work has liberated some of the poverty-ridden people and orphans in the society. Jack Vince possesses the courage to update us on the on-going events in Maiduguri and other parts of the troubled North. He also contributes his own quota to the rehabilitation of the victims of bokoharams’ attacks in the North. Rashidat Bakare Ikeoluwa is another lady I just discovered online. She is the founder of “Empower Borno”, a platform she created to help the victims of Boko haram insurgency in Borno. She continues to wax stronger and I love her spirit of love and kindness. If I win, I intend to contribute to some of these selfless organizations and spare my country of the problems emanating from war and unrest.

END.


Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Romeo Oriogun

April 23, 2017

IMG_20170327_101617Brief Biography:

Romeo Oriogun lives and writes in Udi, a little town in Eastern Nigeria. His poems, which mostly deal with what it means to live as a queer man in Nigeria, have been featured in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and others. He is the author of Burnt Men, an electronic chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first hear about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Romeo Oriogun: I heard about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize three years ago, a friend of mine shared the winning poems by Warsan Shire on Facebook and I was hooked, here is a poet who went deep into herself to bring out words that are filled with emotions, memories, and history. I had just started writing then, in my country students are mostly exposed to poetry books from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, they are what is used to teach poetry to students, books written by contemporary poets are rare and most times expensive, so meeting a poet who is like fresh breath changed my thinking about the way poetry should be written. This year was my first time of entering for the prize, in Africa there are very few spaces for queer writing, I thought it was a means of sharing my poems, I never knew I will make the shortlist, so for me getting here is both a blessing and a surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: Was it by choice that you became a poet?

Romeo Oriogun: I first met poetry as a junior student in secondary school, my teacher introduced me to it as a means of naming the war inside me, when she was transferred I left it and found other means of fighting, it was a though time. I thought I was strange and crazy and there was no room for me in a society where boys are taught how to be rocks from a tender age, I was water and I suffered till I decided to end it, it was at that moment that poetry met me again, I was searching for rope when I saw an old poetry book my teacher gave me as a gift, the first poem inside was JP Clark’s Streamside Exchange, it touched somewhere deep inside me, somewhere filled with fire and it gave that place a new way to look at life, at that point I knew there was no turning back, poetry became a means of finding the way forward, of naming the chaos and fear inside me, of celebrating every joy I meet on this way to light, so in a way I met and fell in love with poetry and it fell in love with me too, so I can’t really say it was by choice. I believe life is full of gifts, things given to us by the universe to navigate this space.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “How to Survive the Fire” basically deals with survival in a city like Lagos “where the only freedom for a man who loves another man is to leave.” Do you ever experience some of these hardships you talk about in your poems?

Romeo Oriogun: There are memories that are ours and there are some that are shared with us and even that becomes ours. I wrote How to ‘Survive The Fire’ for a friend who ran through the desert to Italy last year. He came out to some friends during a drunk night and he had to run before they lynched him. Nigeria is full of history of queer men lynched when found or burnt. There are a lot of obstacles for queer men in Nigeria and sometimes we learn to be quiet about it, to try to blend in and go on pretending in other to live which is a sad thing because every day when you live a life that’s not truly yours you die a little. Because I write about these things I’ve been subject to online threat and abuse, after my chapbook was published someone promised to look for me and burn my ass, I still don’t know what would make one hate his fellow human up to that extent. I’m dealing with some threats at the moment, someone asked me to pay some money to him so he won’t tell the paramilitary force I work for that I write queer poems, his name on Facebook is fictitious, there’s no way I can trace him, I told some of my friends about it last week and they told me to be careful, they are scared and I understand, to be queer or support queer people is to walk with the fear of lynching or burning and there’s also the police. Sometimes this is the price I pay for writing but it is better than keeping quiet. I know queer people may not be free to love openly in my lifetime but it is a journey and we are laying the stones for the future and these memories must be documented for future generations to learn how people where lynched and killed because they dared to love.

Nigeria is full of history of queer men lynched when found or burnt. There are a lot of obstacles for queer men in Nigeria and sometimes we learn to be quiet about it, to try to blend in and go on pretending in other to live which is a sad thing because every day when you live a life that’s not truly yours you die a little.

Geosi Gyasi: What at all is queer poetry, if I may ask?

Romeo Oriogun: Allen Ginsberg once told a class “To the world, I’m nothing but a cocksucker”. Once you talk about queer poetry people think it is LGBTQ people writing about gay sex but it is about members of a community that has been marginalize searching for a way to understand their body and the world through their eyes and if it comes out with themes of homosexuality then it is because it is the reality and queer poets don’t write about homosexual themes all the time. It is funny because some people think queer poetry is all about homosexual sex, we also write about heterosexual sex, we are humans and there are queer people is heterosexual relationships, so we write about anything that pulls our humanity, it maybe joy, rainfall, a walk under the evening sky, police brutality, hunger or anything else. There is Langston Hughes, Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown, Ricky Laurentiis and a lot of other voices and their works tackles other themes, so it will be unfair and wrong to cage queer poetry within a sexual circle.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you therefore continue to write queer poems amidst the threats you receive?

Romeo Oriogun: I will, it’s what I know how to do, it’s what keeps me sane, if I stop writing my world will drown in seas that beckons to me every hour.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about Udi, the town in which you live and write?

Romeo Oriogun: Udi is a small town in Enugu, it is located in Eastern Nigeria. It’s a town of hills and solitude and people trying to smile against all odds. I live in a paramilitary barrack, so we are secluded from the people of the town, it makes it interesting going to town to explore life, there is palm wine and bush meat and Okpa, a local delicacy made from bambara nuts, I think? There’s also music, because there is a healthy mixture of old and young people, it is not strange to hear high life music and Nigerian hip hop from old houses. There are hills and farms and trees; I love walking and getting lost in bushes to the songs of birds. Sometimes I talk to people about the civil war and life and anything that hits my head, the truth is that I’m fascinated about spaces people inhabit, about how those spaces shape them into who they are, it makes me restless and the solitude and people of this place makes it possible for me to write and live and smile.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any familiar faces to you from this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize”?

Romeo Oriogun: There’s Rasak, I met him on Facebook and I’ve read a lot of his poems, I’ve also read Kechi Nomu’s poem on Expound, she’s a fantastic poet. Leila Chatti is another poet I’ve read and enjoyed, I find the way she explore her identity to be brilliant. Saddiq is a brother, I met him at a program in Jos, he is a fine poet and a beautiful soul. I think Nigeria is blessed with a lot of young voices at the moment and it is a beautiful thing to be among them.

A friend and I are also working on founding a queer journal in Nigeria, which will be a safe space for queer writers in Africa to find a literary community…

Geosi Gyasi: Have you been working on any specific literary project?

Romeo Oriogun: I’ve been working on my manuscript. A friend and I are also working on founding a queer journal in Nigeria, which will be a safe space for queer writers in Africa to find a literary community, at the moment I’m trying to look at the legal implications and how queer writers can be protected, especially those who don’t want to write with a pseudonym.

Geosi Gyasi: Is/Are there anything that fascinates you about your own writing?

Romeo Oriogun: Each poem I write is a door into another, I don’t dwell much on my writing but I’m moved when someone says because of my poems he knows he’s not alone and his feelings are valid. It makes me feel that what I’m doing is living a life of its own and it’s traveling with light into dark places.

Geosi Gyasi: In a tough list of nine other shortlisted poets, are your really confident of winning?

Romeo Oriogun: It feels really strange to be on that shortlist, I started writing three years ago, so to be here is very strange for me, I’m not used to being in the spotlight. This prize brings some of the best African minds writing poetry together and to be on it is an experience I’m still trying to come to terms with. I’m not really thinking about winning, I’m just enjoying the moment.

Geosi Gyasi: Who is the single most important writer you most admire and why?

Romeo Oriogun: This is really a though one, there are a lot of writers I admire and I’m tempted to cheat but let me be obedient for once. I love and admire Essex Hemphill, his poetry gave me a friend during dark days and the fact that he opened the way for a lot of voices to find home is also admirable. There are days when I read his poems and cry because he died too young and I just feel we lost a lot of poems from him, he was approaching his peak when he died. Any time I read him I’m comforted because I know that my voice is valid and it is home just like my body.

Geosi Gyasi: Assuming you win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize, what would you use the prize money for?

Romeo Oriogun: Travel!!! I’m dying to visit South Africa and Nairobi and Namibia.

END.


Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Richard Oduor Oduku

April 22, 2017

Richard-OdukuBrief Biography:

Richard Oduor Oduku is a post-cynical humanist, a researcher, and a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works as a research consultant in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Kwani? Storymoja, This is Africa among others. His story ‘eNGAGEMENT’ published in the JaladaAfrofutures anthology was longlisted for the BSFA Awards 2015. He is also a Nonfiction Editor at Panorama – The Journal for Intelligent Travel. He is a founding member of Jalada Africa and is also a Co-Curator and Festival Coordinator for the Jalada Mobile Literary and Art Festival running in five countries in East Africa.

Geosi Gyasi: I am curious: could you define who a post-cynical humanist is?

Richard Oduor Oduku: The answer to that question is very long. But it is just a statement of belief, or unbelief, depending on where you are starting. It captures a lifetime of thinking and growing towards humanism.

I grew up in rural Alego, in Siaya County, Kenya. As a young boy I was either in school, herding cows, playing raucous games as most rural kids do, or reading some books which should have been, as I came to understand much later, should have been a little way beyond the comprehension of a child. My father had some books and so were my older brothers and sisters. I became a student of words. I ate up all the books and this is where the story begun.

It helped that rural living is a spiritual activity. People are closer to the earth. Toiling daily for ugali makes people humble, relevant to each other, and able to persevere together. Rural life also creates an intimacy with the elements – water, wind, fire, earth – and even though Christianity was superficially practiced, people were still closer to the spirit world, and remained adamant to transfer all power to Jesus Christ.

My parents were deeply Christian. Still are. The Bible was one of the first books I read from cover to cover. The Bible has good stories. I fell in love with the poetic books. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations. Everyone loves the Songs of Solomon. It is from these books that I first came into contact with the ancient Jewish idea of fighting with God, of screaming out against God, of questioning God. They contained acts of man seemingly battling the unimaginable, or praising a mystical, big unseen father in the sky. They interested me so much as a child and probably laid my own foundation of questioning the idea of God and the nature of truth in the Bible itself.

I also recognized, from an early age, what Henry David Thoreau once said that, “no way of thinking or doing, however, ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” My questioning led to a rejection of certain tenets of organized religion as preeminent. My questioning, after so many years, landed me to humanism.

Also I have always been a little cynical, but in recent times, I have adopted a manifestly positive view of life. I borrowed the phrase “post-cynical humanist” from poet Yehuda Amichai to capture these transitions in my belief system.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of your work as a researcher affects your poetry?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I don’t think I know how much. At the end of the day, I’m just one person, one individual, who is doing many things. I think all my experiences exist on a single spectrum. Research and poetry are just different points on this spectrum. And there are many other points. They feed from each other. Everything affects everything everywhere. Sometimes I can pick out the specific influence on poetry, most times I can’t.

Geosi Gyasi: As a founding member of Jalada Africa, could you tell me what Jalada is all about?

Richard Oduor Oduku: In 2013, a group of writers from different African countries met at the British Council –Nairobi, in a creative writing workshop organized by Granta, in collaboration with Kwani Trust. After a week of learning under Ellah Allfrey, Nadifa Muhamed and Adam Foulds, they decided to come together, to edit each other’s work, and generally help each other grow. This association of writers drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and South Africa became Jalada Africa – a Pan-African collective.

Today the Collective seeks to break boundaries by publishing works that expand the range of reading experiences and stretch our own reach as creative writers. Jalada has published five major anthologies and a mini-anthology in the space of three years. Our Fear Issue, a collaboration with Transition Magazine, from Harvard University, will be published in July this year.

Geosi Gyasi: Looking at the other shortlisted poets, are you convinced that you’re the best to win?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I’m awed by the incredible talents on that shortlist! But I can only beat my own drum. If I was crafty enough I would’ve sent a jini to visit the judges and nudge them, non-violently of course, to appreciate my poems a little more than the other shortlistees.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the main concept behind the Jalada Mobile Literary and Art Festival?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Remember how griots, in ancient Africa, moved from market to market telling stories, singing, reciting poems? They were living archives diffusing cultures across lands. The festival borrowed a lot from this ancient concept. The mobile festival is a hybrid between a place-based traditional festival model and a literary bus tour, and sought to celebrate cultural diversity and nurture living connections between peoples, cultures, and geographies across East Africa. During the month-long festival, we partnered with local institutions in each of the 12 towns across 5 countries in East Africa to bring a diverse program of events featuring panel discussions, on various issues, including the place of languages in writing, creative masterclasses and poetry workshops, as well as art installations.

Geosi Gyasi: Who/What convinced you to submit your poems to this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I have always wanted to submit. I’d feel puffed up and super confident about my poems, but this usually died just a few hours to the deadline. I’d simply skip it and soliloquize on the unimportance of literary prizes. This year wasn’t an exception, except I somewhat convinced myself that the poems were ready, that they had developed strong wings and could be allowed to fly unaided. I’m bemused the judges found them worthwhile.

Geosi Gyasi: Looking at the other shortlisted poets, are you convinced that you’re the best to win?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I’m awed by the incredible talents on that shortlist! But I can only beat my own drum. If I was crafty enough I would’ve sent a jini to visit the judges and nudge them, non-violently of course, to appreciate my poems a little more than the other shortlistees. But since I’m yet to acquire these spiritual resources, I’ll just sit back and relax and eat oranges and hope that the gods of good fortunes are working tirelessly on my case. Being shortlisted is already a big win for me. Everyone deserves to win. May the best win.

Geosi Gyasi: Was it tough selecting the ten poems you entered into this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Yes and no. Yes, because I picked all the poems from a single manuscript I intend to publish. This is my third poetry manuscript. The first two could not get my approval to go out alone. I still hide them. Through them I see how a poet changes, how the texture, sensibility, and the experiences they write changes. Poems change when the poet changes. And No, because I had to select them from tens of others. I was forced, in a way, to pick a favorite child, and it is never a pleasant experience to show your kids publicly that you love one of them a little more than the rest. It is not good for family business.

Geosi Gyasi: From where, specifically, do get ideas for your poems?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Everywhere. From life, from living, from seeing, from hearing, from touching, from smelling – from experiencing the world. Though I’m more focused, now, on psychogeography – how I am interacting with the spaces I’m passing through, thanks to Guy Debord and the whole army of Dadaists and Surrealists. I’m trying to use poems to recapture a lost innocence, to regain the sense of surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever get unfavorable criticisms for your poems?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I critique other people’s works at Wawa Book Review but very few of my writing have been critiqued for the simple reason that they are few and far in-between. I have a few scattered poems in different journals, but I don’t think that is enough to get a good amount of unfavorable criticisms. I will publish more to attract my fair share of unfavorable criticisms.

Geosi Gyasi: What would you use the Prize money for, should you win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Spending money has never been a problem. The problem is getting the money! I could use it for many things. If I won, the first thing, naturally, would be to chop a little for celebration. Very important. Go out, have a drink with the boys, try to break a leg, buy loved ones presents. Or take a little time off work to finalize on pending writing projects. The most important thing, though, would be to publish a poetry collection – the manuscript that produced the poems in this shortlist.

END.


Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Kechi Nomu

April 21, 2017

Kechi-NomuBrief Biography:

Kechi Nomu was born in 1987. She grew up in Nigeria under two Nigerian dictatorships. Her poems have appeared in Saraba Magazine, The ANA Poetry Review, Expound Magazine, Sentinel and Brittle Paper. She writes film and theatre reviews for Olisatv. Her short stories have been workshopped at the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and the Caine Prize Short Story Surgery. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared online and in print.

Geosi Gyasi: Is writing for you, a calling or choice?

Kechi Nomu: Calling and choice are both very strong words. I like to think that I write because I grew up aware of words and their power. The very unsexy reason is my mother teaches literature and my father writes. He won a regional literary thing many lifetimes ago, and my parents used to taunt each other with lines from Shakespeare for the fun of it and because they thought it was a cool thing to do. This was when I was much younger. I did not always appreciate the gift that this kind of childhood was until I began to seek out books and writing on my own.

Geosi Gyasi: I am curious to know more about your father as a writer. Could you tell me anything about his writing?

Kechi Nomu: My father writes fiction. He belongs to a generation of Nigerians that had to work out a straightforward kind of opportunity cost. Writing was an unrealistic pursuit. He is retired now so he spends most of his free time writing. And he’s very protective of his flash drive in a way that is funny-cute.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of your time do you spend on poetry?

Kechi Nomu: How much time I spend on poetry is not something I’ve actively thought about, but as a person in the world, poetry is how I see, how I observe, how I mostly think about things. So, this has to be a fair amount of time, I think.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you first hear about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Kechi Nomu: I’m not sure now. Very likely from my Facebook or Twitter timeline.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a beneficiary of literary workshops. How impactful are literary workshops to the budding poet?

Kechi Nomu: I don’t know that there is a definitive way to talk about the impact of literary workshops for the writer in general or the budding poet specifically, beyond the fact that workshops do what workshops are meant to do. They can be great places to find community, get feedback on your writing and improve your reading. In this way, I find that these opportunities have been very valuable to me as a writer.

Geosi Gyasi: Personally, what do you think are your chances of winning this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Kechi Nomu: Geosi, I’d love to win the Brunel International African Poetry Prize this year. It is a strong shortlist so winning the prize would be really nice.

Geosi Gyasi: Is writing for you, a calling or choice?

Kechi Nomu: Calling and choice are both very strong words. I like to think that I write because I grew up aware of words and their power…

Geosi Gyasi: You seem to pay close attention to detail with your poetry. Why is that so?

Kechi Nomu: The poems that I continue to go back to are poems that seem to pay attention to what is said and the music of how it is said, all of this done with an economy of words that I find beautiful. In this moment, I’m thinking of Agostinho Neto’s Kinaxixi, Ocean Vuoug’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, Adrienne Rich’s In Those Years, Lola Shoneyin’s Distance, Lydia Kasese’s The Science of Nail Polish and Zainabu Jallo’s Dear Inner Man. What these poems do is something I’m constantly trying to approximate.

Or, it could just be that writing poems this way is my calling. Lol.

Geosi Gyasi: What specific work do you do at Olisatv?

Kechi Nomu: I work as an editor and then I write culture reviews.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me specific experiences you encountered under Nigerian dictatorship?

Kechi Nomu: I’m very interested in the ways that transitions occur and how people function within transitions, particularly within man-made disruptions like coup d’etats and the dictatorships that keep them in place. I think of my experience and the experiences of the people I know intimately in terms of how we moved between these realities time-wise. The effect that this had and continues to have on us in ways that we are not always ready to account for.

We talk it publicly. There have been books and films and national panels that we have had to confront too. But, it is more the ways we permit ourselves to talk about it in our personal spaces. How we might say, for instance, when we talk about the dictatorships: this regime and that regime, which one was worse? But what we are really saying is: Which one dehumanised us more? Which one made us lesser versions of ourselves? What we completely avoid is: What did we do with these selves going forward?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about this way that we attempt to quantify these unquantifiable things and weigh them side by side as a way to permit ourselves acceptance. These stories about ourselves (on a personal level and at the level of the community) that we are not willing claim for the various reasons that we are not willing to claim them.

Geosi Gyasi: What idea kick-started your poem, “Note to the Boy Kicking the Stone”?

Kechi Nomu: “Note to the Boy Kicking the Stone” began as a love letter of sorts to boyhood. I was for a long time preoccupied with this image of the boy, the road, the stone and just the ways that the last two can be such agents of psychological transformation. This picture of a boy kicking a stone in my mind became a point of connection between innocence and the loss of innocence. Between the boys we know and the strangers they become. I have also, for a while, been thinking about the under-examined and over-examined ways that people who share connections continue to exist in each other’s spaces as they acquire those unavoidable human things: baggage.

END.


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