Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Mary-Alice Daniel

May 5, 2016
Photo: Mary-Alice Daniel

Photo: Mary-Alice Daniel

Brief Biography:

“Mary-Alice Daniel was born in Maiduguri, Nigeria—birthplace of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that specializes in kidnapping the girl child. She was raised in Hausaland and in England. Since adolescence, she has called these places home: Nashville, Maryland, New Haven, Brooklyn, and Detroit. She attended Yale University and was selected by U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Glück to receive the Clapp Fellowship, an award supporting a postgraduate year of poetry composition. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan as a Rackham Merit Fellow. Her poems have received three Pushcart Prize nominations and have appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Callaloo, and several anthologies. Her adopted home is Los Angeles, where she is completing her first full-length poetry manuscript and earning a PhD in Creative Writing and English Literature as an Annenberg Fellow at the University of Southern California.”

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Maiduguri, Nigeria, the birthplace of Boko Haram. Could you tell me about the people and culture of Maiduguri?

Mary-Alice Daniel: I was only born in Maiduguri because both my parents were lecturers at the University of Maiduguri at the time. The rest of my extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and over 30 cousins) is scattered around Sokoto State, in the Northwestern part of Nigeria. I’m from the Hausa tribe and when I return to Nigeria, it’s to that part of Hausaland.

Geosi Gyasi: What actually took you to England?

Mary-Alice Daniel: My immediate family (my mother, father, brother, and sister and I) moved to England when I was young—my father attended medical school and my mother began and completed her doctorate. I grew up in Reading, a large town an hour’s train ride to the west of London.

Geosi Gyasi: I am curious to know if your poem, ‘Blessings’ was written from a real life story?

Mary-Alice Daniel: Yes, my uncle passed from AIDS after contracting HIV during a dental procedure. What I remember most about his illness was how my father struggled to send him the medications he needed, since he had difficulty obtaining them in Nigeria.

Geosi Gyasi: At what stage in your life did you regard yourself as a poet/writer?

Mary-Alice Daniel: My American adolescence began during a Tennessee heatwave, after many years in chilly England. Hungry to make a home in Nashville, we laid ourselves bare to our new element. Soon, however, discordance crept into our lives. Sometimes we found the neighbors unwelcoming. Sometimes we were called slurs. It’s not that my family had never experienced racism before; I had simply been too young to notice race as an ostracizing feature. During my time in Southern suburbia, I was made to notice.

The effects of this were not entirely negative; my consciousness of racial identity strengthened my sense of self—a self that began navigating life through written expression. Writing helped me work through personal questions: the peculiarity of my name. My ever-changing accent. The way my family left a long, traceable history in Nigeria where everyone was like us to became the “other.”

Geosi Gyasi: Could you specifically explain why Los Angeles is your adopted home?

Mary-Alice Daniel: I moved to California because I decided it’s impossible to understand America without spending time Out West. Answering the question “Where are you from?” has always resulted in a time-consuming explanation, because I’ve never settled anywhere for too long. (After Nigeria, England, and Tennessee, I also lived in Maryland, Connecticut, New York City, and Detroit.) L.A. is starting to feel like a home I’m making for myself, even though I’m isolated from my immediate family (only the five of us are in the US, and they all live on the East Coast). So far, it’s the only place I can return to after extended travel and not feel a hint of disappointment or reverse culture shock.

This city instigates poems attempting to distill its essence and ethos. People have so many misconceptions about L.A.—that it’s a cultural wasteland—and about Angelenos—that they’re vapid, superficial, and vain—but I haven’t found these stereotypes to be true. I love the perfect weather (I’m a creature of sunshine), the diversity, the vibrant literary community, and the endless cultural opportunities. I plan to throw a huge party after I’ve lived here for 10 years, the point at which I think I can officially call myself an Angeleno.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have a hard time selecting ten of your best poems for the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Mary-Alice Daniel: In this particular case, I struggled with submitting what I thought were my best poems versus submitting the poems that most strongly related to my African identity and background. I ultimately chose a representative mix, trusting the judges with some of my more experimental work. The physical and mythical landscapes of (im)migration compel me to write, but I resist letting my exploration of identity pigeonhole me as a “Black Female Poet.” I labor to create a broadly resonant body of work, then carve a space for it amongst my many inherited literary traditions.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you hear about the prize? Did you expect to be on the shortlist?

Mary-Alice Daniel: It’s something that’s been on my radar since it began a few years ago. I’ve followed the successes of winners like Safia Elhillo and Warsan Shire, and I’m a fan of their work. In the short time it’s been around, it’s become a huge deal, so I wasn’t expecting to be selected. You can’t ever really expect gifts like this.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your style of writing?

Mary-Alice Daniel: A concoction of 33 houses, 3 continents, 3 religions, and 4 languages makes me the writer I am. My identities—writer, American, African, American writer, African writer—encompass my past. Grappling with this complicated origin story underpins my work. My writing probes the friction created by conflicting cultural ideas at work in my history as they rub against each other:

Islam against Christianity against magic; modernity against tradition;

sacrilege against the sacred; superstition against science;

ghosts against machines; phantasmagoria against academia;

the mystical against the mundane.

As I investigate my strange place in the world, my poetry naturally engages the peculiar. In particular, I explore uncanny themes. The term “uncanny” derives from the German unheimlicheheimliche meaning “homelike” or “native.” The uncanny is the familiar—the home—taking on disturbing, unsettling qualities. The uncanny landscape is marked by superstition and the supernatural. Its inhabitants are ghosts, doppelgangers, eerily humanlike figurines. In my entanglement with the uncanny, I question: What can be familiar to someone of many homes and no home, a true native of nowhere, a foreigner even in the motherland, an inheritor of incongruence, and a descendent of discordant cultures?

Geosi Gyasi: What are your influences?

Mary-Alice Daniel: My poetry is the product of Islamic, Christian, and magical influences. I was raised a Christian, because my grandfather was the only successful convert of missionaries proselytizing in his village, which is buried in the Islamic stronghold of Northern Nigeria. My grandmother defied conversion, holding fast to animistic traditions.

Some of my favorite poets are Nazim Hikmet, Harryette Mullen, Charles Wright, Aimé Césaire, and Anne Carson. A significant literary influence on me is Nana Asma’u (1793–1864), a Hausa poet who was also a political figure and an early advocate for women’s rights. Many prominent Nigerian authors—Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—hail from its South; my Northern birthplace glaringly lacks representation. Using poems as vehicles for linguistic exchange, I hope to pull the unheard stories I know into our American narrative.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard the English language as the best medium to write in?

Mary-Alice Daniel: Because I write in English, a language I had some difficulty learning, I have explored both the limitations of language as well as its remarkable function as a conduit across cultures. English is a language widely understood across the African diaspora, and I mean to create a body of work that lives as a conversation between American and African traditions. For a few years, Northern Nigeria has been too volatile to visit, so I recently engaged the West African diaspora by traveling to Ghana, birthplace of the Pan-African movement. I immersed myself in the literary community of Accra, writing about culture clashes and foreign exchanges: of people and ideas. I descended into the dungeons of slave castles lining the coast and emerged, devastated. I wrote about these journeys—digressions, discursions, descents and ascents. All this purposeful wandering reinforces my ambition: to manifest something new and substantial out of my personal cultural maelstrom.

I also work with translation. To conclude an ongoing oral history project, I’m currently researching and plan to publish a comprehensive mythology of my tribe: the Hausas of Northern Nigeria. Alarmingly, our extraordinarily rich folklore, is at constant risk of being suppressed—or simply forgotten. I will transcribe interviews I previously recorded after giving a wide range of people the simple prompt: “Tell me a story.” The collection will include my translations of traditional and contemporary poetry written in the Hausa language, my native tongue. Together, these myths and translations showcase the trajectory of my tribal literature. This resource will be a boon to myself and other Nigerian-American writers as we look to our canon to inspire globally relevant art.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you be surprise if you win the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Mary-Alice Daniel: I would be honored and ecstatic. And, yes—I would absolutely be surprised.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Mary-Alice Daniel’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Momtaza Mehri

May 4, 2016
Photo: Momtaza Mehri

Photo: Momtaza Mehri

Brief Biography:

Momtaza Mehri is a biomedical scientist, poet and writer who remains unsure which world came first. Her parents are of Eritrean, Somali and Yemini origin. Her work engages with inheritance/ psychosomatics/ ugliness/ biopolitics and digitalised diasporas. She has been active in the zine/journal underworld for some time, featuring and forthcoming in OOMKHard FoodCecile’sWritersPuerto Del Sol, Elsewhere and other delights, as well as contributing to MediaDiversified. As an editor of the digital space Diaspora Drama, she is fixated by the capacities of cyberspacepoetics. Her work has seen her perform in universities, festivals and the usual dimly-lit haunts. Anthologised in Podium Poets, as part of the London Laureates long-list, her debut collection will be published in 2016. Her heart yawns in three continents, London being its current owner. She loves the tension in that.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a biomedical scientist, poet and writer. How much of your profession, as a biomedical scientist, do you bring to your poetry?

Momtaza Mehri: A lot. Which isn’t as technical or distant as it seems. One of my favourite poets, Rafael Campo, happens to be a practicing doctor. To him, biomedicine ‘appropriates the narrative’ with its cell counts and scans. Poetry hands the narrative back to the body. Imagine a forensic technique confirming the ink brand in a father’s pen and proving the forgery of a will? That’s a good poem right there. Finding the space between has been a process, especially as a poet studying the sciences.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first begin to write poetry?

Momtaza Mehri: I grew up surrounded by jiifto cassettes, a form of Somali poetic chanting that would reverberate from our family car windows. Poetry was never unapproachable, never sterile, not to me or those around me. It was always Friday sermons and throwaway proverbs; the kind of ritual you never take seriously until you do. Having said that, I definitely began writing regularly in my early teens. The usual juvenile stuff that, looking back, still came from a truthful place.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what is the role of poetry in the modern society?

Momtaza Mehri:  Poetry is a kind of breathing aid. I really believe that. That space that allows for those made invisible to just breathe, to have the luxury of specificity. ‘I see you’ – that’s the most radical sentiment a writer can channel. A good poem is a long exhale. Maybe that won’t tear down any walls but it’s a start.

Geosi Gyasi: Briefly tell me about the work you do at ‘Diaspora Drama’?

Momtaza Mehri: First, I have to give props to Isaac Kariuki, a brilliant digital artist, for founding this platform. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him and co-edit this treasure trove of art, photography, storytelling and poetry. We centre immigrant people of colour and their creativity which isn’t always synonymous with suffering or obligatory ‘diaspora tears’. The ‘Drama’ eludes to this project being somewhere our communities can be as bitchy or tender or as hilarious as they want. It’s a global online basement party.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain the term, “Cyberspacepoetics” as it often appears in your biography?

Momtaza Mehri: I love meme culture. I love bad Photoshop and cat pictures and Egyptian chat-room language. I also love Instagram and Tumblr poetry, the kind that gets dismissed as cutesy motivational fluff. “Cyberspacepoetics” is the only meritocracy this planet has. If your three-line, space-bar poem resonates with people, it’ll be shared endlessly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a published poet or not. My writing tries to draw from these digital worlds and their intelligent humour. The African diaspora is engaged in the ultimate URL call & response and I want to reflect this in my poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a purpose for why you write?

Momtaza Mehri: To add to a community of writers speaking in a language aimed directly back at who we write about. This isn’t always possible given how I mostly write in English, but I’m still going to try anyway.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry performances?

Momtaza Mehri: Yes. I used to get the jitters especially since I was terrible at the whole spoken word thing. Now I see it as just another way of giving life to the work. I love performing amongst poets I admire and hope to do more of this.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you were shortlisted for the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Momtaza Mehri: I really have no idea. I’d like to think the judges saw a sincerity in my work. Honestly, I’m still in shock considering the calibre of the other shortlisted poets.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your future literary ambitions?

Momtaza Mehri: I want to write and edit more. At this point, I’m concentrating on my manuscript which is trying to kill me and will probably succeed. I want to find new ways to bridge digital language with more traditional forms. Mostly, I want to remain honest in my intentions at least. Anything else is beyond my control.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Momtaza Mehri’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

May 3, 2016
Photo: Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

Photo: Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

Brief Biography:

A Callaloo Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s recent poems have been published or are forthcoming in Kwani?, Obsidian, and One Throne Magazine; while her non-fiction appears on The New Inquiry and Creative Time Reports. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of the chapbook Blue Mothertongue.  She has has presented her work at major African and European festivals, and is to receive her MFA from the University of British Columbia. Ngwatilo was shortlisted for the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and her latest chapbook, Dagoretti Corner, forms part of the 2016 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set published by Akashic Books in association with the African Poetry Book Fund.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin with your poem, “To go to Moyale”. Would you say it is a narrative poem?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Yes, I suppose it is. I used Etel Adnan’s poem “To Be In A Time Of War” as a model for the form. It gave me a way to talk about traveling to Moyale, Kenya at that point in time, and my own state of mind; a mix of things people from Southern Kenya, if you will, believe and fear about Northern Kenya, and my own process and hang ups.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of political theme(s) feature in your poetry?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: The personal is political; so I suppose the answer is political themes always feature in my poetry. I tend to think the overtly political if your will is potent because when it is personal, it can be felt in the body. That the body offers a grounding for what can feel like abstract ideas, above the realm of the day to day. I would say I write so called political poems when I can feel the weight of their underlying issues in my body, and can find expression for that weight. Words don’t always avail themselves in those heavy times.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you consider your poem, “To go to Moyale” as the longest poem you’ve ever written?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Totally. Editing is/was an absolute beast! For a long time the end didn’t know what it was trying to do because I was so tired by the time I got to it.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “Uni”?

“He’s only tongue now,
spineless, partial nourishment. That this urchin
had done nothing to me, matters little.”

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: It’s an interesting question. I have several poems now that deal with small animals and insects, usually the kinds that make one uncomfortable. There’s one for a rat, a cockroach, spiders, bedbugs, this urchin, and probably a couple others. I’m always trying to turn the damage and fear these creatures create and inspire into something better or at least something else. This poem’s additionally interesting to me because I’ve written a few with an urchin in them. The first was a human kind of urchin, the second was trying to function as both. In this poem the urchin is only the small sea creature, and food at that. It’s the first time a speaker in a poem of mine has power over an urchin character, but she is still haunted by moments when she didn’t, so she is taking a kind of revenge on the creature, while still being aware of its innocence. The shift across the poems is a positive trend, as far as I’m concerned, and makes me curious and excited for the next iteration of an urchin character in my work, if and when it becomes necessary.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me when you became a Callaloo Fellow and the impact it has had on your writing?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I became a Callaloo fellow in June 2014. The program has had and continues to have a tremendous impact on my writing. It’s a challenging program, one I highly recommend for anyone considering applying. It’s pushed me to reach further in, question my motivations, experiment more brazenly, and be more meaningfully present in my communities. It’s an incredible network too, not just of poets and writers of color, but of the best poets thinking and writing right now. One of my mentors in the program, Gregory Pardlo, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Sometimes one can feel very distant from the epicenter of the poetry community, that place where innovations and new conventions are being created. The Callaloo community is one of the epicenters, and I’m grateful to have been touched by it.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you write your poem, “Easter” out of a real life story?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Which part?:) Yes. As you remember, there was a terrible shooting at Garissa University College in April 2015. The details are entirely true. At about the same time I attended a talk by a speaker at my university who said the things she said. It was indeed spring. Sometimes nothing you make up can be more overwhelming than the facts.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write only in English? If so, why?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Yes. For all intents and purposes, it’s my first language. I do try, however, to keep my mother tongue and Kiswahili alive in my mind and tongue (I need to start doing more towards that again) Any language, and especially those that come out of our individual personal backgrounds, add to our knowledge, our range of expression, the possibilities we’re able to conceive and express, even in an altogether different language, like English in my case. Writing in those languages is especially valuable to persons in our audience who think in those languages. Their lives and minds matter. We should listen to that call whenever we hear it. I’m not in possession of the tools yet, but perhaps one day I will. In the meantime, I love to support anyone making those kinds of efforts any way I can.

Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised to see your name on the shortlist of the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Appearing on the list again is incredibly affirming. It tells my ego that it wasn’t a fluke that I appeared 2015. I may even dare to think that my work is getting better if I’ve been able to stay on the list despite the growing pool of poets applying to the prize year after year!

Geosi Gyasi: What does the future hold for your literary ambitions?

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I’m working on my full-length collection. I’m happy to say that a portion of it was published as part of the 2016 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set. (It’s a pretty awesome and beautiful collection, available from Akashic books at your local independent bookstore, and also on Amazon.)

I also have a short film project I’d like to have produced this year. Wish me luck!

Geosi Gyasi: Well, good luck, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo.

END.

Last year, I interviewed Ngwatilo Mawiyoo here.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Victoria-Anne Bulley

May 2, 2016
Photo: Victoria-Anne Bulley

Photo: Victoria-Anne Bulley

Brief Biography:

Victoria-Anne Bulley is a British-born Ghanaian poet and writer. She is a member of Barbican Young Poets, and recently completed an MA in Postcolonial Studies at SOAS. In 2015, she was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts to respond to works by American artist Richard Diebenkorn. That year she was also long-listed for the role of Young Poet Laureate for London. She was also one of six young producers selected by The Poetry Society and the Southbank Centre to curate the annual celebratory events of National Poetry Day Live. Presently an assistant facilitator for the Barbican Junior Poets programme, she is also developing a poetry, translation and film project exploring the interplay of language and generational and cultural distance between diasporic African poets and their elders. She is also currently at work on the manuscript of her debut pamphlet for release by flipped eye press.

Geosi Gyasi: I understand that your name, Naa Adukwei, is a Ga given name though you’re a London-based poet and writer. My question is, are you a Ghanaian?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: This is a question that has layers and dimensions to it, but yes, I do see myself as Ghanaian. It’s not a default, passive descriptor that I use simply because I have two Ghanaian parents, though. There is a very deliberate willingness to it, in which I want to openly claim my heritage.

‘British-born Ghanaian’ is a term I use a lot. Regardless of my feelings about Britishness, which are another matter, I grew up and was born here, and this is also a reality of who I am.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have any clue as a child about who a writer was and did you know that you would one day become one?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: I had the idea that people could be writers, and I really enjoyed reading and telling stories. I still have a recording of myself from when I was three, making narratives up. Still, for some reason, I never deeply considered becoming a writer – at least not a creative one. I’m not sure why, but I do think this had to do with representation – I didn’t see any black female writers (or read any, seriously) until I was much older. Perhaps if I had, a seed might have been planted in my head from much earlier on.

Geosi Gyasi: As a child, what was the main medium of language spoken at home and how has it impacted your life as a writer?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: Growing up – and still, today – I heard Ga when it was spoken between my parents. They didn’t speak Ga to us, however, but I know they might have done things differently in retrospect. As a writer, words are something like tools or currency, and language contains whole world views within it. This is why a current focus of mine is not only to learn but to write what little of it that I do know. This is very important to me. Another response is that I am currently producing Mother Tongues, a poetry, film and translation project that will attempt to address this in collaboration with other African poets, and encourage us to use these languages as much as we can.

Geosi Gyasi: You are on the shortlist of the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. How did you first hear about the prize and what prompted you to send in your poetry for this year’s prize?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: I first heard about the prize about 18 months ago. I read the poems by the applicants and was blown away – but at that time, applying seemed like a mile away. Although I did have a body of work, much of what I eventually submitted was more recent writing that came as a result of a lot of workshops, poetry community and mentoring (e.g. through Apples and Snakes’ The Writing Room, and the Barbican Young Poets). These three things are really what brought me to the point of putting in a submission.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you know that you would end up in this year’s shortlist at the time of writing and submitting your poetry?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: No. I had no idea at all. I only saw it as my job to submit. I am really happy to be shortlisted, and I am decently happy with what I submitted. But I do still feel lucky in some way. Elizabeth Gilbert, an American writer, has a quote that advises creatives to accept the point at which their work is ‘good enough’, as opposed to striving for perfection. You put in work, yes, but then you send it forth and that’s you done, you let go: next thing’s next. Thinking like this has liberated me a lot and though it can’t make you invincible to disappointment, it does sound like good practice. It’s been key to learning to see success predominantly as the work and study I put in, and not just the recognition.

Geosi Gyasi: One of your shortlisted poems is, “why can’t a K be beautiful and magick”. Could you tell me why you chose to rely on the letter K to bring out the beauty of the poem?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: I chose the K out of familiarity with the fact that the letter C is redundant in a lot of non-European languages. I also chose it because it’s not a letter I’ve really considered as beautiful, yet it still has a strong sound but equally also is sometimes rendered mute. I knew that when it shows up instead of or alongside a ‘C’ – such as in ‘Africa’, or ‘magick’ – there is a vast, ideological context involved that sits outside of general, hegemonic norms. So, ultimately, the K seemed to me a very ideal letter upon which to foist some of my most pressing feelings about many issues of power and erasure, particularly about the black/African experience, past and present.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you name just one writer who has had a major influence on your writing career?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: James Baldwin. I can’t narrow it down, poetry-wise. But nonetheless, I am continually inspired by Baldwin’s ability to write with love, anger, beauty, grace, humour, and irony all at once. His dedication to truth, also.

Geosi Gyasi: In another poem, “Peach Crayon”, there’s a strong emphasis on ‘kids’, which occupied the speaker’s mind even as she taught about leaving for this imaginary man. Could you comment on the second stanza below:

“I was thinking of the kids –

about the kids

of the kids.”

Victoria-Anne Bulley: I often think about the future in terms of children; what the children of the future – or even just my nephews – are set to face. I was thinking about how heavy it feels to know that our actions and choices, right now, in all aspects of life, have the potential to carry enormous generational weight, and how much that worries me sometimes.

Geosi Gyasi: Besides writing, what do you do for a living?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: At the moment I’m juggling a few things, working things out. I’m a trainee facilitator on the Barbican Junior Poets programme, working with students from four East London secondary schools. I also work part time for a small social enterprise called Little Bee Community, founded by my sister. This has really helped me to scrape by, post-studies. I’m now aiming to spend more time working as a creative facilitator and producer, in addition to writing and performing.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you hopeful of winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Victoria-Anne Bulley: It would be a wonderful, beautiful thing to win. Nonetheless, as I said, you do your best, you send it out, and you let go. The other poets on the shortlist are brilliant, and I’m just happy to be in there too.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Victoria-Anne Bulley poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Amy Lukau

May 1, 2016
Photo: Amy Lukau

Photo: Amy Lukau

Brief Biography:

Amy Lukau is the daughter of immigrants from Angola. She graduated from Arizona State University with a BS in Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology in addition to a BA in Religious Studies with minors in Islamic Studies and Religion & Conflict.  She spent over four years in the non-profit sector, served on the American Board of Directors for the organization Zion’s Children of Haiti and has worked as a policy researcher & analyst for select organisations implementing novel ways to prevent and deal with mass atrocities internationally. Lukau has worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and was executive director of Girls Education International, a not for profit organisation based in Colorado that supports educational opportunities for underserved females in remote and underdeveloped regions of the world (girlsed.org). Lukau’s work appears in Fanzine and Feminist Wire. She has an MFA in Writing and Poetics.

Geosi Gyasi: First, what took you to the U.S?

Amy Lukau:
I was born in the U.S. My parents immigrated here from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola respectively. Both of my parents are ethnically Angolan.

I think it would be more appropriate for me to state what brought my parents here is hope of achieving and attaining a better life, which was not a possibility for them if they would have stayed.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever visited the countries of your parents birthplace?

Amy Lukau: Yes.

Geosi Gyasi: You have a BS in Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology as well as a BA in Religious Studies with minors in Islamic Studies and Religion & Conflict. My question is, at what stage in your life did you become a writer?

Amy Lukau:
(Laughing). I believe that everyone is a writer. I’ve been writing since I learned how to. You outlined my degrees in your question and both require extensive writing, researching and analyzing. I started writing seriously in the genre of poetry in 2012. I’ve only been doing this for four years!

Everyone has something to say and we do it via many mediums. Writing for me (e.g. poetry) is the one of the only ways I can convey myself in an uncensored manner. It is an engagement with the world we all share. When I’m writing the ego doesn’t exist. I am humbled; this is a constant reminder of my humanity because I am writing for humanity.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

Amy Lukau:
I hope to achieve a writing that conveys honesty about our world.

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

Amy Lukau:
I first heard about it via Facebook.

Geosi Gyasi:

“will survive America? neck benders

gender benders cinnamon cigars

puff for you.”


Could you comment on the above lines in your poem, “Elephant’s Lullaby”?

Amy Lukau: This poem was written in 2014. A lot was going on in America. The black body in America is not a stable entity. We are so varied and beautiful in our gender preference, sexuality and occupations. “who will survive America?” is a direct quote from one of my favorite poets, Amiri Baraka. This poem is an invocation.

Geosi Gyasi: Besides Amiri Baraka, is/are there any poets that inspires you to write?

Amy Lukau: There are poets besides Amiri Baraka that inspire me to write. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the Angolan poets that do so, they are: Viratio da Cruz, Antionio Jacinto, Alda Lara, Fernando Costa Andrade, and Mario Antonio Fernandes de Oliveira to name a few.

Without going into too much detail, I honestly do not know any Angolan writer past or present whose work does not convey some sort of ‘resistance.’ As I speak, 17 Angolans are in jail for reading Domingos da Cruz’s unpublished manuscript “Tools to Destroy a Dictatorship and Avoiding a New Dictatorship – Political Philosophy for the Liberation of Angola.” This is obscene and a direct affrontation to creative freedom and expression. Some of whom have been on hunger strikes as well. Despite this fact, Angolans continue to write and express themselves in creative ways despite fears of prosecution and intimidation. Angolan writing in my opinion has always conveyed a sensibility of the fight against injustice. This demands my ultimate respect.

I am going to use this platform to say that as an American-Angolan, I too stand with all people accused by the Angolan government in what has been known as the Luanda Book Club. I stand with justice.

To whomever is reading this and you would like to do something about the situation, I’ve listed the contact information below:

Appeals to:
President of the Republic of Angola José Eduardo dos Santos
Fax: +244 222 370366
Civil House: +244 222 693274 Spokesman: +244 222 693069 Salutation: A sua Excelencia

Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Rui Jorge Carneiro Mangueira Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Rua 17 Setembro, No. 32

CP 1986
Luanda
Republic of Angola
Fax: +244 222 339 914 or +244 222 330 327 Salutation: A sua Exce

Geosi Gyasi: Does writing come easily for you?

Amy Lukau: I don’t know how to respond to this question other than to say that I am inspired and therefore I write.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you say something about your style of writing? Do you lean towards a specific style?

Amy Lukau: (Laughing) I write how I feel; how that ends up on the page is something I don’t know even as I write. There’s an energy exchange; a kinetics of thought that dictate the form of all my poems which is something I will say without hesitation.

To be candid, I don’t know enough about specific styles of poetry to have a leaning.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem is ready to be sent out for publication?

Amy Lukau: I know when a poem is ready for publication if I’ve let it sit for a while and then go back to it. When I am able to read it with ‘fresh eyes’ if it has retained that mode of thought that drove me to write it, then, I am confident in the work.

Saying this, I just recently started sending out poems. So even as I say this, I know my criteria will evolve.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation went into the selection of the ten poems you submitted for the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Amy Lukau: I’m working on a lot of creative work at the moment, which I am excited about. One night in November right before Thanksgiving, I was sitting on my couch and started reading poems I wrote. I wanted the ten poems that I chose to be a trajectory towards what has led me to write the manuscripts that I am currently working on. After going through my poems, I felt that the ten chosen poems were a good introduction into the new work.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think about your chances of winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Amy Lukau: I did not even know I would be shortlisted for a second time. I am truly humbled and grateful by that. I leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the esteemed judges.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Amy Lukau’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with Pushcart Prize Winner, Matt Mason

April 13, 2016
Photo: Matt Mason

Photo: Matt Mason

Brief Biography:

Matt Mason has won a Pushcart Prize and two Nebraska Book Awards; was a Finalist for the position of Nebraska State Poet; organized and run poetry programming with the U.S. Department of State in Nepal, Romania, Botswana, and Belarus; and been on six teams at the National Poetry Slam. He has over 200 publications in magazines and anthologies, including Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry and on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’ Almanac.  He is executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective and is consultant for the Nebraska Arts Council with Nebraska’s Poetry Out Loud program.  His most recent book, The Baby That Ate Cincinnati, was released in 2013.  Matt lives in Omaha with his wife, the poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, and daughters Sophia and Lucia.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you regard yourself as a writer?

Matt Mason: The closest would be when I was accepted to UC Davis’ Creative Writing MA program. It was a first, big, “Somebody who’s supposed to know these things says I’m a writer.” It’s hard as I have great respect for many writer heroes, so it’s somewhat odd for me to put myself in the category of “writer” when I still feel I have a ways to go and so much to learn.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard writing as a real profession?

Matt Mason: Definitely. It is a profession. It is not so much a job as few make their living just from the essential part of it. But it’s a profession I’ve really put my life into and feel grateful for.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your main specialty: poetry or short stories or fiction or non-fiction?

Matt Mason: It’s all poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: You have over 200 publications in magazines and anthologies. Could you bet on any one of your pieces as the best ever?

Matt Mason: The best ever would be “Notes For My Daughter Against Chasing Storms” which made it into Pushcart Prize XXXVII (in 2013). It was a shock to hear my work had made it through thousands of submissions to get published there. I felt ridiculously honored.

Geosi Gyasi: Last year, you were in Romania for a State Department Poetry Program. Do you mind telling me some of the activities you engaged in?

Matt Mason: I spent two weeks there running a program for the U.S. Embassy teaching poetry writing and performance. We did a few 2-day programs in Craiova and Drobeta Turnu Severin where high school students worked toward holding a poetry slam. I also did talks and lessons in Bucharest. It was fun teaching poetry in a way which many of them hadn’t approached it before, adding delivery as an important part to understanding the poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have any specific message to convey to readers when you wrote, “Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know”?

Matt Mason: Yes, the manuscript came together as a love story. A meandering, odd kind of love story, but all about the journey.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve run poetry programs for state universities and libraries in places including Gaborone, Botswana. Do you mind telling me about your experience in Botswana and what specifically you did there?

Matt Mason: This was another State Department program which centered on poetry slam. I was put in charge and asked to put a 3-poet crew together. I picked Dasha Kelly and Danny Solis, two poets I met through poetry slam and know to be strong writers and amazing community organizers. So this program’s focus was putting on a poetry slam at the end, but it was more about teaching writing and talking about organizing poets and poetry events to see more happen locally. Botswana was fantastic, we knew we were going to have a blast when we walked into the first classroom of college students and they were already wandering the room saying poems out loud, showing a real love for both the writing and the delivery.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?

Matt Mason: I believe in any given day there are a number of moments which make you react bodily… by laughing, recoiling, raising an eyebrow, etc. These moments are kind of the moments of poems which, if we’re not looking for something to write a poem about, often dissipate a few minutes later. Right now, much of this comes from having two daughters, they’re the reason I have a second book (The Baby That Ate Cincinnati).

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Does your family care about your writing?

Matt Mason: Yes, my wife is also a writer (Sarah McKinstry-Brown, winner of 2 Nebraska Book Awards). And my daughters both like showing up in my poems, to a certain extent.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best place for the writer to write?

Matt Mason: For me, it’s most anywhere. I hate to admit, but I write a lot in fast food restaurants. Those are the spots I tend to be by myself, with some time, so it’s kind of a few moments of peace. Though I don’t need all that much peace as I wrote my last week’s poem at the side of the room during a 2nd grader’s birthday party. After that, though, it gets complicated, as I need more specific peace to do the editing and revising. For that, being home alone is the best.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you consider as good writing?

Matt Mason: Writing that enlightens you and makes you feel something. I love, for example, a funny poem that also hits you in the heart at some point. Or a poem about something I’ve never experienced which brings it to life so well I feel as if I’m standing next to the poet as a scene unfolds. Poems like Bill Kloefkorn’s “Out and Down Pattern” or Natasha Threthewey’s “Domestic Work, 1937.”

Geosi Gyasi: Does one require special skill to teach poetry?

Matt Mason: Yes. Poetry, in America (and in all of the countries I’ve been to to teach poetry) is often taught in a way which rips the life from it, leaving a husk of vocabulary terms which students are pressured into saying they appreciate. I think teaching poetry well takes finding love of poems and letting that love show as you speak about it. It requires a lot of the teacher as they have to find the poems they love and appreciate so they can pass that on to their students.

Geosi Gyasi: Having won two Nebraska Book Awards and the 2013 Pushcart Prize, do you think prizes matter at all in the career of the writer?

Matt Mason: It certainly helps. Having those on my resume has opened doors which wouldn’t have otherwise. I feel the Nebraska Book Awards helped me get that first State Department job in Belarus as it showed my poetry skills were diverse in that I had a solid resume in both publishing and also in poetry slam, something not too many people had at that time.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers of the past do you really admire?

Matt Mason: How long do you have? Let me just list the first ten who pop into my head: John Keats, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Dorothy Parker, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, and Bill Kloefkorn.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you revise as you write?

Matt Mason: Somewhat. I tend to write hurried first drafts with a small amount of revision as I go. The real revision comes a day or a week or three years later as I work on the poem more, move it from handwriting to type, etc.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that most writers need complete privacy to be able to produce great works?

Matt Mason: Maybe. I don’t need privacy so much when I draft a poem. After that, though, I definitely need it. My best revision requires time and space to myself. I’m amazed, though, at how different writers have radically different styles, so I’m sure someone out there doesn’t need privacy. Somewhere. Maybe.

Geosi Gyasi: How much time do you put into your writing?

Matt Mason: It depends on the year. Right now is hard as my work for the Nebraska Writers Collective nonprofit consumes my time as well as my mental energy. I still make myself start a new poem every week, as I’ve done for years now, but I’m far behind on editing these into 2nd, 3rd, 4th drafts, and getting manuscripts together, getting poems sent out to magazines.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of your travels do you put into your writing?

Matt Mason: A lot. I write about what’s around me and catches my interest or curiosity, and travel is full of that.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you define a great writer?

Matt Mason: Someone who continues to do noteworthy, original work over a span of time and who inspires others to read and to write.

Geosi Gyasi: You serve as the Executive Director of Nebraska Writers Collective. What is it all about?

Matt Mason: Good question. A lot. I started 7 years ago when it was a small thing, kind of a hobby. It’s since moved into a medium-sized nonprofit which gives part-time work to over 40 artists doing long-term writing projects in over 45 junior high schools and high schools as well as 3 prisons and a program for local professionals.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes regret being a writer?

Matt Mason: Never. Sure, the career path is pretty much unpaved, sometimes more overgrown-jungle than path, but it’s beautiful and I’m lucky to be on it.

END.


Interview with American Writer, Julia Benally

April 1, 2016
Photo: Julia Benally

Photo: Julia Benally

Biography:

It was a dark and stormy night when Julia was born to the Bear Clan in the IHS. Her head was showing when the mad doctor forced her mother to walk to the birthing chair. When she was five, she was subjected to that oven in the Arizona Valley called Mesa. Luckily, she returned home to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation before her hair burned permanently into a frizz ball. From the wild halls of Alchesay High School she went up to Brigham Young University in Utah and graduated with a B.A. in history. One day she’s going to have a huge house with a gigantic library full of beautiful books. Aside from writing, she enjoys swinging her nunchucks, and hopes never to knock herself silly. She loves to read, but is extremely picky about it, and she loves being in the forest. So far, Julia has been published in Snapping Twig Magazine, Sanitarium Magazine and A Shadow of Autumn Halloween Anthology.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember what your first published story was?

Julia Benally: My first published story was ‘The Bridges’ which came out in the Sanitarium Magazine issue five. It’s about a white man teaching on the Fort Apache Reservation. He’s real disgusted with the superstitions until weird things start happening to him and finally culminates into a horrific encounter between two bridges where you’re not supposed to be after midnight.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific theme you often write on?

Julia Benally: Personally, I don’t think I have specific themes. I just write about what I have seen and know about. Often my stories do have Native American/white relations, but these are more of a backdrop than a central theme, at least for me, since I live with it every day. The bulk of my stories are about Apaches, but whatever political mess or any kind of mess going on is strictly in the back drop, or don’t even surface. I just focus on them as people dealing with their situations like everybody else does.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the book, “A Shadow of Autumn”?

Julia Benally: It’s a collection of fall and Halloween stories from fourteen talented authors. When Gwendolyn sent us an unfinished version for us to look over before publication, I peeked at “The Halloween Girl of Coldsprings” by J. Tonzelli and “The Balfour Witch” by Tawny Kipphorn. I love them! They are well written and captivating. Since then I’ve read more and I’m still loving it. My story “The Hairy Man” is about a Bigfoot encounter on my reservation.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?

Julia Benally: I have the most time at night, but the best time is right after I run around in the forest because then my muse feels refreshed and I often get my best ideas in the woods.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your main interests as a writer?

Julia Benally: I once thought that I would like to shock people, but what I’ve discovered is that I find the most joy when a person who hates to read finds that they actually enjoy it when they read my stuff.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your voice as a writer?

Julia Benally: My voice can get pretty sarcastic, but I’d like to say my voice is also lighthearted and a little mischievous at times. It’s also pretty blunt.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know who reads your stories?

Julia Benally: I have no clue outside my family circle. There are people who have sampled some of my stuff because I handed it to them, but do they continue to read more? I don’t know. I only know Gwendolyn Kiste liked my last story “Megan’s House” enough to ask me to be in the Shadow of Autumn Anthology. She said she loved my story “The Hairy Man.” She was the first non-family member I heard from that said anything like that. So I just sit here and wonder if anything is happening at all with anybody else.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your favourite authors?

Julia Benally: I love Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Bram Stoker, Harold Bell Wright, Timothy Zahn, Gaston Leroux, Richard Adams, Michael Crichton, Charlotte Bronte and Jeffery Deaver.

Photo: A Shadow of Autumn

Photo: A Shadow of Autumn

Geosi Gyasi: Do you gain anything from writing?

Julia Benally: If I don’t write I go through withdrawal. I have to carry a notebook and pen with me everywhere I go. It makes me happy to write.

Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read as a child?

Julia Benally: I read “The Egypt Game” which made me interested in anything Egyptian. I read dinosaur books, books about space, The Babysitters Club, and Little Golden Books. I remember one was about Cinderella and before I could read, I memorized it because I made my mom read it to me a million times. People would come over and see a little three year old girl “reading” out loud from the book and they’d be so impressed. For me, those pages literally came to life because I could see the characters moving on the page. I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia for as long as I could remember and I picked up Sense and Sensibility from the library when I was in second grade. It took me months to finish it.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest moment as a writer?

Julia Benally: I had been searching for the center of my manuscript Pariahs for months and months. I needed it so that when I wrote my query letter, I could tell the agent in one short paragraph what the book was about. And one day, it hit me. I knew what the center was. Despite being published several times, I’ve never felt anything so exhilarating as when I found that center. I even threw myself a little party.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific genre you write?

Julia Benally: With everything I do, a bit of horror always leaks in, except in the fiction pieces. I also love Fantasy. I can make up anything I want and make up any rule I wish.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write using a notebook or computer?

Julia Benally: I use a notebook first and then I transcribe. On the computer I do all the editing and changes I need.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your future literary ambitions?

Julia Benally: I would like to be published in as many magazines as I can in lots of different genres. I would like to be known as a prolific writer and not a one hit wonder. My ultimate goal is to publish a series of books I’ve been working on since I was an outcast twelve years old. If I could be mentioned in the same breath as Edgar Rice Burroughs and the classic authors, it would be a dream come true. One day, I want people to see a rising and talented author walking down the street and say, “There goes another Julia Benally.” It would be fun to have an occult following too.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me a little bit about where you live?

Julia Benally: I live on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. There’s a Wal Mart thirty minutes away and a Safeway fifteen minutes closer. In the other direction are the hunting and fishing and hiking. In summer it’s full of campers hogging my favorite places and making life miserable for everybody working in the restaurants in town. The reservation is so full of ghost stories and haunted areas there’s no wonder why most of my stories are horror. It sounds so small town, but it’s not quiet. The crime rate rivals L.A.’s, the cops are stretched to the breaking point and the FBI men who investigate the murders have to switch out every few years to go to therapy. This place can be called Beauty and the Beast.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you comfortable being referred to as a writer?

Julia Benally: Oh yes. I love it and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. I don’t care if people get awkward on me about it. They’re the ones who are being ridiculous, not me, and I know it. Those kinds strike me as illiterate anyway.

END.


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