Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Warsan Shire

May 10, 2016
Photo: Warsan Shire

Photo: Warsan Shire

Brief Biography:

Warsan Shire is a Somali poet raised in London. She was the first Young Poet Laureate for London. Her début book, ‘Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. She has read her work extensively internationally. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, Wasafiri, Magma, and the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). In 2013 she won the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. In 2014 she was Australia’s Queensland Poet-in- Residence. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian and Swedish. She teaches workshops using poetry to explore memory and heal trauma. Warsan lives in Los Angeles, where is she working on her first full collection.

Geosi Gyasi: You immigrated to the United Kingdom at the age of one. How and why did that happen?

Warsan Shire: My father is a writer and journalist; he was forced to leave Mogadishu soon after I was conceived because he wrote a book questioning the government. My parents moved to Nairobi, where I was born. Still in danger – we moved to London. Then the civil war broke out soon after and we couldn’t go back.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard the United Kingdom as your home?

Warsan Shire: One of my homes, yes. North West London, specifically.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first regard yourself as a poet?

Warsan Shire: On some level, when ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published – I had something tangible to reference. I didn’t come from a world where your dreams could actually come true. I wanted to write books, so when this manuscript I started writing at 18, was actually published by Nii Parkes – I had something real and physical to point to.

Geosi Gyasi: So in 2011, ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published by flipped eye. Could you tell me the technical process by which you give titles to your poems?

Warsan Shire: It’s a natural process, sometimes it comes before the poem, sometimes the poem names itself. I don’t think about it too much. Most of my poems have working titles of whatever state I was in at the time of writing. I recently found a freewrite of mine titled ‘WHY IS UR EX-GIRLFRIEND HAUNTING US IF SHE IS NOT DEAD????’. The title can always change later, to something a little bit more subtle, maybe.

Geosi Gyasi: In October 2013, you were selected as the first Young Poet Laureate for London. What were your roles as a young Poet Laureate?

Warsan Shire: A major part was the writing residencies, all over London, from the Houses of Parliament to a shed in a park in East London. I would sit and write poems all day for a year. Too often I would be interviewed by journalists whose only intention, it felt, was to make clear that I was a spoken word poet and not a ‘poet’. On occasion I would be asked if I was also, a Rapper and ‘how did you learn to speak English so well?”.

Geosi Gyasi: As a poetry editor, do you edit your own poems before you send them out to publishers?

Warsan Shire: I edit until life gets blurry, then I work with my editor, who is also a brilliant poet – Jacob Sam La-Rose. Everything I know about editing I learnt from him and my mentor – the beautiful poet Pascale Petit.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poetry has been translated into many languages including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian, & Swedish. How do you feel about this and how many languages do you speak?

Warsan Shire: I look forward to translating more work in Somali, that’s really important to me. I can speak Somali and English fluently.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Warsan Shire’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, Chekwube O. Danladi

May 9, 2016
Photo: Chekwube O. Danladi

                Photo: Chekwube O. Danladi

Brief Biography:

Chekwube O. Danladi was born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised there, as well as in Washington DC and West Baltimore. A Callaloo Fellow, her writing prioritizes themes of teleological displacement, navigations and interrogations of gender and sexuality, and the necessary resilience of African and Afro-diasporic communities. She is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Geosi Gyasi: Born in Nigeria, at what point in your life did you move to the states and why?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I moved to the states in 1997, a week after my sixth birthday. Regarding why, there’s still a bit of confusion about that on my end. I haven’t ever received a concise answer from my family members about how we ended up in the US or why, though I’ve been given some vague responses about political force being the main motivator (most Nigerians will of course remember the tyranny of the Abacha regime). I can’t say with any certainly what happened, but the impact of that mystery has been significant for me. Much of my writing lately is actually about attempting to excavate, through many mediums, these missing pieces, trying to fill in the blanks regarding my history and ancestry. That seems to be a unifying theme for many people of the African diaspora. Black people more than any other group have so many gaps to fill. I find that to be really rich emotional and literary territory.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any fun memories as a child growing up in Nigeria?

Chekwube O. Danladi: Fun? Well, I spent most of my Nigerian childhood in Lagos, but also Port Harcourt and Kaduna. As a result, I sometimes loss track of what happened where. Most of the fun memories evolve around food. Living in Kaduna meant eating much kilishi and suya; I remember eating aya and dodo after school in Lagos. Port Harcourt likely meant eating snails. I was a very precocious child, so most of those early memories revolve around getting into trouble. Also my mother used to let us ride okadas to school, which in hindsight might not have been best, but was certainly a lot of fun. I also have fond memories of my family, especially those who have passed since my departure. I’m always surprised by how much I remember, even after almost twenty years.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you found the love for writing?

Chekwube O. Danladi: In some ways I think its safe to say I inherited that love. Both of my parents were writers, having worked in journalism professionally in the late 1980s through the 90s. But they also wrote for pleasure; my father was a poet, and my mother wrote short fiction. As a child, I was eagerly encouraged to pursue writing as a means of expression, especially because I have always tended toward shyness and privacy. My parents both encouraged me to reflect and respond to the world around me through writing, and that is still where I turn to first in the aftermath of trauma or despair, or to process joys and celebrations. The older I get, the more I turn to writing as a source of comfort.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it about Chris Abani’s story, “Benediction’ that inspired you to write, “E tu tu”?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I first encountered that poem in his collection “Santificum,” and that piece broke me. The entire collection is just devastating in its beauty and its precision. Benediction in particular spoke to the social and emotional challenges I’ve face in trying to reconcile my desire to connect to some obscured Nigerian or indigenous African identity with my loss of language. I’m half Igbo on my father’s side, but I have never spoken or had access to the language, and while I was a Hausa speaker as a child, even that language has evaded me with time. Most of what I do with Igbo is play and exploration. “Benediction” was a piece that I encountered at the height of an existential crisis (at age 20, which now is perhaps laughable) where my intersecting gender, sexual, and racial/ethnic identities felt out of reach and intangible. I wept when I read that poem. “E tu tu” is my attempt to describe an evening spent with my auntie on a trip to Enugu some years ago, where those haunting feelings of dislocation surrounded me as ether once again.

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

Chekwube O. Danladi: I’m concerned with exhuming and reimagining histories. I find that poetry allows for a particular intimacy that fiction, my other primary genre, does not. In my poetics, I work to unravel and reconstruct the quotidian and the spectacular into a new iteration that I am better able to understand. I think of writing poetry as a type of mastication, chewing up and regurgitating pieces so that they can be consumed differently. I’m concerned with language and babbling, with navigating liminality without romanticizing it, and with exploring queer notions of space, place, and time.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any writers you admire?

Chekwube O. Danladi: So, so many. I frequently turn to the work of Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Jorge Luis Borges, and Naguib Mahfouz for inspiration and instruction. Poets who inform me include Marge Piercy, Angela Jackson, Chris Abani, William Blake, Leopold Senghor, Nathaniel Mackey, and Audre Lorde. I also adore contemporary works as well, too countless to name here.

Geosi Gyasi: What motivated you to submit your work to the Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I kind of just did it on a whim. I guess I wanted to see if anyone could find value in the work I’d produced thus far. To be honest, I was stunned to hear that I’d been shortlisted, especially given the quality of the other shortlisted and awarded poets.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your poem, ‘Qui Parle’?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I have been haunted by the deaths of those two boys since first hearing of the 2005 French riots. I was very young at the time, nearly the same age as Bouna Traore. I can’t say for sure why these remained with me, given the frequency with which Black people are killed by the state. Maybe it had something to do with sensing my own mortality, that two kids who I might easily recognize as cousin or friend were killed only to have their characters defamed by media outlets.

The killing of Black people is not new, and has a longstanding historical precedence, so I’m always a bit annoyed when people say they are surprised that this sort of thing is happening. “In this day and age?” people will say. The days where killing Black people and other people of color have been long. Recent attention has been paid to the killing of Black people in the U.S., though most of that attention has gone to boys and men. “Qui Parle” is actually part of a series of poems I have been working on to process the state sanctioned killings of many Black people, especially those who are queer, trans, or from the Global South.

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

Chekwube O. Danladi: I suppose I am, though I’m not expecting to. Whoever wins will surely deserve it. I’m in the company of many talented folks.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Chekwube O. Danladi’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, Gbenga Adesina

May 8, 2016
Photo: Gbenga Adesina

Photo: Gbenga Adesina

Brief Biography: 

Gbenga Adesina lives and writes in Nigeria. His poems interrogate love and loss and the miles in between. In his works he seeks to map out the historic in the intimate and the daily. His poetry, essays and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in Harriet’s Blog for the Poetry Foundation and in Jalada, Premium Times, Open Society Foundation blog, Brittle PaperAfricanwriter.com, One Throne, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, Soar Africa(OSIWA anthology of new African poems) and others. In 2015, he was an Open Society Foundation Resident Poet on Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal. His first chapbook, Painter of Water, will be published by APBF in the spring of 2016. Follow him @Gbadenaija.

Geosi Gyasi: You live and work in Nigeria. My question is that, is Nigeria a fertile ground to thrive as a writer?

Gbenga Adesina: (Chuckles) Geosi, there are really no stringent binaries to this question, honestly. I think the truer picture will lie somewhere in between a lot of subjective experiences and angles. Let’s look at the net flow of creatives in and out of the country, the continent for instance. There is actually a flight of young musicians, poets, writers, visual artists and other creatives of African descent but born and perhaps bred in the diaspora who are moving back to stake a place for themselves and base their lifework on the home continent. There’s got to be some form of pull, some form of magnetism or “fertility” driving that, right? On the other hand there are lots of young dreamers, young artists here in this country who can’t wait to get out. A true approximation of the truth will be somewhere in between those subjective experiences.

On a personal angle, this is the home of my stories. The human swirl of Lagos, the hum of the other cities, the homeward call of the hinterlands, the raucous but humorous politics of this country, the warmth of the people, the kindness of total strangers. That’s what Nigeria is made of, Geosi. And it is upon this that the cathedrals of my narratives are built. A friend of mine and I passed through the street of his childhood once and he was visibly swept over by nostalgia and the pull of stories. He kept speaking of how these walls wear our faces. How they wear our faces. It is of these things that I write.

On the other hand there are constraints: Books? Libraries? Nah. Right now, I really want to read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The logistics for shipping is crazy. So I have to wait till summer for folks visiting from the UK or US or if I travel. And in that regard I’m even extremely lucky and I don’t for one second take it for granted. There is the social space also. Let’s just say being a writer (when you are still unmade, which is in most cases) is not how you engage the Nigerian social space, nobody will take you as a “going somewhere person” except in writerly circles. You use what you studied in school, which is what pays your bills right now. But don’t let us pretend that this does not in a way create a gap of sort between you and your counterpart elsewhere who can give the totality of a life to his or her craft. So when I’m chatting with young poet friends from across the ocean and they are talking about fellowships and grants and residencies and teaching fellowships and all those stuff, I just put my Kendrick Lamar on repeat and nod away.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard yourself as a poet or writer?

Gbenga Adesina: (laughs real hard) Geosi, you ask the hardest questions in the world! I suspect you are the one who sets the LSAT! But seriously I’m thinking now that what right do I possibly have to call / designate myself a poet or writer of some sort. This is what I suppose I can say though: Poetry and its inflections play a central role in who I am as a human being. It’s been so for a while now. And I don’t just mean the writing of it but also the pursuit of its elusive ideals: justice, fair shot, kindness, forgiveness, humility, open spaces. These things have a pull on me. I often find myself on the left (or occasionally left of the center) in the politics of things. I’m human first, then a poet, right? And my poetry is an extension of my humanness. The things I feel strongly about as a human being naturally find expression in my poetry. I’m also interested in transcendental language. I don’t remember the last time (may be ten years ago? lol) that I read a book in pursuit of the plot. I’m looking for transport, I’m looking for a language that keels me over, I’m looking for a tongue of water or fire or urgency or something, something elusive, I’m looking for illumination (Everything is Illuminated, right?). And poetry offers that tightness and density to sidestep conventional syntax and cut straight into the soul of things. Poetry takes me to where I want to be in an instant. So even in my fiction or non-fiction (except for the unkind scissors of the editors), it is such language that I still pursue.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think about literary prizes in general? Do you think a writer ought to rely on prizes in other to blossom?

Gbenga Adesina: I read this somewhere not long ago, and I find it so comforting: Sharon Olds—that magnificent poet of urgency and intimacy and such overwhelming beauty and power, if ever there was one— said she writes as much shit as everyone. I nearly fainted when I read that!

Of course she was just being kind.

But I have learned now to wear my inadequacies as a badge. How I fail at these things, how words often fall under the weight I put on them. My point is that even in the private space there is often so much uncertainty with what has been produced. So how on earth can anyone possibly rely on external forces (like judges of competitions/Prizes) to bring that work to light? Geosi, the name of this game is uncertainty, that’s what we do: doubt, to be unsure, to occupy liminal spaces. But you keep hammering on, right? You keep soldering on, what Elizabeth Gilbert called the sheer stubbornness of the human spirit. And by the way, the greatest gratification of art is art itself. I have come to discover that. When in my struggle with a poem or a line, I suddenly come into some form of breakthrough: a word, a phrase, a burst of songs like light that is a point of turning, where what has been an average meld of words suddenly becomes a force that changes the world. You jump! You shout! You are the new Ben Okri of time! Of course you wake up the next day to discover it is total trash. But don’t worry. That’s what we do. That’s what we do.

Geosi Gyasi: You were the 2015 Open society for West Africa foundation resident poet in Goree Island. Do you mind telling me what this residency was all about?

Gbenga Adesina: Well, the idea was to create an assemblage of sort of young and not so young African poets to “rethink or re-imagine” Africa. Now, I really loved this at the idea level. It appealed to the young dreamer in me who is fascinated by the sociology of thought patterns. But it was in the capacity of a poet that I was invited, so our fort was narrative. And it was not to recreate the African narrative as it were, rather it was a call to look differently, a little more mindfully as poets and writers at the essentially complex realities of our people and how they defy, if you care to observe, the limiting pigeonholes and clichéd binaries of the media. I loved every single bit of it. Breyten Breytenbach is a human being divine. He spoke deeply and movingly about poetry’s power to change the world. He spoke about humanness and the human condition. But he wasn’t just about Breytenbach. There was Veronique Tadjo, Dominique, Harry Garuba and Akwe Amosu. Excellent people, all of them. We had a couple of orientation exercises and then we forked into different workshops (French and English). We spent most of the time writing or rewriting in private and then coming together for revisions and comments; break fasts and dinners, a tour of the land etc. I discovered my poems in the mouth of others for the first time ever. Because some of those people were excellent readers, I fell in love. But I think what really did it for me was that soil, Goree itself, the Island. It’s a land made for poetry. On stepping foot on it, I cannot explain it; I became a burst of songs. Poems came in full, the structure, details and all that. Everything. I don’t remember ever experiencing anything like that before. I didn’t bother to write them down immediately. And that’s unusual. I met excellent poets from across the continent: Lekpele from Liberia, Renaud from Togo and a host of others and Fatamouto, a lithesome poet of immense beauty and power from Niger, of a voice that sometimes still come to me in the dark, whose eyes, it strikes me now, were/are in a way open cities.

Geosi Gyasi: How much does the element of metaphors feature in your poetry?

Gbenga Adesina: I fantasize a lot, right? So I have always thought about how I might one day come to write a monograph tentatively titled “The Death of Metaphor or the Resurrection of it”. You must have noticed, I’m sure, that there seems to be more propagation of the experiential writing as against or over say ekphrasis or the meditative or contemplative form of narration in all genres. And poetry is no exception. These days, readers, it does appear want the stuff of your life or your perceived life. And they want it now. They want it to be intense too. They want it to be haunting, to stick to memory, to jar and be jarring in its aftertaste. So poetry can seem confessional a lot these days, poetry can seem like direct narration. But that does not in any way negate the centrality of metaphors. Metaphors are the horses of narration, they travel through human psyche in ways words fail to.

So they are key to me. I curate them, I cultivate them, I watch out for them, no matter how subtle. I love them, how they lead to multiplicity of meanings and misreading (if there is anything like that) which are the pathways, I believe, that often lead readers to the discovery of truer things.

Geosi Gyasi: In just a paragraph, tell me about your chapbook: “Painter of Water”

Gbenga Adesina: Kwame Dawes asked me to come walk on water, that’s the central idea here and like Peter, not the Apostle, I followed him.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it about ‘love’ and ‘loss’ that you often write about in your poetry? Is there a specific message you want to convey to readers through these themes?

Gbenga Adesina: I have to admit that I didn’t come to this light by myself; that it was my readers, friends who pointed this out to me. And I have always relied on them to tell me what my poems are saying. But again I find myself returning to what I said about being human first and then a poet and how my poetry is an extension of my humanness. Of course like John Burnside said, I dare not speak for mankind (humanity)/ I know so little of myself. However in writing essentially as an attenuation of my own aloneness, I find myself connected to the broader geography of aloneness in a world outside me (story, story. Lol).I try to be susceptible in my craft to the things humans are susceptible to in their lived lives. Everydayness is the single most important quality to me in writing, I’m irremediably moved and susceptible to human narratives and I try to display a certain fidelity in rendering them. And what is human story, these plots that write us if not love and loss.

And perhaps I should add that the poets and writers that move me the most move me in this direction: Oswald Mtshali, John Burnside, Kwame Dawes, George Szirtes, Gabriel Okara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Okogbule Wonudi, Frank O’ Hara, Sharon Olds, W.B Yeats (But I, being poor/ have only my dreams/I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.), T.S. Elliot and lately Sarah Howe and Mona Arshi and others.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your process of writing?

Gbenga Adesina: Things speak to me powerfully. To a point that response becomes inevitable. The wirings are set up inside me subconsciously for some time. Then one day, I pick up my pen or gadget and start to write. I tend to write sequences around the same idea for a long stretch until I have fully responded to whatever ignited me in the first instance. Because meaning making is not really my pursuit, heightened meanings by rendering language in music is what I think I seek after, so songs, especially in foreign languages that I don’t speak and don’t even comprehend (Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, Hebrew etc.) are often my ready companions.

Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your future literary ambitions?

Gbenga Adesina: One cannot really say, right? I’ll like to write a couple of anthologies that try hard to move the equation forward. I really want to write a significant book in my lifetime as impossible as that is. And I really want to teach. I love teaching: the pull and pull of ideas, the openness of mind like water and that joy that cannot be touched to know that people are kinder now, better now because you led them to words.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you optimistic about winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Gbenga Adesina: Being on that list is a blessing. A big one. I’m still trying hard to believe it. Some of the most amazing amazing poets of our generation are on that list. And I don’t take that for granted. These guys have done incredible things with their gifts; they have touched the world, touched the skies, gone to the best schools in the world and have excellent pedigrees to show for it. But, Geosi, ours are the stars too, right!

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Gbenga Adesina’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, Chimwemwe Undi

May 7, 2016
Photo: Chimwemwe Undi

Photo: Chimwemwe Undi

Brief Biography:

Chimwemwe Undi is a poet of southern African descent living and writing on Treaty One territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her family origins are in Zambia and Zimbabwe and she spent some of her childhood living in Namibia. As a spoken word artist, she has been featured at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and Spur Festival, where she shared the stage with Dr. Cornel West. Her work has been longlisted for the Cosmonaut’s Avenue Poetry Prize and appears or is forthcoming in several publications, including CV2, Room, Prairie Fire and Lemon Hound.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your African roots?

Chimwemwe Undi: I like to say that my family is from the bottom bit of the continent. My parents are Zambian and Zimbabwean, and I spent the first dozen years of my life in Namibia and South Africa. Being African is important to me, and influences not only the way I write but the way I live. That being said, I try not to discount my impact on the colonized land I now live on, and it’s impact on me. I am a settler of colour living on Treaty One land, and I take seriously the responsibilities associated with that.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?

Chimwemwe Undi: Writing is how I process everything. Translating experience into finely tuned poetry or prose forces me to spend time with those memories, to unfold them and examine them, in a way that I find necessary and healing.

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

Chimwemwe Undi: I’m not sure I remember not knowing about the prize. I try to read the work of young people of color, especially those of the African diaspora, and the Brunel shortlists have been a fine source of names to remember, as well as a reminder of the quality of work to which I aspire.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any rituals you do before you sit down to write?

Chimwemwe Undi: I think good art is as close to actual magic as we’ll ever get, but I don’t find treating it’s creation as one driven by whims or muses or some intangible inspirational energy is particularly productive. I respect the craft of writing, and as such, I treat it as a skill which I am constantly improving. I try to write daily, to read widely, and to challenge myself by writing what is difficult, whether emotionally or technically.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “The Shadow Machine”?

Chimwemwe Undi: Quite a while, and most of that time was trying to find the entrance into the experience which needed to be processed. It is a poem about loss and the complicated ways we grieve, and the ways our grief looks different from our predecessors’ grief, in this case because of the nature of the internet. Finding a way into that took longer than writing my way out of it.

Geosi Gyasi: In writing, what are you most concerned about?

Chimwemwe Undi: It depends on the form. A thing I love about poetry is how much can be said with so little. I love to see how few words can be used to convey a feeling.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “The Shadow Machine”:

“the internet is a cemetery
where nothing ever dies”

Chimwemwe Undi: There are several allusions to online media in the poem, this first line to a podcast, others to comments on Facebook, Instagram captions and tweets. Like the less fortunate poems, these kind of contributions in the world wide web are quickly forgotten despite their theoretical immortality.

Geosi Gyasi: What does the future hold for you as a writer?

Chimwemwe Undi: I’m not sure. I will continue writing and performing, and hope that the response to my work remains as positive as it has been, and my relationship with it as healing.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Chimwemwe Undi’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, Saradha Soobrayen

May 6, 2016
Photo: Saradha Soobrayen

Photo: Saradha Soobrayen

Brief Biography:

Saradha Soobrayen was born in London and studied Live Art, Visual Art and Writing. Saradha is a passionate advocate for Human Rights and the preservation of archives, libraries, and indigenous heritage. Her poetic inquiry: ‘Sounds Like Root Shock’ is a melange of arts activism, cultural transmission, Kreol dialect, political rhetoric and song lyrics that chronicles the forced removal of the Chagossian Community from the Chagos Archipelago and their ongoing fight for the ‘Right of Return.’

Saradha received an Eric Gregory Award in 2004 and was named in The Guardian as one of the ‘Twelve to Watch’, up and coming new generation of poets. She represented Mauritius at the Southbank Centre’s Parnassus Poetry Festival and won the Pacuare Nature Reserve’s Poet Laureate residency in 2015. Saradha’s poetry, essays and  experimental short fiction are widely published in journals and anthologies. Her much awaited debut poetry collection is long overdue. Her website is www.saradhasoobrayen.com.

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in London and studied Live Art, Visual Art and Writing. How vibrant is the literary scene in London?

Saradha Soobrayen: There are a variety of literary activities in unlikely venues such as poetry slams in church hall, cafés, and pubs as well as the usual established performance venues. Often key literary events such as book launches are happening simultaneously.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your African roots and where your parents come from?

Saradha Soobrayen: My parents were born in Mauritius and came to work in the UK in the 1960s. Mauritius itself is a melting pot of many cultures and languages and yet there are distinct characteristics to the Mauritian sensibility perhaps due to being an island culture that has prospered and due to it’s commercial activity it often described as a jewel in Africa’s economy.

Geosi Gyasi: At what age were you introduced to the library?

Saradha Soobrayen: My earliest library experience was around the age of 6 or 7 it might have been earlier.

Geosi Gyasi: As a writer, what influence does libraries have on modern societies?

Saradha Soobrayen: It is often quoted that ‘libraries are the cathedral of the soul’ they are the the natural habitat for writers and allows our humanity to be read in all it’s diversity and contradictions.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a qualified Writing Coach, Creative Arts Mentor and Action Learning Facilitator. My question is, what is the role/duty of a Writing Coach?

Saradha Soobrayen: A key factor is the ability to reflect back a writer’s creative process and to ask open questions to allow the writer the time to discover the way forward.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly tell me about your poetic inquiry project, “Sounds Like Root Shock”?

Saradha Soobrayen: The project focuses on the Chagossian Communit who are based in London, Crawley and Manchester, they were forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago in the 1970’s to make room for a US Base. This is an important year for the community as the 50 year lease  comes up for renewal towards the end of 2016.  The original islanders and their families are still wanting to return home. The campaign is ongoing see http://chagossupport.org.uk

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on the lines below from your poem, “Listening Out For The Musings Of The Hawksbill Turtles”:

“to answer the same timeless, complex and simple questions:
how to survive, how to endure, and how to be one and all.”

Saradha Soobrayen: There is a degree of ambiguity in these lines as it forms part of a sequence that looks at collective consciousness and the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you be surprised should you win the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Saradha Soobrayen: It is always wonderful for poetry to be celebrated and a great boost for the writer.There is often a tension between the need for the writing to be seen and the need of the writer to remain in the dark privacy of the writing process and so perhaps there is an element of surprise when the creative work eventually makes an impact.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Saradha Soobrayen’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, 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.


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