Adjei Agyei-Baah is a founding partner of Poetry Foundation Ghana, a language examiner and a part-time lecturer for West African Examination Council and Institute of Continuing and Distance Education, University of Ghana, respectively. He is also the co-editor of Poetry Ink Journal, a yearly poetry anthology in Ghana. As part of his duties, he also serves as a supporting administrator for www.poetryfoundationghana.org. He is a widely anthologized both home and abroad and among his outstanding works includes the praise songs:“Ashanti” written and presented to the King of Ashanti, Otumfuo Osei Tutut II and “Ghost on Guard’ , for Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of the Republic of Ghana. At the international front, his poem, “For the Mountains”, was selected by the BBC to represent Ghana in a Poetry Postcard Project for the just ended Commonwealth Games 2014, held in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is a devotee of the Japanese poetry form haiku and has written and published in e-zines and international journals such as Frogpong, World Haiku Review, The Heron’s Nest, Shamrock and is one of the winners of 3rdJapan – Russia Haiku Contest 2014, organised by Akita International University, Japan, making him the recipient of the Akita Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Award. Adjei is currently working on ‘’KROHINKO’’-an anthology of poems from Ghana Poetry Prize contest, 2013 and looks forward in coming out with his two poetry collections. Some of his poetry artefacts can be found in Manhyia Museum and Centre of National Culture, Kumasi.
Geosi Gyasi: First, congratulations. You are the 2014 winner of Akita Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Award for the 3rd Japan-Russia Haiku Contest. How excited are you to have won this award?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: It’s a great feeling and I have every reason to be happy for this promising news of our time. I thank God for these streak feats this particular year. This is global laurel and it puts my country (Ghana) and Africa as a whole on the world haiku map. Though some of my haikus had earlier on been given merit and honourable mentions in international haiku journals, this one comes in to crown the effort made so far. At least assuring me that my commitment to this Japanese art form has finally paid.
Geosi Gyasi: When did your love for haiku begin?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: It started about three years ago when I chanced upon the works of my fellow writers like Emmanuel-Abdalmasih Samson (Nigeria), Nana Fredua-Agyemang (Ghana), online and Prince K. Mensah (Ghana) who had come out with an experimental collection (Haiku For Awuku) on this poetry form. I must say I was moved by the brevity of this genre. To make it short, to say more in few words is something that really fascinated me to try it. But not ending there, I moved further on to learn from the originators of art: I mean the Japanese masters like Basho, Buscon, Shikki, Issa etc. who have been of great influence in my haiku career.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about the inspiration behind your winning haiku?
lifting a cup of nest
to the sky
The above haiku is a scene captured in one of the harmattan season in Ghana as I was traveling in a bus from Kumasi to Accra. In the middle of our journey, our bus got stuck along the road, and upon getting down, saw this naked tree from afar with an outstretched branch with a nest as if requesting for help from above. Immediately an imagery came into mind of a desperate fellow (a waif perhaps) looking up to God to fill his cup with some kind of manna, just as He did provided the Israelites on the desert, on their way to the Promised Land.
Geosi Gyasi: How easy is it to write a haiku?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: It is not easy to write a haiku. First one has to learn the aesthetics of the art before he or she can write a ‘good’ haiku. It may look simple in appearance and yet difficult to write. Haiku has to capture the ‘aha’ moment (moment of delight) which come with keen observation. Besides, it packaged in lines of three or two or sometimes in one stretch of line in approximately 17 syllables with seasonal and cutting words. These are but few rules which one has to observe in writing an ‘acceptable’ haiku. This is all what I can say for now, as I am still humbly learning at the feet of the contemporary haiku enthusiasts like Hidenori Hiruta, Robert D. Wilson, John Tiong Chunghoo, Aubrie Cox, Anatoly Kudryavitsky and others.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem was selected out of some 1,130 haikus from 46 nations. Now, could you imagine emerging as the ultimate winner?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: No! I had some doubts for sure, for we Africans are not noted for this art form. The Westerners have the upper hand since they started exploring this poetry genre decades of years ago. Aside this, haiku opens itself to a myriad of interpretations, and when your imagery is not familiar to the reader’s environment, its likely to be misunderstood or misrepresented. Ogiwara Seisensui puts it succinctly: “haiku is a circle, half of which is created by the poet and the other half completed by the reader”. So it takes the composer and the reader to dig out a winning haiku. Approximately, the judging team was able to see what I saw, felt what I felt upon this encounter and selected my haiku as one of the best. In fact no one can ever admit that his/her haiku will surely win upon submission, for the eyes that look are many but the ones that see are few.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your poem, “For the Mountains”?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: For the Mountains is a nature poem with an inspiration drawn on my first time of climbing the Atwea Mountain in Ashanti region with my church members on a prayer retreat. It was first published in1001 African Books to Read Before You Die, an inspiration book compiled by Bernard Kelvin Clive (Ghana) and subsequently published by Poetry Space, UK, 2013. It was later selected by BBC to represent Ghana as a Commonwealth nation in their Poetry Postcard Project for the just ended Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, 2014. This is a nature poem which one can easily be mistaken for the work of classical poets like Frost, Yeats, Blake and others and not by an African.
Geosi Gyasi: Who inspires you as a poet?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: There are seas of poets who have inspired me from home and abroad. Locally, I dote the works of Darko Antwi, the editor of Phillis Wheatley Chapter fame. I have always admired him for his flair over rich traditional African poetry. He pressed on me to write to reflect my background as an African. Had it not been his direction and rich advice, I wouldn’t have discovered my talent when it comes to writing traditional African poetry.
Besides, I adore Nana Ofosu Agyemeng, co-founder of Poetry Foundation Ghana, and a good poet in his own class who composes with eclat and great panache. I see him as the good shepherd who brought me home when I was straying from poetry, due to its slow pace of paying back. He has always assured me that poetry will take me to places and hence needed to keep on writing. This he has often seen in his dream.
My other crop of inspirers are my contemporary poets like Jesse Jojo Johnson, Prince K. Mensah, Martin Egblewogbe, Aisha Nelson, Nana Fredua-Agyemang, Elikplim Akorli, Kwabena Agyare yeboah, Nana Nyarko Boateng and others (I cannot mention all). Of the oldies in my land, I have strong bonds to the works of Dr. Mawuli Adzei of Testament of Seasons fame, and not much a fan of the rest, probably due to the monotony in their style. But on the international front, I have longed for Langston and feared Shakespeare.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind commenting on the state of Ghanaian poetry in recent times?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: I will say Ghanaian poetry is making great strides. There has been influx of young budding poets on various social media whose flair cannot be underestimated. The matured even in the reluctance of publishers to publish their work, have taken the challenge to self-publish their own works or sought for publishers outside home. I see the focus now is not on the monetary gain but the zeal to market Ghana through poetry instead of leaving other literary giants like Nigeria, Kenya etc. to hog all the glory of African literature.
And without my crystal ball, I can foresee a sample of collections and anthologies coming out next years. I hope the poets get the best of support and collaboration from publishers.
Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: I write anytime, at any place, even in the loo depending on when and where the muse visits. Like a mad man, I have composed while walking. I remember often parking my car by the roadside to write down ideas that jump into mind before they evaporate out of memory. But I think I write my best out of irritation rather than in love.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Hahaha! I know they approve my works but not the long period I spend behind the computer. I think the problem is that, I deny them company a lot due to my reading and writing lifestyle. I may be ‘selfish’, if that is the right word to use. But apart from that they take their share of the glory when the good news come. I remember we all celebrated together on the day that BBC called and showed interest to use my poem (For The Mountains) for the Commonwealth Games, 2014 postcard project.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your work?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Many times, especially with haiku submissions. At first I became peeved and red eyed, taking it personal but upon persistence and commitment they unlock their doors for me to enter. I think at time, what editors want is maturity and quality work and hence will push writers to the limit to extract the real gold in them. Besides, rejection may be a way of measuring one’s level of commitment to the art before he or she is finally given a chance to grace a page or a site with his work. But some other sites or publishers would not publish you even if you write ‘heaven’. Their attitude can easily be read out: ‘We don’t want you here’.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you show your work to friends before it is published?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Not always but sometimes. I have selectively shown it to people who matters most, those who either inspired the work or have special knowledge about the theme being explored.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Yeah, I have often read poetry to my students and sometimes privately to my wife. I remember sharing the love piece ‘Pansiwaa’ with her.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever encountered as a poet?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: My greatest challenge has been with publishing. I should have been out by now with my collections but I haven’t as at now come into good terms with any publisher. Besides, down here, poetry does not receive much attention as it is in other fields of entertainment. For instance, a Foundation (Ghana Poetry Foundation) I started with my best friend had suffered financial setbacks and we always have to pause on major projects till we’re able to draw on our savings and continue. Aside that, I may recollect my experience with one or two professors who have kept my manuscript for almost two years. All what I needed from them were few lines of foreword.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you plot out your work before you start writing?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: No. I write my poetry as they come to mind. Those works have often been my best shots. The often revisited turn to be banal and often lack spontaneity which freely come along with good poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Currently working on “KROHINKO’’—an anthology of poems from Ghana Poetry Prize, 2013. Our doors are open to honest publishers who will be interested.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Not that much of books but of articles. I have only been reading books recommended by friends.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have anything to say to end the interview?
Adjei Adjei-Baah: Thanks for the opportunity to grace your blog with my humble feats:
a reminder of how far
we have come