Ngwatilo Mawiyoo is a poet from Nairobi who’s completing an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Her 2010 chapbook, Blue Mothertongue, was well received at home and at various festivals in Africa and Europe. A Callaloo Fellow, Ngwatilo’s poems have been published in Kwani?, World Literature Today and The Literary Review, while her creative non-fiction has appeared on Creative Time Reports and The New Inquiry. Her forthcoming poetry collection is based on her travels across Kenya between 2011 and 2013. Ngwatilo also writes for the screen. In 2015, Ngwatilo was shortlisted for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize. She tweets sporadically at @ngwatilo.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet, performer, actress and musician. How do you combine all?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I had a project and performance practice I called ‘Puesic,’ which was more deliberate about bringing performance and music to my poetry, and the poetry of others in performance. What’s been key to it, at least in theory, is a kind of jazz aesthetic, that each instrument ‘talks the poem’, that I treat my body as an instrument and use its every movement, and my voice in particular, to carry the meaning/weight of the words. All of us musicians together create the poem anew in that moment; we live the poem anew.
Having said that I’ve been really happy lately to do music, acting and writing each on its own terms, in more conventional spaces but I remain interested in the idea of ‘ngoma.’ Ngoma is a Kiswahili word that carries music, dance and drama within it, simultaneously. In ngoma, ‘normal’ is when the totality of expression (music, drama, dance, etc) exist together in the same moment of performance.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any close similarity between poetry and music?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I’m sure there are those who possess far better language to describe the relationship between the two, but yes, of course there’s a close similarity. Silence is working in both poetry and music. Echoes and overtones are working in the language of poetry (both aloud and on the page) that you expect to hear in music. We routinely work (and work out) motifs in our work as poets, I’d say music composers use similar strategies.
It’s difficult to talk about this in a sense: Poetry is a big country, as is Music; I feel a little foolish drawing comparisons across both when some villages are very distant from each other, populated by fairly distinct peoples. The two countries certainly share a border, and families scattered across the borderlands of both territories live full lives completely disinterested in the politics of the nation-state, but embroiled with the everyday business of living.
Perhaps the poem heard aloud is a piece of music set for voice?
Geosi Gyasi: How possible is it for a poet to write lyrics for music?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: It’s certainly possible. I used to write songs before I started writing poetry. It’s been hard for me to write song lyrics now, though. But I have friends who do both quite well.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you actually become a poet/writer?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I’ve been working with Canadian poet Sheryda Werrener this past year facilitating undergraduates at the University of British Columbia on their journeys into poetry. Sheryda addresses them as poets, doesn’t allow them the luxury of this particular identity crisis. It’s been very productive for them. Someone at a UBC Creative Writing conference (I wish I remember who) said “writer” is a title you earn everyday you write. So if you’re a writer but you haven’t written for a while, aren’t even in the research phase of something, then maybe you need to consider whether such a title is truthful.
I felt like a writer somewhere in the late 2000s. I felt like I had a relationship with poetry that no one could deny me. But I’m thinking about these other ways of defining that moment. I kind of like the idea of only getting to call myself a writer when I’m actually writing. It keeps me honest in a way, as really that’s the part that counts, whether I’m writing or not, whether I’m paying attention to the world around me, and engaged with it in that way. It’s easy to be a theoretical poet.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest benefit you’ve gained since becoming a poet/writer?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I suppose there have been visible benefits and invisible ones. The visible ones include the possibility of traveling around the world, meeting and interacting with interesting people, not to mention the automatic backstage pass to hang out with world class writers and artists. You can’t pay for that, if you tried you still wouldn’t have the best seats. For myself, more invisibly, writing has been a great comfort to me when I’ve felt alone, or when I’ve lived as an outsider. Poetry is one of those things that can be totally collaborative or not collaborative at all. And that’s such a gift when you have no one to collaborate with, and when you do. Poetry and writing have also been great teachers, a way of knowing myself and the world.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write “Blue Mothertongue”?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I was working on my undergraduate degree when I won a university fellowship to study with Dr. Duriel E. Harris (look up her Thingification project!). I was in my fourth year living in the US, and had also moved around a lot within Kenya and East Africa growing up, and I was thinking about what ‘home’ meant to me, about identity and all that. It was a fantastic education, everything I read at that time. I went back home a year and a half later just before Kenya’s post election crisis of 2007-2008, and thought more about what ‘home’ my grandparent’s generation had left us. I self-published the chapbook with the editorial support of Keguro Macharia, John Sibi-Okumu and Stephen Partington, Kenyan poets and writers I really respect. I got the idea from poet Shailja Patel.
Geosi Gyasi: In choosing titles for your poems, do you go through any rigorous selection process?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Nope. I’m completely emotional about it. With a splash of logic? It’s whatever the poem needs. Sometimes that involves a lot of labor, sometimes it doesn’t.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever thought about what you want to achieve with your writing?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I would like the work to be useful. I’d like to enjoy the process, I’d like it to teach me things about myself and the world, about living. The scale to which that learning may be celebrated by others is not really in my hands. I try not to let that burden the work. I try to just show up and do it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything about your first EP album, “Introducing Ngwatilo”?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Not at all! It’s a six-track album, half of which is made up of performance poems, while the other three tracks are really cool collaborations with some of my favorite Kenyan musicians, including Wambura Mitaru, Kavutha Mwanzia-Asiyo and Lisa Noah. The first two let me mash up my poetry with their songs, while Lisa offered a killer interpretation of “July,” one of the poems from Blue Mothertongue that I would perform as song or poem depending on whether I was performing by myself or accompanied.
Geosi Gyasi: What can you say about the current literary scene in Kenya?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: In many ways it feels more vibrant than ever. For a long time, certainly after things started picking up in 2003, we had just two shining literary stars,Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Owuor. Kwani Trust was the be all and end all of the contemporary publishing scene. Now there are newer faces: Okwiri Oduor won the 2014 Caine Prize, Clifton Gachagua won the inaugural Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and found a fantastic way into the world for his 2014 Madman at Kilifi. Ndinda Kioko is at work on her novel with the support of a Morland fellowship, and StoryMoja is publishing more and more books for children. Kwani Trust is working on the first anthology of Kenyan poetry in more years than I am willing to count, and there are new spaces like Brainstorm.co.ke and Jalada.org where a new generation of writers and thinkers are writing fearlessly, and challenging the rest of us to hurry and catch up. Through Storymoja’s annual festival & Kwani’s biannual festival, Kenyan writers and Nairobians in general are getting to interact with world-class writers, African greats. I’m still smarting over missing Wole Soyinka last year. How wonderful was it to hear Ben Okri and Yusef Komunyakaa a few years ago in an open field in Nairobi! I get chills thinking of how much farther young ones can dream just for having had a chance to listen to them, armed with their new tactile knowledge of what words can do, that people like them do this work. Slowly, small literary communities are emerging elsewhere in the country, in Mombasa and elsewhere. Nairobi won’t be the only place you might imagine a Kenyan writer flourishing for much longer. It is a reminder to be grateful for that initial energy, as I doubt even I would exist without a Shailja Patel, a Caroline Nderitu, a Binyavanga Wainaina or a Billy Kahora, or going further back, without a Micere wa Mugo, a Majorie Oludhe Magoye or a Ngugi wa Thiongo. There’s still so much work to be done, but this emerging generation of young writers is hard at work. Look out, not just for them, but also the kids who come after! They won’t be long now.
Geosi Gyasi: If I were to put you on the spotlight, which single writer from Africa do you regard as major influence on your writing?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: It’s a tough question. I was listening to South Africa’s Lebo Mashile the moment I thought about poetry as a thing I might want to try, and I have been fortunate to be able to continue drawing from her work and spirit. But Kenyan queer scholar Keguro Macharia might be my most significant influence. He has such a deep capacity for empathy, a tenacious hopefulness that I only try to emulate and a terribly unflinching eye. I enjoy how he thinks about form, how it might relate to the project at hand.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever attempted screenwriting?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Screenwriting has been the great experiment of my time at UBC. I love the medium, how you can make a world there, and have things happen, and see the consequences. I’m often trying to make sense of contradictions in poetry; screen is a great way to explore that further, explore alternate realities, alternate universes and extend those moments beyond what I am most interested in doing with poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader? What do you mostly read?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I’m getting better. I’m mostly reading Canadian and American contemporary poetry now, but I’m also trying to invest some time in fiction. I’ve got several books on the go at the moment, perhaps a testament to my present scatterbrained state. They include David O’meara’s A Pretty Sight and Patricia Young’s Summer Swamp Love. I’m finally reading Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas. At the back of my mind I know I’m behind on my non-fiction reading. I will catch up. Oh, I’m telling everyone about Sue Goyette’s poetry collection, Ocean.
Geosi Gyasi: You are on the shortlist of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize for your poem, “Bewitch”. How did you hear about this prize?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: I don’t remember now. I was in Nairobi when I heard about it. So it must have been through literary circles there.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to write, “Bewitch”?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Ha! I wrote that in an online workshop I was taking through University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2013. Nick Twemlow, our instructor, brought in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and suggested an exercise. Bewitch came out of that moment. It was a startling and fun experience.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a poet?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Gha! No, not really. I may be feeling my voice is in flux at the moment, and it would be hard, perhaps inadvisable for me to try to pin it down here when I’m still in a state of play. I might then have to live up to what I said, and I don’t know that’s a good idea.