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.
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.