Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Richard Oduor Oduku

Richard-OdukuBrief Biography:

Richard Oduor Oduku is a post-cynical humanist, a researcher, and a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works as a research consultant in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Kwani? Storymoja, This is Africa among others. His story ‘eNGAGEMENT’ published in the JaladaAfrofutures anthology was longlisted for the BSFA Awards 2015. He is also a Nonfiction Editor at Panorama – The Journal for Intelligent Travel. He is a founding member of Jalada Africa and is also a Co-Curator and Festival Coordinator for the Jalada Mobile Literary and Art Festival running in five countries in East Africa.

Geosi Gyasi: I am curious: could you define who a post-cynical humanist is?

Richard Oduor Oduku: The answer to that question is very long. But it is just a statement of belief, or unbelief, depending on where you are starting. It captures a lifetime of thinking and growing towards humanism.

I grew up in rural Alego, in Siaya County, Kenya. As a young boy I was either in school, herding cows, playing raucous games as most rural kids do, or reading some books which should have been, as I came to understand much later, should have been a little way beyond the comprehension of a child. My father had some books and so were my older brothers and sisters. I became a student of words. I ate up all the books and this is where the story begun.

It helped that rural living is a spiritual activity. People are closer to the earth. Toiling daily for ugali makes people humble, relevant to each other, and able to persevere together. Rural life also creates an intimacy with the elements – water, wind, fire, earth – and even though Christianity was superficially practiced, people were still closer to the spirit world, and remained adamant to transfer all power to Jesus Christ.

My parents were deeply Christian. Still are. The Bible was one of the first books I read from cover to cover. The Bible has good stories. I fell in love with the poetic books. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations. Everyone loves the Songs of Solomon. It is from these books that I first came into contact with the ancient Jewish idea of fighting with God, of screaming out against God, of questioning God. They contained acts of man seemingly battling the unimaginable, or praising a mystical, big unseen father in the sky. They interested me so much as a child and probably laid my own foundation of questioning the idea of God and the nature of truth in the Bible itself.

I also recognized, from an early age, what Henry David Thoreau once said that, “no way of thinking or doing, however, ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” My questioning led to a rejection of certain tenets of organized religion as preeminent. My questioning, after so many years, landed me to humanism.

Also I have always been a little cynical, but in recent times, I have adopted a manifestly positive view of life. I borrowed the phrase “post-cynical humanist” from poet Yehuda Amichai to capture these transitions in my belief system.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of your work as a researcher affects your poetry?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I don’t think I know how much. At the end of the day, I’m just one person, one individual, who is doing many things. I think all my experiences exist on a single spectrum. Research and poetry are just different points on this spectrum. And there are many other points. They feed from each other. Everything affects everything everywhere. Sometimes I can pick out the specific influence on poetry, most times I can’t.

Geosi Gyasi: As a founding member of Jalada Africa, could you tell me what Jalada is all about?

Richard Oduor Oduku: In 2013, a group of writers from different African countries met at the British Council –Nairobi, in a creative writing workshop organized by Granta, in collaboration with Kwani Trust. After a week of learning under Ellah Allfrey, Nadifa Muhamed and Adam Foulds, they decided to come together, to edit each other’s work, and generally help each other grow. This association of writers drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and South Africa became Jalada Africa – a Pan-African collective.

Today the Collective seeks to break boundaries by publishing works that expand the range of reading experiences and stretch our own reach as creative writers. Jalada has published five major anthologies and a mini-anthology in the space of three years. Our Fear Issue, a collaboration with Transition Magazine, from Harvard University, will be published in July this year.

Geosi Gyasi: Looking at the other shortlisted poets, are you convinced that you’re the best to win?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I’m awed by the incredible talents on that shortlist! But I can only beat my own drum. If I was crafty enough I would’ve sent a jini to visit the judges and nudge them, non-violently of course, to appreciate my poems a little more than the other shortlistees.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the main concept behind the Jalada Mobile Literary and Art Festival?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Remember how griots, in ancient Africa, moved from market to market telling stories, singing, reciting poems? They were living archives diffusing cultures across lands. The festival borrowed a lot from this ancient concept. The mobile festival is a hybrid between a place-based traditional festival model and a literary bus tour, and sought to celebrate cultural diversity and nurture living connections between peoples, cultures, and geographies across East Africa. During the month-long festival, we partnered with local institutions in each of the 12 towns across 5 countries in East Africa to bring a diverse program of events featuring panel discussions, on various issues, including the place of languages in writing, creative masterclasses and poetry workshops, as well as art installations.

Geosi Gyasi: Who/What convinced you to submit your poems to this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I have always wanted to submit. I’d feel puffed up and super confident about my poems, but this usually died just a few hours to the deadline. I’d simply skip it and soliloquize on the unimportance of literary prizes. This year wasn’t an exception, except I somewhat convinced myself that the poems were ready, that they had developed strong wings and could be allowed to fly unaided. I’m bemused the judges found them worthwhile.

Geosi Gyasi: Looking at the other shortlisted poets, are you convinced that you’re the best to win?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I’m awed by the incredible talents on that shortlist! But I can only beat my own drum. If I was crafty enough I would’ve sent a jini to visit the judges and nudge them, non-violently of course, to appreciate my poems a little more than the other shortlistees. But since I’m yet to acquire these spiritual resources, I’ll just sit back and relax and eat oranges and hope that the gods of good fortunes are working tirelessly on my case. Being shortlisted is already a big win for me. Everyone deserves to win. May the best win.

Geosi Gyasi: Was it tough selecting the ten poems you entered into this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Yes and no. Yes, because I picked all the poems from a single manuscript I intend to publish. This is my third poetry manuscript. The first two could not get my approval to go out alone. I still hide them. Through them I see how a poet changes, how the texture, sensibility, and the experiences they write changes. Poems change when the poet changes. And No, because I had to select them from tens of others. I was forced, in a way, to pick a favorite child, and it is never a pleasant experience to show your kids publicly that you love one of them a little more than the rest. It is not good for family business.

Geosi Gyasi: From where, specifically, do get ideas for your poems?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Everywhere. From life, from living, from seeing, from hearing, from touching, from smelling – from experiencing the world. Though I’m more focused, now, on psychogeography – how I am interacting with the spaces I’m passing through, thanks to Guy Debord and the whole army of Dadaists and Surrealists. I’m trying to use poems to recapture a lost innocence, to regain the sense of surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever get unfavorable criticisms for your poems?

Richard Oduor Oduku: I critique other people’s works at Wawa Book Review but very few of my writing have been critiqued for the simple reason that they are few and far in-between. I have a few scattered poems in different journals, but I don’t think that is enough to get a good amount of unfavorable criticisms. I will publish more to attract my fair share of unfavorable criticisms.

Geosi Gyasi: What would you use the Prize money for, should you win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Richard Oduor Oduku: Spending money has never been a problem. The problem is getting the money! I could use it for many things. If I won, the first thing, naturally, would be to chop a little for celebration. Very important. Go out, have a drink with the boys, try to break a leg, buy loved ones presents. Or take a little time off work to finalize on pending writing projects. The most important thing, though, would be to publish a poetry collection – the manuscript that produced the poems in this shortlist.

END.

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