Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani on the Future of African Poetry
Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani are the editors of the New Generation African Poets Series (Akashic Books), an annual box set anthology of chapbooks by poets of African descent who have yet to publish a full-length collection. Established in 2014, this series, currently in its fifth year, has played an influential role in creating a publishing platform for new voices. Thanks to the initiative of these gentlemen of letters and of their colleagues at the African Poetry Book Fund, African poetry has been showcased by deliberate and concerted efforts, which includes a range of poetry prizes, a publication of a collected volume of poems by a renowned African poet each year, and publication of new works of African poets. In April 2018, New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (TANO) featuring 11 new poets—Alexis Teyie, Amanda Holiday, Henk Rossouw, Kechi Nomu, Leila Chatti, Omotara James, Rasaq Malik, Romeo Oriogun, Saddiq Dzukogi, Umniya Najaer, Yalie Kamara—was released.
Kwame Dawes is the author of 21 books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. Often called “the busiest man in literature,” he is the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is also the Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival (Jamaica). His most recent poetry collection is City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern University Press, 2017).
Chris Abani is an award-winning novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. His poetry collections include Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), There Are No Names for Red (Red Hen Press, 2010), Feed Me The Sun - Collected Long Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). He is on the Board of Trustees Professor of English & Comparative Literary Study at Northwestern University.
This interview was conducted via email.
DAMI AJAYI: Congratulations on the publication of the latest box set, TANO, as well as for hitting the five-year mark of the New Generation African Poets project. As a keen reader of African poetry and as a poet living on the continent myself, the impact of African Poetry Book Fund’s intervention on African poetry has exposed African poetry both within the continent and in the diaspora to a waiting readership. It has also offered the featured poets the confidence that nudges them in the direction of furthering their careers. This is the fifth box set and I imagine that the process of curating and editing each individual chapbook must have been unique. Can you both speak to these unique experiences?
KWAME DAWES: To be honest, each box set is, as you say, is quite different, and at the same time, each one of them has been pretty much like the one before. Were this not the case, we would have a problem. Our goal was to, as soon as possible, create a system by which we could increase the number of poets recommended to us and the number that we would invite to submit a manuscript. To ensure thoroughness, editorial integrity, and effectiveness we built a system that works on a clear timeline and seeks to do everything we can with our limited resources to get our eyes on the interesting new work being done by African poets. At the same time, we have developed relationships with professionals like Akashic Books that is predicated on trust and mutual respect and admiration. Our model of always identifying fellow established poets to write introductions to each chapbook, and to feature the work of an African artist, constitutes some of the system we have put in place and repeat time and time again. Our goal is to find efficient and effective ways of doing this work. So, each new work is unique, fresh, and exciting. But what we have wanted with the APBF is to make normal the path for African poets to conceive of and realize a well-supported career as a poet. Quality at all stages of the process is critical to us. We want to have good habits.
CHRIS ABANI: I agree with Kwame about the difference and sameness of the box sets and the process. The box sets and the selection process of the material inside have been standardized to ensure the same quality throughout, to create a brand reliability, and to ensure fairness in material and representation, among other factors. As Kwame has stated, good habits are important, not only in normalizing the process, but in establishing a transferable archive. By this I mean, we want to make it easy for us as editors to transition out when the time comes and for newer editors to take over. We have always envisioned this as a living, ongoing intergenerational archive and project. We want something that is not temporary but a legacy linking those who came before us (hence we publish the generation before – Okara, Awonoor, Ama Ata Aidoo; our peers – Patricia Jabbeh etc.; and the new generation – Romeo Oriogun, etc.) our peers and the new voices. This creates an unbroken lineage, a living tradition that locates the work in a larger aesthetic moment and history and hopefully will continue when the new voices take over from us. We want it to be Pan-African in scope and vision because that is the only hope for the continent – curatorial visions that create obligations and duties of care for all Africans.
DA: The halfway mark is also a good time to reflect on successes of the box set series, especially the ways in which it has exposed the featured poets to a teeming readership, as well as to writing opportunities. In an interview when this project was being set up, Kwame said, “This series came out of my seeing a gap and trying to find a way to fill that gap.” How do you appraise the series so far with reference to the gap?
KD: I am happy about many things I have done in my life, but this is up there with them. I did say that there was a “gap.” The gap was that there was no consistent system for African poets to be published. None. Yes, there were some opportunities in individual countries, but these were limited, very limited. For the most part, the bias has always been toward fiction. The mere fact that in five years, we have published almost fifty poets most of whom, for the most part, would not have been published, tells me that we have done something about closing the gap. It is not a perfect solution, and it is a shame that things were so bad that any positive act, no matter how small, would represent a major change, but this is the truth of it. What we have done is demonstrated that there are truly accomplished, talented, and generous African writers of great standing in the world who are willing to volunteer their skills to ensure that African poets can generate work of the highest quality and can ensure that this work is published and shared with the world.
CA: Like Kwame, I think this entire project – The African Poetry Book Fund, the books, the prizes, the chapbooks, the online portal, the online archive, all of it – is perhaps one of the things in my professional career that I am very humbled by and proud of. The success lies not only in the publishing of these voices, but in the evolving community – a community that is changing the conversation. A conversation, a dialogue across countries, form and multiple aesthetic styles that didn’t exist five years ago – a Pan-African poetics conversation. It is exciting to see where this will lead. So there is much success but still so much to do.
DA: Kwame and Chris, you are both accomplished writers straddling multiple disciplines. Your initiation and continued engagement with contemporary African poetry reflects a generosity and selflessness that is quite rare in our literary landscape. Do you ever reflect on the personal costs of this endeavor?
KD: It is not rare at all. It is not. The APBF is run entirely by volunteers. Aracelis Girmay, Bernadine Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, John Keene, Phillippa yaa deVilliers, and Gabeba Baderoon, all responded without hesitation when Chris and I approached them to be a part of this work. And we approached them because we know them to be generous people. Look, the literary world is full of people who are willing to help other writers. What has been difficult has been the structural and organizational vision to create an institution that can then ensure that this generosity is not squandered, is most effectively used, and produces work of the highest quality. I have lived my life as a writer with the view that writers are willing to help other writers if they are not being exploited and if their time and skills are valued and respected. There has not been any great personal cost to me. I mean, this takes time and work, and I tend not to think of what it takes in terms of personal costs because I regard what I do as par for the course. The reward of seeing great work emerge is plenty for me. But there are reasons that have to do with my commitment to the community in which I hope I thrive. I can’t think I am living large if the home we live in is a mess while my own room is spotless. I want a beautiful mansion for all of us. Yes, I realize this is not a seamless nor an especially artful allegory.
CA: As Kwame quite rightly states this is not as rare as we think. There are so many writers, including those listed above, who are generous and looking actively for ways to get involved and sustain the work. As someone who benefited directly from Kwame’s vision in London in the 90s, a vision that Bernardine Evaristo in her role in an arts organization director, helped make accessible to all, it is easy for me to be committed to others in this way. I suffer no great personal cost, but I won’t lie, the work involved can be daunting, but the rewards as a reader and writer and a community member far outweigh any of the costs. Look, if we complain that there aren’t enough African, black, people of color, non-binary, female, non-heterosexual, voices in the arena of our writing, then we must build a safe community for them to emerge into, and be held by. The meaning we derive from our lives is measurable by the meaning those around us can derive from theirs.
DA: In your introduction, Kwame, you remark on the editorial process of the poems for the box set that, “while not comprehensive, what we do is diligent and thorough.” I imagine, as always, there are incidents of trust issues between chosen poets and the editors. Given the time constraint, how is this negotiated?
KD: Surprisingly, there have not been any significant trust issues. I do believe that poets want, above everything else, to trust that an editor has read their work with care, appreciation, and understanding. Our goal is always to read the work with the desire to understand not just what is there, but what the poet is trying to do. The best editors will understand what a poet is attempting to do and then proceed to help that poet achieve this and to do so at the highest level. As editors, Chris and I have read a lot of poetry from all over the world. There is very little that we have not seen before in terms of style and even substance. I realize that this bothers many poets who believe that they are profoundly unique. But this is because many poets fail to realize that poetry is an ancient tradition, a ritual that has been repeated for centuries in communities all over the world. New poets are adding to a tradition and yet are writing within that tradition. The more we understand what a poet is trying to do, the better we are at helping them create work of power and meaning. The poets we have published have trusted our commitment to their success. This is hugely important. We have no agenda except to give space for work that has been produced with hard work, a commitment to their own vision and intelligence and feeling. Our poets are hungry to be seen. We try to see. In fact, I can say, we see. This is a splendid basis for a good editing relationship. What we do that many mainstream editors can’t do, is claim to have a solid knowledge of multiple literary traditions. So they lack the confidence to respond credibly to poets from cultures different from theirs. Chris and I have less of a problem in that regard than many. But we are also quick to do the necessary research when we are in the dark. We do not find ourselves fighting poets. This is not what we are here to do. We facilitate.
DA: This box set comprises chapbooks by 11 African poets with five poets of Nigerian descent and six poets residing in the Diaspora. Was balancing socio-demographic indices an issue?
KD: I can say without hesitation that our primary criteria for selecting work is the quality of the work, which is based on our quite specific taste and experience. The choices combine the values about poetry that Chris and I have. We don’t agree about everything and that is a tremendous gift. But we agree about a lot, which is something that is also quite necessary. We are constantly paying attention to several factors. We believe that the more varied the pool of writers we bring into this conversation, the stronger the quality of the work. We believe this because we have seen this again and again. But we are also proactive. If we don’t see enough poets from North Africa, we make greater effort to reach out to writers and arts folks and publishers in this area or with a knowledge of the work on the ground from those areas, to seek recommendations. So, we do the same around gender balance, aesthetic variance, geographic reach, and much else. Of special concern is that we are reaching poets living in smaller centers on the continent. We want to have a rich range of choices and then we see where things fall in terms of whose work we publish.
Keep in mind also that we are editors who do not expect the work we get to be ready for print when it arrives. Our task is developmental. We work with the poets to do rewrites, to reconsider order, to write new work, and much else. What we are looking for is the spark of a distinctive imaginative impulse and instincts that lend themselves to creating good work. We value poets who are reading other poets. We value hard work. Yes, it is a great deal of work, this editing, but it is necessary. Above all, we are really enjoying the process of letting the work we get dictate the direction that a box set takes. The poets guide what we do and how we select. There is little doubt in my mind that sometimes we miss something good. But we have seen such an impact of the box set on the publishing world that we now know that other presses who were never interested in African poets, are now publishing these poets. This was one of the key goals. So, we are not the only place any more. And so our mistakes are not as absolute as they might have been were this not the case.
CA: I couldn’t have said it better.
DA: Chris, in your introduction, you reflect on the various African poetics now prevalent in contemporary African poetry and offer an explanation as to why the current generation of poets have broken away from the nationalistic obsessions of their ancestors. In your own words, “The new poets have been freed from this constraint by the generation or two before them.” Was it a deliberate act by this generation? Could you speak a bit more to this, especially why African poetics has waited this long to open up?
CA: I don’t know why, or even if there was a wait. The situation is complicated. Perhaps the history of the continent and its resistances and compromises to/from colonialism meant that an earlier generation did not have the luxury of a modernist and aesthetic engagement with its imagination that afforded the same freedom as we do now. They had to do the initial work of nation building, of separating their imagination from the colonized space. Much of that involved the recuperation of lost traditions and forms of art that were already disconnected from a living practice, and thus had slowly slipped into sentimentality and romanticism, a problem that was exacerbated by the singular use of said traditions in a “pride” project. This is not in any way to denigrate the amazing work produced and the many writers of that time – Ekwensi, Fagunwa, Tutuola, Amadi, Soyinka, Achebe, etc. – who displayed a singular imagination. I am speaking more of a tradition and an overwhelming practice. It wasn’t until the 80s and writers like Valentine Alily, Festus Iyayi, and others began to break from the usual concerns. Look, there are plenty of books and critical work on this already, but what was needed was a place whose only commitment was to quality and not to business as usual. To be honest I am not entirely sure yet. But it is something that is easily observed if not easily analyzed.
DA: TANO is an accomplished compendium of imagination and witness of contemporary experiences. Each poet in their featured poetry opens up modern thematic concerns with an African sensibility and relocates the self as a coordinate for inquiry. Were you deliberate about literary tropes while curating this work?
KD: You have put it well. Maybe we will ask you to be our PR person! And the answer to your question is, no. The work comes to us fully formed and conceived. We learn what is out there. And all we do is curate it in a manner that puts it in its best light. These poets are reading other poets more and more and the more we publish, the more poetry they will read from poets all over Africa. And the poets have started to communicate more and more and so are sharing writers with each other, expanding their understanding of their tradition, and testing their own work. They now have a sense of scale, and sense of excellence, and a full sense of their limitations. This is massive and we are seeing better and better work in larger numbers each year.
CA: I completely agree with Kwame in this. I was thinking of all the times in this interview where I have typed that and I smiled. It’s not very Nigerian to agree without a lengthy explanation of one’s own. Maybe that’s how we get so much work done, hahaha. Oh wait, I just did it. See? Hahaha!
DA: There are a number of feeble remarks especially on the continent, expressing discontent about the interventions of Africa Poetry Book Fund and that of its affiliates, like the Brunel Poetry Prize. The meat of these remarks contest the setting-up of a modern canon for African poetry and the deliberate inclusiveness, if not championing, of themes like feminism and LGBTQ rights. How do you respond?
KD: We listen to these views because we want poets in Africa to see this project as valuable to them. It is hard to explain that when poetic quality drives our choices, the real challenge for those who feel left out might well be to generate more and more work that shows a deep understanding of the form. As I have said, my interest is not to create a canon that is limiting and exclusive. Canonization is work that critics will do. I sincerely believe that. What we are doing is creating access to publishing that simply was not there before. If the feeling is that African poetry would be better off without APBF I would like to have that discussion with the 60-odd poets at different stages of their writing whom we have published, and the thousands who send us work. In the best of worlds, there will be more such outfits, and I believe that this will happen. I also believe that we need publishing houses established in Africa. Having APBF based in Lincoln, Nebraska and Brunel based in the UK is a matter of circumstances and resources. What we do is try to mitigate anything that might prove negative about this fact. At least Africans are doing the work, making the decisions doing the work that is normally done by others. This has to count for something. Of course, there are more women being published these days than ever before. Well, I doubt that anyone can question the quality of these voices. We are the better for it. And I guarantee you that LGBT folks are equally concerned that they are not well enough represented by APBF. Folks have to believe me when I say that were we selecting for those reasons only, we would have the kind of series that we do have now.
CA: Again, I agree with and stand behind everything Kwame has said. I also do not have an issue with the critiques – they are necessary and help keep us honest and purposeful in what we do. It is interesting, though, that the critiques we receive, never come with a request to help develop an alternative publishing structure. No one has asked us how we fundraise, how we distribute, how we set up a team of amazing and giving editors so that they could perhaps establish another APBF, one best suited to their politics. The more publishing opportunities, the more African poets win.
DA: Having read through the box set and enjoyed the diversity of poetics, themes and voices, I have settled on Alexis Teyie’s Clay Plates as my most exciting discovery. Did you, the editors, indulge in the notion of a favorite?
KD: No. Not at all.
CA: We see the work they all put in and the skill they each have, after that it’s impossible to have a favorite.