First: these chapbooks are beautiful. Even on an e-reader, sapped of gravitas, Ibibio artist Imo Nse Imeh’s cover art adds a Chagall-ian layer of both modernism and ethnic nostalgia to this box set, to which Peter Akinlabi, Viola Allo, Inua Ellams, Janet Kofi-Tsekpo, Liyou Mesfin Libsekal, Amy Lukau, Vuyelwa Maluleke, and Blessing Musariri have each contribute a slim collection of poetry.
Edited by poet/writer-extraordinaire Kwame Dawes, who also edits Prairie Schooner and is the associate poetry editor at the brilliant Peepal Tree Press, and Nigerian poet Chris Abani (who you might recognise as the editor of the anticipated Lagos Noir if you are as into the Noir series as I am), are established poets in the best sense, enmeshed and fluent both inside and beyond academe, and they establish a framework for these chapbooks that has both integrity and breathing room. The poems are linked together, they write, not only by continent of origin, but also by an emergent modern literary sense – while being altogether contemporary. They are not just poems by newer poets than Dawes and Abani; they are ‘new-generation’, held together by a shared lack of tethering to nationalist concerns. This new-generation African poetry is about simultaneity of expression: “in these new poets’ clear, strong, and prominent voices”, Abani writes, “we begin to see the negotiation of a kind of modernist thought on the continent that the early rush to nationalism and to nationalize nascent states interrupted” (12).
Dawes, in deconstructing the way in which the box set was put together, explains that the set is not the result of a single competition, but rather of a qualitative, large-scale gathering of poets whose works they felt excited and eager to develop into chapbooks. Scouring the prizes, attending the readings, Dawes “can conclude that African poetry is varied, vibrant, earnest, and brimming with the energy and intelligence we enjoy in the best poetry” (9), but perhaps last year’s box set (featuring seven poets) would have been enough for that. By continuing the series, Dawes aims to tie the energy of all of these readings, submissions, and developed voices into a sustained interest in African poetry – and not just for the diaspora. Whilst poets can find it hard to make inroads in the continental market because of the varied systems of production and distribution, Dawes hopes that this set, with its poets from the continent as well as the diaspora, will help readers who might only know one of the eight discover the rest.
And for readers who haven’t before heard of a single name, each volume has, alongside Dawes’ and Abani’s overarching introduction, its own introduction from a stalwart African poet – Abani himself, but also Gabeba Baderoon, Bernadine Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, John Keene, and Karen McCarthy Woolf. These are thoughtfully-chosen pairs: for example, McCarthy Woolf shares a scientific sensibility with poet Amy Lukau, and when John Keene warns you that the poems that follow (by Vuyelwa Maluleke) will be powerful, well… forewarned is forearmed. They sometimes contextualise the chapbook as part of the set – Matthew Shenoda, writing about Peter Akinlabi, is especially good at this, when he notes that Akinlabi’s poetry deals with “what it means to occupy place as an African in the world” (7) – but just as often, sum up gracefully the poet’s contribution. The poems by Liyou Libsekal, Baderoon writes, have a “vivid poetic intelligence and empathetic consciousness” (6).
Libsekal’s collection, Bearing Heavy Things, is the first one, and her opening line is arresting, after so much introductory anticipation of the joys of African poetry: “I left Africa”, she writes (8), and off we go: nationalism to pan-Africanism, both immediately jettisoned. The line continues: “I left Africa carrying my skin.” A monumental, representative journey rendered intimate. Her writing is smart and sharp – Baderoon says that her “poems are intensely aware of the effect of their lines” (4) – as it explores what it means to see the path through the medium of one’s parents, and then, as one ages, with one’s own angry eyes. She uses form powerfully, balancing the broad in ‘Our Circumstance (As Told By Newspaper Headlines)’ and the personal in ‘List of Things Age 24 Craves’.
Allo, who’s poetry comes next in Bird From Africa, journeys similarly: self-contained. Abani notes that her concerns – exile and return – are a throwback to Senghor, made fresh in that they are “sincere but irreverent” (6). I could, and did, read and re-read the first stanza of ‘Journey to a Farm on Lake Awing’:
Heaven is a strange place,
I don’t want to go there.
I do not think it is the place
where my ancestors have gone. (28)
The journeys described by Zimbabwean poet Musariri are more bound with the earth, detailed and specific, full of subtle, eerie detail about reeds, mosquitoes, and rain. As Evaristo notes, they are so specific as to circumvent nationalism and aim straight for a global reach. Akinlabi, conversely, writes poems that are globally allusive, concerned with the political chaos of modernity – one of the few poets featured who has consistently lived and worked in his country of origin, Nigeria, he looks at the changing of time from a position straightforwardly fixed in space: “we would become modern”, he writes, “/in that moist migration… /between Lagos Town that was home/ and Lagos we never knew” (17). This assured global scope is echoed later in the set in Lukau’s woman-centered heteroglossia. She harnesses the power of space, the opening of fractured lines, to inhabit the voices of the subaltern, including those who are subject to female genital circumcision to those who bear the brunt of an Islamophobic West; she writes: “September 11/ / the worst/fuckin/day to be/ /Muslim” (21). Kofi-Tsekpo, with her poems closing the set, returns to Allo’s heavenward gaze. Her elegant aesthetic, rich with biblical, mythical, and natural symbolism, “deploy,” Abani writes “a slanted philosophical manner’ that ties them to the African tradition (8), requiring much of its audience, rewarded, always, in haunting closing lines such as this final note on the weird violence, purity, and Englishness in ‘The Wilton Diptych’: “a deep red seeps/ through the egg tempera” (20).
The stand-outs, for me, are Maluluke and Ellams, with Things We Lost in the Fire and Wire-Headed Heathen, respectively. Maluluke’s strengths are her pace and passion: “insistent, sometimes breathless,” as Keene describes. In the titular poem, for example, she writes, “you never say yes,/never stay long enough to share the water bill with me./ I bury myself with you anyway” (29). Throughout the collection, her absolute agility with a phrase forces empathy with the women she describes. From ‘Seventeen Seconds’, the line “she had a lick of legs men’s eyes would keep/in their pockets long after she passed” (14) lands carefully, a pinpoint identifying the grotesque. Ellams’ Wire-Headed Heathen, which Shenoda describes as “reflective of the new generation of African writers who speak for the present-day realities of their postcolonial, hyperurbanized, global media-inundated taeke-what-we-need-for-the-West-and-leave-the-rest, African-centered traditions with a twist” (6), has the same facility. His lines are at once shattering true and very funny, yet in no way evoke the cursed response Geoffrey Hill calls ‘poetry recital chortle’. ‘Faith in a Time of Double-Dip Recessions’ takes on the spiritual thread that runs through the other chapbooks, and ‘Swallow Twice’ captures London life unsentimentally, but with compassion:
In the circle of friends I have, most of our conversations
revolve around music, the heft and the sway of the changing
world, the rapid rate of our abundance, how best
to pretend we know it all, and when beer loosens
what inhibitions are left after shredding meat
with bare fingers, laughter cloaks our weaknesses:
our inability to provide for those we love, who love us,
we who still know nothing of what our lovers want,
how frightening it is to have nephews growing up,
who want to be like us, like men. (20-21)
We live in a curated world; the beauty of this collection is not just in the interplay of cover art and text, of preface and poem, but especially in its overall optimistic effect. This isn’t a curatorial project solely focused on refining our world, cutting it down to manageable size, reflecting the literary interests of its editors. Though it does this, it simultaneously opens up a whole new emergent modern trajectory of African poetry, adding to it words that are surprising not in their existence – we know that with greater funding, similar projects, changing patterns of readership, more than eight, more than ten new African poetry chapbooks of this quality could reach us each year – but in their specific, trenchant voices. Start clearly off a set of shelves – this is something to make space for, year after year.
Join us for a deep dive into Eight New Generation Poets as we review a new chapbook from this collection every month.
Rashi Rohatgi has a PhD in Languages and Cultures from SOAS. Her fiction can be found in The Misty Review, her poetry in Allegro and Anima, and her academic writing in Matatu, Wasafiri, and other journals. Her recent monograph, Fighting Cane and Canon, is about World Literature in Mauritius.
And see our next post in the series, AiW Guest Rehaana Manek’s review of Bearing Heavy Things, by Liyou Libsekal.