“I wish for my poems and music to do away with things I’m sure about. I wish for them to undo me, to unmake me”: Q&A with Petero Kalulé.

AiW Guest: Esther Mirembe.Kalimba cover

Petero Kalulé is a composer, poet, and multi-instrumentalist. Their music can be bought and listened to via Bandcamp, and their collection of poems Kalimba was published by Guillemot Press in May 2019 – you can buy it here. Petero has a new book co-written with Clarissa Alvarez also forthcoming from Guillemot Press. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram

The interview happened in Kampala on a hot February afternoon over wine and cake.


Esther Mirembe: How did you come to the poems in the book?

Petero Kalulé: Some of them just came magically. ‘Sycorax’, was almost like a ghost, like a kind of haunting that just came to me and the words wrote themselves in that particular poem. But in some of the other poems I had to do the slow thing that a poet does. I had to meticulously gather words, images, sounds and textures and compose them into something that was actually readable.

Sycorax cut

Extract from ‘Sycorax’ by Petero Kalulé

Some poems come and others don’t. Other poems have not yet been written despite the fact that they have been published. A poem in there, ‘The Truth’ describes my whole predicament with writing poetry. Some days a poem allows you to write it and other days it refuses to be written. I mean, I cannot explain the process of making the music in a poem. The music just happens.

EM: Which is also something about the title, why specifically the kalimba?

PK: The title [Kalimba] is in itself a poem. It kind of touches on other dimensions of what I’m trying to get out with this; the concept of poetry, the music, the plucking of words.

‘Kalimba’ also sounds like ‘kulimba’ in my mother tongue which directly translates to lying, or the processes of betraying information. There’s also the lyre, the musical instrument and the ‘limb’, which could signify dance and walking. The ‘Ka’ in Kalimba is a diminutive. It stands for something small and beautiful and pretty –– which is what I intended these poems to be. Small little portraits, small little musical pieces of  things I kept thinking about.

EM: How does the fact that you’re a musician affect or inform how you write poetry specifically?

PK: It does many things, but perhaps the most important is, it demands a kind of respect to the reader/audience, or, even better, the congregation. I draw my audience from a certain magic which can only be expressed and experienced through music. The immediacy that music gives goes beyond words. This immediacy, this emotional immediacy, is what I think I am trying to get at with my poetry.

I mean, I have friends who’ve read this book and are like; “this is music, this is not poetry”, and then others say, “this is musical poetry”, but I don’t really care about that. For me, the music and the poetry are inseparable, they are one and the same informing each other.

Songs have lyrics which may be read as poetry. Music can also be lyrical. They are one and the same thing to me. A poem should sing.

EM: That makes me think about the poem ‘The Truth’: “how do you exit a poem… you don’t… you may walk out of it unsung, outsung…”. I’m wondering if how inseparable music and poetry are is something you were thinking about with this poem.

The truth

‘The Truth’ by Petero Kalulé

PK: Well, the way that poem came to me is: I was watching one of my favorite musicians, Matana Roberts playing at Café OTO in London. She was playing some “out there” stuff that I was also unconsciously playing that very moment and failing to play on my imaginary saxophone. 

You see, the saxophone is a prosthetic, like the pen it’s an extension of the body. It could signify a song or a train of thought coming out of me, something I’m trying to express. What strikes me most is the hauntingness of it all– the haunt, the incommensurability of it. There’s a way in which poetry and music take hold of you and shake you till you just kinda like let go. They leave you in a trance. And so I’m interested in this trance-like state and the inescapability of it all, its helplessness, the weight of its poetic stuckness. 

EM: Which is your favorite poem and why?


‘Optics’ by Petero Kalulé

PK: Oh my god, are you gonna make me do this? Ok I’ll say it. ‘Optics’ is my favorite poem. It’s a poem about lovers and love and touch and texture and the movement of these textures but it’s also a poem about attentiveness, paying attention to another noticing their movements. I wanted to set the scene of when you behold a loved one’s face, the kind of sensations you know you may feel but in a way that’s disarticulated, not necessarily clear. But feelings are never clear. There’s a lot of wishing and dreaming and brushing. There’s changes of light and music in this poem which is why I like it.

I don’t know why I called it optics. Maybe, I was thinking about someone’s eyes, someone’s vision? But hey, it’s interesting how then this vision becomes blurred and starts to mimic sound like I’m talking about music.

[interview pauses because PK has noticed some flowers they want to take photos of]

EM: Well, what informs your attentiveness to flowers? Or should I call it nature?

PK: I don’t like ‘nature’. I prefer the concept of the  non-human maybe. But I still struggle with this very word too. I don’t know, I’m still trying to find the right words for it. Maybe just flowers, as flowers in themselves because then grouping them would still engender the violence of anthropocentrism and universalism. One needs to pay attention to things deeply, in their particularity then relate them to other things. This is what poetry teaches me.

I’ve always been interested in the micrological, like in small things. I guess this also reflects in my writing and music. I’m always interested in the notes of different things, the smells, the particular strains and clutches of things. To me it’s a kind of poetics or erotics relation [The Uses of the Erotic, Audre Lorde], it’s not like me trying to be… to master them, it’s not me attempting to own them. It’s just me trying to witness them in all their beauty, in all their glory. I guess it’s a method I’m working toward, you know, as Christina Sharpe reminds us, ‘beauty is a method’ (December, 2019).

EM: I want to talk about a poem, ‘Transcribing Noise’, which is my favorite and the longest in your book. Is playing music and writing an exercise in listening or should I say, transcribing the noise?

PK: Hmm… funny thing is, I don’t think I could write that poem now, but at that point it had to be written. I wrote it when I was angry. I was angry because a person I was writing something for wasn’t listening to me. It’s funny how anger can take you in so many places.

Transcribing noise cut

Extract from ‘Transcribing Noise’ by Petero Kalulé

I’m working a lot on listening. Together with some friends, we are seriously thinking about how listening can be also unlistening. But even this is a difficult process. Sometimes I think there’s nothing much one can say about listening apart from simply listening. Therein lies the paradox of what we call ‘listening’.

That poem also listens to other things. Whilst writing it I was thinking of twigs. Hence the phrase ‘twig-work’. I think a lot about how twigs fall, how leaves fall, how their recalibration happens. You know, shifts and changes in modulation and tempo and texture. All these things have me listening.

EM: I mean there’s something about James Baldwin in the poem where you quote him saying, “Let me say one thing, that woman’s voice, that woman’s voice; is what you have to hear. We are responsible to that & if the people who rule us don’t hear that voice, then something terrible (the noise?) will happen.” Is that something that you were thinking about, a certain voice that should be listened to? (I mean apart from yours, because you were angry)

PK: I guess what I’m trying to say is that listening involves getting out of oneself. Listening is an outward or out of body experience. It’s an out of self experience. It doesn’t involve something, a concept, I want to call ‘self-presencing’. Listening is free of the egologics of talking. So I guess Baldwin in that line is questioning people who are full of themselves and like kind of hinting toward listening differently.

EM: There’s also something about memory. Memories of your mother, and your mother’s mother in the book…

PK: Kamau Brathwaite talks about writing about the people you love. He says that if you’re not writing about the people you love, you’re not writing poetry, right?

And so, I am thinking about my mother and my grandmother in that poem, to be explicit. My grandmother, who turns ninety this year, often talks about how she lost her mother and the memory is so fresh to her. Her memory becomes my memory becomes my mum’s memory and all these memories inhabit a loss that reiterates.

I was speaking to Keguro Macharia the other day and he pointed to the fact that the elegy is maybe the main form of the black diaspora. I think a lot about that. This poem is a kind of unconscious performance of this form. In this poem I am grieving for my mother’s mother who I don’t yet know.

The figure of mother takes on many multiplicities. Mother is not bio-logic, mother is not human. Mother is a memory and a loss of memory, (see also dementia) mother is a kind of forgetting, but also a kind of begetting. Mother is waiting, tarrying, hesitating. Mother is all these things and more.

Is that a good enough answer?

EM: Yes.

PK: You seem stunned by the answer.

EM: Well, I’m thinking about many things. You said something about writing being an elegy for the black diaspora.

PK: Yeah, the elegy as a dominant form of the black diaspora.

EM: Would you call your book an elegy?

PK: Well, I was thinking about what K[eguro] said and I think in many ways it is what I’m trying to do. Elegy is the work of mourning [Following Christina Sharpe’s notion of “wake work”]. And… a kind of respect for prayer to ghosts. I wrote this book when I was really really grieving the death and passing of Cecil Taylor who is perhaps one of my biggest artistic, aesthetic, intellectual influences. (A musician is all these things, right?) So I was thinking of what Cecil Taylor meant to me as I was writing this book. The very last poem and the epigraph are all Cecil Taylor heavy:

“what this music is about is not to be delineated exactly. It’s about magic, & capturing spirits.”

So yeah, I’m dealing with a lot of mourning but not necessarily in the western sense, you know, that’s just burdened with grief and suffering and all that white class struggle stuff.

Which is to say I’m dealing with a celebration of our ascension, black ascension, you know?

Cecil's dance cut1

Extract from ‘Cecil’s dance’ by Petero Kalulé

I have been thinking about all this while thinking of Kamau Brathwaite. I think about ascension, I think about union, I think about communion, I think about a kind of “supreme love”, as John Coltrane might say. 

The words in Kalimba are an extension of my grief, but also of my joy- they conjure dreams and memories of people who have gone before and are still here with me. In these poems. I’m sitting with all these things. I am trying to pay my respects. I am trying to place flowers around the shrines of my teachers, loves, friends and ancestors.

EM: Give me a minute.

PK: This is a deep interview.

EM: What would this book, these poems, the kalimba, your music have meant to you as a Ugandan if you’d encountered the book before you wrote it?

PK: I think part of writing poetry has meant a rejection of the whole notion of a nation, nationality, a kind of de-representation or unrepresentation.

I’m not at all interested in being Ugandan. I’m not excited about my Ugandanness. I don’t think it does anything for my poetry and music but, I think a certain way of being/moving (perhaps as a Black African queer musician-poet) within this world expands my ideas of ‘being’. I’m not fixed on the nation. I am against representation. In fact, most of the time, I want my poetry to un-represent who I am. I wish for my poems and music to do away with things I’m sure about. I wish for them to undo me, to unmake me.1page-divider1

Esther Mirembe

Esther Mirembe is a Center for Arts, Design + Social Research fellow (2020). They are a writer whose work has been published on Africa is a Country, Literary Hub, AFREADA, and African Feminism. They are also the Managing Editor of Writivism. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram.





Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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