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To celebrate the launch of the latest in the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set series, Saba, and the opening of the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize in African Poetry submissions period, our book prize coordinator, Jamaica Baldwin, is talking to poets whose chapbooks are included in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba). The series continues this week with a conversation between Jamaica and Ghanaian poet Henneh Kyereh Kwaku. The interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited for publication.

Jamaica Baldwin: Your chapbook, Revolution of the Scavengers, is published in the gorgeous New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba) that just came out. How does it feel to have your first chapbook published as part of this series?

Henneh Kyereh Kwaku: As a poet writing from Ghana, although I have been aware of chapbook prizes/contests, the African Poetry Book Fund has been a very important initiative to me. I feel a kinship with them in the sense that these are my people, these people speak my language, they understand what it feels like to be an African and a poet. It absolutely feels great for my first chapbook to be part of this series.  

JB: Describe the process of constructing your chapbook.

HK: The chapbook was born out of my full-length collection that I submitted to the Sillerman First Book Prize, also a project of the African Poetry Book Fund. My book wasn’t selected, but I got invited to submit a chapbook, which I did. And here we are. The chapbook pays homage to the full-length manuscript. After consulting Unkl Dami Ajayi, I knew I didn’t have to select the whole of the chapbook from the full-length even when I had about two weeks to turn in the chapbook. The process of constructing the chapbook couldn’t be possible without friends like Atsitsre Samuel and Barbara Degley who were my first readers as well as Derrick Mensah who constantly reminded me to write new work and checked the progress of the work till I submitted. And I thank my girlfriend at the time, whom I was with when the invitation came—who was supportive and encouraging. I mean, a lot of people deserve credit for this book. Making a book is like raising a child, it takes a whole community to do that. And I’m so thankful to my many communities and their helpfulness throughout the process.

JB: How did you conceive of ordering the collection? 

HK: The book tells a story. And how you read it, where you start from, will determine the story you find. I find it interesting that people find different things from the same book. And that’s what the book does—more like a map with a key that allows you to make your own meanings. Something like a puzzle. It is, however, up to each reader to find their own key and unlock their stories.

Making a book is like raising a child, it takes a whole community to do that. And I’m so thankful to my many communities and their helpfulness throughout the process.

Henneh Kyereh Kwaku

JB: Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

HK: Godhood. Mythology. These are some tics I allowed. And like I said, I am more thankful that the editors are people who speak my language (and this is not metaphorical) and understood what I was doing. I was lucky to have worked with Kwame Dawes; he understands Twi, my language, and pointed out where I could have used a better word. That wouldn’t be possible with someone who isn’t familiar with Ghanaian living. One thing that you don’t see now, but probably Kwame Dawes, my first readers, I myself see is the vast influence of music on this work.

JB: What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

HK: I will say how Kwame Dawes allowed me the flexibility and ”freeness” in our conversations. That was also a big learning process. I needed to understand that that ”freeness” shouldn’t be exploited. Everybody working on the books was good to me—Ashley, Aaron, & Henk Rossouw, who wrote an amazing preface to the book. I doubt everyone gets to have such a beautiful process when it comes to publishing. A quick Twitter search will show us lots of stories where publishers have abused their authors. Over here, there’s so much love in the process.

JB: In the poem “Never Again” you write “We’re tribes of forgetful people. The only things we remember are where our borders lie—& even that, we forget & we fight to remember” (23). These lines stood out to me, as they seem to capture so much of what the book is about: the “reimagining of circumstances” as Rossouw mentions in his introduction. Borders are invoked throughout this book: the borders of nation, of land and water, of rain and drought, of death and life. I’d like to highlight a couple of the powerful, yet subtle, ways you re-imagine—moments in which the language becomes inverted as a way, it seems, to remember differently or to re-understand. For example, in “Anything For The Boys,” one of several poems about driving accidents in Accra, you write, “ I do not want to say the roads are bad anymore—the bads are roads” (14), and in “The Fear Of A Thing Is The Beginning Of A Search,” you write “Father and mother had us—we had them” (16). Could you talk a little bit about the role of re-imagining in the book?

HK: For me, re-imagination and remembrance have a common ground, and that is re-creation. And I see re-imagination as a form of meditation, a chance to make amends with the past & take cues for the morrow. So, the idea that re-imagination is to remember differently or to re-understand is valid. Revelations 2:5 says, ”Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.” Other versions take ”remember” for ”think,” which is reasonable, as remembrance often leads to a reassessment of an event, some sort of a thinking through. Osho says, ”Wherever you are, remember yourself, that you are: this consciousness that you are should become a continuity. Not your name, your caste, your nationality—those are futile things, absolutely useless. Just remember that ‘I am.’ This must not be forgotten.” We could replace these texts and nobody would know. Osho and the speaker in Revelations speak of a former self by calling on remembrance. And by that, they both caution as they respectively state, ”this must not be forgotten” and ”or else I am coming to you…” And to me, remembrance must (almost all the time) lead to a reinvention of self, of place, of identity and of event. Either to take a lesson or take the justice deserved. The same kind of remembrance of a former self is called upon in Beyoncé and Shatta Wale’s ”Already,” when Shatta Wale says, ”Remember who you are, ooh.” Although the line seems short, it comes across as one of the most interesting lines in the song. That line is further stemmed in the idea that Black people all over the world can reinvent themselves into Kings, into winners irrespective of what history has said of them. In the book, re-imagination allows for this same kind of reinvention where I remake these stories, from my current perspective—sometimes just to say, ”I see you, I feel you, I hear you,” or to say, ”here’s water, here’s honey, here are bees, take & make of it what you will.”

JB: What project (s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

HK: I am revising my full-length that got me here, which is an exploration of memory and its failures. And I am exploring lyric essays and prose poetry a lot more than I did in the past. There’s this other thing where I am looking at religion from the perspective of my grandfather who wasn’t a Christian but believed in God in his own right. I didn’t meet him, so a lot of it is through my father. So, it is more of a three-generational conversation among sons. These early drafts are in the light of prose poetry and lyric essays, but who knows? I don’t know when any of these will be ”ready,” but I’m working on them. I’m just realizing I’m working way more than I thought. Ha-ha! Aside from my full length, most of these works are in their initial stages.

JB: This has been an incredibly tough year in so many ways. Yet there have been some unexpected connections, insights, and new ways of being in the world that have sprung from this new reality of ours. Is there anything you’ve learned this year? Any insight, hope, experience, etc., you’d like to share with us?

HK: We’ll leave this year knowing that we need people more than we thought we did. We need to love our people more than we already do. Having my first video call with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Jericho Brown) where we spoke about just life, time, and how strange it is that we live on one planet with different times, and how we wish all of this Covid-19 is over. That’s top on my list. Although I am also a coward sometimes, I think the lesson of the year will be ”shoot your shot,” which is just about everything you love. Give it a try—life’s too short not to do the things you love. It could be about asking someone you love out or applying for your dream job or school or writing that book or entering that contest or trying something good for the first time. Just shoot your shot!

JB: Anything else you’d like to add about your chapbook, the series, poetry in general, the world, anything at all?

HK: This will be an excerpt of a mail I sent Aaron, regarding the book cover:

”In the series by Tariku Shiferaw from which the cover appears, all the titles are song titles, and that was the initial plan of this chapbook—all the poems had titles from songs or other literary works until it went through editorial And we arrived at the titles we have now due to copyright issues that may arise. Also, the title of this particular cover is ‘We will never die,’ which is the title of a song by Goldlink. The poems here speak of death, disaster, and how we still survive even when some have left—I think ”We’ll never die’ sums it up well. The cover has more connections to the work than I thought initially. This may be coincidental, and if so this is a beautiful one. And oh, this cover honours Dr. Rob Gore, an Emergency Physician as part of the Smithsonian Exhibition titled ”Men of Change”, and some of these poems are on health as well, and maybe these poems are Poems of Change! [And I studied Public Health too!] No other cover can do all of this. I love it. All love.”

As a failed rapper, I love the idea of shoutouts—

To God, to my parents & siblings, my friends, & loves, every Arien I know—everyone who has believed in what I do—thank you!

Henneh Kyereh Kwaku is the author of Revolution of the Scavengers, selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the APBF New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Series. He won third place for the Samira Bawumia Literature Prize in 2020. He studied Public Health at the University of Health and Allied Sciences, Ghana. Kwaku is from Gonasua in the Bono Region of Ghana. His twitter bio says he’s ”God’s child,” ask him which God via Twitter/IG: @kwaku_kyereh & Henneh Kyereh Kwaku on Facebook.

Jamaica Baldwin grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. She earned her B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific University. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Third CoastPrairie Schooner, Hayden’s FerryRattle, The Missouri Review, and TriQuarterly, among others. She was the winner of the 2019 San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Contest in Poetry and received an honorable mention for the 2019 International Literary Award’s Rita Dove Prize. Her writing has been supported by Hedgebrook and the Jack Straw Writers program. Jamaica lives in Lincoln where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

To celebrate the launch of the latest in the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set series, Saba, and the opening of the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize in African Poetry submissions period, our book prize coordinator, Jamaica Baldwin, is talking to poets whose chapbooks are included in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba). This series kicks off this week with a conversation between Jamaica and Ghanaian poet Tryphena Yeboah. The interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited for publication.

Jamaica Baldwin: Your chapbook A Mouthful of Home is published in the gorgeous New-Generations African Poets Box Set that just came out. Is this your first book publication? If so, how does it feel to have your first chapbook published as part of this series? 

Tryphena Yeboah: Yes, this is, although I do not think the reality has completely sunk in yet. All of it is so surreal. On the one hand I’m thinking ‘What an honor, what a humbling thing to be rewarded for my years of writing. I should celebrate. I should dance and spin on my feet all night. I should cleave to this exquisite joy and make of it what I will.’ And on the other hand, it feels unreal in the sense that I’m undeserving, that this won’t last and I’m scared to the bone of what people will say, of how the world will receive it. So, I suppose it feels like having the very thing I’ve been wishing for and albeit the happiness, utterly shocked and perplexed as to what to do with it now that I have it.

JB: Describe the process of constructing your chapbook. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?  

TY: Because I was not set on putting together a collection of any kind in the first place, my writing was scattered. I had poems about everything, and it wasn’t after carefully looking at them and selecting did I realize I’ve been writing about the same things, only differently each time. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how much my work is pervaded by a sense of yearning and reconciliation. I had no particular sequence in mind. Even now, I’m unsure I’m equipped to do that with clarity, but I remember at the time, working on the manuscript, I printed each poem and spread it out, before slowly numbering the top of each and establishing what I hoped was a workable narrative flow between the pieces. I did this with a friend, Asantewa Diaka. Thankfully, for the final work, I did not have to bear the burden of picking apart the structure and settling on the final order as Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani did a remarkable job of engaging with our work and offering a coherence I now can’t imagine the book without.

JB: It was indeed. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process? 

TY: How much I wanted to revise my work, even to the point of starting anew. My odd obsession with the blank slate and the belief that a new manuscript will be much better, will be a more convincing testament of my ability to write. I don’t know exactly why that’s the case. Most of the poems in the collection were written when I was twenty-three and perhaps, I thought I knew better. Just when my work had been selected for publication, it was immediately the kind of writing I wasn’t proud of. It felt like a veil had been ripped right off my face and I was looking at everything differently. I was fraught with uncertainty. I’ve always been critical of myself as a creative and yet, I recognize the ways in which that can make me the most hostile toward my own self and what I do. I think it has to do with my reaching for perfection, my attempt at discovering something which does not exist. It can be maddening the kind of vigilance involved in this process. It was necessary to not allow that thinking to rid me of this opportunity. Again, I don’t know how or why exactly, but I got to the point where I talked myself out of it, especially by considering the fact that people had looked at my work and had thought it worthy of publication. I wanted to honor that.

JB: That makes so much sense. I can definitely relate to that vigilance as a poet. I noticed in your book that the act of speaking is a thread you carry throughout the book. For example, in the first poem “I Am Nothing If I Can’t Breathe Joy,” you write, “If I could do one thing differently, I would / like to say my name without tremble; feel it leave my lips with power, taste / the fear and still speak” (9). Then in “My Body Having Learned Resurrection” you state “I’m versed in a language that demands that before I speak, / I weigh the words on my tongue” (12). This seems to be, in part, a book about moving through grief, but it also accepts grief as a kind of home. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the role of speech and silence in this home building?

TY: I was just recently talking about how Ai Ogawa says something to the effect that characters in her work are not vehicles for her own voice, that the tyranny of confessional poetry is the notion that everything one writes about must be taken from the self. I believe that, and yet, I recognize just how much of my life, my own private world bleeds into my work. Which is why I find it interesting that the lines you highlight are precisely contexts of my own quiet and deep affairs. I struggle with speaking up and for years it has seemed like an easier option to remain quiet than start to talk and trail at the end of my words or say the wrong and dishonest thing because of the fear of what this might lead to. Sometimes my poems attempt to share the burden of this conflicting and crippling awareness to sensitivity, and in exchange, I get to experience the vague sense of relief from moving through painful details on a page, some of which involve raiding memories. Even in the poems, it is possible that I may fail to arrive at the concise expression I’m heaving toward, but I suppose what I do find is a way to dislodge the kind of passivity and defeat that creeps into this manner of living and to accommodate the voice that emerges. Grief, and how we live with it, remains particularly important to me because well, here’s a world that breaks us and strips away our love, the essence we possess, from time to time. I’ve always been interested in how its emptiness is a rigor- you know, its tendency to stir and awaken and even disrupt. I don’t want to spend all my time talking about what I’ve lost because I’m afraid my continuous mourning will degenerate into a disorder worse than grief itself. What I hope I’m doing with my work, which I agree is often rife with loss, is finding ways of representing the displeasures of life. One feels tremendous pain and then, an incredible swelling of joy in the next moment and between those extremities, is all the living there could possibly be. And I want to be immersed in it. It’s an earnest pursuit, and it’s one mostly for me than anyone else.

I don’t want to spend all my time talking about what I’ve lost because I’m afraid my continuous mourning will degenerate into a disorder worse than grief itself. What I hope I’m doing with my work, which I agree is often rife with loss, is finding ways of representing the displeasures of life. One feels tremendous pain and then, an incredible swelling of joy in the next moment and between those extremities, is all the living there could possibly be. And I want to be immersed in it. It’s an earnest pursuit, and it’s one mostly for me than anyone else.

Tryphena Yeboah

JB: What project (s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about? 

TY: I am currently working on a collaborative piece for LitHub with my colleague, Sam Risak. It’s about the scramble by literary art organizations to replicate in-person experiences in an online format as opposed to rebuilding their project and taking into full consideration the dynamics and implications that a virtual event presents. My favorite part of the process has been interviewing writers I admire and hearing their experience from engaging remotely with their communities. Also, I’m in my final year of my MFA program and I’m thrilled to be working on my thesis which is a collection of short stories from workshops during my time at Chapman University. Exploring the short story genre has been more revealing than challenging for me. It’s truly astonishing to see how much poetry I can weave into storytelling and how much I enjoy seeing their boundaries overlap.

JB: This has been an incredibly tough year in so many ways. Yet there have been some unexpected connections, insights and new ways of being in the world that have sprung from this new reality of ours. Is there anything you’ve learned this year? Any insight, hope, experience, etc., you’d like to share with us? 

TY: It didn’t take me a pandemic and the sudden halt of the world to show me how I have lived day to day on my heels, absorbed by my own ambition and drive. For years I’ve been intimately aware of my escape, as if caught in a wheel moving farther and farther away from life itself, convincing myself that I can’t afford to indulge in its demands, its thrill. That I have no time, none at all, to take a break and be present, if you will. I have just finished reading Intimations by Zadie Smith and it was shocking to see her express the reality that I’ve been grappling with during this period, how we carve out meaning by creating and implementing artificial deprivations within time. How I fill the hours of my very fleeting life with task after task and relish it by checking it off a list while the body tires and my loved ones find themselves unsure what to do with me and my schedules and all the conversations I put on hold. Like Smith said in the essay, “Running is what I know. Writing is what I know. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time. The way I’ve done it all my life.” This is precisely the place I am in my life now, where all my priorities have been laid bare and I’m not at all proud of what I’ve given up on. I see the real danger that running is, and I no longer want to trust that it’s all I need to keep doing.

JB: Wow, you’ve touched on so many things I’ll be thinking about for a while. Thank you for your time and generosity. Anything else you’d like to add?

TY: Oh goodness no. Whatever I have to say about the world, I’ll say in the next poem.

Tryphena Yeboah was born in Mampong, Ghana, and received a BA in journalism and an MA in development communication. She is an MFA candidate at Chapman University, where she studies creative writing. She lives in California. She is the author of the chapbook “A Mouthful of Home,” included in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba). For more about Tryphena, visit tryphenayeboah.wordpress.com.

Jamaica Baldwin grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. She earned her B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific University. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Third Coast, Prairie Schooner, Hayden’s Ferry, Rattle, The Missouri Review, and TriQuarterly, among others. She was the winner of the 2019 San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Contest in Poetry and received an honorable mention for the 2019 International Literary Award’s Rita Dove Prize. Her writing has been supported by Hedgebrook and the Jack Straw Writers program. Jamaica lives in Lincoln where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.