Posts by: "africanpoetrybf"

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 continues with a conversation between Jamaica and poet Sadia Hassan. The interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited for publication.

Jamaica Baldwin: Your chapbook Enumeration is published in the gorgeous New-Generation 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?

Sadia Hassan: This is my first book publication and I am so incredibly proud! The New-Generations African Poets chapbook box set has been a dream publication of mine since TJ Dema and Ladan Osman and Warsan Shire published in the first set. It feels good and right to be in conversation with contemporary African poets whose work I love and whose politics I respect. Also, APBF has been championing the work of Black Muslim women in a way that no contemporary press can hold a candle to. So I’m also equally proud to be part of that legacy.

JB: I couldn’t agree more. Could you describe the process of constructing your chapbook? How did you conceive of ordering the collection? 

SH: The process was really involved for me. I think by the time I finally felt the order was right, there wasn’t a room in our house that wasn’t covered with books or printed-out poems. I spent a week in the living room with pages spread out so I could see which poems were best in conversation with others, either thematically or imagistically. In the end quite a few were cut, thankfully, and I reordered the remaining pieces with a sense of movement in mind. We move from physical geographic spaces in the beginning of the chapbook (Garissa, my family’s first apartment in America) to a few different emotional and psychological spaces in the middle (fear, grief, praise) and finally end in a political space (my father’s obsession with Michelle Obama, Saturday morning cartoons as an allegory for the *rump presidency).  The poems felt held together by a kind of emotional resonance that was sticky and transferred from poem to poem, so that was kind of cool.

JB: Oh, I love that you use the word “sticky.” From my own experience with ordering a manuscript, that feels accurate. Tell me, 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?

SH: So many tics! It wasn’t until I edited the poems together that I thought: hm, how many of these poems need to be in sections or lists? The act of sectioning/listing became more central to the structure of the collection when I realized listing disrupted the impulse I have to narrativize breaks in time. I think in fragments, so cordoning off an image or thought so that it doesn’t bleed into another is as much a desire to make room for silence and breath in a poem as it is about the act of containment. For a book about bodies and movement, there was a lot of spillage that needed containing, and so, there’s a kind of playfulness and fluidity with the form. I am still learning what tics of mine are fruitful. I don’t fully trust them until I put poems next to each other and can see where the tics share an emotional or thematic valence. For some poems, the breaks were crucial.

Loneliness is part of a parallel education for the speaker, where she learns that in her attempts to connect/reconnect to her culture, to language, friends, family there is always the risk of alienation. And that risk seems to be bound up in this unlanguageable silence, this looming unsayable thing that the speaker tries and tries in every poem to say more clearly.

Sadia Hassan

JB: Yes, I love that. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process overall?

SH: The length and pace of it—I genuinely had no idea it took a year, and sometimes longer, to bring a book into the world. There are so many moving parts on the editing and publishing side, and for the most part, I was spared the cutting room floor stuff. Many thanks to the folks at APBF and Akashic, who, even with a million balls in the air, were just incredibly kind and patient and a pleasure to work with.

JB: Indeed, birthing books takes time. You have a really stunning collection here. In his introduction, Mathew Shenoda states, “Hassan’s poems manage to draw attention to the fidelities of intergenerational and cross continental dynamics operating in her world, and they do so by embracing the dualities or multimodal senses of self” (6). At times these fidelities manifest as a kind of loneliness in your work. The loneliness of leaving one country for another, the loneliness of returning. In the poem “I Smell The Season of Rain Well Before It Is Upon Us,” you write, “I heard God loves a / good story and so I returned from the cold / noise of America to repent in earnest for / lonelying my mother, for leaving and / leaving for college” (10). And in “Enumeration” you state, “I wake up in a city / I’ve lonelied with my leaving / noting the newness of my life” (20). This loneliness of dual identity, of dual allegiances, is palpable throughout the book. “No one / asks / what it is like / to wake up / to your parents / keeping watch / over the world’s unlanguagable silence” (24). Could you talk a little about the connection between the role of loneliness and this unlanguagable silence in the book?

SH: This is a really thoughtful and nuanced question. Thank you for helping think through  my work in such a cogent and meaningful way, Jamaica. Mathew Shenoda’s brilliant and generous introduction touches on a vein that runs through my work more broadly. The word comes up one more time in the poem “What the Living Do” when the speaker remarks: “I think of her sister and my own, all the sisters / we’ve lost together and alone,” so the idea of loneliness in these poems is tied up intimately with loss. Loneliness is part of a parallel education for the speaker, where she learns that in her attempts to connect/reconnect to her culture, to language, friends, family there is always the risk of alienation. And that risk seems to be bound up in this unlanguageable silence, this looming unsayable thing that the speaker tries and tries in every poem to say more clearly. From the opening poem, “Sujui,” we get the sense that the speaker in these poems is articulating from a self-possessed but deeply lonely place. The “I” is in constant motion, but it is not necessarily in community with anyone. There are all of these consequential actions which remove the speaker further and further from what she thought she came to find in Garissa, which is connection. “I left school…” “I kept quiet…” “I’d become a woman…” “I try to remember,” the “I”s in these poems are anxious, questioning, caught between failures and futures that the speaker is trying desperately to negotiate in terms of how much or how little they alienate her from a world she is always trying to get back to. I’m not sure I succeeded at what I was trying to do, but by the end of the collection, I was hoping that the embodied emotions of the poems about grief, loss, joy would put the speaker back in her body in a way that made the witnessing central to the final poems less about being alienated by the world’s tragedies and more so about the speaker taking her place among her people, a people who are diasporic, resilient, and prescient. The fidelity to “intergenerational and cross continental dynamics” that Shenoda picks up on are the speaker’s attempts to make peace with and integrate bodily all of these incredibly rich and siloed experiences by kind of crashing through the silences between them.

JB: Thank you for that generous response. I’d say, you absolutely succeeded. So, what project (s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

SH: I’m working on a few different projects right now. Mainly a full-length poetry collection that more fully reckons with loneliness. I’m leaning on the sounds, smells, and textures of the natural world right now to sublimate the violence of border crossings, taxonomy, and notions of bodily integrity. Beyond that, I’m having a lot of fun working on a nonfiction project that explores my family’s experience of displacement in America through music and family photographs.

JB: That sounds wonderful. 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 hardship. Is there anything you’ve learned this year? Any insight, hope, experience, etc., you’d like to share with us?

SH: It has. One of the most incredible and unexpected gifts of this time has been the gift of re-connection. I know physical distancing has been a lonelying experience for many of us, and it still is, but it has also been an opportunity to reconnect with folks I love despite the distance. I am among those I love, and so I’ve been trying to better care for myself, to slow down, walk outside, indulge in music and good films. I am so appreciative of the many readings, birthday parties, and book launches I’ve been able to attend via Zoom. I know that otherwise, I’d feel lonelier than I have.

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

SH: I just wanna say that poetry can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Really, if writing is what you want to do, I hope that you do it in whatever way brings you joy—and that you read and write stuff that knocks your socks off!

Sadia Hassan is a Somali-American writer from Atlanta, GA. Her chapbook Enumeration is out now from Akashic Books as part of The New Generation African Poets: Chapbook Set (Saba). You can find some of her most recent work in the RumpusLongreads, Boston Review, Seventh Wave Mag, and the Writer’s Chronicle. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Mississippi and the winner of the 2020 Hurston Wright Award for College Writing.

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 continues with a conversation between Jamaica and poet Adedayo Agarau. The interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited for publication.

Jamaica Baldwin: Your chapbook, The Origin of Name, is published in the gorgeous New-Generation 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?

Adedayo Agarau: I woke up around 1:00 am that morning to the acceptance mail, and I remember screaming in my room. Although this is not my first chapbook, it is one of the most important works I’d ever do. The New Generation African Poets Box Set is every African poet’s dream, and it feels great to have found my work in the hands of people who have walked the forest for years and in the company of emerging voices whose poetry and friendship have always stayed. Beyond the publication itself, I am proud and happy of the company of writers my work sits with. So, it is all joy for me, forever. I have always wanted this, and now it’s here —that is my flex.

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

AA: It is funny that the supposed titular poem in The Origin of Name did not make the book. But here is the story—

When I got the invitation to submit, I had just written a poem titled The Origin of Names, whose conception was very random. I was both nervous and afraid that I might not be submitting because I didn’t have a chapbook or a central idea to work on. I spoke with my support system, Salawu Olajide, and he asked about what I’d recently worked on. That was it. That was just it. I then started to research.

I have always believed that fiction is the story of the unknown. By this, I mean there is still someone’s truth aching in your imaginations. For example, I have a friend whose wife had a stillbirth, and for weeks, he kept dreaming about carrying a backpack with a child wailing from inside it.

In 2013, an older colleague died while trying to give birth to a girlchild. In every way possible to blot out a thing, I have invented ways to forget my colleague, but each time I see her child, the striking resemblance, it becomes so hard to walk out of that room of memory. The Yorubas, hence, have cultural and traditional establishments that surround every element of grief. The stories that we grab from the soil, the ones we catch in the air — everything that gathers within is a foundation settled in grief.

I have never seen— maybe because I haven’t traveled widely — a people whose history holds the pillars of existence as closely as the Yoruba’s does. Everything that happens here, now, in this very moment, has been foreseen since a bird became a god, since the inception of divinity. Our metaphors pluck for themselves all the important elements of this world: sea, water, night, cowries, salt, bird, god.

So, this work is a brief dissertation about origins.

JB: That’s powerful and beautiful. Thank you for sharing this story.Tell me,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?

AA: I think what worked for me was that I had a titular poem. Then a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the chapbook. What I later found out was that throughout the poem, I ferried my conversation about grief and how it is a bedrock of our history, how “naming” can be a way of admiring and exalting grief. Also, there was no way I’d attempt something as brief as a consideration of history without ticking the box of Godhood and Mythology in poems like “The Cross and The Crossing,” “In This Poem The God of Iron Takes Over a Child,” “The God of Thunder Struck My Father While He Fled The Night I was Born,”and some other poems in the chapbook.

Birth and Death are a part of our human existence, they are phases that we shall dive into, and it is at that point that we can truly come to an understanding of what has been and what will be. Poetry does the job of shifting our imaginations out of the ordinary. I believe that each story has its owner.

Adedayo Agarau

JB: I’m glad you brought up mythology. What I find so striking about this collection is the way so many of the poems act as both elegy and ode, celebration and mourning. In “A Portrait of My Sister as Talabi” you write, “My sister stands before a mirror, / counts the number of eyes growing on her skin. / She bows her head in prayer & returns to the grave” (14). The speaker, as Mahtem Shiferraw notes in her introduction, often embraces “the solitary hybridity that comes from surviving in the liminal space between existences” (5). These poems read as creation myths calling forth ancestors and Gods while simultaneously reckoning with the violence of living. In “Abiku” you write, “Imagine each closed door is a mother / crying her child back into her womb. // Imagine the grave as a reunion / of kids falling out of their mothers’ wombs” (19). The grave is a consistent image in the book, but it’s not always a letting go, but sometimes an embracing. Could you talk a little bit about the role of death and birth in the book, about the liminal spaces?

AA: I like to believe that the grave is the place for the actual revival. This question reminds me of the account of Jesus’s death and its several significances, the liberation it ensured. When he died, he went to liberate the dead (Mt. 27: 52-53). Moving away from that, I’d like to say that dying, according to the Yorubas, is a transition, not an end. Birth also isn’t a beginning. It is a phase. I read somewhere that the Ogberis feared death because it moves them from the known to the unknown. Growing up, I heard a story of a man who died in Ibadan but was found in Kaduna as a father of three and a Vulcanizer. He was a wealthy Yoruba chief priest in the first life. In the second, he couldn’t even speak Yoruba. But on the day they discovered or identified him, he stopped existing. The science of tradition is a fragile one, one on which a long line of history rests. I started to write about grief because of how many friends have left this world. My friend, Taofeek, walked me home in Primary 5, then went his way. The next morning, we got the news in school that he fell sick the night before and didn’t wake the next morning. This absence begs for questions or answers…was he waiting for his time? Was he gone because he actually fell sick? 

Eleven years later, I had a dream that Taofeek impregnated someone I know. A few days later, I found out that she was indeed pregnant, but for someone else. That opened up another question. Was that a dream, a preoccupation with my beliefs and unbelief? Was it a revelation of my grief? Did Taofeek wear someone else’s body? 

What I use my poetry to achieve is to attempt to question answers which I am unsure of. Birth and Death are a part of our human existence, they are phases that we shall dive into, and it is at that point that we can truly come to an understanding of what has been and what will be. Poetry does the job of shifting our imaginations out of the ordinary. I believe that each story has its owner.

JB: Indeed. Beautifully said. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

AA: The editing process was an important experience in my writing journey, and everyone should have an editor that is patient with detail, has eyes for cohesion, and allows themself to dive into the writer’s heart as Kwame did with my book. I was surprised when I got back the editing suggestion and saw that my favourite poems weren’t even going to make it. I understand, through that process, the need for correctness.

Every publisher should hold carefully every process when publishing anything from acceptance to editing for the selection of cover. I was shocked to read Mahtem Shiferraw’s Preface. No one would have been able to usher in my writing with so much insight and light as Mahtem did. Without APBF, it may have been really difficult to have gathered this much range in such a small book as I did in The Origin Name.

JB: Yes. Mahtem and Kwame are generous readers and editors. What project (s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

AA: This would be a collection of poems about my dead grandmother. Poetry helps me to document experiences and reimagine my relationship with the dead while they were alive and beyond. My grandmother had a full stroke before she died, and it was financially, emotionally, and physically exhausting for every one of us at home. When she died in 2016, I remember my father walking into my room around 12:00 am to break the news to me, the wind that violently gathered itself in my room after he left. It took me years to properly articulate this grief, this loss that shook my family so angrily. I started to write poems about the memories of her that I carry everywhere. I hope it transforms into a full-length sometime.

JB: I’m sure it will. 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 hardship. Is there anything you’ve learned this year? Any insight, hope, experience, etc., you’d like to share with us?

AA: 2020 is an unusual year, to be very honest. It has been my year of learning and relearning. The year that I started to love the way I have always wanted to. My year of expression. The miracles of tiny things like a smile. The year I found progressive friendship in writer friends who are now my family—Patrick, Pamilerin, Adebayo, Henneh, Jeremiah, Wale, Michael.

As Henneh said, we’ll leave this year knowing that we need people more than we thought we did. My miraculous has been in the people I met and stayed with this year.

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

AA: Oh yes, it is important that we as poets remember that we are custodians of memories. And that history is passed down through different means. It is one of the functions of the poet to preserve history, story, tales, experiences using his craft.

Adedayo Agarau’s chapbook, Origin of Names, was selected by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes for New Generation African Poet (African Poetry Book Fund), 2020.  He is the author The Arrival of Rain. Adedayo is an Editor at IceFloe, Assistant Editor at Animal Heart Press, and a Contributing Editor for Poetry at Barren Magazine.  His works have appeared on Agbowo, Glass Poetry, Mineral Lit, Ghost City, Temz, Linden Avenue, the Shore Poetry, Giallo, and elsewhere. Adedayo curated and edited an anthology of Nigerian poets, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. You can find him on Twitter @adedayo_agarau or agarauadedayo.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 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.