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.
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.