African Poetry: Introduction

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

I received a review copy of Eight New Generation African Poets: Tatu, a collection of chapbooks selected and edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. Because African poetry gets little sustained critical attention, I will spend a week on each chapbook, trying to find ways to think with it. This introductory post thinks with the overall project and especially with Dawes’s (very short) introduction.
By now it is a generally accepted fiction that we are in the third generation of African fiction written in European languages. In that strange way that Africa distorts temporality, the first generation stretches at least from Leo Africanus (1494-1554?), if not Augustine of Hippo (354-430), includes J.E. Casely Hayford, and nestles comfortably against Cyprian Ekwensi, Flora Nwapa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. This group includes ethnographic novels, urban novels, been-to novels, anti-colonial novels, and nationalist novels. Broadly speaking, all these novels grapple with the ravages of Afro-modernity, though, surely all African fiction in European languages grapples with Afro-modernity.

I’ve never quite figured out when the second generation of African writing starts. It is dominated by women writers—Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariama Bâ, Rebeka Njau, Bessie Head—most of whom are contemporaries of the first generation of writers. I’m also not quite sure when it ends, if ever.

It has been said that we are now in the third or fourth generation of African writing in European languages. Chimamanda Adichie has been named Achebe’s successor; Ngugi doesn’t have one yet because Kenya’s ethno-masculinist space refuses to honor Yvonne Owuor. But who needs this fiction of fathers and daughters? Yvonne claims and is claimed by Grace Ogot, Miriam Were, Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye, Rebeka Njau, Muthoni Likimani, and Micere Mugo.

If one is slightly cheeky, the fourth generation lives in Chimamanda’s inbox. More seriously, it is incarnated in the border-crossing collective work of Jalada.
Everything queer about me is troubled by this frame of generations.
It might be that the language of generation reflects, more accurately, shifts in critical approaches. Tentatively, early surveys by Bernth Lindfors, Charles Larson, and Chris Wanjala announced that African literature in European languages exists. The next wave of work used more explicitly political frames: Neil Lazarus was the Marxist-nationalist, Abiola Irele represented an African postcolonialism, and Florence Stratton took on African feminism. Again, this is a fiction—Irele, for instance, has been publishing since the mid 1960s, and to situate him based on his most famous work, The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2001), as opposed to The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1981), complicates any easy story of generational shift. Now, we are in a third wave of abundance, populated by Grace Musila, Dan Ojwang, Pumla Gqola, Evan Mwangi, Neville Hoad, Stephanie Newell, Tsitsi Jaji, Chris Ouma, and Danai Mupotsa. The names are many, the work is excellent, and more is needed. Much more.
Given that this entry focuses on poetry, why begin with a discussion of fiction?

The structure of generation in African writing in European languages—what is generated as history, as continuity, as rupture, as imagination, as critical practice, as pedagogical common sense, and as general organizing principle—is so saturated by fiction that it is difficult to know how to think about poetry in those terms. Simultaneously, the structure of generation is so ubiquitous in thinking about African writing in European languages, that it is impossible to get away from it.

If, to use an arbitrary measure, the story of African fiction in European languages is the story of the novel, the story of poetry features the individual poem, not the single-author collection. Poems, alas, are ephemeral: they are sewn into fascicles (Dickinson), scribbled on scraps of paper (Frank O’Hara), included as parts of letters to friends, improvised on the spot, published in obscure journals, and hidden away in notebooks. Despite what appears to be a glut of poetry on tumblr and blogs and YouTube, most poetry is never made public.

Even though we routinely approach poetry through the poem, literary historians privilege the single-author collection. Thus, the (partial) story of twentieth-century African poetry is Gladys Casely-Hayford (if we’re very optimistic), Léopold Sédar Senghor, Christopher Okigbo, Kofi Awonoor, Okot P’Bitek, Dennis Brutus, Micere Mugo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Muthoni Likimani, Shailja Patel, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lebogang Mashile, Clifton Gachagua, Ladan Osman, Njeri Wangari, and Juliane Okot Bitek, all of whom have published single-author collections. The optimism attached to the single-author collection is that it will give a little more substance and longevity to ephemeral poems. The fate of most of the single-author collections published by the African Writers Series tells a far more depressing story. These are often out of print and hard to find unless you have access to an excellent research library with strong holdings in African literature.

I am grappling with how to approach Kwame Dawes’s brief introduction to the chapbook project. I have not read the introductions to the previous two volumes in the series and perhaps Dawes takes on the problems of generation and ephemerality there. In his very brief introduction to the chapbook collection—each chapbook is introduced by a different person, so Dawes offers a general introduction to the entire project—Dawes clarifies what he sees as his role as editor:

In many ways, it would be tempting to try to offer some definitive statement about what African poetry is, but this would be a silly thing to attempt, and at the end of the day, such exercises belong to our colleagues in academia and not to us in our capacity as editors.

Much as I appreciate this clarification, I am troubled by what it seems to disavow about editing. Editing defines: selections are not simply samples of excellence—they are arguments, aesthetic visions of what poetry is and does. Editors are under no obligation to define or map or historicize or explain anything. But I find this distinction between editors and academics disturbing.

I learned to think about poetry from poet-scholars: Aimé Césaire, Melvin Dixon, Susan Howe, Alicia Ostriker, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kamau Brathwaite, M. NourbeSe Philip, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Charles Bernstein. I continue to learn how to think about poetry from Reginald Shepherd. Again, Dawes does not need to write an extended essay on African poetry and poetics, but to claim that such work is for “academics” and not “editors” (and, implicitly, poets) is a missed opportunity.

Dawes rightly marks the productive tension between performance poetry (stage poetry) and page poetry. Because I’ve been part of Kenyan poetry communities for a while—as an enthusiastic reader, an amateur poet, a consultant editor, a contest organizer, a workshop leader, a reviewer—I am familiar with this productive tension. I have nothing new to add to the discussion.

But here, again, the danger of “African poetry” appears. Dawes locates African performance poetry between “orality” and U.S. hip hop traditions. My stubborn rootedness in Kenya gasps at this formulation. We learned shairi in primary school, with the particular intonation that marks it, which is very different from English pentameter and U.S. performance poetry rhythms. We memorized poems in Swahili and English and competed in local, regional, and national festivals. National exams featured questions on poetry. We learned the very different ways poetry sounds in Swahili and English, in Shakespeare and Everett Standa, in Emily Dickinson and Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye. I grant that this story is very Kenyan, but the story of African poetry, if is to be told, will be the accumulation of very stories: very Somali, very Nigerian, very Egyptian, very South African, very Ugandan, very Burundian, and very each of the diverse regions in those geographies and geohistories.

Given that Dawes is offering a general introduction, it is unrealistic to expect him to provide a rich variety of very stories, but I think something now being called African poetry is not served well by being framed through an ill-defined African orality combined with an equally ill-defined U.S. hip hop tradition (there are, after all, many hip hop traditions).

I am worrying this problem of the Introduction because this chapbook series is, right now, probably the most important print project in African poetry. Not only is it providing opportunities for African poets, but it is also introducing African poetry to many new readers. Dawes is an influential figure in African poetry, so any claims he makes about it will shape how that poetry will be received. Introductions matter. As a student of poetry, I turn to introductions to find out how to engage with a body of work. Different introductions provide different kinds of access: socio-historical context, aesthetic provocations, political challenges, competing definitions of poetry and poets and, most of all, ways to enter into worlds that can feel foreign and intimidating.

Without such frames, one is left with the arbitrariness of taste. Here, Dawes is explicit:

I do not want to pretend that the editing of this box set and this series has not been a product of the distinctive tastes of Chris Abani and myself. . . . Editors have their biases and inclinations, and these are reflected in the selections they make. They are also reflected in the ways we have edited the collection. But we are also teachers of long standing, and serious readers of poetry from all around the world and within the long tradition of African poetry. Thus, we come with a broader sense than most of what might prove interesting and effective in poetry.

I’m honestly not sure how to respond to these claims. I experience them as patronizing: “we know a lot, so trust our taste.” It’s a neighborhood I do not like, one that leaves the reader with few tools to understand editorial processes, and one that leaves the critic with nothing. I have skimmed the chapbooks in the set, and the poetry is excellent, but I am still uneasy about the “trust us, we know a lot” approach.

I am looking forward to engaging with the chapbooks over the next few weeks. I am glad they exist.