For the lovers of African poetry, and of poetry in general, the publication of Seven New Generation African Poets, edited by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes, should be a source of cheer. This should be even more so here in the U.S., where much of the African poetries being read—if any at all—is by well-established African writers whose works can be considered canonical—the poetries of Chinua Achebe, Dennis Brutus, and Wole Soyinka come to mind. Of course, there are exceptions—Khaled Mattawa, for instance. Aside from these exceptions, works by younger African poets are, at best, underrepresented in the U.S. In his introduction to the collection, Kwame Dawes expresses a similar sentiment: “[u]ntil the African Poetry Book Fund was established, one was hard-pressed to find a publisher devoted exclusively to the publishing of poetry from Africa.” Seven New Generation African Poets provides a corrective of sorts to this lack of representation, by showcasing the works of young African poets who, in their individual capacities and scope, show some of the new poetries from Africa today.
The seven poets featured in this volume have ties to sub-Saharan Africa—some live on the continent, some live in the diaspora. And this fact alone can raise serious questions, among which are who is African? and what is African poetry? And the editors of this chapbook collection had to deal with the same questions. Kwame Dawes goes to length to speak about this in his introduction. But, in the end, in our “migration-crazy world”, as Dawes puts it, residence in Africa cannot be the chief-determinant of whether a person is or is not African. But, whether “abroad” or at “home” (terms here used with hesitation, since the notion of home is itself always in flux and sometimes self-imposed), what remains a common denominator for these poets is that the realities of the African continent inform their sense of identity and poetics.
That said, while the seven poets whose works have been collected in this volume are sometimes bound to and oftentimes aware of Africa’s political and historical realities, they are also cosmopolitan and eclectic in their tastes and notions of what poetry is and should be. This does not mean, however, that the volume tends toward a single focus. Through their themes and approaches, these poets show that African poetry is not, and never was, a single articulation. It was always varied, plural, and as informed by history as it was by individual concerns.
The poets included in this volume are Len Verwey from Mozambique, TJ Dema from Botswana (a poet who has served as a honorary fellow at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop), Clifton Gachagua from Kenya, Tsitsi Jaji from Zimbabwe, Ladan Osman from Ethiopia, Nick Makoha from Uganda, and Warsan Shire, who claims both Kenya and Somalia. There’s no shortage of ambition with these poets. And I agree with Dawes when he says, “their poems manage to chart in rich and textured ways the idea of Africa in our contemporary space. We are finding in these poets a cadre of writers who remain committed to the rich and enduring challenge of finding a voice and idiom that manages to reflect a quality of modernity operating in African countries.”
Abayomi Interviews Chris Abani
You recently edited a chapbook series through the African Poetry Book Fund. What is the African Poetry Book Fund? What does it hope to accomplish? And, how did it come about?
In a nut shell the African Poetry Book Fund is an institution created and curated by a group of African poets (Kwame Dawes, myself, Matthew Shenoda, Bernadine Evaristo, Gabeba Baderoon, and John Keane). We have one mandate, to identify and nurture to publication new African poetic voices, and to promote and sustain existing voices. Kwame Dawes and I conceptualized the book series and the book fund on a poetry tour of South Africa. We were in a group of amazing African poets of different ages and styles and thought we had to find a way to bring these voices to the larger world. While I’m really good at the conceptual parts of these kinds of projects, Kwame is really the backbone. He found the funding and we assembled a team of five editors and we just set off.
Why the chapbook series?
The fund has two annual aims – a book prize for a first book (The Sillerman Prize) and the publication of a collected and selected book of poems by a more established poet. When we started to get submissions, we realized we had too many good poets to turn away. So Kwame and I thought of the chapbook series as a way to maximize the annual output and to still bring the newer voices to the larger world.
Aside from the chapbook series, what other books has the African Poetry Book Fund published or plan to publish?
We have two Sillerman winners: Clifton Gachugua and Ladan Osman. Clifton’s collection Madman at Kilifi is out, and Ladan Osman’s book will be out next year. The Promise of Hope, new and selected poems by the late great Kofi Awonoor is also out, representing the first in the series of the more established poets. We are in negotiation with Ama Ata Aidoo for a book for next year.
This project is very much an international effort. How might you characterize its reception both in Africa and abroad?
The reception has been incredible everywhere. At the last AWP in Seattle the reading by five poets, all female, brought the crowded room to tears and a standing ovation. All the books sold out. Reviews have been good and there has been great response everywhere. In Africa the response is slower – it’s a larger continent and not easy to get books to. But word is spreading if the submissions are anything to go by.
In what ways do you hope to build on this project and how do you see it evolving in the coming years?
We will continue to expand the project to not only have a publishing wing, but quite possibly an archival and research aspect. More will come. For now we want to establish this such that it will survive the current curators and become a self-sustaining institution.
ABAYOMI ANIMASHAUN is the author of two poetry collections, Sailing for Ithaca and The Giving of Pears, and the editor of an anthology of essays, Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America.