Poetry is rarely admitted to the club called African literature. If pressed, well-read Africans might cite Dennis Brutus, Christopher Okigbo, and Okot p’Bitek as contemporaries of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But when African literature is invoked—in Africa and abroad—it refers to a handful of novels by Achebe, Ngugi, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Chimamanda Adichie. In part, this focus on fiction stems from the emergence of African literature by Africans across the continent in the 1960s through the African Writers Series by Heinemann, for which Achebe served as the general editor. The series concentrated on producing books for the African school market, and fiction was simply more examinable.
This emphasis on the school market continues to dominate publishing in Kenya. No major publishing house in the country—nor I suspect elsewhere in Africa—focuses on poetry. A quick search for poetry on the East African Educational Publishers website generates no results. Poetry is similarly absent from the websites of Moran Publishers (East Africa) and the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation Educational Publishers.
Publishing practices are only part of the story.
Under the dictator Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, the poetry we saw on TV and heard at school festivals was sycophantic. A few poems spoke against injustice: Marjorie Oludhe-MacGoye’s “Atieno Yo!” highlighted the plight of underage domestic workers, and Everett Standa’s “I Speak for the Bush” criticized the apathy created by urbanization. Certainly, poems about the downtrodden were present, but they were careful not to address state violence. No doubt, poems that criticized Moi existed, but they did not circulate in the mainstream as national poems. State repression silenced poetry.
Perhaps I mean something banal: national, mainstream poetry created in conditions of unfreedom can only be sycophantic. Perhaps the national is an impossible scale through which to assess poetry.
In the post-Moi era, poetry flourished. In “A Gifted Almost-Fifty,” Sitawa Namwalie mourns the “angry young poetry” she could not write when she was twenty because the political regime, under Moi, “did not tolerate vocalization.” When he left, “poetry erupted, spewing on its own, brimming.” Yet repression leaves blank pages and damaged imaginations, and we have no method to discover how many would-have-been poets Kenya—and poetry—lost. For every Sitawa now “spewing” poetry, it’s easy to imagine hundreds if not thousands whose poems were smothered under Moi.
While some Kenyan poets found their voices in the post-Moi era, many others remain caught in the structures his rule produced. Most Kenyan poetry performed at official occasions praises authorities: students praise teachers; workers praise bosses; citizens praise politicians; the oppressed praise their oppressors. Sycophancy meets survival, survival needs sycophancy. Structures and practices of repression (created by Moi) and survival (cultivated by those he oppressed) live on in public poetry.
It could be that poetry cultures develop and thrive in hyperlocal spaces: schools, bars, coffee houses, restaurants, churches, social halls, bookshops. And perhaps poetry moves not from nation to nation or continent to continent, but from local space to local space, from a bar in Nairobi to a bar in Johannesburg, from a coffee shop in Lagos to a coffee shop in Kampala. Perhaps poetry moves not through bookstores or libraries, but in suitcases and handbags, from friend to friend, acquaintance to acquaintance. A friend studying in South Africa brought me a copy of Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia while vacationing in Nairobi. Another friend mailed me a book from Uganda that he had purchased at a literary festival. I got chapbooks by Kenyan authors Ngwatilo Mawiyoo and Phyllis Muthoni when we encountered each other at literary festivals. Never in bookstores. Not in libraries.
Perhaps African poetry is a fiction that only comes into view when the viewer is away from Africa. And, even then, the view is fuzzy, an accretion of ephemeral local spaces and events. A map of these spaces and events would probably not be recognizable according to the principles by which we read maps, and it would probably not resemble existing maps of Africa. Poetry tracks differently. But, perhaps, the maps that poetry draws create a more livable Africa.
Two recent mappings exemplify the state of African poetry: the chapbook series edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, which publishes an annual anthology featuring Africa-based and Africa-diasporic poets, and South African poet Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, a book that has worked its way across Africa through local events and word of mouth. I juxtapose the two to mark the different ways African poetry is being mapped and, in turn, the maps African poetry is creating.
Since 2014, the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF)—in association with the University of Nebraska Press, Amalion Publishing, and Akashic Books—has published full-length manuscripts of new and established African poets. APBF also administers the Sillerman Prize, offering a cash prize and publication to an African poet who has not published a full-length collection. Prize recipients include the Kenya-based Clifton Gachagua (2013) and Somali American Ladan Osman (2014).
The Sillerman Prize entered a field dominated by the Caine Prize for short fiction, a competition established in 2000 that has become a major way for Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to gain visibility in Europe and North America. While the Caine Prize does not promise publication of full manuscripts, recipients have found it easier to obtain agents and publishing contracts in Europe and North America. Simultaneously, the Caine Prize has been adopted and localized. In an effort popularized by U.S.-based Africanist Aaron Bady, African and Africanist bloggers were encouraged to write about shortlisted stories. While some who blogged were formally trained in literature, most simply loved African writing, and some were invested in championing writers from their countries. This blogging helped to circulate and localize the stories.
The heart of APBF is not the full-length manuscripts but the chapbook series. The debut selection, published in 2014, featured seven poets, the second (2015) and third (2016) featured eight poets each, the fourth (2017) featured ten poets, and the fifth (2018) featured eleven poets. Publishing forty-four chapbooks over five years is a stunning achievement. In this chapbook series, African poetry is a rich conversation across different geohistories and styles.
In a recent interview to mark the fifth year of the series, poet Matthew Shenoda, one of APBF’s founding members, notes that APBF has published “nearly 50 African poets in internationally distributed and accessible books.” He highlights that many women have been published, including Ladan Osman, Safia Elhillo, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Liyou Libsekal, Tsitsi Jaji, Ashley Makue, and TJ Dema. Perhaps what is most exciting is how the series has placed Africa-based and diasporic Africans in conversation by publishing them alongside each other.
Chris Abani envisions the series as creating a “safe community” for minoritized groups, including women and non-binary poets, a space “for them to emerge into, and be held by.” His co-editor, Kwame Dawes, claims that poets in the series “are hungry to be seen.” He says, “We try to see. In fact, I can say, we see.” APBF has certainly helped Africa-based poets publish without incurring the expenses of self- publishing. Like the African Writers Series, it has created a bibliography of contemporary African poets. From one perspective, APBF has successfully repopulated African poetry, especially with the weight of U.S.-based editors and a university press. Repopulated not in the sense that African poetry did not exist or circulate prior to APBF—the web-based Kenyan ICC Witness Project and the Koroga Project testify amply to the vibrant life of African poetry. Rather, the series has forged networks among poets. As Dawes explains, “These poets are reading other poets more and more and more and the more we publish, the more poetry they will read from poets all over Africa. And the poets have started to communicate more and more and so are sharing writers with each other, expanding their understanding of their tradition, and testing their own work.”
Of the five published chapbook series, I have read one. A U.S.-based editor, a friend, was approached to review the chapbooks, and he convinced the person who approached him to send me galleys. As far as I know, none of the chapbooks are available in Nairobi’s bookstores. Friends who have published with APBF tell me they have copies of their books in their houses, but none are available in retail outlets. It might well be that APBF is making African poetry more accessible, but there is little evidence of that in Nairobi. An idea of African poetry conceived in not-Africa is circulating in not-Africa as African poetry. It might well be that—as Shenoda, Dawes, and Abani claim—APBF is changing the idea of African poetry, but that change has yet to filter to how continent-based Africans encounter and engage with poetry.
When I’m feeling generous, I think APBF is part of the remittance economy that sustains many African families. Those abroad send portions of their earnings—their names, their degrees, their reputations, their money—to those back in Africa, who then use those resources to build something. Sometimes it’s the sentence dropped in the middle of a conversation—“my uncle in the States”—that positions the speaker as cosmopolitan by proxy. Sometimes it’s the difference between paying rent and buying food this month or having to choose between the two. Yet, if some remittance economies are sustained by affection and obligation, many are built precariously, subject to the whims of those with power. And we in Africa, aware of and subject to those whims, find it easy to resent those who remit what we can only understand as excess.
When I’m feeling less generous, I wonder at these U.S.-based uncles who have decided to create and circulate a canon of African poets and then expect us to rejoice at their beneficence. I’m tired of uncles.
I first learned about Koleka Putuma and Collective Amnesia from reading a Kenyan-born, South Africa–based friend’s blog post. The post included links to YouTube performances of the poetry, including a stunning “official video” of Koleka performing “Water,” a poem that tracks histories of enslavement and apartheid, of family trips to the beach and bodily experiences with water. From YouTube, I followed Collective Amnesia to Twitter. Tweet after tweet mentioned the book, quoting lines from it. I begged my South Africa–based friend to bring me a copy of the book on their next trip to Kenya.
I mention these social-media elements—from blog post to YouTube to Twitter to a suitcase from South Africa to Kenya—because they suggest other ways that poets and poems become and circulate as African today, beyond the support of multinational publishing houses or the approving nods and helping hands of North American allies. Collective Amnesia was published by uHlanga, a small poetry press in South Africa. A few months after it was published, Putuma mused,
I remember a veteran writer that I had great respect for telling me: “Publishing a book of poems in South Africa? You will be lucky if you sell 200 copies in your book’s lifetime, and be grateful if 20 people show up to your book launch.” . . . So here we are, in less than three months since its release: a national tour, 13 cities, 17 launches, a prescribed text for second-year university students, four print runs, 2,000 copies later.
By October 2018, the book had gone into its eighth print run and Putuma had visited twelve countries to promote it, all of which she announced on Twitter. The book has been translated into Spanish and is scheduled to be translated into Danish. Even now, a quick search on Twitter finds many people tweeting lines from Collective Amnesia and celebrating the book and author.
Certainly, not all poetry books travel this way, nor do most African poets. And it might be unfair to claim that poets become African precisely through such circulation. Yet, as I witness Collective Amnesia cited and praised across social media, travelling in luggage from South Africa to other African countries and beyond, as I witness the collective desire to read and cite from this book, to claim its words as our collective truth, I am compelled to claim that it is precisely this circulation that makes poetry and poets African. These methods of circulation draw from widespread African traditions of travelling praise singers, who moved from event to event, homestead to homestead, and village to village, gathering and distributing history and memory, songs and gossip, forging collective feeling across space, assembling communities through shared sound. To hear the praise singer was to share sound with all who had heard that singer, to be gathered into a sonic collective, no matter how dispersed across space.
As I witness and experience the movement from social media to suitcases, I marvel at how the hyperlocal of poetry has expanded: poetry still travels through and across local spaces, but now the tweet at the poetry reading in a small café catches the commuter on public transport eager to connect with world-shaping art.
Koleka Putuma is our poet and Collective Amnesia our book because they speak from and for and into and through the footnote. Footnotes are crowded spaces: references jostle against each other, holding conversations that we can only imagine; words are squeezed by the body text that leans against them; they absorb its weight and give it shape. A reference touches another reference, forging something otherwise in that touching. Footnotes gather, and we are gathered by and as them. The first poem in Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia is titled “Storytelling1.” The page is predominantly white space between the title and the footnote, which reads: “1) How my people remember. How my people archive. How we inherit the world.”
(poetry is the footnote in African literature)
Perhaps the blank space represents how white supremacy erases African creativity, as seen by the arrogance with which Thomas Jefferson claims that Phillis Wheatley—by extension, all people blackened by colonial modernity—cannot write poetry. Perhaps the absence on the page represents the whiteness of storytelling that pushes those blackened by colonial modernity—our memories, our archives—to the footnotes. If “my people remember” in the footnotes, as Putuma writes, we are compelled to consider that the majority of poems in African canons—still largely shaped by Western canons—do not have footnotes. Those who remember in the footnotes do not find their memories in those poems. This memory-work in African poetry is deeply rooted within storytelling traditions that do not map onto traditional Western distinctions between lyric and narrative: the African poem that fails to meet these expectations of what a poem should be and do is illegible on the white page.
The rhetorical function of the footnote—as bibliographic, as exegetical, as amendment, as errata, as clapback—recurs in Collective Amnesia. Putuma writes from the footnote while also using it as an aesthetic structure. This structure is most apparent in the poems that use footnotes, including “Footnote2” and “Apartheid5,” both of which follow the structure of “Storytelling1”: a one-word title followed by a superscript numeral, white space, and a footnote. The footnote for “Footnote2” reads: “2) Some poems show up to undo your silence.”
This unsilencing is part of Putuma’s bibliographic work. “Lifeline,” for instance, is a list poem of sixty-eight names, including scholars (Stella Nyanzi, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Zethu Matebeni), novelists (Tsitsi Dangarembga, Miriam Tlali, Bessie Head), and poets (Shailja Patel, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Safia Elhillo, Lebo Mashile). It assembles African and Afro-diasporic women to name “a gospel shut up in my bones.” As with “Storytelling1,” it questions genre conventions: “you will say that this is not a poem / and I will say that you are right.” The anonymous “you” refers to the white page and those who guard it against unruly footnotes, against memories and experiences that murmur too loudly to be ignored, that leave their insistent impress on the white page. From the footnote, Putuma provides a bibliography that makes Black life thinkable and possible. This particular list poem foregrounds Putuma’s mentors and peers, tracking the multiple geohistories through which a “Black girl” is instructed to “Live! / Live! / Live!”
Formal academic structures that shape and create meaning are similarly used in “OH DEAR GOD, PLEASE! NOT ANOTHER RAPE POEM.” The poem is divided into six sections: “Preface,” “Introduction,” “Body,” “Conclusion,” “Addendum,” and “Reference List/Bibliography.” Like “Lifeline,” it is a list poem, with most of the lines arranged as bullet points. For instance, “Body” opens:
many things are cultural. like:
- crop tops
The structure of the list pushes against the essay form Putuma invokes. Any writing professor would instruct a list-writing student to create paragraphs. More than once, I have told students they cannot use bullet points. And, certainly, what kind of poem uses an explicitly academic structure and populates it with bullet points? Perhaps the work of African poetry from the footnotes is to reimagine all formal structures that create and circulate knowledge. Perhaps the work of African poetry is to populate inherited and imposed and disciplinary and disciplining formal structures with unruly notes. I would stretch, here, to argue that Putuma’s engagement with academic structures responds, obliquely, to the textbook market in Africa, pushing against its formal and economic demands.
Training kicked in when I started to think about how Putuma’s poetry worked. I wanted to claim that her poetry from and of the footnotes creeps onto and overwrites the white space and the white page, insisting on something different, something otherwise. Surely, I thought, one wants to escape the footnotes. And I think that is one way the APBF imagines its work: bringing African poetry from the footnotes to a position in the body of global poetry.
Yet I think Putuma’s poetry resonates because it speaks for and from the footnotes, for and from all of those who dwell in the footnotes, for and from all of those annotated in and redacted by the footnotes. And the work that takes place in the footnotes might have little to do with the white space that consigns it there. Its ambitions and imaginations exceed what the white space imagines can and should be desired. Putuma’s work reimagines the work of African poetry. In this reimagining, a “Black girl” might hear “Live! / Live! / Live!”
In “Black Joy,” Putuma turns, most explicitly, to the work of the African poet. It opens on familiar memories that gather many of us:
My grandmother’s mattress
knew each of my
and the neighbour’s children’s
Reading this, I am thrown back to holidays spent at my grandmother’s, when six to eight of us would sleep in one bed, tightly packed. It was not simply the “mattress”—and, yes, we slept in my grandmother’s room—that knew our breath. We breathed in each other, learning kin and care as we shared space and sleep. Like Putuma’s biological and chosen kin, we, too, shared meals:
My cousins and I would gather around one large bowl of umngqusho,
each with their own spoon.
Sugar water completed the meal.
We were home and whole.
This “we” is assembled through sharing sleep and care; this “we” makes home and wholeness through these rituals. While it might be tempting to dismiss this poem as sentimental, the kind of African grandmother and family poems expected of African poets, it speaks powerfully to how those in the footnotes make home, make wholeness.
In the 1980s, Kenyans in North America and Europe would send newly released music home, on cassette tapes, to lucky friends and relatives. Those who wanted copies of that music would assemble blank tapes and beg the lucky owners of original music to dub it for us. Blank tapes were a luxury. Often we’d dub over existing music, over tapes we’d stolen from our parents, or over music we could sacrifice. The quality of the dubbed tapes was always degraded, but that was a tax we were willing to pay. In this way, a single cassette tape sent from abroad would travel across a neighbourhood and beyond, across a network of listeners. Sales figures were a poor metric to assess how music travelled.
A trusted friend who read a draft of this essay asked me to consider what else happens in the footnotes, to consider poets who don’t have multiple publication runs, who might circulate a single poem all year on a digital space that gets no traffic, whose work is not acclaimed digitally, whose work might not travel from tweet to bookstore to suitcase. I’m not sure how to account for that work, how to register its impress on the world. Metrics are not very useful. Metrics do not capture the friends who visit, have a cup of tea, notice a poetry book, open it, and sit enraptured by a poem for the length of that cup of tea, and beyond. Metrics do not capture the friends who, having chanced upon a poem, open their notebooks and copy it out. Metrics do not capture the half-half-remembered lines that make impossible days feel less so. At best, some numbers tell us about the profound hunger for a poetry that speaks from and to us.
Keguro Macharia is from Nairobi, Kenya. He blogs at gukira.wordpress.com.