The #Babishai2016 Poetry Shortlist: Who Will Win the Prize?

by Richard Oduor Oduku

The back story of poems is rarely known. What we are stuck with are suppositions and probabilities, and the boring work of interpretations. There are poems that are mindfully open and direct the reader to a specific interpretation of their work. They leave lampposts along the path, and a reader can pierce the journey, chalk it on their palms and glimpse at meanings. Other poems are labyrinths. Getting lost is the norm. But like, Jane Hirshfield says, “to step into a poem is to agree to risk. Poetry is a trick of language-legerdemain, in which the writer is both magician and audience. You reach your hand into the hat and surprise yourself with a rabbit or memory, with an odd verb or slant rhyme or the flashing scarf of an image.” This reading attempts to make sense of the #Babishai2016 Poetry Shortlist.

Redscar Mcodindo K’Oyuga’s ‘how the world wishes you fixed it’ is a mental domino, we are seeing but we are not seeing. Everything has been spread before our eyes, and hidden at the same time. We must see, and for parts we don’t see, we must think. You fixed it, the poem says, if the compass broke, if there was no water, if you were bored, if the TV blurred, you fixed it, like the deejays on the streets of Nairobi who ‘make Bruce Lee speak local lingo in ching-chong movies’. But the persona doesn’t fix everything. We wish he’d fix it, the poem says, when the genitalia of Maasai lasses get cut. It is a poem with a faint but purposeful aura. If you fixed all that, why are you not fixing this, it asks, probably decrying the impotence of big talk. The fact that it deals with female genital mutilation makes it a huge favourite, if the judges will be looking for a poem, even one that remotely serves the social function of literature, since a discussion of the poem, inevitably opens the lid to the troubling cultural endorsement of FGM in Kenya, and other parts of Africa, despite the existence of laws prohibiting the practice.

I’m increasingly drawn to poems that take the ordinary and uncelebrated things and turn them into beautiful and redemptive ruminations. Take ‘Home’, by Sanya Noel, for example, is a poem as brief and loaded as a sigh. You are standing in the balcony and it is raining outside, and like how memories can sidetrack us, the persona is thrown to younger years, ‘thinking of mother’s old house / with its broken windows on the veranda/ … this smell of rain is a memory of home’ and in that brief instant, memories of childhood playing in the cold and a mother’s warning of pneumonia are sprinkled effortlessly on the stagnating oppression of the present.

My favourite shortlisted poem, also by Sanya Noel, is ‘What we would have called you if you had lived’, a poem which also takes ordinary childhood memories and uses them to create a patchwork that is wistful and nostalgic. Everyone has been young once, and if you have passed through African schools, particularly lower primary, caning, or corporal punishment is stitched on the first pages of our memories. Here is a child who is envious of another, Maggie, for two things. First, that she is epileptic and the fear of seizures protected her, sometimes, from the teacher’s beating. Second, that she had a father who would come to school with policemen when a teacher struck her. The sadness is that the child wishes that he was epileptic too, to avoid the teacher’s thrashing, or that he had a powerful father. He says: ‘we just wanted your epilepsy / we just wanted a father / who would not beat us because the teacher beat us, Maggie / we just wanted a disease, a condition, the police, a mother, anything / to protect us from the cruelty of the math teacher.’ The innocence of the plea, the vulnerability, is searing, but even more frightful is the brutality that would force a child to want a condition to escape a thrashing. The poem is a belated apology to Maggie that they were too young, they didn’t take back the insults, they didn’t know better. Maggie is dead.

In Orimoloe Moyosore’s ‘Love is a plot device and your insecticide is not’ we are also entranced by the intrusion of memory. ‘… when you design the ultimate insecticide / you’ll tell me about malaria / … and I’ll tell you about my lover / how she runs her fingers / through these bumps at night.’ The bumps are not mosquito bites, but bullet wounds, sustained in Kosovo in 1998, when the infantry was outnumbered. The poem serves the unique function of aiding memory, of remembering, opening a door for a reader to go to the references. The bumps are a door to a long story. This is how poets serve as gatekeepers for collective memory.

There are those who have intimated that the pervasive nature of modern technology has overpowered what the eyes see and what the mind remembers. The idea of how the internet and communication technologies influence our attitudes, behaviours, and practices is the central concern of ‘I’m not sorry anymore’ by Kakinda Maria Birungi. The poem is an unapologetic clap back, against the internet. It is a bumpy poem, and does not flow very well, but it is a fresh exploration of how social media can grow deeper roots into our being, while also dabbling into feminism. Social media allows individuals to control the self-presentational messages they exchange with others. It is easy to pretend to be someone you aren’t. Through selective self-presentation, individuals can choose certain identity cues, can curate a desired impression; however, the constant demands to perform ourselves undermines our ability to attain a surer sense of who we are and where we belong, because the dictum is show thyself, not know thyself. Soon, the line between the person and persona, private and public, is erased or blurred, and the social media identity becomes the self-identity. What can a person do when this happens? This is what the poem talks about: ‘how dare you turn your back on me / seeking to un-teach me all the things / that you had buttressed in my bring’.

The Babishai festival programme has panel discussions on the love-hate relationship with the digital world, and also seeks to explore the landscapes of body, mind and soul of African feminism in poetry. Does this mean that Kakinda’s ‘I’m not sorry anymore’ can clinch the prize to further this discussion?

Musawenkosi Khanyile’s ‘Introduction’ is a lament about the state of poetry publishing, market, and readership, while both Victor Samuel Monday’s ‘My writings’ and Kyle Allan’s ‘You have no notebook’ are overly concerned with the process of writing, how the imagination of the poet bleeds onto the page. Caitlin Spring’s ‘naked’ is short and meditative: ‘i took off my clothes / before i took off all the people / i thought you wanted me to be’.

The #Babishai2016 Poetry festival starts tomorrow and runs from 24th to 26th August in Kampala Ntinda at Maria’s Place. The winner of the poetry prize will be crowned during the Babishai 2016 Poetry award-giving ceremony at Fang Fang Restaurant, Rooftop Terrace on Communications House, Colville Street Kampala.

If I was a judge, my winning poems would be Sanya Noel’s ‘What we would have called you if you had lived’, Redscar Mcodindo K’Oyuga’s ‘how the world wishes you fixed it’ and Kakinda Maria Birungi’s ‘I’m not sorry anymore’.

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