In August this year, two Kenyans, Redscar Mcodindo K’oyuga and I, were shortlisted for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award (BNPA) in Kampala, Uganda. Despite having taken part in several writing projects together, Redscar and I had never met before. We first met at Maria’s Place in Ntinda, Kampala where the BNPA festival was taking place. Dressed in a checked shirt and brown khaki trousers, he came and sat next to me then went in for a handshake. I shook it with the irritability of a distracted man before going back to the discussion at hand. Then he said, “Sanya, you’re Sanya, right? My name is Redscar.”
He is a reclusive man, Redscar, often keeping away from most groupings, and if you find him in one, you won’t hear him say much.
Immediately after the BNPA festival, he left Kampala for Kisumu, where the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival (NALIF) was taking place. There, he would win the NALIF poetry prize and in Kampala, he would become the winner of the Writivism Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation.
Because of our different schedules—Redscar is a medical doctor—we were unable to meet again after the festivals. Therefore, we had an email conversation about poetry prizes.
Sanya Noel (S.N.): Here we are now. The prizes have been awarded and there doesn’t seem to be any other this year. Congratulations on your double. Would so easily have been a treble. This year has been a good one for you, hasn’t it? Or you have been good in your art this year.
Redscar Mcodindo K’oyuga (R.M.K.): Congratulations on your BN Poetry Award. We can only thank the gods. And yes, one can say the year has been good, brought with itself new opportunities — the Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation and the NALIF Prize. Babishai has been here. All one could do is submit. Everything else is fate.
About submissions, I’m a serial gambler. Opportunity doesn’t reach out for you; you reach out for it. It is encouraging that I submitted three different sets of (different) poems to different contests with different judging panels and all received positive considerations. We hope more will come.
How have you found the year yourself?
S.N.: The year had been good so far. Speaking from a personal perspective, this has been probably my best year. That only applies to the quality of work, which has improved, but now appearing in small doses. It’s amazing how little time we get as writers. Previously, college life was kind to me. There was time to write. Out here, it’s one hell of a ride. You don’t even get the time to read, leave alone the time to write. So, to have won a prize with a work that I did in my slowest year is a boost. For a moment there, in Kampala, I thought about going all out with the writing. I felt that I could hack it, but you come back to Nairobi and reality sets in, and you go back to life.
I would like us to talk about the three prizes. Let’s start with Babishai Niwe. Of course I have selfish interests here. We could talk about the poems.
I have to admit, I’d not read the poems until the shortlist of nine was made public. Then right at the top of that list was you. I was rooting for that poem!
R.M.K.: I sent three poems but as soon as I knew this particular one had found favour, it naturally shot up in my estimation. Having ‘how the world wishes you fixed it’ chosen from so many entries was very encouraging. What’s more, I thought I could see what it might have that my others didn’t, and I have confirmed this by comparing it with the poems on the shortlist, including yours. We both know that competition judges are paragons of wisdom and not finding favour with them can be a disheartening experience. To cope with it, you should allow yourself to pretend that they are obtuse and slaves to mistaken ideas of what poetry is, though I’d stop short of saying this and of sticking pins into wax models. Ultimately, the best poems won. I am glad that yours was among them. I knew you would win, because I loved each of your three poems that made the long list. I can only stress that we don’t write poems for the sake of praise or money. We write them because we must and can’t imagine not writing them. If praise (which I dread) or money come, they are a bonus.
I have read various reactions to your submissions. Jalada’s Richard Oduor beautifully dissected the aesthetics of your poems, and that I agree with his arguments is no secret. One of the judges, Stephen Derwent Partington, whose poetry I’m infatuated with and whose judgment I highly value, recently published ‘Some Judging Thoughts’ on your joint-winning poem. Very accurate. It is a consensus that your poem(s) merited the award. As Moyosore Napoleon Orimoloye’s did.
I also loved Catlin Spring’s ‘naked’, that little poem, that so laden beauty. Kakinda Maria Birungi’s ‘I’m not sorry anymore’ had all reasons to be among the top five. Then, though it petrifies me to write about writing, Kyle Allan’s ‘You have no notebook’ was another darling.
You recall I posted somewhere on social media right about the time the shortlist was announced that perhaps I’ve been reading the wrong books? I had my reasons.
May it be known that the best thing about being shortlisted for the BN Poetry Award was the feeling that poets I respect have, without any possibility of bias, enjoyed one of my poems sufficiently to say so publicly. I won’t say anything about my shortlisted poem though. I never want to explain my work, nor do I want to dictate others into believing a thing or two about any piece of mine. I let the readers have their various interpretations.
Any thoughts regarding the entirety of the shortlist?
S.N.: I have reservations about poems that are about poetry/writing and was quite surprised that Kyle Allan’s ‘You have no notebook’ made the top five and Caitlin Spring’s ‘Naked’ didn’t.
This year it seems many people wrote about writing. Victor Samuel Monday also did it in ‘My Writings’ and Musawenkosi Khanyile too in ‘Introduction.’
Speaking of Caitlin Spring’s “Naked,” it reminded me of Upile and Tapiwa Mugabe’s poetry. I’d love to read this poet. Would love to see the direction of their verse.
Your ‘How the world…’ reminded me of last year. I had a shortlisted poem in this same prize titled “A Poem We Would Rather Forget.” Perhaps the similarity in the tone is why. Such fervor in verse.
Turning a little narcissistic, I would have loved ‘Home’ to have made the top five instead of ‘What We Would…’ After I wrote that poem, ‘What We Would…,’ I couldn’t show it to anyone. I was afraid. There are spaces in life that one shouldn’t get into, especially if it is other people’s experiences. We have no rights to those narratives. I think they are sacred. Using such personal information sounds almost exploitative. I changed the name and a little of the things that happened to Maggie, but even then, I was still uneasy. But I was on a mentorship program then with Beverly and she was okay with this poem among others. That’s when I got the guts to make it public.
Home was an ‘apology poem’ after “What We Would…” I like to think that writing is like normal life. We have to detox, to remind ourselves that while we can be brutal (like the persona in “What We Would…” is to Maggie), we also can be normal people capable of loving one another and having fond memories. I had been writing disturbingly brutal poems then. This was my way out. Back to feeling normal again.
Orimoloye’s ‘Love is a plot device and your Insecticide is Not’ had not hit me until when I was in Kampala and was reading the top five poems. I had not seen the genius in it at all. On the night before the awards, I told a friend that I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it. Then I read Stephen’s interpretation of it after the prize and his sentiments confirmed what I thought. I would however love to see more poets stop using capitals at the beginning of every line. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on this, but I am petty and adamant about it. I have been for years.
Perhaps we should now talk about the Okot P’Bitek Translation Prize too. I went to the post office and got Julian Okot Bitek’s 100 Days in the mailbox yesterday. It’s a beautiful, sad book. So that makes it (the prize named after her father, whom she refers to as “our father”) jump queue.
R.M.K.: Well, how does one begin to talk about the Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation? I join the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) in celebrating fifty years since the publication of Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino. Unlike the BN Poetry Award, judging of this prize was based on the entire submission (of six poems per poet). When the shortlist of three was announced, I got disillusioned. The two Nigerians I was listed alongside are top notch. Gbenga Adesina is the joint winner of the 2016 Brunel University International African Poetry Prize and his chapbook, Painter of Water, which Aaron Bady speaks of so fondly about in The New Inquiry, was published as part of the African Poetry Book Fund’s Chapbook Box Set Series. Okwudili Nebeolisa is a winner of the Jalada Prize and was among five finalists for the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for his poetry manuscript country. The scenario was reminiscent of Nick Makokha’s being shortlisted for the 2015 BN Poetry Award after his Brunnel University win, and Tope Folarin’s making the Caine Prize shortlist years after his 2013 win.
I imagine the shortlisted poems from Gbenga and Nebeolisa were no chicken feathers. For instance, here’s one of Okwudili’s poems as submitted, IT IS NEVER A GHOST:
it’s just the trees swaying to the breeze:
by standards this night i’m a bystander.
it’s just someone walking home, counting his steps
so he doesn’t fall asleep, starting again
at every hundred he makes, at every
streetlight he passes. it’s just the glow
of a cat’s eyes, it’s merely surprised
at the length of your shadow. it’s just two dogs
looking for a suitable place to mate.
it’s never a ghost, it’s nothing spiritual;
everything is particular at this time,
everything begs for grace, everything is free.
Remember, you and I discussed the dynamics of/around this prize in Kampala before I left #Babishai2016 festival for the Nyanza Literary Festival. ‘Go to Nalif, go to Nalif’ was all you could chorus. ‘At least there you have a (remote) chance!’ I was skeptical about many things, including winning. I can only be grateful that the judges, Juliane Okot p’Bitek and Duduzile za Mabaso, deemed my submission worthy of the win. It became clear to me that some competitions are more about the work submitted and less about who submitted. This speech by Juliane Okot p’Bitek is quite something.
I know you can’t wait to speak loads about this contest. Please share.
S.N.: The way in which it was arranged really impressed me. I love running, and my experience on the track has taught me some tough lessons. In a sprint, any fit person, let’s say a footballer who does a lot of lateral motions in training, can easily beat your trained athlete feet in a sixty metre indoor sprint. All they need is a good takeoff from the blocks and you won’t see them again as long as they can counter your mid-race surge. Extend this race to 100 metres and it becomes problematic for a person who’s not been training for track and field. But when you put them in a 200 metres sprint, it becomes so brutal only track athletes can sustain their flight throughout. Even then, lactic acid builds up and they can’t sustain maximum flight for a considerable part of the race.
I think prizes are important in not just singling out talent but also maintaining a writing culture in those that have been doing so. Chuma Nwokolo mentioned that prizes do not improve our writing, structures do. Which is true, but we have to acknowledge the impact that prizes have had on our writing as Kenyans, as East Africans and as Africans. I’m a little wary about single poem entries. It is a sixty metre dash and all one needs is a good takeoff from the blocks. Crab runners can with the damned thing.
The Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation needed several poems, which extends it to a 200m sprint. That requires one to either have trained for it or have massive gas in them to sustain the whole race. I would love to see more of that.
The Brunel University Prize requires ten poems. No more, no less. That is tough. You can’t fake it through ten poems. But then again, a friend told me that one hit wonders matter too, so yeah.
About NALIF, I remember Hilda Twongyeirwe raising the issue of opening up the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award to the whole continent while in Kampala. And even though I won the award, I found myself agreeing with her. I love that NALIF is just for writers from Nyanza. This excludes writers from all over Kenya who would probably overwhelm these writers. I’m talking Nairobian writers. Of course this may not be true, and it may even sound condescending, but the most visible writers from Kenya tend to be around Nairobi. Perhaps it’s the resources, or the connections they make while here. They utilise the structures and platforms.
In Kampala, I talked to Maria Kakinda Birungi, the Ugandan poet shortlisted for the BNPA and one of her friends who was there. Later on, I realised that Innocent Immaculate Acan, the Writivism Short Story Award Winner of 2016 had gone to the same school with these two other writers. There’s always a connection when people share spaces and platforms. And I love that NALIF is making it just for Nyanza because this means that Nyanza can then become vibrant and hopefully, we will see more writers producing good work. Of course this shouldn’t be the only thing spurring the writing culture, but it is something.
I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. You won the NALIF poetry award. Tell us about it.
R.M.K.: The entry of the Nyanza Annual Literary Festival and the associated prize into the local literary scene is good news. I feel honoured to be associated with it from the onset. It is an ambitious project. It intends to expand to incorporate partners who would really love to see a fully-fledged festival with booksellers, agents and published authors in future. The founder, the humble and kind Jakki Kerubo—the Beverly Nambozo of Kenya—hopes to ‘replicate it in all the counties, giving each autonomy.’ The $1,000 prize also promises its winners a year-long mentorship with established writers and seeks to nurture and guide as much as needed. Even in its infancy, it is encouraging that it has received much attention. It is Christmas to budding writers and poets of Nyanza and, by extension, Kenya. It will elevate the quality of work produced a great deal.
The contest is tailored to cover specific and relatable nuances. This year’s theme was “The Metamorphosis”, chosen to address the transformation Kenya has undergone over the last couple of decades, including the wild chaos into which the country descended. It invited work that cover the absurd in our society and the ways in which our systems of justice and order are broken and received entries in three categories: fiction, screen/stage plays, and poetry.
Troy Onyango won the Fiction Prize for his short story ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’
NALIF’s poetry contest was similar to that of the Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation in the sense that judging was based on the entire submission of six poems per poet. I prefer this model because it encourages seriousness and applauds consistency in the aesthetics of an entrant’s work. Also, one can’t gamble. I think this is a system every other Poetry Award should adopt if improving quality of work as a body is something we care about. As such, you would have won the BN Poetry Award at the level of the long list given that all your three poems – the entire submission – found favour with the good judges. But then it shouldn’t be lost to us that there are times when one poem outdoes a group. One would use this argument to remotely explain why Adeeko Ibukun’s ‘a room with a drowning book’ went ahead to win the 2015 BN Poetry Award despite, say, Nick Makokha’s two poems making the shortlist, except that there, God is for all poems and each poem is for itself.
The poetry category of the NALIF Prize was judged by a panel chaired by David McLoghlin, a poet, literary translator and memoirist from Dublin, Ireland, who has lived in New York City since 2010 and has never been to Nyanza. Questions would arise as to whether one should only judge work they relate to, work they identify with. Luckily, much as the thematic concerns revolved around issues prevalent in Nyanza, poetry remains universal. I knew, then, that quality of work to be submitted was of essence, so I had to read and write and seek counsel and edit. (You remember I shared one of the poems with you −‘for crying out loud,’ which made the title of my NALIF submission − for comments?) And see, my experience with literary journals has taught me to look before I leap. I mean, like before submitting work to a literary journal, one is encouraged to have a look at the journal’s previous issues or the work of the names that lay prostrate on a zine’s masthead, for them to know what kind of work can be given serious consideration. I also tried to anticipate what I thought others might send and went for something that was a bit different and, perhaps, took a few risks. And to be honest, I never had any real hopes for poems I sent here and to the other competitions. I tried to just kiss them goodbye and walk away from the computer.
At the festival, I had the chance to go through the submissions of fellow finalists. We were reviewing each other’s work, telling each other khai, I like this part … this makes me cringe; push that a little further for something less trite … those sounds feel good on the tongue … what were you thinking while writing this?… look, Abukutsa writes sad poems like Shiru wa Wanjiku’s, etc. The opportunity was enriching. I applaud the versatility of the poetry of the fellow shortlistees, with some of the poems heavy with palpable folklore. I imagine the contest will progressively become more competitive. I can only be grateful for the win.
That said, I’m convinced that NALIF has set a good precedent and I think the narrative of having a National Poetry Award (that is exclusively for or includes unpublished and/or ‘unestablished’ poets) should be taken seriously. This is where the Nigerians beat us, don’t you think?
S.N.: I still side with Chuma. A National Poetry Award would be great, but we need structures in place.
I love how Jalada works. It’s a structure in place such that if one person becomes involved in their own things, it will still go on. I started writing while in college and we started a poetry club. Out of that, we got such talented people whom we made friends with that have remained allies to this day. Of course there are pockets of such things going on, and that is really good. Nairobi is vibrant.
I would love to see something come up here that is similar to FEMRITE in Uganda. I also want a publishing house that is daring, one that will publish poetry that is of good quality. No. Not a printer. A publisher that first edits these works and does a back and forth with the writers before a work comes out.
And speaking of publishers, now that you are quite visible, do you have any near future plans for your poetry?
R.M.K.: Visible? For one to get published I imagine they must have something publishable. Contrary to as reported elsewhere, I still don’t know whether my poetry is publishable. I don’t like most of my poems – if we can call them poems – and each is always a work in progress. I am still learning, still reading, still looking for my voice, as cliché holds. It is also untrue that I have been writing poems for as long as I can remember. I used to write bad poems and post them on Facebook and get a few likes and feel good about it. That’s a luxury I can’t afford now.
Everybody else says they have a collection or book-length work they are polishing up, but that’s something I can’t say. I don’t know what ‘book-length’ would mean here, and I sincerely beg your pardon. I have over a hundred Swahili poems, mashairi, and I remember putting together some ‘manuscript’ for The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature but I developed cold feet when I couldn’t find an editor. I have had publishers like the African Poetry Book Fund invite a chapbook submission and this is known to you (because you’ve also had, simultaneously, and I love how we share, the back-and-forth) and perhaps it is why you say I’m quite visible. But I still have a long way to go.
Also, I know how subordinate and underappreciated poetry is. No (local) publisher is bold enough to publish a poetry volume. I even wonder how Njeri Wangari got Nsemia to publish her book Mines & Mind Fields.
Self-publishing is an alternative which brings with itself numerous woes. At the #Babishai2016 Poetry Festival, self-published Liberian poet Lekpele Nyamalon shared with me the intrigues of self-publishing. Abigail Arunga also recounted how chaotic it has been to have had her beautiful book, Akello, published and marketed. It is not a bad venture, but I know the risks. I don’t feel persuaded enough to go down this road. At least not yet. I don’t want to print. I’m resigned to the notion that poetry is consciously relegated by publishers because it isn’t for everyone the way fiction and non-fiction are and that’s why I’ve since answered genuinely curious associates that I’ll have my collection, if any, published posthumously. For now, I’ll just read and seek counsel and create and edit.
My prose is chicken poo but I think I should consider developing it and leave poetry to you and your contemporaries. I sit on fences though. The three poetry prizes for which I’ve been a finalist – Babishai, Okot p’Bitek and Nalif – have each promised to give the finalists a mentor. The Okot p’Bitek is also to accord me the privilege of attending a one-month writing residency at a soon to be announced African university. These are things I am excited about and it is in this duration that I hope to share my existing ‘poetry’ with the mentors and editors and be a good student and also write new ‘publishable’ material and edit and conceive volumes.
When are we reading your book?
S.N.: Posthumous is a little too late you guy. Get over yourself, mate. Just throw it out there, come on!
I sent my work to a publisher a few months back and was going to go ahead, but I hated the work immediately when I got back home. So I didn’t go back to check with him.
I think if I can find an editor to work with, then I can put out some work. I have a body of work, long enough for a full length collection. I would love to say I trust the quality too, but my gut keeps telling it’s not just ready yet. Craft isn’t everything. The poems have to be true too. Something has got to resonate.
The thing about writing, especially for me, is that I keep discovering new ways of approach. I now can’t stand some of the poems I wrote last year, and I think that is okay. It means I’m not static.
I remember Abigail Arunga asking me why I haven’t put out anything yet. I should mention that here. I’m bad with marketing myself. Also considering that I have this totally unrelated profession, I may not find the time to make it move. But all that matters really is trust. I worked with Beverly Nambozo early this year and all she requested of me was honesty to my voice. Out of that, I probably wrote my best ever work between January and June this year.
If I can find an editor that I can trust like that, we’ll be good. Someone can ask me to churn out collections and I would sustain a frequency. It’s just trust that I need. It could also be that I’m just chest thumping here. I enjoy doing that. It’s a lot of fun saying things you know you can’t do. It may even intimidate your peers and give you a good laugh.
It was fun having this conversation with you. I hope our readers will enjoy it like I’ve enjoyed having it. Until then, well, may the muse be with you.
R.M.K.: My muse is one stubborn fluffy kitten, but that’s a story for another day. Thank you too. This has been healthy and enjoyable. I look forward to your numerous literally projects.
About the Writers:
Sanya Noel is a writer and editor at Enkare Review. He is a 2016 joint-winner of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award.
Redscar Mcodindo K’oyuga is the winner of the 2016 Writivism Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation and the Nyanza Literary Festival (NALIF) poetry category (2016.)