Inside Poetry: Michael Onsando: The Making of a Canon

Michael Onsando is a jazz writer, and co-founder of Brainstorm Kenya. Some of his work is available on his site, Unlike Myself. Enkare Review has previously published Onsando’s A Movement on Loneliness. Alexis Teyie, Enkare Review’s poetry editor, met with Michael on a quiet Sunday in February to talk about his most recent work published with Enkare Review, The Making of a Canon, his creative philosophy, and quite a few things in between.

 

INTERVIEWER

What are you trying to do with The Making of a Canon?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

You know, it’s this ominous thing, people say something is happening, but no one can tell you [what it is]. Something is happening in the creative industry in Kenya. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s a thing, and it’s happening. People are trying to shape and form and create structures – a lot of things are happening but because all of these people doing these things are confused and experimenting, because every single person is out of their depth, they end up making errors. It ends up being a grappling and a grasping. And I guess that’s what I was trying to write about: What it’s like to make a canon, because “African lit,” for lack of a better term, is young, right? We had the precolonial canon, and then the big meeting in Makerere, and we’ve had a good number of good books— and West Africa has a lot of industry and structures— and, in a sense, here [in East Africa] we are only now grappling. We have Kwani? and Storymoja, and they are trying very hard, they are doing their best with their resources; we have Jalada, Magunga, you guys [Enkare] and stuff we do at Brainstorm to name a few platforms. And then you have all these writers, who are just self-publishing, self-everything, running their own blogs. If you look at Ngwatilo [Mawiyoo] and the work she did, you see just how hard people are trying to do something, to make room.I guess I’m rambling to say The Making of a Canon is trying to understand  the banalities, the everydayness, the gunk behind the making of a canon.

 

INTERVIEWER

I hear you. Two things I’m hearing now are interesting: you are operating within this greater fabric of other people writing, and creating, and maybe there aren’t structures that support that now. But what’s also interesting for me is the idea of an individual canon, if that’s at all possible. This is really fascinating to me in terms of my own work, but also in reading other writers. Starting to build up a significant body of work that reflects a particular philosophy, a way of life, a way of thinking and feeling, and the fact that that’s hard to trace for many writers on the continent. So you’ll find Ngugi’s, the usual people in SA, in Egypt…you see a few people managing to create consistently over a period of time, which is not always to mean prolifically. I am wondering now about how you think of yourself in making a body of work, and what you’d like the work to say about you.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

To bounce off what I said earlier, you have all these other people who have been doing all these things. Inside the canon, I try not to place myself. As an artist, how I view myself is as someone who is consistently trying to put out work, and to work hard to put out work that represents what I’m trying to do, and what my philosophies are. The thing I’m trying to do is create space for softer, more fragile masculinities, more nuanced masculinities, and particularly black African masculinities. You know this whole Mandingo bullshit is quite tiring.  I am still working through it, towards it. I’m also creating a space for poetry, I don’t think the path of the poet has to be this messy.

The thing is, you set off to grapple with a simple question, you have a philosophy that is based on whatever you have based it on (I find myself working with feminist ideology and intersectionality often) – then it gets complex, and quickly too. And the more you grapple, the more complex it seems. It’s internal, emotional work – work around perception and ways of seeing. And it’s work for everyone, which means the nature of the work varies depending on who you’re talking to. How then, do you create work conveying this to a, largely, diverse audience?

But how do you do any of this if no space has been created for actively working and thinking about these things? Dedicated spaces are important. Sports is a good example. Rugby has several dedicated spaces, they are like boiler points for ideas and minds, tied by the common goal of playing rugby. Holding sight of this common goal allows people to see each other in different lights every day. Why can’t poets have that?

INTERVIEWER

All interesting to me for two reasons. As a feminist, thinking as well through ways we act out our theory, how that comes through in practice, and two, the suggestion that poetry is a space in which these, for some people, abstract or frequently trivialized theories, come out to play and gain some airplay.That leads me to wonder, to what extent do you think that poetry has some sense of responsibility, or at least, you as a poet, do you feel some sense of responsibility and accountability to these spaces, as well as the general public?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

Yea, for sure. If you’re saying something and people are going to listen, then you are responsible for the thing you are saying. Interestingly, beyond a certain point of influence, you are also responsible for how you’re heard, which is not the same in everyday life. That’s a whole different ballgame, what’s their mood, how is it going to affect how they hear you, how will the content of message touch on their pain points, what are the likely responses to that, how do you avoid the traps that exist in every mind to block hearing – and how do you do it and still make sense.

Maybe I’m overexplaining, but I do think there’s something in beginning to take responsibility for our art – and what it does.

 

INTERVIEWER

The thought that poetry is heard, thinking that poetry is a medium that you can communicate these ideas. Using it as a vehicle, to what extent would you say it has been an effective vehicle?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

You have to imagine the work as being a vehicle beyond now. Because it’s not the only vehicle I’m using, I do things in everyday life. I have these conversations in spaces that, to me, I don’t think these conversations are taken. What poetry allows me to do is have a conversation with myself first, and understand that space before I go out in the world and navigate that.

It’s difficult for me, being a man working on feminist principles; I’m fucking up often. Poetry helps me, enables me,  allows me to be a lot more deliberate. It lets me navigate spaces theoretically, hypothetically. There is this poem I wrote, that I’m sure no one has read, because it’s on my blog, and I think my blog has not been effective enough in terms of reach, but I think the people who read it understand what’s happening there, and keep up with it, because there is a way of speaking and trying to create, which is all any artiste is trying to do.

 

INTERVIEWER

I’m hearing, poetry as a way of thinking, poetry is a way to make sense of the world. But I’m also hearing poetry preparing to engage on a different level with other people, having worked. But still the idea that poetry is primarily a way of working abstract concepts, which is at odds, of how I often think of poetry, which is to say, poetry, for me, is very much about the mundane, the ordinary, the ugly, the vulgar, the gritty in so many ways. So who are you reading, then, and how are you approaching them considering how you think about poetry?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

In terms of poets, Jack Spicer is everything. Jack Spicer writes well. it’s interesting. So, in 2009, I found out Sylvia Plath died. I’d been reading all her work, but I didn’t know anything about her, aside from her being a good writer, so I’d find any work by her and read it, but I wouldn’t read about her. I don’t read about the artist, I engage with their work, that’s really how I like engaging with art. But when I found out Sylvia Plath died, I actually went into mourning. Because, in my head, Sylvia Plath was someone who I was going to meet some day. I realize I said Jack Spicer writes well. Writers are always alive.

INTERVIEWER

That’s consoling, in many ways.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I guess, how I engage with work is I try to see, um, I don’t know, that’s a difficult question.

 

INTERVIEWER

But you see, that’s where you come in. Why do some make you feel more strongly, or more moved?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I’m going to read you a poem, this is too hard to explain, let me just find Spicer. If you don’t have the words borrow them! I’ve actually quoted this poem a lot, one of my favourite poems. It’s kinda long, but here we go: Letter to Lorca, Jack Spicer.

 

INTERVIEWER

“The poem is a collage of things.” That’s beautiful.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I guess that’s the answer to your question. When you’re asking, how do things come together? I don’t know. It’s just, um, dead men writing to each other.

 

INTERVIEWER

I really like Lorca as well, but yes, “things don’t connect; they correspond.” I also empathize with that instinct to bring things as they are. What I also like about that, it’s participatory. That communion, that’s the word I’m looking for.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

The question is how do I bring my world into your world? Your world that I know nothing about. Just to tie all the answers back together, it’s that thing for poetry being a way of thinking, as a way of seeing, which ties me back to one of the things I think everyone should watch, and it’s on YouTube, Ways of Seeing.

 

INTERVIEWER

John Berger? I love him. He’s great.

MICHAEL ONSANDO

Because that’s what it’s about, a way of navigating the world and a way of seeing and a way of understanding. And the question I’m always asking myself as a poet is, “How do I bring my world into your world?” I’m always curious about your world. Because I need to know what’s happening in your world. And it’s this curiosity that keeps us alive.

INTERVIEWER

For me Sontag, she’s great, cultural theorist, essayist, badass. She, of course, read a lot of Berger. She always talks about photography as a grammar and ethics of seeing. And for me, that really hits home in writing, in poetry, because you’re building a language, like an architecture, to navigate your world but also their world, more importantly. But also that question of ethics. Do you feel a certain responsibility, accountability to the general public?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

That’s why I love poetry. Poetry is like emotional math. You like math, and I like learning things about math. The same way in math you can have a formula, and depending on what’s coming in you can have thousands of iterations. But all the iterations tie back to this formula. Now, the ethics of navigating spaces is yo, don’t spill the secrets of a space. Which is true, like, don’t fuck up spaces. I’ve fucked up spaces in the past so I know the fragility of spaces, but how do we transfer the knowledge, the lessons? I do think there’s something the women in the feminist circles can learn from the from the guys in the rugby locker rooms. And I do think there are stuff the guys can learn from the women there. But how do you transfer the knowledge without taking people’s spaces? It becomes a mess. So, for me poetry is that emotional math. It’s that this is the formula, this is what the formula is, and I guess that’s why most of the work is often incorrigible, because I have to then use metaphor, and sometimes I use metaphors that I’ve used and I guess that’s because some things are constant. The idea for me is: this is the language, this is the formula, and this is the path. So, starting here, you’ll end up here. One thing I’ve started doing recently is putting ‘mood’ at the beginning of all the pieces on my blog because the feedback I’ve been getting is people don’t have context to my pieces, they ask, “What’s going on?” Adding the mood is supposed to have the intended effect of giving context, and so saying this is the kind of emotion being experienced in this piece, and this is the formula, and this is the path. And then just documenting and documenting.

 

INTERVIEWER

That practice is interesting to me, and this ties in to the kind of work you want poetry to do for you, to reach people, to capture your own personal philosophy, but that’s interesting to me, the sense that you want to help people along in the process of entering this is where the door is, feel free to come in if you’d like. Quite a few poets, depending on the school, famously Gertrude Stein, made this almost incomprehensible stuff, because they were writing for themselves, to themselves? Who are you writing for, or why–which I suppose is  a terrible question.

MICHAEL ONSANDO

It’s a hybrid, right? Because I’m writing for me, anything I write I want to enjoy writing. I want to say I don’t think through but of course I think through. What I mean is I go into ‘The zone’ and I write and write, and then I come back and I edit and I edit. I’m writing for myself, but I’d also like to imagine I’m not the only me. Not just imagine, there are 6 billion people on the planet, I am not unique! It’s statistically impossible.

INTERVIEWER:

Improbable.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

No, with this level of improbability, it’s impossible. So, I’m trying to write it for myself, but in writing for myself I know that there are people like me out there. I am going to let them in and I am going to show them the path which is why I’m really trying to find ways to get them in. I am going to write it for me, but make it comprehensible to you. And I think that’s what I’m struggling with right now; I still want to use all these things I’ve learnt and I still want to have my style and I still want to do this theme, but I want to figure out how to you make it more and more comprehensible without necessarily, um, and it’s not that it’s not comprehensible, it’s just that you need a lot of data to break the metaphor. So for me it’s just how do you reduce the amount of data people need to break the metaphor. Because I’m not giving you a path into my life, I don’t want you to know about my life, I don’t want a path into your own. Everyone has that, and that’s not necessarily of value, in my opinion, to my audience, especially on social media, they already have those ‘stories’ on their own.

INTERVIEWER

So what is you, if not all this static? All these stupid encounters, all these tedious things? What is you, then?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I am giving you these stupid encounters. For example, I was mad at someone, we had a conversation, we argued, we fought, we threw things at each other, we blew up the world, and then it ended, and we are not mad at each other anynore. When I sit down to write I am not going to write to you about the fact that I was angry. I am going to write to you about anger.

INTERVIEWER

That’s interesting, that abstraction. When I think about poems that I consistently go back to, they are always couched in these seemingly useless tedious bits of everyday life. Frank O’Hara, for instance. I loved him for three years, I read him, literally, everyday for three years, and he writes about his silly things. His poems they seem very tied to Frank O’Hara and his life but what’s the difference between all poets and creatives being arrogant or humble? So, people always say that it’s arrogant to assume that you have something significant to say, but others say that’s it’s this form of humility thinking that you can connect with people on a certain level, and so I’m trying to see where to position you, maybe you are in the middle.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

What’s that thing they say, binaries are for computers. Binaries are unwinnable. You can’t be in a binary; you’re either A or B. Which is to say that I hear the question, but I refuse. I’m like everyone else. I have flashes of arrogance and flashes of humility. I have flashes of everything. Everyone has felt like the king of the world at some time. Everyone has felt like they are utterly shit at some time. We have a range of emotions, we just happen to document ours.

 

INTERVIEWER

But that’s the point, that documenting. When people say writers are like everyone else, creatives are like everyone else, I resist that. I resist that for several reasons. In many ways yes we are all creating in different ways, but the fact remains, there is one individual that feels compelled to rise above or dig below the muck of everyday life and create something and document it. That impulse to document is reflective of a particular orientation to life, or a particular temperament. And so what is that, what is that orientation to life?

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I just think it’s important to document. Why I write poetry is a very difficult to ask. And it’s an interesting question because it’s always a question asked of creatives. When you go to a bank, you ask this guy why he ended up as a banker. He studied it, he went to school, he got a degree, he got a job.

 

INTERVIEWER

And that could be your answer as well.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I guess it is. How did I end up writing poetry? I wrote one poem, and another one and then I wrote some more.

INTERVIEWER

There you go. And that’s it. I don’t mean to interrogate creatives more than others, because I interrogate everyone. But this is all to say that because we live in a space in which creating is often undervalued, we have to justify our work, our life choices.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I am just a working class creative. I create. It pays my bills. And that’s exactly what I’m going to call myself from now on. If you think about the human experiment, and how everyone has a function, and how affect is distributed around this function, which is to say, we vilify the KDF(Kenya Defence Forces), but they also carry the weight of our paranoia. And we have to imagine what the burden does to a psyche. But we have given them that affect and we expect them to carry it in an adult way. And that’s just one example. Now think about affect is repeated round all the other facets. There are people who we’ve told you go get money. People we’ve told, you do this. Think about what those roles and those things do to the psyche of a human being, so I just think, as a creative, I have been given the work of documenting our emotions. I don’t think there’s any emotion I have experienced that is unique to me. We are all humans and we all experience the world and we all have these emotions

 

INTERVIEWER

I don’t know about that.The idea that there is a limited number of functions, or affect, to use your language, to pick from or experience in a given life span, sure. But I believe that not everyone has access to these ranges of emotions. Because, yes, I do believe that it’s not a binary, but I believe that even if it’s a gradation, there are extremes of the spectrum. Not everyone has access to every single emotion in all its shades.

MICHAEL ONSANDO

I disagree. People experience pain, for example. And they think, “I’m in pain!”, and they handle their pain and they struggle with the pain and work to the other side of their pain. They can go through the entire process of pain, and not know what the fuck is going on, or misblame, especially if there are easy targets. So people experience pain and navigate it and find ways to cope with things but very few people interrogate it. But just because they’re not looking at it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

INTERVIEWER

I believe that’s the case. I genuinely believe language gives us access to a greater range of experience and emotions. Once you have a word for it then you begin to notice and I think it brings it into being; very much the old Biblical story, God spoke things into being.The fact that we can’t speak of it, means we can’t access it.

MICHAEL ONSANDO

The fact that we can’t speak of it, means we have no context. Let me tell you why I know this. I am a very angry human being, extremely angry. I knew nothing about feminism when I was seventeen, eighteen. Feminism gave me the language to speak about certain ways that I’m feeling. Feminism gave my problems names. So I understand what you’re saying. But I promise you that it’s not that I didn’t have those problems when I didn’t have the names. Let’s take any two abstract friends. Especially if you are friends and you expect the other person to have a certain depth of knowledge of you, because you’ve been friends for a long time, and of course it’s a false assumption. But you’re a human being and you’re going to trust some people, because you have to trust somebody! And they are beating you senseless in the debate, because in their minds you know it, and for you you’re trying to express your pain, you just shut down. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t have the pain. It just means that you didn’t have the words. And the work for me, is giving people words. To be able to communicate. I think mainly it’s a man problem to be honest, but there’s a lot of people who lack the articulation of their pain, or their emotions and they kind of suffer in silence, and in fact it’s so bad that when you gain articulation, and begin to articulate it they’ll be like, yo you can’t do this, yo boundaries, yo you can’t do that, they are like who the fuck are you? In fact I wrote about it, you remember one of the lines goes: “How dare you undrown?” How dare you demand for these spaces, spaces that some of us have been trying to demand for but haven’t managed to. And of course because you have the language to say, but this affects me, this is a pain, this is my pain in a certain way. Then you get it, you get it because it makes sense. And you go, that’s fucked up, I’m sorry. But someone who has been in your position and is watching and lacks the articulation will feel slighted.

 

INTERVIEWER

I’m thinking two things now: Can it be given? And is it inherently worth giving? For instance, to me, the capacity to articulate and feel more profoundly a lot of the shades of emotions has rarely been a gift to me. I mean, maybe in retrospect, can you give people this that, or is it something you grow into, and is poetry the way to do so? And again is it worth giving, worth the pain and effort?

MICHAEL ONSANDO

Can it be given? Yes, it can be given. Is it a gift? Yes, it is a gift. But, one thing I’ve had to learn is it can’t be imposed. Which is to say that connecting people to their pain is often violent to them. Because that’s often the emotion people have avoided. People know happiness. But there are people who haven’t known tears for years. I hadn’t cried since I was eleven. In fact, I’m one of the guys who cried late. And this is not a new story in masculinity. Men don’t cry. There’s just so much shit that has been buried and put aside.

People don’t want to tap into that often, but when they do, and I think everyone does at least once in their life, I think it’s…I can’t explain the value poetry has given to my life. I can’t quantify it. I can’t.

INTERVIEWER

Using poetry as a way to start to address these narrow, rigid, toxic forms of masculinity is interesting to me. One, because, most of the earliest poets I read were men. I read a lot of Eastern European stuff as a child, Walt Whitman, the usual people, Shelley, Eliot, Wordsworth, Pound, but then growing up men rarely read poetry. And even now, when I go to some of these spaces, it’s usually women sharing poetry, performing poetry so for me it’s interesting that you think poetry is a space through which you can work through these things, but also reach the men who need to ask them, and even find the answers.

MICHAEL ONSANDO

It’s not that I can reach the men, but the men who want to reach the work, know where to find it, and know that the work is available, and it’s been written for them. I don’t know, maybe it has been done. I mean, I’ve read a lot of work for men but it’s something I want to do, particularly for the Kenya Nairobi man. It’s weird.

INTERVIEWER

Runs counter to my stereotypical image of the Nairobi dude. He’s not going to be out here, reading poetry. Maybe he’ll go to an event if he’s dragged there.

MICHAEL ONSANDO

You underestimate the Nairobi dude. The Nairobi dude is not far off. I can’t say anything at this point that won’t sound condescending to anyone and when it sounds like you’re condescending everyone, everyone’s like who are you, and what do you know. And I just fall back to what Clifton(Gachagua) says: “There is no African poet, there is just a guy in Buruburu trying to score more booze.” This African poet is just a guy somewhere on Ngong road chilling.

INTERVIEWER

And that’s fair. My hope is that there’ll be more men like that.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

 

I don’t want more people to be more like me, just more like themselves.

 

INTERVIEWER

That’s what I mean though; more people in a position to interrogate themselves, encounter themselves, and brave enough to think there is some correspondence with the world and put in the work to share that. I want to hear if you have one line, one word, or image, from poetry or film, or anything, that is the line or image of your life. One line.

 

MICHAEL ONSANDO

Be kind to yourself, and the people around you; learn your craft, and trust your art. Those are my commandments. It’s my ethos; it’s my mantra.

 

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