Written by Clifton Gachagua
The session was moderated by Keguro Macharia. “It’s rare that I get to introduce living poets because my academic work focuses on the late 19th and 20th century,” Macharia jested. “It’s wonderful to be in the presence of live poets.”
From the late 1970s through the present Yusef has in many ways redefined poetry in the US and indeed in the world. One of the things he is most noted form is giving a form, a voice, and a language to Vietnam; a war about which much is still not known and less is said. In many poems he has written over the years he has given us names, voices, scenes, intimacies; he has taught us to think about Vietnam in terms of love and lust, in terms of real bodies and emotions; he has given us memories and histories that we did not have access to, for which is an immeasurable, uncountable gift. But he has also taught to listen to poetry, he is renowned as one of the foremost jazz poets, someone who works in the blues…which has meant for many of us about the form of poetry, what we hear and where we hear it; thinking about scenes and sets of making and unmaking, of becoming and unbecoming.”
Sitawa Namwalie has helped to change the scene of Kenyan poetry, perhaps by public and visible, by having the courage to speak about the post-election violence in ways that many of us wanted to avoid to speak, by giving voice to rage, by giving voice to anger, but also by giving voice to tenderness. When I first read ‘Cut Off My Tongue’ I though to myself about the juxtaposition of immense violence in that collection and immense love. In her more recent work ‘Homecoming’ Sitawa continues to explore questions of identity spanning beyond Kenya.
Keguro continues the introduction: “In one of the poems called unnatural state of the unicorn Yusef writes:
Introduce me first as a man.
Don’t mention superficial laurels
The dead heap up on the living.
I want to introduce them as people, and perhaps I have done a bad job so I will let the poets introduce themselves.”
Yusef read from Requiem, which tries to capture from a distance, in a way, a kind of embedded experience in his psyche pertaining to hurricane Katrina.
One of Sitawa’s original awakenings was meeting an African-American girl from Louisiana called Patrice when she was 12. To her Louisiana became a fairytale; a mythical, beautiful place and she can never quite accept the devastations and what Yusef writes about in Requiem. She started writing poetry in 2007. Sitawa reminisced on the good times during 2002 when Kenyans were the most optimistic people in the world. She read we thought we had arrived written this year but which talks about 2007.
Keguro asked about sound in poetry -the sound of now and the spaces we inhabit, seeing that Yusef is associated with jazz and the blues and Sitawa so often incorporates music in her performance.
Yusef believes that a person hears the voice and his body is the resonator. “Music has always been important to me. Just the fact that one breathes has a lot to do with music,” he said. “I grew up with music in the background and we sort of internalized sound, we remember sound. For me, also, silence is a part of sound. We do not have music without silence, so there is a kind of merged relation that takes place. The body sorts of keeps us harnessed to sound. I don’t think of myself as a jazz poet, I do know that there are some jazz poets out there… I just happen to write a few related jazz-blues poems. A poem that tends to capture a certain element of sound maybe a poem such as The Performance.
the knee gotta be
so deep words can’t
answer simple questions
all night long notes
stumble off the tongue
& color the air indigo
so deep fragments of gut
& flesh cling to the song…
Sitawa’s poetry makes use of rhythm and music in a way that she is not entirely aware of. It is sort of an unknown undercurrent that takes over her poems. She read the poem Would you?
Concerning the risk that poets take to write emotionally difficult poems, Yusef talked about the different kinds of music in poetry, and especially that of meditation in Sitawa’s Would you? There is a kind of music that challenges one in a different way. “I think of the longer line as the line that, in a way, challenges the reader for a moment of meditation, and the shorter line as a kind of vertical plunge; this music of contemporary confrontation.” To underscore the meaning of the music of meditation Yusef read a prose poem called Warhorses.
Sitawa feels honored to be able to express some feelings in the poem, not just for herself but for others. When the poem resonates with other people they find an avenue to express the difficult emotions they carry, so it is a kind of relief. Sitawa’s Carcass of the House is an example of a difficult poem. Written in September 2009, it is about the peculiar feelings she felt driving through a highway and seeing half-burnt, broken down houses in a place that is still of the most incredible beauty in the world.
Thinking about memory and the place of memory in monument Yusef read Facing It, a poem that returns to that idea of what one see, what one remembers and how one remembers. Yusef never planned to write about his experience and observations in Vietnam but once when he was renovating a house he found himself writing about Vietnam. It took him about 14 years to write about these experiences. What one experiences, often silence, is part of that emotional, psychological equation.