Kariuki wa Nyamu won this year’s Babishai Niwe Haiku Prize, after beating sixteen other artists. In exploring the place of poetry in Africa, Wasomi got into conversation with him.
Congratulations first of all for winning the Babishai Niwe Haiku Prize, 2017. For starters, what is Haiku? It sounds so foreign; does it have a place here on the African soil?
Thank you very much for the warm congratulations. Well, a haiku is a three line poem whose origin is Japan. The first and last lines have five syllables each while the middle has seven syllables making a total of 17 syllables. It has no title and the lines seldom rhyme. Most significantly, the beauty of haiku lies in its terseness and the delightful discovery of a passing moment in nature. A haiku captures one moment at a time. Although it is a fairly new genre in Africa, it has so far been embraced a lot on the continent. Of course there are many more features of haiku, only that I cannot articulate everything in this conversation. All in all, haiku has a place on the African soil, and it is here to stay.
This is my winning haiku;
last night’s rain
in the morning mud
fresh toad prints
What does the win mean to you as a person, a Kenyan and an artist? You came ahead of sixteen other artists, many of them drawn from West Africa while you were the only Kenyan.
This is the best thing that has happened to me as a person and a Kenyan artist. I trust that it has elevated me to a literary pedestal in that it is a continental Prize, an envy of many. Scores of my readers around the world were [and I believe they still are] very happy with my win.
I received overwhelming congratulatory messages from my teachers, schoolmates, friends, professors, course mates, colleagues, students, family as well as innumerable readers most of whom I am yet to meet. This means that I should continue to write more splendid pieces and that I should set out to inspire more people to realize their writing talent.
It also means that the future of African haiku [Afriku] is bright. It is humbling to be one of those Kenyan artists who are raising our flag high. I believe it is also a big win for East Africa now that at the moment, majority of African haijins
are from West Africa. By the way, although I was the only Kenyan on the shortlist of seventeen haijins, it was an honour that the judges unanimously settled on my haiku as the best piece. This year was the third time I contested the Babishai Niwe Prize. Previously I did not even make it to the long list! One lesson to take home is, never give up.
All or most of your works that are in the public limelight are poems; did you always want to be a poet? Where and when did this fascination with poetry start?
Yes, that’s right. Most of my works in the public limelight are poems although I have also done radio plays, short stories, satirical essays and book reviews. I always wanted to be a writer, not necessarily a poet. My fascination with poetry started from my family. My paternal grandmother would customarily tell us stories. That tradition of storytelling has had a permanent literary impact in my life as a creative writer and poet.
My mother is also a proficient teller of tales and singer. She inspires me a lot. I would recite poetic memory verses in church, and participated in the poetry and singing categories during the national music festivals. Later at the university, I met lecturers who were also internationally acclaimed poets and writers. By the end of my undergraduate first-year, they had already identified my talent and started mentoring me.
There has been a lot of controversy around this term ‘poet’. I have read critics calling some artists ‘rhymists’, and I have witnessed someone walk out of an event for being called a ‘fake’ poet. There is always that disconnect between spoken word ‘poets’ and printed word ‘poets’. Can you say something controversial around this topic?
My goodness! Wait, did you say you want me to say something controversial? Well, I seldom, if ever, contribute to literary controversies however much interesting they are. But now that you’ve asked, this is my riposte. If truth be told, I have also come across innumerable platforms, articles and books where literary scholars, critics as well as literati who refute the expression ‘spoken word poetry’. Their thesis is that ‘spoken word’ does not meet the salient features of a poem thus concluding that there isn’t such a thing as spoken word ‘poets’. I am in accord with them.
As a consequence, you may just call them spoken word artists, performing artists or whatever name. In any case, what’s in a name? Otherwise I think it’s very unkind, impolite and imprudent to call anyone a ‘fake’ poet no matter how ‘fake’ their piece or rendition seems. Instead, make efforts to nurture their ‘wanting’ artistic ability. By the way, although I am a page or what you are calling printed word poet, I love spoken word performances thus I keep these friends close. I enjoy watching and listening to them present animated renditions. In fact, I have a high regard for them especially when they blend their renditions with pleasant music from the guitar.
You’ve published widely, both in print and online. That is no mean feat considering that print publications for poems is a rare phenomenon. You actually launched a children’s poetry book, When Children Dare to Dream, in Uganda, co-authored with Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva. How has the world been receiving your poetry? Would you say that finally, poetry is back to life?
I am glad you’ve acknowledged my poetic offering to the world. I usually receive very encouraging commentaries and reviews from ardent poets, authors and scholars; some of whom are far more advanced in their literary pursuits than me. This surely funnels me into the right direction and psyches me up to craft greater pieces.
I am enchanted that When Children Dare to Dream is now out. It was a pleasure writing and editing it with Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, one of the most passionate poetry darlings in Africa. Our intent of publishing it was to fill the gap we identified: few materials on Children’s poetry and stories in Africa.
I am delighted that we have in our own little way participated in filling in this gap. Then, you have posed the question about bringing poetry back to life… Well, really! You see, poetry has always been alive so I cannot purport to bring it back to life for it has never died and will never. Actually I believe that Poetry is Life itself. Poetry is God. I trust that we’ll still have poetry even in heaven. Look, school children still perform it in Music, Drama as well as Church Festivals. In especially language classes, learners still read and enjoy the music in poetry. And nowadays, poetry recitals are often broadcast on radio and TV and some poetry renditions are even recorded in Video form and sold out to people. What better way displays that poetry is alive than the above mentioned?
Talking about your recent exploits, it seems your star tarried in Uganda. You studied at Makerere University, won the National Book Trust of Uganda (NABOTU) Literary Awards 2007, you are into FEMRITE, writing radio plays for Wizarts Media in Kampala, and your latest triumph at Babishai Niwe. When is your star moving into the Kenyan skies? How would you compare Ugandan appreciation of art with that of Kenya?
That’s true. Most of my literary exploits are in Uganda thus I always gladly consider Uganda my second country. In 2007, the year I sat Uganda Advanced Certificate Examinations (UACE), I participated in and won the National Book Trust of Uganda Literary Awards Competition for a collection of youthful poems. I was then a Senior 6 student at St. Lawrence Citizens’ High School, Creamland Campus.
After A levels, I proceeded to Makerere University in 2008 to study English, Literature and Education. As an undergraduate, my fervour for crafting poetry grew even more. And I said earlier, I was honoured to have my writing skills honed by the faculty. In my final year, my handwritten collection of campus life poems Lecture Room 4, bagged the first prize in the university’s annual creative writing competition. Studying at Makerere is one of my greatest blessings. Although I went to train as a teacher, I was given apposite foundation skills in Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing among other courses. My BA has shaped me into an all-rounder, able to even write radio plays such as Home to Community broadcast in Uganda’s main radio stations. By the way, most of my works are set in Uganda.
When is my star moving into the Kenyan literary skies? Good question. My wish is that Kenya my beloved motherland will listen to me. Oh my! I almost skipped this question about appreciation of art. I score terribly when it comes to comparisons! First of all, art is very broad. Oh my! Where do I start? All right, allow me to focus on the art of poetry vis-á-vis prose form. While Uganda is chiefly famed for its poetry, Kenya is famed for its prose. Ugandan writers and audience honestly and gladly support talents including non-nationals. Even the media gives these artists ample coverage. They attend their concerts and buy their books. On the other hand, although there is a very estimable list of great prose writers, majority of Kenyans hardly ever buy or read these novels unless it is for examination purposes. Ugandans appreciate their local artists more than Kenyans.
Look, even in the music industry, majority of Kenya’s TV and FM stations play more music from other countries than her own. Then the Kenyan writers themselves, where are they? Is there any Foundation especially from these literary giants that aim to nurture budding writers or even promote local publishing? What did I say? Sorry. I warned you. I score terribly when it comes to comparisons! Shall we move on please?
It was fascinating to come across this, Experimental Writing: Volume 1, Africa Vs Latin America Anthology, featuring your works. Tell us more about it.
I am pleased to be one of the contributing poets. Experimental Writing is a literary collaboration between African and Latin American writers. It features avant-garde poetry, fiction, non-fiction, short plays as well as mixed genres. It was published in print early this year.
I just saw its ‘Call for Works’ on my daily internet strolls. That tells us that modern writers must make Google their friend. Being published on these international platforms means a lot in one’s writing career. I remember in the advert, the editors instructed us to beat the boundaries, bend them, push them, pull, exaggerate, spread things around, throw the yoke off, blow smoke up, burn it, throw the ashes into the air… So, I took up the challenge and set my mind to exactly do that and I’m glad I crafted something that made the cut. A month after submitting my pieces, the lead editor, Tendai Rinos Mwanaka responded in an acceptance email; Poetry is indeed your territory. This inspired me. He has since become one of my greatest mentors.
Do you see any future for African poetry? Can you ‘eat’ from it, as we say in Kenya?
Yes, thanks. I believe the future of African poetry is very bright. At the moment, I cannot ‘eat’ from it. By the way, even in the most developed countries, it’s still difficult to pay one’s bills, day in, day out, through poetry. And here I’m not talking about spoken word … I guess this one pays.
Fine, now you understand why I am yet to meet a ‘full time poet’ unless one is also a pensioner. I think I must protect my day job … Otherwise I have a dream of releasing a bestselling poetry collection, some day. I believe that my dream poetry collection will receive countless reviews from renowned literary critics and authors the world over. I also dream that African poets will engage in intelligent dialogues with the hope of inspiring each other. I dream that African poetry will stand out as the most beautiful of voices the world over. Until then, let’s shape this future by nurturing each other’s talents as well as publishing poems from myriad nationalities, cultures, religions, ideologies, regions, and so on, either in print or online platforms.
You are a guest artist at Storymoja Festival 2017. What will you be discussing? Any promises for those who will be attending your event?
It’s humbling to be one of the guest artists at the Storymoja festival this year. I have two sessions of poetry on two different days; inclusive of our book launch which will particularly target children of ages 6 to 9. You’re most welcome to enjoy renditions of African poems as well as be inspired on how to craft remarkable poetic pieces. The audience will engage me on my journey of poetic writing. We shall also have a great delegation of writers and poets from Uganda with baskets full of literary harvests. They will be attending Storymoja Festival courtesy of Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation as well as other established authors from many African countries. So, the festival is open to all and sundry.
Your parting shot would be …
Everyone has a beautiful poem in them, and if you don’t pen it, nobody else will.