Kariuki wa Nyamu won Babishai Niwe Haiku Prize for 2017, after beating sixteen other artists. In exploring the place of poetry in Africa, I 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 in Africa?
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.
It also means that the future of African haiku [Afriku] is bright. 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. 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.
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. I have 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. 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.
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 usually receive 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.
It was a pleasure writing and editing When Children Dare to Dream 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.
About bringing poetry back to life… Well, really! Poetry has always been alive so I cannot purport to bring it back to life, for it has never died and never will. Poetry is Life. Poetry is God.
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. I consider Uganda as my second home. 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.
In my final year at Makerere University where I studied English, Literature and Education, my handwritten collection of campus life poems Lecture Room 4, bagged the first prize in the university’s annual creative writing competition. My BA shaped me into an all-rounder, able to even write radio plays such as Home to Community broadcast in Uganda’s main radio stations. Most of my works are set in Uganda.
While Uganda is 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.
It was fascinating to come across this, Experimental Writing: Volume 1, Africa Vs Latin America Anthology, featuring your works. Tell us more about it.
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?
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.
You are a guest artist at Storymoja Festival 2017. What will you be discussing? Any promises for those who will be attending your event?
I have two sessions of poetry on two different days; inclusive of our book launch which will target children of ages 6 to 9. You’re most welcome to enjoy renditions of African and be inspired in how to craft remarkable poetic pieces. The audience will engage me on my journey of poetic writing. We shall also have poets from Uganda courtesy of Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation as well as other established authors from other African countries.
Your parting shot would be …
Everyone has a beautiful poem in them, and if you don’t pen it, nobody else will.
Interview by Hillary Namunyu. Reach me on hillary @ wasomi . org