Kwame Dawes is the founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, winner of the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.
National Book Foundation: What sets African poetry apart from other world literature, particularly the differences between African poetry and the western tradition?
Kwame Dawes: The term “Africa” is a complicated convenience of history. This makes it, despite what totalizing practices we fall into, as absurd to characterize African poetry as anything specific as it would be to characterize European poetry as anything specific. So, for our purposes, the only thing that allows us to call our series and our organization African is the historical convenience of geography.
Because the colonizing world totalizes such a varied continent, it’s the consistent and frighteningly homogenous exploitation of the people of that continent that has made acts of recuperation collective so as to achieve the power of shared suffering. We publish African poets because nobody is doing so in ways that make sense. We ask nothing of the poets but that they be writers connected to any one of the many countries and ethnic groups on the continent. There may be lines of connection between a poet from Nigeria and a poet from Botswana, but these may well be the same connections that these poets find with Croatian poets and Canadian poets.
So I don’t know what distinguishes African poetry except the things that distinguish any tradition of poetry—and that is the tradition, the patterns of what has come before. But in Africa, as in other places, this is never homogeneous nor prescribed. So it’s impossible to credibly characterize it as any one thing. A quick look at the poets we have published so far will confirm this. Perhaps Kenyans may offer a more useful answer to this question in reference to Kenyan poetry.
NBF: What are some of the ways the APBF contributes to the literary community?
KD: The absence of published poetry by African writers has simply meant that the ideas, craft, feelings, considerations and voices of poets from Africa have been excluded from some conversations about poetry in the world. Where African novelists have been part of the literary conversation, the same is not true for poetry—at least not at the same level. So we are slowly changing the conversation by adding these voices. This can only enrich the “literary community,” if you will.
Our other related efforts are creating a network of poets from Africa, facilitating mentorships, and attempting to partner with other entities that seek to ensure that poets from Uganda, for example, are read by poets and people from Senegal. They contribute to this conversation in necessary ways.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Kwame Dawes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]We publish African poets because nobody is doing so in ways that make sense. We ask nothing of the poets but that they be writers connected to any one of the many countries and ethnic groups on the continent.[/pullquote]
NBF: Could you talk about how these mentorships work?
KD: The editorial team of the APBF is made of some highly regarded poets from Africa and its diaspora, but they are also amazing teachers and mentors for other writers. As a result, we have tried to find ways to add mentorships of various kinds to the work that we do. Typically, all the books we publish by African writers undergo very careful and intense editorial engagement and dialogue between members of our team and the writer we are publishing.
At the same time, we respond with extensive notes to those poets we believe have promise even if we do not select their work for publication. Our mentorship extends to connecting poets with other poets who are not necessarily on our editorial team and also granting advice and support for those poets in the business of publishing and working as a poet. We make ourselves available to work with African poets. This is our commitment. We expect these relationships to last even beyond the publication of a work.
Finally, most of the editorial team travel to various events that might feature African poets. We offer workshops, and in many instances, review manuscripts and offer advice for the poets. Essentially, we are trying to inculcate in our writers a system of support and respect that makes it possible for writers to enjoy apprenticeship opportunities and genuine support for their lives as writers.
NBF: You mentioned earlier that you partner with other entities. Could you talk about some of these partnerships?
KD: The APBF partners with various publishers including Akashic Books, Slapering Hol Press, Amalion Books and theUniversity of Nebraska Press to see the publication of work that we deem worthy of publication. We also partner with organizations like StoryMoja and Kwani in Kenya, and with arts organizations in Botswana, Uganda, Liberia, Ghana and other countries to promote the work of African poets.
We have a formal relationship, as well, with Blue Flower Arts, one of the leading booking agencies in the US, who has agreed to represent the poets of the APBF in securing readings and appearances around the country and outside of the country.
The APBF has a close working relationship with the Brunel Prize for African Poets, a relationship that allows us to share information about promising poets and to devise ways to bring workshops and mentorship to African poets. I could go on, but what should be clear is that our goal is to make as many connections with various organizations around the world that support the work we do.
NBF: How does your organization create a greater dialogue between African readers and writers across the continent?
KD: The challenges of book distribution on the continent of Africa are disheartening. But we are trying to use various strategies of partnering, networking, and working closely with publishers, arts organizations, and arts brokers in various countries to find innovative ways to get books across the continent. In our chapbook series we give each poet 100 copies of his or her chapbook to dispose of as she or he sees fit. This is an informal distribution system, but it works in many ways since the poets can become the conduit for these books.
We have been seriously committed to using social media and the Internet to raise awareness of the new books that are published. Our prizes, the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Literature and the Glenna Luschei African Book Prize, join with prizes like the Brunel Prize in African Poetry to create some media attention around new books and new poets around the continent.
It is not ideal. Ideal would be to have an Africa-wide distributor with reliable links to bookstores, literary festivals, and booksellers around the continent who can get these books to various countries. Some day, we hope this will happen. In the mean time, the African Poetry Libraries are designed to at least make the books available to people who can access the five we have established. A start.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Kwame Dawes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Poetry writing is a very private and peculiar affair.[/pullquote]
NBF: What has your experience of building poetry libraries been?
KD: This has been an exciting endeavor because it has been based entirely on collaborations and partnerships with individuals and organizations on the continent who have assumed leadership of these libraries. The concept is simple, but the impact is anything but simple. The libraries have become hubs for poets and lovers of poetry and have filled an important niche of bringing contemporary poetry from around the world to these five centers. As they become fully established, we will expand to other places.
NBF: Where do you see the APBF going next? What plans and expansions do you hope to implement in the future?
KD: We are doing what we set out to do and will continue to do so. Our hope is to be able to facilitate workshops for poets in various countries, some virtual and some physical. We are seeking the funds to be able to do this.
We are also starting to plan books in translation from European languages spoken in Africa and from African languages. This is a long term goal, and our hope is to be able to do more of such work in the future. Our efforts, so far, remain in English, but we hope to expand when resource will allow us to. This is still a ways off, but we are exploring this.
NBF: Are the poets writing in English to begin with?
KD: Most of the poets that the APBF has published thus far are poets writing in English. The poets themselves may be multilingual, but they are writing in English. There is nothing unusual about this. However, we are now looking at the translated work of poets who are writing in other languages for publication. We will publish the work in English translation.
For instance, we are partnering with the Swahili Writers Prize, run by the Kenyan novelist and poet Mukoma wa Ngugi, to publish any poetry manuscripts that win the prize. The work will be translated into English and published by the APBF. We are also welcoming manuscripts that are then translated from languages other than English.
I can envision a time when we will be able to publish in other languages. But that is not likely to happen immediately given the challenges of multilingual publication. But with increasing success and expanding partnerships, it is likely that this will happen.
NBF: Has working with these emerging African poets influenced your own writing? What ideas have these poets introduced to you?
KD: Poetry writing is a very private and peculiar affair. My life has been equally devoted to making poems as it has been to teaching poets and making space for poets in the world. I am engaged by poets of all ilk, and I tend not to keep track of how one poem may offer ideas for a poem I may write. Were I to do that, I would have to include painters, singers, playwrights, teachers, lawyers, and on and on.
What I can say is that there is something deeply affirming in seeing new poets finding their voices and to see established poets getting the due they deserve. It has always been my view that I am as good as the company I keep. The more of us there are, the better I get. So this is at least one reason that I seek to build community.