On Thursday evening at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, an eager crowd settled in to hear a discussion about Eight New-Generation African Poets, a box set of chapbooks just released last month. Although editor Chris Abani had been unexpectedly waylaid and was unable to make the event, editor Kwame Dawes was joined in lively conversation, and readings, by Akashic Books publisher and editor-in-chief Johnny Temple, and poet Ladan Osman.
After an introduction by PEN Trustee Laura Baudo Sillerman, who helped to fund the poetry publishing project, Dawes began by talking about how he and Abani first got the idea for the project. An attempt to come up with publishing projects that were exclusively committed to contemporary African poets led to the realization that nothing seemed to exist, and the editors’ thought that someone else should do it gave way to the decision that they themselves should start the project. With the help a handful of dedicated editors, they released their first chapbook box set in 2014, publishing seven poets. Dawes excitedly reported that all of the first seven poets are anticipating publication of full-length books within the next two years. This new box set features eight poets, and presents an impressively wide range of countries, personal backgrounds, and voices. There is a complex juxtaposition of many styles of African poetry. The plan is to continue with another box set of seven to ten poets every year for ten years, at the end of which the project will have published seventy to one hundred new African poets.
Dawes then elaborated on the statement that the project’s first and foremost intended readership is African. He described the lack of region-wide, much less continent-wide, distribution networks for books in Africa, which means that, with the exception of spoken word poets who travel and share their work through live performances, there is very little poetry that makes its way across the continent. Several times throughout the evening, Dawes pointed out the importance of publishing physical books as a means of record-keeping and proof of existence and as a means of spreading poetry to places and people without access to digital formats or the ability to travel.
Poet Ladan Osman then joined Temple and Dawes onstage. Osman was born in Somalia, and won the Sillerman First Book Prize in 2014; she was also one of the poets published in the first box set. She spoke of the importance of being involved with a project in which there was no feeling whatsoever of an outsider’s gaze or of any sort of objectification of the African voice, and of how it was a dream of hers to have work published in a context that is in communication with other contemporary African writers. In intensely powerful and engaging readings, Osman recited three of her own poems. Dawes then read a poem by Abani, and one of his own. The readings were followed by a few audience questions. When asked about the issue of translation, and the multitude of African languages, Dawes explained that even though the plan for now is to focus on publishing African poetry written in English, because of the nature of their contacts and resources, they also have several books in the process of being translated into English.
Referring back to Osman, who spoke of her desire to remain connected to Somalia, Dawes ended the evening by expressing his immense respect and support of writing in the diaspora. He then relayed an anecdote about the Sillerman Poetry Prize to underscore the issue of accessibility and availability of poetry books in Africa; he said that it was clear, when reading the entries, which poets the poets themselves had read and not read. It seemed that many entrants’ references and influences ended with T.S. Eliot, because of issues of access, Eliot having undoubtedly been read in school textbooks. This, if anything, was an extremely powerful indication to him of the significant value of publishing—in print—new contemporary African poetry.
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