While you were reading my ruminations last Saturday, I was partying “big” in Kampala. I had turned 73, you see, and my beloved FEMRITE sisters had, irresistibly, tempted me into celebrating differently: with a huge slice of verse.
So, here they were, the Uganda women writers and their poetic brothers, descending on me in my rather sun-roasted lusuku (banana grove) in Gayaza, loaded with versified goodies, and lots of love. They had wanted to read only my verse, in their monthly feature called “author of the month”. But I asked that we share the stage, with their own verse, of which there has been a rich and impressive crop of late.
Indeed, I am in the process of writing a preface to the Uganda Women Writer’s latest verse collection, featuring a wide variety of versifiers ranging from veterans to brand new appearances. What particularly strikes me is the dexterity and polish of the compositions of many of the young poets. I have the same impression of the work of the young Kenyans, including my prize-winning former student, K J Nyamu.
This success is, obviously, not accidental. It is the result of dedicated and systematic hard work, which is a sine-qua-non, an essential requirement, of all good writing. The young people’s seriousness in this direction is a heart-warming vindication of my lifelong advocacy of technique in creativity.
I am endlessly on record as insisting that strong feelings, ardent social concern or a burning desire to communicate, and the like, are important, but they are not enough to produce artistic writing, especially verse. To turn all these into a viable text, the writer has to display competent language use, meticulous patterning and organization and a “startling” imagination that turns concepts into leaping, palpable pictures.
This strident, even sometimes cantankerous, campaign of mine dates from the mid-1960s, when I realized that a lot of us with a “poetic” chip on our shoulder were getting away with a lot of trash in the name of “abstract” or “free” verse. We were also taking advantage of the generosity of the so-called “midwives” of African Literature, like David Cook, Gerald Moore, Ulli Beier, Bob Green and their ilk.
These teachers and friends of ours were so anxious to encourage our efforts that they often indulged us, even when we were obviously below par. I published a piece called “The Poem” in The Makerere Beat, our student periodical in those days. In it I castigated our undeservedly praised clumsy non-verse “poems” as: “cowardlycriticreated… clapyaptrapcrap… shitknitwiteverybitshit”. I apologize for the crudity, but I was looking for a way of saying that the timidity of our professors sometimes misled us.
This reminds me of a Makerere professor who was convinced that it was easy to write poetry. He believed, and used to say, that if you slammed an “oh” to the beginning of any statement, you were making poetry.
A sample of his verse would be something like: “oh latitude, oh longitude, oh tropic of Cancer/ oh tropic of Capricorn!” The good gentleman was a geographer, you see, and his credentials there were impeccable. But as for the poetics of his verse, oh, I am not qualified to judge.
Anyway, back to my birthday/verse day bash, there was none of that “oh” yap-yap or claptrap last Saturday. The readings were exquisite multilingual selections from the FEMRITE Readers Club, in both prose and verse. As I said earlier, I was touched by not only the depth and maturity of sentiment in the pieces but also by the sophistication of the expression.
Indeed, several of the presentations were from national and international prize-winning works, like Lillian Akampurira Aujo’s Jalada-ranked short story, “Where pumpkin leaves dwell”, Peter Kagayi’s much-touted volume, The Headline That Morning, and Harriet Anena’s collection, A Nation in Labour.
As always when I mention books, I cannot fail to lament the fact that such works are not readily available across the East African region. What are our booksellers doing?
Incidentally, another thing that struck and delighted me at our reading party was the realization that there is a healthy proliferation of new and apparently small publishers producing and marketing these new works.
This, again, chimed well with the advice that I keep giving my upcoming author friends, that they should seriously consider self-publication, as well as online options. We have the technology for them.
I wonder if my friend Anthony Wesonga Oduori, who heeded my advice in this direction some years ago, is aware that many are following in his nyayo. The FEMRITE authors at my party even emulated him by donating autographed copies of their works to me as birthday presents. Can I complain? Indeed, my cup doth overflow. But I should not end without telling you about the poem that Harriet Anena read us from her collection. My friends, huyo dada yu anena (that sister is really talking). The speaker in the poem she presented talks about love-making.
She says that getting intimate with her should be as solemn as offering a divine sacrifice, celebrating mass or holy communion, complete with opening and reading the holy scriptures.
The ensuing debate was heated and emotional. Some of us felt the use of sacred images in the poem verged on the irreverent. Others, however, insisted that it was appropriate, since love, in all its aspects, is a hallowed and sacred gift, not to be taken lightly, and certainly not casually. Coming just a few days before Valentine’s, the debate was curiously apt.
Anyway, I was thoroughly rejuvenated by the love of my FEMRITE sisters and brothers, and the verse, on my birthday. I was so uplifted that I completely forgot about the implications of attaining the advanced age of seventy-three and what I should do about it.
But that is a story for another day.
Prof Bukenya is one of the leading scholars of English and Literature in East Africa. [email protected]