BY THE BOOK: Richard Mbuthia

Thursday November 28 2019

For over 17 years, Richard Mbuthia has been teaching English to schoolchildren aged between 8 and 15. PHOTO | COURTESY

Richard Mbuthia is a teacher, poet, editor and motivational speaker from Kenya. For over 17 years, he has been teaching English to schoolchildren aged between 8 and 15.

He is passionate about nurturing the poetic craft in children. His poems are widely published in books, magazines and online sites. His debut poetry collection is titled The Setting Noon and Other Poems.

Mbuthia has also compiled and edited three children’s poetry anthologies titled Letters of Gold, Bounding for Light and Sparks in the Dark.

What are the three most memorable books you have read so far, and what makes them so?

The first book is Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. The edge-of-the-seat drama in it is mind-blowing!

Then, Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths, which takes one on a journey of self-reawakening.


The other one is Ben Carson’s Think Big, which helped me to realise that anyone can succeed in life, their current situation notwithstanding.

How many books on average do you read in a year and do you have a favourite spot where you read them from?

I read about 40 books in a year. I read them anywhere: on public transport, as I wait in a queue, on my bed, name it.

Which is your most favourite genre of books? Why?

I love books on poetry. They fan my love for words (and their sounds) to a roaring flame.

What is the size of your book collection as of now? Where do you get them from and what motivates you to?

I have over 300 books. I buy them from bookshops and on the streets. I am motivated by the realisation that books are to the brain what food is to the stomach.
Which are your two most treasured books and why?

I treasure The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, edited by John Wain, for it contains the works of revered poets of yore. I treasure Labyrinths by Christopher Okigbo. Frankly speaking, Okigbo is a poet I hold in high esteem.

If you were to become a poem, which one would you choose and why?

I would be “The Highway Man” by Alfred Noyes. This narrative poem ignited my love for poetry.

If you had an opportunity to meet three great poets, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

Well, two of the poets I’d have loved to meet are long gone. They are, Christopher Okigbo and Edgar Allan Poe. Their writing styles enamour me. I love the music that is resident in their poetry.

The other one is Nigeria’s octogenarian man of letters, Professor Wole Soyinka. Soyinka’s poetry is likened to Okigbo’s in complexity and in the layers of meaning that have to be peeled. The depth with which he writes continues to inspire me.

Have you ever had a bad commentary about your writing? What did it say and how did you deal with it?

I share some of my writing on social media platforms such as, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. I remember there is a time I wrote and posted a poem titled “Forever”. I wrote it in Old English (Shakespearean).

In part it read: “Fresh scented bliss, I plead/Please do quell my sniffs/Amid the soulful whiffs/Of this bottle’s essence/What, pray tell, will I do/When this liquid doth die?” Some readers thought it was improper to write in Old English in this era!

Well, my reason for using Old English was because it piqued my fancy. Some readers agreed that my use of Old English spiced the poem.

If you would compare Kenya and Tanzania, where is poetry appreciated more?

Poetry is doing well in both countries. I would say that Kenya is leading the pack with Tanzania hot on its heels. There is seemingly a wave of poetry reawakening sweeping across East African region. People’s appreciation of poetry in both countries has grown by leaps and bounds.

E-books versus hard copies, what is your preference and why?

I find e-books a little off-key as compared to hard copies. I admit that I am a bit old school when it comes to my reading preferences. I value the feel and smell of pages, and the sound produced as I turn them. I feel that words dance better on the pages of a hard book than an e-book.

Page poetry or Spoken word, what is your preference and why?

I have never tried spoken word poetry and I feel it wouldn’t suit me. I love my alone-time with my pen and paper or keyboard and screen.

What was your last poetry book that you read and how did you find it?
It was Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth. It is such a beautiful book first published in 1798. It contains ballads that marked the beginning of the English Romantic Movement in Literature.

What can schools and teachers do to encourage students to enjoy poetry?
I think I could answer this question by relating the method that I use to encourage students to enjoy poetry. I try as much as possible not to complicate the learning process with poetic jargon. I always say that poetry is about feelings, sights, emotions and words that drive them in a rhythmic way.

I show learners how easy it is to write poems about their daily experiences and require them to write the pieces that they present in class and at school assembly. This method has worked wonders. I believe this is the best way to inculcate the love for poetry in learners.

If you weren’t a poet and schoolteacher, what would you be?

I would be a broadcaster. Long before I started writing poems, I used to imitate how news anchors read news. It was fun and I was sure that that was what I wanted to do with my life when I grow up. I still nurse feelings of one day doing something with my voice, say, doing voiceovers which a number of people have opined my voice is suited for.

What piece of advice would you wish all aspiring poets to keep in mind?

Words are your possession. They work the way you treat them. If you decide to make them shudder, cower and cringe, they will fear you.

They will hide in crevices and crannies – far from reach. But if you let them gambol and frisk like calves at the sight of green pasture, then the milk and honey of creativity will be your portion.

Choicest words inhabit the recesses of a mind that honours them.