When I first saw Peter Kagayi’s electrifying poetry performance at Gayaza Girls High School in Kampala, I couldn’t help but join the students in chanting and reciting Kagayi’s popular verses; In 2065, My Country is a Badly Taken Selfie and If Its Yours, Touch It.
A law graduate from Makerere University and the latest sensation in the Ugandan poetry scene, Kagayi seems to be leading a new generation of poets who are ably fitting into the shoes of the Okot p’Bitek generation. I had a chat with Kagayi during the Writivism Festival 2016 in Kampala and we spoke about the Uganda poetry scene, why his book is sold alongside audio CDs, his mission to start poetry clubs in schools and where his love for poetry stemmed from.
Where did your love for poetry begin?
I started to recite poetry when I was in nursery school. I just happened to go to school at a time when children were being taught to recite. Interestingly, even as a new student, I was singled out as the best reciter.
I rediscovered my interest in poetry when I was about 15. I came across a collection of East African poetry by the Kenyan poet Jared Angira and in it read the poem Death, etc, etc by another Kenyan poet Jagit Singh. For the first time, I encountered metaphors that made sense to me. The persona in the poem kills a cockroach but doesn’t stop to think that perhaps it, too, had babies. It got me thinking about the futility of being a human being, whereby the only life that matters is the life of fellow humans.
From that point on, I started liking poetry because I figured there’s a lot you can say using very few words. I carried that book around for a while until I came across another, David Rubadiri’s Growing Up with Poetry. Through Rubadiri, I got to read Shakespeare and Dennis Brutus. At about that time, I started studying literature and, as luck would have it, the school text was Growing up with Poetry. This made my literature classes even more enjoyable.
I must also add that the poetry I know today was also greatly inspired by my younger brother. He had a better teacher in his school and that teacher used to tell them to write and collect their favourite poems. One day I came across that book that contained his favourite poems. In it, I got to know of wonderful poets like William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, John Keats, Elizabeth Browning and Lord Tennyson. We also happened to live next to a university library and so, we’d sneak in pretending to be university students and then stay the whole day reading and teaching each other whatever we had learnt from the books.
As a third year law student at Makerere, I had a friend who introduced me to a poetry group she was part of. I was thrilled to discover that I’d found my age mates and college mates who wrote really great poetry. I joined their group, The Lantern Meet of Poets. Being part of the group authenticated my interest in poetry and I grew to critiquing, writing, performing and eventually publishing my poems.
Who are your greatest influences in the poetry world?
William Shakespeare from whom I leant the purpose of metre. Robert Frost because of his warmth, emotion and passion; Wilfred Owen, who taught me about angry, bitter and circumstantial poetry, and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Lately, I have discovered, Rem Raj the Nigerian writer of magical realism poetry.
Tell us a little about your very popular debut anthology, The Headline This Morning
The book has 51 poems. It also has two sides, the political expression and personal poems about nature and love. Both societal and personal struggles are captured in deeply personal ways. I must also add that 21 of the poems in the book had been performed on stages.
You are the brain behind an exciting poetry event in Kampala dubbed The Poetry Shrine. Please tell us a bit about it?
The Poetry Shrine is a poetry night that happens at the Uganda National Theatre once every three weeks. We feature a single poet or a group performance of not more than four poets who have two hours to put up their performance. It is compulsory that every poet who debuts at the shrine debuts with a book. This, therefore, means that every three weeks the poetry shrine is supporting publication of a poetry anthology. We insist on having print copies so that the audience members can have copies to go home with afterwards.
Tell us about the challenges facing young poets
There isn’t a lot of poetry coming out of Uganda because though Ugandan poets are creating, their poetry isn’t being shared with the rest of the world. This is because of constraints like poor exposure and few publishing and performances opportunities. However, I feel that the opportunities are increasing with initiatives like The Writivism Festival and Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, which give poets a chance to show the world what their poetry is all about.
Poetry performers should learn to rely more on intonation rather than diction and accenting. Let them bank on the weight of the creativity of their poems and not the performances. The more genuine the poets are with their roots and heritage, the more the audience resonates with them.
How has poetry in Uganda changed over the years?
Poetry has evolved and it is no longer just poetry on the page. Performance poetry is really popular now and it has helped increase poetry publications. It even looks as though performance poets are more relevant in our society now than page poets. This is forcing poets to become performers. A good example is Harriet Anena, the author of A Nation in Labour. When she first published her book, she didn’t consider herself a performer. However, this year she has become a performer and this has increased her audience as people now relate to Anena the artist. My book sells really well every time I perform because people are intrigued to find out what is beyond the performance.
Are Ugandan publishers receptive to poetry?
No. I remember walking up to the biggest publishing house in this country three years ago and asking them to publish my poetry. They turned me down and complained that they couldn’t possibly publish poetry because it isn’t selling. Two years later, Sooo Many Stories (a publishing house run by Ugandan Writer Nyana Kokoma) started and insisted that it was only publishing creative fiction. I was lucky to be the first writer to be published by them. That a poetry collection was their first work and was a vote of confidence in us poets. Interestingly, Fountain Publishers, the big publishing house that refused to publish my poems, have actually published a poetry collection this year. We are happy that publishers are warming up to the idea of poetry publications.
I noticed that some of your poems are very socially and politically conscious, almost activist, yes?
I don’t call my poetry activist; I instead call it active. This is a deliberate technique I had to nurture within me as a writer because I figured that the roots of our poetic expression here are in oral literature. I thus decided to create characters who were speaking to others. My poems aren’t exactly spoken word, just the persona speaking out loud and thus making it easier to engage the audience. One of my favourite artists and biggest influences is Bob Dylan, the American poet and folklore singer. He wrote poems that were activist but which he created simply because he felt as a writer he could create. When he wrote The Times They Are A Changing and When the Ship Comes In, he was only writing about the times. I also feel like I am simply writing about the times we live in now, but then there are people who can take this work and use it to champion and advance their own courses. That’s totally fine with me but let it be known that I’m not writing for the purpose of having my work recited at rallies.
The Headline That Morning is available online at the Magunga Bookstore