Friday, 31 May 2013

Musings from Yari Yari 2013: On Poetry

“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before” Audre Lorde

I don’t know why I began this futile journey, but I’m certain I’ll be trapped in the solitude of the effort. Perhaps it is to challenge my own creativity and ego. How to do this sincerely is problematic - since creativity sometimes dictates flamboyance; for art to be ceremoniously named. In that naming meaning is contrived and the ego is foolishly comforted by its accomplishments. Most writers find it trifling to “talk” about their work precisely because of this contrivance of meaning. They would rather the work – their craft – “speak” as it were – for itself; or initiate individuated meanings depending on who sees or reads it. Art when it really is good touches too many souls to be readily confined to absolute interpretation and meaning, especially by the artist (the medium or muse). As Toni Morrison puts it “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” That’s why I tentatively take these steps forced on me after the Yari Yari conference for women writers of Africa and the diaspora (May 16th-19th) in Accra. It’s in no way intended to “define” poetry – for we know the folly of this. Rather it’s to free myself from the musings that kept coming back after each day of the conference.

The Yari Yari symposium of African women writers was inspiring for many reasons. Ama Ata Aidoo, one of the first African women writers I read at University refused to be labelled “mother” of anything, no less as Ghana’s foremost female writer. I was pleased to be in her company, to “hear/feel” her power. The documentary on Audre Lorde (the Berlin Years 1984-1994) reminded me of spirits in our midst – those ordinary people who are unafraid of their extraordinariness; their efforts are overwhelming, sometimes halting ours because we find it impossible to strive toward attaining such seeming heights. Sculptor Mel Edwards’ gentle tribute to his wife Jayne Cortez, who passed last December, was touching as was the tearful libation poured by Ama Ata for the moth circling the conference room. Again the act of extraordinariness meant that although Jayne, one of the founders of the conference, was moving into transition she insisted Yari Yari go ahead as planned. I had read that Angela Davis would be attending, but sceptically I doubted she would really come. She said she didn’t know why it had taken so long for her to visit Ghana of all African countries since Ghana was the beacon for Independence from colonialism and the struggles of Africans for liberation. “Akwaaba” came the response, because what mattered was that she was there now and welcomed, especially by Ama Ata, the two exchanging mutual respect. The fleeting visit on the last day by Samia Nkrumah (Kwame Nkrumah’s daughter) who generously granted me some photos further reminded me how the ordinary can be elevated to extraordinary – by deeds or association.

As I listened to the various panel of writers, all of them published, (though we were told that it’s the “writing” that mattered ultimately), I constantly found myself struggling to articulate (even to myself) what poetry is. Not that this was the first time. Despite teaching this subject I’ve never felt confident I knew how to differentiate what poetry is from what it so vastly attempts to be. I know it has its own discipline, distinguishable from sociology or history, say, or the ready spouting of facts and mundane information; even though it is capable of mashing these up into artistic expression.

One of the publishers at the conference said, rather discouragingly, that only about 1% of the manuscripts she receives are worthy of publishing. She said that not everything written should be published – sometimes it’s for personal release and nothing more. This might seem harsh but it needs to be taken within the context, as she also demonstrated, of crafting – dedicating time to a creative effort that an artist might not have “consciously” initiated. I am not a pianist simply because I can tap tap the white and black keys; I am no saxophonist because I know how to blow. I can’t sing, though my ego would like to believe I can! Writing is one of the first things we learn but as a craft it takes effort to make the leap from function to art. I know many in the audience wilted at this notion but there will be many more who are convinced that they are poets/writers and that their literary boom is being overlooked by publishers. Egos don’t have manners they desperately crave exposure.

So let me meander in the solitude and try to express what I think about poetry; I’m prepared for the losses in translation on the way but maybe something will surprise and keep guiding me.

It’s a wilful art of words defying expectations. It’s impulsive. It produces sumptuous feeling; enriched not by language structures (conceptualised rigidness and rules) but the deliberate abandonment of these. Or instead of being conceptualised (consciously) those structures become spiritualised in the stillness and composure. One is forced to “speak in tongues,” – if you like - at that silent, compelling command. Or perhaps possessed by the free language of spirit - I’ll call it “spiritised” language. And it doesn’t boundary or constrain but retrieves the limitlessness of creativity becoming a dancing art of ecstatic release. Bound spirits are freed. Stories aren’t told but “invoked.” This comes sometimes violently; a kind of intuiting violence that convulses the heart. It doesn’t concede modes of rationality but ruptures mind-fullness. I think it is produced in and from a kind of trance. For the mediation is imperative. It’s theatrical too; dramatizing and imagising everything. Inside the heart of bitter, beautiful or tormented experiences it selects the muse and moment for its expression. And it is impossible to refuse it just like drumbeat bounces head and tantalises body. It compels emotion; exorcising demons; magnetising deities of voices. Some erratic substance materialises – flailing lines of movement. You will know it by the place and mood wherein it takes or leaves you. The linear, like conceptual language is disrupted since it journeys too predictably. Feelings spin they do not strut from the boldness of imagination. The words arraying interrupted patterns are defiant in their wilfulness to delight and disturb. This “spinning” of feelings is an initiatory calling. It desires the muse to shape it somehow –and let it go. Or energise it into a living entity; freed from the wilderness of imagination but thrust into the substance of contending emotions. The calling is not a high or low, better or poor thing – for it refrains from borders that blight its power. It simply must be born; optimally from the soul tuned in purposeful contemplation. Timing – though not constraining – is precise. For it knows when to stir that soul. Pain and pleasures collide or maybe they are collaged in the shaping. There is a pervading ecstasy in the state of subconscious communication with the muse. Yet this ecstasy – or pleasure – is mirrored by the pain in releasing the spirit in the words. The contracting of structured language out of subconsciousness is a troubling feat and wonderment. So something palpably negotiated between muse and art manifests. One respects the other for without this neither exists. There might be sweet reluctance but the mediation brings a kind of empowering flightiness. By this, the muse delights in the madness permissible by the meddling spirit of their art. It does not aim to free nor constrain but perhaps to spark a discouraged soul. Emotional dalliances are the outcome. I mean – something seemingly secure is shaken. The rupture might aggrieve but something of it encourages action; this might be to dream new visions and believe therein. Fear takes a different place in consciousness - as the brevity of a gasp - for now something veritable has been released. Art and living merge. One enriches the other with awesome dependency; the muse must decide the order; recognise and accept the gift of thus being “mounted” (as it were) by this relentless, guiding spirit.

The above musings are just that “musings” which will evermore abide in solitude. I experienced the following on one of the Yari Yari nights when I couldn’t sleep. The attempt is to express the “lived experience” into art. But what was the “experience” that I’m trying to merge with art? “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (Toni Morrison, again) – this is something like the experience. It was not a dream, but something more; kind of like surrendering to spirit…and so here goes…


Birthing and burnishing
brilliance into the moon
of my scarred belly
the corners of my mouth
nearly tears
etherealities of peace
I simulate in wombing darkness
memories of immortality
enticed by the blissfulness of flight
and as I climb the night sky tree
Amazonian shaded leaves needle me
soar higher something promises
fearlessly I traipse my imagination
into the dream of forgetfulness
and lay many miseries there

Some silhouetted form
within the heart
of a translucent crevice
breathing sounding silent
with unknown aliveness
I am enjoying this fleeting
dance in the ravine
of sweet stillness
I am bounded beyond rooftops
of hurting and surviving
casting freedoms for my futures
I am enraptured by No-thing

Breathing and beaming reveries of
fluctuating light
I swirl in the void of
conjured sanctuary
everything releases me
my limbs synergise their own heavens
I float in the space of aborted sacrifices
I see light blushing my soul
I can be no more than
The All that I am
I do not struggle in spaces
of timelessness
I expand in the darkness
and the glow
glowings remain

M.Yaa Asantewa

Shout Out


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  2. Great piece Dr Asantewa! I love your poem. In memory of our lunch at 'Next Door', here is one for you.

    Next Door

    I was Next Door where the grey sea crashed.
    Where shady palm trees vied with sophomoric parasols
    Where the sun wins hands down
    And I sweat.
    Star beer eyes jollof rice and blue marble tiles,
    Gye Nyame sits, listens:
    My friend, a warrior
    The waiter, a worrier, “my sister bring your number”
    And Torso, torn just so;
    But never repeats a word.

    1. Hey - thanks. Just browsing and noticed this, Yes, love this piece reflecting that still moment at next door and after Labadi - though I was glad we tipped the water - for mammy!