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

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Pan-Africanism: embracing the vision

For Assata Shakur - for whom the call resounds

“Human beings have an instinctive love of justice on the mass level.”
Kwame Ture

There is something daunting about words that end in “ism.” They make some curious demand on the mind as though they are words of “high intelligence” deliberately constructed to deny understanding to ordinary people. Words like capitalism, imperialism socialism, communism, secularism, neo-colonialism, modernism, post-colonialism, terrorism seem to compel us to study them– to focus energy on understanding their deepest meaning. Said too many times, they can lose significance and become concepts about which only a minority of interested people seem obsessed.

The revolutionary spouting “down with imperialism” to members of their family is soon considered a fanatic– if not lunatic. “Power to the people” has a somewhat accommodating flavour. For it seems clear - if power is called for the people are being denied it by something or someone. Whilst “Imperial-ism” identifies what that something is, as an “ism” word it can estrange the person who does not consider themself a revolutionary from what the struggle is about. Until those ism- heavy words got in the way, they had sympathised with the given cause or movement. The “isms” demand a responsibility to own a deeper understanding of struggle. And experience has shown that most people are not only daunted by, but shun the “weight of responsibility.” Instead, most of us prefer to identify vaguely with a cause and to allow others to dedicate their energies to the politics of struggle.

This “weight of responsibility” applies to Pan-Africanism – an “ism” word that all Africans must contemplate, if we are to transform our lives. Pan- African means “All African” – for “pan” refers to that which encompasses all - across an expanse. There is nothing mystifying about the term. But you either choose to self-identify as Pan-African – thereby making a conscious decision to adopt this political identity, or you live unwittingly as an unconscious Pan-African. Put another way – we might say we’re not “political” but this does not mean that our lives are not always being conditioned by politics. Our disengagement with our condition is what makes us “unconscious.” Our preparedness to take action is what makes us "conscious." Since “imperial-ism” – systematic dominance – is that “something” that denies the people power, by what means can the people reclaim it? Slogans alone – “power to the people” – are not enough. There must be something greater, some system, idea or act of consciousness that can be used for the people’s empowerment. This act of consciousness we might think of as an awakening –becoming conscious- to the meaning of Pan-Africanism. It implies “wilfulness” - a self-initiating act to embrace the vision of Pan-Africanism.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey is hailed as one of Africa’s greatest heroes. He spoke of Africa with unflinching pride and he desired social, cultural and economic freedom for Africans. “Africa for Africans – at home and abroad” and “the whole world is my province until Africa is free” are more than the emotional stirrings of his heart - they express the instinctive aspiration for African self-determination. That Africans should recognise their empowerment lay in deeply understanding the meaning of “home” was his vision. “Home” is foundation, freedom and security; it is where the units of one family gather. No matter how distant and removed from the origin the individual units find themselves, whether by free will or force, they must understand the unifying power of “home” - since one finger cannot form a fist. The importance of cohesion – of unity cannot be overstated. As Amos Wilson asserts: “the family is a primary organisation…or source of power” that secures the cultural and economic survival of its members. By pooling together – unifying the scattered fingers- we determine our own goals and means of achieving them; we protect one another from external forces/pressures. To simply love or honour Marcus Garvey without recognising and embracing his Pan-African vision is “deactivated consciousness” or idealist; that is the power (to have vision) is given over to someone else in which case the individual is absolved of their responsibility to consciously reclaim their power. Instead of “wilfulness,” their “will” to self-initiate and take action is denied (or "deactivated").

Visionaries are conscious of themselves and their purpose. And they are not afraid – of loneliness, death, being labelled fanatics (extremists or radicals) and importantly their responsibility to the truth. The work they initiate are aligned with the time and the conditions in which they live. For this reason some think Pan-Africanism had relevance in the past; that the “black power” slogan is outdated, the struggle for independence no longer necessary, and liberation movements dead. Equally it is believed that the world no longer produces visionaries. The systematic and wicked slaughtering of African warrior men and women, who dared to envision freedom for their people have blighted the struggle for justice. But as long as there is cause and call for justice the world will produce visionaries. And the call is ever present, for wherever we live as Africans we experience injustice and oppression.

The call resounded for David Oluwale, for Joy Gardner (both murdered by racist police in Uk), the Angola 3, Mumia Abu Jamal (political prisoners of an inhumane US penal system), for Stephen Lawrence, David Emmanuel (“smiley Culture”), for Kingsley Burrell, Mark Duggon, Trayvon Martin, for victims of Apartheid and for men and women workers gunned down in Marikana, for youth in Linden (Guyana) killed by state police. It is resounding for girls and women being raped in Congo, a legacy of a vicious system of exploitation, for the perpetual injustices against the people of Haiti; it is resounding for the trampling all over Africa by Western Europeans, the US and their greedy multi-national corporations who raid, scavenge and construct governments to serve their interest and pay puppets to instigate fake wars to which they can supply arms and when convenient come in to intervene. The call resounds when an African youth is stabbed, imprisoned, stopped, despicably searched and forced into a ready-made sub-culture of criminality; when the academic prospects of our sons and daughters are restricted by a school system designed for their underachievement; when being employed is token - ism (the farce of “positive discrimination”) and where there is a cap on our advancement; when no matter how many degrees we have, how experienced we are in our careers we’ll struggle to find work that pays the same as a less qualified/experienced European; and when our talent and material resources abound we’ll be the last to reap the rewards. All Africans experience, in varying degrees, systematic injustice and exploitation.

If the call resounds for a collective recognition of these injustices, then it calls for a collective (unified) response towards achieving economic, social and cultural liberation. The Pan-African vision is for self-determination, dignity and economic independence for all Africans. Dehumanised by centuries of oppression and exploitation many of us are ashamed of who we are; Pan-African is necessarily a political identity and it demands responsibility. Until we are truly free as a people, we must not be afraid to link arms with brothers and sisters in struggle. We must challenge ourselves to face the meaning of those “ism” words. Undoubtedly this will be a step toward knowing the enemy – as the visionary Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, has forewarned us. This enemy - the “collective imperial -ism” of Europe and the US will never give us the freedom to determine our fate; to utilise our human and non-human resources for the benefit of our people. With one hand, European countries let go of (gave “sham” independence to) their “colonies” with the other they clasped a neo-colonial noose around these countries, creating new (“neo”) ways of ensuring their economic interests continue to be served by these countries. The Pan-African objective – is to claim what is rightfully ours –total liberation.

When Nkrumah said: “all peoples of African descent, whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean, or in any other part of the world are Africans and belong to the African nation,” he not only echoed Garvey he also appealed for unity in the struggle against our common enemy. Self-affirmation as a Pan-African – despite the varied ways this is defined – is an empowering step towards building African unity; it is a step because the whole is a formidable journey. The vision cannot be a theory only - it must consciously manifest. An example of this vision in action was when Sekou Toure invited Nkrumah (after the 1966 coup in Ghana) to be co-president of Guinea Conakry and permitted Amilcar Cabral's PAICG party's head quarters to be based there. Though Muslim and Christian respectively Toure and Nkrumah didn't allow superficial differences to cloud their vision for a unified Africa; such was the brightness of their light. Past visionaries, whose contribution we hail and respect have borne their share of the responsibility. They have illuminated our path toward freedom, if we should only be willing to take time and read the signs. Basking in their light is not enough. We must rise to the challenge of taking action - bend our will and mind to tuning our understanding of the struggle and its "isms." In so doing we too might realise our potential to manifest light.

Shout Out

The Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare - Kwame Nkrumah
Blueprint for Black Power - Amos Wilson
Selected writings and speeches of Marcus Garvey - Bob Blaisdell
The World and Africa - WEB Du Bois