Today we shall listen to poetry
While seated comfortably
Yesterday we listened to guns coughing
- Listening To Poetry
Peter, your poetry collection is the first book to be published by Uganda's new publisher Sooo Many Stories. Reading your collection I was reminded of a line by Lidia Yuknavitch, "Words carry oceans on their small backs." One of your main themes is poetry, in itself. The words, the poems, can be violent. These are not works of passive narration, but poems that want reach out and physically alter the reader. Can you talk to us more about this?
I want to write a poem
Into children's heads
So when people hear it
They run and hide.
- I Want To Write A Poem
PETER: My poetry in a way references how the history of my people has been memorized, and how I have re-encountered it. Then I re-imagine it, as a poet today. In my country there is a clique of people who refer to themselves as ‘The NRM Historicals’. They are recognized as founders of the rebel group that brought the current ruling regime in Uganda to political power in 1986. Part of that clique is a man who once was a poet before he joined “the liberation struggle”. He is now a retired army general. Still alive, and still a serving minister in the current government, to me he is the ‘I’ in the poem ‘I Want to Write a Poem’. The grim irony of a poet who discharged more bullets than poems hangs over his face every time I see him.
I realize how insignificant one’s life is when it cannot be traced in history. I always ask myself what would happen if our past encountered its future, in the presence of our present. What is memory? Can it be customized, patented? Should it? Who owns our history as a people? Do we belong to the past, or the future? But words are inert; dead things only given life by usage of the user. As a writer that is where I fall in line. What are questions to me, appear to be responses to the reader. But I do not write to alter reality, I only question it. The reader answers the questions their own way.
Strange things whisper in my ears
Voices of karma
Sounds of Sutra
- "Wamma It's Just a Thought"
There is a persistent stereotype that African literature is shy about writing about sex. Yet your poetry goes there, in the forms of love, abandonment, control of the body (including the female) and violence. How do you view sex and sexuality's role in your poetry?
So Mr Foreign Aid, you relax all day in our tropical atmosphere
With a glass of Chardonnay in your hand,
With two boxes of condoms below your bed
- The Modern King Leopold
PETER: I think sex is abundant in African literature! Why do people think it isn’t? Maybe it isn’t written about in a way they would want it to be but sex is alive in African literature. Where I come from it is written about, and some of the most engaging of metaphorical expressions in everyday life are about sex. My writings are not straying off the toed line. They merely weigh in on an experience we are all familiar with somehow but share perspectives of it which are not normally discussed often. The poem ‘The Modern King Leopold’ talks of sex as a political weapon of mass destruction. The poem ‘Have You Heard the News?’ makes reference to sex as a toll of servitude. In other poems (‘Nothing Happened’) sex is a form of estrangement and loneliness; in others it is the warmth of companionship.
Sexuality, on the other hand, has been the cause of a socio-cultural rife in my society. From the State attempting to sanction how women should dress (‘The Headline That Morning’), to how children believe marriage to be (‘A Family Portrait’) and sexuality, especially of the female kind, has started many debates. However in poems ‘You Hurt My Toe You Idiot’ and ‘If it’s Yours, Touch it’, the female voice responds to the social attitudes men tend to visit women with in my society. As for the poem ‘Woman’, the persona recognizes how ephemeral life has become and calls out to the woman to save humanity.
Yet I love rain; it makes me
Un-run time, and I am a child again.
In the post My Writing Process you say, "Rain has a strong force on my writings." Your poetry has a distinct rhythm, sound, as you mention in the same blog post, a begging to be read aloud. Does the attraction to rain have something to do with its beat? Or is it more complex than that?
PETER: I once read, I think I was 10, of how a province in Somalia had not received rain for over 15 years. When eventually it rained, children asked their parents what the water from above was. That story made me think of rain differently. Something that casual to me was a miracle to someone else. I remember pitying those children. But even as a child I always loved playing in the rain and although the feeling has stayed with me, I have lost the imagination of infantile fun. As for the rhythmic expressions, the poems about rain I wrote when it was raining. Sound informs mood which in turn informs rhythm. The difference is in my maturity I learnt that rain has a destructive tendency with it, so my adulthood keeps me tucked away from it.
Truth stuck to roof of my mouth
Like peanut butter
- "Tonight I Dance With The Devil"
It is rare to find poetry collections published by mainstream publishers. Poetry is typically given space by commercial magazines and zines (both paper and online) and independent publishers, most of whom have little to no marketing budget to promote the poets. Where else can people enjoy poetry?
PETER: It is true published poetry is hard to find in our bookshops. But one thing for sure is poetry is abundant but in other forms. Poetry is no longer being just 'read;' it’s also being 'heard' and 'watched' in various performance spaces and now on screen; it's being animated; it's being recorded as well in music studios across the continent... Nowadays searching only for page poetry is self-limiting. As it should be, poetry lives now beyond book collections. One has to find it where it is alive. In my country, page poets are fewer yet the poetry culture is becoming more vibrant in performance poetry spaces. In fact, page poets are turning themselves into performers because people are more eager to watch/listen than read poetry. Thus if one is looking out for poetry, page poetry is less than a third of what is out there. The performances have made it easier to find poetry. One just has to know where to look.
Also, for me poetry does not only exist amongst poets; it can be searched for in music, theatre, open market retailers, visual art, nature, the sound of cities, and in the eyes of everyday people.
Each of us has a story
That will remain dead
- Crowd Traffic
Please could you introduce us to some African poets you enjoy for our readers to explore.
PETER: Of the 'African' poets I have read, I wish poets from Africa were first identified by his/her specific nationality. Without proper identification we are denied the opportunity to discuss the glorious diversity of the writing, never mind the rich history of creative writing itself in each society. One normally hears classifications such as French writers, English poets, American poets, Russian poets, Indian poets but it's never the same with writing here. Why? I think poets from Somalia and poets from Nigeria aren't similar in thematic concerns, not even style; nor are poets from Senegal when analogized with poets from Kenya. Each country has its own diverse poetic cultures. South African poetry or Ethiopian poetry or Algerian poetry or Senegalese poetry or Ghanaian poetry; if all were classified as just 'African' imagine all the rich history lost in the classification!
Also in each country are writers writing from home and those writing from the diaspora, and their treatment of themes is different really. How can all this be understood if all is underscored as just as 'African'?
It is upon this background that I ask, instead of sharing 'African' poets,' I tell you of some Ugandan poets I know: Moses Serubiri, Lillian Aujo, Ngabire Emmanuel, Gloria Kiconco, Bob G. Kisiki, Kampiire Bahana, Daniel Nuwamanya, Natozo Karen Wamasali; Daniel Omara, Angwech Faith Kirabo Wacha; Moses 'Mist' Laku (alright he is Kenyan, but he lives in Kampala) Kiggundu Sharon, Nakireza Benard, Surumani Manzi, Jason Ntaro, Xenson, the Kimbugwe sisters, Edwin Ruyonga, Kabubi Herman, Harriet Anena, Balunywa Ibrahim, Rehema Nanfuka, Beverly Namboozo, Nick Makoha, Julian Okot p'Bitek and George the Poet Mpanga.
On Peter's Bedside
I have been reading poetry collections mostly. Remi Raji's A Harvest of Laughters, Dami Ajayi's Clinical Blues, Juliane Okot Bitek's 100 Days, Timothy Wangusa's Africa's New Brood and Rushongoza Begumya's Will the Gun Bark if I'm Kissing its Muzzle?
Peter Kagayi is a Ugandan poet, high school teacher and the founder of Rhymers Poetry Club at Nabisunsa Girls School. He has served as the Anglophone Coordinator at Writivism and President of Lantern Meet of Poets. He is also the founder and curator of the regular poetry platform 'The Poetry Shrine' at the National Theater in Kampala and has supported various groups of young poets. This year his poetry production, 'The Audience Must Say Amen' adapted from his debut poetry collection, The Headline That Morning and Other Poems will feature at the 2016 Kampala International Theatre Festival.