Ugandan poet Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva is the founder of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Awards (BNPA). In this interview with yours truly (first published in Sunday Trust July 6, 2014) she talks about the award that has captured the imagination of African poets, her erotic poems and the future of poetry on the continent.
The BN prize has been growing over the last five years and it is now no longer a Ugandan affair but is open to all Africans, what inspired the prize?
The prize was inspired by a hybridity of emotions, from being a new mother in 2008, inspired by a consciousness of my impact on Uganda and the obscure power of poetry. I was aware of how marginalized and misunderstood the written form of poetry was. I also keenly followed the financial success rates of poets and by combining the two, the award was formed. It provided a platform for Ugandan female poets, with a reward of a cash prize. I needed to see the unknown female poets speak out and take public pride in their art.
Why the focus on women when you consider that Uganda has Femrite which is a writers’ association dedicated to the promotion of women writers?
I combined both women and poetry. Femrite covers the entire creative writing capacity for Ugandan women. The gap that BNPA filled was to create a platform for poetry and combine it with a prize. BN was the only prize on the continent for female poets from Uganda for five years. Now that we’ve expanded to the entire continent, we still have packages in store for Ugandan female poets because I cherish their space, their ideas and their future. What have been the challenges of administering this prize that is growing in scope and stature? The prize itself is not difficult to administer but it’s the activities that have evolved since the award. For example, there has been a year’s delay with the poetry anthology, A Thousand Voices Rising, due to constraints with several publishers. We are planning on several launches in East, Southern and West Africa and we hope to conduct poetry camps and trainings for children as well. The above require a committed financial and human resource, whose solutions have thankfully been realized. For the prize, I admit that this year, it was challenging to reach every African country. On 11th July, we will announce the long list for this year via the twitter handle @BNPoetryAward first.
Why Twitter first?
And in this regards how important would you say social media has been in making this a continent-wide prize and in bringing African writers together? That’s very easy. I’ve been on Twitter for only a month and I’m still hung over by virgin emotions. I am ecstatic at the amount of information on poetry, writing and the arts that comes my way on a daily basis. It is with that virgin excitement that I insist on the announcement via Twitter first. Social media has been tremendous. A while back, I googled BN Poetry Award 2014 and received the most astounding surprise at how many blogs, websites and arts organizations had shared about the prize. I felt like I was sharing a piece of my scrumptious melted cassava and cheese with the entire continent. It’s perfect at how good news ripples and I can’t express my thanks enough, especially to my creative and media team.
Apparently there are plans to move the award ceremony to the StoryMoja Hay Festival in Nairobi, away from Kampala. What informed that decision and how have Ugandans responded to this?
This is a decision that the strategic team of BNPA is still coming to terms with. The ideal situation is to invite the shortlisted poets to Uganda for a three day fireworks of poetry, before continuing celebrations in Nairobi. For the past three years, we’ve had a wonderful and interactive collaboration with Storymoja and I implore more Ugandan artists and Arts managers to experience the festival for networking and artistic experiences. Since the prize now targets all African poets, we intend to hold the award celebrations in as many African countries as possible. How exactly do you intend to do this? That’s the joy of the challenge. I don’t know but I know it will be done. Ask me again next year when we’re celebrating in another country.
How do you think literary entrepreneurs can package literature well enough to attract local sponsorship and how much of this sponsorship have you drawn to BN Poetry Award?
Andrew Ssebaggala, who is in charge of strategy and fundraising, has excellent notions around this. He believes in stroking the egos of the corporates. An example is if we approached The Daily Trust for sponsoring the poetry residential camps in Nigeria, we will title it, The Daily Trust Residential Poetry Camp and further explain how they are the foremost honorary sponsors of this exclusive initiative. Locally, sponsorship for the award has come in form of cash, media support and volunteerism. The cash, though minimal, is a sign that there is willingness to give. As a team, we are learning to translate our poetry targets into numbers, to change art speak into business speak. We have already approached several coffee houses to create hampers with the poetry anthology, A Thousand Voices Rising.
Interesting. It is a general conception that poetry doesn’t sell as much as it ought to, as someone very much in the field, is this necessarily the case in Uganda?
The written form of poetry is not being purchased as we poets would like. I strongly believe that with more development of this form, as the craft continues to climb the scale of style, imagery, structure and other poetic devices, readers will embrace the growing excellence and buy it more widely. I cannot over-emphasize the need for good poetry editors either.
Is there something poets are doing that makes the average reader shy away from their works, or is there something you think they can do to get more people to read poetry?
I believe that for poets in Uganda at least, they are doing everything possible to make their poetry accessible, by using themes that are relevant to social contexts and being as wildly imaginative as possible. What has to be done is develop the craft more with better editing and then create workable marketing strategies. The change will be enormous with a combination of excellent editing of works and excellent marketing strategies. I used to sell my chapbook collection, Unjumping, to taxi drivers, boda boda [okada] riders, people at supermarkets, only because I believed that everyone was a potential buyer. It worked. You are so full of energy, I wonder where all that comes from.
Judging from the number and quality of entries you receive, what would you say about the future of poetry, not only in East Africa, but in the continent as a whole?
Poetry is the Past, the Present and the Future of all Literatures. From observation, I recognize an unmistakable trend of patriotism and the multiple identities of self. Poets are speaking about their own countries with trepidation and an uncanny sense of fashionable self-righteousness and concern. It is wonderful the way poetry has enabled them to be as bold as they ever can be. Let’s talk about your poetry.
What has your experience been like as the 2014 Commonwealth Games Poet Laureate?
That’s such a fancy title. The most important change for me was being sought after for this magnificent project. I enjoyed the pressure to compose the poem, Lake Nalubaale, to find a significant feature of Uganda to focus my attention on. I am in the process of listening to the audios of the other Commonwealth poems and today I listened to Umar Timol from Mauritius. There was an insightful introduction about the creolising of languages from his island, along with the multi-language abilities of children.
Interestingly, your poem for the games, Lake Nalubaale, Lake She Uganda, has a handsome dose of eroticism, and this seems true with a number of your other poems, is this a distinct Beverley thing?
I do not go looking for themes on erotica as much as they come looking for me. I think Erotica has been seeking for an African female to voice its desires in poetry. There are others like myself who have taken on this challenge. It’s a subject I am now broaching with aspects of sexual relations and the church in Uganda. The church and sex have deep spiritual influences on communities in Uganda and I explore that in many of my current poems. As time passes, other important themes will surpass this one. In the poem Lake Nalubaale though, the symbols of female body parts draw attention to the super-human qualities of a woman and her untold contribution to history and her-story.
A Nigerian critic, Prof. Charles Nnolim would have described some of your works as “literature of the flesh”; have you had similar reactions to your works from Uganda or especially the church?
I would love to meet Prof. Charles Nnolim because sometimes I’m not sure how best to describe my own poetry. People do say that I am bold and erotic and they enjoy the mixture of local languages that I sometimes apply. My dear friend Mildred Barya, and bless her for this mighty compliment, one time compared one of my poems, At The Graveyard, to Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. I hadn’t read that particular Sylvia Plath before then. As a keen reader, poet and critic, Mildred looks at poetry with so many intelligent eyes. I would definitely like to meet Prof. Nnolim and other reviewers of my works.
How important do you think is it for every poet to have an identity or a sort of imprint in every one of their works?
I think it’s important to not limit ourselves to one identity but allow multiple identities to visit and overtake us whenever they like. In that way, the creativity that is necessary for poetry offers more pleasure for the reader, the listener and the poet. Robert Frost’s essay speaks largely of the element of allowing the poem to lift even above the poet. The Figure A Poem Makes, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground.”
You are widely traveled and have experienced poetry and poets the world over, what would you say is the most common thing among this select breed of people and what misconceptions do you think people have of them?
Poets are highly erratic. That is not a misconception. Many younger poets today have a range of character complexes from the high and low, they pose an interesting view of the written form and they do make the most fascinating conversationalists. They appear too eager to spread their own schools of thought regarding poetry and while this is a problem for the process of craft, it is worth listening to their passions. If we are a select breed, then I missed the memo. Meeting poets of all walks of life is a different and invaluable experience each time. There are many who work in corporate organizations, many who live in the deepest rural areas and those who live in exclusive suburbs but whose works reflect an eerie loathing for their neighbourhoods.
How does poetry come to you?
What is the creative process like for you? It attacks me in the weirdest of places. In the middle of a quiet dream, in the spiciness of a good programme, when I take my long power walks and more often than not, when the day’s events seep and settle, forming their own patterns. When I’m brave. I put the words down in a notebook and it takes several drafts before I type it. After years, lines to certain poems have changed but most remain as they are.
Do you think, as most people do, that poetry is mostly consumed by poets?
Yes, it is but with the repackaging that literary entrepreneurs are engaging, more audiences are being reached. For example, there are recitals at various location in Kampala City and the majority of audiences are non-poets.
How will performance poetry affect the consumption of poetry?
Performance poetry is an exciting, palatable and entertaining form of packaging. Its growing popularity is reaching more consumers and its appreciation is increasing.
You run a poetry prize and recently you were also shortlisted for the Poetry Foundation Ghana Prize which was controversially awarded to a poem of questionable merit, do you think there was an agenda behind that decision?
I believe that the decision for a Ghanaian to win was based on many factors; amongst them was probably the logistical structure of the prize.
And how has that decision affected you, the competitions you decide to enter and inevitably, how you run your own prize?
I could have won 1,000 US Dollars. I really needed the cash at the time. If they have another competition, I will still enter because being on the shortlist got me published in their anthology. It is important for poets to submit their works to as many markets as possible. The Judges receive the poems blindly and this has always been the case. I will ensure that each year, judges represent different parts of the continent to avoid any biases or misconceptions from participants. This year’s Judges are so distinctive and I’m really interested to make a comparative analysis on their long-listed poets. May I mention their delightful names? Joanne Arnott, Kgafela oa Magogodi and Richard Ali.