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Interview about Both Sides of the Niger, conducted by Annam Manthiram for Grey Sparrow Press

AM: Spirituality is a recurring theme in your poems whether real, imagined, professed
or ignored. Is there a distinction being made between the spirituality of place versus
journey? Where does the narrator find it? And the writer?

AK: “Spirituality of the journey,” as you put it, is based on the narrator’s hopes or expectations. As he interacts with those he meets, and becomes more familiar with his surroundings, he at times he finds or experiences a spirituality of place.  The difference between the two is the difference between the relatively inchoate hopes or imaginings formed in the planning and anticipation of the journey, and actual experience and presence, which is much more detailed, nuanced, immediate, vivid, and sensory.  The sense of place becomes almost inseparable from people the narrator comes to know. This type of distinction between “journey” and “place” in some ways reflects the difference “mystic,” with its roots in “mystery,” and “visionary,” as it is rooted in “seeing” and the other senses. ”

At times, such as in the poem, “Sand,” the narrator experiences not spirituality or sacredness but its opposite, which is obscenity, in one for or another.  And occasionally a sense of place comes to involve spirituality and obscenity vying with yet illuminating one another.

The contrasts and tensions between “journey” and “place” central in Both Sides of the Niger in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, even in the interval between the journey’s end and the writing of the poems. The narrator often finds himself moving from the more naive or even ersatz spirituality of his expectations to a spirituality of place that he couldn’t have foreseen. But what turns out to be most genuinely spiritual is not a particular place in and of itself, but the imaginations response to and interaction with place.

In answer to the part of your question about the writer, I would like to think he finds his truest spirituality not only where the narrator does, but in creating the best poems he is capable of out of this quest.

AM: I like the distinction you make between “journey” and “place” and its comparison to vague expectations and actual presence. Can you begin a bit of dialogue into how this is relevant to writing. How might this process be applied to writing, and in particular, to poetry?

AK: The relationship between what the narrator implicitly expects to encounter on the journey and what he eventually discovers parallels that between my anticipation when I begin work on a poem and the final product if the writing is at all successful. If the journey, like the process of writing, doesn’t bring any illumination and surprise beyond what I had anticipated, I might as well have skipped the trip. As Martin Buber put it, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Similarly, if a poem adds nothing to what led you to write it, it will likely turn out to be a stillborn, paint-by-numbers-type exercise to both the writer and reader. Writing a good poem is of course a journey, and as with any type of journey, the surest way to go wrong is to insist remaining consciously in control of the process by slavishly following a pre-planned “itinerary.”

AM: In the poem, “Children in the Forest,” the ending is interrupted.  The boys are speaking to the narrator about the various gods that inhabit their surroundings, and when they are about to reveal details about the “only one god,” the sentence abruptly stops.  Is this a call to action on the part of the reader?  Or is this ambiguity a statement about spirituality and divinities in the modern world? 

AK: On some level the truncated ending brings together Western inroads made by Christian missionaries and monotheism within traditional, animist cultures, and economic inroads that have resulted in the loss of forests, which a child mentions in the poem mentions. The numerous forest deities and demons and the sense of physical proximity associated with them are displaced to an extent by a single, vastly more distant and culturally alien sky-god. At the same time these deities are further diminished or discredited by the shrinking and circumscribing of the forests that had been thought of as their home and with which they had been so closely identified. Imagine the impact the disappearance of a good portion of Mt. Olympus might have had on ancient Greek religion and cosmology. I think the ending of the poem feels truncated because the sense of wonder conveyed by the children as they had spoken so eagerly and expansively about spirits in the forest is abruptly dispelled by the abruptness of the boy’s unenthusiastic statement, with which the poem concludes, that “now” there is “only one god / in the sky,”

But since, as I was saying, the writing process for me is so subliminal and unplotted, I wasn’t thinking consciously of much of the above at the time. Had I been, the result would have been diminished by what Denise Levertov called “the wreak of conception” — maybe there would be some type of metaphorical parallel here to cutting down those forests and sending in missionaries. I of course give a lot of thought to the concerns and subject matter of my poems, and in many instances the poems turn out to be about things I’ve thought about, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember.  It’s just that the only way get anywhere is by having it out line by line and word by word without really knowing where, if anywhere, I’m going. I think unsuccessful poets and fiction writers have the misfortune of saying exactly what they had planned to in their work.

AM: You say that you think “unsuccessful poets and writers have the misfortune of conveying exactly what they had planned to in their work.” Do you feel that the best writing comes from a sort of subliminal mind-space, and conscious work or work where the author’s intention is clear from beginning to end is perhaps more mediocre in substance?

AK: Yes, exactly. When the writing process doesn’t lead to surprises for the poet, the poem rarely offers any for the reader. As T.S. Eliot said, writing is largely an “evasion of monotony” or of predictability. What I’m told are the best things in my work usually turn out to be those I could not have anticipated when setting out to write a poem. For me these mainly result from a free-associative process that can only really occur if I allow details, actions, or images being worked on to call forth others, which could not have been anticipated at the start of the poem. Yeats describes this process very beautifully in his poem, “Byzantium,” when he writes of “Those images that yet/ Fresh images beget.” If I stick to closely to whatever impulse leads me to start a poem, it turns into a straitjacket. But of course my poems go through draft after draft of what some might think of as donkey work, to get the cadences, word choices, phrasing and so forth as close to “right” as I can.

AM: The pre-industrial and post-industrial world collide quite a bit in this collection.  Old versus new.  Technology versus manual labor.  But I would not say these juxtapositions clash, but co-exist: there is a certain co-dependence between the two.  (Examples – in “Children in the Forest” there are modern bath fixtures but primitive sickness, in “Thirst” there is a description of how to kill a deer with a four-wheel drive.)  Please talk about this coexistence and the narrator’s intention with this interplay. 

AK: That’s a really interesting question.  On the most literal level, these types of juxtapositions have become common features of life and landscape in much of Africa and the Third World.  For instance in rural Mali, one of the four or so poorest countries in the world, you come upon cell phone towers, which are usually the tallest structures in what might be the equivalent of a whole county.  And on the patches of land that were cleared so maintenance crews could access these, squatters have built the types of mud and straw huts people here have lived in for millennia. Another example is that most towns of any size have Internet cafes, which like the traditional businesses and huts on the same block, rely on open sewers for waste disposal, and whose customers, like everyone else in the region, have their meals prepared by wives and daughters over outdoor fires fed by goat dung and by wood that woman spend hours each day gathering, then carrying back in loads few of us could lift..

As with any disparate realities, I thought bringing such juxtapositions into the poems might help illuminate both the traditional and the contemporary. Beyond this, in retrospect I think juxtaposing modern and ancient or traditional “worlds” illuminates the distances and proximities through which the narrator and local people interact with one another.

In the poems, as in the time I spent in West Africa, my presence itself evoked local assumptions or myths about Western wealth and technologies that are as otherworldly to many of those I met as their lives are to me. The juxtapositions you ask about also illuminate some of the internal tensions people feel, between devotion to the lifestyle they know and take for granted, and the lure of what to them are Western wealth and wonders to which they have no access to.

One of the unexpected ironies in a number of the poems is that the narrator and those he meets often bring to their encounters a parallel, equally uninformed sense of wonder about one another’s lives.

AM: I like your explanation here – how the contrasts aren’t meant to elevate one existence and demean another, but rather to illuminate each sphere’s “existence.”

AK: I think all our varied “schools” of poetry, for the past hundred-plus years have share a common aesthetic that seeks more to reveal and illuminate than to measure and judge.

AM: In “The Shade of the Niger,” the use of “scarify” was interesting.  It is generally a verb, but here it is used as an adjective.  The word is predominantly used to indicate marks from vaccinations.  Is there a parallel drawn between the eyes of the women and medicine?  Lack of vaccines (but an abundance of pencils)?

AK: Not that I am aware of.  I had in mind the contrasts between the women’s actual eyes and the pair of eyes outlined beneath these with a razor blade; between the magical qualities the traditional culture ascribes to this second pair of eyes, and the physical pain the facial cutting involves; and between the narrator’s amazement at first seeing these “eyes” and their complete ordinariness to the women in this poem.

AM: I love the poem, “On the Hut Walls in Togo.”  The images are provocative, and the paucity of words heightens the effect of each line.  Violence and sex seem linked here.  Gradually the poem moves from insignificant animals and innocence to sex and violence, political statements and religion, and then back to animals, and ultimately spiders.  Is this the narrator’s own version of the “circle of life?”

AK: I never thought of the poem in these terms, but once a poem is completed the writer’s interpretation is no more authoritative than what others might find in it.  Thinking otherwise would be a little like a possessive parent “helicoptoring” over his/her adult children, rather than allowing them to make their ways in the world.

Consciously, at least, I arrived at the pattern you describe by trying to sequence the details here in a way that would make them seem more believable than sensational to Western readers. After a lot of trial and error I began the poem with the more mundane items I saw on the walls inside people’s huts in Togo, gradually added items readers might find more striking or shocking, and concluded by returning to the more quotidian objects. I tried to embed contents that would be most jarring or extreme to Western readers within the fabric of what we see as fairly ordinary.

In a broader context, there is a type of dual perspective throughout the book, in which much of what might seem most startling or otherworldly to the narrator and to Western readers appears thoroughly ordinary–as in fact it is–to the people the narrator encounters.  To a somewhat less frequent extent, the converse of this occurs as well, with West Africans equally amazed at what to the narrator is ordinary in his life back home.

AM: Do you think Western readers are sheltered?

AK: “Sheltered” is more judgmental in its associations than apply here. But by turning dying over to the hospitals; death over to the funeral industry we pay so well to limit and sanitize our contact with the bodies of our loved ones; by buying our meat in saran-wrapped packages that distract us from its origins; and by turning the pain and messiness of birth into photo-ops, we distance ourselves from life’s most elemental realities, in ways that relatively few Africans have the means to. I’m reminded of Ivan Ilych’s realization, as he is dying near the end of Tolstoy’s novella, “that all for which he had lived was a terrible and huge deception which had hidden him from both life and death.” Also, life in the areas I visited and wrote about is lived in so much more immediate proximity to elemental realities of terrain, weather, sources of daily food and cooking fuel, the disposal of human waste, and so forth, than it is in Westernized countries. This results in a connectedness to these realities that a Western poet could spend a lifetime trying to achieve. It’s interesting to wonder how the work of our language’s greatest writers, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats, would have been affected if they had had our ability to distance themselves from these realities.

AM: “Sand” – this is a haunting poem.  Is this assimilation taken to an extreme?  Does the narrator enjoy it?  It is as though in the bleakness of the sand, the narrator has lost some of his humanity.  Please talk about this.

AK: I hope no one thinks the narrator enjoys the experience he describes!  He’s alone in an empty expanse between desert villages when some aggressive boys follow and corner him beside a sand dune to demand money and “gifts.” He points to a pile of cow dung and tells them, “There is your present,” and draws his fist, seething, “Here is your gift,” while remembering local adults calling out, under somewhat similar circumstances, “Hit them!” I think your observation is completely accurate, that he has taken on at least some of the cruelty he is reacting to .  As your question suggests, the elemental bleakness of the sand is not only the setting but the literal and figurative air he and his antagonists are breathing.

The question of whether he loses some of his humanity here, is simply standing up to bullies, or both of the above depends on the prism through which each of us might view such an encounter.  But at the very least all involved lose a piece of their dignity.

This poem comes right after “Arthur Rimbaud’s Bad Leg,” in the collection, which describes how Rimbaud, of all people, took on the worst cruelties he encountered in East Africa, in particular the agenda of an especially brutal Abyssinian warlord, to become the region’s most prolific arms dealer of his time.

AM: In the poem, “Waking In Peperkou, Benin,” the dream image of the narrator’s first writing teacher telling the narrator that he “must quit” – that he has fooled “these people” into thinking that he is important – is symbolic.  And when he wakes up, all the children care about his is “diabolo” – the entertaining toy that has nothing to do with words.  I sensed a particular irony considering the narrator is a poet/writer.  Was this intentional?  Are the narrator, and ultimately you as the writer, mocking yourself just a bit?  Do you feel writing is still significant in this part of the world?

AK: As I viewed the poem while writing it, the irony that prefigures this dream is that everyone in the village is so impressed by the narrator’s ability to write words in a notebook, all but jostling one another at times to watch, that they assume he must be a person of significant importance. Most people in Peperkou are illiterate, none know English, and they have no idea what or why he might be writing, to say nothing of how alien our concept of “poetry” is to them.

A further irony is that if the villagers knew he was writing about their activities and interactions, they would have been dumbfounded as to why a person such as they imagined him to be would have come all this way to write about them.  So it’s easy to see why, in his dream, at least, to feel like a fraud.

I never saw a scrap of printed matter, not even to wrap produce, in any of the villages and the village homes I was welcomed into.  So writing and reading, on any level, were not part of local life.  These are oral cultures in which the languages don’t exist in written form, except for a handful that were transcribed by missionaries into the Latin alphabet.

But in much of West Africa people are closer to the origins of what we think of as  poetry than we are in the are in the West. Religious rituals, traditions, beliefs, and observances amount to a form of “poetry” in that, beyond metaphors and imagery, their cultures have transformed surroundings into spirits, divinities, and demons that have an immediacy and presence in day-to-day consciousness These traditions don’t center on words, though, but combine music, story-telling, and dance to serve such practical purposes as bringing bountiful harvests and warding off sickness and death. People I met couldn’t make sense of “poetry,” as we think of this, because stories, music, dance, and religious rituals and beliefs are so intimately entwined with the way they see and experience the world that the idea of abstracting and isolating any component into an “art” in and of itself is a foreign concept. Another key difference is that what we think of as “poems” are written by individuals, rather than belonging to an oral tradition to which the idea of individual authorship is alien.

AM: Is there a native word that translates perfectly for the word “poetry?”

AK: This is an excellent question. The short answer, almost certainly, is “No.” There are so many hundreds of native languages or dialectics that it would take a large assemblage to speak authoritatively for all of them. But as far as I’m aware none would have a word corresponding to “poetry” when we think of this as an art form rather than as supplication, propitiation, invocation, or celebration of a deity that is intertwined with music and dance in the service of one life-sustaining or life-saving purpose or another. Some West African cultures have griots who, with musical accompaniment, tell or sing stories whose function is to keep fellow villagers aware of their shared history from creation stories through stories about important recent events. Western ideas of “imagination” and the “arts” are understandable only within cultures, such as ours, where aesthetic practice has been sundered from its origins in practical, ritualistic functions.

AM: Can you talk a little about the form in the poem, “The French Military Cemetery of Ouidah, Benin,” and why you chose this particular structure for this subject matter?

AK: I wrote this in stepped triadic lines, a free-verse form developed by William Carlos Williams, in which each line is divided into three segments, as in

the colonialist’s
symmetry and rage
for order.”

The French military cemetery in Ouidah, Benin, like all Western military cemeteries, is laid out in meticulously spaced rows and files.  The staccato stops and starts created by the breaks within each line reflects a type of , martial rhythm that embody embodies the regimented order of the cemetery, as well s the colonialists painstaking organization of the slave trade. These qualities could not contrast more profoundly to the various forms of asymmetry, abundance, and scarcity you see everywhere in West Africa.

As the poem describes, Ouidah was one of Africa’s major slave ports, so the form was also meant to reflect devastatingly well-ordered way in which this trade was carried out.  But my preliminary drafts of this poem were in conventional, unbroken lines.  When I tried replacing these with stepped triads, all I really was conscious of was that these seemed to work better with the subject matter.

AM: Would you have been happy keeping the poem in its original form?

AK: I don’t think the poem was very successful in its original form. The unbroken, free-verse lines worked against the sense of regimentation that is so inherent to the military cemetery and what it represents. But as I’ve said in connection with other poems in this collection, I wrote and rewrote this line by line more or less by feel according to what seemed or sounded right at the time.

AM: In “Café Baobab,” the poem is written in an entirely different voice than the others.  The cadence is lyrical, even musical in fact.  Was music important to this narrator?  Is this form mirroring an oral tale or a perhaps a cherished song (the next poem is titled “Drumming,” which appears deliberate)? 

AK: “Cafe Baobab” is a villanelle. Neither the form nor content mirrors any local tale or song.  It’s spoken by a refugee who fled the Congo (DRC) after a death squad came to his village at night and murdered his family and neighbors.  Since his passport in Benin is stamped, “refugee,” he cannot legally work, and he pleads with the writer to convince any Western government he can to grant him a work visa.  It’s an “oral tale,” as you suggest, albeit that of the teller. But he certainly realizes that in its broad outlines it’s also the story of countless numbers of his countrymen. Although I never thought of it this way, it’s easy to see how the intensity of his desperation, fear, and the misplaced hope he finds in the narrator’s presence combines with the rhymes, repetitions, and compression imposed by the villanelle form to give the poem the qualities of a song that you refer to.

AM: That is a powerful story. As a writer, do you feel based on your experiences in West Africa that you are a little more connected to the “elemental realities” you’ve mentioned?

AK: To an extent. This may be one of the more important “gifts” West Africa has given me. I think this is helpful and crucial for someone wanting to write about what it’s like to be human, even if such elemental subject matter never enters the poems directly. But “aware” might be more accurate here than “connected.” Since I’ve lived in North America virtually all my life, no connection I have to these realities could be nearly as visceral, formative, unmediated, and reflexive as these connections seem to be in West Africa.

AM: In “Sounding the Names,” the narrator regrets that he has been unable to garner the native translation for the “desert between gone and here.”  This seemed like a metaphor for the entire collection – the narrator’s (and the writer’s) attempt at constructing the vastness between his journey to West Africa with where he came from.  Thoughts? 

AK: I’m thrilled that this impression comes across! Of course when I was writing and re-writing “Sounding the Names,” I was struggling, as in all the poems here, line by line and word by word with what seemed from moment to moment to work, without thinking consciously about other poems in the collection.  I felt there was a great deal at stake in this poem, to the point where I was afraid to write it prematurely, yet worried that if I waited too long some of the distances involved would become too great for me to traverse.

AM: You say earlier that the best work comes from a sort of subconscious space. In this poem, you say you struggled with it, line by line, word by word. How did you reconcile this to ultimately create such a magnificent poem and collection? A very fitting conclusion?

AK: Thank you for such a flattering description. I’m not certain, though, that there is much here to reconcile. I think an irony of virtually any art form is that a tremendous amount of struggle and effort are required to produce a final product that at its best gives the illusion of effortlessness. Few artists, for instance, train, struggle, and practice harder than ballet dancers, yet a well-performed ballet appears so effortless that it seems the laws of gravity have been suspended onstage, unless you’re sitting close enough to notice all the perspiration.

Along with the struggle to find the next detail or image in a poem, draft after draft for me involves working on things like revising a line to get rid of an awkward syllable which, after weeks or more of working on bigger problems, I realize is interrupting the rhythm. It often takes a bunch of revisions to save an image from being partially choked by an awkwardly placed preposition, or to rearrange a passage so two consonants don’t clang pointlessly against one another. There’s a story about a Spanish violinist who was offended when someone congratulated him for a “gifted” performance. His reaction was something like, “What gift? It took thirty years of endless practice for me to learn to learn that.” If there’s a gift involved (though the more practical-minded might see it as a curse), I think it’s the curiosity, obsession, and love of the art that makes such devotion more a matter of necessity than choice.


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