I have been writing and studying the techniques of writing poetry for six years now. Six years is a long period, long enough to give one confidence in whatever they do. One would expect that any person who’s done it for that long is confident enough to be ready, and they may be right. But it is not always so.
I started off the poetry journey with an interest in Spoken Word. Some of the earliest pieces to interest me were from the album Love According 2 Love by The Love Poets. I don’t remember how I discovered them, but I think I googled the phrase “Spoken Word” after somebody mentioned it to me somewhere. I must have thought it was cool for it to have interested me. I didn’t get to listen to the whole album, but I remember these names: Indigo, Kinara Sankofa, Ricardo Love, and Cassandra. There were only six pieces that were accessible to me, and those were the ones that were available for free downloading. I had to pay for the rest but didn’t know how to, so I never got to listen to them. I had just finished my secondary school education.
The first book I ever bought with my money was Caroline Nderitu’s Love Only. I had never read poetry before. Not poetry from a tangible book that I owned. I just chanced on it on the streets and thought it would be great reading it. I was in my first year in college, the first semester, and we were coming from a Words and Pictures (WAPI) concert at Sarakasi Dome in Ngara. It was on a Saturday and we had a school Continuous Assessment Test coming up on Monday in the morning. I don’t remember ever studying for the test, but by Sunday evening, I had finished reading Love Only and written a poem that I was so proud of. It talked about blessings (I think) and had these rhymes that really impressed me. I showed it to my roommates and they agreed that it was a great poem, which meant that I was really good. At least that is what I told myself, but I felt so good about that poem for days.
Looking back, I know that I wouldn’t approve of them. The verse I did was amateurish and seeking to impress. I concentrated on the mechanics and heavily relied on alliteration, rhymes, assonance, and consonance for the poetry to become. My idea of a poem was a piece of writing that was broken into stanzas (not necessarily) and had lines that would end in rhymes (or at least tried to) and that addressed the ills of society and even tried to give solutions. I was heavily reading blogs then and really looking up to this young group of writerly Nairobians that were close to (or at least knew) each other and acknowledged each other’s writing. Thinking about it now, I know that even theirs wasn’t the best of verse, but it looked great to me then and that is really what matters.
The question then becomes: What changed between then and now? [pullquote]The answer lies in the word “evolution.”[/pullquote]
The evolution of a poet depends heavily on whatever they are consuming. However talented a poet is, the basic GIGO principle applies. When one reads a certain kind of writing, they are bound to end up writing like that. I am avoiding using the term “garbage” as is used in the computing rule. Somebody used it at a writing workshop recently in a manner that I found disrespectful to a poem that I thought had features that would redeem it greatly. But you know writing workshops, they carry all the characters, including those who fancy themselves as writers or holders of opinions in matters literary. Reading the greatest poetry, on the other hand, does not always translate into becoming a good writer. It is a matter of frequencies. I’ll use a technical example from the principle of operation of the radio.
A radio (or at least the module that receives the signals from the station) is made up of an antenna and a set of capacitors and solenoids (inductors) in a circuit. This circuit is called a filter. The filter is always vibrating at a given frequency called natural frequency. When one tunes the radio, what they are doing is adjusting the positions of these capacitors and inductors, a process that results in the change of the natural frequency of the filter. Radio stations have their different transmitting frequencies. Now, waves are an interesting phenomenon. When waves that are similar meet each other, they tend to add up hence resulting into a bigger wave, which is a sum of the two. When a radio station’s signal meets a frequency similar to it in the filter, they add up and are magnified hence fed into the speaker as music. Waves of different frequencies destroy each other and result to noise, which is what we get from a badly tuned station (or one that is out of range.)
[pullquote]The evolution of a poet is a continuous tuning process like that of a radio. [/pullquote]The tuning happens every time one reads. I believe that a poet has their own frequency, their own style, and their own flair. Each one of us has their own set of preferred devices that they deploy.
Another way of tuning is by practice. When one approaches the page, they are trying out something and hoping that it will work out in the end. There is going to be terrible poetry, and every poet needs to learn that it is okay to own a huge dust bin. Making basketball throws of not very good poems is a healthy workout.
This combination of tuning processes, continuous reading and continuous practice, is bound to result to a much better poet than what we had in the beginning. But this is not guaranteed. One has to realize that innate talent must be there in the beginning for this to work out. Taking a box and installing dials onto it will not turn it into a radio no matter how furiously we tune it. The set of electronics inside the box are what makes a radio. For the radio to work, well, now we tune it.
When one writes, he is trying to figure out if he is transmitting at a comfortable vibration. When a poet reads, she is constantly trying to receive others’ transmitting frequencies. The more she changes and expands what she is reading the higher the chances of them hitting a resonant frequency. When a radio’s filter resonates with a station’s frequency, the signal is crystal clear. And so is a poet who has found her resonant frequency: She is a joy to read. She does not try too hard. Everything falls into place without her having to sweat too much (at least from what we read in the end.) Some of the easiest examples of poets who have found their resonant frequencies are Stephen Derwent Partington (How to Euthanise a Cactus, even though it has an aloe plant on its cover), Shailja Patel (Migritude), Tony Adam Mochama (What if I am a Literary Gangster), Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye (Make It Sing & Other Poems), and Clifton Gachagua (The Cartographer of Water.)
I tend to use examples outside writing to pass my message across, (for instance), from sports. Because I like sports. I have watched running for quite some time now and can easily pick out the title contenders in a mid or long distance race when it is still early in the first or second lap. The pace setters tend to run fast, sometimes with their bodies swinging unnecessarily. Some of these young runners may not have learned that these unnecessary moves drain them of energy. It slows them down eventually.
Poetry, however, is not a mid or long distance race. It is a sword fight.[/pullquote] The style one chooses to walk into the arena with may determine whether the poem works out in the end or not. A poet who has found their resonant frequency fights like the sword is an extension of their body. There is no unnecessary flair. They cut whenever they mean to cut and shield themselves when they mean to. A poet who hasn’t found her frequency will want to impress the reader, not knowing that that uncalled for rhyme will slow her down. He may not realize that the alliteration he had to sit down and really think hard about wastes his response time in the sword fight hence giving chance to the opponent (the reader) to attack. The reader’s attack can be lethal to the poet. A poem abandoned halfway is nothing to smile about. A poem that was dis-recommended is not exactly a pretty idea.
The poet’s reputation is on the line every time they get down to write. A terribly written poem (what would amount to whack, as used in hip-hop culture) is not something anyone would desire. To stick to the essence of their writing is their everyday struggle.
Six years later, I have not published a book yet even though I have made several attempts and made complete U-turns on the whole idea. Reading the material I assembled earlier on (when I thought I had matured in style and technique and content) reminds me that I may still need to work harder on tuning my frequencies. I am scared that I may not put it down the way I wanted to. But this does not mean I haven’t hit the nail right on the head every now and then in the past. There are poems I am eternally glad I wrote. Reading them, even years later, I still feel their essence. There is a feeling of urgency in the lines, a desperation that hits me like it did when I was writing them. Them Little Demons, for example. The Music is Dead Too is another one I have dared myself to match but have failed miserably. And ‘The Dead Cat of Kisumu’ (coming up in Kwani? 8 and the Poetry Anthology edited by Stephen Partington and Phyllis Muthoni). I have written hundreds of other poems (over nine filled notebooks), but every time I face a new page, I am scared that I may not write it in that resonating manner. That I may never match my own expectations. Every young poet deserves to have such a raised bar.
But it is not just these nearly perfect poems that matter. Growing up, I have realized that a constant peak can be tiring to a reader (and the writer.) A poet then must explore other avenues of their creativity besides excellent (resonating) poems. Not that that opens up space for mediocre works, but to have “less serious” works too. Those that are completely beyond the writer’s range, is a good idea. If I would use my own tastes (as I already have been so far, which is a masturbatory engagement alright, but a working one), I would easily pick out the Ugandan Comedian Anne Kansiime of the Don’t Mess with Kansiime show. While it is an original idea, and a brilliant one at that, I find Don’t Mess with Kansiime quite taxing to watch. There is a constant climax in Kansiime’s meanness that becomes quite predictable and therefore banal. There is that shock that hits a viewer when they are exposed to it for the first time, but constant exposure to this side of the character becomes overfamiliar and just plain boring. You feel that she is pushing it too far, struggling to hold onto her genius in a manner that many artists will admit is unhealthy. Kansiime, therefore, becomes an easy example of an artist trapped in their own creation and having gained a following that is ever hungry and demanding for more. And she feeds them with more of the ground out comedic comical. Half-baked to say the least.
[pullquote]A poet needs to beat such traps and break out of their resonant frequency comfort every now and then.[/pullquote] I once wrote a poem titled An Urgent Poem out of an almost similar situation. We were arguing with friends over an issue when one dared me to write (at least for once) a positive poem about Kenya. I had been writing these overly gloomy poems and reading them to fellow poets in college, and everyone had grown to expect a sceptic poem from me. An Urgent Poem was a sarcastic experiment gone wrong. I was trying to pull off “impossible” things, but when I looked at it later, it made perfect sense. It didn’t have a good structure though, which meant that it looked just like any other sermon about national cohesion. More like a politician’s disingenuous calls than the thoughts of a poet. But I had been reading Nikki Giovanni’s Acolytes about a month earlier on and had the structure of her poem Paint Me Like I Am, stuck in my mind. I would later use her structure then submit that poem to the Storymoja Hisia Zangu Mkenya poetry competition and would emerge the winner, out of a “joke.” The same structure (a call response kind of on the page) would be what I would use later on in A Poem We Would Rather Forget that was shortlisted for the Babishai Niwe Prize in 2015.
Dissonance is not always a bad idea. It is welcome in some cases. It makes the poetry human. Of course I didn’t know that An Urgent Poem would work out in the end, but here was a dare that I just wouldn’t let slide. I got down to write what I had not gotten used to, sarcasm. [pullquote]This wasn’t what I was made of. This was an unfamiliar zone. And yet there I was in the end, satisfied that it had worked out.
Reading and watching and listening to other poets and novelists and observing the world arms one with the tools and material they require for the craft. Besides, it gets rid of ‘Writer’s Block,” a phenomenon that the late Prof. Kofi Awoonor referred to as “a phrase invented by writers to describe a moment when they have nothing interesting to say.” According to the Ghanaian-Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes, a writer who has mastered his craft is similar to a carpenter. You are not likely to meet a carpenter complaining that they can’t make you a table because they are suffering from carpenter’s block. Constant practice, on the other hand, keeps one’s moves deft enough for the sword fight that the writing process is. But nothing beats finding the writers that one resonates with in many aspects, which would be Nikki Giovanni and Charles Bukowski for me. Every poet deserves a poet or two that they have such good resonance with.