outside of the rhetoric - "Dagoretti Corner" by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

Fatigue - Ngwatilo Mawiyoo
Kwale County, February 2013

Shivering, you have walked to your mind’s edge.
Walk no further. Leave the question
of these severed blood relatives,

leave it with the mango tree. Can it bear
fruit when it is too young to shade its own stem?
Can it save those called lazy, sinful, thief, witch;
those who named them so?

Let the tree answer, let it live or die. You need
yourself more than questions need answers.
You cannot bend the head of one,
make him lick the wound of another,
knowing the wound and the tongue are septic.

Let God do it. Let Him manure the tree
if He wants. Let Him hold up the branches,
whisper the heavying twigs strong
so the fruit does not tear green
as is happening to you even now.
Let Him stop the rain and shine the sun.

You, let the tree alone.
The genes of different seeds have already combined
though they accuse and sentence each other maniacally,
long after the graft has taken,
after the sap of one is the sap of the other,
is you. You must let the tree answer. You
do not need the answer to survive.

from Dagoretti Corner
(Akashic Books/APBF, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.


I'm going full circle here at Roll of Nickels. One of my very first interviews on this site was for a chapbook - Adrienne Gruber's Everything Water - but since then I've focused exclusively on full trade collections. Five years after my last chapbook interview, I'm back, and for very good reason. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, friend and recently-named finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize - has a new chapbook out. But this thing is no ordinary photocopy-and-staple one-off.

Dagoretti Corner is one of eight chapbooks included in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu) (Akashic Books/African Poetry Book Fund, 2016). The third box set in the series, edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, "Tatu" ("three" in Swahili) includes works by D.M. Aderibigbe, Chielozona Eze, Hope Wabuke, and more. Each slick chapbook features cover art by Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor.

The box set will be launching for public sale later this month, but in advance of that, on April 4th Ngwatilo will be hosting a Vancouver launch for her contribution to the box set. The details:

Dagoretti Corner Vancouver Launch
Monday, April 4th, 5 PM
Green College, UBC
6201 Cecil Green Park Road
Featuring: Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Raoul Fernandes and Elee Karljii Gardiner

I got a chance to read Dagoretti Corner, and ogle the gorgeous box set, in advance. Named for an intersection in Nairobi, Kenya, Dagoretti Corner is firmly grounded in Kenya, its politics and cultures (and trees!), but also almost effortlessly transcends the local and speaks - often incredibly powerful - to universal hopes and fears, wounds and blessings.

The poems in Dagoretti Corner are also carefully crafted, though they often hide it well. Look again at "Fatigue" - a seemingly "unstructured" poem, its stanzas grow from three, to four, to five, to six, to seven lines - gaining "weight" as they go, becoming more laborious things as the "Fatigue" builds. Dagoretti Corner also includes the rarest form of sestina - the kind so carefully woven you don't even notice is a sestina until you're almost at the end. It's a very moving, very thoughtful, very skillful collection, and only the tip of an eight-chapbook iceberg that's well worth picking up.

In anticipation of Ngwatilo's launch on Monday, and the box set's release later in April, I sat down with Ngwatilo and asked her a few questions. I hope you enjoy the result!

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, putting on a good face while Rob constantly interrupts her with editor's notes.


Rob: "Fatigue" is tagged with the date "February 2013" - the month before Kenya's 2013 Presidential Election, the first since the violence of the 2008 election. That 2008 election, its violence and ethnic tension, and the subsequent violence and instability Kenya has faced (including the al-Shabaab attacks at Westgate Mall and Garissa University College), sit front and centre in Dagoretti Corner (though perhaps, as I consider your publication timeline, Garissa only looms somewhere in your editing process). Because of this, I came to view "Fatigue" as the cornerstone poem in the collection - both for its subject matter, and its spirit. It is simultaneously hopeful and hopeless, empowered and disempowered (in this and other ways it reminded me of Muriel Rukeyser's "Ballad of Orange and Grape").

I know the poem does a great deal of the talking for you, but can you add anything in prose about how you felt in February 2013, readying yourself for the election?

Ngwatilo: Thank you so much for giving these poems such close attention. I really appreciate that. [Ed. note - You're welcome! Flattering your interviewer is always encouraged here at Roll of Nickels.]

February 2013 was a difficult time. I'd traveled to Moyale on Kenya's northern border with Ethiopia, and then to Tiwi on the coast near the southern border with Tanzania. If any communities with a sizable population are marginalized in Kenya, it's those who live along the coast and in the north. They are largely Muslim, and have been so since before the missionaries came; Kenya's political elite thinks of itself as Christian. There are also real and perceived cultural differences between the political elite and northern and coastal groups, and real unjust actions that go back three presidents and various colonial administrations. These problems aren’t ancient history, they are present enduring sources of pain exacerbated by everything at election time. I was also worn out from the This Kenyan Life project, and in a place of fatigue, and hopelessness. At that moment it was clear to me that the country could not be fixed, and trying to fix it was less important than surviving it all. I guess the poem speaks to the generation that's grown as a product of the mess, and has a chance to fall from the tree, so to speak, a chance to become something else, if only it could reach a point of maturity while still on the tree.

Rob: Ah, that sets me up well for my next question! As I spoke of above, "Fatigue" fits very well within the major themes of Dagoretti Corner. It also fits within a smaller theme I found running through the book: tree poems (esp. mango trees)! In your opening poem, "Portrait", grandfathers who are "in the ground" are described as being "bone and smoothed tree." In "The Rain is Late" children "wring mangoes from the tree" and give them to the speaker, and then on the next page "Ngoma for Mango" explores the mango's "salty-lemon-masala-sweet". After all that,"Fatigue" arrives with its gene-mixing, grafted mango tree, which seems to hold within itself an entire nation.

Could you speak a little about what the mango tree represents for you in your poetry? Does it change from poem to poem, or does it carry for you a relatively consistent emblematic power?

Ngwatilo: I suppose my relationship with mangoes and mango trees is a living relationship. It’s become a tree that means childhood and home, but also holds the possibility for corruption, sensuality, joy and betrayal. When writing from diaspora, mangoes are especially prone to show up in my writing because that’s when I’m most sick for them! But trees, more generally, lend themselves to poetry. There’s a history about how they came into a place, how they survived, what they signify or are associated with in the community where they exist. When I haven’t been obsessed with mangoes, I’ve been obsessed with Jacaranda trees, which are very iconic of Nairobi (and its colonial history).

Rob: You mentioned above your This Kenyan Life project, in which you visited 20 different families, in 20 different parts of Kenya, over 200 days from 2011 to 2013. Could you speak a little about that project? To what extent is Dagoretti Corner a direct result of those 200 days?

Ngwatilo: I have to begin by admitting that while 200 days was the intention of my This Kenyan Life project, I was only able to complete 7 different parts of Kenya in 70 days, although it became more than 7 families. I’m still making peace with barely getting to half, even though I’m very proud of the 70 days I did accomplish. The basic idea of This Kenyan Life was to be able to meet a diversity of families living across rural Kenya, live with them, work alongside them as far as was possible, witness their joys and sorrows, listen to their concerns, and ultimately see how similar or different Kenyan families are from each other. In the context of the violence of 2008, which was ethnically and politically motivated, I thought it was important to seek out Kenyan people outside of the rhetoric, at the family level, and possibly write an experience that was authentic to their experience, and could offer an alternative narrative to Kenyans and the outside world.

Rob: You've certainly done that, for those of us looking in from outside. On that theme: in the title poem you write "I am always / on the edge of things." which got me thinking about the insider/outsider dynamics of your own writing life. You write a great deal about Nairobi and Kenya, and do so both as an insider (when talking about your own life, the city of your birth, etc.) and as an outsider (when traveling to other towns and villages in This Kenyan Life), and you publish those poems both inside Kenya and internationally (where they are bound to be interpreted at least somewhat differently). On top of that you've written, workshopped and edited many of these poems during your Undergraduate and Graduate degrees in North America. In other words, it seems to me that you've written about, and from, and to, a lot of edges. And it's meant a lot of kaleidoscoping between the known and unknown, both for you and your readers.

Could you speak a little to this sensation of being so often "on the edge"? In what ways, if any, do you think it's strengthened you as a writer? And what keeps you tethered as a writer, and as a person, throughout it all?

Ngwatilo: It’s an astute observation, Rob. Kenya itself is incredibly diverse, whatever anyone tells you. I knew what it was to be an insider/outsider even before I ever left Nairobi. My trouble is I keep moving myself around so that sometimes I’m part of an inside group, sometimes I’m rotating through outsider spaces. It’s tedious in that I find myself always having to define and redefine my identity and its meaning in the particular community I’m living among at a given moment. And it’s hard to be consistent especially the more you know about the “other,” and come to understand them. As a writer I try to find language to write across these spaces as honestly as I can. How do I stay tethered? I don't know.

Rob: More specifically, for this collection, you worked on (and "workshopped") many of these poems while pursuing your MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. How do you think working on these poems in a place so distant (physically, but not just) from Kenya influenced the collection? More generally, in what ways do you think Dagoretti Corner would have been different/the same if you hadn't traveled to Vancouver or pursued your MFA?

Ngwatilo: Workshopping the poems in Canada forced me to think about how “outsiders” (read: non-Kenyans) would hear the poems. This was both useful and burdensome. I think by the end of it I learned when it was important to me/the poem to articulate place in a direct way, and when I would let the poem just be. It's occurred to me that if I'd been writing from home, there may have been more poems like "Fatigue" actually, perhaps distance truncated the frustration I felt.

Rob: Interesting. Yes, I agree that it's easier to be forgiving about your home when you're away from it. Distance also numbs certain pains, and heightens others. I remember, when the Westgate Mall attack happened, feeling a distant form of sadness, but then, when I heard that Kofi Awoonor - a poet I'd admired for years - had died in the attack, it became this visceral, personal pain that took a long time for me to shake off.

"Site of Sorrow", your poem about Awoonor and Westgate Mall attack opens with an epigraph from Awoonor: "Something has happened to me / the things so great I cannot weep". When I read that I could hardly breathe, and all my memories and pain of that day came rushing back to me. I remember the shock and horror of it, of course, but mostly my deep sadness at losing such a vital and influential poet, one whose role could not be easily replaced. And also, learning the news from North America, a sadness that the loss the African poetry community was sharing wouldn't be felt nearly as hard in North America, where Awoonor was far less well known.

I feel like a good way to honour Awoonor is to draw attention to others like him who are still writing and teaching and guiding the next generation. As such, can you recommend a poet or two who are already well known to African poetry audiences, but may be unknown to North American readers? Poets, perhaps, who shaped and informed your writing in the way that Awoonor did for many?

Ngwatilo: As far as I can tell we’re not yet at a place where “African poetry audiences” are necessarily aware of poets across the continent. Some cities/countries are fortunate to have poets from across the continent and around the world traveling in and out, and may be more aware of a range of people working in the form. But when a poet of such range crosses your path, your path becomes narrower and more expansive. I have to say Kobus Moolman has been a favorite for several years now. He actually just won the 2015 Glenna Luschei Prize so hopefully North American audiences will have a a better chance at knowing his work. In East Africa and Kenya we just lost Marjorie Oludhe who was a mainstay in poetry (and fiction) for many many years. Actually she also wrote a beautiful piece that’s in the new Kwani? for Kofi Awoonor. 2016 is also the year we’re remembering Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek’s influential work Song of Lawino, which most Kenyans know and probably had to study in school.

[Ed. Note - You can read my interview with Okot p'Bitek's daughter, Juliane Okot Bitek, here]

Rob: Yes, you're right - when I say "African poetry audience" I'm really meaning "Accra/Lagos/Nairobi/Cape Town" audience. It's good to be reminded of that. Speaking more specifically, then: I know you haven't been home in Nairobi all that long, but I'm interested in a little "status report" about the current moment in Kenyan poetry. Have you noticed any differences in what's happening now compared to when you were in Kenya pre-MFA? What elements of the Kenyan "scene" (oh how I loathe that word!) do you think are currently the strongest? What areas could use more attention?

Ngwatilo: Our schooling and opportunities to get involved with poetry have tended to focus on performance sometimes at the expense of the text upon which any performance might be based. Performance still seems to be a strong value for us, although I have come across more poets who are more principally interested in their texts, and in building a body of work. The level of commitment to craft is growing, and things that people are doing with language (in terms of English, Sheng, Kiswahili etc) continue to be interesting.

Rob: Can you give us some details of your Vancouver launch for Dagoretti Corner, on April 4th?

Ngwatilo: I have a reading at UBC’s Green College for Monday, April 4th at 5pm! Tell everyone to come! [Ed. note - Everyone! Go! RSVP on Facebook here!] It’s essentially a pre-launch for the chapbook, since the box-set becomes officially available on April 19th. For me personally it’s a celebration of my time at UBC, a marker of my time in the MFA program and living at Green College. I’m grateful to have some very special guests with me, including 2016 BC Book prize nominee Raoul Fernandes [Ed. note - You can read my interview with Raoul here] and Thursdays Writing Collective founder and convener Elee Kraljii Gardiner [Ed. note - Interview forthcoming!], who’s highly anticipated book serpentine loop is just out this spring from Anvil press. It will be a chance to gather together, listen to some poems, possibly make off with some books, and have a good time.


Can't make it to Ngwatilo's launch? Starting April 5th 2016, you can order a copy of New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu) from the Akashic website. Or, if you must, you can order it on Amazon.


go to sleep, wake up, do a few more lines

Ron Everson and Lorna were friends for many, many years going back to Montreal. Ron was a lawyer and well off. They had a lovely apartment in Westmount. He was a bit of a square peg in our group, but he was always around the poetry scene. He didn't turn into a great poet or anything but he was one who really kept at it. He had his set time every day when he would go to write. I've always been suspicious of poets who do that because it's contradictory to the intuitive part of poetry. How can you sit down and decide you're going to write a poem? To me, and I think to Al certainly, the ideas are there and then he'll sit down. Al would write in the middle of the night if the spirit moved him. Go to sleep, wake up, do a few more lines. If there were people over and he got an idea, he would go off by himself. That was his method. Wait for the idea, but be ready to write when it came. I'm sure he and Ron argued about it - they argued about everything.

- Eurithe Purdy, being interviewed by Howard White while she ran a yard sale, as published in The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology (Harbour Publishing, 2009).

At the time of this posting, my wife, son and I will be arriving in Toronto, our our way to Ameliasburgh to begin our two-month stay at Al and Eurithe's refurbished A-frame. If you're unfamiliar with the project, you can learn more about it here (and if you want to send the A-frame trust a bit of money so they can support more poets down the line, you can do so here).

To celebrate my time in the A-frame as the first BC-based writer-in-residence, I will be profiling a BC poetry book a day right here on this blog throughout April. You can learn more about the project here.

New Poem: Thirty-One Weeks

I have a new poem, part of my "gestation" series of poems written during my wife's pregnancy with our first son, in the Spring 2016 issue of Boxcar Poetry Review. You can read the poem here:

Thirty-One Weeks - Rob Taylor

I haven't had a chance to dig very deeply into the rest of the issue, but there's always good stuff at Boxcar, so be sure to check out the full issue!

Thanks to Neil at Boxcar for making this happen. And if you're interested in more almost-baby poems, I have others online here, here and here.


Poet Tips

Not reading enough poets already? I know, I know, what a silly question.

Robert Peake, mastermind behind the Transatlantic Poetry Reading Series, has just the thing for you, oh insatiable poetry fan.

Poet Tips is a new website devoted to making connections between poets. If you like a poet, you can look them up and find recommendations of other, similar poets, as suggested by users. You can also do the suggesting yourself.

I'm sure eventually the Poetry Wars will consume this good-hearted effort, as they do so many things, and soon top recommendations for contentious poets will be Adolf Hitler, Ayn Rand, This Guy Blows, etc. But for now the site is innocent and beautiful and open for play.

So go find, and create, some new connections over at Poet Tips!


Roundhouse Radio Interview

Yesterday I stopped in at Roundhouse Radio for an interview with Minelle Mahtani for her show Sense of Place.

Minelle has been having poets on to talk about the Lunch Poems at SFU/Anvil Press anthology The Revolving City, which includes my poem "The Wailing Machines".

Our conversation circled around ideas of place and belonging in Vancouver, and also Brian Burke. I got him in there too, somehow.

Thanks so much to Minelle, and Roundhouse Radio, for having me, and for their work promoting poetry in Vancouver. If you haven't heard Minelle's show before (as I hadn't, before today!) I recommend tuning in to Sense of Place from 10 am till 12 pm weekdays on 98.3 FM!


who wants to forget and who wants to remember - "100 Days" by Juliane Okot Bitek

Day 91 - Juliane Okot Bitek

We couldn't have known
nine days in
that it would ever be over

it was a time warp that had us
in flashes & then in woozy moments
that took forever

machete hangs in a museum in Ottawa
a machete hangs perpetually
in a museum
in Ottawa

a machete hangs like a mockery of time
like a semblance of that reality
in which another machete
& other machetes hanged
for what seemed like a long time
but eventually they come down
again & again & again & again & again

even time measured in machete strokes
can never be accurate

from 100 Days
(University of Alberta Press, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.


In the spring of 2014, inspired by a similar project undertaken by photographer Wangechi Mutu, Juliane Okot Bitek set for herself a difficult goal: to write 100 poems in 100 days, one for each day of the Rwandan Genocide, which had taken place exactly 20 years previously. The results were posted on Juliane's website, and were collected in book form in January of this year in 100 Days (University of Alberta Press, 2016). It is an incredible, relentless book, and I cannot recommend it enough.

100 Days
The poems brim with wisdom, yet are written in a way which encourages speed, building propulsive power from poem to poem. As I read from "Day 100" down to "Day 1", the poems and their implications oscillated in me, as with any great grief: I was overwhelmed, then numbed, then outraged, then dulled again, then suddenly alive with anger, as if I'd been slapped across the face. And throughout I was haunted by the voices of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves.

When I contacted her about the possibility of an interview, Juliane - a PhD student in UBC's Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program - was conducting research in Tanzania. She responded to my email with photos of Zanzibar which made me ache with the memory of that beautiful place.

I was determined to ask her only a handful of questions, to let her stay focused on her work and enjoy her surroundings, but after reading 100 Days I realised I had accumulated more questions for Juliane than for any author I'd interviewed previously. This is testament to the type of book Juliane has produced: an open-hearted, raw and honest exploration not only of the genocide, but of the larger world which enabled and abandoned it, and of Juliane's own place and role in that world. The author is alive inside this text, as are the lives of so many others, both living and lost to us. The questions are endless.

Still, for your sake dear reader, I settled on a couple dozen questions. From there, Juliane and I nudged and trimmed and merged and abridged our way to what you find here.

I hope you take something of value from this exchange, and I very much hope you pick up a copy of 100 Days.

Juliane Okot Bitek, fielding my seemingly endless questions.


Rob: The poems in 100 Days were written in response to photos by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, who lives and works in Brooklyn. Mutu posted a photo a day, in remembrance of the roughly 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide, and your poems expanded her project, in a sense. How did the photos, which were often abstract and not obviously connected to the genocide, shape or influence the poems you wrote?

Juliane: I was inspired to begin writing the poems after I saw the first couple of photos that Wangechi posted on social media. So we agreed to have a very loose collaboration – both of us would post something every day for the next hundred days. Wangechi lives on the East Coast and I on the West. Every day we posted independently, we never discussed what we were going to work on, just that I would post a poem and she would post a photo. I didn't wait to see her photos before I posted a poem but I'd say they're obviously connected to genocide, they speak to it as a concept that is difficult to grasp and yet whose evidence is there for any who would look. The influence of the photos I'd say were most marked in themselves as evidence of solidarity. The mark of loneliness that I often feel inside a project wasn't there and even when times were hard and I got really tired, I imagined Wangechi doing her work and saw evidence of it everyday and that bolstered me.

Rob: "The mark of loneliness I often feel inside a project" - what a great observation, and testament to the power of collaboration, especially when taking on a marathon: 100 poems in 100 days!

Did you really write them as it appears - one poem per day, in this sequence? Or did you play with the sequence and/or timeline to make it work? Did part of you feel beholden to the structure, leaving the poems as they came to you day-by-day, warts and all?

Juliane: It was a marathon. For a long time I wrote a poem everyday and before I was halfway done I was already pretty exhausted. Then the poems started to come in fits, often more than one or two a day, so I decided to keep posting one a day but wrote them down as they came, sometimes more than two at a time but rarely more than three. They're pretty much in the same form as they appeared. I only made a single change in sequence, so yes, those are the poems as they came. But I had an excellent editor at University of Alberta Press to work with. Peter Midgely helped me take care of the warts. So they're now published with no warts.

Rob: Ha! You should have a sticker on the cover, certifying it as such. You wrote 100 Days in Vancouver, correct? How do you think the book would have been different if you'd written it in Uganda, or in Rwanda itself?

Juliane: I don't know if 100 Days would have been different or not depending on where I wrote it. I can say that the poems that emerged were part of a social media collaboration which by itself is a digital landscape that is not much concerned with the landscape from which the post originates. 100 Days also attempts to include the experiences of people beyond those specific days and beyond the borders of Rwanda, an attempt at solidarity. I can't say how different it would have been but there is an undeniable Canadian-ness to it that might not have been present if I lived in Rwanda or Uganda.

Rob: Could you speak a bit to your personal experience of the genocide? Where were you? How did the news of the genocide reach you? To what extent did you feel apart from what was happening, and to what extent did you feel bound to it?

Juliane: I was a young mother when the genocide broke out in Rwanda in 1994. My son wasn't even a year old at the time. We lived in Vancouver. I can't honestly tell you that I knew about the genocide from the dominant news channels here because it did not play out until much later. But I can't even remember how we knew that something horrible was taking place. At the same time, there was the war in Bosnia and the guerilla war between the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army had been going on since 1987 and that hadn't even made a mark on the world conscience, let alone headlines. To what extent is anyone bound to the knowledge of a terrible war?

Rob: 100 Days is filled with voices - sometimes it seems the speaker is you, the author, and other times it is one of a variety of voices - often victims of the genocide speaking directly. Can you speak a bit about how it felt to shift between voices? To inhabit the voices of the dead?

Juliane: To inhabit the voices of the dead or have them inhabit you? 100 Days is about listening and so perhaps the focus should not be on the experience of the writer but perhaps on the voices that have emerged during the process of writing. I didn't think about my feelings when I wrote them so anything about feelings, especially mine wouldn't be right in here. I know that I was exhausted by the whole thing and that it took me quite some time to get over it.

Rob: "To have them inhabit you." Yes, that gets at the idea far better. Two other phrases you treat with great attention and precision in 100 Days are: "Never again" and "The 100 Days". What do these two phrases mean to you - how do they compliment one another, and in what ways are they opposed?

Juliane: "Never again" was that dramatic utterance after WWII at the Nuremberg trials and Bill Clinton echoed it when he visited Rwanda during the 90s. What do the two phrases mean to me? It means that for some people those one hundred days will continue to define the rest of their lives; they already live outside the “never again” because it will never not be "never again" for them. I'm thinking about people like us who have never been inside such traumatic events, who feel like we can make pronouncements like that without considering the extent to which such events maybe outside the choice of those who remain inside it. In effect, "never again" only makes sense to those who were never in it to start with and doesn't take into account the unending nature of days like 100 days. "Never again" has also shown itself to be a promise that is true for some and not others.

Rob: Many of these poems seem to burn around a single profound statement or question, such as "innocence is power without experience" ("Day 89") or "how to the dead declare / the part of their identity they were killed for?" ("Day 52"). Lines like these got me wondering about your generative process - did you start with these questions and statements - were they already, in some way, milling about in your head? Or did the questions and statements rise out of the process of writing? Are there any lines in this book that came at you unexpectedly, and stick with you still?

Juliane: Process. I wish I had it figured out. Most of the poems came out whole but you're right, some of them came from a phrase. For example, “It was the earth that betrayed us first” (which I think is the first line of Day 100) came out like that and hung about for a bit until the rest of it came out. It's the line that I remember most, probably the only one I can quote without looking at the text.

Rob: In "Day 46" you write:

we know
the impossibility of knowing everything that happened
we know that true witness cannot speak
& that those who have words
cannot articulate the inarticulable

It's an incredible stanza, and hits right at a core limitation of all acts of remembrance, and all acts of poetry. Have you tried to write about the Rwandan Genocide, or other past traumas, in other genres? If so, in what ways did you find it to be more or less successful than 100 Days? More generally, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of using poetry to witness and remember?

Juliane: I've been studying and thinking about genocide for sometime now. Primo Levi's Survival at Auschwitz and Eli Weisel's Night are foundational in my thinking about genocide. I've also been writing about the lives of formerly abducted women of the Lord's Resistance Army and thinking about the war in northern Uganda that took place from 1986 through to 2007. I write creatively as a poet but I've also written creative non-fiction and have some pieces on that online. Strengths and weakness? Depends on who wants to forget and who wants to remember. I write creatively because it's the best way I know how to think through and write about things that we must never forget. It is also more accessible than academic writing that remains within the enclaves of academia.

Rob: In 100 Days you often make movements to draw the rest of the world into the conversation - suddenly a machete is hanging in an Ottawa museum or we are driving down the Sea to Sky Highway, considering the violence and death involved in the dangerous work of building roads.

I get a sense in the book that you were looking to widen the circle: to have the Rwandan Genocide mean more to more people (many of whom might have felt it to be an event greatly removed from their own lives), and to understand that its lessons are applicable everywhere. I see this audience-widening desire, too, in your open, accessible writing style, and in your medium of initial publication: all 100 poems free, online, and available to anyone who might be interested. Could you speak to this idea a bit?

Juliane: Absolutely the Rwanda Genocide was a crime against all of us. We're also implicated in the terrible histories of the countries we live in. The reference to the machete that hangs in a museum in Ottawa is based on fact. There is a machete from the Rwanda Genocide which hangs in the War Museum in Ottawa along with Hitler's car, letters of WW2 soldiers on the front to their mothers, the covers of TIME magazine during the Rwanda Genocide and many other war related artifacts. The project was originally free and open to everyone who has access to the internet, so yes, it was one way to engage with how to remember something so awful with as many people as possible. How, and what about a genocide, we need to remember and to forget.

Rob: You clearly have put some thought into who might be reading your book, and for what reasons. Is audience something you thought about while writing 100 Days? And did your imagined audience shift in any way while you were in the middle of the process of writing the book?

Juliane: I know that we're taught to write for an audience. Sometimes it's impossible to write when you think about an audience. Writing 100 Days was an opportunity to engage with an idea, not to write for a defined audience. I didn't define an audience before or during the writing. I just wrote.

Rob: In "Day 59" you write "you want me to tell / what was never mine to tell". Later, in your Author's Note at the end of the book, when considering that neither you nor Wangechi Mutu is Rwandan, you ask the question "How could it be that we could have nothing to say [as Ugandans and Kenyans]? How could it be that the only Africans to think about the genocide would be from Rwanda?"

These are important questions, and popular ones on North American campuses, where identity politics and questions of authority/permission often take up a great deal of the cultural conversation. How much did you dwell on these questions when imagining your project, and while the project was underway? How much do you think about them now? Do you find a difference between how these questions of "permission" are discussed in North America and in Africa?

Juliane: I think that the context of those questions had to do with the inability to express difficult questions and how language sometimes fails us - through ownership of language (or lack thereof), through trauma and through objectivity that sometimes we relegate to folks, for instance, by labeling them as victims and therefore incapable of whatever. I was thinking about agency and solidarity, rather than appropriation, and the responsibility we have to stand with those in pain. I don't spend very much headspace in thinking about the differences between permissions in Africa and the West because I already know that if we don't tell our own stories, there are many, many folks who engage in telling our stories and therefore define us on their terms. It's my work to be engaged in writing as an African person. Not for Africans but as an African person.

Rob: Connected to the last question, do you have any hesitations around how the book will be received because you are Ugandan and not Rwandan? Have you had any responses along those lines thus far?

Juliane: I've done the work. I had responses from folks from all over the world, not just Ugandans or Rwandans. I think that 100 Days speaks to folks beyond their citizenships and should be read on it's own merit rather than on the strength of the passport of the reader. That said, I suggest (in the Author's Note) that it is our responsibilities as artists to speak to and about the world around us. As a Canadian, Ugandan and Kenyan-born person, I cannot honestly draw political borders around where my responsibilities lie. Others can write about what they will but I must write about issues that affect all my ways of being, all of them.

Rob: "I cannot honestly draw political borders around where my responsibilities lie." That's fantastic, and gets right to the heart of the matter.

Now that the book has been published, looking back at it what do you think you learned (about the genocide, or grief, or yourself) from writing 100 Days? What feels as unresolved as ever?

Juliane: The question remains: what have we ever learned about genocide? What is there to learn about it? Genocide is a political term that works for some and not others, that is applicable to some and not others. I don't know that I've achieved any wisdom from writing 100 Days but I'm certainly impressed by how the book is doing its own work. I dare not speak for it.


Why not help 100 Days do its work? You can do so by picking up a copy at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the University of Alberta Press website. Or, if you must, from Amazon.


architectural considerations

I sometimes marvel at how the right books find us at the right time. I discovered [Elise] Partridge when I was in a deep formalist phase, writing lots of poems with meter and rhyme, and her body of work is a compelling reminder that form and relevance aren’t mutually exclusive values. I encounter a lot of poets, mostly youngish, who have convinced themselves that formal poetry is doomed to be tepid, sniveling odes to birds. I thought that way at nineteen. Certainly these trying times cry out for risk, rule-breaking, and crosspollination with other media in poetry, but in the end I’m committed to a larger ecumenical vision of our art where all of us—and all of our aesthetic values—can be granted voice, space, and respect. As Miles Davis once said, it doesn’t matter if you’re green with red breath, as long as you can play.

Partridge’s poems are about this messy world and this one wild life we’ve been given, yet they display a remarkable attention to what one might call architectural considerations. “Transfer of Power” in particular reflects the ambiguities of hope and morality in our politics, but the various techniques we’ve already discussed crystalize its artfulness and arc. The poem never devolves into an unvarnished expression of outrage, nor does it dissolve into an oversimplified propagandist moral. As with the study of any great poem, these pond ripples flow into my own writing. As with any great poet, Partridge’s legacy endures.

- Adam Tavel, in conversation about Elise Partridge's poem "Transfer of Power" on The Sundress Blog. You can read the whole thing here.


desk blog count: rounding up to 20!

In the Canadian poetry world, there are a few things you can set your watch by: every day rob mclennan will post to his blog, every week Dina Del Bucchia will mention farts on social media, and every year Garry Thomas Morse will publish a new book.

In the peculiar corner of the CanLit world devoted to Desk Blogs, however, chaos reigns. There's no predicting where the next blog will appear, or why (god, why???) a flourishing desk blog might shutter its operations overnight.

But perhaps that is changing. For, my fellow deskblogmaniacs, I have discovered a pattern squirreled away within the noise: writers-in-residence at Open Book Toronto. Every month, a new writer is selected as Open Book Toronto's WiR, and is charged with producing a month's worth of online content for the site. And invariably, as pressure makes diamonds, every couple years an OBT WiR will decide to post on Writers Desks. And all of us are the richer for it.

Sofia Mostaghimi's Desk
(w/ retreating laptop)
Of the fifteen desk blogs we've tracked here in the desk blog count, three now have come from Open Book Toronto, all since 2012. The latest, curated by Jess Taylor (author of Pauls) is entitled "Tiny Rooms of One's Own". It is, to be honest, more of an open-concept interview than a full-blown desk blog. Still, it features a number of the desk blog hallmarks: photos of writers' desks (obviously), detailed author bios, and the obligatory Virginia Woolf reference.

So, desk blog #15 it is!

Here are the ardent fifteen:

On My Desk [Defunct: Archived Here]

Desk Space

Sitting Pretty Magazine

Writers' rooms (Guardian Newspaper)

What Is Your Ideal Space to Create? (Ploughshares Lit Journal)

"Workspace" Section (Branch Magazine)

At The Desk (Open Book Toronto)

Writers' Rooms (VIWF)

Good Places to Write

On The Writer's Desk (Open Book Toronto)

Where Do You Write to My Lovely?

10 Stunning Writing Studios (Flavorwire)

Writing Spaces (The New Quarterly)

3 Room Editors Share Their Writing Rooms With Us (Room Magazine)

Tiny Rooms of One's Own (Open Book Toronto)

Can 20 be all that far behind? Not if Open Book Toronto has something to say about it!

Keep hunting, Deskblogmaniacs!