The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (116-120)


2014-08-02 20.54.12

You see

the man at the bus stop?

the man with the earplugs tight in his earholes?

the man who is breaking?

who is dancing

who is dancing & breaking

who is break-dancing, breakdancing?



the breakdancer is losing his fingers

the man’s fingers are falling off

breaking off, breaking off


Broken fingers

dancing fingers

broken dancing fingers

scattered on the pavement

scattered & glittery because blood spray

glittery & bright because different nail polish on every finger

bright & shadowed because the sun catches & sends light back

to shatter everything on to the pavement


See the man?

We may need to reassemble the guy

the man

the break dancer

the man broken by exposure to unadulterated music



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A prose list, a list of reasons:

God on my skin

The DNA on the inside of my ring

Your insistence on devotion

The regularity of the foghorn these days


The buzz on my scalp when you say:

okay, that’s it, good bye


A white man, many white men will let other women

other white women go ahead on them at the line up for

the bus & then walk in after them as if you’re not

a woman, as if you’re not there


You’re already not there

he wants you to know

you’re not there


We were already dying

we might as well not be there


The rustling of leaves reminds us

that we’re always on the way back to nothing


We were already dying anyway


I won’t kiss you good bye

Superstition or not

Foghorns mark time that we forget on longer days

The DNA on the inside of my ring

where my skin caught & bled yesterday tells me

I’m already dying, scrap of skin by scrap of skin

God on my skin, god on my skin where you kiss me

& a small list to explain

why I won’t kiss you good bye



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so at first we had a rhythm

my bones did

but now

after the fourth murder

of me

my bones now



we had a syncopation

my bones and i did

why the pattern


the pattern

after all this was the fourth time

wasn’t it

the fourth time

to get killed


(might as well say it)


whose going to remember


so my bones have gone jazz

& you’re never going to know

when the next beat comes

where the next clackle of

femur & clavicle


(none of your



my bones do

rhythm & not


tell me don’t

tell me don’t

the fourth time i should know

by now

i should know now

that there’s a spot on the kitchen shelf

an empty glass jar

labelled: tired-bone powder



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not murder or pillage et al

shitstory in the telling





i love you

(that’s herstory)

i love you – that story

i love you

not shit narratives

not shitstory



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So I heard that your were done talking

that you’d reached the end of your words

that the rest of your life in silence

will be matched by respectful nods

from strangers who heard that you had run out of words


So you’re not talking anymore

but have you given any thought to how it looks

you bobbing your head up & down

in response to strangers nodding at you


you’re a snake


what does it look like with your head bobbing up & down

in response to strangers nodding their heads?

What do you think?


Oh, wait


you’re not talking anymore


& now that you’re not talking

& all I have is the bobbing of your head

up & down, up & down

this is what you told me


that your dad & his friends laughed

when they made lewd jokes between them

(none of which you remember

except that they laughed)

& all you remember is the laughter

& not any of how those jokes made you feel


today the men at the office make race jokes

as if you’re not there

& they laugh & snicker

laugh & snicker


now all you do is bob your head

up & down, up & down

maybe someday

you’ll forget how you feel about that

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (111-115)

2014-08-02 20.54.12


The signposts were up

for the readers, for the poets to clue in:

No more poetry with possessives

& there you were, holding my hand

a possessive

my hand


Signpost 1:

your head is broken

your is a possessive

your head belongs to you


Signpost 2:

my head is broken

my is a possessive

I own my own head


Signpost 3:

our heads are cloven

our heads is a plural possessive


Signpost 4:

a hateful eye meets a mean eye


Signpost 5:

exit ahead – Amach

we’re almost there

hands still entwined

we’re laughing



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The glass in your hand

is full of the night sky

the moon in it is clear, full & bright


Take a sip

this taste of glory

doesn’t mattert

doesn’t really matter


The moon shimmers in the glass


next to the red umbrella beside it

the moon in my mouth is a delightful crunch

your blue on mine is a moment I can’t buy

& the warmth down my throat

is worth a morning that will not show


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second floor

green paint

a clock counting down to eternity

the moon

a soft & exhausted sun

two or three women who look alike

men who look nothing like you

a scowl

we’re still walking through this poem


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out in the distance

the desert creeps

in the same pace it has for millenia

as the lineup of witnesses decreases

— they have work

children other obligations

so now just you & me

to watch the desert crawl


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On the top floor

Christ & the devil in deep conversation

fineprinting, the two of them

fineprinting the laws of devotion

& the meaning of sin


beside them a scawl on the wall

a heart with an arrow

between N & A 4evah


Shandon explodes in a warm glow

nothing changes

nothing remains the same

now I know, I know

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (106-110)

2014-08-02 20.54.12


How shall I hold you

you who is not my mother’s child or my own?

We have no shared blood

you are not my kin

there is no reason for me

to hold on to you

die for you

kill for you

make breakfast for you on Thursday morning

& yet I fold you into myself

like a signature beyond script


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You pointing at the stars & me at you

like stars we’re made of nothing

& headed to nothing

but the journey through

to this the most sublime of moments


Is this what it means to be a star?


Here is our fondest path yet

you pointing at the stars

& me at you pointing at the stars

evolution & revolution


You’re complete, you said this morning

you’re complete

but we’re flaming out, we’re flaming out


Is this what it is to belong in the country of stars?

2014-08-04 16.58.39


I have forgotten which lines I whispered to which love

Some lovely phrases borrowed from conversations in the breeze

Solemn words, heavy with heartbreak or history

Lightness, lightness, light

Words like giggles

Words like songs
Allow me to rephrase then

What I’ve told all of them:

It’s you, just you, only ever you


2014-08-02 20.25.13


A dialogue meets a woman on a bench across the street from the coffee shop

she’s white, blonde


cell phoned


twenty minutes later

a man returns

but she’s gone already


Same dialogue meets him at that bench scross the street from the coffee shop

he’s First nations


drumming, drumming

an upturned cap on the ground in front of him

there are a few coins in it, or not

he sings where she had been speaking

into satellites stringed across sky


a dialogue meets the man

who drums out the din in the coffee shop across the street

where young hipster laptopped people socialize

with the background of rabid metal music behind them


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we climb together

you hand firmly on my arm

come, let’s go

iridescent blue across obsidian

& after all that riding

after sweat

come, let’s go again



The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (100-105)

2014-08-02 20.25.13


Your fingers & mine are already locked

& in a moment we shall overcome

the trials of an unlocked poem



2014-08-03 11.18.32



as a title

as me hovering over you

as the September moon

close but not quite there



your eyes are already languid

& we haven’t even started to write


This poem will not respect our commitment

to dignity

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Twenty four hours

& I’m already forgetting

even as I hang on to you


Two days, ten years, a minute ago

I can’t remember what your kisses used to mean


What’s your excuse?



2014-08-04 16.58.39


Time appears this morning like an errant sun

& yet we know

we know it’s not going anywhere


It’s us spinning ourselves around it

telling stories that hold us together

by need

& us going on & on & on in the same sweet spot


2014-08-04 15.47.32


The moon blows back  compensatory myths

out of colour

night skies full of incompassionate stars

– these are everlasting points of equality


Under this we’re spun the same way

& we dream.





The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (96-100)


2014-08-02 20.54.12


today we woke up

both of us barrel chested

we looked at each other

& laughed & laughed & laughed


it was funny to see that both of us

had lost all evidence of youth

we laughed until we ached all over


& then it became clear:

our belly muscles

the ones that used to hurt from laughter

had now relaxed, opened up


& now we have more space for grief

& now we know each other

as containments for much more


2014-08-04 16.58.39


one mother:

this is who you are

this is where you’re going

& this is how, when & why


another mother:

this is who you are

this is where you’re going

& this is what will happen

how, when and why


2014-08-04 15.47.32


yesterday my skin became the sky

& you remarked:

the sky is so blue


last night you said:

the stars are so bright


you couldn’t see that i was imploding

that the stars are a sign

that there will be no sky tomorrow


2014-08-02 20.25.13


Having already

lost a beautiful string of lettering

that had formed into a poem

I should take the day off


These days

lost poems remain lost

a requiem to one is the best I can do


2014-08-03 11.18.32


It’s the movement, isn’t it?


From a collection of recipe bits

to grinding, chopping, frying


releasing the aroma

from the combined bits & pieces of you & me

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (91-95)

2014-08-03 11.18.32


with hands on my shoulders

the man led me backwards

down a long hallway

past the rooms where women come undone

past christmas

& used wedding gowns for sale

past rooms with old laughter

sweating up the walls

he led me backwards

all the way down to Eve

who sat nude

& declared

that mercy was for losers

& condemned me

to liberation wars of convenience


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the man led me


into a wooden chair

he removed the blindfold


what games are these, i asked

chance, liberation, war & mercy


you’re now mine, he said

you’re now mine

along with spike milligan & the goons

tattered manuals

& old love poetry

you’re now mine

i found you a spot on the shelf, see?


2014-08-04 15.47.32


another man

a masked man

demanded all

one hundred & sixty five kisses

if i had any expectation of release


so i told him what i know to be true:

a lipsticked mouth must never be kissed

a lipsticked mouth is not for kissing

a lipsticked mouth is art

is protection

is political statement

is the distance between now & never


2014-08-02 20.25.13



I’ll love you in a minute, you said

blue on brown, blue on brown

I’ll love you in a minute

you said


& in that chasm

nature unleashed itself

— lightning struck countless times

earthquakes, firestorms

children died & were born

died & were born again


in the minute I was waiting

terror smiled

blue on brown, blue on brown

waiting for the world to settle


2014-08-04 16.58.39


& then there were three men left in the country.

Actually, strictly speaking

there were two & a boy

but we called all of them men


the boy to remind us how to have sons

which was to say

that having sons was not like having daughters


the other was

pure & unadulterated pleasure

which was to remind us how to have a man

which was to say that having a woman

was not the same as having a man


the third was a man of the old kind

who was there to remind us

that we needed a man to tell us what to do

to remind us, we reminded him

it felt necessary

because he had no other use

because we did what we needed to do

whether or not he was there

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (86-90)


2014-08-02 20.54.12


I don’t believe in the reclamation of innocence through the cooling of sheets


Let’s set these sheets on fire

Let’s burn them all night long


I don’t believe in the saving grace of dryers

So let’s set these sheets on fire

After we can descend into hell

& take heaven with us


2014-08-02 20.25.13


Almost  quarter to heartbreak

& I’m picking up pieces of you off the living room floor

I’m replacing your bits neatly into the cupboards


Remember Achtung, Baby?

You shook your head & I laughed

& laughed and laughed

You carried me home, drunk



Now twenty three minutes to merriment & it’s achtung


You & I are marionettes

You & I are marionettes



It’s now ever after

This, too, is ever after

& only ever so


2014-08-03 11.18.32


The signpost just north of August reads:

All skinned passengers keep right


My skinned peeled off on Thursday

In a fit of rage, demanding the right

the need for

Touch who left Wednesday morning


Mine left slamming the door behind her

& the sign reads:

unskinned licensed drivers may keep right


& since I don’t drive

I keep left

Keep being left

Stay left


2014-08-04 16.58.39



What shall I tell my feet?

With what words can I convince my neck to stay
How can I say that we will be okay?

The three of us?

The four of us, since the varicose veins refuse to leave?


2014-08-04 15.47.32


Let’s not sit with young lovers

What with their hands locked, intertwining fingers

She asleep

Lipsticked mouth hanging open

Her head on his chest

He with his heavy eyelids sleep or love,I don’t know

His other hand on her thigh

His hair fallen over the side of his face

& all of us on the bus ready to protect young love

whatever it takes


Let’s not sit with sleeping lovers

We’re sentry, we’re sentry, we’re sentry


We cannot sit with these lovers

Vulnerable , weak, stupid

Falling asleep on the bus

What with interlinked fingers and pinked lips

Her mouth agape, his hair falling across his face

So beautiful, so lovely, so shimmery

I can’t stand it


So let’s not sit with the young lovers

It won’t do


The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (81-85)

2014-08-02 20.54.12


Last night she comes round to our table

cupping her hands and says:

    • I’ve been collecting words.
    • Only beautiful words

She opens her palms

& words cascade onto the table

creating something sublime

2014-08-04 16.58.39


She smiles & leaves

she returns with a phone in her hand

she says:

  • these you will need to listen to
  • these words will lace your brain with poison

She hands the headphones over to me

She whispers:

  • poison

I’m sure she says poison


  • glory, glory, glory

2014-08-03 11.18.32


It’s finally warm in Vancouver

Granville Island is resplendent in beauty

I’m being pulled out of a hole in my head

There’s a pressure there, like birthing

Enjoy, says my Kenyan friend

Drink some water, says my Polish friend

I wonder if I should sit down, my Acholi self suggests

Vancouver is beautiful

Where am I going, leaving this body?

Vancouver is beautiful

Why am I still here?

Vancouver is beautiful

What is my responsibility in all this?

Vancouver remains beautiful

Enjoy your existential moment

Drink waer


2014-08-04 15.47.32


We don’t fight, we don’t quarrel

we don’t finish each other’s sentences

or ask questions beyond the banal

or plan

or dream

or hold hands

or go anywhere

or think anything at all

We smile, share meals

clean up

watch TV

sleep together

& wait for the other to die

2014-08-02 20.25.13


I returned unrecognizable to those I’d left behind

I returned contaminated

covered in nastiness

spewing nightmares

(You see? You see?)

I only said I wanted to finish the song

(You see? You see?)

Now they won’t let me anywhere near the source

It’s not me, they say

The me they knew had nothing

wanted nothing to do with music

(having been away for so long)

The me they knew will never come back

or get to anywhere near the source

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (76-80)

2014-08-02 20.25.13

Views from the bus from Gulu to Kampala


Tree stumps in a clearing


Like children right before the lunch bell


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A wooden coffin, a backdrop of unending forest

Soon, the coffin whispers


the trees nod in response

2014-08-03 11.18.32


Three children by the wayside waving at the bus

The bus roars past

I’ll be back, the bus wants to say

Kids only hear: back!

2014-08-04 16.58.39


A man’s gaze is fixed on the lower branches of a mighty tree

Not now, the tree states quite clear

And not tomorrow either

He can’t hear

2014-08-04 15.47.32


Words filter through

Letting in only nightmarish narratives

& other terrible things

Spider webs ever growing crowd my throat

Great Conversations at the Uganda International Writers Conference

Written by Juliane Okot Bitek

Juliane Okot Bitek

Juliane Okot Bitek


When Professor Zakes Mda gave his keynote speech at the conference, he beautifully lined out and linked the theme of his speech: “Autobiography, Memoir and Memoires” to the conference theme of “Truth and Memoir”. Writing from memory, he told us, requires emotional truth whereas autobiography calls for provable facts. Writing a reflection from memory a couple of weeks after the conference (having lost my notes on the last day) means that this reflection is a product of an emotional truth and there was plenty of that during the African Writer’s Trust Uganda International Writers Conference, which was held at Fairway Hotel in Kampala, from 1st-6th March 2015.

The conference brought together 30 writers from many parts of the world, including the USA, the UK, Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, most of whom had only hitherto been preceded by their work or social media presence. Goretti Kyomuhendo, the director of the African Writers Trust and her very able team brought together a week of text, body, mind, heart and a spirit that drove the theme through the week. There were panels and presentations in the morning and in the afternoon, powerful binding and rebinding of relationships over drinks until late. To begin, Dr. Susan Kiguli (Uganda) presenting on a panel entitled: African Literary Renaissance: Return to Glory or Superficial Gloss? gave a brilliant and brief history of the 1962 Makerere conference to this moment; it was a powerful reminder that the same questions of power, authenticity, writing, and the role of the artist still dog us today.

Susan Kiguli, Juliane Okot Bitek, Susan Nkwentie, Jennifer Makumbi, Louise Umutoni, and Noo Saro-Wiwa.

L-R: Susan Kiguli, Juliane Okot Bitek, Susan Nkwentie, Jennifer Makumbi, Louise Umutoni, and Noo Saro-Wiwa


All mind-eyes listen to Oduor Jagero

All mind-eyes listen to Oduor Jagero


In that single week, writers that live in Uganda and writers that live outside Uganda and writers that live outside Africa became one; defined by vocation and not location. Shadreck Chikoti (Malawi) illustrated how some publishers discourage African writers from contextualizing their work outside of the continent while Melissa Kyeyune (Uganda) provided examples of the ways in which digital publishing can ameliorate the need to define one’s self by location – her e-novels are set in cities around the world and they sell very well. Jagero Oduor (Kenya) bravely dove into and introduced the green shade with which African writers abroad can be considered while Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria/USA) reminded us that exclusion and derision against Diasporan African writers was self-defeating for us, African people. Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda) presented her experience of winning a writing award as a very positive experience.

Left: Glydah Namukasa, Mildred Barya, Emma D'Costa, Juliane Okot Bitek, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Jackee Batanda, and Chinelo Okparanta.

L-R: Glydah Namukasa, Mildred Barya, Emma D’Costa, Juliane Okot Bitek, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Jackee Batanda, and Chinelo Okparanta


Distinctions emerged from the different genres in which we work. There wasn’t much on playwriting, as Charles Mulekwa (Uganda) noted, but when he introduced Zakes Mda, with a call and response that electrified the room with the power of performance, our echoes welcoming Professor Mda would remain, even when we were gone – a powerful reminder that art is nothing without the people who live it, consume it, remember it, think about it, talk about it and bring it to life.

Women’s writing communities from Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda were introduced to us by Timwa Lipenga (Makenawa’s Daughters) Hilda Twongyeirwe (FEMRITE) and Louise Umutoni (Andika Ma); while Susan Nde spoke about the complications of writing, reading and getting published in a minority English- speaking Cameroon. Peter Kagayi (Uganda) introduced us to Lantern Meet of Poets, a community of poets who have reimagined poetry as a social and communal space. So having poets and prose writers reading together on the last evening at Kati Kati Restaurant was the practice of a new community.

Group picture

From left front row: Chinelo Okparanta, Godfrey Byaruhanga, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Zakes Mda, Mildred Barya, Jackee Batanda, Charles Mulekwa, Susan Kiguli, Timwa Lipenga, Hilda Twongyeirwe, Emma D’Costa, Glydah Namukasa, Juliane Okot Bitekt, Peter Kagayi, Beverley Nambozo, Diana Santiago, Dilman Dila, and Danson Kahyana


We went to the FEMRITE offices in Kamwokya, where we interacted with beginning and established Kampala writers. In the comings and goings, we were immersed into writing culture and thinking about writing and writing about thinking; Jennifer Makumbi (Uganda/UK) gave a hilarious account of her first attempt at self-promotion on social media.

Michela Wrong, Shadreck Chikoti, and Noo Saro-Wiwa

L-R: Michela Wrong, Shadreck Chikoti, and Noo Saro-Wiwa


Two nonfiction writers, both journalists talked about the work of writing about political figures and events. Michela Wrong (UK) and Daniel Kalinaki (Uganda/Kenya) spoke about the process of working with material that for the large part was already known and may have been published in the media before. Michela presented her insight as the fact that her third book: It’s Our Turn to Eat (2009) found the narrative which connected the news stories and pointed towards corruption in Kenya. Like Michela, Daniel’s book on Uganda’s opposition politician Kizza Besigye also used previously known material but he also spent much time and travel seeking to interview Besigye and his wife and others, who he says were very generous in filling in the blanks and humanizing the man beyond the politician known as Besigye.

Left: Beverely Nambozo, Goretti kyomuhendo, and Juliane Okot Bitek

L-R: Beverely Nambozo, Goretti Kyomuhendo, and Juliane Okot Bitek


I laughed far too much, I learned a lot. I discovered connections that I might never have imagined. The next time I’m in Gulu, I’ll go visit my father who lies at St Phillips Church and tell him about the conference. I will also look for the grave of Michela Wrong’s aunt who I understand probably lies close by.

Juliane Okot Bitek was born to exiled parents, both who hail from Gulu, northern Uganda.  As such, the notion of home as a place that one belongs to by virtue of birth, has always been elusive.  She currently lives and works in Canada. Juliane holds a Master’s Degree in English and a BFA in Creative Writing, and is currently a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Students Graduate Program at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. Her doctoral research focuses on post-conflict narratives of formerly abducted women in northern Uganda. Her work has been anthologized and published widely on-line, in print and in literary magazines such as Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One’s Own. Notably in 2004, her short story Going Home, won the Commonwealth Short Story Contest, and was featured on the BBC and CBC.