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

2014-08-03 11.18.32

91.

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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92.

the man led me

backwards

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?

 

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93.

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

 

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94.

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

 

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95.

& 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

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

 

2014-08-02 20.54.12

86.

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

Come

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

 

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87.

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

Remember?

 

Now twenty three minutes to merriment & it’s achtung

Stop

You & I are marionettes

You & I are marionettes

Stop

 

It’s now ever after

This, too, is ever after

& only ever so

 

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88.

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

 

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89.

Jasmine,

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?

 

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90.

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

81.

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

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82.

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

not:

  • glory, glory, glory

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83.

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

Sit

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84.

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

85.

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

Great Conversations at the Uganda International Writers Conference

http://www.africanwriterstrust.org/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.