Clifton Gachagua is the first winner of the Sillerman Prize for African Poetry 2013, awarded by the African Poetry Book Fund. His poetry book, Madman at Kilifi, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. His chapbook, The Cartographer of Water, is forthcoming from a joint project by the The Poetry Foundation, The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, Inc., and Prairie Schooner. He has completed a novel which was recently longlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project. His works have been published in major literary forums including Africa’s leading literary journal, Kwani? 06; Saraba, and AfroSF.
Gachagua is currently writing for two TV broadcast shows, Sumu La Penzi and Jane&Abel, for Spielworks Media, a leading production company in Kenya. He is among the guests scheduled to have a session at Story Moja Hay Festival. You can catch his session at 5PM FORD HALL, Saturday 21 September. He will be alongside Nii Parkes, Kofi Awooner, Kwame Dawes, Rashida Namulondo, Pamela Orogot, Kelly Taremwa, Clifton Gachagua, Fatou Were for the East engages West Poetry session whisch is supported by The British Council, The African Poetry Book Fund and The BN Poetry Award.
You just won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry award. What was that like?
Ecstatic. Beautiful. Somehow secretly validating, although a prize should never make one feel validated. Felt like an answer to a prayer. It happened in January last year when I was in need of some good news. I felt like asking all my friends to sit in a room and listen to my poems. I look forward to publishing the book.
Who/ What inspired you to write?
I just find myself writing. It’s a way of living and a way of making sense and experiencing life, it’s something I think I cannot live without. You find the strength to keep writing in the simple pleasures of life like good tea and honey and peace in the morning. But if I’m to talk about specific sources of inspiration I’d need an entire book to list them. I have those who inspire and influence me, I’m not sure if those two mean the same, and I don’t think it would be fair to list just a couple. You walk around the city in all its colorful paradoxes and the country in all its quiet and splendor and bird music, and if you do all this with your eyes and ears open, you get inspired to write.
What are your expectations about the 2013 Story Moja Hay Festival?
I expect to learn. The Hay Fest is one of the places where I’m assured of an education whenever it happens. I want to meet new people, poets mostly. I expect to eat a lot. I expect some varieties of vodka. I expect color and beautiful people. I expect to by books at affordable prices. I expect a lot of good cheer.
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
Can’t quite say, I don’t imagine you arrive at one singular moment when you decide: I’m going to be writing henceforth. But I think when asked about ‘when’ I always go back to one time when I was much younger. Someone broke my heart in Class 8 and I went hope to write them a long love letter. It was raining, and I paused for a moment in the middle of it all and stood outside myself and the image of myself writing an ode to puberty made me both sad and happy. I might have started writing then. In truth I cannot really say ‘when’. I can think of anecdotes but they will not sum up to much. Let’s say I found myself writing and it felt right, it felt like I’d been doing it for the last 500 years.
What is your writing routine like?
Depends a lot on what kind of writing. Now that I am writing scripts for TV I have to work every day. I wake up every morning (much as I’m not a morning person) at 9 and write. I take a break for lunch and spend the rest of the day writing, depending on the amount of work I have. If the work is too much I usually work until 2 AM. On the days I don’t have scripts to think about I wake up to distractions – movies, mostly. I have a schedule of all the non-TV work I need to do. I look at it and decide to get more distractions. I answer emails and spend a lot of time online. By the time you know it it’s already night time and I haven’t had anything done, then I spend the night planning on how I’m going to stop procrastinating. When I’m working on the novel I’m much more disciplined. I work for most of the day and night. I even dream about letters and sentences, the way gamers dream about Tetris blocks. When I can’t sleep I make notes and write some more. Sometimes I take long walks to clear my mind. I always have a drink next to me when I write. Water mostly.
Do you think enough Kenyan writers are featured in Literary Festivals? Why or Why Not?
I think they are featured considerably in local and international festivals, and it’s a matter of having interests in such things that you find out they are happening all around us. But we don’t see as many writers in the festivals as it should be. Kenyan writers must publish more and get their names out there.
What is your advice for writers (especially upcoming ones)
Spend all your time reading and writing and very little time talking about what you are working on. Then submit to magazines and journals. Then get an agent.
If you could change jobs what would you get into?
I can’t change jobs, I don’t want to. But it does sound quite appealing to be a magician.
If you could meet anyone dead or alive who would it be?
I’d love to meet the beat poets like Duncan and Ginsberg and smoke a joint or two. Basquait, too.
What are you currently reading?
I don’t have a good system of reading things. It’s all in chaos right now. I’m reading: Foucalt and Queer Theory; Simone De Beauvoir’s Philosophy, & Feminism; The Sound of Poetry, The Poetry Of Sound. I carry the manifesto of surrealism everywhere I go and read it to myself in traffic like a lullaby. I have Mark Z. Danielweski’s House Of Leaves in my backpack, which is a beautiful read. All this I’m reading in between long breaks from DFW’s Infinite Jest. I’m also reading the collected letters of Rainer Maria Rilke. Whenever I can I read a poem of two from the volumes of poetry in my backpack.
What is your favorite book?
I don’t have a favorite book.
Have you ever encountered writer’s block? How do you handle it?
No. I don’t think writer’s block exists for me. I always have something going on in my head. When I can’t write it’s just because I’m lazy.