A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language. W. H Auden

I do not consider myself a poet. I do however read poetry. I analyze poetry. I do not make chocolate, neither do I plant roses in gardens. But a good rose, and a good piece of chocolate, I will tell. But you do realize that it will only be my opinion at the end of the day. Some people do love their chocolate with cocoa, others love their roses red. I love my chocolate white, and I harbor negative, thorny feelings towards roses.

Of contemporary poetry, prose…..art.

I have had an unending debate with Tom Odhiambo and the likes of Neema Mawiyoo at the AMKA monthly reading forum . At one time, we were at conflict, trying to decide whether there is a party of literature going on; where for you to secure a pass at the door, your words have to match those of Chimamanda Andichie, Ngugi wa Thiongo and T. S Elliot. I remember during the discussion, one writer shot up in response, saying that a writer writes about what they are familiar with” You cannot tell me to write about a traditional African Society where women walk around with naked dangling breasts, pots perfectly balanced on their heads. I will write about bashes and prostitutes, traffic jam and coffee dates’. I do agree with her, Literature is of course the reflection of a society.

However, my problem is not and will never be what we write about. It is how we write it. There has been a longstanding battle between generations of writers. There is a new wave preaching freedom in art…and that art is owned by the writer, it has no prescribed rules. I too have preached this gospel. I do laud the open mic events that have given us an opportunity to embrace art seeing as we rarely buy books. I have attended many of these events, and must say; Nairobi has talent.

So why I am not seeing copies on poetry and prose on the bookshop counters? Is it really because Kwani, Story Moja and other publishers are only interested in art that follows the ‘rules’? Art that follows the steps of Ngugi wa Thoing’o? Why am I not seeing a poetry reviews on our local poets by the dailies? Have they sidelined us? Or have we honestly failed?

Having thought about this for quite some time now, I’d say that we have stumbled…just a little. As writers, we have decided to take this issue of free art a little too far. We have forgotten the foundation of Literature and decided to take the higher floors on the building; completely ignoring facts on what qualifies a good poem, a great short story, and what doesn’t. I do know that the obvious response to this will be that people are different, and every poet or prose writer has their own style. However, we need to realize when we write, we do so to be read, as much as there are other intrinsic motivations. So we need to decide some of the qualifications through the eyes of the reader. As long as we have put it in paper, as long as we have uttered those words into the mic, there is need to realize that at the other end, is a reader, a listener eagerly waiting to hear, to read a beautiful piece of art. We have unfortunately refused to revamp our art; just selectively put a little make up on it in the name of rhyme, and completely thrown out of the window the other elements that make literature.

We have turned prose into poetry and poetry into prose. We have invited the words ‘therefore, unfortunately, because ‘into poetry. It is like we lift that pen when writing a poem, and at the fore of our mind is how to make the unwritten piece flow musically with loads and loads of rhyme in it, forgetting that there are other elements. We have changed the description of poetry into ‘a collection of words that have homophonic syllables’. Jean Cocteau says that “A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses”. I do not agree. A gardener does strive to produce a good quality of roses. When will I ever comment on an oxymoron element in a poem from my favorite poet in Nairobi? When will they use our poems and stories in schools to explain the meaning of a hyperbole? I want to see someone referring to a poetry book from one of the spoken word artistes as blockbuster, a must read, not because all the poems rhyme, but because it contains beautiful art-that which is made beautiful by complex and numerous elements that have been employed.

Yes there is a difference between performed art and that which is written. However, I know many of us wake up with a dream of being published every day; whether you perform your art, or you let them read it. What stands as the cutting line here is whether your performed piece has a backbone that is strong enough to make it through in print as it is the case in performance.

Sometimes I think even the event organizers for open mic need to consider moving them away from the noise. A lover of poetry will most definitely not want to struggle to hear the words through a noisy mess of drunks. Words make literature. They are the backbones. It does not just involve picking up words here and there to tell a story. It has to be beautiful.

“Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. “- Paul Engle.

Anyone can weave a blanket of a piece by putting words together. A therefore after a full stop. An interjection here and there. But as artists we need to realize that these rules; the ones we were taught by Mr. Nanio in form 3, they still are relevant. We can fight all we want, create boundaries between contemporary literature and; traditional literature’; call them two different schools, but the cutting line is the reader. She and he is the connection between the two of us. Will they find our art beautiful, will they remember it for its complexity that is simply beautiful, or will they watch us perform, rhyme every word- forget it and go back home, waiting to hear another piece in another open mic event?

I do not know if my ramblings are making sense to any writer out there, but I need to be able to use a poem by Wanjiku Mwaurah, Edwin Baru , Kevin Waithaka, Checkmate… I need to be able to use a poem by these poets to analyze in class with my students. We do want to change the perception in schools that poetry is difficult, don’t we? We need to get our short stories out there for institutions to use as resources. But how shall we do that if we do not write pieces that have something to analyze? I hear someone once said that you cannot play tennis without a net. When I want to give an example of irony, will I find it in one of your poems? Will my students read your poem, enjoy and find reason to analyze it? Or will they just read it as one of those history textbooks?

Chimamanda Andichie and Ngugi wa Thiongo do not decide who gets into this party. The reader does… so is the reader reading our works?