A Willful Act Of Empathy: A Dialogue With Alexis Teyie

A WILLFUL ACT OF EMPATHY

A DIALOGUE WITH ALEXIS TEYIE

Alexis Teyie is a co-founder and poetry editor with Enkare Review. She published a poetry chapbook, Clay Plates: Broken Records of Kiswahili Proverbs (2016), through the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books. Alexis also co-authored a children’s book, Shortcut (2015). Her poetry, short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in collections like Routledge’s Handbook of Queer Studies (2019); Queer Africa II (GALA); ID & WATER (SSDA), among others. She sings for a secret choir in Nairobi.

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BY UGOCHUKWU DAMIAN OKPARA

This conversation happened between an apartment vivacious with highlife in Asaba, Nigeria and a cold flat in Kisumu, Nairobi, Kenya via email.

Ugochukwu Damian: Thank you for saying yes to this dialogue. One of the things that fascinate me about writers is their process, and in Poets Talk: 5 Questions with Alexis Teyie, you say “I don’t think of it as ‘writing’ poetry as such, but more of ‘making.’” I love the idea of making poetry in lieu of writing one and to borrow from a line in your poem – how you terrorize one until it confesses. It makes me visualize a poet as a sculptor. 

One of the things I picked out from your poetry is identity – how you beautifully incorporate proverbs into it, which reminds me so much of my mother. I am Igbo, one of the ethnic groups in Nigeria and there is a saying that ‘Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.’ My mother chews her words with proverbs, her parents did too and this is something I do not find consistent in me, probably because of the environment I grew up in. I am unlearning that part of me and holding on to the part of my language I had let slip through my fingers. What is the situation like among the present generation of Kenyans?

Alexis: It is a running joke in my family that apart from my late father and I, no one else speaks Kiswahili ‘Sanifu,’ or classical Kiswahili— it is mostly ‘Sheng’. ‘Old’ Kiswahili is the one gift I’ve never figured out how to give, or my family hasn’t figured out how to receive. Up until I moved to Jo’burg, I thought and dreamed in Kiswahili. There’s a whole cosmos that lives in this language. It’s one of the crispest, baggiest, sleekest, gentlest, cruelest languages. One of the methali I include in this recent book is ‘Aliyetota hajui kutota.’ I agonized over this translation. You’ll notice that I was specific not to call it a ‘glossary’; to me, Kiswahili and English are my native tongues and I divested from the work of keeping these two ways of being-in-the-world separate. Anyhow, back to the methali. My transliteration was: “One who has drowned no longer realizes he is drowning. Or, one who is wet cannot get any wetter.” It’s quite the knot. I think my set, we’re in the thick of it. It’s one of the worst and best times to be young and alive in Kisumu, or Nairobi, or Loiyangalani. I can’t comment on language or literature in Kenya, but I will say Voice of Kenya used to host a radio program of Kiswahili poetry (which I only caught on YouTube as an adult) and I used to look forward to Taifa Leo to catch a few stanzas. Mwana Kupona, Jared Angira and a whole host of other Kiswahili poets saved me. Nostalgia is tedious, so I won’t bemoan the loss of an era. Young Kenyans are making new poetry, and creating wild, wide vocabularies; it’s Ochungulo Family, Ethic, Boondocks gang etc. blasting from matatus, clubs and bedsitters. Another proverb I included is “Mapenzi si shurua; huja yakaja,” yaani kusema: “Love is not like measles; it can come back again and again.” Same with poetry, with language: it will return again and again.

Ugochukwu: Yes, I remember on my first read I had checked for a glossary and did not find any. ‘Methali’ for me, lay subtle, and I thought to myself, oh yeah, this is another poem. I was choking with curiosity and only until I got to the end of the book did I discover what Methali really was. I was astonished and at the same time, relieved because I couldn’t find some of the translations online.What really inspired Clay Plates: Broken Records of Kiswahili Proverbs?

Alex: Yes, I was very insistent about not calling it a glossary; I’m not interested in performing ‘nativity.’ That’s a hard question. What did inspire the book? I could side-step and say that I’ve been writing this book all my life, in that so many instances coalesced into that tiny figurine. I’m not certain, frankly. I’ll say this: most of my writing is a way to connect with my father, and my sister—both dead. I’m saying, as my father did in a poem he made: stay a while, sing me a song. I suppose I’m trying to bribe death in a way?

I’ll say this: most of my writing is a way to connect with my father, and my sister—both dead. I’m saying, as my father did in a poem he made: stay a while, sing me a song. I suppose I’m trying to bribe death in a way?

Ugochukwu: That is beautiful, and I am so sorry for your loss. Did your father’s poetry influence your writing? 

Alex: Unequivocally. Both the few poems that are still available to me as well as the absence of his poetry. 

Ugochukwu: There’s a strong exploration of language in your collection. In “History is a Loaded gun”, you talked about silence as yet another language, noting the gradual loss of the narrator’s language from the seventh stanza, where you write – ‘Ours was a seizing, a swimming, / a dazzling limp of a language.’ Also, this exploration of language is seen in the poem, “I Hope We Don’t Run Out of English”. Here, you took a turn and talked about the loss of English language across the border and the possible dangers it holds, because its loss is linked to failure in the last stanza- ‘Now that we’ve crossed the border… / Don’t write home; don’t admit you lost.’ I’m curious, what fascinates you about language?

Alex: Tricky. I love how language, particularly Kiswahili, is expansive, malleable, and deliciously incongruous. If I were a well-adjusted person, I imagine I wouldn’t write as much as I do, or at least not in this hesitant, testing way. I am always trying a sentence and these trials re/train me as I feel my way through this life. That said, my hope with these assays is that I gift more people with their language, and their worlds, turned inside out but righted all the same. This is the joy many other artists continue to give me.

Ugochukwu: This resonates with me—on not being a well-adjusted person. And I think I write more and enjoy poetry because of the solace I find in its language. Lately, Ellen Bass’s Poem, “The Thing is”, is something I’ve been returning to in the silent comfort of my new apartment. My paranoia of this new environment haunts me, and each time I’m tempted to question life, I remember Ellen Bass’s poem. It does what your poem “Water Lilies” did for me in November in a military controlled camp. I must say there’s so much solace in your work, and the first I encountered was in the poem, “Clay Plates”, you write:

My father was the first man.

A crying father is an impossible thing.

A crumbling face, leathery skin moist,

eyes small and disappearing, fisted

hands. I ran my index down his cheek,

I said, thank you thank you thank you.

In the preface of your collection, Kwame Dawes talked about Clay Plates:Broken Records of Kiswahili Proverbs not sparing in its challenging of patriarchy and the abuses of power, and yet, as a willful act of empathy it begins with a poem of gratitude for the moments of human sensibility in men. Is there a reason for beginning your collection with this poem?

Alex: Ellen Bass is a gem. In another magnificent poem she says “This is the shucked meat of love…” Doesn’t that just knock you back flat? I’m so glad you said that of “Water Lilies”, thank you. And I hear you about that eerie familiarity of being in a place with your belongings but not quite yet yours. That solitude has been shadowing me lately as well. One of the loves of my life is in hospital, and I went to see her yesterday evening. Almost everyone who has been to see her has been reading to her. We spent time with Joshua Bennet and by the time I left, it was too late to get a matatu, so I started walking in that reluctant darkness only big cities have. Kept going over and over in my head, I am not resigned I am not resigned. Edna St. Vincent Millay is another gem: “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.” And then: 

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

I may have been responding to this poem in “Water Lilies”, or to a little story I wrote years ago, ‘The voice is the first to go.’ Saying, goodness can never be lost. Its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness. Who knows? Anyhow, Baldwin says, “we’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we’re still each other’s only hope.” This is, at the very least, what I owe those I love and hate and write about and write for. I opened the book with it because I hoped it would guide me, and you could think of it as a gatha I am trying to embed in my practice. If I must feed something in the universe, I’d rather be a patron of this sort of expansiveness.

Ugochukwu: I am sending all the love and light to the love of your life. I love the idea of immortalizing goodness. Indeed, it can never vanish, even when we try so hard to push it away, it still stays deep inside the heart of our hearts.

Yesterday, I was part of a field project where we interrogated women of childbearing age in a rural community with diverse people. Keeping this diversity in mind means we had to be careful of our language, so we resorted to Pidgin English. One thing struck me most when we got to a house where communication in Pidgin English was a huge problem; we almost gave up trying to have a conversation with them until one of them spoke Igbo to the other. We expressed this deep sense of relief and my colleagues left them to me because I am the only Igbo in the team. I communicated with the women and they complied with the questions, smiling all through. There’s so much language can do for us and I tend to see poetry that way—they resonate with us, they stay to make our moments worthwhile.

You’ve been in almost all genres. I remember reading your article, “The Case against Anal Testing”, on This Is Africa. It is absurd and depressing how people can go extreme with homophobia. Also, in a short story, “Mama Boi”, you talked about issues that beleaguer the modern African woman (wawabookreview.com). How has this exploration of different genres been for you?

Alex: Very correct, there is so much language can and is doing for us. I realize some people don’t find genre distinctions useful, or real in any meaningful way, but I think of them as a way to pick the friends in a room as I work through some idea or image. So, for instance, when I write poetry, I’m in a warmly lit space with old friends like Jared Angira, Anna Akhmatova, Czeslaw Milosz and so on. When writing fiction another familiar crowd: Raymond Carver, Roberto Bolano, Clarice Lispector. So, in this way, we’re curating, sometimes incidentally, our ancestors when we pick a tradition to work in. I would like to hope writing across genres has enriched my making across all, but I equally suspect I might have diminished the quality of each. I’m giving myself a few years to see how it pans out…and I should add, though, recognizing what has come before doesn’t mean we cannot push against these bounds. I think about this more and more as I grow into a more clarified version of myself. Women, particularly African women, aren’t expected to write non-fiction or ‘serious’ fiction; if they do, we’d like to interpret their work in ways that adhere to narrow ideas of what their concerns are, or should be. Very few things thrill me more than carefree writing by African women or genderqueer artists— which is to say, yes to meandering and whimsy and absurdity, yes to uninhibited play in our writing.

Ugochukwu: Asante Sana. It’s been a great pleasure having this dialogue with you, and to round up, do you have any advice for a budding writer on craft and publishing?

Alex: And shukran to you, this was lovely. I’m afraid I have no insight whatsoever into the wild world of publishing, but on craft, what I wish I internalized earlier: you get worse before you get better, but even your worst work is a gift and a revolutionary act of love. Keep at it.

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Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian-born poet, is an unapologetic flower boy. He began writing poetry in 2017 and his major themes explore depression, gender, and sexuality. He was one of the 21 mentees in the second cohort of the SLM Mentorship Programme and the 1st Runner Up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2019. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in African writer, Kreative Diadem, NSPP 2019 Anthology, Straight Forward Poetry and elsewhere.

UGOCHUKWU DAMIAN OKPARA

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER FOR POETRY

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