Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Shortlisted Poet: A Dialogue With Afua Ansong
Afua Ansong is a Ghanaian American teaching artist and scholar, specializing in poetry, contemporary West African Dance and photography. Her research focuses on the representation of African female subjectivities in literature. She has received fellowships from Breadloaf, Bronx Recognizes Its Own (BRIO) and Blue Mountain Center (BMC). Her work can be seen in Prairie Schooner, Frontier Poetry, Kalahari Review and her website www.afuansong.com
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email.
Nkateko: Afua, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Afua: Thank you so much Nkateko! I am both so honored and grateful to be amongst the top 10, especially because this is my third submission. I have not had doubts about my poetry but I believe that over time, my work has gained or is gaining the depth I want it to possess. And I think the judges saw that. And that encouraged me to continue to search for more. It also means that there is a generation of young Africans like myself really interested in promoting poetry and that too is really inspiring.
Nkateko: I admire your resilience and I think you’ve made key points about overcoming rejection: trusting your work and continuing to search for more. Your poems, “Born Again” and “Post Card To Accra”, took me back to “Reincarnation”, which is published in the 20.35 Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. In both “Reincarnation” and “Born Again” you speak of dying and waking, making mention of a mother and fragmented memories of Accra, Ghana. In “Post Card To Accra” you speak of home as “my dirty lover.” Is the “I” voice in these poems yours or do you inhabit the voice of another? Are these recollections of a birth story and a longing for home?
Afua: I am not even sure that I realized this whole death thing but I think that is apparent because there was a point of my life where I thought about death a lot: what it meant if I didn’t exist anymore or if the people I loved so much did not exist. I think it became clearer that I was more concerned with being in control, because no one will live forever. And not having that power drove me crazy. That is to say that sometimes these are my thoughts as voices as words.
My longing for home is insatiable. Carole Boyce Davies talks about how we create a fantasy of home based on how we left it and hope that when we return to it, it is still the same. I grew up in Accra and went to the market almost every Saturday: this is my fondest moment of the city but I have lived out of Accra for so long that what I have will continually be a longing. And maybe that is what I need to return to someday, somehow.
Nkateko: You speak of your work gaining the depth you want it to possess and that this has taken time. What does the process of refining your work look like for you? Does it require you to look back at your old work and tweak it? Or does trusting your voice mean letting each poem say what it says and leaving it at that? I ask this because I have heard of poets who revisit a poem or manuscript after months, even years, and find what was missing, and I wonder if that is the same searching you speak of?
“I have not had doubts about my poetry but I believe that over time, my work has gained or is gaining the depth I want it to possess. And I think the judges saw that. And that encouraged me to continue to search for more.“
Afua: I’m actually glad you asked this question because I have been recently been revising old poems (even some that have already been published) and wondered if I could have added a word or taken away some line. I remember when I began my MFA program, I heard a lot of poets say at readings “it took me 3 years to write the poem” and I wondered, “I cannot wait 3 years for a poem to be ready.” But it is exactly all I’m doing now. When a poem is not ready, it is like rice that is half cooked; some grains are still hard. If you’re really hungry, you’ll eat it all up but it is so much more satisfying when you have it soft and all ready. I want my poems to be like that. And I am committed to wait.
Nkateko: I quite like the idea of “soft and all ready” poems. I was on my Submittable profile earlier this week looking at contests and journals that are open for submissions, and I had to stop myself from sending unripe work somewhere because the deadline was looming. I find that the urge to just send something can be overwhelming, until the crushing rejection that proves that the work was not ready. How does one suppress this urge? You say “If you’re really hungry” you will eat anyway but also that the result of patience is far more satisfying, but how is that patience cultivated, especially when one is bombarded with calls for submissions?
Afua: Tell me about it! That urge is so strong and especially so when you have a lot of writer friends who are doing well, sending out their work and getting it published. And they share this news on social media and you’re like “am I even a poet?” The best way I have found to silence this doubt and urge is to ask myself why I write and who my audience is. I think when you start there and you are honest with yourself, you begin choosing instead of being chosen. I am getting fewer rejections now or getting rejections which are accompanied with comments from editors that express their interest in my work and encourage me to resubmit. I have spoken extensively with Kwame Dawes and Rowan Ricardo Phillips, poets I admire and respect and one advice has been consistent: poetry is for the long haul. Poetry permeates through every aspect of my life and so even when I am not sitting out at a desk to write words, I am still cultivating a poetic conscience and that conscience itself, if nurtured properly, should teach you patience.
Nkateko: In “The Girls With the Issue of Blood” there is a direct acknowledgement of the body, not as dead and reborn but existing as a breathing (and bleeding) entity, albeit in the past tense. Is this a way of assuaging the “insatiable longing”, by reclaiming the body that once existed there? The word “dirty” appears in two different poems, describing home (Accra) and the body, and I found this a powerful way to express the complicated relationship with both, the desire to exist in both: to stain all that is clean with the dirt of being alive. You mentioned that your preoccupation with death stemmed from a need to be in control, are poems about being alive in the body a pushback or response to this desire for power?
Afua: I really like this question. I want to compare the act of writing (poetry) to this idea of being in control. “The Girls With the Issue of Blood” began with simply the concept of the woman with the issue of blood in the Bible and what great faith she exuded. But I wanted a retelling of the story that was relevant to me. Power becomes redefined then as fighting back although the I or we may not have complete control over their situation: for these girls in the poem, staining the white sky is taking control of an eternal perspective. In identifying Accra and the body as “dirty” I am thinking of ways in which what I long for can be considered unattractive even in its natural state and how to cope with it. All Accra and a body in its dirt is beautiful to me.
Nkateko: “I am still cultivating a poetic conscience and that conscience itself, if nurtured properly, should teach you patience.” I love that this statement looks inward and then extends outwards, which I imagine any great piece of advice should do. You examine what has worked for you (and your kind mentors) and then extend it, as if saying Here, this should work. I was taught this by the greats and I have tried it myself. How important is it to you to have eyes on your work, whether those of peers or mentors?
Afua: I entered my MFA program with the faith that the writers believe in my work and so every opportunity I got, I wrote poems and shared with my thesis Advisor Julie Sheehan. Julie read so many drafts of my thesis, I thought she would be tired at a point. But gave my work the critical attention it needed. So now I can revise a poem and say, “Julie would have probably asked me to delete that line.” I also make an effort to attend a writers conference at least once a year to study with writers whose work are similar to mine. The first poet I worked with outside of school was Jericho Brown. And though workshop only lasted for 5 days, I received critical understanding of revision in poetry. I am also the kind of person who will randomly email a poet or an editor and ask them ways in which I can improve myself or my work as an artist. So far, I have been received with a lot of love and care in this field. It’s the kind of energy that allows creativity to flourish.
Nkateko: When asked for tips on submitting poetry to journals, Safia Elhillo said “Workshop your poems with homies/mentors/yourself before sending them off – a journal editor should not be the first person to give you feedback on a piece.” How many people see a poem after you have written it, and before you send it to a journal? How would you add to Safia Elhillo’s advice, especially considering that some young writers have not yet found their writing “tribe” and have no safe space to share or workshop a poem before submitting it?
Afua: That’s an interesting question. I think Safia Elhillo is right and will add to her advice that you should trust your voice. When I began submitting, I would submit first drafts of poems I had written and obviously got many rejections. And then I graduated to submitting poems that I had workshopped in class but felt that often I changed the poem because I wanted to incorporate so many voices of change. Now that I am not in an MFA program, I try to use all parts of my senses to revise a poem before submission. One thing I’m doing a lot these days is asking myself about why I chose certain words or titles and how that complements the message of the poem in its entirety I am also reading the poem aloud and this allows me to catch what I wouldn’t have heard if I simply read it. But this process can take anywhere from weeks to months and sometimes years. But it is what makes me so excited because I become confident about the final product (even if it is rejected by a journal).
Nkateko: That is brilliant advice, and it takes us right back to the beginning where you spoke about not having doubts about your work, regardless of the outcome of a submission. Afua, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Afua: Thank you so much Nkateko. I actually enjoyed this interview and I loved revisiting my poems this way. All the best with your work as well. And I would love to read your work sometime.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.