Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Shortlisted Poet: A Dialogue With Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah
Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah is a Ghanaian American poet, editor, and educator living out the diaspora in Boston, Massachusetts. He is both Black & alive. Born in 1993, Emmanuel currently teaches 11th grade English at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and in the past has served as a teaching artist at organizations such as the Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective, the Cambridge Arts Council, Northeastern University, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. When not kicking it with juniors, Emmanuel works as an instructor at the Boston-based nonprofit Grubstreet, and as an associate editor for Pizza Pi Press. Emmanuel’s poem, “kra-din” (Kweli Journal), is a recent recipient of the Pushcart Prize (XLIII). In his free time, he enjoys hot carbs, brightly colored chapbooks, and the long sigh at the end of a good book.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email.
Nkateko: Emmanuel, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Emmanuel: Hello Nkateko, and thank you! Both for the congrats, and for inviting me to have this conversation with you. As for the question, before I answer, I think it’s a good idea, to state here, at the onset of our conversation, that I tend to be perennially long-winded. I often talk around the subject of the thing, before finally arriving at the thing itself.
So, to return to the question of the prize, I’ve been aware of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize for the last five years, but it hasn’t been until the last two years that I’ve begun to submit my work for consideration. It was a professor at my undergrad university, V. Penelope Pelizzon that first put me on. That was back in 2014, and at that time, the idea of me even being in consideration for something like an international prize for African poetry seemed outrageous. I wrote poems that were indeed rooted in my experiences of being Black, American, and African, but I was still exploring the breadth of my voice, and discovering what it meant to be, and to name myself as, “a poet.” Despite my unwillingness to submit my own work for consideration, I did keep a keen eye on the work that would surface on the prize’s shortlist. Each year I would turn to the shortlist of the Brunel Prize as an exemplar of what is accomplishable through poetry; as an annual reminder that through poetry we can take the daily experiences of our lives – what Zora Neale Hurston called “the boiled down juice of human living” – and make this living legible to an audience far beyond ourselves. The prize’s shortlist affirmed to me that my experience of diaspora matters, that this liminal space of being both Ghanaian and American, of being Black and African matters and that I have so much company writing alongside me in this space; the access that it has provided me to poets across the African diaspora, has been so so important to my growth as a writer, and the development of my self-conception as a poet.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for making time for this conversation, and for that generous response. It takes me back to my own history with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, reading the shortlisted poems each year and falling in love with the work of those fantastic poets, some of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting at poetry festivals over the years. It gives me the greatest joy that now I get to speak to you and the other shortlisted writers on this platform. You speak of how the existence of the prize has given you access to poets “across the African diaspora”, and this made me wonder about the omission of those living in Africa who have been shortlisted in previous years. Has their work not had the same impact on you? Do you feel you could relate more to the work of those who live in the diaspora specifically, or were you referring in particular to this year’s shortlist, which comprises only of poets living in the diaspora?
“Each year I would turn to the shortlist of the Brunel Prize as an exemplar of what is accomplishable through poetry; as an annual reminder that through poetry we can take the daily experiences of our lives – what Zora Neale Hurston called “the boiled down juice of human living” – and make this living legible to an audience far beyond ourselves.“
Emmanuel: Thank you for your seeing; it’s an important observation and I appreciate how you’ve called me to question my relationship to poets living and writing in the continent. I think what my omission points to is where I position myself within African poetics. Frankly, I signpost poets across the African diaspora, because diaspora is where I locate myself physically and psychically in the world. There are Kenyan poets, and Ethiopian poets, and Rwandans poets, etc., and I am a Ghanaian poet writing in diaspora. Ghana is the mainland from which my parents and I originate, but I at once feel connected to and removed from it. The act of leaving, of having left, intrinsically changes my relationship to the land from which I am fathered. If diaspora is an island, or an archipelago of islands, each with its own unique culture, and forms of hybridity, I am an inhabitant of one such island. When I write of Ghana as home, I am writing to an imaginary homeland, a Ghana that exist in the Ghanaian American church my parents attend 2-3 days a week, in the tightly wound balls of kenkey Aunti Gyamfi sold from the back of her Honda Odyssey, in the scratched 2 dollar phone cards my mom asked me to fetch from the Asian Supper Dollar store down the street, in my parents remarks about Kuffour, and Rawlings, and Mills, in my mother’s references to the village, and in the WhatsApp videos she is still sending me. In her poem “talking with an accent about home” Safia Elhillo writes, “i grew / & / my rift grew // & / another / sudan / was / missing.” It is that rift that I recognize within my own work and within the work of the poets on the shortlist whom I refer to as being fundamental to my growth as a writer. The Ghana I was born in is missing. I can go back to Ghana, I have gone back to Ghana, but it doesn’t exists in all the ways I imagined it to when I was away from it. What does exist is the ways I’ve made meaning of the departure and the ways I have reconciled myself to it. I know the Ghana of my imaginary exist, because there are folks beyond me who have seen it, who can describe the contours and edges of it. What I see that is informative in the work of other writers in the African diaspora is a reaching towards our imaginary homelands, and a complicating of what it means to exist within these spaces.
All this being said, this is not to say that I am not impacted by the writing of writers on the continent, only to say that I have a different relationship to it. The first poems I read outside of the “western cannon” were written by African poets on the continent. In high school I found The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (1984) and fell in love with the work of Kofi Awoonor and Kwesi Brew; read on to discover luminaries such as Bra Willie, and Yambo Ouologuem and was touched by their use of imagery and their strong sense of tone (the talking quality of their poems). When I discovered Ama Ata Aidoo’s, “Our Sister Killjoy,” during my sophomore year of college it was a revelation to me; this slim little novel completely shifted my conceptions of what was possible within verse, that a lyric could both eschew and construct its own narrative arc. And to read contemporary African poets on the shortlist doing the same has been a godsend to me. And by this, I mean to say, when I read Romeo Oriogun’s work on the prizes’ shortlist in 2017, it was also a revelation; to see a poet write so bravely and tenderly about queer identity and queer survival, against the backdrop of real and symbolic violence, and with such grace, with such purpose within their lyric. I don’t know to what measure the work of writers on the continent has been more or less instructional to me than the work of writers in diaspora – both have taught me a great deal about how to approach the writing of a poem – but what I can say perhaps is that I see more of my own narrative reflected in the work of writers who share the commonality of existing in diaspora, and that the acknowledgement of that shared identity has been pivotal in the act of giving myself permission to write the poems I have needed to, and still need to, write.
Nkateko: In your poem, “Abebou”, you say, “I go back home and home is no longer a place I run back to but where I belong. where I belong is where I was born and all my ancestors bristle beneath the ground.” This is beautiful. Is your writing an attempt to move closer towards your home and your roots?
Emmanuel: It’s ironic. The poem is an attempt to return to home, but the conditions the poem places on the return are impossible, or at least not possible within the world as is. The speaker of the poem goes on to state “white is the color of the tro tro and not a system of meanings […] brown is the color of the ground and not another name I’ve learned to go by.” Both of these statements are lies, or put differently, reconstructions of the truth, and the poem itself is a reconstruction of another truth, what it might look like for the speaker to arrive at home and have it be a place of total belonging.
I don’t think the poem itself brings the speaker or I closer to home (and our roots), but I think you’re right to wonder about whether or not the writing does. It’s an interesting tension in the work: most of the poems are necessitated by a longing for a homeland that I as the writer know to no longer exist, and yet I am still writing into it, in hopes that the act of writing, takes us pass the spectacle of the imagined homeland’s nonexistence. What I know to be true is that my connection to my ancestors makes the land itself a site of belonging, and it is from that knowing, and that desire to be connected that the poem erupts into possibility. The poem, like myself (the writer) is reaching towards home, and reaching towards belonging, but attempting to do so on new terms. The writing is an attempt to connect to my roots, but also to connect to something greater: a world where we (the speaker, and I, but also perhaps the reader) can make sense of the past, and of what took us away from home in the first place, and redefine the conditions of our collective realities such that home is, in the words of the speaker “no longer a place [we] run back to but where [we] belong.”
Nkateko: I met Ama Ata Aidoo at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria in 2017, and when you mentioned her in your response it brought back memories of that event but also reminded me that I have quite a complicated history with literature from the continent because the educational system in South Africa has changed very little since Apartheid. Our prescribed reading is still heavily focused on the “western canon.”
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. You have given a lot to think about, not only in your poems but also in this conversation. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
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.