Painting by Bruce Lowney | Border Guard
Malpais Review Vol. 4 No. 2 Autumn 2013
Terrorists Kill A Major African Poet
Hidden in the newscasts and articles about the September terrorist attack by the Somali Al Shebab Islamic fundamentalists on the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, Kenya, which resulted in the deaths of many shoppers, all the terrorists, and a policeman, was the news that Ghana’s national poet, Kofi Awoonor, 78, was one of the victims. He was apparently attending a cultural conference in Nairobi and had gone to the mall to have breakfast with his son, who survived, though wounded. Although not so well known in the U.S., Awoonor was known around the African continent and was a living cultural icon in Ghana. He was not only a poet but a diplomat, statesman, and scholar, the incarnation of Ghana’s founding, difficult early history at independence, and its subsequent development into one of West Africa’s more stable, democratic states.
Awoonor, who had taught at universities in the U.S. and Ghana, knew W.E.B. DuBois, was Ghana’s UN. Ambassador in the early 1990s and later President of Ghana’s Council of State, an advisory body to the government at the highest level. He has been described as an intellectual who was not an Ivory Tower academic but interested in his nation’s culture and the broader economic and social struggle. An article by Adam Nossiter in the New York Times (9/14/13) noted that several generations of Ghanian schoolchil-dren were required to memorize the lines of some of Awoonor’s poems from the 1960s, such as these lines from his poem “Songs of Sorrow”: “The rain has beaten me/and the sharp stumps cut as/keen as knives/I shall go beyond and rest,/I have no kin and no brother,/Death has made war upon our house.” Awoonor has published not only poetry but also novels and apparently had a great influence on Ghanian poetry and academia as one of the first post-Independence poets. He was the poet who chronicled the difficulties of that period when Kwame Nkrumah became the first President of an independent Ghana, and was a supporter, like Nkrumah, of Pan-Africanism. “Songs of Sorrow” is perhaps Awoonor’s most famous poem, a lament for the extended difficulties and problems throughout the African continent where new nations were becoming independent but with many hardships.
Commentators on his poetry note that he came from one of the smaller tribal minorities of Ghana, the Ewe, and his grandmother was an Ewe dirge singer. These tribal songs were the pattern for his later poems. Many public figures in Ghana, including President John Dramani Mahama, expressed their sorrow at Awoonor’s death. As someone noted, everyone in Ghana was in shock.
Awoonor’s latest collection of poetry will be issued in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press in tandem with the African Poetry Book Fund, and is titled “Promises of Hope: New & Selected Poems.” Of course, it’s not likely the terrorists knew who Kofi Awoonor was or that he was a poet, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as is known.
Another article in the New York Times (8/19/13), by Azam Ahmed, focused on an Afghan poet with an incredible story named Matiullah Turab, from the city of Khost. A Pushtun (the largest tribe in Afghanistan and the base of the Taliban, he is nonetheless against the fundamentalist organization). In fact, because he dared to publish a book of his poetry while they were in power, they beat him badly, after which he said: “I decided publishing wasn’t such a good idea after all.” But after that period, Turab and his poetry became rather famous, especially as he wrote poems that criticized the government, politicians, corruption, the Taliban, Pakistan, and the Americans, as well as the war. On the other hand, and in spite of the fact that Turab has criticized him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently feted him at the Presidential Palace. Turab works for a living, since, as everywhere, poets often have a tough monetary time, so he works with metal in a garage that repairs transport trucks. He is in demand to recite his poems: people flock to his rare readings, and his poems are posted on YouTube, with lyrics such as: “War has become a trade/ heads have been sold/as if they weigh like cotton,/ and at the scale sit such judges/who taste the blood, then decide/the price.” Yes, he is an anti-war poet in the midst of war, and one of the most famous Afghan poets since Rumi, the Sufi mystic from centuries ago whose poetry is still read and appreciated everywhere.
Many see Turab’s poetry as presenting Truth in contrast to all of the lies spewing from official sources and controlled newspapers. Turab says of the role of the poet, “A poet’s job is not to write about love, but to write about the plight and pain of the people.” In another poem, he says, “O flag-bearers of the world,/you have pained us a lot in the/name of security/you cry of peace and security, and you dispatch guns and/ammunition.” Turab does not like preciousness in poetry and is merciless with politicians, saying they should have three pockets in their jackets, one for dollars, one for Afghanis, and one for Pakistani rupees. A verse from an anti-Taliban poem of Turab says: “O graveyard of skulls and /oppression/rip this earth open and come/out/they taunt me with your blood/and you lie intoxicated with/thoughts of virgins.” One of the most interesting aspects of Turab’s career in poetry is that he is only semi-literate. He cannot fully read nor write but can, with difficulty, make out some words at times. He writes his poetry in his head, memorizes it, and depends on others to record it. Poetry survives everywhere in spite of everything!
And another bit of poetic information relating to the New York Times (9/29,13, p. A19) was a full page dedicated to one poem by Yoko Ono, which she apparently took out as an ad (likely cost, about $30,000 a page), imploring a dedication to peace. The poem was called “Cheshire Cat Cry.” And in other news about poets and poetry, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, now 85, has been awarded the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Prize for lifetime achievement by the American Academy of Poets. Also, I have heard that some people and organizations in New Mexico are proposing that the state have an official New Mexico Poet Laureate. Our state is one of only a few (4 or 5) that do not have such a post to honor poetry and poets. And I would like to turn the attention of our readers to two new books published recently: John Brandi’s The World, The World (Buffalo, White Pine Press, 2013); and Bruce Holsapple’s Wayward Shadow (Albuquerque, La Alameda Press, 2013). Both authors have been contributors to this publication. In addition, it was announced recently that Placitas poet Larry Goodell, one of the directors of the Duende Poetry Series, and Mitch Rayes of Albuquerque have been awarded the Gratitude Award by the New Mexico Literary Arts organization (See their photo with the awards in this issue). Congratulations to both!
And finally, on a sad note, I am very unhappy to report the death of the son, Liam, of one of our well-known local poets, Bill Nevins. Liam was killed a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, where he was serving in the military. He was scheduled to come back home in only a short time before his death, which also involved the killing of two other American soldiers by an infiltrator from the Taliban, or a turncoat dressed in an Afghan Army uniform. Bill has been a frequent contributor to MR. All of us who create the Malpais Review send our condolences to Bill. See his revised version of his poem “Heartbreak Ridge” in this issue, dedicated to his son.
I would like to express my thanks to the excellent contributors to this issue of MR! Especially to our featured poet, Arthur Sze, one of the state and the nation’s top poets, who has just won the Jackson Prize. He certainly merits the lengthy attention we have dedicated to him and his work in this issue. I likewise thank John Tritica, George Kalamaras, and Allison Hedge Coke who contributed excellent texts for this feature. And thanks also go out to another of the state’s excellent poets, John Macker, for his high quality essay and bringing together some of the poems of Venice Beat poet Stuart Z. Perkoff. (Years ago I lived twice in Venice, California, which was definitely an artistic center, but I didn’t coincide with Perkoff’s time.) Margaret Randall also deserves accolades for her collaboration with yours truly in the creation of the Latin American Guerrilla Poets mini-anthology. She is not only a great translator and has been for many years, as well as a great writer of her own work, but she has the experience with these poets and knew many of them well. Not many people in the U.S. at this time could really compile and translate such an anthology as this. So kudos to Margaret Randall! And also I want to thank Larry Goodell for his compilation of the RGWA collage of comments and photos which add up to an important retrospective. Together with other texts Larry has brought together in MR, his contribution to New Mexico’s literary (and especially poetic) history is extremely important.
I would also like to thank the excellent visual artists who contributed to this issue: the wonderful surreal cover art by New Mexico artist Bruce Lowney, and the intriguing map and stamp collages by Albuquerque artist Lynda Burch. They both have websites and I urge our readers to go to those sites and look at the many other excellent art works displayed there. — Gary Brower
Painting by Bruce Lowney | Monument to Chance
The Malpaís Review seeks to expand upon New Mexico’s rich and diverse cultural heritage by bringing together poetry, poetry translation, essays on aspects of poetry from writers around the state, the USA and beyond.
The issues will be published quarterly. Each issue will take 10 to 20 pages for one featured writer with the remaining pages open to everyone else. Some interior pages may be used for black and white artwork.
Gary L. Brower, Editor
Subscriptions: $40 for one year (4 issues) postage paid. Single issues: $12 + $3.50 shipping. Make check payable to Gary Brower, Malpaís Review, POB 339, Placitas, NM 87043. The Malpaís Review is a 6×9 hardcopy publication between 120 and 150 pages each issue.
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Malpaís Review seeks original poems, previously unpublished in North America, written in English. Any topic, but we despise hate inciting and pornographic work. Submit 1 to 5 poems, no limit on length, but once you hit 10 pages call the submission done (unless the submission is a single poem that is longer than 10 pages). Notification of acceptance will take place within 1 month of the closing of a reading period.
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Will be invited by the editorial staff for each issue.
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Painting by Bruce Lowney | Monument to Chance