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:: Kwani? Poetry Anthology Partnership

Ishmael Reed

In 2005 , award winning American poet Ishmael Reed approached Kwani editor, Binyavanga Wainaina with an interest in publishing an anthology of Kenyan poets.

This initiative is finally seeing the light of day with a final list of 15 poets to appear in the upcoming anthology. There is more new than old and new with Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye, Mukoma Ngugi and Phyllis Muthoni leading the established poets. There is more unpublished than published with new faces like Gathondu Mwangi, a poet based in South Africa, and Kevin Mwole. There is a varied Kenyan representation, from the indigenous to the expatriate. Then there is proper English and Kenya's own Sheng represented by Kamaa of Kalamashaka and Kitu Sewer of Wenyeji in translated pieces.

The anthology was compiled by Kwani's poetry editor, Steve Partington and Kwani Assistant Editor, Billy Kahora. Screenwriter Simiyu Barasa helped out with the Sheng section.  

Stephen Partington observes that: ‘across the world, a new type of poet is surfacing: one who eschews the academic and the highbrow and who instead attempts to reconnect with a people who once sang, wept and laughed along with verse; a people who throughout the twentieth century began to fall away from poetry, finding it dull, elitist and alien in its unnecessary complexity.' 

And that is what the anthology has tried to cover. Partington adds: ‘if such poets are ‘new' in the West, they're not really ‘new' here in East Africa at all.' 

The anthology records the flourishing of what Partington calls, ‘grassroots oral poetry which continues to flourish both in its traditional forms in the rural areas and the urban centres, especially the heritage-rich Kenyan slums, and in new forms at poetry slams or in the recorded and unknown performances of Kenyan hip-hop artists.'

‘This ‘poetry' might be in English, but is equally often in the East African lingua franca , Kiswahili, or in smaller vernaculars or, most recently, in Sheng, a vibrant and evolving hybridization of Kiswahili, English and, at times, the smaller vernaculars,' Partington says. 

So from the national prizewinning poetry of the social and personal poet, Phyllis Muthoni, to the politically aware poetry of Mukoma Ngugi, to the issue-rich ‘poetry' of the Sheng representatives, the writing in this collection gives a reasonably broad (there are no Kiswahili poets, remember, and no traditional griots) but certainly very deep look into the major well of contemporary Kenyan poetry: that is dug and drawn by the new, young and unrestrained generation.

In his foreword Partington exclaims that” ‘The poets in this collection are not all seekers after the bigtime or the foreign nod, but rather a straight-talking group who, whether in forms (or formlessnesses) and tones that appeal to the West or not, are sure of the more important need to be presently and locally relevant, to be historically focused, to be heard and fallen back into by their Kenyan colleagues …'

Ishmael Reed is a poet, essayist, and novelist. He is the author of five collections of poetry. He is also the author of four collections of essays: Airing Dirty Laundry (1993), Writin' is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988), God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (1982), and Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978).

Reed was a cofounder of Yardbird Publishing Co. in 1971 and also founded Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications in 1973.

With Al Young , he co founded Quilt magazine. Reed has also edited a number of anthologies. Among his honors and awards are the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, the Lewis Michaux Award, an American Civil Liberties award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the California Arts Council. Reed has lectured at numerous colleges and universities. For the past twenty years, he has been a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. Ishmael Reed lives in Oakland, California

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