QUARTERLY POETRY EDITOR - 2017 Q1 - Stewart Shaw

Interview with Kevin mwachiro-poet and so much more
When I put out the call for poems to be included as part of the poetry in the coffee program, one of the poets that sent me work was my friend Kevin Mwachiro. By the time I received work from Kevin, I had already chosen the poets for the project, but I knew that his story and work needed to be highlighted so I asked him if he would be willing to let me interview him. He agreed. Kevin and I met many years ago when I attended a writing workshop in his hometown of Nairobi, Kenya. I knew then he was someone that I needed to get to know and follow. I was right.  He is the editor of Invisible: Stories from Kenya's Queer Community and a poet and playwright in his own right. 

SS: So, Kevin, I know that by trade you are a journalist and that you write in all genres, can you tell me about your connection with poetry?

KM: When I was in primary (elementary) school, in Grade 6, we were asked to compose poems to commemorate the opening of a new school building. My poem was selected to be one of the best and was read out at the opening ceremony. That was my introduction to poetry, though it was not until much later in life that I enjoyed reading poetry and would infuse this into my university term papers and on occasion I did include some of my one poems.
I found it easier using poetry than prose to express myself and what I was feeling. I see things happen around me and I want to jot a few lines to express that.  Poetry for me, offers the immediacy of sentiment. The passing on of Nelson  Mandela, my friend Komla Dumoh and the Westgate incident here in Nairobi, prompted a lot of hurt, pain and anger, my poetry was a release for me. I’m now trying to compose less somber poems.
SS: As the editor of the well-received book Invisible: Stories from Kenya's Queer Community and a contributor to other books on queer Africa, can you talk about what it is like enacting your “queer-ness” in an African context and the latitude you are given to be a gay artist in Africa. In America all we hear all about being gay on the African continent are of the restrictive policies against gays throughout, but what is really like there on the ground for you as an openly gay person and especially a writer? 

KM: It’s not easy being gay in Africa, but it’s not as hard as the media have painted it to be. We are claiming our spaces and places.  There is a movement and a community of queer people across the continent. Some are more hidden than others, but we are here.  We are telling our African queer and trans narrative. There is still a long way to go, but we have small victories now and then.I’m also beginning to claim my writing space, telling our stories, our challenges and loves. Making sure that it’s represented in the literal space. I’m not the only one doing it, but Invisible opened doors for me. As a journalist, I think the media have been less critical of my work. I guess, I’ve earned my stripes and I guess people are willing to turn a blind eye on me being openly gay.

SS: Along that same vein, does your sexuality and activism often show up in your writing, or is the sheer act of writing for you freeing, that you don’t have to make the message overtly so?

KM: It doesn’t show up as often, but I try and make sure that I bring in a nuanced view of being queer in Kenya or Africa. I try and share words that mainstream writers don’t have. I’m working with some script writers who want my insights and I find myself sharing the harder and grittier side to being gay in Kenya. For instance, the fluidity that DL men and women move between the various worlds that they have created for themselves. I’m slowly claiming that space to be open with my words and that takes on various forms. 

SS: Is there anything you want to add about your poetry and writing?

KM: I’m glad to be going into a world of African writers, poets and journalists who want to change the African narrative.  This is exciting!
For you are mine.
My feelings – joy, sadness or just
Saline kisses to the lips
Quenching the soul,
Gliding, sliding, running
At times dewing
Maybe flooding
Or even blurring
But mine,
Run river run
Moisten my depths
Free my being
For you are mine,
Polish my cheeks
Bare my manhood
Break my chains
Water me anew
For mine eyes have seen me.
Kevin Mwachiro

In poetry I find my truth

“… Poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.  Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
When the poet Audre Lorde wrote these prophetic words she was addressing herself to women, but I often come back to this passage  from the book Sister Outsider: essays and speeches, and know that this holds true for  everyone regardless of gender. The ability of poetry to speak to our truths and to help society define and go beyond set boundaries is something that prose can’t always do.  I know that through poetry I often find my truths.
But poetry can be a harsh lover, in turn giving and warm and then stingy and demanding of blood and the pain and traumas we’d rather forget.  So I often say I’m going to stop poetry, stop writing it, stop reading it, stop dreaming in meter and rhyme and stanza. Start becoming paragraph not stanza; turn  brevity  into  a James   Baldwin sentence  that never  ends  or  eclipses, just goes  on  and  on, one  semicolon  after another. I say, "poetry, I wish I could quit you."  Turn   pen to fiction and muse about having time and space to lay out the long story and complex characters, have the leisure to ramble on and on and not come to a point succinctly.  But, then I try and quickly remember why I write poetry, why I dream in the epic tropes of the sonnet and pantoum- poetry gives me life.  Poetry helps me shape my reality and the world in a way no novel ever has.   It speaks to the soul. For me it is an instantaneous moment of enlightenment, a kiss or kick of wisdom that sucker punches.
I don’t think I am a very proficient poet or gifted visionary, but with poetry you don’t have to be- it is forgiven and allows even the mediocre among us to air their souls out, lay their heart on the line and walk through the page naked and vulnerable- someone always follows.  Regardless of what is being said and how sophisticatedly it is being said, the poem always finds a reader- like an arrow always finds its target- even if it is the grassy field out back behind the house.  For even grass has a story to share, has been trampled on or has cushioned the lusty romps of lovers and wants to find in your story, its own reflection.
I speak here in hyperbole, perhaps I take great leaps in logic and language- I can be overwrought at times, but I see the truth that hides in language and especially in poetry.
JFK, in a speech at Amherst eulogizing Robert Frost said:
"When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.  For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touch stone of our judgment."
I am sure you can find someone, somewhere who has waxed as “poetically” about fiction and essay writing. I am no scholar so can’t say that other forms of writing don’t hold as much empathetic sway over readers.   I won’t make myself look too foolish by saying poetry is the language of the people, even if I believe that. But I will end by saying that poetry is at heart a spoken word art form, and long before humans could write, we were speaking and singing.  Singing of our love and hurts. The griots of Africa sung the news, spread the word of the day in voice; voices that soared in rhyme and music. The cantor led the people into prayer through song.  The Greeks gave us their tales in poetry.   Rap music is poetry, Hallmark cards are written in a sophomoric poetic form. So poetry may not be the one true and pure art form (remember I speak in hyperbole) but it is a language most can, in one form or another, gather around and embrace.
In poetry I find my truth
Welcome to my world

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