OGOV Roundtable Discussion #1 - Politics and the Power of Poetry

In what will hopefully become a quarterly feature for One Ghana, One Voice (please let us know what you think of it, and whether we should do it more or less often), in lieu of a poem this week we will receive the privilege of "listening in" on a conversation on poetry held between some of Ghana's brightest up and coming poets, lead by One Ghana, One Voice's own Julian Adomako-Gyimah, and featuring Prince Mensah, Vida Ayitah and Edith Faalong. Thank you to the amazing texts of the past that featured African writers in discussion (such as African Writers Talking [Heinemann, 1972]), and to the "Virtual Roundtables" at OutsiderWriters.org for inspiring this project. So please have a read, and be sure to use the comment section to join the conversation yourself!

Julian Adomako-Gyimah: Politicians are killing millions with their lack of respect for rule of law and the suffering masses. How can we fight this via poetry?

Prince Mensah: The internet has made it easier to expose such acts of brutality. For a long time it has been journalists who have been in the forefront of this fight. I must add that writers, like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus, have been in this cause as well. Yet, it is imperative for any holder of the pen, poets in this case, not to sit down and write nothing about the realities that gaze at them. We may write about history, but let’s talk about the present. We may talk about the beauty, but let’s contrast it with the ugliness. It is our role to write about and educate our people about freedom. Poets are socio-political beings, but we can never be politicians. As poets, we must be careful of not allowing our biases to poison the beauty of our poetry. We are supposed to present the problem and question the conscience of our people. We are catalysts, not instigators.

We can use international poetry or literary organizations to bring attention or send aid to a country that has a repressive government. What we can do is to feature countries under repressive governments and give audience to poets from that country. We can write books of poetry that benefit such countries. We can create a YouTube-themed website that allows poets to visualize their experiences. Recent events in Myanmar have added credence to the fact that an outlet for outcry like the internet helps the world to understand how people suffer under their governments. Let us use the internet in fighting this archaic notion held by this bunch of miscreants who rape their countries’ resources.

Vida Ayitah: I doubt very much politicians read poetry or even appreciate the art. If they did, we wouldn’t have corrupt politicians in our countries. Because the soul of a poet is so transparent, to lie to his fellow man would be next to impossible. Our politicians have somehow devised of a way of hiding themselves, and nothing can reach them. Certainly not pity or compassion or even common respect for other people's needs. So how do you make someone like that understand the value of something when he’s not even aware of its existence? For as long as our leaders stay in their ‘self-centered’ worlds, no voice can reach them. All the poet can do is write his piece. Personally, the only way I think poetry can be used as a medium to reach politicians is to feed it to them before they go into serious politics.

Julian: Great answers from you and Prince, but as poets we need to make sure politicians live up to our expectations and do not amass wealth at the expense of the populace, as Kufuor is currently doing. Rawlings was bad and I wrote so many political poems and articles about him but Kufuor's government is worst, hence my poem "This Is The Time."

As a poet, the only way I can fight these idiots is to write political poems such as "This Is The Time" and books such as the one I am currently working on called "The Graveyard".

As Wole Soyinka said, "the pen scares liars like politicians", so we need to write more revolutionary and controversial poems to fight these people because they are creating graveyards all around us.

Join this revolution my fellow poets but never be politicians. Because the synonym for that word is liar. God bless us all. If they don't read their compatriots will read and carry the message to them.

Bush, Blair, Musharraf and Kufuor, to mention but a few, can be 'killed' with poetry.

Prince: Vida, I definitely do agree with your assertion. Politics demands an alteration of character. Poetry cannot suffer hypocrisy. The two are incompatible. Our politicians are mostly opportunists who take their posts to gain proper grooming for the positions they aspire to. The sad aspect is that they never learn, and, if they do, it is to learn more ingenious ways to fool the people. Politics is indeed the occupation for the self-indulgent. It is supposed to be an arena of service to a nation. Instead it has become a coliseum of non-sensical, ravaging beasts who have little regard for national benefit or social consequence.

A lady once told me "Read a book. It is your visa to other people's minds and countries." I cannot dispute that. We are who we are as poets because of our curiousity to learn what was hidden behind book covers. It is up to us to stir our nation to literacy, for, especially in Africa, an educated citizen is a threat to every form of tyranny.

Julian, I have had the same misgivings about the present government. It seems power is more than an aphrodisiac; it is an anesthetic that gives promising politicians the excuse to forget about the reason why the people chose them in the first place. We must find a way to get accountability and probity from our leaders. You cannot gain power through popular sentiment and transmogrify into a monster that haunts the existence of the very people you were supposed to liberate. This story has been told over and over again, with few modifications, from Nkrumah to Kufuor. It is time that our generation of Ghanaians sits up and finds ways not to repeat the sorrowful mistakes of our fathers. We cannot afford mediocrity as a way of life, corruption as a means of justice, and tyranny as the cloud over our land. Our poetry must stir; it must reach places in people's hearts that have never been reached before.

Julian: Good point and unfortunately there is always an atavism in the life of every politician and as poets I agree with the fact that we need to sit up and stop them and their aficionado who wish to see others suffer. Once we get on the international platform, we have to tell the truth about our callous leaders and collectively liberate the oppressed.

Those of you who are still on campus, I think we need to collectively put up a show which combines poetry with drumming, choreography or music. I've tried these abroad and they really leave an indelible mark on the hearts of listeners.

"On n'a jamais riens sans mal," and surely one gets nothing without trying, so let's get it moving because there are so many questions for us to answer. We can be the voice for the speechless and the light in this darkened world so let's not rest until we liberate the masses from the hands of the beasts called politicians.

Edith Faalong:
I am very excited about this, especially our union. Politicians these days are rubbing our faces in mud. More amusing is their style which indirectly goes to insult our intelligence. It's like they assume we are all ignorant of their antics. Like masters of a puppet show...the ordinary people: the puppets. Every day they roll out fantastic shenanigans. It's got to stop. How do we do it? We start by gently shaking the people awake with the pen. We cannot reach the politicians, let's sensitize the people and they can on their own resist deceit.

Vida: Hola Edith, glad you're in now. This does feel exciting. It's like a secret army of poets plotting against our bad bad politicians! Together as we raise our voices someone will listen. Because to just sit down doing nothing will not bring about any change. I just hope that we're able to stick it out; in time many more people will join. And then we will have the poetry club that no one in Ghana has been able to organize.

I have always wanted to be a part of a group with shared interests and passion for the same thing. And this feels so right.

Prince: The stench of ineptitude can never be hidden for long. Our leaders forget that he who has a cotton tail cannot cross a trail of fire. We as poets must also not forget that as a man stoops to criticize the holes in his neighbour's trousers, the holes in his own trousers are open to the next man.

We must render our poetry with utmost integrity because that gives us the attention we need to propel our visions of a free and fair country. People might say we are building a tower of words with our words but we must buttress our convictions with action. There is so much promise in what we are doing now and we cannot afford the luxury of falling down on our words.

Julian: Interesting. We need to keep this fire burning and learn other languages if we can because we need to reach out to all and sundry every nook and cranny. Soldiers of the word arise!

Now, let's talk more about some of the ways we can make these changes we want to see happen: How do we touch the lives of the poor and help raise money for the underprivileged poets?

Edith: Because most efforts of helping the poor are geared towards giving them already caught "fish", why don't we teach them to fish, starting with the little ones who will tomorrow be the big ones?

I have visited my village so often, my face has become very familiar. The worst problem I have identified is ignorance. There is no worse road to deprivation and poverty than ignorance.

The books I read as a child have taken me so far. They opened up my mind and introduced me to the need for freedom of thought. I remember there was a library a little way from the house I spent my earliest years in at Tamale. I rode a bicycle with my big sister every weekend to this library. Though it was far away, we went even if we had to walk, because there I found an awesome place, a spring of knowledge.

And now my dream is that one day, when I can, I will go to my village, set up a reading room for children, and make the environment friendly enough to attract them. Because I know, that the only way to liberate a person and free him/her from poverty and the gnarled hands of ignorance is through a book. It worked for me. The only way we can help is to work on their minds through books.

What I am trying to say is that donations of money, food, or clothes will only work in the short run. Let's make a donation for the long run, a donation of knowledge!

Julian: You hit the nail right on the head. We need to train them or teach them a skill to enable them to fish for themselves.

Vida: The idea is a good one. You can't feed someone for a day and think that's it. They need to know to do that for themselves. But what approach do you guys have in mind?

Julian: We can teach them how to fund raise, put proposals together, draw up business plans and how to use basic ECDL. They can earn a lot doing these things. For business plans for example, they can earn a minimum of $2000 doing one.

We can also pay for them to learn a trade or teach them how to earn money from poetry, short stories and features, I guess. There are organisations in the writers handbook who pay for these. We can also raise money by putting up spoken word sessions and put them in school or give them grants to do something.

Another thing I do is to develop businesses as a financial and management consultant, so combining both skills will put bread on their tables.

For those who are already writing, I guess we can help get them publishing deals and that way, they can get royalties on sales.


Edith: Agoo Julian!

Prince: I love hearing knowledge bouncing off deep minds. It's cool.

Poverty is definitely a circumstance that embalms the potential of any gifted person. It is up to the person in that circumstance to accept or reject that. The "Fa ma Nyame" syndrome that has plagued our country is eating away our ability to soar above our circumstances. It seems we are at the zenith of our talents when we are outside our own country, which is understandable due to the stagnant nature of our home institutions. Bureaucracy, "the PhD (Pull Him Down) Syndrome," corruption, nepotism and cronyism are reasons why we are not seeing any excellence coming out of the land that produced Kofi Annan, Kwame Nkrumah and Kofi Abrefa Busia. How can we erase this anomaly of human conduct? How can we change our people's mentality so that we believe that when everybody has a shot at life, it ends up benefiting everybody else?

We can raise money. We can create fundraisers. We can bring home a billion dollars and more. However, the core issue at stake is the mentality. "As a man thinketh, so is he." This is where we come in. We must ensure that there is always a horizon of positivity in every poem we write. We must instill hope, faith and love in our people through our poetry. We must show them ways, as Julian proposed, to make not only tommorrow's wage but also to secure their grand children's financial security. We need to instill a futuristic essence to our way of life because greediness comes from the here-and-now way of mind. I do not mind doing a programme that raises funds. It is absolutely necessary to do so. Ghana is us and we are Ghana.

Au revoir!

Julian: Great vision, Prince. I am glad we are all thinking right and willing to help liberate people.

I guess we should embark on a project dubbed "Poets Against Poverty and Mediocrity," walk to every bank, hotel, market and every nook and cranny to raise money via poetry.

Edith: You have a point there about the mentality thing Prince. "As a man thinketh, so is he." So lets think the sky for our people and us and so we will be.


Anonymous said...

The roundtable is a great idea. The poets seem like visionaries. The only problems is there is too much agreement in the dialogue. You seem to be oversimplifying the problem. First, dismissing politicians completely is pointless; by the look of things, you poets are likely to be in the ranks of politicians one day -- look at your credentials Julian! We need to remember that these politicians are usually elected to office and often operate within the dictates of the international political arena. Poet as educator sometimes is an impractical proclamation as it's shouted from universities rooms and Exiles. Edith, what is that you were trying to do in the village? You say you read what books? Does that turn you into your village's what?

In short, poetry is not CNN or BBC. It sometimes tends to look deeper beyond campaigning against a current president...

We want to see the roundtables more frequently, but let's put some depth in the discussion, not the easy route "they are bad" amd "we are the voice of the voiceless".

Prince Mensah said...

I am happy that 'Anonymous' reacted to our posting. The perennial problem we have had as a people is the inability to agree on one single issue. I do not see why it should be a problem for us poets to agree on issues. This is a break from the status quo, which is always a hub of contentious acrimony.

Yes, there is always a thin line between activism and politics. But does that mean we have to develop nonchalant attitudes to wrong things? Never. As long as we are humans, we will make mistakes: everyone, politicians, poets and all. We must thrive to keep a dialogue going that will translate into viable actions. We cannot keep on making the mistakes that our fathers did. The child must be the improved version of the parent.

Poets can be educators. Actually, everybody can be an educator if they so desire. It is the idea ofvocalizing experience and holding it in tangent with what is right or wrong. There surely can be a tendency to oversimplify but how can we talk about issues if they cannot be logical to a kindergarten kid?

I will apologize if there have been extreme opinions, but that does not take away the fact that our country and people deserve better treatment from our leaders. This is not politics; this is social justice.

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