L. S. Mensah was born and raised in Accra, and has been living in the UK for the past few years. Recently her work has appeared in the annual Barnet Poetry Anthology, Akwantuo.org and Sentinel Poetry’s Champion Poems.
Five Questions with L. S. Mensah:
1. As a child, what was your reaction to the coming of the Harmattan? Has that changed now that you are an adult?
With a sense of dread really. One could sense its approach as the air becomes drier. I think the economic situation also had a lot to do with it, since the price of shea butter suddenly skyrockets. Suddenly shea butter sellers become the common enemy, and we're allowed to moan. As an adult, I look at it as just another weather phenomenon.
2. Living outside of Ghana now, do you miss the Harmattan season at all? And how does it compare to winter in the UK?
I do miss it around this time of year since it's at its height between December and February, which roughly coincides with Winter. In Ga the word for the Harmattan 'Aharabata' is the same as that for the month of January.
It is important not to over fetishize or romanticize it since it causes real discomfort. Some people's skins do really crack, especially around the heel, and bleeding lips are common, not to mention those with asthma and other breathing problems. There is even scientific evidence to suggest it leads to an increase in cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM) across the sub region. In Mali, CSM is known locally as 'the wind illness'. This being Africa a few hundred children die from this disease around this time.
3. In the past, did the Harmattan affect your writing? Would you write less or more during the Harmattan season? Would the themes or tones of your poems change?
I wouldn't say it affected my writing very much; I suppose its presence enabled me to be philosophical about it. I think I have a few poems on the Harmattan, and I'm beginning to look at them as a sequence.
4. Your attention to detail, and to using the right words in the right places, is a great lesson to new Ghanaian writers of how a good poet is a craftsman (or craftswoman!). A question about craft then: when you are choosing your words for such lovely lines as "To weave a million ballads of dryness" and "You, on your vowelled / Pillows" how much of your concern is to literal meaning, how much to image, and how much to sound? What balance are you trying to strike?
Thanks a million for the compliment!
With this poem I started with the literal meaning, from the dictionary definition (and that's a possible way into a poem). You see the word 'Wrickken', is itself an old English word for rickets. 'Harmattan' the dictionary says, is of Akan origin, and dates back to around the 17th century. It is possible the word was absorbed into English, not long after the Europeans became heavily involved in trade with Africans. For me then, the poem draws on metaphors of deformity and timelessness.
The detail comes with the rewrites, when I start to reshape my material. I arrived at the line “To weave a million ballads of dryness” through a moment of serendipity really. I'd heard Marina Lewycka ("A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian"), on the radio, refer to the success rate for new writers as 'a ballad of failure' and then took it from there. For me, that line functions as a crutch. Since I tend to write (overly) long poems, I often look for a phrase or a line which can hold the poem up in places (sort of like Atlas), and allow my reader to pause for breathe, and then continue. I trust my reader to, at some other time, return and investigate the line, and by extension the whole poem again.
As for the phrase "You, on your vowelled / Pillows" it was an attempt to tease out a metalinguistic strain and tease out other meanings from that, but went no further with that. At some point one has to pull back and allow the reader to do the rest. By the time one has made decisions about where to break the line, which point of view to adopt, imagery, metaphor, assonance etc. the poem would have settled and found its own internal balance.
5. How many revisions did this poem go through before its present state? Is that number average, high or low for you?
This must be about the 9th or 10th revision, which is average really. I'm a bit finicky and as soon as I tell myself I'm done with a poem, I go back and start making changes to it. The way I approach it is to copy and paste the last draft, save it with the date, or write by hand in a notebook, also dated. That takes a little more time, but helps me think as I write. The danger with the rewrite is that it could bleed the poem of all vitality. But this way I can go back anytime if I lose my way.
I'll end with what William Herbert says in the essay 'Creative Space':"Revision is the point at which you stop talking to yourself and start relating to your audience. Until you revise, you are just hanging around in creative space. Revision is the means by which you manoeuvre.
This is the pencil-thin line that a writer must turn into a thoroughfare: you journey into the hitherto unimagined for no other reason than you want to, and you must bring the reader along because you've made them think that they want to as well."
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