Growing Up. Part 3. Poetry

This is a topic, I suppose I cover quite frequently. If you would like to know a little more about the beginning of my performance journey, click here. I wont go into those details today. There are many ways, that I have grown as a poet, in this journal entry, I’m going to talk about the factors that have lead up to my position today. I’d like to elaborate on my stance on #PayThePoets.

When I began my journey in performance, my sole aim was to get my name out there. I intend to publish my poetry, and in order for any of my books to sell, I needed for my name to have been heard of, before my books are on the shelves. I would meet and pitch myself to any event organizer, I  work on my performance religiously, I practice everyday at any chance I get. During 2011 and 2012 I would perform an average of 2.5 times a week. Sometimes taking on five performances in a week. I would ferry myself around as much as I possibly could, and aimed at a minimum of two performances a week, but never less than one. The expenses involved in that kind of schedule is immense. I borrowed money when I didn’t have it.

Towards the middle of 2013, I was running seriously short of funds. During that year, I often got myself into situations where I had made my way to events in Westlands and City Center, from which I had no idea how I would get home. I was forced, on those days, to spend the time that I was not on stage, sending smses and making calls, to get help to get home. At the time, I was driving and on two occasions I was forced to find somewhere safe to park the car for the night and sleep in it. Even, from friends and family, you can only ask for that kind of help a certain number of times before sympathy runs short. It defies common sense to go somewhere without knowing how you will get home. I often voiced my concerns to to organizers concerned, but they maintained that it was not possible to give me any money, even for transport. In the many performances I have done (over a hundred) I have only been paid for four. For a small number of other performances, the organizers have gone into their pockets to give me fare or petrol to get home.

Last year, after sifting through about one hundred short listed poems. I had the manuscript for my first anthology ready; Speak. By this time my name in poetry circles had already become, quite well known. Poets who were just starting out started asking me for advice on their presentations, and general advice on how to be a successful poet. Simultaneously, I had begun a series of expansions in my business. I met, and still meet, many talented poets. I started to feel heart broken, by this world that I had invested so heavily in. Although, with the connections I had established, I could connect performers with stages where they could share their work, when asked about how to be successful, monetarily, I was at a complete loss.

Cars need more than petrol to run. Last year, I had to come up against the reality that I could no longer afford to run my car. Since then I’ve been using public means, but that is not where the financial constraints end. I could no longer afford the fare to attend the events, that had afforded me the small fame I had gained. I had to make a difficult decision; when called about performing at events, it had to be on the condition that I be given (at minimum) fare to and from the event. One by one the event organizers stopped calling. At the moment, on average, I perform two or three times a month. Even this small number, of events that I am doing, is mainly based on the fact that my business has regained the capacity to afford me that luxury. For many months last year, I was unable to perform at all, let alone, support other poets by attending their performances.

This situation begs a question. Is performance poetry reserved for those who can afford it? Due to discussions that have stemmed from #PayThePoets it has recently become evident to me that there are a good number of poets, that have found ways to make the craft pay. The trouble with these avenues, is that they are often deals made between the poet and profitable event organizers or radio stations. These deals are exclusive in nature. They usually only have enough room for the poets who are already in them.

It is entirely possible, that I personally have been lacking in correct networking and/or marketing techniques. Should those skills be prerequisite of writers and performers? Is it not at all possible for the performers and writers work to sell itself in this industry? Due to financial constraints that I’ve already mentioned, and the fact that publishing companies are wary of publishing first poetry books, I have not yet been able to publish Speak yet.

When I give advice and mentor poets who want to work on their performances, I start off with a disclaimer. That this industry has no guarantees, and little chance of financial gain. However, considering, the audience demand for this art, and the substantial number of entrance charging poetry events, should that be the case? The more thought I put into this issue, the more I want to be one of the game changers.

 

The trouble with depending on the artists finances to support their performances perpetually is this: All types of art are dynamic, they are ment to change over time. I would like to illustrate, using a couple of different visual art forms.

Anyone who has used Ngong Road, between The Junction and Karen, over the past five years will have noticed a change in the kinds of pottery, sculptors and furniture available. That change didn’t take place over night. Some years back, the pots were either mat, varnished, or painted one colour. The Sculptures were wooden, usually little pot bellied men. The furniture was standard, the only difference between any two vendors would have been quality. Some time after that, began an experimental time period. During that period, the pots became painted with two or three colours, usually, bright green, orange and gold spray paint, these garish colour combinations, caught more attention, but begged questions about the taste of the people who had painted them and who would buy them. The sculptors began to have one out of the ordinary item on display, a giant frog, or miniature giraffe, the forms of which could not be called entirely lifelike. The furniture vendors began to feature one out of the ordinary item as well, like a four poster bed or a clay fire place.

These out of the ordinary items, where not perfect, they were all interesting to look at, but not necessarily pleasant. This art form was financially supported. As more people became interested in the idea of having customized items, the diversity and quality of the items improved. If you drive up that road today, the vendors have much wider variety. The pots are painted in sunsets, flamingos, siloets, zebra stripes and leopard spots, just to name a few. The sculptures are an array, from the big five, to dogs and horses, they capture movement and character of their subjects. The furniture is diverse, if you are to go window shopping, walking along the whole stretch would be rewarding as the craftsmen have become expressive, flamboyant and tasteful in their designs.

I believe that performance poetry, is stuck in an experimental loop. When free poets are always favored over seasoned poets, that leaves little space for mentorship, and development of the art form. By the time a poet reaches the point in their development where they can start passing down skills, they are also at a point where they would need to start focusing more on income generating activities. It would be around the time where someone would want to start a family, or start making investments in their future like aiming at a promotion or buying some land.

 

I have heard performance poets, being advised to focus more on writing and publishing as a means of moving forward, than on performance. When the Kenyan readership culture is considered, that argument is flawed. Kenyans, rarely read work that is written by Kenyans. Also, oral culture, which has been culturally significant since before colonial times is still favored over reading, in general. In the post Moi era freedom of expression is allowing that culture to flourish more readily. There is however, a disconnect between performer and audience. The audience doesn’t have many ways to directly connect with the performers they appreciate most.

It is also important to consider that the activity of organizing poetry events, is quite hit and miss, few organizers have been able to sustain events that charge more than 500ksh entrance. Organizing a poetry event is a costly thing to do, depending on the scale of the event. It can cost hundreds of thousands to organize an event of a substantial size, especially if time, energy and resources are to be dedicated to rehearsals. The organizers themselves are seldom guaranteed that they will break even.

After much thought, I have a proposal. I have already discussed it with four event organizers, who agree with me and will begin implementing as soon as their next events.

We should have a collection box, at the doors of our poetry events, that way, if members of the audience are moved or inspired to a point where they would like to support their artists endeavors, they can tip them directly. The fee that they pay at the gate, ensures that the event is possible, whereas the tipping box, is for voluntary support of the artists themselves. The general contents of the box are to be split, after the audience has left, by the poets who performed. If an audience member would like to specifically give to a particular artist, they should have the option of putting something in a small envelope and putting the name of the artist on that envelope. Those would be given directly to the artist, for them to open at their own time.

The introduction of the idea of tipping the poets would help many of the issues mentioned above. The audience would have a chance to make individual commitments to the art on a voluntary basis, thus strengthening the relationship between audience and performers. It would help to free the art form from some of its economic barriers. It would motivate performers even more, to give their very best at every performance they attend, and would help them know, when they have specifically moved a certain crowd, with a particularly good performance, thus encouraging growth in the art form as a whole.

Growing up has afforded me a different perspective on my role in poetry. It’s not just about getting my name out there or selling my books. Its about creating a healthier environment for the poets that will come after me. Its about protecting young talent from exploitation and working towards better quality in the art form for generations to come. That journey of improving the poetry world around me, is one that I’m just beginning.

For my experiences so far, and for a vision for the future, I am deeply grateful.

Most of all, I am grateful to you, my reader. You make waking up at three thirty, well worth it.

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Growing Up. Part 2. Hair and Love

Acceptance, and especially self acceptance can be hard to come by. More often than not, people will point out things that differentiate you from them. As you get older, it becomes easier to stand by your own principles and decisions. The full list of ways that I feel blessed to have grown up is:

1. Conversation

2. Patience

3. Hair

4. Love

5. Poetry

This is a continuation of the last uploaded post. Here are two more ways in which, I’m happy to be a grown up.

Hair

Like most girls, life hands me many circumstances where people feel obligated to tell me about my hair. Over the years, there have been statements which have been repeated over and over again, such that, when someone begins the statement/question I often feel like I can finish it for them.

  • “It’s so long
  • Why did you cut it!?
  • It’s so soft
  • This soft hair can’t shika braids
  • This soft hair can’t shika dreads
  • Haiya! What have you done to your hair! The way you had nice hair!
  • Kama ningepewa hii nwele…
  • Kama ningepewa hii nwele singe…
  • Wa! Enyewe hii nwele ni chache
  • Kumbe hii nwele nikidogo hivyo
  • If I had your hair…”

When I was in Year eight, the boys in my class put some money together to buy me a comb. It was yellow plastic, and came with a note that said something like:

PLEASE! Use this. You need it!‘ Scribbled messily across the corner of a torn exercise book page.

Its one of those things about how children can be cruel. My hair, was of course taken care of. I lived, at the time, in a house full of women that would never have let me go to school without first combing and styling my hair neatly. There were in fact, four generations of us, me being the youngest. There was my Mum, her Mum (my Cucu, who I call Mummy) and her Mum (my Maitu or great grandmother) and of course me.

The trouble with my hair, is that it has its own ideas about what it wants to do.

In early high school, I would try as much as possible, to style it in the ‘cool’ styles that my classmates had. My Mum never let me relax my hair, thankfully, as I now know, it would in fact have fallen out. The trouble was, what looked like a fringe in the mirror in the morning when wet, became a fuzzy erect crest by 10:00 am. Even if I wasn’t trying to have a fringe, the breakage in my hairline (caused by other ‘cool’ hairstyles like braids and flat ironing), would become something like a hallow, by latest lunch time, be lopsidedly standing around my forehead as though attempting to escape entirely.

When I was sixteen I began twisting my hair. Undoing and re-twisting, until I had a full head of locks. I didn’t need to go and sit under driers, my hair took to locking as though that’s what it was made for. I did them myself, although my front locks were slim and my back locks were thick, I loved my locks, and can happily say, that for the entire time, I never once had to visit a salon.

After two years however, I dearly missed the feeling of a brush or comb on my scalp. I had finished my IB diploma, knew that I would soon have to start work. I chose to take out my locks. My hair has allot of static, so I found, inside the thicker locks I had managed to collect allot of lint (blanketi). I wondered if that would contribute to weight in any way. I resolved, that I was going to do slimmer dreads, if I was to dread my hair again. Its a tricky balance though, because I prefer to do my own hair, the slimmer the dreads, the more time that will take.

Today, I do believe I’ve found a fun balance. My hair is partly shaved, partly sister locked and partially natural and short. I don’t think I would ever have had the guts to do this when I was younger. The age I am at, my principles on the fluidity of culture  allow me to be able to make unusual choices about my hair and know that I can stand by those decisions. I gave up on trying to look like other people, which is the most enormous weight off my shoulders. I love the fact that I finally know how it feels to have my hair really really short (Amazing!). I love my handful of of locks, that I can put pendants in and hear them jingle instead of earings. I can still put a brush through the rest of it.

I wasn’t born knowing what I wanted to do with my hair nor would I have had the guts to do anything I wanted to, just a few years back. So, thirty here I come, I love being a big girl!

Love

My first love, was in kindergarten. He was six months younger than me. To my classmates, that was an unacceptable age gap. He didn’t seem to mind, but there was another girl who liked him, and was an acceptable six months younger than him. In the end, peer pressure won the day, and she wound up being his girlfriend. This role, entailed holding hands, and eating break together.

I have always been prone to crushes. My teenage years featured the greatest quantity of love poems to date.

I have never had particularly good hand or foot to eye coordination. When I was eight, none of the girls wanted me on their hopscotch team. I would only be allowed to play, in the single player rounds of the game and even then, I served soley as the object of ridicule.

After many attempts to fit in with the girls, I conceded and would instead play ‘catch and catch’ with the boys. As a result, they stopped thinking of me as a girl. My great crush of that age was called Naheem. He had hair that fell around his face and reached his ears like Aaron Carter (I thought). He had a girlfriend though, and she was the prettiest girl in the school. I knew I didn’t stand a chance, and was a peace with that fact. To my mind, he was the cutest boy, and so it only made sense that he should be with the prettiest girl. For the sake of this blog, lets call her Cathy.

One day, in the corridor on the way to art class, Cathy stopped me to say, “Raya, I know you like Naheem and I just wanted to tell you that I don’t care. You can have him.”

Her declaration startled me. No one else was supposed to know. I had only told one person, my best friend. The trouble was, my best friend, had another best friend, who happened to be the biggest gossip in the class. I really didn’t know what to say to her, I hadn’t wanted them to break up, nor did I think I would stand a chance anyway. Eloquence often deserts me, just  when I need it the most.

At break time, Naheem walked up to me, his fists were folded into tiny balls. He accused me of intentionally making Cathy break up with him. He then proceeded to punch me in the face and give me my very first (and thankfully, only ever) black eye.

I remember crying profusely in the toilet. I remember vividly a revolting lump of red achari in the corner of the cement cubicle. I love achari, its always been one of my favorite things, but that tiny heap, would never have enticed me to put it in my mouth. The irony dawned on me some years later.

I wasn’t crying because of the pain in my eye, which would continue to tear until the next day. I was a tom boy, so a week would not have passed without me having some kind of injury, I was used to physical pain. I cried because I thought of Naheem as a friend and was heart broken that he could think so lowly of me.

Love takes many forms. I have often reprimanded myself for forgiving too easily and trusting too fast. Many a time, in my life, I’ve thrown emotional caution to the wind in the name of love.

Growing up has taught me two vital things about love. One is, it is a good idea to keep your eyes open. To love what is there, and not what you think could be. Two, is that it is OK to be a loving person. Loving truly, comes with giving truly, and that giving is a gift in itself.

I love the acceptance that comes with love.

Growing Up. Part 1. Conversation and Patience

I am forced to admit, that I am quite a sporadic writer. I woke up the other morning, at three thirty, jumped out of bed and scrambled for a pen and lots of paper.  I had to write about growing up, something I am suddenly very happy I’ve managed to do.

Perhaps, one day, when being a poet, affords me a manager, he or she will make sure I have scheduled posts, and pre-written pieces, to keep my (by then) hungry readers interested. Until that time, I am very grateful to you, who is unconditionally on the receiving end of my spontaneity.

Here are the ways in which, I’m very happy I have grown up.

1. Conversation

2. Patience

3. Hair

4. Love

5. Poetry

Initially, on waking up at that strange time, I thought I had been inspired to write one post. On sitting down to write it, I realized, that the topic is far too large for just one article. What follows is the first parts of why I love growing up.

Conversation.

I’ve become, a much better listener. I am no longer that annoying girl in the class who always had her hand up. I’ve learnt, that it is possible to express oneself much better by listening to the points of views of the people around you. In that way, you can choose your words more wisely, and be understood much clearer.

Once upon a time,  I was told that Rwandan women feed their babies on breast milk until they reach two years old. In my defense, the source of that information, was the Rwandan mum of my half Rwandan childhood neighbor and friend. When I was eleven and in year seven, I was new to Nairobi and the new kid in the class, I put up my hand to say this. I made a habit of collecting and delivering ‘Did You Know?’ type facts, consequently volunteering information I hadn’t been asked for was something I did frequently.

What I didn’t know, is that I had a Rwandan class mate. She took great offense at the sweeping statement I had delivered about her origins. She received my comment as an attack on her nationality. At the time, I didn’t understand her reaction. I thought my source to have been credible, and thus would have expected her to have simply corrected me if I was wrong. We were never friends while in the same school, and throughout the time that we were in class together, I didn’t think she was a very nice person.

We had mutual friends, and so, after finishing at that primary, we met by chance on other occasions. I grew to like her just before she left the country for good. I have often been around people who make blanket statements since, and so, I’ve come to understand why I rubbed her off the wrong way.

A blanket statement, is a bit like one of those police trucks that goes around picking up people and stacking them together, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have, myself been loaded into these truck like statements, for being – a woman, a member of the youth, a ‘pointy’, a kyuk, a jungu – that list is actually endless. Whether a generalization is made as a compliment or an insult, it is never nice to be picked up and plopped into a labeled box, just because you fit into some stereotypical group of people, most of whom, you have probably never met.

On the day that I made that generalization, I made an ‘enemy’ (in the context that eleven year old girls would use the word) out of someone who, as it turns out was a respectful, caring and loyal friend. Due to the fact that I did not, at first, take time to listen, I missed out on getting to know someone who may otherwise have been a good friend to me. I’m sure that would not have been the last time I made that kind of oversight, but with age comes the learning of lessons. I am now in a space where that is the kind of mistake I am unlikely to make. In that way, I have gotten to know many other people who I may otherwise have rubbed the wrong way on first meeting.

Learning to listen more in conversation, is something, I absolutely love about growing up.

Patience

Patience is one of those lessons, that I keep having to learn again, just when I thought I had got it. It’s like the point, in a game of soduku, where you are at the edge of having all of the rest of the answers, but can’t quite figure out the next move. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, patience is not about sitting and waiting.

Patience is; resiliently putting one foot in front of the other, in a sustainable, peaceful way.

Impatience and longevity are opposing forces. Longevity, is the reason why a leopard will eat, where a cheetah will starve. Impatience provides shelter for that frustrating feeling of ‘So close, and yet so far’. It acts like a fungus, whose spores are hopelessness and ingratitude.

Patience on the other hand, allows you to till the land, carefully. With the knowledge that, although this life does not guarantee success, your best efforts in the field, make for your best chances of yield.

Often, the best poems I’ve written have been penned in less than ten minutes. The process that precedes the delivery is what takes ages. Besides, wide and quantitative reading and hours of practice writing, I have to have internalized and analyzed the subject matter, with enough depth to be able to know what it is that I’m trying to say. The longest time, that that has taken is eight years.

Patience isn’t inanimate though. It needs to be fed, nurtured, loved, encouraged. It thrives in the company of peace, hope, grace and love. Together, these forces, create peace of mind

Without patience and resilience, most of my truest art pieces, would never have been written. Most of my triumphs would never have been made. So, patience is one of the reasons, why I love being my age.

Sunlight

The windows of this jav are clean.

That makes me comfortable, it shows care.

Care isn’t love though.
 

If this was a loved car,

It would be all clean.

Not just wiped down,

So obvious bits gleam.
 

Why can’t I stop myself from seeing,

the familiar, cloudy brown, bottoms and sides?

The pane still stumbles on unidentifiable grains

as it slides.
 

Love is expressed, in the corners, the cracks,

Away from the flat, accessible surfaces,

Away from the places that are easy to reach,

easy to shine,

Deep. In the crevices, we’d rather hide.

Love reaches in, through, underneath the lies.

The musky smell, and the tout tapping me,

remind me…

This is not my ride.

You are a space, not meant to be mine.

 
But the windows of this mat are clean.

So the sun falls on my skin, unfiltered.

For some reason, that leaves me lifted.

Reminding me…
 

Sometimes, care is enough.

So today, it may be ungrateful

To demand love.