Lessons from virtual workshop on poetry writing

It is a mirror of social realities and a medium of cultural commentary

In Summary

• Every dark cloud has a silver lining, you just need to adapt to the changes, as C-Wak did with Zoom session

• Poetry demands constant cultivation of listening, speaking, reading and writing skills

Prof Egara Kabaji (seated right) and the Kakamega Book Club
Prof Egara Kabaji (seated right) and the Kakamega Book Club

The impact of the coronavirus will be felt for years to come. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life as we knew it.

Even the chaotic Nairobi public transport, in light of social distancing, has effected radical changes in sitting arrangements. They signify the intensity of the pandemic in terms of disruption of social order. The education and health sectors have been affected directly also.

Commercially, the Kenya-Tanzania diplomatic row in Namanga has been felt on the ground. City markets like the massive one in Githurai are supplied by Tanzanian farm products such as rice, onions and even oranges. Disruptions in supply chains spike market prices instantly and intensify the miseries of the masses.

As the two governments address the immigration issues and harmonise corona-testing approaches, city estates and their millions continue to feel the heat of the pandemic.

Our cultures have not been left untouched. In the interest of public health, some communities have had to shelf their age-old rituals on death. Others have cited ancestral wrath for their cultural resistance as they stood at the crossroad between local cultural practice and national policy. To initiate or not to initiate has been the question on the lips of communities across Western Kenya. Day and night, the debate rages on.

It is in this light that literature organisations find themselves across the Rubicon. Literature is a social art. It is more so when understood in the context of craft and practice. Writing, for example, is an individual exercise that is inspired by the surroundings. Writers are not islands. They present and represent the realities of their contexts.

Most literary associations have had to adopt the wisdom of Chinua Achebe in his famous book Things Fall Apart. We remember the bird called Eneke. It informed us that it flew without perching because the hunter had learned to shoot without missing. Change begets change. Failure to change because of change can lead to expiry if not extinction or at least ennui.

Take the case of Creative Writers Association of Kenya (C-Wak). It is a national professional association made up of creative writers from across the country. All its members are published authors, whose creative talent is epitomised in the books they have published. Most have more than one title to their names. It is affiliated to the Pan African Writers Association, headquartered in Ghana.

C-Wak is currently tuning its operations using the new modes of communication. Most of the offline activities of this year have shifted to online spaces. The association has ably adapted itself to the new times and runs a vibrant WhatsApp community. It is on a fruitful campaign to enhance its presence on Facebook and other virtual zones.

Prof Egara Kabaji
Prof Egara Kabaji

A fortnight ago, Kenyans commemorated the 42nd Anniversary since the demise of the founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. On the same August 22, C-Wak successfully held its inaugural virtual workshop via Zoom on poetry writing. The half-day workshop was hosted by the association chairman Prof Egara Kabaji of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.

Presenters included both emerging poets as well as seasoned scholars of literature. From Eldoret, Prof Peter Amuka and Prof CJ Odhiambo, both of Moi University, dissected the nature of poetry as a medium of cultural commentary and a complex mirror of social realities or anxieties. Jerusha Kananu tuned in from Meru county and talked on oral poetry and its potentialities. She is a fast-rising name in Kenyan literature.

The seasoned Maseno University don Bryson Omwalo expounded on the form and content of the genre in his lucid introductory presentation. Barack Wandera, a publisher with InterCen Publishers in Bungoma, pointed out the challenges and opportunities that exist for poets today. Prof Kabaji shared his wide experience as a children’s literature author. Hosting from Kakamega, he invited the members to re-examine their approaches when writing new works for this audience.

Zooming in from my Githurai abode, I examined the nature of poetry both as an art and a craft. I noted that written poems are works of art, but the writing of poetry is a craft that demands constant cultivation of four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Kenyans need to actively develop these skills in this era to safeguard our literary future as a nation.  

Those in attendance were many. Scattered across the many counties of Kenya, they participated in the training using virtual communication. This is the new normal. It is clear that art and craft should herald and archive our new era. Moreover, all cultural workers and artists should aspire towards the new horizons of opportunities that the pandemic has brought with itself. Each dark cloud indeed has a silver lining.