Recently a friend, Kidron, while disagreeing with my stance on the concept of performance poetry in Kampala spaces today, made a point which reminded me of the brutal reality we face as Ugandan poets today.
In his rebuttal ( as much as it was an ad hominem) he said perhaps it was the small fan-base I have that was fanning my ego to make the points I made. While I did not agree with his (mode of) reasoning, I pondered on the point of the small fan-base. And it’s true. Very true. Like another friend liked to put it during my Lantern Meet days, “We poets are very popular in our small circles”.
This poetry of ours is esoteric in nature on a number of levels. We (mostly) use English language to express it (at the expense of our own), we take our performances to artificial spaces to ‘liven’ it (at the expense of the functional settings) and we are mostly clueless on how to make a living out of our art. Thus our poetry is just a bubble of expression (for the like-minded) that soon vaporizes with the silence that follows the loud applause from those very small audiences (readers, listeners and watchers). But these applauses have not ‘made it rain.’
The truth is poets are broke most of the time, and with hardly any capital to invest in their dreams, one’s talent can only last only for long, as long as assurance for livelihood persists. Many poets (in our very small circle) will tell you of how they walked across towns from home to perform, only to walk back again, in the night, return home and write poems about the stars they counted on their way. Many of my friends left this poetry thing alone because the grass didn’t just look greener on the other side, it was also ‘raining’ there. Here it is a literary desert. And indeed after crossing over they are doing well. Occasionally we meet at (our small) poetry events and they ponder how some of us stuck ‘to the game.’ They dream of their Second Coming but they know the reality of the world they shall be returning to.
So imagine my surprise (oba shock) when Nyana Kakoma, one of the most respected bloggers and a well-known editor (in our small circles), in 2015, assures me she will invest millions of money to PUBLISH and RECORD my poetry manuscript AS THE FIRST BOOK AND AUDIO ALBUM her new publishing company ( a metamorphosis from her popular blog) will launch. Nyana was willing to publish poetry! She only knew me for my stage performances but was willing to risk all on some unpublished poet only known to poetry enthusiasts (who indeed are few.)
That will be 2 years ago tomorrow. The poems in my book are now taught at Makerere University, some in secondary and some in primary schools; my poems are some of the most popular and performed today (in our small circle); often I see their lines quoted here and there; some of the poems have won performance poetry competitions in secondary schools; and my father is now proud of me (that ghost is well rested!). I have also performed those poems at the National Theatre and at 5 arts festivals to standing ovations, and it is in this process I earned my first 10m cheque as a performance poet.
Has the circle of the fan-base grown? Yes. The radius has grown a few centimeters. But I keep Kidron’s words at the back of mind as reality check: the truth is the books and audio CDs have not sold as we imagined they would. Nyana almost gave up the on her dream immediately after. Even our friends were not as supportive as we hoped. The bookshops take donkey years to pay publishers because the market is mob small. This reality of the ‘very small circle’ grows larger day by day.
But we don’t give up! We don’t give in. Our heads are bloody but unbowed and somehow we are surviving in this literary desert. But what Kidron said is truth as I also know it: the circle of poetry fans is still small.
But this circle is holding on and it’s firm. Today we celebrate one of our small victories: THE HEADLINE THAT MORNING AND OTHER POEMS, published by SOOO MANY STORIES (2016) still lives. 2 years later and from what I see, and feel, soon things will change.
Thank you Nyana for believing in me and taking a risk on me. I am lucky and blessed you are part of my small circle. Thank you Isaac, for being there always as my first critic. Muna Katonda akukuume. Thank you Lantern Meet of Poets, for the opportunities and lessons I earned. Thank you ALL MY STUDENTS, you make proud to be UNCOMPROMISINGLY ME. Thank you Kitara Poets for the journies and memories we make every day.
Thank you everyone who has supported our small literary circle. To Writivism, Babishai Niwe, Bayimba Foundation, Kampala International Theatre Festival, writing Our World, thank you for your friendship and support, even you Wartson, thank you. Thank you Twinokwesiga for the continuous sales you make, with one book at a time we change the world. THANK YOU ALL who have attended my shows, bought the books (and read them) and CDs (and listened to them). THANK YOU ALL who have recommended my book or CD to a friend as worthwhile to read or listen. Thank you Kiwanuka Marie J Nabu for reading the poem ‘Nightmares’ to your auntie. To you all, ours is a small circle filled with love, hope and a strong resolve to keep our friendships. We are what we got.
Finally, to all the young poets out there, our struggle is real and nothing comes easy. Okot p’Bitek, Uganda’s greatest poet, was 35 when he published his groundbreaking ‘Song of Lawino’ and it took some years to gain ground. Legacies are not built in a day, but with one poem and time. And you don’t have to wait till you’re 35. Start manifesting your greatness now. The world will soon catch up with it and it will find you dancing like nobody is watching and reciting poetry like nobody is listening!