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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


An Afternoon with Derek Walcott
The Coalition of Resisters

The Challenge of Rose Francis
Mpalive Msiska on Soyinka.
Oxford University Poetry Society
Chika Unigwe's Book Tour

  An Afternoon with Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott authographing books at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada during a recent visit as Guest Writer

Photo credit: Nduka Otiono


It does not take long in the presence of Derek Walcott, 77, West Indian poet, dramatist, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, to realize why some of his fans fondly call him the Homer of St Lucia. He commands such a magisterial literary presence that you are inclined to thinking of him in terms of the classical heights of Homer, the Greek poet whose epic Walcott re-invented as "Homeros" in tribute.

At "An Afternoon With Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott" on Friday, September 28, 2007, at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, the artist justified the honours which have crowned his truly glorious career as a man of letters. The event was organized by the Caribbean and African Diasporic Initiatives and the Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de Littérature Canadienne at the University, with Malinda Smith and Stephen Slemon respectively as standard bearers.

Born in the island of St Lucia, Walcott shuttles between his beloved brith place in the Caribbeans, Greenwhich Village, New York where he lives when he is in the US, and Boston where he teaches at the University of Boston. At Alberta for the reading, the water-colorist was perhaps at his witty best before an auditorium filled to capacity, with many barely finding a standing room. After a stellar performance reading his poems, in answer to a question he said among others, "Poets are not by instinct heroes; they are by instinct cowards." It was more like W.H Auden saying that poetry changes nothing! Walcott, however, acknowledged a poet's duty as a recorder of injustice and his "luck to be able to articulate it." An appreciation of his performance that evening was evident not just in the standing ovation that greeted him but in the long queue of guests who sought his autograph.

Nduka Otiono

The Coalition of Resisters 

Writers, Lee Swenson, Nduka Otiono and Robert Hass

Photo credit: Nduka Otiono

While US President George Bush forged his Coalition of the Willing and the guns and bombs boomed in Iraq, in the San Francisco area of the United States of America, a group of writers, war veterans and anti-war campaigners meet under a coalition of resisiters. Among them is Lee Swenson (left), a maverick persona and a moving repository of knowledge about war, writers, history and Silicon Valley. Within minutes of sitting with him, you are taken on an intellectual excursion around the lives of the notables in the San Francisco area, including Francis Copola of The God Father fame, Maxine Hong Kingston and Robert Hass (right in the picture), former poet laureate of the US, professor of English at University of California, Berkeley, co-editor of The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley's Poetry Walk and the 2007 winner of the National Book Award in poetry, for Time and Materials.

On this occasion, Hass, a poet with a cult personality in the area akin to Allen Ginsberg, is reading in an auditorium in the De Young Museum at Golden Gate Park in the foggy city. The expansive venue is unusually filled to capacity with guests for a poetry event, and on a night when a musical concert is taking place in the same complex. As the blurb of the anthology published by Malcolm Margolin's unique publishing outfit, Heyday Books, states, Hass is "known for his signature voice full of poetic musicality and political progressiveness." But what seems to draw the crowd more are his witty poems and a remarkable storytelling skill. True to his reputation, this evening he captivates the audience with excellent readings and recollections of the life and art of such distinguished writers as Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel laureate for Literature and a great friend of Hass'. As you listen to the poet who cuts the picture of a perfect gentleman, you realise how his mantra as US Poet laureate between 1995 and 1997 was "imagination makes communities."

Nduka Otiono

 The Challenge of Rose Francis
  Rose Francis
Rose Francis

When a new African publisher has the confidence to re-issue poetry forged in the conflicts of South Africa, as African Perspectives will be doing with the work of Don Mattera, convinced of its vintage value and continuing importance, we at take notice. We become even more interested if that publisher knows all about the ambiguities of the contemporary African identity and still feels able “to project with concerted effort Africa’s self identity, self esteem, achievement and contributions,” and also “assist in reversing Afro pessimism within our society.” We know we are in the same business with that publisher.

Rose Francis feels prepared for the challenge of publishing Africa. She should be. Rose Francis Communications, her previous business, was indeed one of the first black-owned communications consultancies in South Africa. She wants to “create a business driven by consumer demand as South Africans slowly begin to take pride in their personal liberation.” The challenge of Rose Francis is our challenge.

 Mpalive Msiska on Soyinka
There was a book launch in London recently of a new work by the Malawian scholar and poet, Mpalive Msiska. Postcolonial Identity of Wole Soyinka attempts to direct Soyinka studies to his ideas on a recovered African tradition and identity as being engaged in transformative or redemptive roles in the globalised African contemporary. The author is a Senior Lecturer at Birbeck College, University of London. Postcolonial Identity is published by Rodopi in their Series, ‘Cross/Culture – Readings in the Post/Colonial Literatures in English’. The book organises its enquiry under the subject heads ‘Myth, History and Postcolonial Modernity,’ ‘Tradition and Modernity,’ ‘The Banality of Postcolonial Power,’ ‘The Abyss of Postcolonial formation,’ and ‘Resources for Redemption.’ Mpalive-Hagson has previously published Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Critical Guide (2007), Wole Soyinka (in the ‘Writers and Their Works’ Series, 1998) and Writing and Africa (1997) among other works.
Mpalive's book
Mpalive Msiska's new book on Wole Soyinka
 The Oxford University Poetry Society  
Oxford Univ. Poetry Society with Afam Akeh
Back row, standing: Shirley Lee, Hannah Thompson, Corinne Sawers, Matthew Evans (at the back), Betina Ip, Rachel Piercey, Christopher Thursten and Diana Fu; Front row, sitting: Tony Harris, Edwin Gaader (Live Events Manager, OUPS), Afam Akeh (editor, AW), Chloe Stopa-Hunt (President, OUPS) and Alexander Christofi (Treasurer, OUPS)
Three OUPS Poems

Oxford has certainly had its share of poets, from the outrageous (John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester – England’s bawdiest bard – attended Wadham College, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, was infamously expelled for atheism in 1811) to the eminently respectable, including nine poets laureate. Undergraduate writing has not always been a priority, however: in the 1920s, the student poetry society remained “unofficial” and unregistered with the proctors (university police), despite the fact that some of its members were to go on to great things – among them, the poet and essayist, W. H. Auden. The society’s renaissance came in the wake of the Second World War: in 1946 it was officially re-founded by Martin Starkie, the actor, playwright, producer and director, who was then an undergraduate at Exeter College. Oxford University Poetry Society has never looked back!

In the early years, a famous participant in the society’s activities was the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, at that time living in a summer-house in the grounds of Magdalen College, whose “don-draped greenery” – as he described it in an unpublished poem – is little altered today. His daughter, Aeronwy Thomas, joined Martin Starkie and a host of members past and present at the society’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations in October 2006, where she read some of Thomas’s best-loved verse and Mr Starkie gave a vivid rendition of extracts from his beloved Canterbury Tales.

The society has always attracted high-calibre readers and speakers: the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West (twice winner of the Hawthornden Prize) were among the early visitors, while in the past two years a host of famous names have entertained the society’s members, including the poet laureate Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, Paul Muldoon and Matthew Sweeney. In addition to hearing memorable renditions of some of the best of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry, readings offer a valuable opportunity for young writers to put pertinent enquiries to the great and the good: Anne Stevenson has answered questions on life-writing, and recently Fiona Sampson, the editor of Poetry Review, discussed the process of selecting a poem for publication. 2008 will see a visit by Forward Prize winner, Daljit Nagra, along with a diverse selection of other poets: absolutely anyone is welcome to get in touch with the society and to attend our events; in keeping with the society’s traditions, they are not restricted to members of the university.

Our activities don’t stop at listening – most of our members are keen writers too. Oxford’s dynamic young talents come together every Wednesday evening – usually, and perhaps unsurprisingly, in a pub: liquid refreshment apparently helps to quell the nerves – to workshop their own poems and develop their writing through amicable constructive criticism. Success has not been slow in coming for some of our members: 2007 will see the publication by Clutag Press of Flood, a long poem by Paul Abbott, who won the Newdigate Prize during his first year at Oxford; other current members have achieved success in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize, the London Metropolitan University Poetry Prize, the Ledbury Poetry Competition and the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation.

Oxford University Poetry Society also administers two competitions of its own: the long-running Martin Starkie Prize, and a new competition in declamation, or the speaking of poetry (also sponsored by Mr Starkie, who, along with Magdalen don Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, is judging the final), which is being held for the first time in Michaelmas term 2007 and has been dubbed “the Pop-Idol of Verse-Reading”. The same term has seen the inaugural issue of the society’s own magazine, Ash, which – taking its title from Leonard Cohen’s perceptive comment that “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash” – aims to showcase the best student poetry in Oxford, to review the society’s events and to offer writing exercises, such as responding to a painting, designed to break down the most stubborn writer’s block.

Additionally, this year’s committee is keen to bring in more poets for focused workshopping sessions with our undergraduate members. We got off to a rousing start, one chilly October night, with a visit from Afam Akeh, editor of African Writing, who combined insightful and sensitive critiques of the participants’ poems – a diverse collection, ranging from pithy to baroque – with the opportunity to hear him read from his own work, including a moving extract from his forthcoming second collection, Letter Home. Lively debate ensued when a variety of controversial topics were raised by our poetic offerings, including the old rhyme/free verse debate and whether poetry is, can, or should be political. Afam also gave us some helpful pointers concerning the practicalities of establishing a poetic career, a question which is perhaps too often neglected in workshop situations focussing exclusively on matters of craft or, indeed, “inspiration”. We can all benefit from a timely reminder that it’s a poet-eat-poet world out there!

Chloe Stopa-Hunt

Chloe is an undergraduate at New College, Oxford, and president of Oxford University Poetry Society. She has twice been a Foyle Young Poet of the Year, and her poems have been published in Oxford Poetry and Agenda Broadsheet 7.

 Chika Unigwe's Book Tour
Kachifo limited, publishers of Farafina litmag organised the recent Nigerian book tour by novelist Chika Unigwe. She toured with the English translation of her first novel, The Phoenix. It was previously published in Dutch as De Feniks. Jonathan Cape are publishing her second novel, Fata Morgana. Her short stories are widely published online and she has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her tour involved book signings in locations around Lagos.
  Chika Unigwe
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