The Interview with Adjei Agyei-Baah Page 2
by Tendai Rinos Mwanaka & Kevin McLaughlin
Part 2: Personal Interview questions
Tendai: Describe yourself in five words?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Curious. Love to explore and know more!
Tendai: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: To pursue things which lie at the core of one’s heart rather than pursing wealth.
Tendai: What is your most treasured possession?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Christ! Through him, I experience eternal bliss.
Tendai: Do you have any strange hobbies?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I don’t know if this is a hobby. I have this odd habit of biting my nails and sometimes forget myself when I am seated in public. But with the help of my wife who always puts me in check, I am gradually overcoming it.
Tendai: What do you dislike most about your appearance?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: My front hairline is gradually receding and I’m not happy about that.
Tendai: What is your greatest extravagance?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: My wedding ceremony. I think I overspent, rather than being prudent and saving money to build a house first, to keep my family safe and sound.
Tendai: What have you got in your fridge?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: My freezer keeps the ordinary perishable foodstuffs for the family. But the fridge keeps nothing since my wife, a public health officer who is conscious about our health, suggests we should avoid cold or icy things in order to prolong our life.
Tendai: What is your greatest fear?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Fear of poetry not paying me much, and further fear of not being remembered in the event of my demise!
Tendai: What have you got in your pockets right now?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: A change received from a *waakye seller after buying some for my wife and kid.
*special Ghanaian brown rice cooked with beans and served with stew.
Tendai: What is your favourite journey?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: A journey to our capital city, Accra, which gave birth to the iconic haiku “leafless tress”.
Tendai: Who are your heroes in real life?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Christ, the messiah in the Bible. He thrills me a lot. He is a true hero, and I have been doing my best to walk in his path towards enlightenment!
Tendai: When and where were you happiest?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: When I was dating my girlfriend, now my wife, and when I went for further studies at the University of Ghana where I had the opportunity to complete my first poetry collection “Afriku” in 2015. And a more recent one was the citation of my book “AFRIKU” by Professor Wole Soyinka (the 1986 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature) at the First Asian Literature Festival at Gwangju, South Korea. The news blew me into smithereens when a US representative at the event wrote and shared with me the impression my haiku made on the participants.
Tendai: What’s your biggest vice?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Huh! As a first year student at the Agona S.D. A Secondary School, I remembered being pushed by our seniors to beat our headmaster in his house in one hot evening demonstration, and had never liked the experience any time it jumps back into memory.
Tendai: What were you like at school?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I loved literature but had a weak spot for Mathematics. I also remember one time becoming an entertainment prefect at Offinso Teacher Training College and an editor of my department (Publishing Studies) at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.
Tendai: What are you doing next?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I have my PhD on my mind and a couple of poetry books (long and short verse) that I have been working on for publication anytime soon.
Kevin: Are there many other poets in Ghana working in the haiku form?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: For now we have a handful. Mention can be made of Nana Fredua-Agyeman (the popularizer of haiku art in Ghana and the owner of “Haiku from Ghana” blog), Celestine Nudanu, Kwaku Feni Adow, Kojo Turkson, Justice Joseph Prah, Blessmond Alebna Ayinbire and other budding ones. As well we have a young haiku group, “Ghana Haiku Society”, and members meet once in a month to write and share haiku knowledge and experience. As the president of the group and an ardent practitioner of the art, I often
organize workshops for schools, colleges and universities in Ghana with the hope of haiku/Afriku being accepted and studied as a “new’ poetry genre in Ghana and beyond to tell the African story.
Kevin: Is there a possibility haiku could spread in popularity across the entire African continent?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: It is, and it has already started and even travelled far and deep. The formation of Africa Haiku Network and the successive historic launch of “The Mamba”, Africa’s first and only international haiku journal, has made much impact by popularizing haiku on our continent. Plans are even far advanced to produce the Mamba Journal in a bilingual language of English and French, as a way of introducing haiku to other Francophone African countries where haiku is not yet much popular.
And also with the help of haiku friends and fellow lecturers, I have translated my maiden haiku collection “Afriku (Red Moon Press, 2016) into African languages like Kiswahili, Twi, Yoruba, Ibo etc. by way of adhering to the call of the likes of Mathias Safari, an Ethiopian scholar belonging to the evolutionist school of language of African literature who believe Afriku must be Africanized by adding more local flavours, by way of drawing copiously on local names/words, registers, coinages, idioms, and transliteration peculiar to the African continent.
The contributions to international haiku communities and journals cannot be overlooked as they continue to publish and share the haiku experience. These platforms have become avenues for learning and a pedestal to host works of rising African haijins. Mention can be made of principal journals such as Simply Haiku, Asahi Haikuist Network, Shamrock, Modern Haiku, Cattails, The Haiku Foundation and others that have contributed immensely in this course.
Kevin: I was intrigued by your "Harmattan ghost" in part because it had a true African feel to it while retaining the virtues of a haiku. Do you plan to continue “nativising” your work? I hope you do. The African continent is a wealth of imagery and traditions which could contribute greatly to haiku’s canon, and indeed, to poetry’s entire canon.
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I have always wanted to do that and will not rest in that pursuit. I coined and named my first collection “AFRIKU”, and see myself as a champion charting that course with other fellow African haijins such as Emmanuel J. Kalusian, Celestine Nudanu, Barnabas Ikéolúwa Adélékè and others who see this approach as a new way of telling and re-telling the African story. I have a lot of such haiku poems with those unique setting and images in my debut collection “AFRIKU”. My intention with this nativization approach is to make the haiku genre more novel and inviting, with the ultimate aim of making it a household genre that would be liked and practiced by every folk, be they writer or reader. My third upcoming collection “Tales of the Kites” exudes this same local color where I draw expansively from my African setting and childhood experience as lover and flyer of kites.
Part 3: Other Work and General Interview Questions
Tendai: From our last discussion on Facebook, you said you now want to concentrate on long poems. Why? What had made you stop writing long forms to focus on the haiku? Are there any political reasons? Do you now feel safe?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I discovered haiku and fell in love with its brevity and binding power! But for now, I am confident to have left golden footprints worthy of recognition, and will be returning to writing African poetry (long verse I mean here) which first brought me into the creative writing arena.
Tendai: You work at the University, what do you do? How much does it help you to create? What do you transfer from that work into your writing?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I am a lecturer at the University of Ghana School of Distant Learning, Kumasi, mostly teaching English Language and Literature. Reading the prescribed books of these courses, I believe, continuously sharpens my wits and adds to my creative prowess.
Tendai: What are the issues at the center of your writing and why?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I have headaches with publications. Some collections are long overdue on my desk. Besides, as a family man and lecturer, I get less room to write than I would wish to. The environment is quite stale for me and I would have loved to travel and to get new experiences to write about.
Tendai: What and Who do you admire in African poetry making? What do you think can be done to improve poetry making on the continent?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I think I have been influenced by some poetry anthologies such as the “West African Verse: an Anthology” edited by D.I. Nwoga, “Poems from East Africa” edited by David Cook and Rubadiri, “Poems of Black Africa” edited by Wole Soyinka, and “A Selection of African Poetry: Introduced and Annotated” by K. E. Senanu and T. Vincent. These are great volumes which had shaped my poetry career. Mention cannot be made of some specific poets who made much influence on me since I only had a chance of reading just a poem or two from them without tasting their complete collections or volumes. But I remember the bigwigs like Soyinka, Awoonor, Clark (JP), Okara, Senghor, Rubadiri etc. whose works had often inspired me to read on and write better someday. And more recently I have fallen for poetry collections like Gbemisola Adeoti’s “Naked Soles” and Mawuli Adjei’s “Testament of Seasons” which are great two collections worthy of reading.
In the making of Africa poetry, I really admire the effort of Professor Kwame Dawes, the Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Prairie Schooner Editor-in-Chief or his continuous push of the young African poets to get their collection out through the African Poetry Prize, New-Generation African Poets Series and individual African poetry collection publication through Nebraska University Press. There may be others who may also be contributing in their own small way but I think for now, he stands out tall for me.
And by way of pushing African poetry farther, the Department of English and Literature in all the Universities on the continent can make it as part of their academic calendar to provide at least one anthology yearly to provide a platform for the young African poet by way of projecting them and pushing Africa poetry across international borders. I think some become too much academic inclined and forget about the practicality of what they teach in terms of creative art.
Tendai: Other than poetry, what else do you write or create?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: For now I don’t write anything apart from poetry. But I have the intention of exploring novel and playwriting when I am away from home, or when I get the opportunity to go into residency.
Tendai: If you were a poem, what form will you be in?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I would be in haiku, more specifically Afriku. It’s always gratifying to be part of an art evolution and leave footprints of gold for others to follow.
Tendai: Thank you, Adjei
Kevin: Traditionally the basic format of a haiku is 3 lines consisting of 5-7-5 syllables per line each. Translating Japanese poetry makes it impossible to retain this format. In your native language, do you adhere to the 17 syllable format? Would it be possible to translate your work into that format?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: This is quite a technical one. To the best of my knowledge and practice, my native Twi compared to English has shorter syllables and is somehow closer to the Japanese sound units "on" or morae. I sometimes adhere to the 17 syllable count when writing in my native language, but this has not been the norm. As I often prefer to write with less or at most 17 syllables which does not strictly imitate the 5-7-5 or SLS structure. AFRIKU, my first collection is in a bilingual language of English and Twi. Most of the Twi appears shorter upon translation due to its short syllabic structure compared to English.
Kevin: Usually, there is a direct or indirect reference to the season. In many countries where the seasons don’t vary greatly, this can be impractical. Does Ghana experience many seasonal variations? If so, will you be working this feature into your work?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Ghana like most African countries experience two major seasons: the dry and rainy or wet season. And I often make reference to them in my haiku as key requirement in classic haiku form. By using kigo (seasonal word), I give more room and space for the reader to tap into the setting and backdrop of my haiku, thereby transporting them there unknowingly. But sometimes, I don’t specifically mention them in poems when I think the diction used is sufficient enough to enable readers to think through and fish out the setting for themselves.
Kevin: Have you noticed that writing haiku helps you to stay mindful of your natural environment?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Yes of course! The eyes that look are many but I am grateful to haiku for making me see!
Kevin: You have won a number of international awards for your work. Can you tell us a bit about these awards?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: My first major award which goaded me to take haiku seriously as an art was my iconic haiku “leafless tree” winning “The Akita Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Award” in the 3rd Japan- Russia Haiku Contest 2015 among other topmost awards.
This was followed by “roasting sun” which won “The Heron's Nest Award 2014” and was selected among the Editors’ Choices. The latest, “hilltop” was the winner of the Caribbean Kigo Kukai 2017 Anniversary Kukai. Apart from these, my other haiku have been captured under honorable mentions, commendations and editors choices that readers can Google and discover.
Kevin: You’ve written two books: Afriku and Ghana 21 Haiku. Could you please tell us about these books and, also, let us know how we could obtain copies (assuming there are English translations).
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Like you rightly mentioned, I have published these two books above and currently working on my third haiku collection “Tales of the Kite”. The first collection “Afriku” (Red Moon Press, 2016) and “Ghana 21 Haiku” (Mamba Africa Press, 2017) can all be bought on Amazon platforms across the world as well as the publishers’ site.
Kevin: In addition to being imagery and capturing “The thing in itself” haiku frequently convey the poet’s spiritual and/ or philosophical beliefs. Do your Afriku convey your worldview?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Well yes! Beneath my haiku mostly lie my spiritual and/ or philosophical beliefs. For example, this haiku below and also published in “AFRIKU” clearly depicts my thought and belief about dew:
perhaps heaven weeps
Kevin: Just out of curiosity: you are well aware of Japanese poetry. Are you familiar with Chinese poetry?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: No. But I will perhaps explore it someday since Zen, a form of Buddhism originating in 12th-century China that emphasizes enlightenment through meditation and insight, has a connection with haiku.
Kevin: Are there any of the classical masters such as Basho or Buson you enjoy reading?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: Yes of course. Though Basho was a great teacher and perfected his students’ works with wit and éclat, I have often been moved by the works of radicals like Masaoka Shiki and non-master haijins like Santōka Taneda.
Kevin: How about Western poetry? Are there any Western poets you enjoy reading?
Adjei Agyei-Baah: I read Western poetry but I may not have specific favorites. I have enjoyed Shakespeare’s sonnets, and works of Blake, Wordsworth, Frost, Tennyson, Byron and a few others.
Kevin: Let me conclude this section of the interview by indicating I hope you continue to contribute your unique Afriku to BTS.
Adjei Agyei-Baah: For sure I will. Being the coiner and originator of “Afriku”, I will always work hard with other fellow African haijins at home to sustain this “new” offshoot of haiku and as well assist other budding haijins to pursue this new course of telling the African story in the beauty of few words. And for now, I am gratified to see many young African poets writing haiku (in the light of Afriku) as a way of being attentive to the settings and images of Africa.
The sculpture is an "antelope" and this picture was taken at the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Kwame Nkrumah University Of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. -Adjei Agyei-Baah