A Conversation with Henneh Kyereh Kwaku, by Osahon Oka

Henneh Kyereh Kwaku is the author of Revolution of the Scavengers, selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the APBF New Generation African Poets Chapbook Series, published by Akashic Books. He won third place for the Samira Bawumia Literature Prize in 2020. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, New South Journal, Three Drops Press, Ghana Writes, Lunaris Review, Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, Agbowó, Icefloe Press, Contemporary Ghanaian Writers Series and elsewhere. He studied Public Health at the University of Health and Allied Sciences, Ghana. Kwaku is from Gonasua in the Bono Region of Ghana. His twitter bio says he’s ”God’s child,” ask him which God via Twitter/IG: @kwaku_kyereh & Henneh Kyereh Kwaku on Facebook.

Hello Kwaku, I hope you are well this evening? I would like to congratulate you on your third-place win in the first edition of the Samira Bawumia’s Literature Prize. I can remember how I felt when I won the Briggette Poirson Poetry Prize (BPPC) in the June 2017 edition. I think one of the discoveries I made was how validated I felt about my writing. Each win, each accepted submission becomes another push to go forward, to fly higher. Do you feel this way? Do you think you will ever be jaded enough in the writing community to see a win or an acceptance mail as another ordinary day at the office? 

Hi Osahon, I feel great, God has been good to me. Thank you. There’s no end to joy & good wishes, Congrats to you too for your 2017 win!

I have a video of the highly revered Ghanaian poet, Kwame Dawes where he speaks about African Poets, there are scenes in the video where he reiterates, ”I’m good, I know I’m good” & ”these poets will kill you.” This is how I see myself. What Kwame Dawes said about himself is what I say about myself. I am one of the poets he says ”will kill you.” & you don’t doubt Kwame Dawes when he says a poet is good or a poet will kill you. You take it! The Samira Bawumia Literature Prize is great, one of the big feats of my writing life—no second thoughts on that—but I knew I was a poet before I submitted to the contest, the win doesn’t make me any less or more of a poet but it does put me in a place where folks who didn’t know me & my work will know & I’m thankful to God & the Second Lady (H.E Samira Bawumia) for that. & it is a flare that signals that I should keep working & as Kiese Laymon would say, ”it is fuel!”

Oh wow! You are definitely killing them. The wins are boosters of confidence no doubt. I wish I could be confident about my ability, at least all day. So you never feel like you don’t know what you are doing like the lights will come on and the audience will realise that you are no poet? You don’t feel like an impostor sometimes? 

In the beginning, God created heaven & earth. There was a creation before a naming, in a similar way, I have created & still create what poets create, which is poems & that’s how I have deserved the name ”poet.” I think it is alright if we question ourselves from time to time—it is a constant for me that I question the things I do, including my existence. What I am not afraid of is to lose the name ”poet.” It is all about how you look at the work you do & yourself as a creator—if I consider myself as my audience, then there’s no way one day the lights will come on & the audience will think I am not a poet—I am the audience. What I am saying is, I didn’t start writing because I needed the title ”poet” but because I loved to write & I wanted to write, that title came afterwards but the love continues. That love is a constant. 

I agree with this—one has to love the work and see the beauty and ugliness in it, as with other creations, and appreciate the effort behind the perfected piece. Your family, I mean parents and siblings, how do they see your vocation? Have they always understood and supported your writing? 

Yes, the ugliness—that’s so important in every creation story, I think that is what leads to seeming perfection. If you don’t want to see it ugly, you make it look at least good.

I have a very supportive family, from parents to siblings—they have supported my writings at each level, for understanding—I can’t talk about that haha, because I don’t know how they see it or perceive it. What I know is, they believe in what I do even if they don’t understand it. Take Mary in the Bible, I doubt she understood how Jesus turned water into wine, but she believed in what her son could do—she knew there was something magical about her son & his ability to change things from one form to another. I think to some extent, that’s how my family relates to my work & that’s not to say they do not understand anything I write but even the ones they don’t understand, they believe in it.

This is a lovely thing. I cannot forget the day my dad told me he is proud of me, for my writing, even though he does not understand the ideas behind them. Your poem, In Debt, is a simple sweet thing with depth. I have been thinking about how every living thing is “indebted to death“. What captured my attention though, is the first line written in Bono Twi: “Yɛ nyinaa yɛde wuo ka.” I love seeing this in works, especially as I can’t claim writing or speaking proficiency in my mother tongue. Do you see the possibilities of writing in African languages occupying the same spaces internationally as writing in the English language? Do you have a project consisting of African language writing, an anthology, for instance? 

Thank you for reading that poem, it means so much to me. It is one poem I love but only a few people know about. What is written in Bono translates to ”we’re all indebted to death,” the poem was written after a conversation with my Mum one day. I’d say my mother wrote that poem, I only formed it. My mother tongue is Bono, a dialect of Twi—my dialect is unwritten, only spoken. A few people are pushing for it to be written. I’ve been writing it in some of my poems as a way of rebelling—saying if we care about it enough we will be able to write it, we won’t let it die. I am not the only Ghanaian or African poet doing this, I see many do it & get published in journals within & outside of Africa, this tells us that these poems can occupy spaces that poems entirely in English occupy & maybe these poems may have a higher reach than those solely in English, there’s always a part for somebody else. All my projects have traces of Bono, at least in some poems, but I have no project solely dedicated to this. I am still not very fluent with the writing of Bono, however, I write pidgin too in some works.

I love pidgin. It is so fluid, so musical like most African languages. Through the writing of language, especially in this age of text and image-based online platforms, maybe we can save languages like Bono from extinction. Your mother must be an influence in your craft? Are there other personalities who have shaped your writing? 

Pidgin is beautiful & I thank my African Studies lecturer for encouraging us to speak, write & develop it—in a multilingual country like Ghana, it is a way of also breaking the barriers of language. When I write, I want to be as critical & honest as Kiese Laymon (I know he would want me to be more than that), I want to be as conscious as Claudia Rankine & I aspire to be as funny as God. I want to know & be as confident as Kwame Dawes. & my friends are some amazing writers who inspire me a lot—Sarpong Kumankoma, Abeiku Arhin Tsiwah, Atsitre Samuel, Barbara Degley, Tryphena Yeboah, Jay Kophy, Abrantipa, Can-Fui Tamakloe, Jakky B-Five, Adedayo Agarau—endless list! & music! 

Pidgin serves the same purpose over here in Nigeria despite the negativity placed on its usage. Music is an integral part of the writing process, as I have come to realise from interactions with writers. What sort of songs do you listen to while you write? 

Man’s afraid of what is not understood & what is strange, I think that’s how pidgin has gained this notoriety. I don’t look at it from the angle of music as part of the writing process, although eventually, I’ll come to the same conclusion—most of what I write at least has some inspiration from my personal life & I’m a big lover of music—all genres, so far as I love the song—so it is not surprising that I listen to music when I’m writing. I’m listening to music all the time, I’m writing all the time—even when I’m not, I’m preparing to. So, I don’t have specific songs I listen to when writing but I do go to certain songs if I feel they have some connection with what I’m writing. 

You let the music dance with your writing flow? I love that. Now let’s go to craft. What is your writing process like? You said you write all the time, even when you are not writing —how long, on an average, would it take for a poem to be suitable for consumption in your eyes? Are there certain themes that are dear to you? I have noticed a preference for civil and social-based themes in your poetry—is this the basis of your poetic expression? 

I often find it difficult to answer the question of ”process” when it comes to my writing. When I say I write all the time, what I mean is my writing is not done only when I sit or lie on my bed but what I see, what I think about, what I smell or feel before putting the words down, without these, there wouldn’t be writings by me. Well, some poems come fully formed & some need time to come into their fullness if that’s possible. Everything I write is a love poem, love for my people, lovers, country, for writing itself. Civil & social-based themes are just what carries some of the poems but they’re all love poems. When I’m writing a poem about the June 3rd disaster, I am writing a love poem to the living, I’m loving them as they live & I’m telling those gone that they didn’t have & all that means is that if someone had done their job, they’d be alive & loving. I am accepting my faults in their going & accepting also that that could’ve been me. I am always working towards love—whatever form it comes. 

A poem written within every breath, every scent, every taste—that is a gift, a beautiful thing. For you then, activism is an expression of love. Aside from the poetry where social issues come to the fore like in your poem, Something is in the Water, where you talk about the absence of the “God of accountability” are you involved in activism in your community? I ask because I notice that your poems reference your community and ethnicity and that shows the love you have for them. 

Activism is an expression of love, rightly! What I can say about myself regarding activism is that I do stand for what I believe in & I also admit that sometimes I fail. I wouldn’t call myself an activist though, I feel people are doing the real work on the frontlines who deserve it more than I, however, I do what I can—& if at a point what I can contribute is a tweet or a retweet or a Facebook post or a poem or some form of education, I offer it. Sometimes the real thing you should be standing against is yourself & that’s what will get the job done. I cannot be an environmental activist, for instance, when I still do the things that make the environment unsafe. I need to stand against myself, my will, my acts & maybe if we all will stand against ourselves when the need be, we’d be at a better place. I think this excerpt of June Jordan’s, tweeted by Aja Monet sums it well–“sometimes I am the terrorist I must disarm.”

Charity begins at home, it is said. I like that you said you stand and sometimes you fail. It is the process of discovery, it seems, that makes it worth it. The poem, Something is in The Water, is a part of your poems forthcoming in The New Generation African Poets Boxset Series, a project by the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF). How did this happen? 

Self-discovery is a journey without end—each day, each minute we discover something new about ourselves, it doesn’t have to be something big, it could just be a scar you never paid attention to. But it is important that when we come to that knowledge, we accept & acknowledge it. Well, that was a journey, haha. I submitted my full-length manuscript to the Sillerman First Book Prize, also a project of APBF, my manuscript was not selected but months later, I received a mail from APBF—it was an invitation to submit a chapbook to The New Generation African Poets Boxset Series. I had about 2 weeks to produce the manuscript. I did the work, I submitted. Months later, it was an acceptance!  

Awesome! Congratulations on this coup, Henneh! The APBF is a big deal. One thing I have learnt in this writing vocation is to not dwell on the rejections. I remember Ernest Ogunyemi tweeting on Twitter recently, that he has had about one hundred rejections in this year already. I was like what! I can’t deal with my twenty plus. Lol. On twitter, I have also read tweets about writers responding to rejection emails in horrendous ways. How did you feel when your Sillerman First Book Prize was rejected? How do you handle rejection mails? 

Haha, thank you! I’m not going to lie, rejections hurt a lot. Like a sting to your ego. I say this because when we send a particular work out, it means we believe in it & we want the world to join us in that belief, so when the response feels otherwise, it hurts. Rejections may not always be about the quality of the work but sometimes you realise the work could have gotten better, after the rejection. The way out is to look at it from a positive perspective. For instance, the Sillerman rejection gave me the chance to pay more attention to the manuscript, read it again with a different eye. I am currently editing it & it is taking a different turn—I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to do these had it been accepted. The funny thing is, I got a rejection from another journal the day I got the New Generation African Poets acceptance for Revolution of the Scavengers. I had a good-good laugh seeing that rejection email. 

Ha! I can relate. I have such moments like that when, while mourning a rejection, an acceptance waddles in with all its weight and enfolds me with joy. You said you had about 2 weeks to get Revolution of the Scavengers ready—is this your average writing pace or was it the pressure of the deadline that made you work faster than may be normal for you? 

I think my work pace is very liberal, there are whole months where I don’t put a word on paper but I conceptualise. Just thinking about what to write. That’s a very significant aspect of my writing. & there are times where it looks like I am always writing. I don’t have a strict work pace but I’d really love to have that. I have friends who know what they’re doing the next second & I really admire that—I, on the other hand, cannot follow a routine religiously—to some extent I live like a child’s painting where it looks like they’re just making spheres that cut across each other. But I think even that kind of living has a pattern that if you look closely you’ll find, even if it is unrecognized, it is still there. & that’s how I will describe my work pace & to some level, my work itself.   

You never get that urgent need to write a verse, as if in letting the line slip your mind, you lose some part of yourself? I ask because I write everyday, even during the periods when I claim to have resigned from writing, even when it is gibberish. It is as if I can’t live without writing now. This brings me to another question; conversation wise, would you rather write to people than speak to them? 

There’s that. I think it happens to everyone where a verse comes to you at a place you’re unlikely to have access to writing materials. For instance some of the most beautiful verses come in the bathroom & often you forget before you leave there—I call them fleeing verses, they don’t come to stay, they pass through—bring you joy & leave. For my friends, I’d rather speak to them than write & even to so many others. It depends on the relationship between us & the distance too. All of that counts. 

Indeed, the lines that have fled me in the bus, bathroom, while at the job, are many and sweet. Fleeing verses are the right words. It is said that art (writing) is part inspiration and part perspiration; what is your editing process like? When do you know that a piece is good enough? Do you have people who help in tasting the piece to see if it is good enough or do you work at it until it satisfies your inner critic? Or do you let inspiration do all the work and leave it for the world to judge its worth? 

I’d say it is a bit of all of these—there are some poems that come fully formed, not much or any edits. & those that take time to form, those that take time to become. I let each become the best of themselves. & the way I look at my work is how I look at my selfies, I select the ones I believe are beautiful, the ones I would fall in love with if I was an other. But I have this understanding that even those selfies will not be loved by all, I accept that—I approach my work in a similar way.  

I believe that you are an active part of the Ghanaian writing community—how do you see the writing coming out of Ghana in recent times? Are there unique voices that make your spirit tremble within Ghana? 

Like Kwame Dawes said, ”They’ll kill you!” It is such an honour to be writing & learning from these writers. I go to Atsitsre Samuel to make sense of our times because his approach to writing is unique, a very insightful fellow. Barbara Degley, will make you question your own writing, she’ll take you to places you never knew existed. Poetra Asantewa (Ama Asantewa Diaka) is an old soul, a source of inspiration & encouragement—she’ll break you & make you—she’ll test your integrity. Can-Fui Tamakloe brings that pidgin vibe from our songs to the page in such a beautiful & humorous way. Jay Kophy, S. Asamoah are some people looking for new ways to outdo themselves all the time, Jo Nketiah comes with the Instapoetry vibes. Awo Twumwa surprises me everyday with each new work she brings out. Tryphena Yeboah!—read everything she writes like you’re reading the scriptures. I go to Moshood & Kwabena Agyare Yeboah for the essays & thinkpieces. Abeiku Arhin Tsiwah is always ahead of his times & Sarpong Kumankoma will make you feel the presence of the old poets & these are the poets that raised me. Clifford Oppong Benjamin, that’s a smart writer—he knows his business. Robert Asampong, Henrietta Enam, Cyril Oswin, Sarah Toseafa—endless list—these writers will change you, they’ll question your beliefs & your whole existence. See, I’m not even worthy to speak of these writers & that’s on that. & I’m so fortunate that I get to read some of the works these writers haven’t even published. 

Wow! the list is indeed endless. I find this urge to place grubby hands on their works and devour, the way you say it. It is beautiful the way you celebrate Ghanaian writing. Tell me, what are you reading presently and what books from African authors would you recommend to lovers of books—whether poetry or prose? 

Memento, edited by Adedayo Agarau. How to write my country’s name, curated by the Contemporary Ghanaian Writers Series. I think these two collections are a fair representation of Ghanaian & Nigerian writings. & I love these writers. Currently, I’m not reading a lot of prose, except for those published by journals & mags but I’ll always recommend Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: an American Memoir. Moshood’s prose. Kwabena Agyare Yeboah’s prose. Tryphena Yeboah’s prose. Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu’s prose. Ernest Ogunyemi’s prose. A lot. I didn’t even know I was reading this much prose but these are some very brilliant writers I admire. Adedayo Agarau’s poems. Pamilerin Jacob’s poems. Jide Badmus’ eros. Jay Kophy’s poems. Salawu Olajide’s poems. S. Asamoah’s poems. Henrietta Enam Quarshie’s poems. Atsitsre Samuel’s poems. & every book Claudia Rankine has written is either on my list or I’m already reading. Kwame Opoku Duku’s poems! I am always looking for Nadia Owusu’s new work. Akosua ZAH, Rihanna, M.anifest & Kendrick Lamar, because we need new music. & my writings—poetry, prose & the inbetweens—I look forward to my writings each day!   

You know, you saying that you look forward to your writing gives me relief. It is as if writers rarely consider their writing as part of the work they are reading. It is as if reading is separate from writing when in fact, they go together. What piece of writing, among the many you have published, has wowed you, moved you to your feet with hands over your mouth, trying to stifle your elation? 

I think of a lot of that has to do with trying to be modest, you know, trying not to look/sound proud. & the truth is, I’m one proud one—it’ll be disrespectful to God, the universe, my readers & myself not to be proud of my writings. I would be making a fool of them. It is easy for people to tag you as arrogant for your confidence in your work & your abilities—I am not running from that—I’m embracing it. The works I am most proud of are unpublished. But I have this little personal essay at Agbowó about a heartbreak (not because it is excellent but because I wrote about that, ignoring the fact that I have to act ”hard guy”), Time machine at Tampered Press & my folio at Tupelo Quarterly. Man, I don’t know but I really love these. & this little collection I was writing about one crush & the collection about memory & its loss that got me the invite to submit Revolution of the Scavengers.  

Yes your poem, Time Machine, that is an interesting piece. In that poem you indict the political class as well as the masses for the destruction they cause not just to human lives but also to the environment. These lines caught my attention;

“Also, because all humans can go back to before the oceans were filled with so much plastic & no one complained of climate change. Before whales, turtles & other sea creatures choked on plastic to death.” 

In these times of climate change, weather going awry, can the writer stop at words or is it imperative, that as in other crisis that plague the world—from wars to diseases, from drought to poverty—the job of the writer moves beyond documenting and enters the realm of getting hands dirty in direct confrontation with forces that do not mean well for their community? What I am asking in essence is, do you stop at speaking or are you actively involved, in say, safeguarding the environment especially considering that you are a Public Health worker? 

That’s not the job of only the writer, it is of all humans. We have a responsibility to keep our environments safe—but like I said earlier, I do my best & sometimes I fail—my friends & I during our Uni days used to organize clean up exercises in Hohoe, where we schooled. That was our contribution in one way. Writing is the other way. In Revolution of the Scavengers, there’s a poem that talks about a time I threw an orange by the side of the street after sucking—that was a failing—a woman called me out, I picked it up—I corrected my wrong. I put that orange there because I knew it would be swept but that doesn’t justify what I did. Like you rightly said, it is not just the political class, it is all of us. We’re the ones that become the political class. Yes, they should provide means of disposing waste but also we should be disciplined enough to not litter around. 

That can be embarrassing, being called out like that.

It was, but didn’t I deserve it? 

Hahaha… You certainly deserved it…just as you also deserve the recognition you have been receiving for your writing. Do you have any words for poets yet to discover themselves, for writers still unsure of their potential, those yet to publish?

My brothers & sisters. Let us read. Let us write. Let us learn. Let us do the work—the rest will rise in place. Also. I believe in you & you should too! Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with me to share with our Praxis readers. It has been a pleasure getting to know the person behind the poems!

Thank you for having me.

Osahon Oka is a Correspondent for Praxis Magazine Online. His writings are on literary spaces like The Friday Influence, Grotesque, African Writer, Kikwetu, et cetera. His collection of short fiction, The Sin Chronicles and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Praxis Books.

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