23 January 2009

little pleasures in hard times

I got some very pleasant news towards the end of last year: two new collections were released by two poets I consider some of the strongest voices writing today: Syl Cheney-Coker (Sierra Leone) and Niyi Osundare (Nigeria). Not old lions, they're no spring chickens either; and while they've each misfired at times, I am quick to scoop up any of their work that I can.

What makes it all particularly gratifiying is the struggles that I know both of them had to push through in order to see these latest collections in print.

The works in question, by the way, are Days by Osundare and Stone Child and Other Poems by Cheney-Coker. Both are published by Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria and distributed outside Africa by the African Books Collective. I'll come back to the latter in a bit...

Osundare splits his time between New Orleans and Ibadan and lost everything when Hurricane Katrina surged through the Big Easy. He tells a terrible tale of he and his wife breaking through the roof of their houses to escape the floodwaters. Escaping with their lives, thankfully, but nothing else. To see this collection is gratifying to say the least.
Addendum: I was under the (mistaken) impression that Days was Osundare's first post-Katrina collection. I was wrong. I just discovered -- and have ordered -- his collection, Tender Moments. Love Poems (2006), and am even more intrigued and anxious to dive in, though I've always felt Osundare's being "widely regarded as a political poet," though not untrue nor mis-stated, is a distressingly simplistic and narrow reading of his work (5 February 2009).
I've seen a number of iterations of Cheney-Coker's collection in manuscript and know what a struggle it has been to see it into print. And in case there are any doubts about it, Cheney-Coker closes out his opening "A Poet's Note" with "And these are the final, edited versions" -- I am glad that he can finally write that line. It's not been merely wrestling with the publishing industry that has weighed on Cheney-Coker, but I'll leave that to his poems, to him, and to his biographer...

Needless to say, seeing any of his work in print is a cause of celebration (and reading): unlike Osundare who publishes regularly (though one worried, for sure, not just for him but the prospect of future works following Katrina), Cheney-Coker's last book, The Blood in the Desert's Eyes, came out in 1991.

You'll read more when I read more -- which should be in relatively short order. And both will, of course, be scoured for entries in The Best African Poetry 2009.

And one quick return (as promised): the African Books Collective is an exceptional and, I think, sorely underutilized resource. ABC is a consortium of African publishers charged with growing the profile of African publishing and distributing works worldwide (across just about all scholarly fields and genres). Yet never once in my graduate student career (and it was a long one) do I recall being assigned a book that was published by an ABC member publisher. I don't think that's unusual. For all that we lament about the state of African publishing and the difficulty of securing books published in Africa; and (in the literary field for sure) for as much as we rail against the choking grip of Euro-American publishers and distributors, there are few of us who do anything, even little things, about it.

Take a look at ABC's catalog. Buy Cheney-Coker's and Osundare's latest and read along with me. Or...

Well, baby steps. It seems almost self-indulgent to think of reading, my reading, as making a difference. But the hope is that in some small way it will. Join me. Read, listen, discuss. Little pleasures in hard times.

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