Laura M Kaminski (Halima Ayuba) grew up in Bambur, Jos, and Yola, Nigeria (mostly in Jos). She is an Associate Editor at the online journal Right Hand Pointing, and the author of two previous poetry collections (Considering Luminescence and last penny the sun), as well as three chapbooks (Returning to Awe, And Yes, I Dance and Answering the Cuttlefish).
Dance Here is her third poetry collection, and the first one published in Nigeria. It includes and a section of elegies / grief songs for victims of violence, particularly in Jos, Maiduguri, Baga, and Chibok. All royalties from the first edition are staying in Nigeria in support of projects for children: feeding, literacy, acts of kindness to orphans in IDP camps and elsewhere.
Wale: Can you tell me a little about yourself?
Laura: I think if I were able to speak about myself comfortably and coherently, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to write poetry. But I’ll try to expand on the brief lines I usually use for my bio statement.
I spent my childhood in northern Nigeria, the earliest years in Bambur, and then to boarding school in Jos. While I was in primary school, my parents were re-assigned to work in Yola, and I spent a year living with them there, and then back to Jos. I still think of Nigeria as home, and still do much of my thinking and journal-writing and first drafts of poetry in Hausa or a mix of Hausa and English. I studied at university for some years in New Orleans, then moved to Arizona and started working in data processing. I met my husband in Phoenix in 1995, and in 1998 we got married and moved up to the mountains in northern Arizona – the high desert plateaus, dry air, sparse vegetation, red dirt, and cool weather helped offset my homesickness for J-town a little bit.
The area of northern Arizona where we lived was very remote: no telephone service, no television service, no mail delivery, four miles from the nearest year-around neighbors, 22 miles to the nearest town with the post office box and the gasoline station. My husband provided our power with solar and wind, and our “living room” was a table and chairs and fire-pit outside. I rented a room in the town to use as an office, and telecommuted from there for my job in Phoenix until 2003, when I had to take early retirement due to progressive physical disability. After that, we moved from Arizona to an extremely rural area of south-central Missouri, where there is still no television or cell phone service, but there is a rural electric co-operative that provides power, and there is mail delivery.
We are still some distance from the nearest town though, and the nearest proper bookstore is in St. Louis, about a hundred miles away. I am mostly home-bound, so the majority of my reading material arrives through the post or via courier. I just received a package from AMAB Books in Minna with the 2015 Association of Nigerian Authors anthology and a selection of other books I’ve been hungry to read.
Wale: What do you want your poetry to achieve? Do you even want your readers to view your poetry in a particular way?
Laura: I don’t know that I think of my poetry as “mine” really…it is more a single strand woven on top of the foundation of all the other writers, past and present, whose works have enriched my life, expanded my horizons by introducing me to concepts and creatures I did not know, encouraged me in times of difficulty, brought me comfort and healing in times of grief, given me words for things I had no language to express, given me courage to speak out rather than remaining silent, and filled my days with beauty. It is this sense of poetry as an ongoing conversation that makes me love reading the posts at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa: each day, both he and Luisa A. Igloria post a new poem, and I have found much inspiration there, and am deeply grateful to occasionally be able to contribute something.
If it were not for Temple Cone’s chapbook The Waters Beyond the Ark, I would have never written the poems in Answering the Cuttlefish. If it were not for Michael G. Smith’s No Small Things, I would have never dared to believe the poems in And Yes, I Dance might be of value to anyone. And many of the poems in Considering Luminescence, and most of the ones in Dance Here, are responses to other writing, tributes to other poets, other people. Some of the poems in Dance Here were part of a poetic conversation with amu-nnadi and j.lewis at Creative Thresholds, with accompanying artwork by Robert Rhodes (who is also a poet). I can never pay back the gift of words that all those other writers have given me, all the words on my bookshelf, all the words in online journals and posted on blogs and Facebook.
But I do hope that, by doing my best to write from the heart, I will sometimes be able to write poems that pass on some small part of the gifts that I have received through the works of other writers: the enrichment, expansion, encouragement, comfort, healing, expression, courage, and beauty. Poetry is not just words on paper…it is a conversation, an ongoing song. Each of us has a turn, in turn, to add a stanza, a verse to the universal song, the one long ever-unfolding poem. My turn, your turn…they are fleeting…but when our turns have passed, perhaps we have added something to make the whole more beautiful. Perhaps we have found a way to weave another strand, however small, of compassion and hope and peace into the global poem.
And perhaps present and future readers will find something they need in the words. Whether they find it in my words or yours or someone else’s doesn’t matter so much to me, so long as it is there to be found. So long as it is there, with the invitation to grasp it, and build on it in some small way, to take some action in the world that is meaningful, to take up the refrain of human resilience and compassion with new words, other voices after us.
Wale: Let us talk about your latest book Dance Here. I have read the book and I like the relationship the poems share with each other, Nigeria and world. The writing of the poems and the choice of publishing it in Nigeria,are they both attempts to join ‘ongoing conversations’ at ‘home’? Reaching the right audience may be a major factor in making the decision of publishing the book in Nigeria but from a reader’s side, I prefer relating the poems to issues around the world. Which was your priority, reaching the world or reaching Nigeria? Was there even a ‘priority’ at all?
Laura: Good question. Certainly I think the decision to publish the first edition of Dance Here in Nigeria was, in part, about a sense of homecoming. It is a journey I can no longer make in person, and I am grateful these poems have been able to do so on my behalf. But let me say something I’ve found interesting about becoming increasingly home-bound: my ability to travel outside the house has become increasingly limited, more and more of the world becomes physically inaccessible. In that sense, Jos is no further away for me now than San Francisco, Yola than Phoenix, Zaria than Cincinnati, Minna than Birmingham. I have this idea that books and poems are the only way to bridge these distances. “Conveying the Blessing” (which was first published at John Murphy’s UK-based journal The Lake, and nominated for a Pushcart) explores this idea of bridging and crossing.
The title poem for the collection was also first published at The Lake; it is also about crossing and bridging, one of two in the collection about being newly arrived in the US from Nigeria. (The other is “loved, further, crackles” which was first published at Uut Poetry, and received recognition in the Uut Poetry / What 3 Words competition in 2014.) But the poem “Dance Here” was written in response to a poem by a Canadian poet and friend, Irfaan Ihsan Jaffer. And I struggled in the writing of “loved, further, crackles” and would never have finished it if I had not been inspired and encouraged by Dale Wisely and Howie Good.
As far as reaching an audience, 25 of the poems in Dance Here first appeared in journals based in the US, 6 in the UK, and 2 in Nigeria. Whenever possible, I do try to submit to online journals just because they do tend to be accessible to a more global community of readers. I don’t think the content of the poems, whether they are about childhood, or are elegies in response to atrocities, makes them intrinsically more “accessible” or “important” to Nigerian readers as compared to readers from anywhere else on the planet. Someone who grew up in Canada or Minnesota has probably never played “cashew-die” – but I read poems from other poets about fighting with snowballs, and don’t feel unequipped to understand those, even though I threw cashews instead of snow as a child. Children anywhere, given half a chance, will be children.
But the same is true for adults. When I write of injustice and grief and loss, of prayer, of resilience, of daring to speak and daring to hope – those things are likewise not limited in audience. Dance Here contains a tribute-poem in honor of poet Hashem Shaabani who was executed in Iran in January 2014. It contains a tribute-poem for the UK-based poet Peter Street, who served as a war poet in Croatia and whose words and friendship helped me through when I was devastated by losses to Boko Haram in Nigeria. It contains a poem regarding accessibility to clean water. Or justice. Or both. And it contains a poem written after I spent grocery-money buying Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s short story collection. The only tribe you have to be part of to understand such things is human. Not only do these issues happen all around the globe, any loss and injustice diminishes us, no matter where it takes place, where we are from, or where we reside.
From a practical sense, though, the first edition of Dance Here was really published in Nigeria because the royalties from those poems belong in Nigeria, to help feed and provide educational opportunities for children who have been orphaned and/or displaced as a result of extremist violence and poverty. Ehizogie Iyeomoan and I are working together to try to do what we can where we can. I am here. He is there. The royalties from the Nigeria publication of Dance Here go to him. For Thinking Tomorrow. For a bowl of hope. Because I believe that every bowl of food, every lesson toward literacy, makes a child just a little less likely to be coerced into becoming bomb-fodder.
So I pray for the day when violence is more distant, when a child might again reach the age of five without recognizing the sound of a gunshot. I hold out hope for the day when the only war a child anywhere knows is snowball fight or cashew-die. In the words of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: “May our songs bring an end to the dying.”
Wale: ‘words are / the eggs of poems / and I hide them / in my heart / and in that dark / they warm…until they hatch / and come out of my throat / one behind another’. Those lines are from ‘incubation’, one of the many poems I enjoyed in ‘Dance Here’. Does every poem you write pass through the ‘incubation’ process? Can you describe your writing process?
Laura: My writing process is rather different now than it was at first. I used to try to write every day. During the past yearthough, my usual process has been more like trying to hold my breath; I make entries in my journal, but try to wait until I can no longer not write a poem, can no longer not breathe in again.
So it is a kind of incubation process now, and I wrote that poem shortly after I realized my personal practice had shifted from trying to write to trying to wait, wait until something I read or hear or see touches me so deeply I have no other way to process it except to write. Sometimes I think of it like waiting for my turn in a conversation, trying to listen to the world and the other voices in it without interrupting as much.
Wale: Interesting. Do you have any formal education in writing or literature?
Laura: Some, but I left university in my final year, before graduating, and never went back. I did take several literature classes while I was at school, but they were at a ratio of maybe one literature to two classes in sciences – hard sciences, social sciences, environmental sciences, and computer science. Also linguistics, ethics, statistics, comparative religious studies, art, and philosophy. I didn’t finish university, but I enjoyed the process of learning, and of learning how to learn, while I was there.
The two favorite things I studied in literature classes were Beowulf and Maxine Hong Kingston’s amazing work of creative nonfiction The Woman Warrior. Poetry. Recitation. Rhythm. Alliteration. Translation. And transition, cultural exploration, personal inquisition and reflection and affirmation. All just in those two books. There were other books, but those were the most stunning and memorable by far, and the ones I have returned to most often.
I do read extensively across genres, time periods and cultures, and remain regularly grateful to the translators who make that possible. It lets me extend my reading beyond the languages in which I have sufficient vocabulary to read. Translators are the unsung heroes, I think. Bridge-builders and facilitators whose names are not lauded enough.
Wale: Can you tell me the story behind the poem ‘Failed Conversation with the Owner of the rig’? I am curious.
Laura: I’d love to give the “easy answer” to this question, and say it is about access to drinkable water, but that’s not really the story behind it.
It began when I was trying to come to terms with the prevalence and evidence of racism in this country, how despite the ideal of blind (color-blind) justice, the realistic expectation of how any given interaction with law enforcement and the justice system is going to turn out has much more to do with skin-color than perhaps any other one variable. Frequency of police brutality and huge disparities in incarceration rates based on race are more than enough reason for people of color to view the US law enforcement and legal system as threats instead of protection. And racism isn’t evidenced only in the legal system, but that is perhaps the place where it is most terrifying, because if justice isn’t impartial to skin-color, then there is no means to address discrimination and hate-crimes that take place in other venues, no safe mechanism to petition for protection.
And while racism is probably the most blatantly obvious discrimination, other groups, also, suffer hate-based discrimination and violence and ill-treatment, whether due to religious preferences, gender / gender identification / sexual preference, ethnic origins, economic status, disabilities, housed or homeless…the list seems to go on. So the poem began as an attempt to explore how and why our global realities seem to differ so very much from our professed ideals – as members of nations, as practitioners of belief systems, as members of a species.
I was trying to get to a place of personal understanding beyond the easy answer: that some people are narrow-minded, that some people are raised in an atmosphere that says “we have more intrinsic value than other people” – that for them, perhaps, “love your neighbor as yourself” only applies to actual “neighbors”: people of the same color, faith, sexual orientation, and economic status that live nearby and probably share common traits, experiences, and values. How can I grasp that idea, the one that says “our sort of people” – whether the grouping be divided based on ethnicity or faith-profession or bank balance or education – are entitled to certain securities, dignities that other people, different-than-us people, are not? Who on this planet counts as family?
There is perhaps something of the “know your enemy” in this attempt – and also something of “the enemy is us.” Because the moment I sweep away, dismiss the experience of those people who operate, for whatever reason, from a position of entitlement – the moment I condemn them for being unwilling to accord compassion and dignity to those unlike themselves, I am guilty of the same— I am guilty of saying that somehow they are less human than people who are more “kin” to me, people with whom I share a wider range of common experiences and perspectives and values.
So I wrote about water. Access to safe drinking water is critical to human life – I understand this deeply, I grew up where clean water wasn’t readily available to everyone, where people risked (and died from) cholera and other such diseases due to lack of access. And I find that I believe dignity and equality and justice are likewise critical requirements. (When I was finalizing the poem, I noticed that the word justice found its way into the final line where I thought I’d written water; I left it there.) So perhaps I was able to articulate and document the search for understandingand the understanding I found in some way in the poem. Although I wish I knew how to translate better comprehension to more universal access, the poem reflects that.
Wale: What are your thoughts on the ongoing Boko Haram onslaught in Northern Nigeria? You grew up in Bambur, Yola and Jos, if you have the chance to visit Nigeria anytime soon, will you choose to live there?
Laura: If I were able to travel, I would certainly visit Nigeria – it breaks my heart that I am physically unable to do so. But perhaps it is a blessing. You see, I am married to a good man, and have been for more than 17 years, and my mother is also here in the US, and my husband’s brothers, and my nieces and nephew. I have a family here, and the associated obligations. But I also feel family connections to people in Nigeria. If I could travel, I’m afraid I would be terribly torn between the two. I would want to be home for every birth, every feast, every memorial, every wedding, every book release. I would want to arrive during the dry season, stay until harmattan chilled me and I could taste the Sahara in the air with my tongue again. I would want to be there in time to see the buds form on the flame tree, promising the coming of the rains. I would want to be there to see those blossoms unfurl, see the leaves emerge. But I miss home. That isn’t news to anyone who has read my poetry. I’m afraid that’s a recurring theme. Perhaps it is better to not have the ability to travel. I would be torn, would be all the time wanting to go back and forth.
As for the ongoing Boko Haram onslaught, I have to put those thoughts into poems. I cannot contain them or express them adequately otherwise. There was violence in Nigeria before Boko Haram. There were the Yan Tatsine. There have been conflicts, whether the dividing lines have been drawn according to ethnicity or religious preference or political party or territory. I ache to be able to do something that helps to heal, to mend. But extremism and terrorism and divisiveness and atrocity and homelessness and displacement and poverty are not limited to any one country; hate-crime and oppression, violence and injustice are not limited to certain eras or certain nations, and are not even confined to centuries or borders.
There are those who blame religion, who say that it is religious fervor that creates such conflicts, that we would be better without all such books and creeds, because it is religion at the root of violence. But even before the monotheist faiths emerged, there were other pantheons, and different cultures had their gods of war. I think it’s interesting to look at Wikipedia, it being something of an internet-age repository of what cultural history people with internet access think is worth entering, recording, preserving. Wikipedia has 168 pages of war deities – “war gods” and “war goddesses” – ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-EIGHT. And how many pages of peace deities? 10. Just ten. As a species, we appear to have plenty of growing room in that direction, enough that perhaps even one home-bound woman in a corner room with pen and paper can actually make some small difference somewhere with a poem. But my voice, my poetry, is not what is most important. What matters is that I am not isolated in the conviction that it’s much too late for such divisions, that mine is not the only voice that’s speaking out.
We are living in a different world, but it is not the prevalence of violence and oppression and injustice that is different. The human story, no matter who is doing the telling, seems to be filled with this as far back as our species has kept records, made scratches on the walls of our caves. But for twenty-five years now, we’ve also had a growing interconnection, a growing capacity for global communication, a means for people who still hope for something other than war to gather. For the first time in human history, we have the opportunity for organizations like PEN International and 100,000 Poets for Change and Dance Anywhere. Voices for equality, diversity rather than division, celebration rather than oppression, have the opportunity to work toward harmony, work together as part of a global community. There have been world wars, and even outside the wars so labeled, there has always been war. We haven’t yet had an era we can label the First World Peace.
So, I think what’s mine to do is whatever I am able, from this corner room where I now find myself, and not use confinement as an excuse for non-participation, not say I cannot travel to Nigeria to cook food for street-children as part of the Thinking Tomorrow project and so therefore my disabilities absolve me from the responsibility to do what I can. So far as a species we’ve gone from being a greedy little monkey with a rock to a greedy little monkey with a gun. I can’t change anyone but me, but for me I want to shed the greedy – I’m still a little monkey, but I can choose not to hide behind a weapon, but instead try to extend a hand, write a poem, and share a bowl of hope.
So just here, just today, I am choosing to step out of step with history, saying no more conquest, only quest. If we are ever to become fully human, we need new dances. And for this dance, it doesn’t matter so much where it begins, as long as the dancing happens.
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