What you need to know:
- Prizes in general are important, because they are validating, and introduce us to other talent that we may not have been exposed to before.
- However, I think what’s more important is to write for its own sake, and not for a prize, so as not to lose focus on what’s really important.
- I’m 23, and I don’t know if I’ve always been a poet, but I have been in love with words since I was a child.
Michelle K. Angwenyi is a poet and has been shortlisted for the Brunel African Poetry Prize. She is also currently studying for her Master's degree in Zoology.
She spoke to Nation.co.ke.
How do you feel about prizes, ones that you have been shortlisted for and ones that you think you should have been shortlisted for?
I think that prizes in general are important, because they are validating, and introduce us to other talent that we may not have been exposed to before. However, I think what’s more important is to write for its own sake, and not for a prize, so as not to lose focus on what’s really important – creating your work and making it as good as you can, to your own standards, with your own voice – I think everything else should fall into place after that. And, oh my. I don’t think I’m at a point where there are prizes I think I should have been shortlisted for.
Modesty, all right. Can you define your voice? How do you think you sound when you read yourself?
This is something I ask myself often, ‘what is a voice’? I think it relates to what one is trying to say, and how they say it. For me, I want to talk about moments, micro-moments, memories, micro-memories, and other such small-ish things. When I read myself, what I hear/feel is a lot of liminality, almost purposeful obscurity, but something that necessitates a kind of simplicity if the small is to be present, at all, and not forgotten or brushed away.
I know, I jumped right in. Maybe start with a little intro about yourself. How would you describe yourself, and what you do?
This is always a difficult question to answer! I’m Michelle, and I’m currently doing my master’s in Zoology. I love animals a lot. What else? I love to read too, and play with words. Somewhat related, one of my favourite things in the world is reading strings of nicely arranged words in warm sunshine.
Zoology? Not something you hear every day. I mean there's loving animals, and then there's...a Masters in Zoology. So what happens after that? You'll become an award-winning vet/zoologist who quotes poetry to soothe animals? I love that picture.
That’s the dream! Haha. But in all honesty, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’d love to work in a museum some day and curate all sorts of natural history exhibitions. I’m also trying to think through creating a nice little corner I could sit in that comes at the confluence of creative writing and more of the science-y stuff, and to figure this out would be a dream come true.
Who are you reading right now? Who in the country and on the continent do you love?
I’m currently trying to read a couple of things right now, but I want to focus my attention on Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons very soon. I’ve also recently discovered a new poet, Nikola Madzirov, and I’m about to start on his collection, Remnants of Another Age.
I love a lot of people’s writing, it’s so hard to choose! But off the top of my head, right now in Kenya, I’m incredibly fascinated by Kamwangi Njue’s writing. On the continent, I’d say that would be Yvonne Vera, who I binge read towards the end of last year.
Also, Nadifa Mohamed, how she navigates harsh things with so much tenderness. And Kechi Nomu. Wow. I love her poetry. Also going back a little, there’s Kojo Laing, who a friend introduced me to. His writing is so wild and weird and wonderful.
That sound like quite a list. I've always found Ayi Kwei Armah dense, which could be interpreted to mean difficult, but more like, needing of more, let's say, concentration.
His writing is dense! I’ve had that book lying around since October last year trying to get past the inertia that came with the first page. His stylistic strategies are not easy to wrap my head around.
What book do you want to read next?
I’ve got a tonne of books I want to read next! I think at the top of this pile is Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. I’ve heard so many great things about it, and I really love Akwaeke. They’re a fun, fresh voice.
I love that you changed the pronoun. Is this a declaration of where you stand on respect and humanity as well?
Yes! I think it’s a matter of respect to acknowledge people’s identities, whether we understand them or not, and make the empathetic effort to learn, in spite of all the conditioning we’ve been through that limits the ways in which we look at the world.
What do you think defines your writing process? And do you wake up in the middle of the night sweating because you're not done or you think something could be better?
My writing process is incredibly disorganised, to the extent that I think it would be untrue to call it a process. Maybe the chaos is what defines it!
But yes, there are times when I’m just about to fall asleep, and a line of writing comes to me, and I have to put it down before it disappears. There are also pieces that I go back to, many many times, and keep editing and re-editing and pinning and tucking, but still will never be satisfied with.
Writers are really their own worst critics. But do you hate editors, sometimes? Editing? Killing all the darlings?
They scare me! I’m always afraid they’ll think the things I’m most proud of are rubbish. But they can also be a writer’s biggest cheerleader, if you are lucky enough to get one who can make your work even more of what you would like it to be. That’s a lot better than sweating over details on your own.
How old are you? Have you always been a poet?
I’m 23, and I don’t know if I’ve always been a poet, but I have been in love with words since I was a child.
What's next? No pressure...
I’ve got no idea what’s next, but I would very much like for there to be at least a cat or two and plenty of sunshine and flowers and birds.
BY THE BOOK is a literary series that covers authors, bloggers, actors, academics and poets of note in the African continent. For comments or inquiries, e-mail: [email protected]