Editorial: Out of Africa by Robert Archambeau
“Look for the contradictions of culture in artifacts of the everyday” chants the cultural studies crowd as it clings to its fifteen minutes of academic prestige. I’m the first to admit that the sound of associate professors chanting in unison tends to make me as nervous as the pith-helmeted explorer in a 40s B movie who breaks into a sweat when distant drums indicate that the natives are restless. But when I read Charles Cantalupo’s postcard from Eritrea a few months ago, the droned mantra of the cult-studs professoriate suddenly seemed like good advice.
On one side of the postcard were a few tantalizing sentences about an enormous poetry festival held in Asmara, the capital of Africa’s newest nation-state. The festival, Cantalupo indicated, centered around the idea that African literature must be written in African languages (“The Word from Asmara,” his essay in this issue, gives an account of the conference and its proceedings). The meeting in Asmara, I read, aimed to defend local cultures, and to resist the allure of international cultural norms defined, essentially, by the West. The flip side of the postcard, though, showed pictures of resort hotels in the International Style, with captions written in Italian. A defense of the local; the persistence of the colonial; the tourist economics of the new world order; and the architecture of universal modernity. The contradictions of a culture in an artifact of the everyday.
When I spoke to Cantalupo about the Asmara festival, I was struck by the complexity of African poets’ linguistic situation (a situation in some ways similar to that of Indian poets, as Karni Pal Bhati’s “The Word from India” in the present issue makes clear). But I was even more struck by the vitality and immediacy of the African poet’s relation to community. The image Cantalupo conjured of a crowd of thousands gathered in an outdoor amphitheater to hear poets recite their work is utterly alien to the American experience of poetry readings.
When I looked into the poetry itself, I found a similarly alien sense of immediate community. Reesom Haile’s poem “Believe it or Not,” for example (published in this issue in English translation), begins by speaking of an “us” that is clearly a national community. This in itself is something we’ve seen before, especially in the poetry of Eastern Europe, which often speaks of national concerns in the dry, laconic manner that we find in the first five stanzas of Haile’s poem. But when we go on to read lines like “Defenders of our land / I stand with you” we find ourselves confronting a patriotic apostrophe that could more easily have been written by a Romantic of the last century than a contemporary American poet.
My first reaction to the powerful sense of community we see in the Asmara festival and the poetry of Reesom Haile is one of envy. Visions of an anemic, exhausted West, in which the words “poetry” and “community” can hardly be used in the same sentence without some sense of embarrassment, come to mind. But at some level this reaction is surely a left-over piece of what those droning cultural studies profs would call imperial discourse. The idea of Africa as the source of a vitality uncomplicated by the world-weary jadedness of the West is as old as the colonialism it helped support, and as much a simplification as those 40s B movies, with their restless natives and pith-helmeted explorers.
The idea that Western poets no longer engage with community is certainly another simplification. The engagement, though, often comes in forms quite different from what we see in poems like Haile’s. Charles Bernstein got it right, I think, when he wrote that “poetry explores the constitution of public space as much as representing already formed constituencies; risks its audience as often as assumes it; refuses to speak for anyone as much as fronting for a self, group, people or species.” Frank Rogaczewski’s “Just Put That Down Anywhere” from this issue of Samizdat seems to me to open with exactly the sort of exploration Bernstein has in mind:
I’m at the cash machine thinking
in the privacy of my own
brain I like to move
the furniture around – see if the walnut
armoire looks better in the front
-al lobe or the cerebellum. Don’t
worry though. I’m a good citizen,
a productive member of society and an
avid consumer – regular denizen of
Whole Foods, Crate and Barrel.
Placing poets as different as Haile and Rogaczewski side by side is another way of carrying on Samizdat’s primary project: letting the possibilities of poetry encounter one another.