20 promising contemporary Kenyan Poets redefining the art form

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The year is 2016 and many Kenyans still site Caroline Nderitu as the only Kenyan Poet they know. Well, with the rise of blogs, Instagram & Facebook, many previously unknown Kenyan creative writers have risen to the fore with many not giving up hope despite numerous declines from Kenyan publishing firms.

Lets be honest, publishers are not in it for the charity. I worked for one of the most renown publishing firms in Africa for 7 years and  I fully appreciate the delicate balance they have to maintain remaining afloat and still publishing in categories such as poetry and plays despite very little in sales. Blogs have become the alternate publishing platform for most poets all over the world and not just in Kenya.

Kwani Trust will soon be publishing an anthology of poetry from some of the poets that will feature on this list. The book is expected later in the year and yours truly has contributed some of her work on that anthology.

This exhaustive list was sent to me by Lorna Njeri, a budding poet, writer and obsessed reader. I hope this list comes in handy when a discussion on Kenyan poetry comes up and how we are still looking towards Okot P’Bitek or Henry Barlow.

NB: the aspect of poetry performance has not been considered here. Also note that there are more female poets than male poets in this debatable list.

1.MICHELLE ANGWENYI

Mitchelle Angwenyi (of @mkangwenyi) writes poetry and other similar things. Lions are her favourites, but not just them. Read some of her work here

 2.SANYA NOEL LIMA
Sanya Noel Lima (of @Sagnanoel) lives in Nairobi where he works as an Industrial Security Systems Technician. He writes poems (mostly) and short stories, though he sometimes pretends he can do essays. His works have been published in a few spaces here and there, but he rarely gets the time to write nowadays. So he concentrates on doing short random stories and poems about his experiences as he goes around Nairobi. When he isn’t trying to pay his bills (and not writing either), you may find him seated at public parks, most times with a book, definitely alone, at times reading, at times just seated, and of course bothering no one, which is perhaps untrue. He blogs at http://movebreathing.tumblr.com/

 

3.NEO “SINOXOLO” MUSANGI

Neo “Sinoxolo” Musangi (of @SinoxoloMusangi) is a gender non-conforming feminist scholar living between Nairobi, Kenya and Johannesburg, South Africa. Neo is the co-founder and advisor at Iranti-org and is the Humanities Research Fellow at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi. In-between the more conventional academic research writing, Neo writes and performs poetry and blogs at http://www.feministloft.com/


4.TONY ADAM MOCHAMA

Tony Mochama

Tony Mochama (of @TheRealSmitta) is a writer and traveler who lives and works in Nairobi. As a journalist for The Standard newspaper – writing under the pseudonym Smitta Smitten – Mochama is one of the most widely read columnists in Kenya. With his infamous anarchic use of a mixture of different languages, he has for years been documenting and commenting on contemporary urban culture and the city life of Nairobi. Amongst his publications are a poetry collection What if I’m a Literary Gangster? (2007), a short story anthology, The Road to Eldoret (2009) and a crime noir novella, Princess Adhis & the Naija Coca Broda (2011). He was nominated for the Kenya Chapter of the Burt Awards in 2013.

5.SONYA KASSAM

Sonya Kassam (of @SonyaKassam) has been writing regularly for a while now. Poetry came to her completely, unexpectedly. She suddenly decided she needed to write a poem, yes just like that. Her day job involves working with figures, which makes her even more determined to keep up with her poetry. She writes for herself and she writes for courage, but a little part of her wants to write for her two daughters to one day be proud of her. She blogs at followyourshadow.wordpress.com


6.RICHARD ODUOR ODUKU

Richard Oduor Oduku (of @RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works as a Research Consultant, in Nairobi. He has been published in Kwani? Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja and numerous online portals. He also commentates on topical issues via #MaskaniConversations in the Star Newspaper. He is a Founding member of Jalada Africa – a Pan-African collective and Hisia Zangu – an artists’ society. He is working on a novel and has a forthcoming poetry collection. He is also a serving Board Member on Youth on the Move (YoTM), Kenya – an organization that empowers persons with epilepsy and ensures equal participation in the society through lobby and awareness creation in partnership with stakeholders. He blogs at https://richardoduor.wordpress.com/


7.KEGURO MACHARIA

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Keguro Macharia (of @Keguro_ ) used to write poetry very slowly – at the rate of one poem every six months.  Well, that was then. His tastes are catholic, and range from the most canonical poets (Shakespeare and Donne) to the high modernists (Eliot and Marianne Moore) to poets of the Harlem Renaissance (Hughes and Cullen) to mid-century innovators (O’Hara, Ginsberg, Spicer) to the lyrical breakthroughs of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath and Audre Lorde to the formal experimentation of Susan Howe and Rosemarie Waldrop.  Trained as a literary critic, Keguro is interested in helping to create and promote Kenyan poetry and poetics.  He was the prime mover behind the StoryMoja Festival Poetry Prize.  He blogs at Gukira and his poetry can be found here and here, and at the Koroga Project. Again, it’s https://gukira.wordpress.com/


8.
SHAILJA PATEL

Shailja Patel (of @shailjapatel) is an award-winning poet, playwright, theatre artist, and creator of Migritude. She is author of Migritude I: When Saris Speak, and two collections of poetry: Dreaming In Gujurati, and Shilling Love. Her work has been translated into eight languages. She is 2009 Guest Writer at the Nordic Africa Institute. CNN describes Patel as an artist “who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange.” The Gulf Today (United Arab Emirates) calls her “the poetic equivalent of Arundhati Roy.” Her website is http://www.shailja.com/

9.REDSCAR McODINDO K’OYUGA

Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga (of @RedscarMcOdindo) is an aspiring poet and writer who experiments with words and sound in his subterranean laboratory. Writing in Swahili and English, his work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in SAND Journal (Berlin), Clarion Magazine (Boston), Mandala Journal (Georgia), Jalada, Brittle Paper, Kwani?’s Multiverse: Kenyan Poetry in English Since 2003, Lawino Magazine, EXPOUND, Praxis Magazine, Boda Boda Anthem and Other Poems: A Kampala Poetry Anthology, Best New African Poets 2015 Anthology, and elsewhere. He also contributes to the Swahili poetry pages of Taifa Leo & Taifa Jumapili.


10.ALEXIS TEYIE

Alexis Teyie (of @alexteyie) writes poetry and speculative fiction. She’s an ardent feminist and book-hoarder. She has been published in Jalada.org and elsewhere. She blogs at http://musingsofasoberalex.blogspot.co.ke/

11.CLIFTON GACHAGUA

Clifton Gachagua (of @CliftonGachagua) Kenyan poet, scriptwriter, and editor. He was born and raised in Nairobi and earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical science at Maseno University.

In his poems, Gachagua engages themes of intimacy, betrayal, and shifting landscapes. His debut poetry collection, The Madman at Kilifi (2014), was chosen for the inaugural Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets by the African Poetry Book Fund & Series. In his foreword to the collection, poet Kwame Dawes stated, “Gachagua’s poems are urgently present; they emerge out of sources like the radio, newspaper, television, as well as street stories and rumours. They seek to chart a changing society and while the effort is largely impossible to accomplish, the gesture is important. One of Gachagua’s whimsical speakers describes himself as a “cartographer of water,” and in this Gachagua seems to have found the fit metaphor for his art—quixotic, absurd, and yet necessary.” “Writing poetry […] has been about finding a way to live and sustain my life,” said Gachagua in a 2014 interview with Evan Mwangi for the Standard Digital News (Kenya). “There are certain ways language can make life’s obscurities, pains, and incoherence map-able. That’s always what I’m after.”

Gachagua is a member of the pan-African writing collective Jalada. A writer for the broadcast television shows Sumu La Penzi and Jane & Abel, he lives in Nairobi. He blogs at https://thedrumsofshostakovich.wordpress.com/

 

  1. MAWIYOO NGWATILO

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Mawiyoo Ngwatilo (of @ngwatilo) is a Callaloo Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya. Her recent poems have been published or are forthcoming in Kwani?, Obsidian, and One Throne Magazine; while her non-fiction appears on The New Inquiry and Creative Time Reports. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of the chapbook Blue Mothertongue.  She has has presented her work at major African and European festivals, and is to receive her MFA from the University of British Columbia. Ngwatilo was shortlisted for the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and her latest chapbook, Dagoretti Corner, forms part of the 2016 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set published by Akashic Books in association with the African Poetry Book Fund. For more, see http://creativetimereports.org/author/ngwatilo-mawiyoo/

 

  1. STEPHEN DERWENT PARTINGTON

Stephen Derwent Partington – or SDP – (of @CactusPoet) is a leading New Generation Kenyan poet, who acted for some time as poetry editor for the groundbreaking Kwani, the region’s ‘only literary magazine’.  His work has appeared on Kenyan national radio and the BBC World Service, he has participated at Kenyan festivals, and occasionally (rarely, because of his reclusiveness) reads at poetry events. He been writing weekly light satirical poems in the region’s leading newspaper, The East African, has written journalism for the national press on literature and education, and produces academic articles on East African literature.  Poems have appeared in leading magazines in Kenya, wider Africa and the UK.  A new, chatty, extended and eccentric defence of the New Generation of ‘Vennyan’ Poets appears at the Kwani website.  His published collections are SMS & Face to Face (Phoenix, Kenya) and How to Euthanise a Cactus (the prizewinning Cinnamon Press, UK), which is advertised throughout this website, which he maintains.  Stephen blogs (‘A corrective for Western readers’, as he puts it) at Inpress, and more information about his work can be found on this present website at the page, ‘How to Euthanise a Cactus and SDP’s other writing’.  Details of How to Euthanise a Cactus, and an enquiries and order forms are here, at the Kwani website. SDP’s present ‘likes’ include writers as diverse as Jack Mapanje, Kofi Anyidoho, Alice Oswald, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, R.S.Thomas, Imtiaz Dharker, Togara Muzanenhamo, Bertolt Brecht, Bernard O’Donoghue, Tony Hoagland, Sheenagh Pugh, Fred D’Aguiar and the inimitable John Agard.  Stephen adds: ‘Since about 2005, the new Kenyan poetry has been announcing its birth; we now need to work to be able to announce its maturity’.

 

  1. NYANDUAKI SHEILA OKONGO OMARE

Nyanduaki Sheila lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Statistics from Kenyatta University, and has a great love for words, music, unconventional furniture and open front sweaters. In her early years she wrote book reviews for Young Nation Magazine and in 2005 and 2008 was among the national winners in the Scenarios from Africa Contest. In 2010, Sheila participated in the Young Writers’ project-Nairobi,  an experience that reaffirmed her as a writer. On poetry, she says, ‘I’m mostly drawn to poetry that is simple and that speaks delicately as well as honestly about the human condition.’ Understandably so, she cites two of her favourite poems as  I know a man by Yehuda Amichai and I taught myself to live simply by Anna Akhmatova. She made the BN Poetry Award 2015 shortlist.

 

  1. OLUOCH MADIANG’

Oluoch-Madiang’ (of @African_Owl) (Wuod Nyar G’Otumba Oluoch Madiang’ ,Tat Yien Mating’o Tek…to be exact – whatever it means) is a creative artist and an accomplished teller of truths! Besides being an actor, director and playwright, Madiang’ is a writer of short stories, with Storymoja having published his captivating children’s book ‘In the Land of the Kitchen’. His adults short story, ‘Once Upon Naivasha’ and play, ‘Then We Were Fools No More’ are coming soon. His poetry is potent and he blogs at https://madiang.wordpress.com/

 

  1. SHENIZ JANMOHAMED

Sheniz Janmohamed (of @ShenizJ) is a freelance writer, poet and spoken word artist. She recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at The University of Guelph, and was mentored by GG nominee and National Bestelling author, Janice Kulyk Keefer. Her thesis is a collection of essays and poems reflecting her triune identity as a Canadian, South Asian and Kenyan. She has also completed a manuscript of ghazals in English, and is collaborating with international dub/electronica artists on numerous musical/spoken word projects. She has written for South Asian Living magazine, City Masala Magazine and Anokhi Magazine. She is the President and Founder of Ignite Poets, an spoken word initiative that allows young poets and spoken word artists to work together for peace and partnership. She recently travelled to Kenya to work with Kenyan poets on a collaborative show that raised money for Hawkers Market Girls Centre in the slums of Nairobi. She has performed at various venues across Toronto, including the Strong Words Reading Series, Toronto Poets’ Saturday Night Love, The Mini Shebang High School Tour and Masala! Mehndi! Masti! Her website is http://www.shenizjanmohamed.com

 

  1. MICHAEL ONSANDO

Michael Onsando (of @woozie_m) is one of those rare writers whose work– be it poetry, politics, fiction or non-fiction—hits a standard of perfection which many can only dream of.

Based in Nairobi, his book ‘Something Quite Unlike Myself’ has made waves since its release last year, he describes it as being about ‘being a stranger in your own body. Being a stranger in your own city, your own country. So while the book is much about looking, and failing, to find oneself, it is also about the state of affairs in the country and reconciling the idea that somehow things will get better with the reality that – without any real work from us – they won’t.’

The use of poetry to express the realities of the world around us is almost as old as the tradition of poetry itself, and it is in this that Onsando really excels. There is no topic he does not touch– from political oppression to extra-judicial killings to the words and acts of Kenyan politicians.

Michael Onsando’s style of writing can best be described as innovative, and of everything he has written, the one line which says so much is She asked me about my blistered feet, I asked her about her manicured hands’.

  

  1. NJERI WANGARI

Njeri Wangari (of @NjeriWangari and @KenyanPoet) is a multi-talented Kenyan poet and performer, IT specialist and arts blogger, who recently published the collection Mines & Mind Fields; My Spoken Words. “She is one of the most respected female poets in Nairobi today”, wrote Joseph Ngunjiri in the national press. “Njeri Wangari has a powerful voice, and she knows how to put it to good use. Whenever she takes to the podium to recite a poem, she has her enthusiastic audience applauding all the way.” Njeri’s love for the arts began at an early age through her appreciation of African culture. This, she found to be well expressed in many of the books that she started reading while still young and they have shaped the person she has now become. In 2004 she penned her first poem and two years later she made her first attempt in front of an audience to start performing. She has been running her well-respected blog, www.Kenyanpoet.blogspot.com for years now – a project that she initially started in order to publish her poetry online. It has since grown to incorporate other forms of art as well as host other poets. She has contributed immensely to the promotion of Kenyan Poetry not only on stage but also through the internet through her reviews on art performances and by encouraging up and coming poets to start blogs and eventually share their work through performance. She is currently part of the Global Voices Online, an online portal for citizen journalists, as a writer on African Arts. She cites Langston Hughes, Niki Giovanni, Okot P’Bitek, Maya Angelou as some of her influences. She performs regularly at various poetry spots in Nairobi, as well as at institutions and companies where she is invited from time to time.

 

  1. WANJOHI WA MAKOKHA

Wanjohi wa Makokha is the nom de plume of J. K. S. Makokha, a Kenyan poet and critic. His pseudonym is a combination of the surnames of his maternal and paternal grandfathers. Wanjohi’s debut collection, Nest of Stones: Kenyan Narratives in Verse (Langaa, 2010) has been received warmly by pundits and readers in Kenya, East Africa and the Diaspora. The book memorializes the 2007-2008 Kenyan Crisis. Poems in Nest of Stones are inspired by Post-Election Violence (PEV) incidents and antecedents. Wanjohi has been writing poetry since his years as an undergraduate at Kenyatta University in the late 1990s and early 2000. His second volume of poetry was to appear in 2012. Wanjohi is one of the younger generation Kenyan writers Stephen Derwent Partington has called recently, “the Vennyan Poets”. He admires and is inspired by the works of the following poets, among others: Whitman, Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Eliot, Okigbo, Awoonor, Okot, the Mad Mullah, Muyaka bin Ghassaniy, Abdilatif, Mapanje, Jimale, Micere, Brutus, Shailja and the young Mbizo Chirasha of Zimbabwe. Wanjohi’s poetry has appeared in journals and magazines of creative writing and arts across Africa and abroad. He teaches African, Caribbean and South Asian literatures at the Institute for English Philology, Free University of Berlin, Germany. A committed literary critic, he has edited several new scholarly books on African literary criticism and postcolonialism. These books are available from Amazon, searching “JKS Makokha.” Two reviews of Nest of Stones appear here and here. Wanjohi adds: ‘No poet is an island. We exist in our work because poetry itself and other poets, past, present and future, exist. I believe as Okot did that Mshair ni Ushairi na Watu, or as the Setswana philosophers will have it, Motho ke motho ka batho.’ Samples of his poetry can be read at http://www.warscapes.com/poetry/four-poems-wanjohi-wa-makokha

 

  1. SITAWA NAMWALIE and SHIRU WA WANJIKU
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Sitawa Namwalie


Sitawa Namwalie
(of @SitawaNamwalie) is the author of the successful Cut off my Tongue, her first poetry collection.  Cut off my Tongue was dramatised as a show, which performed to critical acclaim in Kenya and the UK, where it featured at the internationally-famous Hay Festival.  In 2009, Cut off my Tongue received support from the Chanagamoto (an arts fund of the KCDF), which was used to develop the performance aspect of the show.  In 2010, Cut off my Tongue was selected by the Sundance Theatre Lab as one of the first four projects of the East Africa Lab.  In the same year, it received a commendation in the Freedom to Create Prize.  Sitawa is a Kenyan poet and writer who is interested in how Kenyans define themselves in today’s world.  In writing, she finds her expression.  She lives in Nairobi and has worked in the development industry for many years, after graduating from the University of Nairobi with a degree in Botany and Zoology.  She later obtained a Masters in Environment, Science and Technology from Clark University, Massachusetts, USA.  Sitawa is married and has three children.  Her influences include Pushkin, Maya Angelou, Wordsworth, Byron, Jack Mapanje, Shakespeare, Benjamin Zephaniah, Toni Morrison, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka.

 

Shiru wa Wanjiku (of @wanjiru_wanjiku) is yet to know how so good at poetry she is. Stalk Hisia Zangu poetry group and you’ll spot her. She blogs at https://sewntears.wordpress.com/

 

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