Jack Mapanje is a Malawian poet, writer, and academic. His publications include Of Chameleons and Gods (Heinemann 1981), The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe 2004), and Beasts of Nalunga (Bloodaxe 2007).
He was imprisoned unlawfully by the dictator Hastings Banda for nearly four years between 1987 and 1991. A memoir based on these experiences – And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night – was published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing in 2011.
His most recent poetry collection Greetings from Grandpa was published by Bloodaxe earlier this year.
Hi Jack. I hope you are well. Congratulations on your latest collection Greetings from Grandpa. The book contains personal poems about your family as well as poems which are more overtly political, conveying a sense of the here-and-now and how history continues to unfold in front of our eyes. How important do you think it is that poetry engages with the political sphere?
Thank you. The present political environment touches the lives of everyone, poets included. We can no longer pretend that the majority of the people on earth are not suffering, wherever you look. Gangs of mindless individuals indiscriminately kill lots of people; some people are destroyed by natural disasters; all of them are crying out for hope.
The world has lost it head; it is too inward looking; too many people are interested in the self; very few care about others. The huge gap that exists between the rich and the poor of the world is not illusory; it is not self-deception. It is necessary, therefore, that poetry engages with these issues, if only to draw attention to the catastrophic and precarious state of our existence.
The book closes with your version of Kalikalanje, a well-known legend among the Yao speaking African peoples of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about the process of putting together your own version and what you feel it is that makes the myth so apposite in our current times?
The story of Kalikalanje is the story of a trickster; everybody wants to get rid of Kalikalanje because he stands for truth and justice, although he has not done anybody any wrong. Kalikalanje himself knows in advance his enemies’ plot to want to get rid of him.
I gathered the various versions of the tale found in the three countries, tidied up its rough bits and reconstructed it so that all attempts to kill the protagonist come to naught; in the end compunction, love and justice triumph over evil, which is the theme of most narratives in the collection.
You mentioned in a past interview that during your four years of imprisonment in Mikuyu prison under Hasting Banda’s regime you began composing poems mentally for the simple reason that you had no access to a pen or paper. How long do poems tend to germinate for in your head before you commit them to paper and are they fully-formed at this stage or do you normally go through a number of written re-drafts?
Some poems take minutes to germinate in the head and to finally appear on the page, others take years.
During my imprisonment I composed each poem and saved it in my head as one saves a scroll; after about three and a half years entire scrolls were erased from memory, only the titles remained in the head.
When I was released from prison I recovered from memory most of twenty-five titles and redrafted their scrolls from the titles. When I was reading in Vienna several years ago, I remembered one title, I stopped the reading, took down the title I had remembered, and continued with the reading.
There are still one or two titles that I have yet to recover from memory, I think.
There is a sense that the narratives and stories you weave into your poetry are drawing upon the strong oral traditions of Africa and your home country of Malawi. Just how integral do you feel this tradition has been in shaping your understanding of the world and do you see it as a way of continuing to connect with your roots, even in exile?
The world is a series of images and symbols which we constantly reshape and string together to make sense of our situation. This is the tradition I learnt from my mother when she told us stories at the fireside. She looped images, symbols and scenarios together to compose the tales for us.
You will notice my poems are sometime repeated cycles of rhythms, which end on a punch line. Life is full of cyclic rhythms, which spiral towards some terminal point without the spirals meeting in the process.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I submit ‘Grandpa Travelling Again?’ from Greetings from Grandpa because it epitomizes the cyclic rhythms that I discussed above. It is, in a kind of way, one long sentence that ends by reversing the “once upon a time” folklore tradition.
It is a miracle how we survive exiles in our disparate freezing diasporas; to survive our epic journeys we must often ignore the many vipers that stand in the way of our adventures; we are often like tenants on the farms of the world’s invisible despots; there are many who refuse to hear our story; but we must ignore these and move on, leaving “footprints” not “lips”, wherever we go.
There is more to the poem than this, of course; after all the collection is about musings with my grandchildren who have made our lives in the diaspora worthwhile.
Grandpa Travelling Again?
On the road again;
this time bound for
sands of the Sahara
to hunt wild kudu
where lions roam
among the gazelle;
indeed, twenty grey
years in one freezing
mire was a miracle;
and son, to become
a true tenant on this
global farm you call
home, do not botch it;
do not fear, do not fight,
above all do not mock
men or the freckled
who block your way
draped in vipers on
your epic adventures;
wring every dewdrop
of their wisdom and
leave footprints not
lips there, as the sages
said, once upon a time.