15 October 2011

Colonized, not conquered, tongues

In my Creole Poetics class this week, we discussed Caribbean poet and scholar Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s “Nation Language.” In essence – colonized people, who’ve had to assimilate to and be taught in the language of the colonizer – need a more natural form of expression. Part of independence, part of forging a national identity and establishing roots, was valorizing that language. Making poetry in the diction and rhythm of that language – iambic pentameter, for example, is not native to Barbados. (Is it actually natural to English? debatable).

I’ve seen this in Cameroon – French is, technically, my first language, but for the first few weeks in country, my “French” was translated into “French.” As I now call it, that’s French-French to Cameroonian-French. I was incomprehensible. I understood what was being said to me, or I thought I did. In time, I changed – I had to. It’s the inflection, the diction, the choice of words, the syntax, the prosody, the sentence length, word order, ways to get attention, non-verbal sounds to punctuate phrases…
It’s not the same language.
I see it now as general, amorphous “French” for the basic structure – and there’s the French-French, the Cameroonian-French, the Senegalese-French, the Malagasy-French . . . they’re all different.
(And why shouldn’t they be? It’s obvious enough for Belgium and Québec).
But Africa was colonized.

The marks are there. Senegal was more closely held for longer – the French is closer to French-French in accent. Cameroon got passed over from Germany. French is different – the culture, too, is different.

And then there’s Anglophone – as PCVs, we defined at least three (basic) languages in the Anglophone (previously British-held) provinces of Northwest and Southwest. “Grammar” is the “Queen’s English,” or so they say. (Grammar – reductive; it’s language without culture or any social attachments. Pejorative? True? The way English was taught in former colonies (and is still), it’s the generic, over-arching Language. This Is. How could something so authoritative have meaning to real people, terre-à-terre?)
Anglophone. Not quite grammar, or – it is “grammar”, but we call it something else. English? No. That’s British-English. “Anglophone” is, like Cameroonian-French, related to accent, inflection, diction, syntax, vocabulary… it’s neither British nor American English nor any other Western form. We Americans were not always well-understood speaking American English.
So what did we do?
We spoke Anglophone.
(And many volunteers who lived in the NW and SW learned and spoke pidgin, as well as other local languages – as a visitor to the Anglophone regions from my own francophone province, I didn’t go further than Anglophone and a few phrases in pidgin).

It’s reflexive, now.
This is what we do.

The Vegetarian Carnivore - Rhumsiki, Cameroun

06 October 2011

Who wants to be a poet, anyway?

The delay is that – well – since writing is so much of what I do, now, it’s neither escapist nor explanatory nor therapeutic/exploratory to write about, all the time. But it returns, now.
*other poets may disagree. That’s fine. This is my experience. I'm envious, perhaps, and/or admiring of - in awe of - those who are so dedicated to this as I am to no one thing.

The first poem I remember is from second grade.
Poem that I wrote.

I was a better poet then than for the approximately ten years after that –
because I didn’t know, yet, what poetry was. What poetry was “supposed” to be. What “sounded like” poetry.
From seven to seventeen, there was subversion, inversion, and perhaps glimpses of things that had merit! maybe! that said something! maybe! But it “sounded like ‘poetry’” – which is, really, not good at all.

Even poetry that conforms to rules – i.e., Shakespearean sonnets in strict iambic pentameter, for one – is good if it’s so natural that you don’t know for awhile that that’s what you’re reading (unless it is, obviously, Shakespeare). The rhymes, the rhythm are not forced. They’re what exists – and what happens to be in that form. And then you look and realize it’s three quatrains, ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and a couplet – GG. Ten syllables to the line in iambs. Trying that – doing that – is hard, and often sounds heavy-handed and sing-songy with inverted structure to get the right rhyme at the end. I think everyone goes through that phase. (and maybe it becomes something amazing and there is the real poetry. Not for me, not now).

But at seven I was a poet.

To be a poet is not a choice.
Who would choose this? It’s a lonely vocation. You sit, alone (or alone in a crowded room, as we crave the (prototypical?) background noise of cafés. Street and people-watchers, listeners, we are). You spend an inordinate amount of time in a difficult headspace that most people don’t have to inhabit so often. You – if you’re really going to write – are connected as much as possible to everything, and you’re always listening, and open.
It’s dangerous.

Nselang, Cameroun - you can't capture the greens of the forest in a photograph - can't - This isn't a great photo, but that's irrelevant for this point -
and you can't capture everything with words, but we try