MARTIN MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Michel Martin. Right now I am happy, and I’m sad. I’m happy because it’s time for Muses and Metaphor, our very own ode to National Poetry Month. This year, as we’ve been doing every year throughout April, we’ve been featuring original Twitter poems written by NPR listeners. Thousands of you have participated. New this year, some of our regular contributors have also weighed in. But I’m sad because April is just about over. So it’s time now for our final roundup of Twitter poems for this year.
We had to go out with a bang, so joining us now are not one but two winners of the prestigious Caine Prize. That awards the best English short stories by African writers. In studio with me here in Washington, D.C. is Tope Folarin. He won for his short story “Miracle.” Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.
TOPE FOLARIN: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Also joining us from Dakar, Senegal is Binyavanga Wainaina. He won for his short story “Discovering Home.” He was also recently named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine. So, Binyavanga, welcome back to you. I think I should call you Excellency or something. I’m not sure.
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: Oh, gosh. No. Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: (Laughing) Well, congratulations to you both. It’s wonderful. So, Tope, will you start us off? Would you mind sharing your Twitter poem with us?
FOLARIN: OK. The one I drafted is a poem that is in some ways inspired by the story that won, which is a part of my novel. It’s called “Sermon.” (Reading) The pastor cries, lend me your ears. The collection plate is passed around. We cannot hear the screams when he begins to munch.
MARTIN: Wow. What inspired you?
FOLARIN: Well, you know, I’m really inspired by – there’s a poem by Carolyn Forche about – I think it’s called “The Colonel” – and at the end of the poem, you know, the ears fall to the floor. And there’s – it’s a really kind of graphic but simultaneously powerful poem – and the ears fall to the floor. And there’s an image of some of the ears pressed to the ground and some of the ears up and they can hear. And so I thought it would be interesting to kind of mix that image with the image of the collection plate, which is a ubiquitous image with respect to churches, and to kind of somehow try to combine those and to show how people, when they go to church, because they’re in a place of faith, they’ll do whatever the pastor asks them to do, even if, you know, they’re in some ways risking themselves, their own lives and that sort of thing. So…
MARTIN: Wow, shades of Mike Tyson. Yeah.
FOLARIN: (Laughing) I suppose you could say that.
MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you. All right. Binyavanga, you ready? What about you?
WAINAINA: (Reading) U omit a Bibliography from ur poem: ‘Silenced Bodies Unsilenced’. All. Are. Silent. All xcept fellow BiblioStudy tweeps. Hit reply.
MARTIN: (Laughing) What inspired you?
WAINAINA: I don’t know. Like, I have this love-war-hate thing with poetry, often sometimes – and grappling with – and also, you had this season of really amazing poetry during our election. There was also this question of – which now has become a thing of – the things that rule on your Twitter handle. And then you’re like, I feel guilty, but then, like, I don’t feel like I want to engage. But why don’t I want to engage?
MARTIN: What did you think of the form, by the way? You said you have a love-hate relationship with poetry anyway. What did you think of the form? Did you like it? Did you find it challenging, annoying or what?
WAINAINA: Terrifying. Terrifying.
WAINAINA: But I guess that means that it’s good.
MARTIN: Tope, what about you? What did you – how did you feel about the form, just having finished your novel?
FOLARIN: Yeah. I…
MARTIN: Did you like it? Did you hate it?
FOLARIN: I loved it. I loved it. You know, before I started writing prose, I spent about a year and half doing nothing but writing and reading poetry. And I think in many ways that’s what prepared me to write the novel, this kind of deep and fierce engagement with poetry.
And so it’s a form I quite like because it’s form that forces you to kind of cut away the fluff, cut away the stuff that isn’t necessary. And that’s something I strive to do in my prose as well. So I really appreciate it. And I was also inspired by many of the poems that I read. You know, so it was obvious that a lot of people had packed in a lot of emotion, a lot of longing, a lot of feeling into their poems. And I wanted to do the same.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, Tope, you were nice enough to look at some of the poems that came across on Twitter. Again, we use hashtag #TMMPoetry. What were some of your favorites?
FOLARIN: Sure, so there’s a poem by – a couple of poems by somebody named Sasha McCloud. At least that’s her – her Twitter handle is McCloud_Sasha. And she has a poem that goes, (reading) I begged him to ask me a different question, which I think is an incredible poem because it’s a poem that – it’s almost like a doorway between two realities in a way. It’s a poem that’s at the threshold right before something traumatic happened or perhaps right after something traumatic has happened.
And I think we’ve all been in that moment when we’re at that moment of crisis or that moment of transition, that moment of change, and we want to go back in time. And we want to beg the person who is asking us to do something or who has told us something we don’t like very much to kind of go back. And so I thought that that poem really captures that feeling, that sort of sense of fear and that sense of change. She has a…
MARTIN: Any others?
FOLARIN: Yeah. Yeah, another one by her that goes, (reading) where have I been all of my life? It’s a kind of existential crisis poem, I suppose you could say. And it’s a really…
FOLARIN: So having been through a few of those myself, I can relate to the sentiment. And there’s one more would like to read. It’s by – his name is Boiarski, I believe. It’s B-O-I-A-R-S-K-I. And the poem goes, (reading) common onion, layered with pliant translucent imitations, echoes of itself, shows us the power of ordinary things, and we weep.
And the reason I love that one is because it kind of captures the essence of onion. It kind of goes into the way the onion looks, the way – echoes of itself was a wonderfully evocative way of describing what the layers of an onion are like. And it’s something that we talk about all the time.
And then at the end, to say, and we weep – you know, obviously when you’re cutting an onion, you know, sometimes you cry. But the idea that you could cry because you’re recognizing that you’re, you know, cutting into something that is – that was once pure and that was once whole is something that really resonates with me.
MARTIN: Well, also I liked the – reading it once again, (reading) common onion, layered with pliant translucent imitations, echoes of itself, shows us the power of ordinary things, and we weep.
MARTIN: What I liked about that is that, you know, this is something that I’m always trying to kind of figure out how to impress upon my children. You know, they’re just, like, surrounded by, you know, media, which is by definition kind of a mediated experience.
MARTIN: And I’m trying to constantly get them to look at the real thing.
MARTIN: Like, why look at the imitation when you can have the real thing? So whenever they do – they actually look out at a sunset, it makes me want to weep. I think, yes…
MARTIN: Whenever they look out at a sunset or a beautiful cloud and say, look, Mom, it just makes me feel like I want to weep. So anyway that’s why…
MARTIN: That’s what it meant to me. So thank you for that.
FOLARIN: Of course.
MARTIN: Thank you for giving me a moment. Binyavanga, do you have any advice about how to get started or master this form, especially for somebody – you say you have a love-hate relationship with it – I’m sure a lot of us do.
WAINAINA: (Laughing) All the poets whom I love are able to trust seeing in a certain way a felt vulnerable imagination – I don’t know, yeah – which terrifies most people. So, yes, be – allow yourself to be vulnerable and see. It teaches you to see.
MARTIN: That’s lovely. Thank you so much. That’s Binyavanga Wainaina from Dakar, Senegal, Tope Folarin – both of them winners of the Caine Prize for excellence in the short story form by African writers, both kind enough to join us from their respective cities. Thank you both so much for joining us. Thank you for participating.
FOLARIN: Thank you so much.
WAINAINA: Thank you.
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