Lasana M. Sekou - In defiance of oppression and death
We continue our conversations with Lasana M. Sekou, poet from St Martin, with Ann-Margaret Lim, as he delves into his latest poetry collection, The Book of the Dead.
AML: For 'Murder Shot', did you see an image of a hanging tree? Was that what birthed this poem? Speak to us about the experience or the influence behind this poem.
LMS: By the time Murder Shot was written, the collection was well into its telling of murderous ways by people against people around the world. This poem was set to complete a triplet of very short pieces about the discovery of a slavery period, mass grave of Africans on the island of St Helena.
The song Strange Fruit, tortuously and soulfully sung by the timeless Billie Holiday, about the lynching of black people in the American South, and which was first written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, came up like a merciless haunting. Murder Shot was wrenched from the ground of mass graves and dangled bare and brutal from Southern trees. The shot is the ever-present grainy photograph that captures these atrocities of "people pose off with the dead/smiling people always there/ ... /posing, smiiiiling, the gushing knife, rope 'n gun/evidence in hand."
AML: What was the writing process like for 'Tom Hurndall'? Did you need extra eyes to keep sentiments out? What say you on writing poems like these that can easily go into the didactic and/or sentimental? For those who may not know the Tom Hurndall story, give us a quick synopsis. Also, did his parents ever come across your poem, and if so, have you been in communication with them? If yes, what has that communication been like?
LMS: Tom Hurndall was a photography student from the United Kingdom. In 2003, he was in the Gaza Strip as part of the international protest against Israeli occupation. While reportedly protecting a Palestinian child, he was shot in the head by an Israel Defense Forces sniper, who was later convicted of manslaughter. Hurndall remained in a coma and died nine months after being shot. I'm not aware of how far the poem has reached in telling the story of this courageous youth.
May your interview share the last moments of his brave and selfless life beyond the crime. Tom Hurndall and Magno, a poem in the collection about the assassination of CuraÁao's independence leader in 2013, is also about raising the dead. It is a tradition of poetry that seeks or manages to raise a battered life or a speared or riddled body in defiance of an overwhelming force of death. The voice rendering the tribute may even be filled with dread and trembling and it may sing a simple verse or declare in Donne's august language: "Death, be not proud."
"To kneel before a child
locked in the sign of a sniper's cross
will get you shot to a coma
you will die nine months later
when your death swell up like a birth pain
all proud of itself ... .
because of things done
not for things not done
your death looked up to you
your death smiled at you
your death did not cry ... .
AML: As you know, a poem has its own life and meanings as it interacts with those who receive it. With that said, what did 'Libya Unfinished' mean to you when you were writing it? Also, what are some of the interpretations that have been shared with you?
LMS: Libya Unfinished is about war and the rumours of war. The poem was written a few months before the intensified razing of the African country by European and United States forces and interests, internal divisions and internecine murders, and the hateful rise in the crime and death dealings of the slave markets, selling black bodies and body parts.
"When elephants and jackals fight
bay tales in the desert of night,
the grass is crushed and blooded;
the sand is hushed into a cullet
peace be with the dead
bombed by old killers
peace be with the dead
charged by the old chieftain
peace be with the dead
counted by each old tribe
sons of my mothers.
daughters of my fathers.
here comes the living again
green shoots and fresh up,
raised crescent of Abraham,
stay the cut once more
oh bleeding oasis of mayhem and martyrs
and maybe it is
inshallah, the amen of spring for us
sons of my mothers.
daughters of my fathers.
here comes the living again ... ."
AML: 'Reconocido_en_Quisqueya' is a poem that should not need to have been written. What say you is the poet's role or responsibility in the world where genocide is more than a possibility but actually so close it's on our necks like someone's breath?
LMS: At the risk of life and livelihood, authors such as Junot Diaz and Mario Vargas Llosa have stood firmly against racism and violations of human rights in the world and in our region against the 2013 court ruling in the Dominican Republic against its citizens. I can take no less a stand in this Caribbean of ours.
The poem Reconocido_En_Quisqueya speaks to this. The Dominican Republic Constitutional Court decision of September 13, 2013 (Sentencia TC/0168/13), to strip the citizenship status from at least a quarter of a million of its citizens, leaving them stateless based on the colour of their skin - as Black men, women, and children - and their heritage origins is racist.
The attempt by too many to couch the 'sentence' solely as one of immigration and thus arguing it as a purely internal or national matter is just as vile. The poem Reconocido_En_Quisqueya is, on purpose, an extreme if not brutal take on the matter as a crime, a plan for mass murder, a genocide in the making, drawing from a historical pogrom of Jews to a currency of twisted intra-racial histories and ideologies in our region.
AML: Name six of your favourite poets. Briefly say why they are such and print one of your favourite poems from your list of poets.
LMS: Hmmm. Six alone may not be possible and I may name some a dem here at some risk. A few favourite poets, in no particular order: Amiri Baraka, Nicolas GuillÈn, GarcÌa Lorca, Kamau Brathwaite, LKJ, Nidaa Khoury, Pablo Neruda, T.S. Eliot, Tupac, E. E. Cummings, Kofi Awoonor, Octavio Paz - each for his or her exquisite or revolutionary use of language. Here's an excerpt from Portal to the Orient, a favourite poem by Nidaa Khoury. It has a texture like our Atlantic World epics, by a Neruda or a CÈsaire, current and at once ancient. Timeless:
PORTAL TO THE ORIENT
"In the name of Allah
Who strews the clouds with sadness
And showers earth with tears
In the name of Allah, I testify
As a daughter of the Orient
Daughter of pain, granddaughter of the caliphs
In the name of Allah I tell you
I was slain by my dying mother
Who was slain by hers
Who was slain within the matrix of our nation, being woman-born
In the name of Allah
They slew us one by one
On the eve of sloe-eyed beauties and slave-girls
Undressing in the dark, immersing themselves
In the royal baths
On the eve of sultans and the cool of the palace
On the eve of a land of salt and ashes
We were slain by
Our forefathers and masters
By the el-qaeda and the uncommon people
Females mummified by looking back ... .
And the portal to the orient
Opened to the spices and perfumes of the bazaar
Opened the delicate warp and weave snagging
The hems of the abayat, the jilbabs, the veils, the linens
Entwining on the clotheslines and on shoulders hunched
In the liberty, and in the notion of liberty
The orient collapsed under the burden
Of date palm and the freight of wasteland and wilderness
And from earliest adorations of the sovereign of the world
Unto the glories of the sovereign of adorations
From prayers of the dawn unto dusk the setting of nobility ... .
From 'Book of Sins' by Nidaa Khoury (House of Nehesi Publishers, 2009)
AML: This year you celebrate 40 years of writing. At what age would you say you officially entered the space of published author? Your voice is a very vocal one for independence. Can you tell the Jamaican 'Gleaner' readers, some of whom may not as yet have read your work, what you see as the role of the writer or creative in a country calling for independence in the 21st century?
LMS: Thank you for mentioning the 40th anniversary relative to work published in book form. At age 19, my first book, Moods for Isis - Picture Poems of Love & Struggle, was self-published in 1978. I was a student in New York City at that time. Since then, books containing my poetry, fictions, essays, have been published by House of Nehesi Publishers, UNICEF, Oxford University Press, and Editorial Arte y Literatura, among others.
Love, labour, and liberation remain the essential themes that I try to work with. However, humble or extraordinary, the triumphs of humanity in any century demand these. The 21st century has no moratorium on the call for independence. I think that writers, creatives, cultural workers that are about the people's business in colonies such as my Sweet St Martin, and in independent countries, are finding critical roles by a complex process of constant exploration and engagement. For independence to be attained and maintained, and for practical and revolutionary progress to succeed, it is critical for writers, creatives, cultural workers and their work to be in engaged with the widest movement of the people. According to the illustrious Caribbean thinker George Lamming, sovereignty is not possible where the majority are excluded from this process of the collective control of agendas and continuing self-definition."
Title: The Book of the Dead
Publisher: House of Nehesi Publishers: 2016