Friday, February 1, 2019

Rashid Pelpuo responds

Rashid Pelpuo: I obtained my PhD in African Studies (Development Policy) from the University of Ghana, Legon. I am  a member of the Wala Royalty in the Upper West Region and have been representing my people in the Wa Central Constituency in Parliament since 2005, having so far served 4 terms. I was appointed Minister of Youth and Sports in 2009 and later became deputy leader of the Parliament of Ghana. From 2012-2016 I was Minister for Private Sector Development. I write poetry as one of the ways I convey my thoughts. I first started writing poetry in 1982 whilst in secondary school and had them published in my school magazine. My first poetry collection was "The True Meaning of Life," and I have received various awards for my poems including an Icon of Peace Award by the World Union of Poets in Italy and the Pride of the Globe Award in Poetry by the World Writers Union from Kazakhstan.

DV: What was it that inspired you to be a poet, of all things?

RP: I got my inspiration for poetry in secondary school whilst I was studying English Literature. I read poems by African writers and sometimes felt they were writing what I was experiencing myself. Their story or imagination was to my thinking not different from mine. I started writing as if I had been a poet all the time. 

DV:  How long do you think it took you to become a "mature" poet"? More or less right away or only after some time?

RP: I was already 18 years when I started my poetry. I had clear thoughts about what I wanted to bring out in my writings. I was sufficiently inspired by other writers especially African poets and novelists to write my own poems.

DV: Can you share any of your early poems?

RP: Here are two of my poems I wrote in 1984:


The dead living, you know well what you are:
One leg in the living world, the wise world,
Peopled with children who know everything;
Another in the world peopled with dead souls
Caught in the old intervening slumber.
Beyond your nose you conceive nothing bright
That would spur you on for a happier life
But keep brooding over useless bygones
To break your swollen heart with more distress.
Oh, you dead living, I grieve for your lot.
Ought you not know that hopes outlive the man,
That a striving for the future builds life?
You are dead living, man, when you slumber
To the thought of the future: Wake up now!


If unity can’t break our boundaries,
If knowing ourselves can’t bridge our differences,
We can unite at heart and soul,
Though we may sit at the two ends of the globe,
Imitating some alien tongues,
Locked in the depths of ignorance of self-liberation
Ignorance is the barrier,
Ignorance our education –
Into which we plunge headlong,
Washing away our imaginings
Knowing not where we head for.
We do not understand!
It is all ignorance.
We must learn the truth
About who we are

When the story is told it must be to say:
We fail because we are ignorant.

DV: I notice that a lot of African poetry expresses extreme moral seriousness rather than more personal commentary. Is this a misperception on my part, or do you think there is some underlying impulse behind it?
RP: Your observation is largely right but if you understand the historical experience of Africa it would not be surprising. Remember Africans have come all the way from slavery to colonial rule to independent imperial governments coupled with misrule and development failures. The poetry would often capture the effects of all these ills on society. Yet lots of writings too are deeply personal emotive poems that tell about the personal life experience of the poet. See for example these poems which I am associated with:

To Sonia

Sonia you vandalise my soul
With your gift of charm
That tore my breath apart
My heart in drumming throbs
To seek shelter in my cares
I could spend a full life
Seeking comfort in those eyes
On route your sacred heart
To relish in your beckoning gait:
The contours of your serenity
But reality closes in behind me
To tell me it can’t be
So do me this eternal favour
Don’t take my hand to high heavens
And keep my love angels in the rain
I may not, like salt, melt away
But I would be lost in the ashes
Of burnt love and broken vows

From Sonia

Time will undo my knotty disposition
Through these impassive longings
You beckon me at the edge of time
I see in those kind eyes
That seek calm my unyielding desires
I see it in your wondrous dreams

And my heart is choked with  cares
I could buy you with the world
I could keep you in the depths of time
And I could drink of you a life time
But true, the barriers are alive with current

So stay still my dear, stay still
The times are hurrying
Though in chilling uncertainty
Our hopes will transform our petty dream
And transcend these wasteful relics
And settle us in wining times

These were written in 2014 whilst traveling from Liverpool to London with a friend whose name I changed to Sonia


Do not let it known to Bouguma
Or she would break her head
Crying behind shut doors
Tell her if she must know
That I am on this bed lying down
In a stream of sound sleep
A sleep sweeter than ever I experienced
But bitterest ever she knows.

She may have come to know it
When the shadows have fallen back
And grown thinner and taller
From the daily dying sun

My poor dumb state
Would add to her woes
For this long sleep has grown
An eternal wedge
That keeps us apart
And transports me to distant grounds 

DV: Is there any connection between your political and poetic selves? Do you often find yourself writing overtly political verses?

RP: I often write about the need for fair play and I love to write to expose some ills of society often either ignored or perpetuated by a system driven by politicians. But my poetry is diversified. It goes beyond politics. In my anthology I just published I have seven themes and Politics is one thematic area.

DV: How did you get onto the international poetry circuit?

RP: My poetry was first noticed by Pantasi B Poetry group. They invited me to a poetry conference in Ghana as a guest speaker whilst I was a Minister of State in Ghana. I took time to read one of my poems and have another young poet perform my poetry on stage to the admiration of the conference. Meanwhile as a Member of the Ghana Writers Association (GAW) I attended their poetry performance days and shared my poems and published some in the Ghanaian national newspapers which attracted international attention. But significantly it was Pentasi B that truly introduced me into the larger poetic family where I met Armeli Quezon and later through her programme in India I met Duane Vorhees who has graciously published a number of my poems in his It also enabled me to contribute to many international anthologies of poetry in the last four years or so.

DV: How would you describe the current state of Ghanaean poetry?

RP: In recent times the younger generation of poets have taken over the poetry landscape. Poetry in the 21st century has a marked difference from the ones before. Whilst earlier poems were much more serious and dwelled on nationalistic themes with a few romantic ones, today's poetry in Ghana dwells more on culture and politics and is usually performed on stage. Regrettably though fewer poems are published in any form at all.

DV: In the US poetry is usually derided as well. But that's deceptive. Actually, poetry in some form is more prevalent than most people realize. Young men still write love poetry to their beloved. Rap (and other songs) are  poetry set to music. An enormous number of books, magazines, and websites contain poems, and the number of titles keeps growing. But, even so, many people still insist that poetry is "too hard" or "not relevant." I suppose the situation in Ghana is much the same.  As an MP, do you think the government has any obligation to promote poetry, or any solution to the lack of interest?

RP: As you observe, poetry well practiced as an economic commodity can be very productive. Indeed in Ghana poetry is sung and rapped with lots of fun and wide patronage. The challenge however is when poetry is in print and has to be read and appreciated by a student or a casual reader. The use of figures of speech and other literary devices are often a distraction to people who are only used to reading or listening to mainly prose. It gives the impression that poetry is difficult. This is very pronounced in Ghana though poetry is studied in all schools in Ghana as a necessary part of the curriculum. Given the huge potential and possibilities in poetry as a vehicle to achieve economic ends apart from its primary artistic function, I have no trouble advising the Government to support poetry writing, recitals, and performance as a project.

DV: The UK and the US have formal "poets laureate" with official or semi-official roles. Does Ghana have anything like that? What other specific programs does your country have to promote the art of poetry?

RP: There is no formal state/government approach to supporting or motivating poets. Nor is there any promotion of a poet laureate in Ghana. What exists is a laureate of the best music producer and  artists of the year in various areas. Poetry is not one such area. Poetry recitals only occur at gatherings by poets on their own and at schools by students who join clubs that promote poetry writing and/or recitals. The state broadcaster, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), however, has a small slot for poetry recitals which is often utilized by those who are eager to perform their poems, especially on Ghana Television.  I used to publish my poems on one or two of the state newspapers. Also in my secondary school days I joined the drama club and when I entered the university I joined the writers club, but these clubs did not promote poetry enough to select laureates in any form.

DV: If your party ever returns to power, would you be willing to sponsor legislation to create a national poet laureate?

RP: I think it will be a novel and productive idea to institute a national poet laureate both for the senior and junior writers of poems and even novels. I don't know why it's been absent in the national scene for all this while. I would like to make history by championing the institution of the a Poet Laureate when my party next comes to power. To create a lasting effect and value instituting the laureate will come in the form of legislation. It's doable and will be done, God willing. 

DV: Meanwhile, since you are now in opposition, how does that affect your time schedule? Are you busier, less busy, or it doesn't affect the legislative pace?  Do you have more time to reflect and write than if you were a leading member of the ruling party?

RP: Opposition has two things about it. It frees up time but also engages me in thinking about new ways of achieving maximum gains in opposition. On the whole, however, I am freer to do more literary work though I do not completely turn my attention to it. As a member of parliament I am still occupied with my constituency matters and sometimes overwhelmed with travel and parliamentary work. In fact as a politician seeking to expand my involvement in politics I am never completely free for anything else. Though I still share my time with other activities I involve myself mainly with  my parliamentary duties and my writings 

DV: Like you, Eugene McCarthy was a poet/philosopher. In 1968, seeking an end to the American war in Vietnam, he campaigned against president Lyndon Johnson and forced him not to seek re-election. When rival candidates refused to debate him he challenged them to a poetry slam instead. (They declined.)  Like your own country's Jerry Rawlings, McCarthy is one of my personal political heroes. After his political career was over he wrote "The Public Man":

He walks even in daylight with his arms outstretched.
Fishlike, he shies at shadows,
his own following him, nose to the ground,
like a blind bloodhound.

Grey mists float through the cavities of his skull,
he feeds the sterile steer, and cows of no desire,
on the mast of bitter grapes.
He shades his eyes against fireflies;
and his own life, which once burned bright,
is now yellow tallow.

His words rise like water twice used from the cistern pumps,
and then go out, in a wavery line, like beagles in search of rabbits.
Like a gull crying with a tired voice, he looks back often into the fog.

Each night he holds his stone head between his hands
while his elbows sink into the tabletop.

I realize that you are still very much involved in politics, but I would appreciate your thoughts on whether, or how, this poem resonates with you, as a public man.

RP: I have read a little about Eugene McCarthy. He rebelled against his own party by contesting a siting President which many viewed to be political suicide. I know he wrote poetry in private and in one of his poems which I cannot adequately quote he wrote that "Penicillin and greed kept the aged above me...." His poem "The Public Man" does not resonate with me. Generally I see myself to be a very optimistic and a positive person. I fight the ills of society and the abuse of political office from within hoping that one day I'll get hold of the handle of the ultimate leadership to change the course of history. Eugene McCarthy's "The Public Man" is uninspiring and depicts a man who I conclude is a miserable lot with an exhausted brain and a spent force in public life. It tells of a man who has lived the best part of his life and got to a life of uselessness and sterility who "once burned bright" but is "now yellow tallow." In a more poignant observation the poet views "his words ... like water twice used from the cistern pumps". And what a unique expression! The poet must have a very low opinion of the retired public figure and vents his dissatisfaction on such a figure in this poem that can't see any good in his present state. It may be also be Eugene himself regretting his past involvement in public life as he retires from public life.

DV: McCarthy did indeed come to a rather sad end. Immediately after his unsuccessful campaign for president he and his wife separated (though they never divorced), he didn't run for re-election for his senate seat, and he never again held office (though he sought the presidency several more times without generating much enthusiasm).  Optimism is the necessary ingredient for political change, and I hope yours proves indestructible! Meanwhile, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and wish you continued success in your various endeavors.

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