Assistant professor of English Mukoma Wa Ngugi considers his second book of poetry, “Logotherapy,” to be more “playful and personal” than political.
“As you get older, you mellow a little bit,” Mukoma said. “When you’re writing political poetry, there’s a sense of urgency. By the time I was writing this book, I had written a lot of political columns, so I didn’t need to feel that urgency.”
There are poems concerned with love and family that have the same incisive detail as those about war, immigration, violence or exile. “Logotherapy” also is highlighted by a palpable experience of place across different settings and locales, from Michigan to Nairobi.
Mukoma’s first poetry collection was “Hurling Words at Consciousness” in 2006. His published fiction includes “Mrs. Shaw” and the detective novels “Nairobi Heat” and “Black Star Nairobi.” He recently completed a critical volume, “The Rise of the African Novel: Profiles of Language, Death and Worship.”
On writing poetry versus fiction, he said: “I think they both come from the same place, but with poetry it’s more about questions you can’t really answer, and you grapple with. Fiction demands that you know more; there’s a beginning, a middle and an end.
“I think poetry is for questions that are too big for words,” he said. “I can’t completely account for the love I have for my child or, even though politically I understand it, why people go to war.”
The book begins with “Hunting Words with My Father,” a poem that provided a working title for this collection.
“Because my father is a writer [formerly exiled Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o], in our relationship I also like to joke that American fathers and sons like to throw a baseball or football around, and when we are together we are throwing words,” he said.
In the poem, “hunting words” is entwined with a fantasy of hunting and taking down a lion – much too big to carry home in a word, the father cautions. “I think ultimately it is about a father and son and the things you work out with each other,” he explained. “It is also about both of us living long enough that we found a mutual understanding or a way of talking to each other.”
A few of the poems originated from a Cornell creative writing class.
“My first semester here, I gave my class an assignment to bring in an item and make a poem about that,” he said. “There were 16 or so students. Everyone would write about that object and critique each others’ work. One idea was to make the ordinary extraordinary, like Emily Dickinson. So I brought in my keys. One student brought an orange.”
“At first, it was about showing that nobody writes a complete poem at first … in order to demystify the writing process for them. My father likes to say, ‘Write, and write, and write, until you get it right.’ In the end, I had three or four poems out of that. It also made me think about being more democratic in my teaching.”
Mukoma has contributed political essays to BBC Focus on Africa, the Los Angeles Times and several publications in Africa.
“I only write when I feel there is something urgent, like Donald Trump – that also is personal, as an anchor baby. I was born in the United States, grew up in Kenya, and came back to go to school, with the intention of going back to Africa,” he said.
“Through your work, you can stay connected,” he added. “Three of my siblings are writers as well. With my father, we did a tour the summer of last year and met the opposition leader [in Kenya], we went to universities and did a few TV shows. It was really good as writers in exile to go back with our books.”