“Poetry steals me out”: Three Questions with Kennedy Amenya Gisege
Nayereh Doosti/AGNI: “Wasifu Wa Marehemu: The Epitaph of Death” suggests a desired obituary, a sendoff that the speaker wants to be able to anticipate but finds out of reach. There are several layers of exile in this poem: not only expulsion from one’s home country, but also a restricted life in the second home within the confines of prison. How does your experience shape the sense of exile that your poem so beautifully conveys?
Kennedy Amenya Gisege: Prison has many deprivations. As an inmate, I’m constantly fighting to use the phone, the microwave, showers, and exercise equipment. Even running on the track involves jostling about for space. When I don’t succeed, I don’t get to eat, call my family and friends, or exercise at all. As such times the call of freedom and free will are strongest within me and the pain wrought by this second exile biggest.
With it comes the realization that I will never climb a tree, take a swim, kiss a woman, or eat the things I want; nor dance, go on late moonlit walks, exercise my full potential as a human being. These experiences made me reexamine my ancestral village, my language, my country, Kenya, and the place I inhabit in the world right now.
Sometimes I invent brief solutions to these problems, but they are never enough. One time I traded an entire holiday meal for a cup of mixed fruit with mango and papaya because those reminded me of home and my mother, but more importantly because I hadn’t eaten mangoes and papayas in over fifteen years.
I began running to avoid boredom, loneliness, and loss—and ran the entire length of the equator, some 117,000 times around the prison yard. It took 17 1/2 years and earned me the nicknames “the running man” and “the hamster” from the mean ones. When I completed the feat, it wasn’t enough to sustain me. My desire to go home and the pain of exile remain constant companions.
Being an inmate means I’m unable to attend family funerals or share my grief in person. Also placing a handful of the red soils of Ibacho on their graves as a final “gift” is impossible. I am left with a lot of hurt and guilt every time a family member passes away.
I haven’t seen my family in close to three decades, except for a nephew who visited for four hours. They cannot afford to travel from Kenya. But I stay close by letting memories of them creep into this poem.
You use vivid imagery that conjures an intimate sense of home, even if this home is only available after death. I think language too plays a crucial part in taking us to that earlier place. “Wasifu Wa Marehemu,” as a sonic element alone, conjures a distant memory that’s tied to a place. It’s a mournful and melancholic reminder of home. How often do you use Swahili in your work? And how does working across the two languages enrich or affect your writing?
I occasionally use Swahili in my writing, more in poetry. When I do, I want the reader to experience the physical distance between the two languages, to know that I wasn’t born speaking English, and then to embark on a journey of discovery—to find the physical place (Kenya), the people who live there: are there other Swahili words in the English lexicon? Safari, kikuyu (grass), mandefu (the bearded one), hakuna matata, Simba—recently in the movie Get Out, in the theme song, the words sikiliza (listen) and kimbia (run).
I want readers to experience bits and pieces of my culture—the foods we eat, our songs, and the rituals we engage in. I want them to look around themselves to see if they can find a Kenyan to tell them how to properly say “Wasifu Wa Marehemu”—and in the process make a friend.
The language (Swahili) is supposed to pull them closer; the closer they get, the better they will draw meaning from the poem: the pain of being away from home and not knowing if you’ll be able to get back.
Do you think poetry, and literature in general, can be used as tools of survival or even resistance within the confines of prison?
When I walked into prison, the first things I discovered almost immediately were the boredom and monotony of prison life. I’ve spent twenty-four years living within a one-block area, seeing the same faces every day, following the same schedule, and eating from a menu that rarely changes. These experiences and others went into my first (unpublished) manuscript, The House of Dismas. In it, I reconcile prison with my own feelings and thoughts.
My incarceration began with depression and suicidal thoughts. I was prescribed Prozac, Xanax, and Trazodone, and my weight dropped from 180 to 112 pounds. It wasn’t until I started to write that my depression and mood swings abated. Writing brought me back from the edge. I could say things in poetry and prose that I couldn’t say to the psychologist. The sessions were never long enough for me to say everything or even recall all my feelings. However, in writing, somehow everything eventually comes up. I ended up being happier much longer, too, as writing is time-consuming.
When things go sour between me and staff and with other inmates, I’ve discovered it is much better to pour out my anger and frustrations in writing than in words. I can safely say that I have my eyes, nose, and all my teeth thanks to doing my venting on paper.
I discovered long ago that any prospect of my release depends on the whim of the State. If I die in prison, the state of Minnesota will have to take possession of my body, since my family wouldn’t be able to afford to claim it. The idea of being disposed of by strangers makes me feel like I’ve lived a purposeless life. But poetry and literature are outlets, the only ones left to me, for preserving my desires, my memory, and my history.
The world may have some eight billion people in it, but I only have two friends on the outside and zero friends in prison. When I miss people, the characters in my poetry and stories keep me engaged. Sometimes they steal me out of prison and take me along on their adventures. At such times, I am as much in awe as a tourist on an African safari.
Nayereh Doosti is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (2/2021)