By Dennis Abrams
Piotrowski explains that the fund, described as a platform for works of “great and thrilling beauty,” was born to address the lack of publishing opportunities for African poets. And more specifically, that a lack of opportunity then translates into a “silent and informal threat to freedom of expression,” meaning specifically that without the opportunity to publish one’s work, a poet’s ability to speak to his or her community is “severely threatened.”
What led you to create the African Poetry Book Fund?
“While visiting various African countries for festivals and readings during the last five years, I have been reminded of the stark difference between the publishing experiences of African poets and African fiction writers. While the world has engaged with the fiction writers in remarkably positive ways, African poets have few opportunities to publish their work internationally or within their home countries.
Until we established the African Poetry Book Fund, I could not find a publishing press anywhere in the world devoted exclusively to African poetry. Given the rich tradition of poetry in African nations, I thought this was a shame.
I am at a stage in my life where I must work to create change if I see a problem, so I pulled together a group of gifted writers, all of whom have strong connections to Africa. During the African Poetry Initiative’s development, Chris Abani, Matthew Shenoda, Bernardine Evaristo, John Keene and Gabeba Baderoon have been a brilliant team.”
What services does the African Poetry Book Fund provide to writers?
“We want to see more African poets in print, and to that end, the APBF is focused on a few small but critical projects. Our contests, publishing series, and poetry libraries are focused on supporting poets to produce publishable work. When poets are published, we seek to ensure that they have opportunities to sell their work and enter the circuit of festivals and readings. To accomplish this, we have partnered with Blue Flower Arts, a literary agency, to represent our poets. Additionally, APBF’s website and mailing list connects writers to publishing opportunities.
Some folks have suggested that our focus on publishing excludes African poetry’s rich oral and performance tradition. This is true only in the sense that we are focused on what we believe is necessary and achievable. Through tours, spoken word events, podcast, and video-casts, are valuable, they are not part of our work unless they aid in the publishing effort.”
What do you think causes the differences in opportunities for African fiction and African poetry? Is that any different than the place that poetry holds in the US?
“In African countries, small presses sometimes publish the poetry from their community members, but like in many parts of the world, publishers do not believe that poetry can be a viable enterprise. Apart from that, for complicated and discouraging reasons, we mainly celebrate African writing that is published by African writers in the developed world. Their publishers may be interested in fiction because of its commercial value and expository nature – explaining the continent, if you will.
In the U.S. and the U.K., subsidies and the economics of scale allow several presses to devote themselves exclusively to poetry. Due to this small press movement, along with the major poetry prizes each year, published poetry exists and in some instances thrives.
However, these presses are not interested in African poetry given its uncertain commercial value. For example, our team signed an agreement with one of the USA’s leading poetry presses for an exciting anthology of contemporary African poetry. Before we arrived at the contract stage, the publishers said it would be impossible to raise the funds for a book of that nature.”
To read the rest of the interview, including Dawes’ own development as a poet, community projects including building libraries in five African countries, as well as information on the titles published by The African Poetry Book Series, click here.