Sue Burge, Contributing Editor of Literary News and Writing Advice
This month’s literary news is very exciting – there’s a new poetry retreat experience available to black poets of African descent. It’s called Obsidian Foundation and its founder is Nick Makoha. Nick is frantically busy fine-tuning the Obsidian Foundation experience ready to receive its first batch of students so I was delighted that we were able to speak. Nick is a Ugandan born poet, playwright and creative entrepreneur. He has lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia and is now based in London and is a strong presence in the UK poetry scene. His latest poetry collection “Kingdom of Gravity” (Peepal Tree Press 2017) is a hard-hitting examination of the civil war in Uganda which ousted Idi Amin. He’s also an accomplished spoken word performer – find out more about his work here https://nickmakoha.com/about/
Nick Makoha, founder of the Obsidian Foundation
Nick, thank you so much for making time to speak to me. Tell me about Obsidian Foundation – it’s such an important time to be offering a safe space for black poets to develop. What inspired you?
Obsidian Foundation is modelled on Cave Canem in the US so this was the initial inspiration. I’m an alumni of Cave Canem but achieving this wasn’t quite that straightforward! I got accepted in 2013 but it was definitely on my radar before then and I just kept missing the deadline for applications! I couldn’t believe it when I got the acceptance e-mail – I didn’t even realise I’d have to go to the States to take up the offer until I sat down and took it all in.
Cave Canem is a very well-established institution in the US, it’s been going for twenty-five years, offering a space for Black poets to develop. The list of alumni (Fellows) is enough to make anyone starry-eyed and includes many of the contemporary poets I most admire. The ethos of Cave Canem is that once you’ve graduated and taken stock, you should consider how you are going to give something back to your own community. Nick’s experience of belonging to poetry collectives which value this cycle of learning/developing/teaching ran throughout our discussion as I discovered that he was an alumni of both Bernardine Evaristo’s Complete Works and Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. He took a turn running the latter on being selected as the poet who had most developed and improved and who had something very valuable to give back to the poetry community.
Nick, you mentioned you’d spoken to Nicole Sealey, who was then Executive Director of Cave Canem, about your plans, as well as supportive poetry friends in the UK, but the project went on the back burner for a while. Could you say something about why and how you have managed to bring this idea to fruition now?
Yes, various things. George Floyd’s death for one. COVID 19 was another factor as so much was cancelled and there was, in a way, more time to focus on things that matter. And Raymond Antrobus giving me a bit of a nudge, come on, do this! I had been speaking to him about it for a while. So I said give me a week, and in that week I set up the website and a social media presence and really got the ball rolling. I thought I’d rather try and fail than not try at all! Raymond Antrobus and Malika Booker are key members of the faculty of Obsidian Foundation in that they are both Cave Canem alumni. There’ll be five faculty, poets at the top of their game who will, over the five-day retreat, teach groups of 10 in rotation, so we’re accepting 50 poets in the first year. We’re delighted to have Terrance Hayes, Raymond, Malika and Roger Robinson on board and I’m a member of faculty too. Of course, it’s all on-line this year so it will be a different experience to what I’d initially conceived.
How are you reaching potential applicants? And what’s the response been like so far?
Considering it’s been up and running for so little time we’ve had a great response and not just from the UK, but all over. Obsidian Foundation is a beacon, we’ve set it alight and people are finding us, word is getting out. I would say, from my own experience, that the process of recognising yourself as a poet of potential begins the minute you fill out the application form, even if you aren’t accepted first time round, or ever, you’ve started something, you’ve started taking yourself seriously as a poet. Doubt is part of the process and “vulnerable” is a powerful place to be, it’s where good work comes from. Take a risk. Apply!
It’s a great opportunity for poets to really develop over a period of time. I understand they have to commit to three retreats over a period of five years.
That’s right, the poets are in it for the long haul! Paying a fee and commiting to this length of time shows you are serious about your writing. Obsidian Foundation is a real team effort and to support the poets we have a brilliant ensemble including award-winning British-Nigerian poet Therese Lola as our Communications Director and fantastic cultural producer Tobi Keyeremateng in charge of our creative process.
Nick, you sound so passionate about poetry. How did it all start?
I wrote my first poem when I was six and my first serious poem when I was thirteen. I was at boarding school in Kenya and one of my teachers had just died. Then at twenty three I started taking writing really seriously and was inspired by the work and thoughts of Deepak Chopra. He said find a way of making what you love into your work and that’s my aim.
What a brilliant aim to have. Thank you so much for these insights Nick. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about Obsidian Foundation in the near future. In the meantime check out the website for the latest news. https://obsidianfoundation.co.uk
One of the questions applicants to Obsidian Foundation are asked is to list the last five poetry books they read. This is such a clever question as it intimates the expectation that applicants will have read far more widely than this. The writing advice I always give students and mentees is to read as much as you can and as widely as you can, not necessarily just in the genre you are writing in. Reading work by expert writers is both inspirational and aspirational. You can see the result of hours of hard work and craftsmanship. I am always amazed at how often people admit that they write poetry but don’t read it. This is the equivalent of painting a watercolour without having entered a gallery to see how others do it, to learn different approaches and revel in the possible. Reading enriches us all as writers. The act of reading is an improvisation between writer and reader, a dance in which both parties find a magical area between the producer and the receiver. The writer’s skill is in reaching out to the reader and inviting them to the dance and finding writers who make you feel included in this way is key in your own writing development. I always say to my students “Read like a writer, write like a reader.” Not at the first draft stage, or even the second draft stage, but at some point you will have to take a step back and imagine how a potential reader will receive your work.
José Ramón Ayllón Guerrero
On that note, many of us hope that judges of writing competitions will receive and read our work favourably. We hear the results of the big, life-changing prizes via the international media, but there are so many smaller and equally prestigious competitions. José Ramón Ayllón Guerrero, a Spanish writer (poetry, short stories and novels), has just won the Blas de Otero – an international poetry award which will lead to publication. Of his eight previous books, six were published as a result of competitions/awards. Although he modestly states that winning a competition is a matter of chance, he is clearly hugely talented and seems the ideal person to ask for advice!
“I’m quite slow at writing and don’t have a daily work discipline. I feel it’s important that a book obeys a clear concept and we should definitely be very demanding of ourselves, even more so in these times when by merely writing something on Facebook seems to make you a writer, or uploading a picture to Instagram makes you a photographer. For me as a poet, meter is essential – long ago inculcated into me, I approach prose in the same way – and I consider it important to polish and squeeze the content down to its essence, eliminating anything which might simply be adding unnecessary noise.”
Find out more about Ayllón Guerrero’s work here https://joseramonayllon.com/
Over the coming months I’ll catch up with a wide range of both judges and winners to get expert advice to help us all improve, whatever our discipline. ~Sue Burge
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut pamphlet, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press. More information at www.sueburge.uk