What next for Poetry in Kenya?

I am a firm believer in the power of poetry and art in general to not only inform and entertain but also show a reflection of society in a more creative yet subtle playful way.

Poetry open mic events in Nairobi have become like fast food joints; you can find one on every street and almost every campus has their own. Some venues like the Dass Restaurant have become redefined from being an Ethiopian restaurant to an open mic hub with more than 2 poetry events happening every month.

Naliaka MC’ing Rhythm n Spoken event at Dass
Photo by Njeri Wangari

This is great, right?

All these are signs that poetry is growing and its performance has made it more appealing to many who perform and attend than its written form ever did. This is a trend that is happening globally and not just here in Nairobi.

However, these events seem stuck in a rut as though all reading from the same script which has with time, become quite predictable leaving no room for creativity which should be at the core of a writer.

(A) featured poet(s), an open mic, some music and that’s it.

It needs to be said that most if not all these events do not vet the poems/poets beforehand to ensure that no mediocrity in the name of poetry is displayed by Mic hogging teens who want to impress their mates or prove that they can actually talk to a large crowd.

This is one of the reasons I rarely look forward to poetry events anymore. I am not sure whether I will be impressed or so incensed that I’ll want to grab the mic and call it a day.

Don’t get me wrong here, everyone gets stage fright; I still do up to now despite having performed regularly for the last 3 years. Lately, serious poetry events have been turned into stages where anyone can ‘confess’ that it’s their first time and they are not so sure whether they are poets or not then proceed to give what sounds more and more like a story telling session than a poetry performance. If this happens once it would be ok but that is what most poetry events have been reduced to.

I started a debate on twitter some time back on what Poetry events are promoting; free styling rappers or poets? there were those who felt that poetry open mics were slowly taking the platform from Poets and giving them to freestylers and there are those who felt that they are one and the same and the latter are more entertaining.

Hip Hop MCs and Rappers battling it out at a past WAPI event
Photo by Njeri Wangari

Another concern that I would beg your indulgence on is the gate fee. Now, Ksh. 300 is not such a costly fee as most entertainment spots charge that as the entrance fee and most artist events will not charge less than 500, however and this is where I start to sound like am hating, if it is an event where at some point during the open mic session part of the audience will contribute to the entertainment then how can one justify the rate?

The other bone of contention is, and I have heard this complaint from many poets, the fees collected most of the times are not shared with the poets who made the event a success.

I know that most of the entertainment spots charge a premium (for use of their facilities) thus the event organiser needs to cover the cost and all but I also know that it depends on the approach.
 About a year back, I spoke to The Savanna franchise  just after they launched their first restaurant on Loita St. about such an initiative but within a broader perspective and they loved the idea. Unfortunately there were some retrogressive decision making individuals and the idea never saw the light of day.

 My point here is, it is possible to get a good arrangement and please, pay the poets also.

The other growing concern is the value of performances. Now, there are a handful of outstanding poets out there and chances are one will have seen them perform at one venue or the other. The poetry circle is quite small thus you can bet that the same crowd that attended Kwani? on Tuesday, will attend Wamathai the next Tuesday and Slam Africa the next Friday, thus as a poet, if you decide to perform the same old pieces that people applaud to then soon, we as the audience will  all have a deja vu moment of; “I have seen this performance twice before”.
 There will therefore be no incentive to attend a poetry event where this poet is the featured Poet.

There was an initiative recently that sought to bring together all poetry events in Nairobi. I attended it and the usual suspects were there. I felt like I had not missed much after a 1 year hiatus.

Poetry enthusiasts at the inaugural Wamathai Poetry night
Photo by Njeri Wangari

I ask, why not take Poetry outside of Nairobi? I am sure there are talented poets in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret. I receive numerous emails from fans in these towns asking when they can ever have one yet Nairobi is saturated with them.

Poets also need to look beyond open mic events for growth of their writing and performing. An example is the project that Ngwatilostarted in fusing Music with Poetry, she now has a CD out and is coming up with her own events.

I think its time that Poets also sought to benchmark themselves with poets from other countries or continents and have a performance rate card. Its time we moved to the next level. What do you think Poets?

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