Kweku Abimbola Explores Colonization and the Power of Names in “Saltwater Demands a Psalm” [INTERVIEW]

Born in the Gambia, Kweku Abimbola earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He is of Gambian, Ghanaian, and Sierra Leonean descent. Abimbola’s first full-length poetry collection, Saltwater Demands a Psalm, was published by Graywolf Press in 2023. In 2022, the début collection was selected by Tyehimba Jess to receive the Academy of American Poets’ First Book Award. Abimbola’s writing primarily investigates colonization, Black mourning, Black boyhood, gender politics, and the spiritual consequences of climate change in West Africa. He is a Visiting Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Tampa. Below are excerpts from his interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: Before discussing your book, could you share a bit about how your University of Michigan MFA experience benefited you? What did you gain from the Helens Zell Writers Program that influenced your poetry, and what advice do you have for writers considering an MFA program?

Kweku Abimbola: “That’s a really good question. My MFA experience was unique, I’d say, mainly due to COVID. I had one normal semester with in-person readings and classes, and then everything after that was virtual. This significantly altered my poetry experience, making it a bit more silent and isolating, especially during quarantine. Despite this, my cohort and I managed to connect virtually, which was a nice respite during those times, but it was very different.

“I believe this scenario informed the early stages of my manuscript. The writing became more quiet and introspective. Now, I feel my writing is mainly driven by sound.

“The Michigan MFA was great for me, particularly because it was fully funded. I think this aspect can limit access to certain MFA programs, especially for international writers. A fully funded program gives you more freedom to focus on your writing without the need for a second or third job for survival.

“I also believe my experience at Michigan was strong due to the professors I had the privilege to work with, like A. Van Jordan and Sumida Chakraborty. They exposed us to great writers and structured their courses in ways that treated us as holistic writers. It wasn’t just about the work we produced; they made sure to check on us. I think that’s something missing in many graduate schools: how to support students beyond the syllabus, treating them as whole people, not just degree seekers.

“The most impactful part of my experience, I think, was having a strong cohort. I still keep in contact with the people from my grad program, many of them still read my manuscript and share their poems. So, shout out to the MFA squad: Leah, Chris, Mary, Serena, Sarah, and the whole gang. I’m very grateful for that experience.”

James: Congratulations on managing to do it fully funded. This changes not just the trajectory during the program, but also afterwards, as you have more freedom to explore different paths. When carrying a huge burden of debt, it influences what you can and can’t do, so well done.

Kweku: “One thing I always tell people who are considering an MFA is that this isn’t like law school or medical school, where there’s a high-paying job waiting for us after graduation. So, it’s important not to get into debt just to write poetry. I’m also an advocate for finding community wherever you are. The community-based aspect of writing transformed my experience. Sure, you can find that in an MFA, but there are also various other writing groups in different cities that welcome new writers for free, just to share work and discuss books. So, there are alternatives for those who might not have the time. But it’s also a privilege to have enough time to apply to an MFA, then take time out of your life to focus solely on the craft of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, whatever your genre might be.”

James: The visual design of your book “Saltwater Demands a Psalm” is striking. The small details such as symbols sprinkled in and between the poems, the symbols used to create graphic art that take over multiple pages, the concrete poem built from names repeated with variations throughout the book. Could you discuss the vision that emerged for this book and how that vision influenced the design of the book?

Kweku: “Absolutely, thank you. The visual element was really my attempt to decolonize language. I am half Guinean and half Sierra Leonean but was born in Gambia. So, a lot of different West African cultures shape my identity. The visual aspect for ‘Saltwater’ particularly comes from my Ghanaian side. In Ghana, we have pictographs known as Adinkra symbols, which were created in the late 16th century by a king named Adinkra. These symbols were initially used for people in the court and were printed on fabric to distinguish those of nobility from commoners. However, through trade and conquest, the symbols spread throughout Ghana and began to represent different proverbs, maxims, sayings, and even poetry. What started with two or three symbols has now grown to over 150 symbols throughout Ghana and the broader black diaspora.

“This attentiveness to language in a visual form inspired ‘Saltwater.’ Adinkra symbols are used as chapter breaks and even form long poems. The most difficult Adinkra symbol to create was the Sankofa, following some elegy poems in the collection. These are made up of the names of individuals who were victims of police brutality here in the U.S., shaped into the Sankofa symbol, which resembles a bird with its head looking backward. The Sankofa symbolizes memory and comes from the Akan proverb which translates to ‘It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.’ This focus on memory and naming attempts to honor these names in a way that is shaped beautifully but does not detract from the fact these names bear a dramatic history.”

James: Your book interleaves memorials and poignant details of the victims who have been murdered because of racist hate and police brutality. One example from a poem memorializing Trayvon Martin and his dream of becoming a pilot:

"Each night, I paint his
eyelid interiors cerulean and wisp.
He sees himself boarding
an Airbus A350

in crisp First Captain digs:
a deep navy coat and slacks,
overlain with bulbous gold buttons."

How do you approach writing about such challenging and painful subject matter while not losing the poetry while doing so? 

Kweku: “I think I have multiple responses to this, but I’ll try to weave them together. The elegies in the book were never initially meant for publication. I started writing them as a means of healing during a time when I personally grappled with racial profiling and the fear it provoked. I was advised by a dear friend to write, but also, while navigating this violence, to avoid causing further harm to the deceased.

“This personal experience drew me closer to this kind of death, a strange learning curve for Black immigrants to the U.S., who may not have been exposed to state-sanctioned or systemic racism. As someone who grew up in Gambia and Ghana, being Black wasn’t a core part of my identity until I moved here and started learning about the histories of police brutality in this country.

“As for retaining the poetic quality, I turned to traditional Ghanaian elegies. The details about the victims, like Trayvon, were inspired by traditional Akan dirges, usually sung after the death of someone significant in the community. Trayvon’s death struck me profoundly; we were of similar age, and it was the first time I witnessed racist violence depicted on TV.

“These dirges focus on the life and characteristics of the individual and consider death as a transition into an afterlife, a theme that runs through many elegies in the book. The hope of an afterlife, a diasporic ancestral plane, and a focus on the person’s life allowed me to retain the poetic elements without succumbing to the weight of the trauma.

“One of the challenges I faced was the portrayal of Trayvon in the news. His depiction, the focus on his past troubles, was deeply hurtful. I still grapple with how these stories become normalized, and how the privacy of the victims’ families is violated. There should be agency in mourning, but that’s often taken away when people with ill intentions exploit these stories. My goal was to focus on the intimate details that fully humanize these individuals, rather than their more controversial moments.”

James: You write about the importance of names, from the Notes “Per Akan custom, kradin, or soul names, are given in accordance with a child’s day of birth.” The concrete poems are constructed from names into the form of a Sankofa, a bird-like symbol. As I read the poems, and names, I was reminded of participating in rallies and marches in Oakland, where we were led in “Say their names” chants. Why are names so important to identity, and how did you think about incorporating the importance of names into this collection? 

Kweku: “Definitely, I am drawn to naming. My name, Kweku, wasn’t given to me by my parents, but rather by the tradition that assigns names based on the day of the week one is born. This tradition ties a name to you for life and gives it an inherent significance, somewhat like a zodiac sign. It intertwines destiny and fate into the act of naming, which is unique to Ghana but also complicates our concept of time.

“As I worked on this collection, I pondered this idea of ‘black time’ and wondered what it means to mourn a day of the week if your name is tied to it. How might this naming system disrupt the linearity of time? I sought to understand Ghana’s role as a space in black diasporic history, particularly its history as a significant point along the Gold Coast where millions of enslaved people were transported to the new world.

“I saw the Akan naming system as a symbol of rebirth. Even though African-Americans may not always be able to trace their ancestry as concretely as they might like, there’s a high likelihood their ancestors passed through Ghana. So, the act of assigning Akan names completes a circle, symbolizing a sort of homecoming.

“In addition, the cyclical nature of the naming system aligns with the rhythm of life and death. For instance, if someone is in mourning, and you were born on the same day of the week as the departed, you might feel a certain resonance. Going back to the ‘say their names’ chants you mentioned, chanting names keeps their memory alive.

“The collective nature of the naming ceremony also ties everything together. In Akan culture, a child isn’t considered fully alive until the eighth day after birth. That’s when the naming ceremony takes place, and the whole town, family, or clan meets the child for the first time.

“So, the importance of naming is intrinsically tied to the community. Who hears your name first and how you’re welcomed is not an individual act; it’s always tied to the community. My goal with this collection was to weave together this concept of a diasporic black identity—one that’s rooted in traditional beliefs, yet malleable depending on where one finds themselves in the diaspora.”

James: I’m a poet who comes from a place of privilege. I’m a tall, white, cis-male, US citizen with economic security. I check every privilege box. I’m also angered and moved by the issues you write about so effectively. What advice do you have for poets like me who want to contribute their voice, but who are aware of their privilege and are unsure if they have the right to do so?

Kweku: “That’s a really important question. The first piece of advice I would offer poets with privilege is to think about how they can use their voices to amplify others. It’s not every story or every identity that we should write about. Certain poets and writers handle this well, but it’s important to consider who you might be taking space from, and how you can amplify the voice of someone else who might be from this place or space, but doesn’t have the same platform that you do.

“It’s a complex debate. Even Toni Morrison, in her book ‘The Source of Self-Regard’ and some of her later interviews, discussed how in her creative writing classes, she encouraged her students to write about places and experiences unknown to them. As a younger writer, your experiences are limited, so she advocated exploring beyond that. I see her point, but I also push back against it, as we live in a world that is skewed. For example, 77% of MFA programs are predominantly white, and only a few immigrants get into MFA programs here in the US.

“For writers with privilege, I would urge them to consider how they can use their voice to amplify those who do not share that privilege. I’m seeing more writing prizes taking this approach now, and a lot of writers I follow are spotlighting writers from other countries. The key isn’t necessarily to write stories that don’t align with your identity, but rather, how can we widen the scope of poetry? We need to ensure more poets who don’t typically get the same platform have a chance to share their work.”

James: Your poem “Ebenada”, for Tamir Rice, closes with these beautiful lines:

"All water has
perfect memory,
even snow.

I birthed his skin
with watercolor,

and welcomed him
in that November snow."

How did you approach finding the ending for this poem during the revision and editing process? 

Kweku: “Endings are something I often struggle with. I admire poets like Jericho Brown who have a formulaic approach to them. He discusses how he sifts through his work for themes, pulling together bits and pieces from different poems to create a coherent whole. I can’t say I’m as adept at that.

“For this poem in particular, I wanted to echo the theme of tides. Tamir Rice was born on a Tuesday, the same day that is sacred to the ocean god in Akan tradition. Each day of the week is associated with a different spirit or god. For instance, Wednesday, my birth day, is associated with Anansi the spider. Those born on Tuesday are associated with the god of the ocean.

“The cyclical nature of water and the ocean helped guide the ending. I tried to mirror the water cycle throughout the poem—starting with the ocean, moving through watercolor, and then recognizing that Tamir lost his life in winter. I used snow, another form of water, to symbolize this. The idea was to end where I began, reflecting the larger project of restitching the past.

“In essence, the poem imagines an ancestral spirit welcoming this young man in a place and space where you wouldn’t typically expect to find beauty.”

James: Many of the poems in this collection play with visual form, including the series of concrete poems. “Memeneda, for Sandra Bland”, dances across the page. How do you use visual form as a tool for crafting poetry?

Kweku: “In creating ‘Memeneda, for Sandra Bland’, I was inspired by details of Sandra’s life. She played the trombone throughout high school and earned a scholarship to Prairie View A&M University in Texas. This detail, along with the recurring themes of water, perfect memory, breath, and cyclicality, influenced the form of the poem. Playing the trombone requires breath control, and I wanted to explore what it means to hold and extend breath in the same way one can control the slide of a trombone. A single instrument can produce such a range of sound and motion, and I wanted to reflect this dynamism in the poem.

“Another aspect of the visual quality of these pieces relates to my inclination to resist conventional form. A lot of my inspiration for this collection comes from West African poetry, which doesn’t always align with Western forms. Instead, it often relies on patterns and repetition. These elements play a significant role in traditional Akan poetry, and I’ve tried to echo this in my work.

“My recent poetry also continues in this vein, focusing more on sound and repetition rather than adhering to received Western forms. It’s about carrying that creative energy forward, staying true to the cultural roots and traditions that inspire me.”

James: Poems such as the “Naming Ceremony” poems and especially “Proverbs: an ode to black advice” are multilingual. The poems remain accessible to unilingual readers but add something unique. Safia Elhillo, who I interviewed last year, also effectively incorporates multilingual elements in her poetry. What is your approach to incorporating another language into your poetry?

Kweku: “My goal is for readers who may not understand the language in my work to focus on how the poems make them feel. There’s a rich engagement that comes from reader curiosity. As a non-US native, I’ve had similar experiences encountering English poetry for the first time. Many references were initially foreign to me, and I had to put in the work to understand them. As more poets of color are publishing, it’s important for us to stay true to the languages and references that make sense to us, inviting readers to join us in this journey of discovery.

“My grandmother, who taught English in Ghana for 15 years, often remarked that in her day, they used dictionaries. If you didn’t know a word, you had to look it up. The process of looking up a word often led to discovering other things you weren’t initially seeking, thereby enriching your knowledge. Similarly, encountering unfamiliar elements in a poem can significantly enhance your reading experience. That space of curiosity and discovery can often offer more depth than a quick footnote or immediate reference might provide.”

James: You also incorporate dialect into some of your poems. The series of three longer poems including  “The Function” and  “Barbershop Philosophy” are enriched with language that brings a clear voice into the poetry. Dialogue, whether in poetry or in fiction, can be very challenging to write. What is your approach to dialogue, and in particular dialogue that incorporates dialect, to achieve lines that sound so natural, as though you overheard them and wrote them down verbatim? 

Kweku: “I really appreciate that question. I’ve been thinking more about what poetry is beyond the page. For me, incorporating moments of dialogue requires me to speak them first. Speaking my poems is the first step in any revision that I do. I have to hear the poem out loud, feel how my voice and breath sound. Even practicing with other folks for the dialogue made it easier. 

“I achieved that natural flow by speaking it. We might think that the voice in our heads sounds good, but when we verbalize it, sometimes it sounds mechanical or too contrived, too ‘Poetic.’ So, the question for me is how can I capture how I speak with my friends or the conversations I overhear at the barbershop?

“A lot of parts of the book are semi-autobiographical. Some of the conversations come from memory, which I think adds to that natural feel. Moreover, having other readers who share similar experiences read it out loud helped me get to the final state, where there’s language economy and music. It also feels more natural because there’s so much poetry found in dialect. There’s much rhyme and economy to be found in slang, which I wanted to highlight throughout the collection.”

James: Your book concludes with a perfect poem, one that synthesizes all the symbols present throughout. Many poetry collections consist of poems written independently, later assembled into a cohesive book. With this final poem in mind, was it specifically written to echo the themes of your book?

Kweku: “This one, it’s quite interesting. I find it amusing how this final poem, and to a broader extent, the entire collection, endeavors to disrupt. The Adinkra poem that concludes the book is one of the oldest poems I’ve written. There’s this popular notion that your first book is a culmination of a lifetime’s worth of writing. I wrote this poem before almost any other piece in ‘Salt Water’, and it was born from a fascination I had.

“I was fixated on honoring indigenous black linguistics, which is where much of ‘Salt Water’ originates from. In terms of the sequence of the book, Adinkra was originally supposed to feature midway. However, after collaborating with brilliant editors, we realized it would be more fitting as the closing piece. 

“With this arrangement, we leave the readers to piece together their interpretations of the Adinkra. This offers them some poetic guidance, letting them explore the underlying layers from the stanzas’ interpretations, without necessarily providing outright definitions.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Kweku reciting selections from Saltwater Demands a Psalm.

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