An Indies Introduce Q&A with Kweku Abimbola

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Kweku Abimbola is the author of Saltwater Demands a Psalm: PoemsKweku Abimbola is the author of Saltwater Demands a Psalm: Poems, a Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce selection.

Born in the Gambia in 1997, 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, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2023. The début collection received the First Book Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2022. Abimbola is a finalist for the 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and the second-place winner of the Furious Flower 2020 poetry contest. He has work published and forthcoming in Shade Literary Arts20.35 AfricaThe CommonObsidianSUNU Journal, and elsewhere. Abimbola’s writing primarily investigates colonization, Black mourning, Black boyhood, Black aliveness, gender politics, and the spiritual consequences of climate change in West Africa. He lives in Detroit and works as a teaching artist for the literary nonprofit Inside Out Literary Arts, where he holds workshops in poetry and creative writing for middle school students in Detroit Public Schools.

Nikita Imafidon of Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, served on the panel that selected Abimbola’s debut for Indies Introduce. “I was blown away by Saltwater Demands a Psalm,” said Imafidon of the collection. “Combining Ghanaian pictographs with the grave result of being Black in America, Abimbola honors the victims of police violence. Each person is renamed and reimagined, allowing them to be rebirthed. Abimbola incorporates both Black and African themes into an enchanting collection that is as sacred as a bowl of jollof rice. Saltwater Demands a Psalm is a call that you want to respond to with as much joy as reverence.”

Here Abimbola and Imafidon discuss Saltwater Demands a Psalm.

Nikita Imafidon: Ghanaian Adinkra symbols are a crucial part of the collection. How did you decide to incorporate pictographs into Saltwater?

Kweku Abimbola: One of my biggest missions with Saltwater — and with my writing overall — is to decolonize language. Adinkra symbols embody this de-colonial energy perfectly because they are indigenous Ghanaian forms of language, proverb, and metaphor that existed before the nadir of British colonization and the linguistic shackles of Victorian English. Moreover, given the proliferation of these symbols across the Black diaspora I incorporated them to pay homage to the resilience of Black linguistics.

NI: The collection deals with African as well as Black ancestry and culture. How has your Ghanaian background changed your understanding of Blackness and the fight for liberation?

KA: Ghana’s history is uniquely embroiled in the global histories of slavery and colonization. The infamous “Door of No Return” in Elmina Castle along Ghana’s southwestern coast was the final stopping point for approximately seven million Africans before enslavement in the Western hemisphere. Fast forward a few hundred years, and on March 6, 1957, we became the first West African nation to declare independence from Britain.  Even the black star that shines in the middle of our flag was inspired by Marcus Garvey’s infamous Black Star Line. Ultimately, being Ghanaian has taught me to view the Black diaspora as a dialectic such that our liberation depends on the collective liberation of Black peoples across the globe.

NI: Both Black death and grieving those deaths are major themes in the poems. Which of your own grieving rituals appear in this collection?

KA: I practice the rituals of libation and altar-making. One of my favorite aspects of libation is its diasporic afterlife. For example, it is not uncommon to see rappers in music videos pouring a little bit of liquor from double-stacked white cups, or brown paper bags, for those who’ve departed. While we might recite different lyrics back home, in Ghana the sentiment remains the same, the ancestors are thirsty to commune with us, and we must remember to give them drink.

NI: Similarly, Black joy, strength, and resurrection are present in Saltwater. Why is it important to create space for sharing positive Black experiences?

KA: Black joy is. It is not a response to oppression, nor is it a temporary band-aid for the wounds of anti-Black racism. Our songs did not begin on the cane fields or within the hulls of slave ships. As such, I was so adamant to center joy in this collection because America’s media landscape has become overrun with images of Black trauma. It is one thing for Black writers and creators to critically engage with the traumas of Black history, it is a separate discussion when our media outlets begin to normalize Black trauma as a singular defining characteristic of Blackness.

NI: The poems in this collection are written rhythmically like songs. Why did you incorporate this element into the work?

KA: The rhythmic quality of the work is an ode to the drumming that accompanies some forms of indigenous Ghanaian oral poetry. For example, the funeral dirges from Ghana’s Akan tribe, which inspire the Birth Elegies in my collection, are composed as songs, and usually performed with choral accompaniment. More than this, I see rhythm as a medium of conjuring. Whether with a stick and drumhead, clapping palms, or boot-soled feet, beat-making opens the door to worlds and temporal modes adjacent to our own. So, let’s jam!

Saltwater Demands a Psalm: Poems by Kweku Abimbola (Graywolf Press, 9781644452271, Paperback Poetry, $16) On Sale: 4/4/2023.

Find out more about the author on his Twitter account @kwxkuu.

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