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Headliner Spotlight: Kweku Abimbola

Our first Nossrat Yassini Poetry Prize winner, chosen by Camille Dungy, is the fabulous Kweku Abimbola, for his debut collection Saltwater Demands a Psalm. His work, concerned as it is with the fundamentals of being human—place and identity—is perfect for the task of inaugurating the tradition of the Prize. Beyond simply being great in themselves, Abimbola’s poems tell us something about why we make poetry in the first place: poetry is one of the most powerful ways to bear witness to life. The lives he’s concerned with are Black lives, both in Africa (he’s of mixed West African descent) and the United States, and he captures them in celebration as well as mourning. 

The poem I’ve cued up in the clip above; “Adinkrahene”, is from Saltwater. Its title is one of the many symbols used in Ghanaian culture, known as adrinkra. The adinkrahene is a set of concentric circles, and is associated with leadership, greatness, and charisma. That might suggest a king or at least a big man on campus, but Abimbola uses it in a more egalitarian fashion, to evoke a dance circle in an illustration of Black joy. The verse is musical enough for us to almost feel the beat: “Body rolls into leg work, slows/ into a jiggy bop, Zanku! Zanku!/ ignites her shoulders with poplocks,/ hits dem folks, freezes, winds a sho-ki-ki/ shoki”. Different dances and slang are shouted or mentioned in a diasporic whirlwind of speech tied to no particular mouth, because the people are united, and the body becomes “a prism of rhythm,” a vessel for the spiritual force at work in the music. “Our songed sons make sculptures to time,” Ambibola declares. I love this transformation of a noun into a verb, suggesting that one does not merely listen to or even dance to a song—music is much deeper than that. It changes us. To truly feel the music is to get songed. And what a great definition of dance—a sculpture to time! The poem manages to draw us into the dance scene and drop some philosophy at the same time. The joy is palpable, but there’s also a sense that having fun is serious business, as it ought to be. 

Kweku Abimbola will read on Saturday, April 13, at the 7 PM reading in the Dimond Library's Courtyard Reading Room. Check our Schedule page for more info about the Festival's offerings, and the Featured Poets page for a full bio.


—Matthew Mallory Dinaro