Confession: When Jess Riz first suggested I buy New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu) , I was excited to broaden my reading horizons. That's not the confession. I was excited because I had heard Safia Elhillo's name several times, but hadn't encountered her work, and was eager to read it. That's also not the confession. The confession is: when the book arrived, I pulled Safia's chapbook out first, and read through the first few poems, and I didn't get it. I understood it. I appreciated that there was technical mastery, and that the poet was clearly talented, but I didn't get why Jess and several other poets had lauded how amazing Safia's work was. After flipping back and forth through the poems, I thought "these are fine, but what's the big deal".
I was so curious that when I was asked by an organizer who I would most like to see feature at a poetry venue, Safia's was the first name I gave. I thought, maybe, like several other poets whose work I love, you had to see Safia perform to understand why her work was so popular. This is not exactly true.
Safia's performance of her work is perfect. It's not traditionally electrifying or boundary-pushing. It's honest. Which is a word I usually use for someone whose work isn't good. But hers is. Her feature grabbed me, not because her performance was captivating, but because I realized that her full fortyish minute set, made up of at least a dozen poems, was also One Poem. Her book, The January Children, is a collection of poems that function as one story broken up into many parts. This is a common manuscript idea that many poets attempt but few achieve. Elhillo's book more than achieves, it transcends.
I ordered her book immediately after her feature (it was not quite out yet at the time of the show), and was excited when it came in the mail. But, for some reason, I didn't read it right away.
This morning, I had some errands to run that required a quick bus ride, and I thought I'd read part of the book on the way to the errand, some on the way back, and finish it after work. Instead, I got off the bus on the way to do my errands, sat down on a bench, and finished reading it. I ran my errands, got back on the bus, started rereading it, and finished it for the second time when I got home. I don't think I've enjoyed a poetry collection so much since I first encountered Grzegorz Wróblewski's Kopenhaga.
Writing a single interaction with this book seems insufficient for how important it was in making me want to restart this project. I'm going to read it a third time so that I can figure out precisely how I can speak to this book with the respect it speaks to everyone fortunate enough to read it.
Sixty-two out of five stars. Do recommend.
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.