In a special #TTPBookMeet, Turn The Page hosted a team, which included Elijah B Wojji, Wobusobozi Kangere, Rachel Kunihira, and Gloria Nanfuka from The Lantern Meet of Poets, some known and others so “ancient” that they are unknown to some of the younger book club members and other members of the public.
Over the last decade, The Lantern Meet of Poets has churned out a body of good work, both in quality and quantity, totaling up to thirteen recitals; before their very last, the #MovingOn recital which will be held on October 8, 2016. We were delighted to have a conversation with them, as detailed below.
TTP: We have been through names like The Lantern Meet of Poets, The Meet, The Lantern Meet Foundation, and Meet Lounge. What are all these changes insinuating, or illustrating, especially when we consider the very foundations or beginnings of the Lantern Meet of Poets?
LMOP: The group is the Lantern Meet of Poets, and within the Lantern Meet of Poets, we began The Lantern Meet Foundation to help pursue the interests of the Lantern Meet of Poets pushing forward poetry as an integral form of our literature structure. The beginning was, at least for me, an invitation by Jason (Ntaro) – I think. I had left the university, but most of them (The meet) were still there.
The invitation was to the Big Hut, at the National Theatre, where we used to meet. We met without any sense of seriousness attached to it. I went with my poetry, which was in a book. We were few people – five to six, and when done, we would walk back to campus, where we would continue the conversation. It became a family.
As an engineer, I did not have that many outlets for reading books so meeting people who loved reading and writing was a fascinating thing. We got to know each other. We were spending more time together. We were writing more. After about a year, we wanted people to hear our poetry. That was how we conceived holding the first recital in 2008.
TTP: How was the first recital?
LMOP: It was free. We did not expect anyone to come. We begged the National Theatre to let us use the CICP room. We had sodas and samosas on sale. We used the staircase as our stage. We used platforms from downstairs. We had about 30 poems. No microphones. It was amazing the place was pocked really, really packed. People enjoyed it, at least those who heard the poems.
At that time, we had been meeting for more than six months. We sat for weeks, just choosing the poetry. There was no theme we just picked the ones we liked. Only when we saw how other people reacted, was when we realized that it was not just about us.
The Sunday Meets are so serious. Poems take lots of criticisms both mixed and good. After the first recital, lots of people joined. The membership changed and we started becoming more structured.
TTP: When and how did the structures develop?
LMOP: In our second year, 2009, that was when we started discussing the way forward. In the process of discussing the structure, that was when the fellowship of The Meet came up. Guy Mambo became President. It took a lot to get guy out of the Presidency. It nearly broke The Meet. I left the country round about that time – in 2010.
The Meet changed. Our poetry changed. We grew up. Our poetry changed as we grew up. In the beginning, the poetry was about what we went through, saw, our dreams, all the love flowing through our hearts, but as we grew and more people joined, and then the social justice aspect came up. It was then that we began participating in poetry competitions, because around the same time, what is now Babishai Niwe started. Barbishai Niwe was drawn to the female gender. We had a discussion about that, and decided to continue writing because we wanted to be more inclusive.
TTP: If I may, the first recital was untitled, which may mean that there was no formula for doing recitals, and this is the time when you are indeed the very first people doing it, and for the very first time. It could also mean that your concentration was on the writing and maybe sharing it amongst yourselves during the Sunday fellowship. Please tell us about that writing; the experience? Who is writing? What are they writing about? Who has been encouraging them, or it is an innate talent, who is criticizing their work who is recognizing and celebrating them?
LMOP: I cannot speak for the rest, because when I joined I was really just an outsider. Even my invitation came through a friend of a friend. I found people who knew each other I cannot speak for their experiences, because they seemed to spur each other on.
For me; I journal, I read a lot, then I started writing poetry; which was something I used to share with my friends. It was in the talking about my poetry that Jason (Ntaro) got to know about me and invited me to The Meet. It was not until we were in The Meet that we had other writers criticizing our work, by giving us a place where we could learn to be better. I wrote everywhere in a note book, on a taxi, on a flight, and I think they did too.
TTP: You directed the very first recital, in 2008. Now, we are going in for the very last one. Please help us compare and contrast the preparations, organizations, and delivery of the first one, and what we should expect of the last one, or your imagination of it?
LMOP: It is not that we really had no idea about producing a recital, because from high school, most of us had, in one way or another, been involved with theatre. When I was in high school, we were writing plays, we were acting. We used that experience to essentially create the recital.
It was a bit difficult. Not all poems are written for recital. We each recited about three poems. It really was a team effort. We thought of each step as we went along.
TTP: Did you get to a point where you realized that you were writing in the same style, that you were all moving in the same direction?
LMOP: That was the subject of very many arguments in the Sunday Meet. In any group, there are those who are more vocal than others, and when we were criticizing work, we found that when some of the most revered, hyped voices, which thought a like, with a similar outlook on life critiques, we began to notice two things. One, people began to leave, because they were not being heard, or to write what they thought would be acceptable. It was not intentional. It became something that we had to consciously discuss and address. We began rotating the moderation, because the moderator set the tone. That way, more people could be heard. Regardless, as time went on the style sort of became the same:
LMOP: After Broken Voices of the Revolution, there was a change. The style became different. More voices were embraced. Even in a marriage, when two people have been together for so long, they start looking, thinking and behaving the same way.
Like Rachel said it was addressed. Recently, someone wrote a very disturbing poem, about cannibalism. Back then, it could not have even been read.
TTP: When you compare and contrast 2008 and 2016 what kind of effort goes into preparing for a recital? We are impressed by the fact that some of the performers are not the writers especially in a city that doesn’t have that many people trained as curators, directors, or writers.
LMOP: l have never been a mother, or ever will be, but I try to imagine what it would be like to give birth just as it is with a recital. The emotions are so intense. You approach both the same way – I believe.
LMOP: Between 2008 and 2016, there has been a greater degree of professionalism. I would say you have to factor in a couple of things to appreciate that. When we came in, there was no training. It was merely experimental. In 2008, all we had in mind was; “put poems on the stage, and that’s it”.
In 2016 there is a pattern. There are certain steps we must go through; there is the selection of the poetry, the arrangement of that poetry, so that it is telling a coherent story, then there is the rehearsing of that poetry. What has changed is that there has been different performers, different producers, each introducing a different dynamic. The recital is a collective product. Everybody who is involved contributes something. We have tried to standardize some of the processes, but it is still a “creation in motion” activity.
TTP: It so happens that, today, there are several entities which are heavily invested in poetry, thus the description that Kampala is bound to become the poetry capital of Africa. There is a lot of good work out there, and an equally good number of people interested in sharing it. We now have poets like Wake, sharing their poems as rap songs on websites like thetribeug.com. When you consider that, and the fact that there was essentially nothing when you started out, that all these people have come because you showed them the way. What are your reflections on that?
LMOP: One, I am very proud to be part of the Lantern Meet story from the very start. Two, I do not think we showed the way in the sense; “guys come and do this!” What happened was the fact that when we did it, and succeeded, it showed others that it is possible and that unleashed many of the platforms.
Contrary to popular opinion, I have always maintained that the more platforms we have, the memories each is catering to a different kind of taste that one platform may not be able to cater to otherwise why would someone want to start it up in the first place.
When we started out, what brought us together was the void. There was nothing. We asked ourselves how we would make people like poetry, and we went into that. If doing that gave people the inspiration to get started, then I am proud of that, but I think that it is a very good thing for the poetry community to have many platforms.
TTP: How have these different entities helped one another? Do you feel there is nurturing or encouragement of one another across the board?
LMOP: For the large part, you are going to get the sense that they share the same poems, the same content. Also, you are going to find, behind the scenes, that the same people are behind the different spaces.
We are not yet at the level where we are organized well enough to have formal relations. Are there some rivalries? That is true. We are human beings, even siblings from the same womb rival. Thankfully, we have greater degree of cooperation than I have seen before.
TTP: Indeed. Now, there are names; Guy Mambo, Rachel Kunihira, Pearl Mugala, Kagayi Peter, Emmanuel Ngabire, Philip Njagala, Lenny Busingye and more. Starting with Rachel, who is here with us, I noticed that a gentleman like David Kangye, who is well, you know, well read, did not know who she was when they met today. Myself I do not know who some of these people are. Who and where are they?
LMOP: The Lantern Meet Of Poets are, how can I put it? Well, I like to think of the Lantern Meet of Poets in two phases; before 2012 and after 2012.
Before 2012, there was a huge majority of us, who were either students, or in the early years of our careers. After 2012, most people were absorbed into the job market and responsibilities like family. Thus, the interaction reduced.
For many of us, the interaction was personal, and it continued that way, but not at an institutional level. That is why it is easy for a David not to have met a Rachel, because the way The Meet is structured, is that it is loose, it is free. People come in and go out as they please.
There have been over 300 poets that have gone through the Lantern Meet of Poets circles. Not all of them have had their poetry performed at a recital. Not all of them have had their poetry published in an anthology by the Lantern Meet of Poets.
Largely, it is a thing of passion. They came together to meet the needs of their passion. And when the exigencies of existence took over, they went on. One of the things we want to address going forward is that; to make sure that the poetry we have written over the last decade can get out in a more sustainable form than a recital which only a few hundred people get to watch.
LMOP: To add to that, the recital caters to poetry that can be recited. If a poem did not lend itself well to the stage, it was not performed. Not necessarily because it was not a good poem, but because it was not suitable for performance.
There is a lot of poetry in the Lantern Meet of Poets archives that is exactly that. Publishing addresses that, and it will.
LMOP: For example, Broken Voices of the revolution had a lot of poetry that was collected, and Winston Churchill was one of the poems that everybody loved, but it did not lend itself well to the performance. We added it because of its importance to the themes; its significance to the themes it touched.
TTP: Broken Voices of the Revolution was the first body of work that you outed in a sustainable manner. Did it scare or worry you before then that some or most of your work would be lost especially to people beyond yourselves? What made the decision to have that anthology?
LMOP: One, we were not scared because the archives are there, the poetry is there, at least in the large part. We have poetry, all the way from 2007. Perhaps it is only fire we should be worried about, and in sha Allah, nobody is going to direct it our way.
Broken Voices was really momentous. It was bigger than us. The country was celebrating fifty years of independence. As a group of poets, as a generation that had spent the bulk of, the fifty percent of that time, we did not feel the promise of independence had been realized. This was not something that one demagogue to convince people about. It was a feeling that was expressed throughout. Whoever you met was articulating the same ideas. We have not had that much involvement as we did with Broken Voice, because the discussions that led to that anthology took over six months. They were heated, intense discussions of people who were discussing and writing.
I must admit that as the Lantern Meet, we have a particular attitude which sometimes works against us, to say that we have a particular standard of poetry which we want to present to the public and in many cases, we do not feel that we have reached that level. During that season, those qualifications went inside. We agreed that whether the work is there or not, there are important things that people want to say, and that have to be preserved for prosperity.
TTP: When you say that you tend to define the poetry that you intend to share with the public, it means that you are quite particular about influences and their impact on creating of classic work. I have read, in the Broken Voices of the Revolution, talked to some of you, about for example, the music you listen to; Bob Dylan, D’Angelo, Sade, Fela Kuti, The Roots, Jazz, Geoffrey Oryema, Rachel Magoola, Suzzana Owiyo, and not so many people listen to this. I do not know what you are reading, but it must be some equally classic readings, plus the knowledge that the founding members were ladies and gentlemen from either Namagunga or Namilyango. When you consider all this, don’t you think it alienates a lot of people?
LMOP: Well, not really. I for one was not from Namagunga or Namilyango, but I have been there since 2007, from the very beginning.
As we all think or begin; let us consider the world business or startups, for example. You are going to start either as friends or with your family or with your colleagues. Your first clients are going to be your friends or your OBs. So, it is a natural thing. That association and relationship was close and it provided that the initial impetus. It was a case of using the networks that we had.
When it comes to tasks and preferences, I can assure you that there is no place that you are going to find as diverse a group of influence as the Lantern Meet of Poets. We read completely different material. The one thing we agreed on is this; poetry must be able to move the reader or the listener. Secondly, does the poem meet the taste of the language that we call poetry? Use of language? Aspects of identity that Ugandans can be able to identify? Thirdly, there is also the aspect of the essentials; imagery, style, and more which separate poetry from ordinary writing, the kind that separates Broken Voices from a report on bees or pollination.
TTP: Your influence, as the Lantern Meet Of Poets, on yourselves, other poets, other writers, on students, and the audience, both local and foreign, has been phenomenal. How, specifically, has it influenced them?
LMOP: Let me take quick stab at that one. One of the most fundamental principles in the Lantern Meet Of Poets circles is free thought, and free thought is not just having the right to an opinion, it is about having the right to an educated opinion. [Elijah is correcting me that it is in fumed, but I will insist on educated]. Educated meaning that there is got to be a body of work that you refer to. There is got to be a body of work that you refer to. There is got to be a coherence in your ideology. For example, we have people who are anti-religious and who are atheists. They read different works. You have to look at people from their different perspectives. We have people from a feminist perspective, those from a Pan-Africa perspective, those from an evangelical, born again persuasion and from a Roman Catholic one. Everybody brings in their own persuasion.
What we always try to do is challenge the stereotypical thinking; you know, “accept this because it’s your teacher said, or accept this because it is your pastor said, or accept this because it is your elder brother said”. Wherever we go, we try to encourage free thought and to interrogate what they know.
In one of the schools we went to, the teachers told the administrators to warn us to calm down. The students wanted to throw out the syllabus because it was colonial. In another one, which is a Muslim founded school, the discussions on religion were so extreme that they created rifts within some families. They challenged the authority of sacred text when juxtaposed with the contemporary texts that challenged religious- narrative.
We managed to give people the freedom to challenge ideas, to think critically, and then the chicken came home to roost; they began to challenge us on our own philosophies. One of my proudest moments is meeting your former students challenging the way you think, and forcing you to broaden the way you think. We created the intellectual freedom where people can engage and interact in un orthodox forms. That was how Open Mic, one the first poetry nights came up. It was started by Mark Gordon and Nora Byaruhanga. The spirit of intellectual freedom that we espoused has managed to impact many of the students we worked with as they have gone on to start their own entities.
TTP: You have said that the poetry you write has to be moving, but then I feel that some of it, like The Country You Would Rather not Know About, by Peter Kagayi does not really seem to care about the audience.
LMOP: I think there are two perspectives to it. One it being in the Broken Voices, and the other the general feel of the theme of the recital. It is likely to speak about topics that most people are not happy about. I write because I am a writer, and if I did not write, I would not be true to myself. I gravitate towards other writers because I want to better my writing, but that doesn’t mean I do not see other situations, or that I don’t ask myself if what my audience would prefer. Some people will read it like a mirror, while others will not find the point. I will not speak for The Meet, but I have shared similar sentiments.
TTP: Even by the mere tittles of your recitals, particularly: The Awakening, The Man-You-Script and Broken Voices of the Revolution, you have left a reputation, an impression that you are documenting your thoughts on our society. Aren’t recitals – the end of them, depriving us of this?
LMOP: First of all, according to our view, that is the primary objective as a society of poets. It is also one of the things we have been criticized about because we have not talked about the beauty of flowers, and the wonderfulness of the weather. As I said before, we discuss a lot. We probably talk more than we write. In that talking emerges a collectiveness of ideas. Like Rachel said, there are strong personalities in The Meet. People don’t just do things because so and so has said.
TTP: We are here in Kampala, but outside Kampala, you will meet people who say that we should not be writing because it’s not our duty to write, that it is a white man’s responsibility to write. Don’t you believe we are going to miss out on people like you who have been exploring more as you document?
LMOP: We are not going to stop writing. We will not stop getting our work out there. Will the recital be missed? Naturally. Anything at the end is missed. Even a mad man who dies is missed. That is not in dispute. Our position is that it is not leaving a void. The space for oral poetry, for performance poetry is there, vibrant and active.
There are certain spaces which for us, as a body of people whose concern is writing and the advancement of literature, are unoccupied, that need to be occupied, that need to be developed. For us, it is all about the growth of the industry. We want to get to a point where it is possible for someone to have a career as a poet, and not part-time hustler, part-time engineer or all that.
Our belief is that where everybody is running to, the Diaspora, with thoughts of getting their work to UK or America, there are certain people who made the sacrifice to create the industry there so that we can run there. From a nativist point of view, we believe that we need to create our opportunities for ourselves. If we do not benefit, at least our children or those who come after us will.
I must state categorically, The Lantern Meet is not closing. The recital is not going to be our exit. We might even appear on some stages.
TTP: Your concentration is poetry, but when you realize, most of the work, by Ugandan writers has been collected in form of short story anthologies. Well, save for three tittles; Poetry in Iotion by Ivan Mulumba, A Nation in Labor by Harriet Anena and the headline that Morning by Peter Kagayi, all from the most recent time. Should we presume that your concentration will be on outing more poetry publications?
LMOP: True our concentration will be on publishing.
TTP: How will you reconcile that with the fact that we are still considered as people who do not read books?
LMOP: When we started the recital, we did not know how many people would come. Even my own siblings who were made sick by the slightest idea of anything artsy came.
That is the challenge we are embracing right now. We need to look into the question of reading. I cannot tell you here and now that we have a strategy that will go like this or that, but it’s a gap we have identified and it is taking us where our energy needs to go – putting books into people’s hands.
TTP: I understand that most of the work you recite goes through the Sunday Meet, where it is put under scrutiny and people can critique it without being biased. I wonder if, at some point in time, it forms an invisible hedge where people, who are expressing out of that, are pushed back in or out by the style of critique.
LMOP: One of the beautiful things about the Lantern Meet of Poets is that people are so different. The beauty that makes the Lantern Meet of Poets the Lantern Meet of Poets is the uniqueness. There are poems which will not be appreciated by one of us, but will be by another. It is a challenge to the writer, but also, it encourages them to be open minded.
When you are engaging a poem it is like when you are meeting someone for the very first time. They can either challenge you, or otherwise. True, the hedge existed, but it was broken by the efforts of our differences.
LMOP: Because we spend more time together, it would be disastrous to stick to what we believe. We resolve that bringing on board new, different people who challenge our beliefs helps us improve our quality by asking us to examine ourselves in ways we had not imagined before.
TTP: I must applaud you for maintaining an identical style over the years.
LMOP: I must say that, that was luck and providence. We do believe a lot in continuity in everything we do, and as was set by Rachel. The style in which we do things, perform, direct, and handle several aspects of the process have had an impact on creating that standard. Whoever has come has inherited that standard and added their own personality. The Lantern Meet of Poets approach to performing poetry is more about presenting the character in the poem and not the character of the performer.
TTP: That reminds me, I believe that in all the other art forms, if curiosity is a byproduct of what happens, even at the Lantern Meet of Poets, is that something that you would be satisfied with?
LMOP: We prefer more diversity. Where we require uniformity is with the attitude, so that whoever is doing a poem takes it seriously. The performer has the ultimate responsibility to interpret the poem, reimagine the character, and then to create the performance that people want. It is inclusive.
TTP: On documenting society, one of your new poems, Dizzying Heights, which is an amazing, is a wonderful reflection of the history of Buganda, Uganda and its developments, and Greek mythology. Would you please be kind enough to recite or read it out to us?
LMOP: *Recites it*.
TTP: Hear! Typical Lantern Meet of Poets recital!
LMOP: Is it the structure, or style? I feel like it is those evangelical pastors who always maintain a particular style of preaching. You listen to one, and you want to sound like them.
LMOP: I cannot contest that. I would like to think that when you have a group. Which has lived together for a while, like a family, they tend to sound alike. It is something about human nature that we cannot explain. They develop a collective mind and style, with the aspect of the rhythm and breathe control, and all of those are controlled by the need to make it easy for the audience to listen and follow but at the same time not making it too slow. There are very many differences. Every individual has their own.
LMOP: When you read a poem, the story or style should harmonize because of the rhymes and energies; every style has its own rhythm. For me that has to come through. That’s is why you can identify an OJ (Ojakol Omerio) poem from a Guy (Guy Mambo) poem. Guy’s poems are more language. He does not have that strong of a style, one similar to many. When you hear his poetry, you will hear that kind of a sing song style, and that is what I wanted the listeners to get from the very beginning. OJ’s poems are more of energy. The words he uses. Naturally, that is what came out. What matters is how you punctuating it. There should not be a full stop where it should not.
TTP: As we conclude, how many shows do you have on the 8th of October?
LMOP: Only one.
TTP: I understand that this is the last but we need to have an encore. It does not make any sense to simply say we are going. Just one last one, and not in October, or on that is available on other media, like recordings.
TTP: How are we ever going to find all this body of work, work which is not readily available?
LMOP: Right now that is our main focus. To find ways to make our work available and accessible. It is our biggest priority. About the encore, I cannot promise, but there will be a recording made available and accessible to as many people as possible.
The Sunday meets are the life of the Lantern Meet of Poets. That is one thing that cannot go away. That is where all the writing gets done.
TTP: If you feel like doing what our President has done, it is OK. We are used.
TTP: I am not convinced. There is no moving on.
TTP: Is there anything that you can tell us, that you have not told any other people about the October 8th?
LMOP: We always have this thing about doing a surprise, about the audience coming to see things for the first time. What we can tell you is that there is going to be something different, I hope you will see it, some of you will miss it. We have attempted to incorporate the elements of performance from all the recitals. In some, a few sketches are repeated, in other cases, particular performance styles are repeated. We will be doing some things which in earlier recitals were not successfully attempted. It being the last show, statically, we want it to be representative of everything that we have done from the beginning. It is going to be a mixture of concepts. If you see it, you might recognize a performance from an old recital, unless it is your first recital.
TTP: Thank you for joining us, and sharing your company with our book club.
LMOP: You are welcome.