Interview with Boss Henekou, Curator of April Poetry

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Boss Henekou is a poet, playwright, literary translator, co-founder and director of the International Festival of Letters and Arts, and professor of English at the University of Lomé in Togo. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Nebraska’s Creative Writing Program and an African-American Fellow at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. His recent works include hair and nails (poetry) and Friday night on the 13 (short stories). It also curates Zócalo’s April Poetry Selections. So we sat down in the Green Room to chat about some of his favorite West African poets, how he got the nickname “Devil” as a very studious kid, and his appreciation of jazz.

Q:

What poems or poets influenced you or stayed with you?

A:

There are quite a few poets that I like. I had just posted on Facebook about Akpalu Vinoko, who in living memory is arguably the greatest poet in the Ewe community (covering Ghana, Togo and Benin). And Akpalu Vinoko might be my first mentor. Also, Kofi Anyidoho and Kofi Awoonor, who compose their poetry primarily in Ewe and write about the cultural flavors and principles of their community. Kwame Dawes is at the University of Lincoln, Nebraska, and he writes in English – you can feel the mystics of Ghana and Jamaica close to his heart. And Cossy Guenou, who is very important in the poetic landscape of Togo. Among contemporary poets, I can cite a couple: Anas Atakora, Renaud Dossavi, Kokouvi Dzifa Galley, Kokou Kpami. I have a lot of poets in Togo and outside Togo…[Zócalo poetry editor] Connie Voisine, for example, is one of the poets I read, whose works I love and who stick with me.


Q:

How to procrastinate?

A:

I have a lot to do every day – in addition to my teaching, I write poetry and am currently the director of the university library and archives. But I think it all depends on what comes up, what needs to be done and what is urgent. If I’m tired, I mostly go to sleep. Or I’ll go play football. If I start doing this, I can’t do anything else.


Q:

How has the pandemic affected the way you view poetry?

A:

In our region, in Togo and in most West African countries, the cultural sector has suffered greatly from the COVID pandemic. They were the first group affected, as gatherings and activities were banned, and cost and internet access made it difficult to organize online events. But the pandemic also offered an opportunity for creation because we were the first to stay at home. Staying at home pushed us to read more, and to create more. I wrote my next book during the pandemic. The book is an account of my stay in the United States


Q:

Where did you write the book?

A:

Most of the text was written in my bedroom, and possibly parts on the first floor, which is unfinished. I spent part of the day writing in the unfinished part of the building, and at night I wrote in my room. And the rare opportunity I had to sneak onto campus, I was writing a text in my office.


Q:

How do you decide if you will write a poem in French or in English?

A:

In fact, I can’t decide. When it comes to English or French, the poems come in whatever language they want to be. I choose when I want to write in Ewe, and the poem comes when I choose to write. In West Africa, especially with our post-colonial situation and the borders that surround us, the borders that divide us, this landscape also exists in my mind. It is therefore not easy to switch from English to French and from French to English. The compartments are there.



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