“Poems are like a lyric nagging”: An Interview with Petero Kalulé / Students of “Publishing Contemporary Literature”

Petero Kalulé is a Ugandan poet whose first collection, Kalimba, appeared with Guillemot Press in 2019. I taught Kalimba to a group of final-year undergraduate students at the University of Exeter in autumn 2019. Our discussion ranged from typographic experimentation to cybernetics to the many musicians and poets whose names appear in the book’s pages. For part of the seminar, I asked students to write interview questions for Kalulé. Those questions form the basis of this interview. It was conducted via shared digital documents in early December, 2019. My thanks to my students and to Petero Kalulé for their intellectual curiosity and generosity throughout. 

—Abram Foley

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How did your relationship with Guillemot Press emerge? 

A chance operation. I am so fortunate. I had read their booklet by Sister Mary Agnes that is now out of print. And I loved everything about it. I sent them an email with my manuscript, which I thought they would reject––but they loved it.  

The editors Sarah and Luke are so generous and supportive of my ideas. They hardly changed my manuscript.  

How would you describe your creative process in conceiving and writing Kalimba? 

Poems are like a lyric nagging. In a sense, poems are always there before I compose them, somewhere ringing in my eardrum. And so, writing the poem becomes a process of translation that compels me to place these tunes onto the page.  

Being a lawyer and poet is quite an unusual combination. Do you find that the two practices mutually inform each other? 

With poetry I am trying to deal with a way of breaking away from the calculability/determinability of law (i.e., Law as form, law as border, law as sovereign, law as a coercive economics). Poetry allows me to play outside of, beyond, and away from these constraints. Put another way, poetry (my kinda poetryallows me to unsettle form and imagine things anew perhaps towards a radical abolitionary thought that exceeds the carcerality of law whilst challenging also the police order of politics as Rancière might say. 

Where does the boundary between poetry and music lie in your work? Did you encounter any challenges when converging poetic and musical forms? 

There are no boundaries. Boundaries are not things in music. And if they exist the music out throttles them. And so, I do not want to differentiate music from poetry. I like to think that they leak into each other, they inform each other, as friends do. 

That said, there are tensions still between music and poetry, especially in the Western tradition, which I grapple with. For example, a poem seeks direction, but music abhors direction, music is free. 

Music does away with and yet intensifies meaning all at once; music tarries. A poem ends.  

There is an intensity and immediacy to music that we do not have with a poem. There is a loss of simplicity and memory too within a poem. 

And so, in Kalimba, I am trying to recover and repurpose these musical elements (simplicity immediacy, intensity) in a playful way. I am trying to see how I can make my poems sing to an unpredictable elsewhere. Which is why I hum and chant sometimes, when I read. I wish for my words to always return to their sound centres 

How did you decide on the Cecil Taylor quote to open your collection? What does it mean to you? 

This quote is a kind of libation or greeting to and with many ancestor poetsspirit friends, lovers, and musicians who deal in things we cannot grasp but feel 

With this quote, I am also invoking Taylor’s heterogeneous ideas of music, image, sound, architectonics, composition, sociality, bridges, ballet, remembrance, queerness, etc. There is a ballad Taylor plays where he says all this better than I can ever do. “This Nearly Was Mine is an otherworldly ballad The World of Cecil Taylor leans into, pulls, throws, and unravels all sorts of what I call nearly-mine feelings – within and without. Taylor’s pedal work is a numinous sustenance of the trance. Something we know yet cannot understand. This is what this quote is seeking to do…To tune the reader’s ear to the indeterminacy of play, trance, ritual, and dance.  

One of your poems is called “Transcribing Noise.” Is this what you think of your role as a poet? 

I do not see myself as having a role apart from that of trying to listen and listening well.  

That poem is not really about transcribing or noise. It is an ear étude. It is about listening and the responsiveness that listening may bring or open us to. Transcribing Noise is a kind of demand to listen that is always pressing on me to people and friends and things around me that press on me. In much of my writing I am concerned about listening as a kind of ethics of surrender. These are things I am working through, things I fail and struggle with in my personal life. Many times, this listening overwhelms me, which I guess is what the noise is about. 

What significance does the kalimba hold in contrast to other instruments, why did you make this the title of the collection? In what ways would you say the practical playing of the kalimba informed the form and structure of your poems? 

Juliane Okot Bitek and I were talking about the various meanings of this title that an English reader may fail to hear. Kalimba means so much more in my other tongue.  

Kalimba is about the complex-simplicity of small touchable things and their intensities, their plucking and their chiming. I am very much interested in how this unplucking resonates as a sound board and the kinds of wonder/wander it stirs. 

Conceptually, Kalimba is also concerned with craft(y)ness/ deceptionbetraying. To betray could be as my friend Keguro Macharia reminds me to worry, to trouble, to tremble, to cause to dance. African Griottes and Griots are crafty ly(r)ing trickstersWe praise them for their deceptive sway and lure. All these meanings can be read into Kalimba 

While reading your poetry collection, we noticed how the structure of your poems at times reflected waterfalls and notes on a page of sheet music, was this your intention, and if not, what does the structure represent? 

This is the first time I am hearing of them being described as waterfalls, but I love water. I have been thinking a lot about water and rivers with a friend Clari we are working on a project @gogonolek on Twitter of what I call marsh-river-raft-feather poetics. With Clari, I am trying to trace the flow/rivering of water and the trickle and swell of sounds it mimics, follows, vapours and gathers. In many ways water is also a kind of music. I am thinking of the sliding notes of a trombone, a trickling cornet whisper, the shuffling of a tambourine or the bouncing subtones on a later Trane record, and oh wow, the glory of Alice Coltrane’s cosmic-modal cloud chromatics. These are things I try to replicate. 

So, I am playing. I don’t know if all this is intentionally structured or not. I do not really care when doing it. One can’t describe the moment of play, its extemporaneous freedom. Something else takes over. I hear things and I have to put them on a pagand this is the form that they choose to take. I am not the first one to do this though, Thelonious Monk, Giuseppi Logan, Betty Carter, Yandé Codou SèneAmiri Baraka, Nate Mackey, Kamau Brathwaite, Ntozake Shange, NourbeSePhilipJoseph Jar man, Dudu Pukwana, Fred Moten, Stephen Jonas, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Amos Tutuola and so many others gave me these tools.

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This interview was conducted by members of the module “Publishing Contemporary Literature,” taught by Abram Foley at the University of Exeter. Students who took part in writing interview questions and editing the interview include: Tarlan Akrad, Elsy Askew, Joseph Boulding, Rex Cleaver, Jaime Corp, Millie Creswell, Augusta Dunsterville, Flo Garnett, Abi Harris, Naomi Hart, Molly Magrath, Holly McSweeney, Alyx Morley, Jessica Smith, Hannah Vile, and Brittany Willis.

Image: Soh-yon Park

Petero Kalulé (@nkoyenkoyenkoye) is a composer, poet, and multi-instrumentalist. Their collection of poems Kalimba was published by Guillemot Press in May 2019.