Greetings. I hope this finds you well. With regards to the above, kindly see below.
My name is Mumbi Macharia, and being a poet is integral to my identity. In fact, some people know me almost exclusively as being a performing spoken word poet and writer. In this blog post, I will endevour to give a detailed account of my life since I began this thing called poetry, till now, and what I hope the future holds for me.
Spoken word poetry – a brief introductory guide
Before I tell you about myself, I think it’s only right that I briefly discuss what spoken word poetry even is.
According to Wikipedia, Spoken word is a poetic performance art that is word-based. It is an oral art that focuses on the aesthetics of word play such as intonation and voice inflection.
P.S, speaking of Wikipedia, I have my own Wikipedia page.
Traditional poetry as we know it, has a lot of set rules, better known as literary devices i.e rhythm, rhyme scheme (such as the Shakespearean sonnet ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG rhyme scheme), metres, etc. In modern times however, poetry evolved into free verse, a style of writing that is divorced from the constraints of traditional poetry.
I have always been a writer, however, I could not for the life of me wrap my head around all the rules of poetry that I learnt in school. Arguably, the study of poetry is what killed poetry. Spoken word is therefore a rebellious re-birth of this art form, with no constraints of structure or melody. It is a unique way of using words. I like to define it as an amalgamation of music and speech.
It’s called spoken word because it is an oral art form, which is written in order to be performed.
Being that spoken word poetry is performance art, it can sound drastically different when read out loud, as opposed to how one would read it on paper. This is because the poet’s identity is also in their performance style. On paper, it is only the writer who will know how the piece flows, where the pauses are, where it gets louder, softer, faster, slower, etc.
My poetry spans a wide range of topics, ranging from love, collective African pride, and the inevitability of heartbreak.
Years ago, when I was in high school, My English teacher signed me up for an inter-school poetry competition, under the category of ‘original composition’. She knew I liked to write, so she figured, why not? I took on the challenge, wrote my first poem, ‘a stained wedding dress’, and we submitted it. (My high school friend, Valerie Mores, has specifically asked that I mention her in this blog post, as she offered me a great deal of encouragement to enter the competition. Thanks, Val!).
On the day of the actual competition, we found out that I had been disqualified, because due to the structure of my poem, the judges decided that my submission ‘did not qualify as poetry’. I was distraught.
Fast forward the years to just a few months ago, I won the Sondeka Award for Spoken Word Poet of the Year 2020, and took home my first ever poetry-related trophy! Life is funny like that.
2016: Kwani? Open Mic, Poetry After Lunch (PAL), and Slam Africa
I should mention, albeit being disqualified from the competition, the organizers decided to let me perform regardless, because I had shown up, and they hadn’t communicated in advance that I had been disqualified. So, after the competition, I got on stage and performed what I had written. Admittedly, the judges liked it, but the rules were the rules, and it didn’t fit into their criteria for poetry.
I later took it upon myself to find more poetry events in Nairobi, in the hopes that I could participate in one of them, and discover what other artists were doing, if there even was a poetry scene. I then stumbled across Kwani? Open Mic. From my preliminary research, it was a monthly show (every first Tuesday of the month) where artists could go sign up and perform. Never before had I heard of the ‘open mic’ concept. This was news to me. Like, an event where anyone can walk in and perform? Sign me up, literally! I was desperate for an audience, and so this was perfect.
Around this time, I was well into my first year in university, studying law. In hindsight, I realize I didn’t know what was coming. I hadn’t wrapped my head around the sacrifices that come with being a law student, and I equally did not know how much time and effort I would later have to put in to my craft, in order to keep writing and performing. I did it, though. Sure, I was late to a few shows, and I missed a few classes, but I made it, and I couldn’t be prouder of myself.
Back to 2016, attending my first Kwani? Open Mic. It was a chilly Tuesday evening, probably drizzling. I arrived at IMAX theaters in Nairobi CBD (the venue of Kwani? open mic at the time), carrying with me my poem and a dream.
Up until that point, I had been extremely shy. I mean, so shy, that I would have blended in with the furniture if I could. For some reason, that night, everything changed. I remember seeing Cindy Ogana for the first time, she was then the host of the open mic. I remember being in awe of her confidence, and her ability to command the attention of the room. Forget everything else I wanted to be when I grow up, from that moment, being as confident as Cindy Ogana was what I wanted to be.
For the first time, listening to all the other performers, I felt like I was surrounded by people who could understand me, and who wouldn’t judge me.
Performers had the option of performing using a microphone, or just speaking up loudly enough for the entire room to hear. Normally, I wasn’t the type of person to be loud, but for some reason, I chose to perform without a microphone. I honestly did not know if I’d be able to project and be audible enough for the entire room to hear, but I had to try. They heard me, and they clapped after my performance. I was home.
Through the grapevine, I heard about Poetry After Lunch, an open mic that happened every Thursday at the Kenya National Theater. At this point, I was determined to attend any and all open mics that I could. I went the following Thursday, performed, and I continued to perform there for the years to come. PAL taught me a lot about community.
Within just months of attending these events, I was the featured poet at both! I had only just started, and I was headlining open mic shows. I mean, where does that happen?
Kwani? Open Mic, and Poetry After Lunch, will always hold a special place in my heart. I performed, wrote, built my confidence, and challenged myself on levels unimaginable.
Then, Slam Africa happened. Prior to my participation, I had attended Slam Africa once as a spectator. I therefore had a bit of an idea of what to expect. Although it was a competition, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like a performance, with artists learning from each other. I remember I was late to the Grand Slam, because I had an exam in school that afternoon. I remember writing as fast as I could, so that I could make it in time for the competition. I passed the exam, and I came in second place (first runners up) at the Grand Slam.
I say all this to say, 2016 was a lot. In a remarkably good way.
I then moved on to trying something new in 2017, hosting events. I am a product of open mic events, and so I was determined to carry the mantle from Kwani? and PAL, and also give a platform to poets. I did this with the help of my good friend and fellow poet Jaaziyah. Together, we organized and hosted two events: Mindful:Mind full and Poets vs Rappers. Jaaziyah and I always reminisce to this day, that the very first time we hosted an event at Creatives Garage, we had made peace with knowing that no one might show up. Well, people did show up, and to us, that was a huge success. We hosted two editions of each event, but, as life goes, we had to pump the breaks and focus on other things. But hey, maybe we’ll host some more in the future?
I’ve done a lot of pretty impressive stuff in the last few years, in terms of featured performances, interviews, and a few shows outside the 254! I graduated this year with a Bachelor of Laws Degree!
With regards to my poetry, here’s a bit of what I’ve done.
10 over 10 performance/ Interview
Poetry Cafe Performance at Alliance Francaise
Churchill Show Performance
Living With Ess Interview/ performance
Concert Nyumbani Performance
Dar es Salaam and Kampala
As I write this, I can’t give a solid answer on where I see myself, say in the next 5 years, but as of now, I can say that in the very near future I’m about to become a self-published author!
I have a debut poetry book coming out very soon, available in Kenya (I’ll write an entire post about my book), but for now, visit my first blog post, How not to self-publish a book, to read about what my self-publishing process has been like.
And look out for my book very very soon!
If you’ve watched the movie 22 Jump Street, you probably recall the scene where Jonah Hill pretends to be a spoken word poet, and makes up this poem, “Slam… poetry! YELLING! Angry! Waving my hands, a lot! Specific point of view on things! Cynthia! Cyn-thi-a! Jesus died for our sin-thi-as…”.
I’ll admit, that was a funny scene, however, it speaks to the stereotype that people have with regards to spoken word poetry, specifically how poets sound, and what poets talk about.
The truth is, there are different ways to write poetry. I think of my poetry as being unique to me. I go about my craft the best way that I know how.
I define myself as being the personification of poetry.