Saturday, November 10 was a big day for Tony Mochama. He was launching his book What if I am a Literary Gangster? – a collection of poetry – at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi.
With such a defiant title, you almost guessed what is contained between the covers of the book. Well, one thing you are assured of is that this is not going to be your ordinary goody goody conventional poetry. You also know that such a book will not find its way to a classroom, as a school text – the guys at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) would have recurring nightmares would such a thing happen (but I am sure they would love to read it in private.)
Having said that, let us now examine the logic behind the title. Apparently, the title was inspired by Dr Egara Kabaji, who teaches at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, in Western Kenya. Writing in the Literary Discourse section, in the Sunday Standard, Dr Kabaji dismissed Tony Mochama as a “Literary Gangster, whose godfather is Binyavanga Wainaina.”
To some extent I agree with Dr Kabaji, but without the Binyavanga rider. To me Mochama is a literary gangster of a different type. The product of his “crime” is one that really appeals to my literary buds. And for sure he shoots from the hip.
Sample this: When I run out of poetic tricks
I shall commit syntax
Ferry my body in a verse
And bury me, in the symmetry
Witness how he effortlessly plays around with the words syntax/sin, verse/hearse and symmetry/cemetery. That verse is picked from the poem titled The Poetry Police.
Now, Tony Mochama is not your everyday writer. To me, he is the very exemplification of the title wordsmith. At the Standard, where he writes, Mochama has about four columns, the most celebrated being Scene at, in the Pulse Magazine, which comes out every Friday.
As a journalist, I will tell you that maintaining just one column is hard enough. Writing four columns week in week out is a different thing altogether. And he still spares time to write poetry, and drink some Vodka, lots of Vodka!
Speaking of Pulse, I think I will not be contradicted when I say Mochama, who writes under the name Smitta Smitten, is the very pulse of that magazine. It is not very difficult to see his wicked and wacky sense of humour, in most sections of the magazine, even without seeing his byline.
I came to know Mochama in the late nineties. Then he had a terrible afro hairstyle and still he was a poet. His fans called him The Mad Poet – what else did you expect?
Later he would be a contributor in the earlier edition of Expression Today (ET), published by the Media Institute. He later wrote the arts for Daily Nation, but it was not until his former boss at ET David Makali dragged him to Standard, that his star really shone. At the Standard, Pulse to be precise, he was given the freedom, nay latitude, to bring his latent talent to the fore, and it has shone ever since. Pulse in itself has been a revelation in Kenyan journalism. It dispensed with the status quo kind of journalism long practiced in the country and brought out an explosive mix of bold and exciting entertainment reporting that really appeals to the targetted audience, the youth.
Simply put, it has been a breath of fresh air.
And did I mention that Mochama was once denied entry into Russia? Perhaps the first African to enjoy that rare “honour”. What crime did you commit against the Russians Smitta?
Back to gangster poetry. Well, a lot has been said about poetry being difficult, elitist and that kind of stuff, but Mochama in his book brings it down to the level that it can be enjoyed by every person.
The topics are as varying as the world is big. In the poem titled Trading Places, the poet takes a mischievous shot at the social, political and economic differences between Africa and the West. It also addresses the double standards employed by the West when dealing with Africa.
But coming from Mochama, it has to be different. In his poem, the tables have been turned. Africa rules the world and the West comes begging for aid. And Libya invaded America to
topple George Bush
“the tyrant,” and “restore
democracy and freedom to the long-suffering people of
United States of America!”
From war to freedom and love, to the philosophical musings of life and death, Tony Mochama addresses these topics with the same happy-go-lucky manner that is the hallmark of his writing. His poetry is full of mischief and is in many instances fired off from a cannon loaded with irony.
That the gangster is also capable of being soft, reveals another side of his pen not many are aware of, partculary in the piece, Whispers. Laughter and your stories, lingers,
Like a silver cobweb clings
On a broken wall lit by silver moonlight
The poem is dedicated to the late Wahome Mutahi, another wordsmith, of the humour variety.
I was especially intrigued by his pieces on love and heartbreak. They are refreshingly real and could only come from someone who has been through such emotions and trust the Smitta to have gone through all those.
However, careful editing of the book would have taken care of some annoying typos occasionally appearing in the book. Maybe that has to do with the fact that it was published in Russia.
Well, a literary gangster? The “celebs” who are always on the receiving end of his pen every Friday would rather use the word terrorist. The book is Published Brown Bear Insignia What if I am a Literary Gangster is distributed by Suba Books and Periodicals based at Hazina Towers