Salone News

Interview with Liberian prize winning Poet, Professor Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

17 September 2011 at 22:43 | 1615 views

Deputy Editor Roland Bankole Marke recently interviewed Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (photo), Professor of English and Creative Writing, Penn State University, who’s a prize winning poet and a vocal survivor of the inglorious Liberian civil war. Her services are in increasing demand around the world. PV brings you extracts from the exclusive interview:

Roland Bankole Marke: Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, it’s my pleasure to interview you. May I call you Patricia? Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley: Yes, you can call me Patricia. I am Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, I hate to talk about myself like that, so you can fill in the blanks from my bio. I am a poet, I guess, a Liberian, a mother of four children and wife, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State University, and what else? I’m the author of four books of poetry, a survivor of the Liberian civil war, a Grebo woman from Maryland County, Liberia, in South Eastern Liberia. I think this is a lot to say.

RBM: I’m sure readers would like to get acquainted with your work, both published and work in progress. Please open the door into your heart and soul. Which work would you consider your best so far and why?

PJW: I’m the author of four books of poetry, including Where the Road Turns: Poems (Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2010), The River is Rising (Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA 2007), Becoming Ebony, which won the Crab Orchard Award in Poetry, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003) and Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues Press Poetry and Prose, 1998).

Of course, I have published at least a hundred poems and other writings in many literary magazines and in anthologies in the US, in parts of Africa, in South America, and Europe. I am currently working on four book projects. One, my most important project is a memoir of my Liberian civil war experiences, the other is a children’s book, which is about finished, a book of poems, of course, since I’m always working on a book of poetry at any given time. So, I’m working on my fifth book without any particular plan to get it published soon. Usually, it gets done when it says it’s done. I’m working on another piece of work, a collection of Liberian women’s trauma stories from the civil war. I gathered all of the materials by recording stories of more than a hundred women in the US, in Ghana and in Liberia.

RBM: Today, so many people are claiming to be poets. Who is a poet and what constitutes a poem? Kindly navigate and guide us through the creative process.

PJW: There are many claiming to be poets today as you yourself admit, but what makes a poet and what makes a poem a poem are the questions I often ask myself. I believe that a poet is someone whose use of language is so profound, she creates deep feelings in her arrangement of verse. We know that poetry is written in verse, but poetry has to use language in a fresh way if the writer is to be authentic and original. One of my beginning lectures in my Poetry Writing classes is “What makes a poem a poem?” A poem must explore language with aesthetic power so that the reader is transported through the images and figurative languages into the world of the poet. The image is the most basic element of poetry, and the use of concrete sensory details to evoke feelings in a reader is what makes a poem a poem. There are many other elements like the line, the tone, etc. that make a poem a poem, but the writer must first help the mind’s eye see the world that is created by the use of language before we can begin to explore the use of other elements. For me, it is most important that a poet writes about their world, and as an African, I believe that unless I can utilize what is mine, my people, the Liberian, yeah, the African people’s sensibility by the use of oral tradition as the source of my writing, I have not succeeded. A poet is concerned with the small details of their own world and through such details, the poet brings into the world of others what it is that is important to her. Many who call themselves poets may fail not because they do not have the talent, but mostly because they do not allow their talent to be groomed and nurtured by the world around them and by others. Not everything that calls itself a poem is a poem, I believe. I hate to cite my own work here, however. Please feel free to find my work and incorporate it in your article.

RBM: I love the rich artistry and maturity marinated in your craft. And citing a gourmet, one of your poems: ‘Bringing Closure’:

There is always a mountain here in Pennsylvania,
always that looming presence of life and death and the
far away feeling of the valley below, of being so far away
from home. There is no closure, I see, after the poison
has reached the heart, and the accused, stretched out, finally.
The victim’s mother begins to weep all over again-
as if this was just the beginning of the dying.

Is this a conscious effort to find healing and closure to the sufferings of others, especially the silent agony that Liberian women endured during the nation’s civil war?

PJW: I would not say that there is any conscious effort on my part to find healing and closure. I believe that a good poet writes basically about the world they inhabit, their life experiences, their anger and fears, the very things that make them tremble. I know that when someone wins the lottery, they do not go into a corner and write a poem. They call a party to celebrate. They are not moved to poetic expression. It is the painful moments of our lives that generate deep feelings and therefore, great poetry. I was already writing poetry for many years prior to the Liberian civil war. When the war began and I was forced to suffer through the war, I did what I always do. I wrote about all of the pain out of my natural tendencies to express myself through language. I do not believe that there will ever be closure to the Liberian tragic war. There can never be, and there should never be any such thing as closure. War is such a destructive reality of the world that to bring closure to the stories that we carry around, stories of the massacre of our nations is an abomination. This is why I write. I write not to bring healing or closure, but to explore the deep anger and hurt, the pain of my people, to keep alive those who have died, and to dig up bones that were lost and forgotten, buried in our rush to bring peace. I want to keep alive a flame that was supposed to have been put out. If in that process, I bring healing, I am happy. But I never wish to bring closure; never.

RBM: I’m very disappointed with the performance as the mindset of some of Sierra Leone’s professionals, returning to the motherland, claiming to be making meaningful contributions to national reconstruction and development, and reducing the acute brain drain. Do you subscribe to the same indictment of Liberian professionals returning home?

PJ: I wrote two blogs not so long ago about my own impression of my country. I know of many returnees to Liberia who join in robbing the country of its wealth as though the war did not happen. But I’m most frustrated not with the returnees. I’m frustrated with those who did not leave at all. They often make it difficult for educated returnees to settle back home, and put obstacles in our way, thus preventing us from making the kind of contribution our country needs. Corruption among the stay at home is slowing down progress in Liberia. Those returnees who join in the corruption are usually weeded out more easily than the stay at home. The reason is because the returnees can quickly run back to the Diaspora.

RBM: Listening to your poetry readings, I observed that you have preserved your proud Grebo twang and identity. Extract from the poem below speaks volumes:

We Departed Our Homelands and We Came . . .
– Grebo Saying

We departed our homelands and we came,
so the Grebo say, we came with our hands
and we came with our machetes
so we too, could carve up the new land.
When we left home, we crossed streams
and we climbed up hills; we set out through
wet brushes, and the rivers parted
so we could cross.
We know that if the leopard should leap,
it is because it sees an antelope passing.

Have you been criticized about this? Do Africans need to dilute their accent and innate image to become more acceptable and marketable in the West?

PJW: On the contrary, I believe that my success is because I am true to my identity as a Liberian, as a Grebo woman, and as an Africa. I have never been criticized by anyone because I do not force what I do. It is a natural thing to do. I was brought up in a strong family of cultures, in a family where my father actually sent us kids to our hometown’s boarding school for years so we would learn our culture as children. I do not believe that we have to do anything with our accents or our ways of writing in order to sell in the West. I have not done that, and I believe I have more fans and people who love my work in America than many American poets. Publishers and readers alike are hungry for originality. When an African writer pretends to be writing in their cultural style without any genuineness or when they force it, then their work will have problems. If you know me, you know that everything I write is what I am. I recall the first time my first book, Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa appeared at a major writer’s conference. People lined up to buy the book when they heard me speak, and my publisher could not keep the book on the book tables at the exhibit. Because of the success of that first book, my other books have remained popular. What I’ll say is that when you do your best and write good poetry, people know it and they want to read it.

RBM: Please help us navigate through the fine line between a PhD and MFA degree in creative writing?

PJW: I have a Master of Science in English Education from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, and thirteen years ago, I returned to school after surviving the war and immigrating to the US, and obtained a doctorate in English and Creative Writing. I never thought an MFA would cut it for me, so I went for the Ph.D. An MFA does not make a writer just like a Ph.D. does not make a scholar. It is talent and hard work that make a good writer. My Ph.D. is one that allowed me to study and be tested in Scholarship and Creativity. I studied literature, but I had to write both a scholarly thesis and a Creative Dissertation. Becoming Ebony, the prize winning book was my dissertation with no changes between the dissertation and the actual book of poems.

RBM: I know you try to stay away from political discourse. Please update us on your impressions of present Liberia, its political system and the direction this former ‘Little America’ is heading towards, during your recent visit.

PJW: I like many things that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is doing in Liberia. I believe she’s made a lot of progress. I also believe that Liberians need to understand that the government cannot do it all, and the government cannot do it all in one day. Having said that, I’d say that the UN is not good for any country. The presence of expatriates who make hundreds of thousands of dollars working for the United Nations has caused an inflation that makes life unbearable for ordinary Liberians. This problem needs to be addressed by the government. The UN workers and other international NGOs are harming the economy.

RBM: Having lived in Liberia myself, I find the people’s psyche and patriotism impressive, if not unequal. Has this ingredient changed after the agony they went through during the nation’s dark days?

PJW: Liberians still have a great love for their country. This has not changed.

RBM: Finally, any other message you want to send to our readers, your fans, and writers around the world?

PJW: Well, let me thank you for the interview. I am a very busy person, so e-mailed interviews don’t work with me, but you have been so patient with me. As I write, I have three other interview questions to answer, so thanks for your kind patience. What could I say to all the good readers out there? I feel so inadequate now. Maybe I can speak to my African brothers and sisters writing in the Diaspora. This is a difficult thing to do. It takes a lot of hard work and rejections. I thought I would never have published a book in America because of the lack of understanding at first about what I was doing. But I persisted, and allowed others to criticize me. That made me more determined. The thing to know is that if you have a mission and a message, keep the two alive and together. One day, you will rise above all. Keep writing. Never stop writing and never take no for an answer.