Photo credit: Clare McKenzie
In the this interview, Timothy Ogene reads a poem by Lenrie Peters, a Gambian poet and surgeon. The poem begins with the line “The first rose of the season,” and is the eighteenth in Peters’ 1967 collection Satellites. In this conversation, Ogene discusses how Peters’ work shows us that moments of silence can be moments of growth, and how Peters’ work offers us a model for writing that is at once optimistic and realistic about what Ogene calls “the violence of subjugation.” Thank you for joining us!
Timothy Ogene reading a poem by Lenrie Peters:
Jessica Hudgins: This poem feels really resolute to me. The heavy beats in each line, and those last two lines, especially. What draws you to this poem?
JH: The poem makes me think of time, those beats like a ticking clock, and the easy way Peters moves forward — there’s nothing confusing about it, no word I don’t understand, but I feel like I haven’t fully grasped each moment, and then the next is here. That “subdued power” comes from saying exactly what you mean, and doing only exactly what you do: the rose will bloom because it’s a rose. Is this a political poem?
TO: Yes, Time is at the core of this poem. The time of maturation and the time of liberation, the time of waiting and of silence, and the time of bursting forth and glowing in full colors. Lenrie was writing at the point when the fire of Independence was sweeping across Africa, when young writers and intellectuals saw themselves as voices of freedom and promise, voices whose ‘subdued power’ lie waiting to release their ‘fragrance.’ Read in that context, of pan-Africanist thought and nationalist sentiments, it is political. But it is also a poem that allows itself room for extraction and transplantation, to be read outside its pan-Africanist frame and significance, to be read merely as a song of hope, an ode (if you may) to the power of waiting, a warning that waiting and silence are not sites of emptiness. That they are, contained in their essence, sites of gestation. Silence, the poem seems to say, does not imply erasure. Growth happens even in silence, and it is Time that eventually gives force to voice.
JH: And I also read a lesson about poetry in the last two lines — how has Lenrie Peters influenced you work?
TO: You’re right. There’s something about those two lines. A gentle reminder that it’s all about the process, the act of waiting, of honing, of patience, of keeping watch for the right time and season, of knowing that one’s ‘fragrance,’ closed off or ‘subdued,’ will find expression somehow. That’s the way I see and read it. But there’s something more about Peters’ work that I find interesting. It is his ability to simultaneously approach and detach from the political, to perform what I call a poetics of extraction, where a single poem or line offers itself as a political cry but also self-standing work of beauty.
Timothy Ogene is a poet and novelist. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a visiting research fellow at Brown University.
Lenrie Peters (1932-2009) is a Gambian poet, novelist, and surgeon. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Satellites, which includes the poem discussed in this interview, and a novel, The Second Round. Peters worked for the BBC from 1955-1968, chairing its Africa Forum and broadcasting on several programs. He had a surgical practice in Banjul, and from 1979 to 1987 served as the president of the board of directors of the National Library of the Gambia and Gambia College.
Watch a 2006 interview with Lenrie Peters
Read several poems by Lenrie Peters (this link leads to a blog, there may be mistakes in the transcriptions)
Purchase Lenrie Peters’ book Satellites at Bolerium Books