LAURA M. KAMINSKI (HALIMA AYUBA) grew up in northern Nigeria, went to school in New Orleans, and currently lives in rural Missouri. She is an Editor at Right Hand Pointing, and also serves as Poetry Editor for Praxis Magazine Online, where she curates the digital chapbook / Around This Fire response-chapbook series.
In the bubbling ebullience that accompanies the serene arrival of every new month, we have decided to feature a lovely and exceptional poet in the “Celebrate a Legend” section of our blog.
In this interview, Laura talked pasionately about her illustrious journey in the world of poetry. This will surely inspire anyone interested in the art of writing especially a budding poet who is willing to learn.
Enjoy the interview.
Kreative Diadem: Who is Laura Kaminski?
Laura: Identity – that’s always a most difficult question. It’s tempting to fall back on a list of roles and labels, categories that are easy for other people to recognize, to say “daughter, wife, cook, mentor, friend,” perhaps go further and say “Hausa-speaker, observer, advocate, believer, skeptic.” I suspect identity-labels can be a dangerous thing – limiting and misleading, encouraging us to view and respond to people according to preconceptions about groups or categories rather than responding to them as individuals. What I can tell you for sure here (laughs) is that Laura Kaminski is someone who feels uncertain about having an interview appear under this “legend” heading – when I think of “legend” I think of people like Ibrahim Malumfashi, Dike Chukwumerije, BM Dzukogi – not someone like me.
KD: Can you please share your childhood memories?
Laura: My childhood was in Nigeria, mostly in Bambur in the Karim Lamido LGA, then later in Yola and Jos. I took most of my schooling in Jos. As far as specific memories, I often find myself with difficulties putting words to those memories except through poems – but they are slowly emerging in poetry.
KD: When did you start writing poems?
Laura: I wrote my first poem in an English class in Jos when I was maybe eight years old. It was drivel, but I recall being proud of it at the time. (A good reminder for poems I am too proud of now, yes? Who knows what I will think of them in time!) I wrote occasionally during my teen years, then stopped almost completely during my twenties and thirties.
I first began to apply myself to poetry with attention and discipline, to make a daily practice of poetry, during August 2012. At that time, I committed to studying other people’s poetry on a daily basis, and trying to sketch some lines myself, and to do so for four years (should I live that long), as if I was putting myself through “poetry university” – four years of study. I did so with a sense of “I will apply myself to this, and learn all I can, and we’ll see where it goes.”
19 Ghazal Street (full cover) — chapbook, forthcoming 2016
KD: What inspires your writing of poems?
Laura: Childhood memories. Poems I read by other poets that grab my heart and won’t let go. Troubles and tragedies that leave me grieving and otherwise speechless. Some pieces of art. People I want to celebrate in some way. Really, when I feel at a loss for the right words to express myself, I turn to poetry. I still write mostly in Hausa first or a mix of Hausa and English, and then translate into English when I’m revising.
KD: What initiated your entry into the league of poets?
Laura: You should see my face now. Am I in the “league of poets”? I don’t even know. I’ve had an active practice of poetry for some 196 weeks now, with 12 weeks left on my original study commitment. I can say I am “in league WITH poets” – does that count? I enjoy writing response poetry, conversation and collaboration poetry.
KD: Do all your poems have a unifying theme or you just write on the matters of the moment or what inspires you?
Laura: Most of my poems are responses – most frequently to other poets, but also to memories and events. If there’s any unifying theme at all, I’d like to think that most of my poems are in some way about compassion and finding common ground and celebrating what is beautiful in people. But then again, I have poems about spiders and rain and my companion dog. What leaves me in awe, what leaves me feeling short of words – those are the places where the poem begins.
Laura’s latest book – Dance Here (front cover) — full-length collection, 2016, Origami Books, Lagos
KD: Can you shed more light about your Pushcart award nominations?
Laura: In 2013, Conclave: A Journal of Character nominated “My Grandfather’s Parka”. My grandfather was an Army chaplain in World War II; the poem touches on what that responsibility might have been like, the number of people whose hands he must have held as they crossed from this world, people of different faiths, different nationalities. What evils he must have seen, what sadness he must have felt. It did not win a place in the 2015 Pushcart Prize anthology, although I was deeply honored by the nomination. What that poem really “won” was a way for me to begin engaging through poetry with my feelings about conflict, about war, about human frailty and dignity, common ground and compassion.
The second and third nominations were from poems published last year: “Sharing Salt” was nominated byExpound and “Conveying the Blessing” by The Lake. Both of those poems were written for friends: “Sharing Salt” was in response to “This is Home” – a powerful poem by Rasaq Malik Gbolahan; and “Conveying the Blessing” was a birthday gift for Saddiq M Dzukogi. As far as those two poems, I would, of course, be delighted if either of them were to be selected for the 2017 Pushcart Prize anthology, but I know they receive many nominations of exemplary poetry each year, so I’d be far more surprised to be selected than not. But in my mind, they have each already been part of something significant. To the best of my knowledge, 2015 is the first year any Nigeria-based literary journals submitted nominations for the Pushcart – to have a poem be one of the six nominated by Expound means something. That Expound exists, under Wale Owoade’s editorship, and submitted Pushcart nominations – that means something more significant.
“Conveying the Blessing” – how to cross the distance from where I live now to Zaria to wish Saddiq blessings on his birthday? That poem combines childhood memory with classical myth, geographic realities, longing. It is a celebration of the magical, the way poetry can surmount borders and barriers.
KD: Asides poetry, which other genres of literature appeals to you?
Laura: Almost anything that’s well-written with thoughtful content. Science – fact and fiction both. Nature and environmental science. Astronomy. Physics. Creative nonfiction. Classical scripture from as many faith traditions as I am able to find translated into languages I can read. Philosophy. Hagiography. Legends and myths. Art history. Short stories and novels with a strong sense of place (geography, history, culture, socio-political and religious constructs), that also hold more universal lessons, meaning that transcends the immediate setting. Words in a row that go beyond borders and boundaries in any genre.
KD: In the school of poetry, who are your mentors and role models?
Laura: It’s hard to even know where to begin answering this question. I’ve learned so much from so many poets and writers – and, with rare exceptions, have found them to be receptive, generous, willing to answer questions. I look up to people who write from the heart, who wrap words around the difficulties of being human in a troubled world, who give back to the creative community and the world as a whole not only through their writing but through their lives – through being activists, educators, chroniclers, collaborators, mentors, facilitators, editors. So start with Hauwa Gwaram, and then just start naming poets, writers, editors, poetry-film makers…and don’t stop until you get all the way through that list to the poets and writers I mentor – I learn much from them as well. I admire the dedication, generosity, community-building and compassion and voices for justice that are willing to reach beyond geographic, ethnic, and cultural borders, willing to take risks, willing to try and fail. Willing to pick rocks from the road so the next person who passes is less likely to stumble.
A lot of people believe that poets and generally writers are not appreciated in Nigeria, what is your take on this?
As opposed to where? I don’t know of any other nation that has a national organization quite like the Association of Nigerian Authors, with state-chapters nationwide and an active, voting membership. And in all of the U.S., there are only a few organizations that even begin to come close to doing what the Hill-Top Arts Centre in Minna does. There may not be as many poetry publishers in Nigeria as there are in the US, for example, but I would be surprised, actually, if the average number of copies sold for poetry books published in Nigeria is not quite a bit higher than the average number of copies sold for ones published in the U.S., even though the U.S. population is higher.
Returning to Awe (front cover) — chapbook, 2014, Balkan Press
KD: What is your advice to young poets?
Laura: Read. Accept all the critique you can get and say thank you, regardless of whether or not you find it useful. In every criticism, look carefully to see if there is anything at all you might be able to use. If there is, use it. Discard anything that is not useful, but do so later, in private, while you are revising. Read. Take advantage of all the online poetry journals you can, particularly if you don’t have ready access to a bookstore or library with poetry books. Read. Don’t expect to like all the poems you read. Don’t expect everyone who reads your poems to like them – this includes editors. Don’t expect ANYONE, even your most loyal readers, to like ALL of what you write.
Laura’s advice to young poets
Read. Try to understand what it is you like about the poets you most enjoy reading, what it is in their poems that appeals to you. Try to understand what makes those poems work. Read poems – ones you like and also ones you don’t. What is it you don’t like in the ones you don’t? Look for those same characteristics in your own poems and revise to remove them. Don’t be afraid to revise a poem fifteen times… you can always go back to an earlier version if the revision doesn’t work out, but it’s sometimes helpful to produce several versions of a poem and keep the parts from each version that work the best.
Read. Recognition for your writing…through awards or journal publications…may be part of your dreams, but if that’s the only reason you are writing, I’m afraid you may find yourself disappointed. But if you write a poem for one person, or to commemorate one event, or to call attention to one injustice – and you have one reader who finds that poem meaningful, you will have written something worth writing. Whatever it is you get out of reading poetry yourself, each time you set out to write a poem, tries to give that same gift to one of your readers.