Publication Day for ‘Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology’

It’s publication day for Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Adil Babikir, with a foreword by Matthew Shenoda:

A poetry anthology is a difficult beast, with many competing demands: it must be authoritative, it must be comprehensive, it must be balanced, it must be a historical document, and also — naturally — interesting to read.

In his introduction, Babikir writes that he intends Modern Sudanese Poetry to focus on the past six decades, from the point in the 1950s when the dominance of metrical verse began to fade in favor of new rhythms. From the start, he frames Sudan’s poetic landscape as oppositional — African and Arab, Tropical Forest and Desert — or as a dual and twined Afro-Arab tradition.

As Matthew Shenoda notes in his foreword, this is certainly a seminal work of Sudanese poetry, “a significant gathering of largely unknown works in English.”

Works by thirty-one poets make the collection, including some that have work published in English (al-Saddiq al-Raddi, Najla Osman Elton, Mamoun Elltilib) and many more who don’t. Two of the youngest poets — Boi John Awang (b. 1983) and Nylawo Ayul (b. 1986) — are South Sudanese who write in Arabic. Although many are award winners, I believe only al-Saddiq al-Raddi has a full-length collection in English translation.

Babikir’s introduction sets the poems in a historical framework, including some major thematic obsessions, the influence of Cairo and of Russian poetry, and of (particularly) women poets who write in the vernacular.

On the current popularity of poetic classics, Babikir writes:

Today, satellite TV and radio programs on folk poetry are enjoying high viewership. Indeed, the strong interest of female poets in this genre is a continuation of a centuries-old tradition. Historically, women demonstrated superb skills in composing poems celebrating the heroism and chivalry of their sons and brothers who rose in defense of the tribe. Poems composed by such female names as Shaghaba in the sixteenth century and Banouna bitt al-Makk in the nineteenth century are popular today.

The anthology, Babikir writes, “is only a limited cross section of the colossal mass of poetry being produced in post-independence Sudan.” He further laments how this poetry has not only often been little-translated, but that “only a little portion of it made its way beyond the Sudanese borders, to some [of the] Arab world’s cultural capitals, such as Cairo and Beirut.”

It is hard to assess the poems themselves without the originals, but I have dog-eared many in the collection to read again.