Cheswayo Mphanza GSN’18 was 8 years old when he left Zambia for the southeast side of Chicago, but his voice still carries a faint lilt of Nyanja, his native language. This seems somehow fitting, given his fraught relationship with English. On the one hand, it’s the language in which he “caught” (Mphanza’s word) his voice as a poet and with which he’s created poetry of extraordinary lyricality. On the other hand, he’s aware of the irony of writing about Black and brown experiences in the language of colonialism. That conundrum, however, hasn’t given him pause. In fact, one of his aims in writing, he says, is to “try to reconstruct or reclaim someone’s history—and when you write it in the English language, you’re reclaiming it within the colonial context.”
Some of his subjects are important historical figures who have nevertheless been largely effaced, like Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was assassinated after a coup supported by the country’s former colonial ruler, Belgium. In the poem “Open Casket Body Double,” Mphanza writes about “the same sulfuric acid that left / ant tunnels cutting through Lumumba’s bones”—a metaphor for the slain leader’s effectual erasure.
In fact, erasure of Black and brown histories, lives, and bodies—physically and metaphorically—is a preoccupation of Mphanza’s, most notably in his debut poetry collection, The Rinehart Frames (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). The book, which won the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, was described by Publishers Weekly as “electrifying.”
Art imitating life
Many of the poems in the collection are centos: poetic collages composed of lines from the works of other poets. Mphanza chose the form, he says, because “the cento for me is about erasure.” Just as the cento exists only in relation to other works, people of color, Mphanza believes, “never really get a holistic sense of themselves, of blackness, because they’re always being shaped by circumstances.” This is reflected in the Rinehart of the title, a reference to the central character of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, who, Mphanza says “exists as a sort of phantom, a malleable character to whoever he’s speaking to.”
In a direct assailment on erasure, Mphanza’s poems teem with real people: historical figures, artists like the Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil, musicians like rapper Tupac Shakur, and cinematographers like the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Like Ellison, Kiarostami inspired Mphanza with his experimental film 24 Frames, reflected in the poet’s book title. “When I bring in historical figures, when I bring in artists, it’s a way of trying to mark moments when these people were defiant, when they demonstrated a sense of retaliation,” he says. “So, it’s also, for me, a way of trying to correct some of the errors of history.”
To achieve that aim for visual artists, he often employs ekphrasis, a literary device that evokes a work of art using words alone. In The Rinehart Frames, for instance, he writes of Sher-Gil’s last, unfinished, painting—an amalgam of (mostly) dark forms: “The afterlife is a room with a gashed bulb, pulps of light spitting out into darkness’s mouth.” Mphanza uses ekphrasis, he says, to understand how other artists create their art “to develop an understanding of themselves.” It can be a difficult device, but Mphanza loves the challenge of writing poetry in general, especially poetry grounded in history, which for him usually entails copious research.
Finding inspiration and community
Similarly, inspiration for Mphanza isn’t a sylph that appears unbidden but “an accumulation of experiences that you’re able to synthesize within a moment.” Those experiences comprise (among other things) years of reading, writing, and studying poetry—his first exposure to which was in a documentary about the spoken-word virtuoso Saul Williams that Mphanza watched in high school. He began to hone his craft at Middlebury College in Vermont, but what truly changed his path as a writer was studying with the esteemed poet Rigoberto González in the master of fine arts (MFA) program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Newark. “He made me understand the importance of a communal literary life,” Mphanza says. “I let go of whatever romanticized ideal I had of the writing life as a solitary one and worked hard to create connections with other writers.”
Ever in search of a new frontier, Mphanza is venturing into prose, in the form of a novel about Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the Zambian revolutionary who, in the 1960s, challenged the United States and the Soviet Union in the space race. Like Mphanza’s poetry, the novel (a work in progress) is being constructed on a foundation of intensive research and reading, the better to elevate its subject into the population of formerly effaced souls who have been reclaimed through Mphanza’s poetic resurrection. As he is quoted as saying in a 2020 interview, “If there is no difficulty in the creation, then why bother?”