On October 22, 2020, Mills College virtually hosted the third event in the fall lineup of their Contemporary Writers Series (CWS) program, a reading by multiple poets involved in the West Oakland to West Africa (WO2WA) poetry exchange. The program originated in 2016 as a collaboration between Mills MFA candidate Karla Brundage (now an alum) and EHALAKASA, a Ghanian art and slam poetry organization.
During the exchange, Africans and African-Americans living in Oakland partnered — first virtually, then in-person when the Oaklanders traveled to Ghana in 2018 — to collaborate on their poetry. Their work culminated in the anthology “Our Spirits Carry Our Voices,” a series of linked poems written in the renshi style, wherein the final line of one author’s poem became the title and opening line of the next author’s poem. The program’s website states that WO2WA’s “core values are to create a safe place for the transparent healing and growth of Black people; to deliver innovative and authentic forms of writing and to engage the medium of spoken word to shape and define the narratives of the diaspora; to allow a visceral and uncensored critique of social systems through artistic expression.”
Juliana Spahr, a published poet and professor of English at Mills, introduced the event by reading from the WO2WA mission statement. She also recounted her early experience with Brundage, who was Spahr’s advisee when she received the Community Engagement Fellowship that enabled her to begin work on WO2WA.
“One of the best moments you can have when you’re teaching is when you tell […] a student that what they are gonna do is impossible to do and they need to scale it back, and then they show you that you are really, really wrong. And that’s what Karla did,” Spahr said, describing her initial doubts about Brundage’s proposal. “Thankfully, she didn’t listen to me, in the best way. She was just like ‘I know what I can do, and I’m gonna go do it.’ And she created this entire exchange […] These sorts of international exchanges—when they happen, they tend to be the work of various national governments. And what’s really great about this West Oakland to West Africa project is that it’s community-organized, it’s community-funded, and yet it’s been very international. And this sort of work is so rare and so valuable to happen.”
Brundage, speaking next after Spahr, thanked Mills and its English faculty for “[giving] legitimacy to this vision,” as well as the Ghanian poets of EHALAKASA and WO2WA Content Curator and participating poet Tyrice Deane Brown, who “stood by [her] side from day one.” She read from the anthology’s introduction, which begins with a quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, before introducing the other poets.
The first poet to read her work was Xiomara Hooker, a Mills alum who expressed that she was “thankful to be back in the Mills space again and greeted those of her former professors who were in the audience.”
In describing her experience with WO2WA, Hooker said, “I joined the group a little bit later than everyone else, and I’m so thankful I did. Because honestly, I had never felt the way I wrote my poetry to be challenged before, you know? I just kind of do my thing and it was there, and I kind of sat with it. But meeting with my partner [Ghanian artist Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Ogli] […] it made me want to challenge myself.”
Hooker read two poems from the anthology, “Unity” and “I’ll survive on land only because you’re a star.” “Unity” is the first poem to be included in the anthology; Hooker explained that “[…] the topic for this poem was ‘Who are you?’ It was our very first poem as a group.” She called the second poem “a companion piece” to “Unity.”
The next contributor to read was Tyrice Deane Brown. Brown said that during her time in WO2WA, “We weren’t creating the standard poetry that we tend to study. We were using the theme poetry as a tool to communicate in a new way with new people, and if I could paraphrase Sir Black, one of the founders of EHALAKASA, he said that he and his colleague did not know they were creating poetry back in the early ‘90s. They just had something to say about life and the desire to be heard.”
Describing her decision to read recent work rather than something she had written during the exchange, Brown explained, “That conversation, that exchange existed years ago. And it is timeless, as it shows how we can connect across boundaries via poetry, heal through words, and sustain relationships through the exchange of words. But now, for me, the dialogue has shifted.”
She then read her short story “Unbought, Unbossed,” which can be read for free at her website excessivevolume1990.com.
The third reader was Ghanian poet and visual artist Nora “Xorlarlie” Anyidoho. Anyidoho first read her poem “See a Way Through,” explaining afterward, “I wrote this one as a response to personal struggles. But now I realize that really goes beyond me, and I really want to speak on the Nigerian issue.”
Segueing into her next poem, Anyidoho explained, “I realize that sometimes when things are happening to others, some people feel a sense—like, it’s not happening to me. They don’t demonstrate any form of empathy. And this one is just really to call out for people to be more empathetic towards the things that are happening in Nigeria, to be more concerned about the blatant disrespect that’s happening now. And it’s a racial piece.”
Her second poem, about the #ENDSARS movement against police brutality in Nigeria, included the lines, “When you pray, don’t just pray. Be concerned. Spread the message. Donate your time, donate your skills, donate your attention.”
The fourth poet to read, Mills MFA alum Mimi Noemi Rose Gonzalez Barillas, began by reading “Abidjan,” a piece written by her exchange partner Azi Edoua. Next, she read her own poem, which had, as its title and first line, the final line of Edoua’s piece — “Ole.”
She concluded by reading a recent piece called “Surrendered Look Betrays a Victory,” explaining, “I’m still writing. An MFA was the launch, Mills was the way to launch that creative expression.”
The fifth and final reader, Radhiyah Ayobami, said of WO2WA: “It really lifted my spirits at a time when I was feeling low, and I was so glad to gather with them every week and just get that to poetry because I was so into just doing the work, the MFA, that I put the poetry to the side for a little bit. So […] it woke up a whole lot of things, and then that poetry also informed my other writing, and even though I didn’t go to Ghana with them, I just honor them because […] they always kept me knowing what was going on with their projects. I think it’s a beautiful association that they have created and I hope to go with them next trip.” Ayobami read her poem from the anthology, “Where I’m From,” and then a poem about her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic called “Quarantine Meditations: Full Moon.”
Once all poets were finished reading, moderator Briana Grogan opened the event to audience questions.
First, Mills Professor Elmaz Abinader asked, “Is the [WO2WA] project ongoing?”
Brundage responded, “So, when the book came out, it was right in February, and then March hit, and so we were actually trying to plan—we had planned a reading, like a book launch reading […] and when we went into shelter in place, we had to redo all of our book launches, and I was really thrown off. I have to say it was a bit of a challenge, but we overcame. […] Now we’ve regrouped again, and we are trying to do a second exchange. And if we do it, it will happen in January, so I’m hoping to get funding for that, and I’ll definitely reach out to Mills […] and we will be reaching out to people once we know if we’re going to have a second exchange.”
Brown added, “As soon as you go to the [WO2WA] website, it asks you if you want to join our email list, and you can just type in your email and you’ll get our monthly newsletter, so what we’re doing, where we’re at, what we’re reading, any upcoming events, and then also when we start opening up for new participants for the 2021 year, you’ll also be sent information about that too.”
Another audience member asked for more information about “Colossus: Home,” an anthology referenced earlier by Brown and Brundage. Brundage explained that it was a project she had begun with fellow WO2WA participant Sara Biel, using “poetry as protest” against Oakland’s homeless crisis.
“We put out a call and people—poets from the Oakland community, including a lot of poets in this room—responded to that call,” Brundage said. “There’s a second anthology […] and all the money from that goes to Moms for Housing here in Oakland, and they’re a super amazing, worthwhile group to look up. The goal is $8000 dollars if we sell all of our books. So far we’re at $2000 dollars.”
After encouraging the audience to purchase the anthology, Grogan announced an end to the event, concluding by telling the poets, “Just hearing about this project has been overall such a privilege and such an honor. I think it’s a great reminder that, you know, we can still create community, and how important it is to continue to share our voices.”
The final event in the fall CWS lineup, a conversation between visiting professor Susan Stryker and UMass Amherst professor Jordy Rosenberg, author of “Confessions of the Fox,” will take place at 5:30 PST on Nov. 5.