Comrade Cherbo Geeplay was born in Pleebo, Southeastern Liberia, Western Africa, and is a Liberian and African poet whose work has appeared in many journals and publications, and was interviewed by Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley.
1. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to poetry? What has poetry offered to you? And what do you add to the dialogue of Liberian poetry?
I think it was in high school, I got my spark from high school. High school was instrumental, and then during the Liberian civil war too, with nothing to do there was lots of time and lots of books, I gravitated towards poetry more, it provided the opportunity for deep introspection, thinking, and solitude. With all the chaos going on around me, it was a time of deep awakening for me, as this was period during which there were a lot of books lying around the house, and not much else to do, but there was lots of hunger too—literally for food and since there was little or no food, we just read just about anything we could lay our hands-on and poetry was my choice always. What else there was to do, besides listening to the BBC or war reports on the radio, with Elizabeth Blunt and Robin White, and Taylor’s talk of Liberation and his so-called “popular people uprising.
it was during this period I was fortunate to have read more of Liberian writers too: like Bai T. Moore, Edwin Barclay and Doris Banks Henries amongst other Liberian poets. I don’t know particularly about me just yet, in terms of my contributions—but hope I add something to the dialogue as far as Liberian poetry is concerned. Poetry offered me peace of mind a kind of solitude, a certain kind of liberation to express myself and speak for the vulnerable and society, be it love poems or poems about our rivers and mountains. There are a lot of Liberian writers today; I don’t think I count myself amongst them yet, I have written little. I only hope that whatever I write is seen for what it is and more so, that is relatable to the stories of our ancestry and experiences in the wider context as far as our culture, tradition and the collective narratives of our peoples.
2. You majored in journalism in college and worked as a radio journalist. How has your background in journalism influenced your poems?
I have never seen or thought about it that way. Although now thinking about it, I see: you can say it is it’s the storytelling comparatively even though with a different nuance. Poetry is unlike journalism, in a sense that the story you write as a newsman, must be written and guided by the ethics which the journalism profession demands—that the writer simply tells her story and removed herself from the narratives, especially if it is a news story. The poet has no restrictions. It’s a beauty; the freedom the poet is allowed, and so too the journalist to an extent, with each just on a different plane.
3. How does your Grebo heritage influence your poetry in relation to the greater Liberian culture? Do you write in Grebo? English? A combination?
I write only in English. But the Grebo language and tradition like other tribes possessed a rich heritage with a lot of cultural heirlooms! You can only draw inspiration from Liberian culture. My Grebo heritage is very important. it is an African and Liberian story and perspective. A Zulu or Yoruba can only speak about his culture and in the process enrich African literature, and this is what we are trying to do.
4. Can you talk about how your work engages the two major devastating events in recent Liberian history– the civil war and the Ebola crisis? What do you think is the role of poetry in terms of such events?
I hope that whatever I write like the other bodies of works out there will tell the story of the Liberian and our African people. The Liberian people have suffered too much, and these tragedies put together — they didn’t deserve it! I hope we have learned a lesson and because of that, I hope we get even stronger and be ready to move on and build a great nation! The resilience of the Liberian people is amazing. It is my just hope that Liberian writers will continue to tell the stories of these events, however unpleasant sometimes these stories are. The Liberian people are a spirited bunch, they have been through so much the last century and a half, and the civil war and the Ebola Virus Disease just so compounded their agonies, that’s why these events influenced my work, but they are difficult issues to write about, because they are painful and hits home. Poetry should speak to these events as Liberian writers are attempting to do, just as should be Liberian arts and literature, in general, should, a people must not forget their past, we are always told, because if they do, then they are doomed.
5. As an ex-pat Liberian, how does your work straddle the two worlds? Has Canadian poetry influenced your work at all?
North American poetry, in general, has a rich body of work to draw from, and Canadian poets have some of the best works there is in Literature to count on. “How does [my work] straddle the two worlds?” I love Canadian poetry and Liberian poetry. I just hope my poetry is seen for what it is, but basically, I am an African poet. My work speaks to Africa and the mores and civilization of its peoples. But I like to think I am a well-rounded poet who can just write about any poem. My work has that depth that is consuming and promising at once I think what separates me from a lot of poets, is that I like old poetry and poems, a lot of the newer poets are amazing and great, but I always gravitate toward the older poets of a generation passed, most especially. I am truly grateful for the inspiration and those who have encouraged me, but it certainly comes with lots of hard work.
6. What do you think the state of poetry is in Liberia? Who do you think are the major Liberian poets writing today? What do you envision for the future of Liberian poetry?
There is great potential for poetry, literature in general and arts specifically. But in Liberia, public policy has not been good to Liberian writers these many years, why are Liberian books not in Liberian schools, and why are Liberian writers not part of the discourse to advance our failing education system. It is my hope that Liberian poetry will only grow. The country has managed to scuttle from one crisis to another and yet the artists that should tell our history through literature and art are dismissed and marginalized, it is a shame.
We have an Arts and Culture bureau on a ministerial level but you hear nothing about arts, literature, and theatre, what a damn shame! Yes, there is and has been Great war poems and literature or the ones that great crisis produced, but the artist, in my opinion, needs space, time and peace of mind to be at his highest creativity. It is hard to go in a “studio” when you are thinking where your next meal will come from, especially when guns were firing and bodies are laying wasted before your eyes and most especially also from a deadly virus called Ebola, or that you child and wife and families are so sick that death calls every minute. So the potential for Liberian literature in the coming years is immense because a great crisis can produce great art, so we hope to see more as “positive,” peace returns to the country! Liberians living out of the country were the lucky few who have escaped and have found this peace of mind and space and time to work—using the leisure available to them to tell the stories and songs of their peoples, yet others in the country have produced great works under pressure during these difficult times! Major Liberian poets writing today include— K Moses Nagbe, a man of great intellect, Ophelia S. Lewis an exceptional woman of unlimited resource, and of course Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, etc, etc, etc. Dr. Wesley has devoted a lifetime of her work to promoting and writing Liberian poetry as she churns out poetry books one after the other while doing her best to groom the next generation of poets and writers, this is commendable! I salute you all on whose soldiers we stand, including Liberians trying to tell the stories of our peoples who are not poets but artists and writers.
Lastly, and may I take this time also to thank you for this interview and your contributions to our literature.
Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley teaches English Penn State University. Wesley, an award-winning poet have has written four poetry books and a children’s book.