This past spring, Claire Jimenez and Olufunke Ogundimu, two graduate students at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), were juggling a number of tasks, including teaching undergraduates and writing their own books. Still, when professors Kwame and Lorna Dawes offered them graduate research assistantships at the African Poetry Digital Portal, the university’s massive, multi-institutional archive of African poetry, they knew they couldn’t turn it down. “It was a great opportunity,” says Ogundimu, and Jimenez agrees. “I was inspired by the scope and impact of this project and its collaboration with so many different institutions, scholars, and writers,” she says. “I’d get the opportunity to create spatial visualizations and build bibliographic profiles of writers such as Kofi Awoonor and Wole Soyinka. I was excited.”
The African Poetry Digital Portal is a sub-project of the African Poetry Book Fund, an initiative created by Kwame Dawes, internationally renowned author and George Holmes Professor of English at UNL. Since its founding in 2012 the Book Fund has published around one hundred African writers. The African Poetry Digital Portal, which was founded in 2017, has goals that are just as ambitious. Though it currently consists of two parts—an index of contemporary published African poets and a survey of news stories about African poetry in major publications like the Times of London—Kwame Dawes and scholar and librarian Lorna Dawes have long envisioned much more, including a catalogue of artifacts, a database of research projects on African poetry, documents translated from the roughly two thousand languages spoken on the continent, and digitized collections that highlight the long history of African verse stretching from antiquity to the present. Recently the project received a boon that will go a long way toward making these ambitions a reality: a three-year, $750,000 exploratory grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “The money is for surveying the collections and seeing what we have available in the [partnering] institutions,” said Lorna Dawes, associate professor of libraries, during a recent webinar celebrating the receipt of the grant. Once the team of bibliographers, located at institutions spanning from Washington, D.C., to Cape Town, assess the biographical information, news articles, video recordings, images, and other artifacts in their own archives, they will determine which historical periods the portal can cover. As Kwame Dawes simply put it during the celebration, “We [will] look for where the poetry is and then…try to find a way to talk about it.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting elements of the African Poetry Digital Portal is its potential to change the lives of early-career writers, graduate students, and researchers. These possibilities are not lost on the students currently working on it. As Jimenez pointed out in an e-mail in early September, the portal shows writers in every diaspora what can begin to be rectified through digital projects like this one. “This type of work of documenting literary histories and traditions is so important to writers who may have felt—because of colonialism or the racism of publishing in the United States—that they were writing in a vacuum,” she says. “I feel this deeply as a writer who is part of a larger tradition of Puerto Rican authors whose work has been marginalized and overlooked because of colonialism.” For Ogundimu, a Nigerian fiction writer, the implications hit even closer to home. “The project is very important to me,” she says. “It changes the narrative that Africans do not have poetry, philosophies, and literary histories. And it affords us a unique opportunity to counter some of the false rhetoric about African poetics.”
The Mellon grant has also ensured that writers like Jimenez and Ogundimu working on the portal can be offered material support. Through the grant, the African Poetry Digital Portal will award nearly eighty research stipends and eight graduate assistantships and will sponsor a four-member technology team that will, in essence, remodel the portal to make space for its new archives. These funds will also enable the Daweses to ask researchers to write for the portal, offer teachers resources for creating courses based on its contents, and invite writers—some of whom are penning work in isolation—to see themselves as part of both a historical continuum and a contemporary conversation. “The interruption of colonialism has made [it] difficult for many African writers to even know the work of their own contemporaries throughout the continent,” says Kwame Dawes. “And what this portal will do is give them a sense that there is a tradition that has brought them to this moment, and there’s a tradition that they’re building on and they’re part of.” Ogundimu points out that the portal “will showcase the many ways African and Afro-Diasporic poetics are interconnected, and the ongoing conversations within the larger community.” Claire Jimenez is already reaping the benefits of working closely with predecessors like Kwame and Lorna Dawes: one a literary hero and another a digital archivist whose scholarship is inspiring her own work as an archivist of Puerto Rican poetry. “It’s truly amazing to sit with Lorna Dawes in a meeting and listen to...how she’s thinking about the organization of information, or about the ways users will interface with this digital archive.” About Kwame Dawes, Jimenez’s words may perhaps echo what future researchers might say about the African Poetry Digital Portal itself: “I learn something new every day.”
Destiny O. Birdsong is the author of the poetry collection Negotiations, which was published by Tin House in 2020, and the triptych novel Nobody’s Magic, forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in 2022.