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*** Patron Henekou’s “My Neighbors In Lincoln, Nebraska” is #274 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece.
(Above Right: Patron Henekou in September of 2017. Copyright by Patron Henekou)
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem
from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until the final form? The poem I choose here is called “My Neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska”, which I picked from my forthcoming book with the tentative title De l’autre côté de l’Atlantique, & autres poèmes. I can only offer some significant moments in the process of writing this poem, not a complete and detailed step by step process. Sorry about that! (Above Left: Patron Henekou in October of 2017. Copyright by Patron Henekou)
The idea of the poem occurred to me between my arrival in Nebraska in mid-August and October 2017. Having the demise of Eric Garner in the hands of the police in mind, I was very much concerned about my security on travelling to the US.
When my friends who helped me to locate and rent an apartment at a perfect distance from UNL told me I was privileged to have Lincoln Police as neighbors, I was instantly struck by my disturbed feelings: to be happy or not about this proximity, marked by a beautiful tree visible from the window of my apartment. And the mixture of feelings I experienced materialized on the police tree with the passage of time. (Left: The police tree in bloom. Credit and Copyright by Patron Henekou)
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I started to write this poem in Lomé, Togo, two years after my stay in the US. The outbreak of Covid-19 begun early March in my country, Togo, and by the end of this month the whole country was confined. I turned this situation into a writing residence in my apartment. The actual writing location alternated between my bedroom and the uncompleted top floor of the apartment where I had arranged a space, among various construction materials, for writing during the day. I would sit on a stool, and place the computer on my lap or on a chair in front of me, and write. (Right: Patron Henekoou in Lome, Togo. Copyright by patron Henekou)
What month and year did you start writing this poem? I started writing this poem towards the end of April 2020 when I finally settled to recount my experience as an African during my stay in the US on a 2017 – 2018 Fulbright postdoc scholarship. (Left: Patron Henekou in May of 2020. Copyright by Patron Henekou)
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I can’t tell. This question reminds me of the importance of keeping record of the writing process of my work as a way of building a gestational memory of the poems. Unfortunately, I have kept no drafts of this poem though there have been changes, a number of them, to the first version. One quite important thing to note is that this poem was originally written in French under the title “N 26th ST & Holdrege” where the police tree stood (it is still there, anyways). (Right: "My Neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska in the French language. Copyright by Patron Henekou)
Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? Yes! I can remember a few lines which I am glad to share with you. The title, for example was “N 26th ST & Holdrege.” Now it is “My Neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska”. Another example is "It’s so/cruel that it can be taken as the title of a famous ballad.” This was initially at the place of lines 9 and 10 of one of the drafts. And there were references to Guy Des Cars and Toni Braxton, namely. (Above Left: photo of the intersection of N 26yh Street and Holdrege. Credit and Copyright by Patron Henekou)
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I can’t tell, precisely. A poem may resonate with different people differently. Different readers may experience different levels of emotional response about a specific line or a particular imagery, or the poem’s musicality.
I continue to ask myself this fundamental question about how some trees manage to breathe after losing their leaves in winter and rejuvenate in spring, and how care is taken to create and enforce by virtue of law breathing spaces to squirrels and other animals, and the growing awareness of Americans to deal with discrimination against blacks and other ethnic minorities.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write, and why? The last stanza, as a whole, and the last three lines in particular:
“I touched its trunk. My hand shook. The afflictions
of trees and our afflictions. A few leaves fell,
again. You will breathe again, dear tree.” (Right: The Police Tree. Credit and Copyright by Patron Henekou)
This scene actually happened, and writing it two years later was like renewing the experience once again as vividly as it has been, thinking of a police that does not protect and a winter weather that afflicts trees, pitilessly.
Has this poem been published before? And if so, where? Yes! Zócalo Public Square. https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/06/12/patron-kakou-henekou-poem-togolese-poet-playwright/chronicles/poetry/
This poem was translated from its original French by Patron Henekou and Connie Voisine (Above Right), Zócalo Poetry Editor.
My Neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska
I have neighbors
at the corner of N 26th & Holdrege:
the police station and a tree that announces their proximity
to me. I find myself surprised to be happy about
this closeness at first. Did I say happy?
I think of better worlds hardly possible.
Now, each time I pass beneath this tree
I think of the “I can’t breathe” of Eric Garner,
and how these words contrast with my dreams.
In this month of October, the police tree breathes less
or it looks that way. Its green welcoming leaves have changed
their color. They look more and more like my skin.
What future is there for tree leaves? Ah, future.
Do I have any myself, in this American city, presumably calm?
What color would it take here on this peaceful street
while in the unhappy streets of Lomé since August
my compatriots breathe the spice of tear gas?
Time afflicts trees. Humans afflict humans.
Returning from campus one evening at the end of October
I stopped by the police tree.
This night, I felt more for this tree.
It had lost many of its leaves.
I touched its trunk. My hand shook. The afflictions
of trees and our afflictions. A few leaves fell,
again. You will breathe again, dear tree.
Patron Henekou is a poet and cofounder of Festival International des Lettres et des Arts (www.nimblefeathers.com ) at Université de Lomé, Togo. He writes in French and English as well, and translates. (Above Left: Patron Henekou. Copyright by Patron Henekou)
His poems have appeared in anthologies such as Palmes pour le Togo, Arbolarium, Antologia Poetica de Los Cinco Continentes, and The Best New African Poets Anthology 2017, and in poetry journals such as AFROpoésie, Revue des Citoyens des Lettres, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Asymptote, Zócalo, Scoundrel Time, etc.
His published books include a play, Dovlo, or A Worthless Sweat (2015) and two poetry books in French entitled Souffles d’outre-cœur (2017) and Souffles & Faces (2018). Patron is a 2018 African American Fellow at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in Delray, Florida.