Award-Winning Liberian Poet Cherbo Geeplay, Breathtaking poetry — An Interview
Who is Cherbo Geeplay and where was he born?
I am an African who takes pride in his origins. I consider myself as a pan-Africanist, a Garveyite in that respect, and a great admirer of Edward Wilmot Blyden. I come from humble beginnings, like most of my fellow citizens. I was born in Pleebo, Liberia, where my dad worked for the Firestone Rubber Company as a teacher. Both of my parents hailed from River Gee. Most of my time growing up was lived in the southeastern part of Liberia. My origins are a beautiful Grebo story of salt fish, coconut, farina, cassava, dry rice, pepper soup, fufu, and palm butter, but also of vibrant village life laced with African traditions and urban culture. I come from both of these worlds, deeply rooted in my customs but a modern man in so many ways. These are the mores that make me who I am.
Why do you do what you do, and who has motivated you?
I am an emerging poet and writer with great passion for bringing positivity into the world. It is a journey to tell the stories of my people. Writers live lonely but hopeful lives, filling up empty pages, to be widely read inspiring a transformation in society, igniting a debate—I have drawn inspiration from many people: Bai T. Moore, Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Wilton Sankawulo, Professor Althea Romeo-Mark, Neruda, Gibran, Achebe, wa Thiong’o, and Baldwin, to name a few. I owe a debt of gratitude to many people who have, and continue to passionately support me, motivate me, encourage me, and bathe my wounds of insecurities and unfilled dreams into rivers of confidence and extraordinary assurance. I am also motivated and moved by nature. The moon fascinates me immensely; it goes right by the bedroom window most nights, captivating me. I may sometimes have a glass of water or wine, standing there and marveling at the orbiting body, just how beautiful and amazing the moon is; sometimes I may take a break go to the bath and when I return it is gone. So is rain, thunder, pollen, rivers, flowers, bees, and the wind. Simple things that mean a lot, but are overlooked, like birds singing or flying in a flock. These are the things that fascinate but motivate me, these are the relationships that move my poetry, we live in a complicated world, but there is much hope to be had and desired by living simply and being thankful for, especially all the life and nature that surrounds us, my poetry is greatly encouraged by these connections . I am exceedingly grateful for all the life and nature that surrounds us on this planet, the only livable space known to mankind, and these are the motivating factors that move me as a poet.
Your father was a classroom teacher and your mother was a Sunday school teacher. Did their work in any way encourage you to become a poet?
I am not sure, but looking back the influences are there. My dad was a straight disciplinarian, never played with his rattan [laughs]. This meant doing homework and studying hard, recitations at school and reading bible verses every morning, and evening, especially on Sundays and right before bed. If there is anything you want to take from the bible, it is that it is a great poetry book too. Great verses, especially Psalms, Proverbs, Songs of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. But my real spark came in high school. I enjoyed a certain solitude, reading and thinking during the war, which primed me and gave me focus for the literary arts, but high school was pivotal. If my dad was alive today and knew I was writing poetry, I think he would be surprised. Yes, he was open minded and humbled, but this would surprise him. He was deeply religious and a man of few words. Unlike my dad, I am not religious, but his guidance has helped my transition to the arts, reading and eventually poetry. My mother was a good storyteller too, her mind was so sharp and penetrating. These are small, but important influences that have shaped me into who I am today.
What do you hope your writing will do for the young people in your native land of Liberia, as violence is the order of the day among the youth?
I hope it will inspire them to shun the violence in society, especially against women. A society cannot destroy it’s women folk and hope to grow into a prosperous community. The rise in violence against women in society is unacceptable, shameful, ghastly and something must be done immediately, especially by the national government to protect our mothers, sisters and friends. The Liberian society is certainly in a moral crisis of decay after so many years of war, debasement, impunity and violence in which untold suffering has been wantonly thrust on our people. The crimes are still ongoing today, with no remedies from the powers that be. But sadly, to this day no one has been held accountable or brought to justice, even though it is open knowledge, who these perpetrators are, especially the war time atrocious mayhem! I hope this situation will change for the better and that these crimes are addressed in accordance with the law, and when these young people read my work—or other works out there, especially by African and Liberian writers—they will be inspired to lead healthy lives and know that violence is unacceptable, cruel and a negative influence. To be good human beings and to be of value to our communities, we must have the courage to say no to violence, especially against women and girls!
Why do you include the Grebo tradition in your work as Dr. Patricia Jabbah Wesley does?
I feel it is my duty to speak of my Grebo heritage, as well as the Liberian and African culture and tradition. Some of my poems have references to the Cavalla River, Mesurado River, Dube River, Cestos River, and towns like: Kanweaken, Pleebo, Saclepea, Zorzor and the great forests, hills and mountains throughout the country. This is also said to be true of my poetic language describing places like the Serengeti, plains of the Savannah, and of the Great Lakes of Africa, or the Veld and the Bushman, or the Congo or Nile Rivers. It is by piecing the tapestries of this great collective mosaic together that we speak for our peoples. But Grebo country is where I was born and raised. I don’t know much about Lofa or Bong Counties, but Wilton Sankawulo, to whom I penned a tribute, is Kpelleh and from Bong. Vamba Sherif, another great Liberian writer, is from Lofa. But my poetry goes beyond Grebo and Liberia. It speaks of Africa and the poetry of our times in an age when poets’ voices are ever-needed to speak truth to power, especially the violence against Black people, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, migration, and our humanity.
As a writer, it is essential not to forget your roots, or else we won’t have the great novel: THINGS FALL APART, had Achebe not told an epic befitting Igbo story, through which all Africans can relate, himself an Igbo. Ngugi wa Thiong‘o does the same, telling Africa’s story through the lens of his people, the Kikuyu. I am in no way comparing myself with these great eminent authors, as well as Dr. Wesley, Sankawulo, Moore, and Sherif, whom I mentioned earlier. The point that I am making is that a writer should not forget where he comes from, you have to write what you know, be close to the purpose that drives you. You have to be genuine, and by doing so you will find your voice, I am still trying to find my voice, hoping that its echoes are heard far and wide!
How many poems did you write in your first book and how many are you planning to publish in your second book of poetry, and when?
Most publishers want a certain amount of poems; it depends on the publication. So far I have written several manuscripts. A writer is supposed to write every day. I don’t live by that maxim today, but I have done that in the past. I have slowed down a bit because I have been organizing my thoughts, revising and submitting my work, while responding to editorial queries, and basically working on my act and reading to catch up on all the new stuff out there. The publishing world is quite a subjective and brutal one. Your work gets rejected all the time, not because it is not good—well that may be one reason too— but because the person on whose desk it first lands may not like it, and they pass on it. That’s the life we have accustomed ourselves to, hoping to reach that next stage which may never come. But you have to keep pushing the cart. So most of the manuscripts I have written have about 50 poems. But my poems tend to be very long, with few short ones here and there. I don’t know when I will get published in the traditional sense If all else fails, maybe I shall self-publish someday, but I am not thinking about that right now. So it could be next year or two years from now, who knows. But publishers do have my work out there, we will just have to see.
What is the title of your recent book?
I have been published in quite a few prestigious literary magazines e.g., the Adelaide Literary Magazine published my poetry in its Volume III, July 2018 edition, Rigorous also published my poetry in its Volume 2 Issue 4, 2019 edition, etc etc, and it gives me small comfort that perhaps better days are ahead. I have also been a finalist in the poetry competition in New York City, in November 2018, with the Adelaide Literary Magazine, this was an amazing award. The fact is not lost on me that out of hundreds of entries in the competition, I was one of few selected for awards and space in the anthology. When people who don’t know you, say yes to your work, with personal notices and communication to you with congratulations, it brings a certain validation, small however it may be, knowing that from a pool of seasoned and professional writers and from thousands of talents your work was chosen.
Seasons and Tides was the very first manuscript l completed. It is not an African poetry book like all of my others. It is essentially about autumn and war and our humanity. I wanted to test myself by getting out of my comfort zone, and because also autumn is my favorite season. Songs of an African Son! is about traditions, cultures and our humanity. Hopefully these titles won’t change; nothing is certain until it is all sealed and finalized fresh out of the presses.
Do you hope to publish a book of short stories for the younger generation in your country?
Yes. I do have a short story collection based on the Civil War and the struggles families went through. One of my short stories, A Check Point Away From Dying, was published by the Rigorous Literary Magazine in 2019. It’s online for any party interested in reading a harrowing but epic story of survival from the Civil War. I hope the younger generation will take interest, but I write for everyone. I think it’s time our educators took an interest in Liberian and African books so our people can read their own literature, that they can taste and smell, or feel and touch, that speaks to their experiences and the struggles of their daily lives. In Liberia, we have the uncanny convention of inviting foreign literature into our classrooms rather than our own. But let me add, nothing is wrong with learning about other people’s ways of life through literature or arts, but it need not take precedence over your own.
Are you planning on writing your memoir and, if so, when?
I don’t think I will write a memoir. It is too presumptuous at this point in my sojourn to even think about that. No, I don’t see a memoir anytime soon. I have not accomplished anything and I am still trying to crawl at this point, and I say this with all due respect. No one knows me, I am nobody. As of this moment I am just trying to get my work out there. A memoir is not on my radar just now or anytime in the foreseeable future. And even were I greatly successful, I don’t think I will do a memoir. I don’t like writing about myself.
What would you say about the wave of violence in your country, that has led to the stabbings and bloody protests we see in the streets?
The level of violence in the country is unacceptable. Millions of dollars was spent to professionalize the security services through the Security Sector Reform, to train the police to fight, quell and punish violence, but what we see is so disheartening. Both the courts and the police and law enforcement are failing our people. The Justice system needs to serve our people and perpetrators of violence need to be held accountable. Some of the stories you hear and read in the news are just darn scary; those of unmitigated violence of an intolerant society on steroids. The authorities can and must do better. Our people deserve to live in peace given everything they have gone through: a deadly civil war, Ebola, and Covid-19. The rule of law is cardinal for peace, development, and tranquility in any country. We hope the governors will be proactive in that regard, in protecting our people who are the victims of this mass thuggery, of violence and intolerance. The country belongs to all its citizens. Those in power may not be in power tomorrow. So stop the political intolerance and violence. Let the grievances of the populace be heard, their rights to protest must be protected at all times, as guaranteed under the constitution and organic laws of the land.
Do you have a message for your government regarding education and abandoned scholarship students in foreign countries?
Education and health in my opinion must be declared national interests! Successive Liberian governments should have to put this at the top of the list of priorities. Previous governments deliberately refused to educate our people for their own selfish reasons. If it is not inadequate budget allocations, then it is lip service to educating our people. There is also too much corruption in the classroom according to reports from demanding sex to demanding bribes, this needs serious attention from the authorities who lead the country, these acts must be punished, corruption in the classroom room is impeding the growth of education in the country. If the Liberian government sends students abroad to study, then it must take care of them.
Is there anything you wish to speak about that I did not mention?
I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to take an interest in my work. I admire you so much for your courage and all that you have given African journalism, especially your ground breaking stories in defense of Liberian women. You have left an indelible mark, and all the accolades and awards you have racked up these many years are truly amazing and deserved. Thanks once more, Mae.