Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Shortlisted Poet: A Dialogue With Selina Nwulu
Selina Nwulu is a writer, poet and essayist of Nigerian heritage who is based in London. She has written for a number of outlets such as the Guardian, New Humanist and Red Pepper and has toured her work nationally and internationally. She has also been featured in Vogue, ES Magazine, i-D and Blavity amongst others. She was Young Poet Laureate for London 2015-6, a prestigious award that recognizes talent and potential in the capital. Her first chapbook collection, The Secrets I Let Slip, was published in 2015 by Burning Eye Books and is a Poetry Book Society recommendation. From 2017- 2018, she was ‘Writer and Creator in Residence’ at the Free Word centre and Wellcome Trust, looking creatively at food and how it connects to our health and matters of social and environmental justice. She is currently working with Somerset House on a project around loneliness and climate change.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United Kingdom via email
Nkateko: Selina, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Selina: Thank you! It’s a wonderful honour to be shortlisted and it means a great deal to be in such good company of the other shortlisted poets. I used the submission for this prize as an opportunity to submit mostly new work as part of a larger collection that I’m currently working on, so it’s been great to get this far with it.
Nkateko: That’s really exciting! I think it’s very brave to submit new poems for a prize, especially when the statement “submit your best work” might tempt some to consider sending only work that has already received great feedback and recognition before. I believe the lesson in this is to trust that each poem is saying what it needs to say, whether it has travelled and settled elsewhere before (other platforms, journals, prizes) or is just beginning its journey. Does this affirmation of your new work given you the courage to explore a particular path more, a green light to look deeper into the “unspeakable things” in the body of the work and call them by name?
Selina: Yes, for sure. In many ways it did feel like a leap, but I was keen to do it. It’s new work, but these are ideas and poems that I’ve been ruminating over for some time, so they also feel very familiar to me. The challenge has been to sit still with these ideas and fully explore them, as opposed to keeping them on a hypothetical pile of would be poems (but isn’t that always the way for the writer?!). It’s been a challenging process, some of the poems are exactly as I felt they would be, others have taken a turn down an avenue I didn’t expect, but I also like that too. It definitely is an encouraging push to keep on exploring these threads of ideas as I work on a collection. I’ve been coming back to grief, trauma and the black body; the secrets we house within ourselves that we often don’t know how to give words to, which was very much my line of interest for the piece Unspeakable Things.
“In many ways it did feel like a leap, but I was keen to do it. It’s new work, but these are ideas and poems that I’ve been ruminating over for some time, so they also feel very familiar to me. The challenge has been to sit still with these ideas and fully explore them, as opposed to keeping them on a hypothetical pile of would be poems (but isn’t that always the way for the writer?!).“
Nkateko: How many people see a poem after you have written it, and before you send it to a journal or even submit it for a prize such as this one?
Selina: I actually don’t submit my work very often, at least not in the past, so there’s no specific trajectory I follow necessarily.
If I’ve workshopped a poem in a group space, then I often feel more comfortable going back to write and edit that poem from any group feedback and so might be more inclined to submit it as a result, otherwise I am forever appreciative of critical friends who I might share my work with for their take. Though this is only one part of the process, I also find readings helpful. While you don’t get the feedback on an editorial level, in performing my work I’ve often been able to feel which lines work and others that get stuck in my throat. Also, a collective reaction (or lack of) from an audience is helpful information.
All in all, I think you have to get very close to a poem to write the piece and understand its inner workings, and then you have to have some distance to see if it is working as you intended. Your comfort with a poem should depend on how well you think you’ve done this, regardless of how many people may have seen it ahead of sending it out to the world.
Nkateko: One of my favourite writers, Safia Elhillo, had this advice for an aspiring poet who asked for tips on submitting work to journals: “Workshop your poems with homies/mentors/yourself before sending them off – a journal editor should not be the first person to give you feedback on a piece.” How would you add to Elhillo’s advice, considering the fact that some young writers have not yet found a writing community or safe space in which to share or workshop a poem before submitting it?
Selina: Yes, and I agree with this. Also, the submission process is slow, so this would be a laboured way to get feedback, and that’s if the editor has capacity to give you it at all. It’s so hard if you don’t have a writing community, and I’ve definitely struggled with this at certain points. If you’re struggling to find this, then it may be a trusted person (who is not necessarily a writer) that you can sense check ideas and clarity with. It’s not the same kind of feedback, but there is something about checking for authenticity that they may give insight on that’s also important.
I also come back to the idea of when it is helpful to be intimate with the poem you’re writing and when you need distance. I think time is a great friend for giving distance to creative work. I’ve often left a poem for a week or so and when I’ve come back to it, it’s become so much clearer about what it needs. I find I’m able to be more objective about it, if only just a little! So, I’d definitely advise this, as well as finding trusted people as a priority if and whenever you can.
Nkateko: “…the secrets we house within ourselves that we often don’t know how to give words to.” This is powerful. In “Half Written Love Letter” you speak of “the things/we understood without words” and I love the description of what the body learns to make a home for, like “the tastebud clench of a tart apple” (such a gorgeous description). This image comes back to me at the end of the poem when you say, “When we go home we go back reeking of you” and for me it speaks to the fact that for a child of immigrants, it is difficult to understand the concept of home as a place other than where they are, what they can see and touch and taste. This is very difficult to put into words, the longing for a home that the body has no recollection of, and the simultaneous desire to make a home of what the body does understand. How important is it that we give words to diasporic displacement, to “grief, trauma and the black body”, to the things that can be understood without words by those experiencing them, but still need to be said out loud for those who do not understand (or refuse to understand) to acknowledge their existence? Who suffers most when we are silent? Who benefits when we speak?
Selina: That’s such a rich and beautifully put question. It reminds me of an experience I had growing up. I can’t remember what age I was, but I was old enough to notice how out of home I felt both in the town in the North of England that I grew up in, and in the very limited times I’d been to Nigeria. It was isolating, not only feeling alien wherever I was, but also thinking that it was only me that felt this way. But I overheard a conversation between two of my older sisters who were talking about this experience in ways that connected with exactly how I felt. Thinking about this now makes a realise a few things; that what is felt in the body is its own language and a form of knowledge we need to honour. The fact that my sisters could describe the exact same things I was feeling without previously having articulated this to me was validating, and says something very powerful about what our bodies know and understand. So, in some respects, there are some things that are just understood. It’s why I could meet someone from the African diaspora for the first time and just know we will have experienced similar things, even if we have very little in common, which is kind of wild when you think about it. That said, I also think that we need to give words to our experience precisely so we feel less alone, less alien about our existence. I think I’m done trying to explain our experiences for those whose intention is to wilfully misunderstand, so for me it’s less about speaking louder so that we’re understood and more about documenting and playing witness to our experiences. Without it, the one-dimensional narratives that surround us around migration and borders overshadow the nuances of our experiences that we all know (and feel) to be true. So I think we need to validate ourselves and our stories, giving space for both the grief and joy that it is to be a part of the diaspora.
Nkateko: “…we need to validate ourselves and our stories, giving space for both the grief and joy that it is to be a part of the diaspora.” This is so beautiful. I am reminded now of a week-long arts festival that I attended in 2018, where I met fellow writers and poets from across the continent. A few of the other poets and I formed a sort of sisterhood. In fact, we jokingly called ourselves a coven of witches. When one of the ‘witches’ said something profound and relatable, one of us would say, “Someone should put that on a T-shirt”, and we would jot in down. On the last day of the festival, we sat down and read through all our ‘T-shirt quotes’ and it was so special because each one brought up other memories from our time together. Thank you for sharing all that you have shared with me. I feel as if I have a year’s worth of T-shirt quotes from this conversation. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Selina: I love a good t-shirt quote! Thank you for your insightful questions and for exploring these topics with me.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.