Musicality in the Poetry of Healing: A Dialogue with Adedayo Adeyemi Agarau
Adedayo Agarau’s chapbook, Origin of Names, was selected by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes for the New Generation African Poets chapbook box set (African Poetry Book Fund), 2020. He is a human nutritionist, documentary photographer, and author of two chapbooks, For Boys Who Went and The Arrival of Rain. Adedayo was shortlisted for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize in 2018, Runner up of the Sehvage Poetry Prize, 2019. Adedayo is an Assistant Editor at Animal Heart Press, a Contributing Editor for Poetry at Barren Magazine and a Poetry reader at Feral. His works have appeared or are forthcoming on Glass Poetry, Mineral Lit, Ice Floe, Ghost City, Temz, Linden Avenue, Headway Lit, The Shore Poetry, Giallo, and elsewhere. Adedayo was said to have curated and edited the biggest poetry anthology by Nigerian poets, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. You can find him on Twitter @adedayo_agarau or agarauadedayo.com
BY UGOCHUKWU DAMIAN OKPARA
This conversation took place between rooms in Ibadan and Owerri, Nigeria, via email.
Ugochukwu Damian: Hi Adedayo. Big congratulations on your recently published chapbook, The Arrival of Rain, your forthcoming chapbook, Origin of Names, and also for editing Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, which housed voices of both emerging and established poets across Nigeria. Wow! You’ve done so much lately, and I am in great awe of your works. Take me back to the process of creating the poems in The Arrival of Rain?
Adedayo Agarau: Thank you so much, Damian, and I am very happy to be having this conversation with you. The Arrival of Rain started during a wreck. My grandmother’s absence started to swell in after two years. I was depressed and was watching my life run me through. It was a disturbing time of my life. Someone I cared so much for walked into my house to tell me that they did not love me. I was alone, sinking. You see, Damian, the book came to me at a time when I was conscious about everything. I was insecure about even my body. Each poem had a reference, and the references shifted from my personal losses to rejection, to someone else’s loss, to death, absence, love, and sex. I tried to ruin the concept of hope within those poems but ended up naming the book with an arrival, the greatest form of hope.
Ugochukwu: This is moving, and I’m so glad you didn’t ruin the concept of hope. You tweeted recently that you just read one of the self-portrait poems in your chapbook and you were filled with gratitude for how strong you’ve become. Did writing those poems catalyze the journey to this rediscovery of self?
Adedayo: One of the functions of poetry is that it edifies both the poet and its audience. When I wrote “how to love a bird right back into the sky”, I was angry about how I had let myself down so much. The self-portraits were imaginations of form or the admittance that I was ‘this’ at some point. Each poem was a discovery. I think that is what art does, it gives you the chance to choose your own possibilities, to write it. I once wrote a poem about living with my grandmother, and I spent weeks grieving, wishing I could relive moments with her. The Arrival of Rain taught me to invent my own rain, to love my body this much.
“We can attempt different routes to healing, since the entire phenomenon is vague and subjective. Maybe it’s true that anything once broken can never be the same again. It’s a harsh world. Seven years after I thought I was free from the dream in which my abuser would come to take my body all over again, I had the dream again.“
Ugochukwu: I agree so much with you on poetry edifying both the poet and its audience. It makes me recall my experience in the NYSC camp, which was a bit traumatic for me, especially because I had to relive the ugly memories of the first boarding school I attended; the hostel arrangement, the way boys taunted me, the anxiety of walking past people ‘cause they had their eyes glued on me, and so on. It was almost the same, except that the camp is/was run by the military, and the other, a church. It was during this period that I discovered Ellen Bass’s poem, “The Thing Is”, and in the midst of all this internal chaos, I’d find myself thinking of the lines in the poem, where she says “to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it” and “How can a body withstand this?” And then, there’s an affirmation towards the end of the poem: “and you say, yes, I will take you / I will love you, again.” These lines kept me going in camp, it made me aware that it was just a phase, a matter of time, and I’ll be out of the camp. What else could I do other than to withstand it all, to sit still with whatever that weighs me down. That poem became a mantra to me.
In the same light, I think of the five self-portrait poems in your chapbook. In the first, there’s an assumption of loss, and then, there’s sort of a reminder of self, where you write, “erasure: the body is not a property”, and then there’s an acknowledgment, which is followed by a re-imagination of self, “this body, dead with bones shall rise”. This is also seen in the other portraits, such as the second, where the acknowledgment is even stronger. In it you write, “in the first portrait, i am a little boy sitting comfortably on fire” and then much later, “in this portrait / i am scared of going home”
The fourth portrait showed a hindrance to this hope coming in the form of rain, “clouds raising placards against the coming of the rain” and then there’s also a re-imagination, “i re-imagine myself as a choir singing a cathedral out of my father’s little wounds”. This journey to self is seen more in the last portrait, where you write, “i would rather nurse a wound than nurse a dead boy”.
For me, these poems are maps to the rediscovery of self. And they show how such a journey could be. Perhaps this is why one of the poems edified you much later.
Adedayo: Yes, Damian. Poetry is both an expression and a place. The book, The Arrival of Rain, sought to ferry truth, whether in the poet’s reality or truth living only in the poems. The function of language is to edify, and so is the function of words. Why do you think a poet whose story you do not know is capable of commanding tears out of your face in a few lines? How people are able to fall in love by merely reading a poem. The work of a poet is the work of a builder, his words, his lines, are what the edifice of confessionalism are built upon. I read Chibụìhè Achịmbà’s book, hallowed, and for days I cried at how much hate we have sailed into this world. His striking line in “Jacob” says, “what damage your country and her men and her law did,” and each time I remember that line, it breaks me all over again. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, he said, “my father went to kneel in the bathroom until we heard his muffled cries through the walls” and I was made to remember when my parents cried a few days after Christmas after a fallout that year. Poetry is capable of sitting inside memory, and fetching from it. Poetry would teach your hands how to write your memories, teach your body how to react to its own offerings. Poetry can be both kind and vile, and can be either. However, rediscovery is a patient work, Damian. Each poem that one writes about their body is first an acceptance (however crude the work is), that this is my state, the reality of this body bouncing against the light of day. Then, it can be a call for help. A poem is so many things, but most importantly, it remembers its writer, asks them to heal if they can.
Ugochukwu: “A poem is so many things, but most importantly, it remembers its writer, asks them to heal if they can.” This probability in healing strikes me so much. It sort of reminds me of my conversation with Nica Cornell, The Poetry of Unending Therapy. She writes: ‘if we understand trauma as something to be fully “purged,” we will constantly disappoint ourselves.’ Nica goes further to state that ‘Mend’ is the right word, that for her, it evokes sewing, treating, healing as opposed to the almost violent concepts of purging. Do you think there are misconceptions, especially amongst young poets, in their approach towards the concept of healing in poetry?
Adedayo: I have not gotten to that stage where I have definite opinions about young poets. I am one myself. I am trying to ache rightly too. However, aren’t we all dashing through the concept of misconceptions? One person attempting to guide our hands through their rules. I think the reason why we are still young is because we have the entire field to ourselves. We can attempt different routes to healing, since the entire phenomenon is vague and subjective. Maybe it’s true that anything once broken can never be the same again. It’s a harsh world. Seven years after I thought I was free from the dream in which my abuser would come to take my body all over again, I had the dream again. At the point where a writer, or anyone recognizes the need to breathe, they look for air wherever they can. That is the same thing with misconceptions and healing. Take every route your body aches for. Write the brokenness. Cry it. Sing it. No one should gate-keep your pain for you or tell you how to live with it.
Ugochukwu: Going back to The Arrival of Rain, I find the language pulsing, beautiful, and even haunting. Haunting in the sense that some lines get stuck in my memory, prompting me to re-evaluate life in terms of my losses, and it feels like I am being called to share in the grief/loss explored in the poems, which is soothing by the way. One of the poems that strongly made me feel this way is, “ode to hozier putting his emptiness into melody”. In a part you write:
“i am in constant battle a shower turns into a cry show / my mother calls from outside / this is not how it should end”
Can we talk about this poem? Also, I just started listening to Hozier’s songs, particularly “Take Me To Church”, and the melancholy drives so much emotion in me that I still find soothing.
Adedayo: Hozier, Florence and the Machine, Dermot Kennedy, Mumford & Sons and a host of other great artists evidently carry depth within their songs. At some point earlier this year, I was talking about the interrelationship between music and poetry, by this I mean what songs come to mind when you read a poem, what poem comes to mind when you read a song. Before now, Hozier’s music has been my companion as a poet. On some days, I’d sit down in the severity of his voice, in the melody that harps pain out of me from its deepest slumber & this poem, “ode to hozier putting his emptiness into melody”, is a result of one of those nights. I remember that I purposely had him snuggled into the title because I wanted the world to see what could carve such dexterity, such range of grief. “the windows in my body are shut against the light of your name”: Hozier’s “Arsonist’s Lullaby”, “Cherry Wine”, “Nina Cried Power”, all exhume bigger fires. “i am in constant battle / a shower turns into a cry show”: music, its melody mirrors your emotions, helps you to better address your grief. The totality of this work was built by Hozier’s influence, and at the end of the work, I chanted a victory hymn asking it to function as a song of loss instead.
Ugochukwu: Your response is intriguing. I have never thought of that aspect between music and poetry, and vice versa. Personally, music, like poetry, tilts the core of my emotions, and at times, it helps me understand what troubles me. Perhaps this is why I have some memories attached to some poems, and even some music, like, “Monsters” by James Blunt, makes me think of the time I had a little issue at the family house before leaving for my place. On the other hand, I’m trying to relate some of my favourite poems to music, and vice versa, and honestly, this process is fun, although a bit difficult for me because of my very picky attitude when it comes to music. Nonetheless, “Don’t Tell Your Uber Driver You’re Going to an Orgy” by Donte Collins, brings Logan February’s song “Games” to my mind.
Adedayo, you talk very much of your grandfather’s relationship to music, in the poem, “The Sea might have meant Freedom”, published in IceFloe Press, you write, “My grandfather, in the stillness of the sea started a song. The sea sang along.” And, in a tweet, you mentioned that he wrote all of Haruna Ishola’s songs. Did your grandfather influence your writing? Also I’m interested in knowing which music comes to your mind when you read some of your favourite poems.
Adedayo: I could have agreed that Alhaji Arole Agarau influenced my writing, but I barely met him. My grandfather died the year after I was born. My father once joked that he passed the gift to me the only time he carried me on his lap and sang for me. He said I was still, listening patiently. These stories informed the images I have of my grandfather. I easily associate the images of my grandfather with music, photography and stillness, the same way my grandmother represents kindness, and a little bit of chaos.
A few days ago, I wrote about how certain music/musicians remind me of the poetry of my friends because I read them so much. Dermot Kennedy read along Nome Patrick Emeka’s Monologues. Tope Alabi’s range brings Kolawole Adebayo’s Invocations to mind. Because the poetry of Michael Akuchie is vibrant, different and striking, I found myself subconsciously playing Aquilo as I started to read his manuscript. Hauwa Shaffi’s work is both striking and boundless, the possibilities of Ibeyi constantly remind me that poetry is a form of protest, and can be a form of worship. Her poem, “House”, particularly brings to mind Ibeyi’s “Rise Up Wise Up Eyes Up”. Agbaakin Jeremiah is a stellar storyteller. I grew up listening and attempting to sing the Fuji of Remi Aluko, Shanko Rashidi, and Wasiu Ayinde. Jeremiah’s surreal art finds its way into the music & melody of King Wasiu. Safia Elhillo is the kind of poet I want to read playing Leon Bridges’ “River”. Ocean Vuong’s conscious poems would go livid in a loud room to Zayn Malik. Wale Ibiyemi should forever be read in a parlour alive in NF’s rap. Music and reading poetry just does it for me, sincerely.
Ugochukwu: Adedayo, thank you for having this lovely conversation with me. Considering that you’ve been in the poetry mentorship scene here in Nigeria, through The SprinNG Fellowship, where I was a mentee in 2018, or your personally organized workshops, and more recently, the poetry masterclass, Transcendence, are there some overall thoughts you’d love to leave us with on the craft development of a budding writer?
Adedayo: Thank you Damian. At a time when we are having the important conversations about voices, influences, plagiarism and originality, I can’t stress enough the importance of writers having editors. Find a writing group. Find friendship within the community. Emerging writers need support, to keep writing, to keep submitting and a fellowship of writers flaming you to fire is all that you need. Read. Read interviews, listen to podcasts, read about literary movements. Then, be patient with your poetry because that poem will come.
This dialogue was edited by Kylie Kiunguyu.
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian writer and poet, was the first runner-up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2019. He was one of the 21 mentees in the second cohort of the SprinNG Fellowship, and an alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in African Writer, Kreative Diadem, Barren Magazine, The Penn Review, Rising Phoenix Press, and elsewhere.