Poetry as a Meditation on Human Existence: A Dialogue with Gbenga Adesina

Gbenga Adesina is a poet and essayist from Nigeria. He is the joint winner of the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. He is the 2016 Norman Mailer Poetry Fellow at Pepperdine University Malibu, California. He has received scholarships and residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Vermont Studio Center in the United States. He was also a 2015 Open Society Foundation Poetry Residency Fellow on Goree Island, in the coast of Senegal. His poetry and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in Harriet’s BlogAfricanwriter.com, One Throne, JaladaPremium TimesOpen Society FoundationVinylBrittle PaperPremium Times, Pairie Schooner, Soar Africa and the New York Times. His first chapbook, Painter of Water, is published in the 2016 New Generation African Poets series by University of Nebraska and Akashic Books, New York.

This conversation oscillated between the sweet hotspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a quite glasshouse in Valley Forge, Philadelphia and later New York by email.

Gaamangwe: Gbenga, I recently came across your poetry, specifically the poems that won you the Brunel African Poetry Prize this year, I am in absolute awe. There is something transcendental, alluring and illuminating about your poetry. Particularly because your work meditates on love and loss, the two most powerful spectrum of human existence. Can you talk to me about your interest in poetry as a tool for your exploration and understanding of human existence, and why you are drawn to the subjects of love and loss? 

Gbenga: Gaamangwe, your opening question—the swirl and the generosity of it—
elicits poetry. So let me start by reading you a poem, one of my favorites:


Wole Soyinka

I shall sit often on the knoll
And watch the grafting.
This dismembered limb must come
Some day
To sad fruition.
I shall weep dryly on the stone
That marks the grave head silence of
A tamed resolve.
I shall sit often on the knoll
Till longings crumble too.
O I have felt the termite nuzzle
White entrail
And fine ants wither
In the mind’s unthreaded maze.
Then may you frolic where the head
Lies shaven, inherit all,
Death-watches, cut your beetled capers
On loam-matted hairs. I know this
Weed-usurped knoll.
The graveyard now
Was nursery to her fears.

A friend and I decided to commit that poem to memory years ago as an invocation of sort but also for its melancholic presence. I write, I think, essentially as an attenuation of my aloneness. Sometimes I get the feeling, that I what I do when I write is to ask: “Dear body, where does it ache? Where does it ache?” But this body does not necessarily have to be mine. There is a thread that connects us and allows us openings into the aches or traumas of others.

But the sum total of our lives are not just in sorrows. There is also joy, elation, the tender buoy of love, seduction, mercies.  I write of these things too. What I have found
particularly compelling over the years though is how the personal, the private is also essentially the universal. How my private histories of love and loss surprisingly mirrored that of the world or at least of the worlds around me. So that my landscape of exploration as an artist started to expand, dilating to include sorrows beyond the immediacy of my own, extending to capture the joys and hums from outside the narrow boundary of the surface “I”.

Gaamangwe: Gbenga, you have just reminded me of the profundity of poetry. Its power to explore and meditate on our placement in the grand space and scheme of our personal realities and that of the collective consciousness.

Human existence is fascinating but also awfully lonely and frustrating, perhaps because we are within it. Why are we here? Some days, I think I have half of the answers. I do know that poetry, literature, film, spirituality and humanity are all the things that inform me of myself in relation to All That Is. And in them, the aches, the hunger, confusion and the loneliness subsides. 

 Gbenga, what are some of the things that inform you of your human existence, and how do they influence your poetry?

Gbenga: To be a writer, I think, is to be aware. You live at this level of supercharged sensitivity. Historical and emotional. The private histories, the private traumas that arc around our lives, individuated and unindividuated, as humans living in the world. The continuum of our accumulated histories. Inherited ones, but also those ones we acquire within a life span, no matter how short. My thinking really is that when a human being—I or someone else—walk into a room there is an invisible cloud we carry with us. I tell myself that I ought to be sensitive, that I must make allowance; I must understand that what we have here is more than just the body or whatever has been offered on the surface, sensory level.

I carry a sense of geographies with me. A place is never just a place for me. I always find myself asking: what do we have here? What’s the hidden history of this place, what is beneath whatever façade of modernity, of current reality this physical landscape might be trying to wear on her face, what lies beneath it all? My friend, brilliant Indian poet Rohan Chhetri said “…..the way the fear of a people seeps into the clime of their soil, hardening, giving back nothing”. I’m drawn to these things.

I’m always asking who lived here? Who loved here?

Gaamangwe: Who loved here? Who lived here? There is so much philosophical profundity to this thought Gbenga. I think, perhaps this is the sum of human existence. To love and to live. To carry and to be all the places and times and humans we have loved and lived in. And in between love and life, within our psyche, our personhood, we have our traumas, our fears, our shadows, without forgetting our bliss, our innocence and our faith, albeit blind. Which really adds vulnerability and urgency to human existence.

 But how do we create a kinder world Gbenga? How do we stop the world from burning itself to debris?

 Gbenga: How do we create a kinder world? Who knows!

Did James Baldwin not say the role of literature is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden their answers? I take solace in my uncertainties.

But something Svetlena Alexievich said comes to my mind right now. She said, “What can art accomplish? The purpose of art is to accumulate the human within the human being”.

Perhaps if we accumulate enough of the humans in human beings and distill them in works of art, maybe we’ll move towards a kinder base in ourselves.

Gaamangwe: James Baldwin’s words reminds me of the other saying, ask the questions and live the answers. It seems that is all we can do. In all of our human history we are still asking the same questions, still attempting to understand who or what we are. 

In my personal attempt to understand my own personal existence, I had to do what you are saying. Collect all the humans within me, meditate on them, heal them and love them as they as are. To love them is the hardest part. Because love requires generosity to all the parts of the self, especially the ugliest parts. Love requires that we both witness and give voice and life and meaning to all the humans, broken and striving inside us.  Let us speak of love, what it means to you and how it informs your poetry? 

 Gbenga: A couple of hours before now, for no inexplicable reason other than the fact that I had some time to spare in between commute I decided to re-read James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of A Native Son” , I found myself  again (how many times now?) upended by the sinousidal flow of his lyrics and their prophetic leaps. Our consciousness has never been the same because Baldwin lived. But let’s talk about love. Baldwin himself said:

“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real”.

So here we have a very complicated love that is at once full of culpablity and vulnerability but also it carries the burden of prophecy,  of memory, of conscience, the calling unto repentance. It is this sort of love maze that the writer finds himself entangled in with his society.

Let me pivot a little. I do believe that I have never encountered a human being (in my imagination or in narratives or in real life and I do think I’m a keen observer of the patterns and tendencies of the human being) totally devoid of love. I do not believe that the complete absence of love exists as a human phenomenon. Some of the most brutal personages of terror and violences in our histories have also been people who loved their mothers or fathers or spouses or children or even animals. Or something.

What we do as humans, what we do is to construct artificial cities of the heart outside the boundaries of which we declare love cannot exist. In fact the epidemiology of hatred have always centered around love and not even hatred itself. When we create labels and call people those terrible identity tags as instrument of othering and we pass those things to our kids  (through subtle osmosis of the media or culture climate or even in some cases directly through propaganda). What we are saying to Junior is “Hey, little Junior we know there is so much love in you, we know there cannot but be love in you but please you cannot dare extend it to this person or such persons/people.

Hatred is not a concept in itself I think. I think it is what seeps in when there is the withdrawal of all the humanizing tendencies of love.

I do believe that my role as a writer, how love beckons me in this regard is to participate in the deconstruction of the facilities of “othering”. The rigid identity markers, the instrument of false dichotomies and fencing out. My role is to complicate your easy binaries. To add a hundred more colours to your unbelievably narrow spectrum of Black and White. This is love. I believe. All of it.

But let me wrap this up and perhaps in the process explore another dimension. One of my favourite songs in this world is “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles. (Other arms reach out to me/other eyes smile tenderly/…the road leads back to you). Anytime Ray started singing that song, people were swayed and were never sure if he was singing about Georgia, his home state or Georgia, a woman he loved. Because in love there are multiplicities.

When the slaves had started to land in new, far away lands, scissored by large bodies of water away from the people they loved. They would sit by the shores and cry and wail and sing for the homeland, the old country from which they had been snatched, their voices pitching into night’s darkness like birds of grief. Home in that instance was the daughter that was sorely missed; home, the old country in that instance was the lover, the spouse whose touch the body had not yet learn how to forget; home was familiar smell, familiar cries. Because in love, in attachment there are multiplicities.

Love is a venture of faith. For love is always present from the very beginning with the seed of it’s own attrition. The possibility is inherent. To not know this is not love, it’s ignorance. To say love, I know present in you is flaw and fallibility  and the seed for ache. But in me the bearer of this love, there is no faltering, no shadow of turning. It is of these things I write.


Gaamangwe: You are right in many of the words you said here, but perhaps what jumps to me is how all that which is not love is our own doing, wherein we really try and teach ourselves how to withdraw from the true nature of our humanness. And we try to withdraw from love, in the way of fear, anger, hatred and war because of our terrifying belief that we are powerless to life’s way. And in our misguided belief that we can and should shift life’s way. That we can have and should have only yang, without yin. But then we cannot deny the ways of being human, of becoming and unbecoming in this insurmountable and unbearable heaviness of life’s way.  

Now, I want to us to meditate on one of my favorite poems by you. It reads,

HOW TO LOVE             

This is how you love in war:
You put a bit of yourself in salt and water and
feed it to him. You make his hands write a map
that softens the night on your cheeks and then you
open a tiny follicle in his eyes and say Shabash, Shabash
Shabash. Shabash being your name, so that when
the city slips out of your hand and becomes the fire
you and your son are running from: he to the South,
you towards the North; you pray your last, knowing
he will live with your name singing in his eyes.

Take me here, Gbenga. Speak to me of how to love in war. And speak to me of your chapbook, Painter’s Water.
You wrote of war, of love, of memory, of the unspeakable, and the silence of humans in terror and love. I am interested in knowing, what this work meant to you, its origin and the seeds it wants to plant. 

Gbenga: The writer that I am is also the human that I am. That’s what I think at this stage of my creative career. So naturally the things that are important to me as a human being make it into the aesthetic explorations that I’m drawn to.

I have had the incredible luck of reading my works in great places of the world in recent times. And I’m so grateful and still in a daze about that.  At one of those readings and this is quite recent, I read the poem “HOW TO LOVE” and after the event and the immediate hubbub and chatter and exchanges and all, a woman walked up to me and in a quiet voice told me how much she was moved by the poem. This woman, I surmised, must be in her sixties. She asked if we could sit and talk. We did. She remembered the lines and went over them again, saying what this line did to her and what that meant to her etc. And I was sitting there thinking any moment from now she would say it. She would say it. That she had worked in war torn Darfur or that she had adopted a black kid from the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. What she told me instead was that she had an estranged daughter. In her late twenties, a medical doctor, living two states away from her, with whom she had not spoken, hard as she had tried, in five years. She said she admits that there were experiences the daughter had as a child, later as a teen and finally in her early twenties (the details of which she didn’t tell me) for which she the mother might be blamed. But by God she had tried hard to remedy things. And when she heard me read the line about a parent and a child running in different directions, a sob had suddenly caught in her throat because she, in that instant, thought of her daughter.

A lot of things happen after readings: people slid you notes, people want to invite you over; some of the most amazing and generous friendships thus far have their beginnings in this; people send you copious emails. Variegated reactions. Some are remarkable. Some are not. But this particular experience with that woman stuck with me.

It was a completely different interpretation and engagement.

And now that I think of it, I’m reminded of what I had always thought that perhaps historians and writers, people of conscience and memory have always been drawn to chronicling the savageries and traumas of wars and conflicts because they—these wars, these conflicts— mirror  the ones within us with so much acuteness. The ones in the micro spaces of our intimacies and attachments. I think it is of these things that I write.

Gaamangwe: And these things naturally percolate into your creative outputs?

I have found myself in my young adulthood moving away from the spaces of factual knowledge as it were (dialectics, the science of opinions and numbers, for which I have solid training and upbringing) into the spaces of transformation knowledge, metaphors, the calling unto repentance through abstraction.

I have found myself wanting to move humans rather than instruct them.

My new persuasion is that factual knowledge is not what is lacking in the world. That the possibility of transformation is what we must now seek. The republic of kindness, of tenderness. Cornel West said “The condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak”. I’m drawn to this. Eternally. My works basically map such human and aesthetic spaces. Human and aesthetics.

It was from such mental posture that I wrote poems like “How To Love” and the bulk of the poems in my chapbook “Painter of Water”.

But as I conclude let me talk about ordinariness. Because ordinariness is very important to me. There is a book before me called “The Years of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. Now, I’m suddenly reminded of one of the most compelling poems by Derek Walcott “PISSARO AT DUSK”. In that poem he painted a trans-formative portrait of ordinariness. But I digress. In Ms. Didion’s book, a dissection of her grief after such a tragic loss, she spoke of the “Ordinary instant” and dilated it with such heart and clarity.

In the bulk of the poems that was later pruned into what became my chapbook , there were poems about walking on Lagos streets, poems about hanging out with friends, poems about lovers, about bodies in such intensity, an ode to Lips, to my shoes, to my pens etc. because it is in such quotidian measures that our lives are lived. It is the human fact. But even in such poems like How To Love, How Memory Unmakes, City Upon Many Waters etc. in which, as you said, I explored grief and loss, you will notice that they are solidly ensconced within the ordinary: kids in their hostel rooms, a mother feeding her child, people singing or dancing or walking down the road until the ordinariness is distended.

The ordinary is how we experience emotional highs. The contrast. Like someone singing alto in a choir of tenors. The alto stands out because the tenor does not. In fact the ordinary is how we measure horror. The pain of horror, of loss, of absence, I think, is often felt in the fact that the ordinary has been snatched away. I try to plot my arcs around the ordinary.

Gaamangwe: And here, is exactly why we yearn for poetry. This poetry. And that poetry. And your poetry. Yes, your poetry. Because here, we remember ourselves, our human hood, and our everydayness. It’s so easy to forget and hide the scars and the debris of our lives. 

So we thank poets, we thank your poetry, and the poetry yet to come, by you, and by all of us. 

So in this final reflection, if we find the painter of water, what will he paint? Essentially, what world do you intend to paint?  

Gbenga: I’m just going to quote a passage to you from Marcel Proust’s Contre Saint Beuve (Against Saint Beuve). I first came across this in a lecture by V.S. Naipaul years ago and it has stayed with me.

“The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline. Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable us finally to bring this indistinct music closer, to hear it clearly, to note it down …”

I read somewhere, I think, it was from Teju Cole, that “When we write fiction (and I think other genres too) we write within what we know. But we also write in the hope that what we have written will somehow outdistance us. We hope through the spooky art of writing to trick ourselves into divulging truths that we do not know we know”.

This sums it up for me. The use of abstractions, of metaphors to negotiate specific human and aesthetic spaces which is essentially the idea behind the Painter of Water.

Gaamangwe: Perfection.

Gbenga: This has been wonderful. Thank you.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

















































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