Ejiọfọr Ugwu lives and writes in Nsukka, Nigeria. His poetry chapbook The Book of God was selected by African Poetry Book Fund in collaboration with Akashic Books to be included in the 2017 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set. His poetry and short fiction have been published in Guernica, African American Review, Drumtide Magazine, The New Black Magazine, ELSEWHERE Lit, Cordite Poetry Review, Sentinel Nigeria, The Kalahari Review, and The Muse, a journal of creative and critical writings at the University of Nigeria.
This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the hilly town of Nsukka, Nigeria by Email.
Gaamangwe: Ejiofor, you once said that “I come from a Community of stories: beautiful and gory”, and I think there is no other perfect way to describe your poetry. Beyond communal imprints and influence, what is your obsession in/with poetry?
Ejiofor: It may not be a marvel to you but to my poetic mind, it’s a huge miracle. People kill and get killed every day. Many go unreported; unaccounted for: the reason for spelling blood does not even have to be tangible. Then again, we see where one death could trigger off concerns that would travel many nations, just one death, because the world thinks that such death is ‘important’. You check where I am coming from, and you find many sites of mass burials and they would quickly fade away. We have gotten used to mass burials – so we are no longer bothered, especially, since it is far away in the North or the North East or a small farming village in Ukpabi Nimbo.
Then Aleppo and many other places trying to deal with manuring their lands with humans. It’s as if the whole world is a monstrous ‘blood god’ (apologies to Mary-Alice Daniel). I am not obsessed about death and the monstrous conspiracies of the world. No, I am not. After all, as a speaker in one of my poems would say, ‘I have no debt to worms except / wads of silk’. I think I seem to be saying: this is one important way we are now; perhaps, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
My art is a personal protest. How far this protest will go is not certain though. What bothers me more is living with the reality of not having protested at all! You know, against humans and against Gods. The small fowl carried off by a carnivorous kite says that she is crying down from the air, not for the kite to leave her but for the whole world to also know that she is about to die. I have this feeling about most of the speakers I find in my poetry. They don’t seem to be tired of looking at life directly into its face. The speakers are also not better peoples. Sometimes, their personal daemons are so overbearing that you wonder: that is how they love the world.
Gaamangwe: I am heartbroken for you, for the many humans who are violated, killed and buried, only to fade away the next day, unaccounted and undocumented, never spoken of, never known and cried for, except as statistics, as just victims of “Nimbo Massacre”.
It’s not right. Even and despite that we will all die, and we are in a world without end, we should, all of us, care about the violent killing of any human. With art, and much more— our hands, our bodies, our actions, our words are all the ways we should protest. But here is a conundrum, to protest humans and their ways, to say out loud that these are all the things we will accept and live with, is hard but possible. But now Ejiofor, how does one protest against God?
Ejiofor: I am not just concerned about human destruction say, around me (it does not have to be around me). I am concerned about it happening anywhere in the world. I am concerned that people are no longer allowed to wither on their own and die. And there again, why should we even wither in the first place?
So, to be concerned this way is to begin a protest. The speakers rage not just against God or society but against their own souls. They make you see that they are also broken humans. Sometimes, they speak about things that we would like to keep secret; things we would not like to give speech; things we most suffer from but which we would not like to confront with words. You know, that is why I am not ashamed to write about bones. That is why I am not ashamed to write about small lives. The sense of protest I see in the speakers is in terms of speaking back to things, to all supreme deities including Gods in human forms. Job spoke back out of love: ‘Why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself?’ If you say I am your beloved, why do you chose this way to show me your love? Many unleash suffering out of strange senses of love; it could be love of Gods, what you call religion or love of power. There are many other strange forms of love in the world. Art in becoming art can open up questions about these loves. It is opening up things in order to win over erasure, to defeat time, to defeat silence. Nothing is past for Poetry, I think.
Even Christ felt forsaken. Say, He had a self apart from the ordained. We hear Him, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ That is a powerful form of protest against erasure. The answer to such question is for Philosophy or Religion to deal with. Poetry can unnerve Gods and things that way. It can keep questioning meanings and even unmeaning meanings in order to mean afresh. In this way art becomes more historical than history. It connects most to our common humanity.
So whether my poetry will succeed in speaking to things is also there. But more importantly it re-brings things; opens up things; enlarges things with their fullness of life so as to help them assert their lives. Poetry can do this even when we know that it is not statistical. It can record the history of say, the ‘defeated’ in a way most spiritual: enchanting and liberatory. Things don’t fade away completely where you have poetry. Things don’t get exhausted with the hurry of everyday speech. Everyday speech is almost powerless without poetry. Poetry rescues everyday speech for it to start to live. Poetry is a word that defeats time. You ought to have heard this before. What protest is more spiritual than this? Poetry, not in the immediate, or in your personal hurry but in steadfastness.
Gaamangwe: Why should we even wither in the first place? What a fascinating thought. Is this not the basis of all human wars? This desperate attempt to not wither. To not annihilate. Are we not all, in some way trying to be immortal? Because withering is abrasive to human life. It is this withering that makes us question if all of this is significant after all.
I understand this personal protest against the human soul. I am also haunted by how we have not been able to contain and transcend our withering nature. But sometimes, I think that all roads must lead to withering, because perhaps the beauty of life, the poetry of things comes from the very fact that all things eventually wither. What amplifies and gives meaning to the smallness of things is the very reality that all things eventually ends. And love, well they do say love is the elixir of life. It adds fullness to the smallness of our lives.
I find what you said about how art asks questions about the many strange forms of love interesting. Now, I am interested to know the kind of questions your poetry asks about love, and the kind of answers your poetry is finding along the way.
Ejiofor: We do poetry. Man does poetry, and say, he cannot do without doing it. About why he does it, apart from being a feature making him to be what he is, we are the ones to know. Those strange forms of love are possible, so that we know. So that we keep knowing. The much I know, as someone through whom poetry comes into existence, is in rethinking those possible forms. Why do we love that way? Why do we self-destroy?
Say, we can gain insights into certain truths of our being. What are these inexhaustible values of our being? That is spiritual and a oneness of being. Why do we make violence for instance? Why do we make destruction, knowingly or unknowingly? And how do we live with destruction? Again, how is it in our nature to make violence? Can we do self-cleansing? We are yet to arrive at the complete answers.
Again, whether there is completeness at all? Poetry is in the asking. And that is part of why it will keep tugging at wholeness. The energy that comes from this can make the artist mad. You can crash down trying to dispel the energy. It’s a spell. That is why writing begins like an involuntary action. You spoke about eventuality; man infinitely in doubt of its possibility. That is, man knowing this eventuality, still does poetry. Poetry is an act of transcendence for him. That is one answer we can see along the way – a radical act, say. A way to tell the world that it is well. A way to also say, it is not always rosy for the world. Why the world needs to be always retold is the question of poetry. It can make the world feel nervous. It can make the world feel loved. They are all possibilities of feelings. Say, when it speaks about bones, it wearies the world.
Gaamangwe: The aspiring philosopher in me will say that the world needs to be retold because we, humans, are trying to clutch and connect the missing and incomplete dots, to fill the spaces between the eye and the heart, and to meet pasts and presents and futures, into one complete moments of nows. And yes, I think, I really think poetry has in many ways, has transcended the in-between missing and incompleteness in our world.
On completeness, I wonder, is there a poem or poems of yours, that you feel has tugged at wholeness completely, one that comes close to the perfect spell and the complete act of the transcendence of Ejiofor?
Ejiofor: The other day, I was going to Arochukwu for the burial of a friend’s mother. Derek Walcott had died in the morning. I had avoided the news early that morning. It was out of shock, I think. And I was going to travel. And I needed to be a bit collected. My avoiding the news helped. But even by the evening of that day, the news had not yet stopped spreading. I had thought that it would have died down by the evening but it kept coming on more and more. By early evening that day, I had covered half of the distance to my destination.
I decided to check social media. I opened Facebook and each time I did, the news would pop up as if to make sure that I accepted that Derek was now completely dead. We had just left Umuahia, passed some gmelina plantations. I kept getting worried again. The taxi kept speeding amidst hearty banters. The driver and some of the people in the taxi knew that we still had a long way ahead of us. So, they understood the speed and did not complain. We were only two strangers in the car. The lady going to see her would-be husband’s people for the first time and myself. I couldn’t join the hearty conversations. I kept thinking about Walcott and poetry and me. We got to a Jehovah Witness Hall along the entrance to Bende and I was already breaking. I became completely afraid, in form of panic attacks. I felt hopeless. What is this beast that never got tired of eating people? What is the need of poetry?
We passed some two small children running about with used tyres which they steered with double-pronged sticks, unaware that we passed them, unbothered by the world. Then almost immediately, Romeo Oriogun shared a part of ‘Love for Love’. And I reread the whole of it. A voice said in my head, ‘hey, don’t break down, keep working’. I began to type into a word pad in my phone. A title came first, ‘St. Lucian Air’. I wrote under it, ‘for Derek Walcott’. I marveled at the countless land gullies at Bende as we negotiated them. I continued typing into the St. Lucian Air even as we passed onto Ndi Oji Abam through a slim bridge. I feel my whole life will be devoted to writing only just one poem. The meaning of the poem will be ‘transcendence’. That is where everything that I have done is going to be collected and preserved. I hope for the grace. It’s not new. People past that I know did similar things. Derek has just left.
I like ‘The Land of Uz’. The speaker appears to have started speaking since ‘Sunrise’ or ‘Rats’, or ‘Children of the Moon’. The speaker in ‘Children of the Moon’ would say,
‘and we hear birthsongs
in akparata travelling
through the soft mutters of sand’
‘Akparata’ is a native coffin. The speaker and the people are not so much worried that the dead are dead. They rather hear birth songs in the coffins being guided into the sand. They believe in regeneration. For them, I think, nothing is really lost. That awareness is a form of transcendence. It seems to me that ‘the perfect spell and the complete act of the transcendence of Ejiofor’ is a life-long endeavour, so that as long as I have breath, I keep writing into it, into the big single poem. What do you think?
Gaamangwe: I think that’s really powerful. I think that, a young poet, can only be expected to transcend himself only as a life-long endeavor. I also really like “The Land of Uz”, but my favorite poem by you is “The Book of God”. Let me share my favorite part:
When the time came
in that small world of
and broken moonlight
we were gathering palmnuts
un-cracked palmkernels of
lying silent in the dust
breeding thick and lice
termites eating away detachable peelings
and building endless houses,
eating up sand
I was a boy of unspecified age.
It must have been the time
we took ogwu uwa- the drug that
cured the whole world:
I don’t remember.
my father knew everything for us
The last five lines Ejiofor! Just powerful. And the whole of the poem is just, for me, absolutely genius. Can you tell me about this poem? And more about your chapbook, of the same name, by Africa Poetry Book Fund?
Ejiofor: The poem grapples with what is it means to remember. Especially, how do we remember? And what can we remember? There are pieces of my personal history in the story, say, in form of scattered remains. Those scattered remains percolated with bits and pieces I picked on the way, or from friends I cared about. It was not clear to me why those remains needed to be given speech when the poem began. I had borne things in my mind long before the poem. I didn’t know what those things meant but they kept assuming importance to me. I had several false starts at writing about such things before and when I was in the university. They didn’t make sense. I threw them away, sometimes after typing them. In a sense, it’s a story I grew up with. I was the one that looked at the St. Martins de Porres Prayer Book that my father kept differently. My siblings or my mother only thought about the book as a place they could go and look up dates of birth when they were required at school or in church. I looked at the book as some kind of treasure. It connected me to certain things that existed before I was born. It held an infinite dread to me. For instance, when I came back from High School and I saw that moths had made in-roads into the book, I bought moth killers and placed them in the box where the book was kept alongside other documents or things. I begged my mother to buy moth killers and spread in the box from time to time. And she agreed.
So, ‘The Book of God’ long started as a desire to protect that small prayer book. Again, I grew up in the village. We were free range children in the village. We didn’t grow up being very protected from say, kidnappers. You know, I am not sure we had any kidnapping value as say, city children. So, we grew up taking a lot of risks. We ran down rocky hills, steering used tyres. We climbed tall trees. For mangoes, cashew, salt fruits or just to dangle happily from them. Sometimes, we fell and sustained injuries that we hid away from our parents until we began to writ in pains in the nights. Mother would ask in threatening voices, “Did you fall?”. “No!” “What happened?” “I fell from a tree”. Sometimes, she would give you some quick hot beatings on your way to the kitchen where she would boil hot water with which to massage away your pains. If we got better from the pains, we still went out to look for salt fruits the next day. So, this is part of what I mean when I speak of scattered remains. Then, very importantly, I took eleven years to process the death of my father. There were many other deaths too. My immediate younger sister, Oluchi died on a market day at the age of six or seven. When my mother came back from the market, a small grave of her size was dug and she was covered with sand. After two or three farming seasons, we lost the grave. I mean, I think I had attained a certain maturity in early two-thousand-and-fifteen when the story came. And it then achieved that ability to speak to anyone anywhere. My chapbook with Africa Poetry Book Fund has what I have been trying to point at here as part of its background.
Gaamangwe: Memory is an interesting thing. There are things that we know we have lost, some we barely remember that they happened, and some that exists as scatterings, as remains of the people we once were and lives we once lived. And then there is the time of memory, when she is very elusive but helpful, because she helps us not to remember the things that hurt. Like grief. Like death.
To process and understand the meaning of death is a difficult and painful part of the human experience. In writing, The Book of God (the poem), what kind of meanings did you create for yourself to process your father’s death, and your younger sister?
But also on the book level, what meanings/lessons did you, the writer, extrapolate or discover or create from your personal history & your world history?
Ejiofor: My personal losses called forth a poem like ‘The Book of God’. In the process of remembering, I think a lot of things come together to yearn for speech. I think the artist especially, remembers that way. That is the same way stories come to him or her. They come to him together; you know, as if they have been there all along. When my sister died, I remember I cried but I didn’t make much of it. I was also young. I only had a mind that was susceptible to impressions quite early. So, I could keep pictures in my mind that early but I didn’t know what they meant or could mean. When my mother, in a way to help us forget things, said she would give birth to another sister, I agreed and kept quiet. My sister’s was a small death so there was no much mourning or ceremonies. When my father died, I didn’t even cry in that elaborate ways. If not for those paternal women that are usually around and who would want to make sure that you are human by expecting you to cry, I am not sure I was that excited to cry. It was later that I cried on my own from time to time.
So, when the stories I have told so far came, they came as things of various kinds coming to take forms in ways that they could now begin to mean; things that are speakable in many faraway places; things that can speak other languages; things that are human. I am not sure you need to know me before you can connect to the stories. I feel the reason could be because they have moved from the personal and ascended to the universal. The personal has that potent force but maybe not for every writer. Maybe what I wanted to say also is that when you train your imagination enough, you may not need to look so far for stories. They will come to you on their own. I am trying to describe my own experience as a young writer who is just starting out. A lot of us are quick to lock our hairs and live the writer. Sometimes, we, in this process, lose completely the temperament that one requires to write well. There are temperaments that will never produce art. I can’t really point at these temperaments in their black and white forms, so don’t ask me, but I know they exist. I think I should stop because I am already pontificating as if my own poetry has already bought me a car or a house. But really Gaamangwe, I am only writing because I can’t stop. If I could, I would, but I can’t. You know how automatons are? If na for the money or fame, I no sure say poetry na the beta place to start. Writing no dey give fast money or fame like that o. So, if you are in so much hurry, I think you should better find many other fast places.
Gaamangwe: I resonate a lot with your reflections on losses, memory and writing. And yes to never stopping to writing poetry. Thank you so much Ejiofor for the shifting reflections. I look forward to reading more and more of your work.
Ejiofor: Thank you so much Gaamangwe for this opportunity. Keep up the good work. I wish you great successes in your own writing career.