Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Shortlisted Poet: A Dialogue With Inua Ellams
Born in Nigeria, Inua Ellams is a cross art form practitioner, a poet, playwright & performer, graphic artist & designer and founder of the Midnight Run — an international, arts-filled, night-time, playful, urban, walking experience. He is a Complete Works poet alumni and a designer at White Space Creative Agency. Across his work, Identity, Displacement & Destiny are reoccurring themes in which he also tries to mix the old with the new: traditional african storytelling with contemporary poetry, pencil with pixel, texture with vector images. His poetry is published by Flipped Eye, Akashic, Nine Arches & several plays by Oberon.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United Kingdom via email
Nkateko: Inua, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Inua: Hey, thank you. I have been shortlisted twice before, so as well as feeling honoured to have made it this far, and pleased to be keeping such good company of poets, it feels a little ground-hog-day ish. I wish we had an African equivalent of that pop culture reference… a movie in which a mediocre Nigerian businessman is forced to live the same day over and over again, in which he eats pounded yam and egusi soup in perpetuity. And perhaps he will have a Ghanaian girlfriend and this is the true bane of his existence…
Nkateko: I would watch the African remake of Groundhog Day if the main character woke up listening to If by Davido on the radio every day. In fact, I would gladly trade places with him if that were the case. I’ll take the Ghanaian partner too, thanks. I know that the rules say you must submit new poems if you have been previously shortlisted, so how have you been able to evolve with each year that you submit for the prize? How have you escaped the loop of recreating the same poem over and over again?
Inua: I write constantly and consistently. Stage plays, radio plays, screen plays or poetry, so there tends to be new work and new kinds of poems between submission periods. For each new writing project, I tend to have to research new and wildly different topics. Over the last year, I’ve researched Yoruba Mythology, Fundamentalist Islam, Greek religious music, Basketball coaching techniques, The Art of War, Property Law, Canal boat irrigation, Neo Colonialism, maggot farming, Mother Theresa, clothing dye chemical contamination (specifically in rural communities in Bangladesh) and more, and each tidbit of information is kindling for a new poem. I never lack inspiration; I lack the time to fully explore the inspirations I have to write more.
Nkateko: Those are indeed “wildly different” topics. I am curious as to how you go about putting all of that new information together. Is that how the surreal elements come into your work, when you combine what is with what could be? Do all of these researched topics end up finding a home in a new body of work? Are there fragments that don’t make sense the moment you gather them but later form the missing pieces in a new project?
Inua: I use them in various ways, sometimes they are solely images in poems, sometimes they are things a character is interested in, therefore I have to be interested in, sometimes it is detail in a scene in a script, or it is a culturally specific line of argument… and sometimes I just burrow down the rabbit hole of the internet and find odd details which I keep for… lord knows what. They don’t always find an immediate home, but they will eventually. When I started writing way back when, I’d run this little exercise with myself, I’d take two random images and try to write a poem that unites them. That’s where the poem and title of my second pamphlet ‘Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars’ came from… and it grew to become a body of work, which I’m considering adapting for screen.
“I write constantly and consistently. Stage plays, radio plays, screen plays or poetry, so there tends to be new work and new kinds of poems between submission periods. For each new writing project, I tend to have to research new and wildly different topics.“
Nkateko: You make stunning references to nature in your work. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors and draw inspiration from there? Are these references a part of the search for your “native self”, as you say in Light Poem #0732?
Inua: I’m a romantic at heart, and my earliest poetry influences were the romantics who were concerned with preserving the natural world in words. They immortalised nature as the industrial revolution firmly clamped its jaws around the neck of Britain. I also deeply cherish and remember my youth in Nigeria… endless punishment to cut fields of grass with a machete in boarding school. All of that means I care about the natural world here in London and try, though I fail most of the damn time, to go out to commune with it. The least I can do then, is carry on with the work of words homies like John Keats was engaged in, but update the tradition and sieve it through my immigrant/urban/mythic/hiphophood and poems like Light Poem are the results.
Nkateko: I love the idea that “each tidbit of information is kindling for a new poem.” It reminds me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to a young poet: “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?” I first heard this quote in a poetry workshop with Yomi Ṣode at the Lagos International Poetry Festival in 2018 and it has stayed with me. If you were to give any advice to a younger writer feeling uninspired, would it be in the same vein? To seek inspiration in their surroundings and failing that, to dig into the “treasure house of memories”?
Inua: The “treasure house of memories” is a nice phrase, but there is a darkness that lurks within it. When we remember, we are actually replaying our last attempt at reconstructing the memory. And because we never remember in exact detail and our moods often colonise the facts of an experience *as it plays out*, when we remember, we are remembering ourselves remembering, and there are gaseous worlds, foggy and shadowed, between what happened and what we believe happened. What I’m trying to say is that the treasure trove of memories is more akin to a cow’s udder, full of hot air and constantly leaking, with only a grain of truth, encased in shit, at its heart. My advice to younger writers is to accept that, then take a scalpel to that memory. Do what you will with it. Make of yourself a new you, a you as you wish you were, a you as you might have been. All is fiction. All is chaos. The truth is imagined anyway… but sincerity is king.
Nkateko: “…carry on with the work of words homies like John Keats was engaged with, but update the tradition and sieve it…” I love this. How important is it to engage with classical as well as contemporary poetry? I recently taught a poetry workshop on form and my students wrote ghazals, pantoums and villanelles. Some felt the rules were too rigidly followed in the classics but enjoyed modern versions of poems in form, particularly those peppered with American slang. As a cross art form practitioner, do you think is it important to break the rules in order to create innovative work?
Inua: Absolutely. There’s fun to be had in realising the rules, their importances, the pros and cons of using them, then doing whatever the hell you want. I wrote a book – #Afterhours – doing this, where I found 19 poems, deconstructed them as best as I could, divined their scaffolding, their ‘rules’, as if each poem was a form, then completely rewrote the poems. It felt equal parts blasphemous and exhilarating.
My most recent book is an epic poem written in hexametrical terza rima, the form Homer wrote most of his epics, but I quickly discovered the form restricted my Nigerian/Irish/British/America cadences, so I began to do crazy things… peppering the lines with internal rhyme, breaking the thought half-way through the verse, ending on half or slant rhymes. The poem is also an experiment in cultural hybridity, as I am, Greek Myth meets Yoruba Myth… there’s a scene where Sango battles Zeus & Osun quarrels with Hera… So breaking the form, colonising it, reflected the content of the poem.
Nkateko: The reality that the treasure trove of memory possesses “only a grain of truth” is unnerving but equally liberating because it opens a door to the remaking of the self, to “make of yourself a new you, a you as you wish you were, a you as you might have been,” as you put it. I feel that this ties in perfectly with what you say about form, the ability to use it as a tool for what you want to create but in a way that works for you and allows your own idiosyncrasies to come out in the work. I like how in finding a restriction in the traditional form you opted to do “crazy things” and break, colonise and make anew. I feel like this challenges the resistance against reading the classics because one can find ways to rework them, to deconstruct and then rebuild. I am already inspired to try out the forms I have been dreading. In your process of experimenting, has ever there been a piece you have felt was too sacred to deconstruct?
Inua: Yes! I came across a few poems, most notably by good old Seamus Heaney, that were just too prefect or too Nigerian already, such that an adaptation would simply have meant changing the title. One is called ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’. The poem says “We are a dispersed people whose history / is a sensation of opaque fidelity. / When or why our exile began / among the speech-ridden, we cannot tell / but solidarity comes flooding up in us / when we hear their legends…” it felt so close to everything I was exploring, or trying to explore in #Afterhours – the legacy of a colonised nation, subsequent exile, 1st generation immigrant psychogeography, myth, romance, language politics etc. I just couldn’t touch it. I put the poem down and backed the fuck up!
Nkateko: Thank you so much for taking your time to have this conversation with me, Inua. I have been enlightened and inspired by your responses and I trust that all those who read this interview will feel the same. You have offered so many points one can take away and implement in one’s own writing. I feel like we have come full circle because the image of the Nigerian businessman you spoke of when we started this conversation lines up with how you reimagine and reconstruct the world in your art. Thank you for allowing us to bear witness to the process. Congratulations on The Half God of Rainfall. I look forward to delving into a world where “Greek Myth meets Yoruba Myth” and so much more. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Inua: Thanks for your searching questions and for having me, and for your well-wishing. I look forward to the interviews with the other guys on the shortlist.
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.