Dami Ajayi is a medical doctor, writer, music critic and co-founder of Saraba literary magazine. He is the author of two volumes of poems and a poetry chapbook. Daybreak and other Poems, his critically acclaimed poetry chapbook, garnered a huge following within the poetry community in Africa when it was published in 2013. His first full-length volume of poems, Clinical Blues, shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize in manuscript form and was runner-up at the Association of Nigerian Authors Prize. It was also recently longlisted for the biennial Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature. His second volume of poems, A Woman’s Body is a Country, was selected in the Quartz Favourite Africa Books in 2017. A finalist of this year’s Glenna Luschei Prize, Ajayi was praised by judge Bernadine Evaristo as “a dexterous and versatile poet who flexes his linguistic muscles with surprising revelations that offer new perspectives as he illuminates the slips between memory and desire, family, community, and place.”
BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in cold Gaborone, Botswana and a living room in Oshodi, Consultation rooms at Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba and some beer gardens in the humid megacity of Lagos, Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: Dami, to read your poetry is to perform an incantation. I find myself having the urge to stand up in my room and read out loud. I fear if I read inwards, I will miss the magic spell dripping in your poetry. Let’s start with the origin and process of spell-making in poetry.
Dami: This, Gaamangwe, is a huge compliment. Linking incantations, spell-making, magic and poetry. And to ascribe these qualities to my writing, I must say I am spell-bound myself that this effect is the experience of a deliberate reader like you.
I have never been conflicted that poetry belongs on lips as such as it has got a place on the page too. In its becoming, poetry must leave the page, even if fleetingly, to perform its duty. To the origin of my spell-making, I can’t say it is as deliberate as an apprenticeship. But it is deliberate still. I have always seen poetry to be the art of condensation; the most deliberate and artful use of language. For this reason, repetition, phrasing and every single word is contemplated and what stays on the page is tentative with every practice of re-visitation and revision.
I have always been intrigued by panegyrics and praise poetry that highlights the bravery of ancestors as a way of reminding progenies of the need to hold up ancestral claims but there is also a concern for me of a multiplicity of ancestors. I see TS Eliot as much an ancestor in poetry as I see Adebayo Faleti. For me, tradition cannot be guarded. We live in a cosmopolitan world where distances have been breached by the aid of technology.
And if writing, good writing, poetry inclusive, settles well within tradition, we can’t deny its ability to invoke. This may account for my poetry’s incantatory nature. In the same way, careful editing for sound may have also been helpful.
Gaamangwe: I understand why your creation of poetry is not deliberate. There seems to be a frequency of deliberateness and alchemy in creation. Say, even the medicine apprentice, after getting the systems of medicine-making, falls into the part of healing that transcends logic.
I have come to know this yet I find myself trying to figure how we transcend logic and systems to create all these beautiful and potent works. But that’s the spell. We can have the step by step process but eventually we cross the threshold.
The power of revisitation is the spell too. The compulsion to read. The instant psychic, sometimes physical shift, of our cores upon experiencing words and imagery contained in poetry. But the potency also comes from how the language and words and imagery shifts with each new reading. How it changes to mean something new to the new people we become in new moments.
If we uphold your philosophy of multiplicity of ancestors, it means in reading your poem, Twenty-Two Couplets, within the practice of incantation, I am invoking the past; the memory of you writing for Eche, the memory of you reading for Eche, but also all the ancestors who came with all the words, and the ancestors who have influenced you. And of course the alchemic Gods who have made it possible for you to know Eche, to love Eche, to write for Eche. For in those multiple instances, Twenty-two Couplets is possible, as is A Woman’s Body is a Country and as is twenty-eight-year-old Joy reading Twenty-two Couplets in the burning Sun in the South of Botswana.
All this to mean what poetry makes possible is threads of connection, influence, impact and invocation and so much more. This is what I think but I want to know what possibilities exist for you in poetry? What possibilities do you find yourself creating in poetry?
Dami: Your thoughts are really beautiful. The way things intricately connect in your mind reminds me of the subtle ways in which our realities as humans intersect. I am reminded about the universality of our human experience and somehow you managed to find an anchor point in poetry.
This leads up to your question about the possibilities of poetry. You have already highlighted how poetry could anchor the present, past and future with the arresting beauty of its text. For me, the possibilities in poetry, to engage cliché, is limitless.
But in its boundlessness there is also its ordinariness too, and, for me, that is just as important. Poetry’s ability to capture the world and to be by itself on the page, innocuous. When I am composing poems, my intention is to draw attention to the subtleties, hoping that the little things can help reflect on the whole. I guess this is my poetry derives its powers from.
I hope to do unimaginable things with poetry. I hope to use poetry the way the clergyman uses prayers and invocations, the way the singer uses his sonorous voice, the way the dancer uses her body, the way a praise singer uses his genius of flattery. I intend to use poetry to sing my existence into immortality. And alongside my poetry will be all the totems, keepsakes, emblems, memorabilia of my time, it will all be drawn into the fabric of the poems I will make and this I have already started. I have used my collection Clinical Blues to describe what it means to be young and infallible. A Woman’s Body is lean on infallibility and makes up for that in its outlook on the weariness of the world. It is also a collection about what affection means in a time of self-consciousness.
My intention was to write my truth in verse. But in doing that, I also hoped to speak for an entire generation. Find a way to write male vulnerability into being. Kill the culture of silence masquerading as bravado. There is still so much more to be done with poetry. We pray for breath and clarity of thought.
“I hope to do unimaginable things with poetry. I hope to use poetry the way the clergyman uses prayers and invocations, the way the singer uses his sonorous voice, the way the dancer uses her body, the way a praise singer uses his genius of flattery. I intend to use poetry to sing my existence into immortality.“
Gaamangwe: This is so beautiful. Like you, I am drawn to the art of subtle and nuanced realities. I am always mapping the intersection of that which is subtle and how it forms into the Whole. Is there is a need to arrive to the Whole? Or the subtleties are the point? I often wonder.
It never fails to amaze me, how the human, the thing we can imagine to be the subtleties of the Whole, is drawn to immortality. For the creators, the poets, this singing the self into immortality is important.
I am drawn to mythologising myself too and in many ways I wonder if it comes from wanting to transcend my humanness, to become a creator, a God. To quote the bible, man is made in the image of God, and so it makes sense that we will try to manifest that archetypal image of God; mystical and immortal.
I wrote once that we are either walking archetypes or forming archetypes. We are the mythologies, keepsakes and the prayers in literal sense. Because what of our affections are organically ours? What of our self-consciousness is a natural process?
My point, we keep confirming and responding to the wave of the culture. Is there a way to start the wave? Is the unimaginable for you the formation of a wave that has never been on time and space? Does making the unimaginable mean to create an entire new wave?
And on speaking about truth and male vulnerability, are the speakers in your poetry you? And if so, what has been the constellation of male vulnerability that you had to practice and form in your own life as an African man and a man of the mind?
Dami: As regards whole and subtleties, I am not convinced that they operate as either one or the other, rather it exists as some kind of duality where the whole can exist as a panoramic unit and the subtleties can hold theirs too at the same time without the anxiety of intersections. And for me as a poet working with words, the minutiae are mine in the way making a sense of my whole work is that of the critic. When I commit a poem to existence, I am grasping for words in that literal sense and I am mining emotion and using language in the best possible way I could figure it out at the instance and that is all that matters.
I am obsessed about the God complex we wield as humans. The gift of a developed forebrain is that we have been able to dream things to being. We have conquered the world around us for centuries with technology and for me that just puts paid to the idea of the unimaginable. The unimaginable is a void that we have traversed so often within our communal consciousness that it is not tangible, except we start to think as an individual. At this point, I doubt if it is really unimaginable anymore; it feels like a re-imagination and I am so inspired by how the late American writer, EL Doctorow, describes the relationship between imagination, memory and narrative. The art of speculation appears to be where imagination seems to enjoy verdancy, but even now, I am still convinced that imagination is wrong usage, re-imagination is the key, it pays obeisance to a communal thought and to the fact that all ideas are commonplace and original.
This leads up to my book. What I saddled myself with was a re-imagination of affection as a living thing, a moving thing, a verb, if you must. And my thought was marked out by the territories of my perception and experience. As you know, our ideal of masculinity is that brash macho thing that is as rigid as the muscle in front of your nightclub or worse, an unyielding wall without a history or feeling. But I assure you, men cry, and I am not using that often deployed adjective, ‘real’ on purpose. We cry and hurt and feel things because we are human too. What I have done here is to practice my male vulnerability on the page as a prelude to living it in person.
Gaamangwe: I love your point about the duality of things. Mostly because I spent most of my twenties wanting to make things either one or the other. I went through periods of wanting to just be the psychologist, then later the storyteller, now after learning that duality doesn’t always mean subtraction of another, that integrity is not a thing that must be singular, I allowed myself to be both. Of course now I am learning to balance the two. In many ways, our interests, the expression of human mind & the nature of the human mind, meet. I know that not only do you mine emotions in poetry but like me you archive, and explore ways to manage emotions as a psychiatrist. This definitely expands your craft of mining your personal emotions. I wonder, in what way is the psychiatrist within separate from the poet within?
I love thinking of the unimaginable as re-imagination. It opens me to the thought that all the unimaginable ways we love and hurt each other are ways we re-imagine the possibilities and truths of ourselves and what exists within and among ourselves.
The re-imagination of affection is so potent as a poetic endeavor. It is a living thing with multiple destination. Even if the destination is non-reciprocity, immediate or infinite. Did you consider the destination? Does the destination even matter to you when you write a poem or mine emotion or practice affection as an alive archive?
I must say many of your poems in your book performed this male vulnerability so well. For me I saw it more clearly in the non-emotive events. In the everydayness of living and loving. Your speaker in the bar drinking work day beer, airports as travel theatres, your speaker rushing to answer the call, to explain, wanting, kissing because it’s the easier thing. But also the main poems you wrote for the beloveds of your speaker(s) are so vibrantly alive. How and perhaps why do you note as poems the details of everydayness?
Dami: You know this thing about duality and duplicity or even multiplicity is probably genetic for me and I didn’t at any point have to find a balance. My late grandfather was many things in his more than 100 years alive. He adds the gift of longevity with that of being a drummer, a local police, a mill grinder, an herbalist, a pet lover, a patent medicine seller, an itinerant cloth-seller, a Baptist missionary, a bicycle repairer, a cash crop farmer. Somewhere between these careers, he fathered children including my mother who is an educationist, author, a Ph.D. holder and somewhere between her careers, she had me and my three siblings.
Leading up to your concern about how my discipline in psychiatry influences my poetry. I am not sure I have an answer to that just yet, I don’t think I have started to mine my experiences into poetry just yet. I mull over the kind of experiences I have had and I understand the frailty of our humanity when I think about psychiatry. But being a poet is entirely about reflecting on our humanity and I guess, at this point, I think being a poet has helped me to be a better psychiatrist.
As regards my concern with mundanity or the ordinariness of life. I guess quoting Updike might be a bit blasé but many crucial moments of life itself are very ordinary. I write about them often because I revel in them. At the core of my life is a small town childhood which I hold so strongly to and return to in my writing—and this is what I care for hence writing a book about affection means revisiting them with a sustained gaze.
Gaamangwe: Whoa! Your grandfather was amazing. You inherited well Dami.
Actually on the psychiatry and poetry, I was more interested in how they are different. I was wondering about the two selves you are in these two spaces you inhabit. Say, there are poems where I meet the psychiatrist, do your patients ever meet the poet?
That part about writing to a small town childhood makes sense. The most visceral feeling I got from your work is nostalgia. An oldness. A yearning. But then affection is often grounded on nostalgia. Or is it love? Tell me Dami, what truths and mis-truths have you discovered about love within the multiplicity of your life?
Dami: Poetry and Psychiatry. They are, of course, different, but at their core, there is a remarkable similarity, they both require a deep sense of empathy. I don’t advertise that I am a poet to my clients but it seems they always find out, perhaps I leave them with an impression.
My practice as a psychiatrist also offers insight into the human condition, I daresay it was a poem I wrote that made me jettison becoming an obstetrician for the priestly calling of psychiatry. (Romasinder Blues)
To me, love is a complex emotional response that is often confused and misconstrued—and the most dangerous thing about love is that it is not a fixed thing, it morphs, it grows, it is a living thing. And because it is a living thing, it can live and it can die, it can be gaunt or thrive, it can blossom like a flower, it can reproduce itself and it can be selfish and boring but I think love is how we can best make sense of our realities as humans. And to write visceral poetry, I think there must be some complex emotional response related to love.
Gaamangwe: I love that. This dialogue has been so expansive for me. And now in completion, what are your musings for your other love projects: Saraba, editing, music and and and?
Dami: Oh yes, it has been a fleeting conversation about everything and it has managed to go on forever. Saraba, for me, is where it all started, and perhaps one of the accomplishments I am most pleased with. It reinforces what it means to dream with eyes wide open, collaborate with people who are first and foremost kindred spirits and friends, whose humanity eschews things like competition. Saraba has been responsible for curating some of the finest voices writing in Africa at the moment and a lot of other people have been inspired and motivated by the example of Saraba. We are happy that there are a lot of literary magazines and platforms crawling out of the woodwork. At the moment, Saraba is planning something big, something germane to its continuity, so watch out for that.
Yes, I recently edited an anthology of non-fiction which I am very proud of. I did with Emmanuel Iduma, whose new book, A Stranger’s Pose, has defied classification and continues to be a marvel. And also with the head honcho at the Cameroon side of things, Dzekashu MacViban. It is called Limbe to Lagos: Creative Nonfiction from Nigeria and Cameroon. I daresay we had a lot of heavy hitters who have fled the ground now.
I still maintain my regular column on ThisisLagos.ng, my new home after the other platform OlisaTV did that phoenix thing. I am writing poems every now and then, as they come. I am not clear on a definite direction yet. But you may catch some on my weekly poetry blog called Tuesday Poetry. Gaamangwe, you still owe me a poem.
I am getting warmed to write fiction again after abandoning it for at least 4 years. Maybe I may bash out a novel, let’s see.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a multi-passionate storyteller, literary interviewer, editor and publisher, ancestral healer and sacred gatherings curator. She is the founder of Rise the Warrior, a movement that fuses depth psychology, metaphysical sciences and African Spirituality to curate sacred gatherings, inner healing and transformation immersions for African individuals and organizations. She hosts The Joy Mogami Show, a Facebook Live stream show that holds conversations on healing and transformation with wellness experts. She is the founding editor of Africa in Dialogue.