Born in Nigeria, Adeoba is currently a graduate fellow at the University of Iowa. His debut chapbook, Here is Water, appears in the African Poetry Book Fund’s New-Generation African Poets Series. His work has been published in Oxford Poetry, Pleiades, Poet Lore, African American Review, Prairie Schooner, Notre Dame Review, Hotel Amerika, among several others.
BY PETER AKINLABI
This Conversation took place across isolated moments between Ibadan, Nigeria and Iowa, United States.
Peter: Exodus, your first full collection of poems, came out in March this year through the University of Nebraska’s African Poetry Book Series. Congratulations. How do you feel about this?
‘Gbenga: I am glad and thankful. Since much of what a writer does is in solitude, with nothing promised, there is something heartwarming about getting to share one’s work in book form. I also find it a fruit of the kindness of friends and teachers that have pointed me to words; the opportunities I have been offered, too.
Peter: Exodus had won the 2019 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry and you were shortlisted for the 2018 Brunel International Poetry Prize and your chapbook, Here is Water, has appeared in the African Poetry Book Fund’s New Generation African Poetry Series. It has been a very remarkable run. Brittle Paper has described you as one of the leaders of the renaissance in Nigerian poetry, by which I assume you are a part of a new (perhaps different) consciousness or maybe orientation. Are you conscious of being part of a renaissance, and if so, what do you propose is the nature or aesthetic outlook of this newness?
‘Gbenga: I do not have a full grasp of what that means. However, the wide range of works being produced, the multiplicity of voices in the space, and the pursuit and creation of opportunities beyond the traditional literary structures are undeniable and are surely pointers. It is a loaded, moving train.
Peter: The collection focuses on some of the traumatic aspects of the modern history. Some of the poems stand – as you put it in Here is Water – as “a tribute to the lives of drowned men”. Men drowned, quite literally, by the inhumanities of the past as well as the inequalities of the present. These are evident in your counterpoising re-imaginings of the traumas of forced movements of large numbers of Africans across the Atlantic as slaves in the New World between 16th and 19th centuries, and the no less harrowing multi-directional migrations of Africans in the present for economic and political reasons.
You also spool a catalogue of various kinds of drowning happening all over the world – the increasing sinking of peace from Baga to Bangladesh, from Hakimpara to Aleppo. It seems quite clear to me that you push these poems out as a witness of sorts to history’s tragic repetitive tropes and, as you express in “What Birds Sing of in Libya”, your poetic duty here involves calling the attention of “humanity to the loss of itself”. Could you tell me your motivations in writing and tying together the poems in this collection with such purposive focus?
‘Gbenga: In her introduction to Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Nikky Finney said that “a first book is a migration story.” I think of mine too as one, not only because it is literally about migration, but also because it maps my obsessions over the years, my quarrels with myself, and my responses to images—real and imagined—and things I have read and heard. My thematic leanings are somewhat inevitable: Being born two days before the Abiola-Tofa election was annulled and raised on the street where Olaiya Fagbamigbe’s house is/was located should make anyone interested in history and memory. There was no getting away from it, so I find myself often returning to those two in my writings. It wouldn’t matter whether it is a poem about a soccer team in Sao Paulo or political killings in Sao Tome.
The focus of Exodus has its roots in that stance, although I didn’t set out to write a book about migration; the poems with that subject accumulated after a while—some of them are five years apart—and I had to pay attention to the thread. I wrote the Baga poems as my contribution to an anthology in 2014 and the Alan Kurdi poem as a response to that image that broke international news in 2015. That seed was sown in my childhood when I stumbled on an old Newswatch magazine issue, 1985 I think, that covered Nigeria’s expulsion of Ghanaians. It wasn’t until years later that I could respond to those poems which had then been joined by Walcott’s The Sea is History.
I have mentioned elsewhere how your poems, Ouidah, which I read on the 2013 Brunel Prize shortlist, and The Last Winter of Pa Cudjo Lewis in Saraba‘s History Issue expanded my research and interest in forced migration. The poems on recent migration narratives followed when I saw how the sea has remained present in both the old and the new and how exile and displacement are a global and connected experience.
“In her introduction to Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Nikky Finney said that “a first book is a migration story.” I think of mine too as one, not only because it is literally about migration, but also because it maps my obsessions over the years, my quarrels with myself, and my responses to images—real and imagined—and things I have read and heard. “
Peter: It is perhaps not such a surprise how human tragedies are often linked to political judgments. The unhappy story of Olaiya Fagbamigbe’s murder in 1983 and the symbolic death of Alan Kurdi more than 30 years after are not so unconnected to the extent that both events were entangled with disastrous political decisions people made. You could extend that argument to the continuing enslavement of Africans everywhere and in every sense today. It seems the oppressive dynamics of body politics everywhere has increasingly condemned people to precarious flight.
These are tough takes, yet your presentations of the quandary reflect some measure of control, of certain equanimity, which is quite remarkable by the way. Is that deliberate though, the idea of the dispassionate amanuensis, one whose duty involves simply holding the mirror for humanity to consider its own reflections?
‘Gbenga: Thank you for your kind words. I didn’t set out with a fixed approach in mind. But after I identified the common ground among the poems that became the manuscript, my primary goal was to join a conversation and say what I have to say as best as I can, to present my way of seeing and thinking. For me, going beyond that would be slippery, considering the complexity of the subject. But I do not begrudge those who can go further. In my wrestle with language and making poetry out of that, I hoped that it would carry the weight of my concerns, stand by its own music, and not take readers away from themselves but back to themselves. Yet, there is the possibility of one’s sensibilities seeping through since writing isn’t mechanical. It is one of the reasons we share our works with others who can give objective views and also point out our excesses. In all of these, I am glad if readers are nudged towards a kinder more empathetic version of themselves.
Peter: I am speaking to you at a critical time in human history, a time in which a viral pandemic is reshaping the world with such overbearing, boundless swiftness. The general mood everywhere reminds me of these lines from your poem, Seafarers.
“what binds us/ in this boat, is a known fear/ a kinship of likely loss”.
If you permit me to re-contextualize it, the poem, to me, captures the situation of humanity at this moment. The world is much like a boat being tossed around on the borderless waves of collective fear and loss. How significant is this moment for you within the contexts of beleaguered humanity?
‘Gbenga: Like everyone else, I am in this boat and see how, to quote Baldwin, we are trapped in history and history is trapped in us. While our collective negotiation with survival isn’t new, it is probably the first time in recent times that the world is truly coming together in pursuit of a common cause. Exodus too, its concerns with the movements of humanity and black historical memory, is rooted in that nexus of the past and the present, and man’s actions and inaction. What I sought to do was to point out what has always been connected. While imagination and research played significant roles in that quest, I am right here, this season, in the middle of a different history.
Peter: A different history for sure, but certainly connected in many ways, I dare say. The prescience of some of the poems – especially those which detail the horrors of anticipation, of the unknown and perhaps unknowable – speaks urgently to this time, too, when the whole human race seems huddled as if in a flailing boat relentlessly assailed by deliberate waves. It is even more so for the immigrants everywhere, those who are defined by the act of moving, but who are become immobilized or unplaced even as the virus seems to shrink the world slowly to its own size.
‘Gbenga: I agree with that notion of history as a continuum, but I called it a different history because it is unlike what my generation has known. I suppose it is the unknown, in terms of a solution, that has kept us in the imagined boat. I am also conscious that our locations in the boat are not the same. Like you have referenced, there are people for whom social distancing is almost impossible because of the conditions that dictate life as they know it.
Peter: Imagine social distancing in a slave ship! This is how one may imagine the conditions of refugees in asylum camps, or many people in Africa, for instance, for whom subsistence is a daily activity. It is one monumental, miserable twist of limbo. Yet, art is always here to remind us that we have been here before, that the human will, ultimately, triumph. Your poems lend some truth to that assertion by performing a memorial of the difficult past, and by also reminding us that we are still here despite all that. Am I right in this reading? Are you to be read as a hopeful writer?
‘Gbenga: I think of the poems’ memorial of the difficult past as a sort of push against willed forgetting, which presents a false escape. I agree with Natasha Trethewey, who opined that while it might be necessary to forget certain traumatic events from one’s childhood, it would be extremely dangerous to forget aspects of our public history. That kind of forgetting stands in the way of justice or redemption.
I won’t resist your assessment. Like Dickinson, my hope, too, is a thing with feathers; it sings. And that song is very much needed because it makes living easier. You will agree with me that in all the gloom sponsored by this pandemic, there are moments that have managed to shine through. One of the things that have stirred joy this season is the grace and kindness with which some have responded to the needs and pains of others. Those moments are of immense value because they suggest possibilities.
Peter: Your poems also provoke me to imagine your conceptual worldview as a writer. And here, you must forgive me for reading your poems in the light of the events unfolding in the world now. For me, the poems in Exodus have some clairvoyant collocations. I see this for instance in a poem like “Numbers” with its feel of curfewed economy:
Last night, kids here couldn’t gather;
so, they muttered elegies
for their game of numbers.
There are more bodies than pebbles
Or even the apocalyptic sarcasm of “Noah”, recoding the mythical survival of the word in the image of preserving the animal kingdom. I want to ask you, seeing you tackle some of the darkest aspects of global history in this collection, what is your view of humanity, our existential condition, our ever-repeating predicament?
‘Gbenga: It is interesting that you have chosen “Numbers” as an archetype of the clairvoyant feel that you said the poems have. It goes back to what you had mentioned about history and the interconnectedness of things. The outcomes of a disruption in daily living can somewhat be predictable. While kids will still find ways to be kids, their preferred means of play will inevitably be altered. These disruptions and their effects across age grades are probably prominent now because the pandemic has the attention of the entire world. The disruption in normal daily life isn’t new in some places.
I am thinking of Maggie Smith’s viral poem “Good Bones”, especially the last two verses because the poem largely captures my thoughts on your question regarding my worldview as a writer and what I pursued in the collection. While I acknowledge the imperfect state of things, I pursue the possibility of beauty, and even that is fastened to hope.
Peter: Yes, I agree with you absolutely: There has been much grace and kindness beyond the gloom, there has been extraordinary expressions of love too, cutting through the thick miasmas of opportunism, capitalization and even sheer mercantilism that we have seen in places. Some of those expressions are in fact so beautiful as to be quite poetic. I am thinking of those like the viral videos of a group of doctors being serenaded by the whole community of Wuhan as they proceeded to their transport; and the heart-warming story of Jeremy Cohen and Tori’s who are redefining the love story in their creative enactments of intimate distancing. Lori’s dancing on her roof is in fact a pure expression of defiant hope and optimism to me.
And yes, “Good Bones” is a beautiful poem, a hopeful poem in the way it frames the truth of existence, of life, while pointing out that the value of human agency is heuristic at best, that our will to act does not necessarily earn us curative certainties. Our effort is to make meaning and meaningful connections out of time and resources allotted us.
Is that a correct inference? Because I sense this in your treatment in the immigrant story in many of the poems, particularly “Half Acre of Water”. The 26 drowned Nigerian women at Mediterranean Sea in the poem knew the risk they were taking. Same for the Italian-team loving youth washed ashore in “Nightshift at the Coast.” Flight is also a way of hoping. The conundrum is that yearnings may be unrealized and unrealizable in any event. And, as to the distribution of good bones, it may be that what we all get to get is the coast guard’s humane reading of the drowned youth’s happier photograph from another time: “Almost beautiful.”
Love invents our bodies’ devices,
moment to moment, or
instant to eternity,
begins the fragmentary
that speaks of unacknowledged
I returned to this portion of Jay Wright’s Polynomials and Pollen because of your commentary on Jeremy and Tori’s truly heartwarming story. It is interesting how much of creation—linguistic and material—or redefinition can be prompted by something negative like a pandemic.
I believe that inference is correct. But there is somewhat a reward in that exercise of one’s will in acting—one leaves with a lesson if it isn’t a life or death situation. In this case, where they were fully aware of the likely outcome of the dangerous trip they were undertaking, perhaps, like you have suggested, they proceeded with the hope that theirs might just be successful. Yet that act of making a choice is probably not always up to some. I am thinking of Dustin and their sibling, the twelve and ten-year-old that prompted one of the poems.
Peter: In “Half Acre of Water”, you suggest that the metaphorical drowning of migrants starts from the homeland. Of course, there are many angles to look at this and most of them involve moral judgments. There are people fleeing wars and famine, but many simply seek better life. It might even be that one may be posing moral questions from the privilege of one who is not hard-pressed to undertake such journey. But one thing appears certain in all this: the devastation on the sea or in the Sahara is almost always foretold; and arrival at a desired destination is often inauspicious, as evident in the testimonies of many.
Away from the text, from impersonal dramatization of the migrant experience, I want to ask you, what is your view about the rationality of the phenomenon of precarious migrations, especially through the Mediterranean Sea and Sahara desert where too many harrowing experiences and tragic stories have been recorded in recent times? Shouldn’t such fated flight be seen more clearly as “the mouth of a shark”?
‘Gbenga: While a quest for survival seems to be the thread running through what you have mentioned as the possible causes of their flight, I think it might be impossible to decide if such quests were rational or not. Isn’t rationality contextual? Even if the conditions were favorable, the complexity of migration makes things slippery.
I agree that arrival isn’t quite auspicious. Maybe some tally their losses and keep waiting for a miracle. Like you have mentioned, it isn’t unusual to find SOS calls on social media from some who have found out that the “mouth of the shark” extends beyond the dangers of the desert and sea voyage. It seems to be a journey that promises some form of surprises at different points.
Peter: “Promenade”, the last poem in your collection, appears to me the only poem that isn’t focused on some historical or emotional tension. I mean even some introspective poems in Exodus, like “20”, “Gbogi Street”, and “Funeral Hymn in Falsetto” ferry in a burden of memory; “Promenade” seems free from the weight of the world, so to speak.
I take an evening walk toward this park
with plains like the memories of Sodom.
I do not lose my identity:
I am neither Lot nor the women;
so, I can afford to look back several times.
There are no pillars of salt,
only juvenile lovers radioing
their passions on short wavelength.
In fact, the poem seems to issue a caveat, after the fact, that the author or the speaking voice be seen simply a dispassionate transcriber of the historical memory. On the other hand, it seems to reiterate the acknowledged role of the writer as observer-chronicler. In any case, there is an intimation of action in good faith. But there may also be an indication of irony here: for those juvenile passions possess the potential of turning into pillars of salt easily. The poet is certainly aware of this, that the very act of gathering “memories of Sodom” is a long, dark, and brooding art?
‘Gbenga: The distinction of its focus alludes to how it originated from a different mental posture, at least in comparison with the poems with emotional or historical tension. It was an attempt to witness to a moment, in my undergraduate years, in a space frequented by the young and free. Yet, I see how it reads differently in its conversation with the other poems in the collection. I think the possibility of the passions turning to pillars of salt acknowledges the existence of things beyond the control of the people involved. It is the same situation in the case of migrants who have no control over the sea. Maybe the poet’s act, too, is girded by possibilities: you either find a way through that dark or get lost in it.
Peter Akinlabi earned his BA from the University of Ibadan and his MA and PhD from University of Ilorin, Nigeria. Akinlabi is the author of A Pagan Place, issued as part of the APBF Chapbook Box Set: Eight New-Generation African Poets 2015 and published by Akashic Books, and a collection of poems, Iconography, which was long-listed for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2017. He lives in Ilorin, North-central Nigeria.