David Ishaya Osu is a poet, memoirist, and street photographer. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies across Nigeria, Uganda, the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, India, France, Bangladesh, South Africa, Austria, and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, and a board member of Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation based in Uganda. David has an MA in Creative Writing (with distinction) from the University of Kent, and is the author of the poetry chapbook, When I’m Eighteen (2020).
BY UGOCHUKWU DAMIAN OKPARA
This conversation took place between rooms in Abuja and Owerri, Nigeria, via email.
Ugochukwu Damian: Hi David. Congratulations on your recent chapbook, When I’m Eighteen. Could you talk about the process of creating the poems in your book?
David Ishaya Osu: Thank you, Ugo. Truth is, because I do not pre-plan poetry, I’m having to go back to the manuscript to find out what my process was. The poems were written at different times, different places and in different mental spaces. Not a single one of the poems was written with the chapbook in mind. The poems were not written with today or tomorrow in mind; I simply wrote the time I wrote. So, when Kukogho wrote to me this year, suggesting I consider a chapbook with his publishing outfit, I thought: why not? I went through my files, meditating, selecting, and restructuring. And then, boom. While the title ‘When I’m Eighteen’ is one I have held for many years, and even have a poem with the same title, it took about two days to arrive at this compilation. And guess what, the title poem did not make it to the collection, and I am so happy about that. Basically, my poetry process is led by my breath. Always. I am always looking forward to my last breath; though I’m not sure how one knows or records their last breath, ‘cause at that state it’s probably something else.
Ugochukwu: It’s interesting to learn how the poems were created to lead a different life, but are now collected into your chapbook, still addressing the same theme of childhood experiences. And yes, I hear you about your writing process; how it is led by your breath. It brings a poem by Pamilerin Jacob to mind. In it, he writes, “every day, death is postponed / because / of an unfinished poem.”
I greatly admire this act of looping together our writing processes to something as substantial as living, which makes me curious now, how do you navigate through moments when you struggle with your writing?
David: I don’t struggle with writing. For me, writing is play, child’s play; and it’s the same with my life in total. This is my interpretation. Writing is looseness, bounty—the bounty of life.
Ugochukwu: That’s great. My favourite poem in your chapbook is ‘Mama Said’. It was quite difficult to get the whole image at first, but with multiple reads and keen attention, it began to unravel itself to me. So in the poem, the imagery of “pie, rainbow, and tea” being “hard, light and lovely” seem to be making allusions to the early niche society builds for boys, as we see in the next stanza where you write, “mama said / bolts & boys / should be.” Can you talk about the inspiration behind the poem?
David: Thank you, Ugo. I don’t remember what inspired the poem, I must say. I could go on to fabricate a story for each poem, but that won’t explain the inspirations behind my writings; an openness to life and death. I remember running out of the house to catch a better glimpse of a fading rainbow. I still do. Poems are mixes, and the poet remains open to both the solid and the other-worldly. There are a million things I will not remember my mother said. Truth is, I love my tea and my father’s tea: strawberry, lemon grass, ginger, zobo, name them. But I hate bolts. I hate locking doors or even having keys and passwords.
“Like poem, like poet. We are made of poems. Poetry is an oscillating universe. Isn’t the sky one big poem? You can even call it a galaxy of poems.“
Ugochukwu: A beautiful thing about your poetry is that it reminds me of the everydayness of life. And, this documentation is seen in most of the poems in your chapbook. Personally, I like to believe that poetry has taught me to be more observant of my environment, especially the little things—the nest on the 3 phase change-over switch at home where pigeons take turns to brood eggs, the blueness of the sky when it rains in the evening, the coffee mug on my mother’s table, etc., most times I am tempted to capture these heart-warming moments with my phone, other times, I just savour in the consciousness of them.
How would you describe the relationship between your photography and poetry? Has photography helped you become a better poet especially in documenting the ordinariness of life?
David: Nothing is ordinary to a newborn; that’s my description of the relationship between my photography and my poetry; they are seeing each other for the first time. Curiously. Every day. A dark sky is as innocent as you and me waking up from sleep. Seeing is what I do when I photograph, when I write, even when I sleep. I saw a lady hug someone in Canterbury; that was the first and last time I met them. That scene has never been replicated again by the same people; they hugged, and they went away. I was fortunate to capture that nanosecond with my zoom lens. It was not ordinary at all. And I am not interested in being a better poet; I just want to be alive, to see and share art, and to die when I need to die. The good poems I write now are not better than the bad poems I wrote then; poetry expands. Like poem, like poet. We are made of poems. Poetry is an oscillating universe. Isn’t the sky one big poem? You can even call it a galaxy of poems.
Ugochukwu: That’s fascinating. I feel this brings so much clarity about your poetry—the ability to notice what is present. And this is seen in the poems in your chapbook, but I’m currently thinking of your poem, ‘The left and right side’, published in Verity La: Creative Arts Journal. In the poem, you write, “Central London: everyone seems to always be in a rush. So, the right side of the escalator is perfectly convenient for me.” It brings a mental image of you stepping aside to see the world, in this case Central London. In the next sentence, the movement in this observation is seen, “London is always in motion, like every other human or natural settlement.” Also, in the other part of the poem where you write about Abuja, we see the poem move quickly from one image to another—gates, plants, scarf, and so on. This makes me think of your poetry as a labyrinth that prompts the reader to see deeply into the message being conveyed.
When I think of your response that seeing is what you do when you write, it guides me to Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘Mindful’. In a part, she writes:
It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
Perhaps, this is what makes every moment magical, just like the scene you described in your response.
I’m also thinking about my old poems, I feel differently about them. Most times it is always cringey to read through and I barely go past the second line. I have never thought of them as different media through which they exist, and not just a spectrum of poetry ranging from bad to good.
David: Why do you think your old poems cringey? It’s like saying: any time you go back to pictures of your toddlerhood, you feel ashamed about baby steps you took walking, jumping, climbing, breaking and playing with stuff. Every fall was pivotal to our standing. I should digress: it is important to read poetry with our eyes closed. You know how we say it in Naija na: close your eyes and swallow the medicine! Close your eyes and write poetry, close your eyes and read poetry. There is an aspect of seeing, of listening that requires closing the eyes. And then consider those creatures that do not blink their eyes—creatures without eyelids. Consider open eyes as a way of life. Creatures born with their eyes open, creatures that cannot move their eyeballs, creatures without eyes at all, creatures with thousands of lenses in their eyes. Think of the four-eyed fish: with their two eyes they see above and below the water at the same time; I want this kind of biology (laughs). So, the language of seeing is not directly textual; it is first of all presence, awareness. Language itself is not directly textual. We think of trees, light, water, body. Alphabets are translations. The world I want to see is not in words yet.
Ugochukwu: I think the feeling of cringe stems from me looking at the old poems with a new eye, often there’s a tendency to criticize and see ways that I could have made it better. For me, this has an underlying acknowledgement of the growth process, like you say: every fall was pivoted to our standing. And I love your reflection on the way we see poetry, perhaps it is in this awareness that we fully immerse ourselves in the language of poetry. I believe this is how a poem leaves its effect, or rather how a poem stays. In your poem, ‘Persona’, where in the first column you write, “Cut to the centre of memory even if it is pink” which I thought of as reaching the core of our memory irrespective of how unpleasant it is (pink being the colour of some wounds), and then in the next columns, I assumed joining a song to the narrator’s drawstring was a way the mother kept joy close to the narrator, and then in the last, a sense of a protection which I felt was ephemeral. Have you ever looked at your work differently after getting a reader’s feedback?
David: Thank you so much for this reflection. Interesting you mentioned ‘wound’ to the colour pink in your reflection. I am not certain I have a singular vision or meaning attached to words as I write. I am both playing and crafting. I see how a mother helps her child do their drawstring, I see how a mother, or even just anybody, helps fix something for their loved one. Sometimes pink is just a flower or a flowering of time, other times it becomes something else. A carriage is more than itself. Isn’t it fascinating how words, meanings expand beyond what is/was given and received? I did not see a wound while writing the poem, but here you show me one, and that’s valid as well. A reader is a part of the poem, so that they are free to have or make varied meanings. So yes, I have looked at my work differently upon getting feedback, and this will never stop. Mine is not the only vision existent in this world. You can imagine that in a world of seven billion people there will be over seven billion ways of looking at things, of envisioning stuff. And it is necessary to see things in more than one or nine ways. We need new interpretations. So, yeah, the poet is herself a receiver. Those days in design studios, one needed the eyes of other classmates for other visions of sketches, plans, etc. My interest in architecture, urban design and city studies have, in many ways, influenced and sharpened my literary experimentation. Angles, curves, circles, perspectives, dimensions, frames, spatial arrangement, reorientation, cross-purposing, linearity and nonlinearity, erasers, name them. So, yeah, even though whatever I write is up to me, I welcome feedback any time. Once I was processing a photograph, and my sister walked into the scene and instantly spotted an imbalance. Her correction was right on point.
Ugochukwu: Lovely. So, who are your favourite poets, and what book are you currently reading?
David: I am currently rereading three books: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems by Alice Notley. There are other books by the bed I might pick in between drinks or naps: Constellations by Sinead Gleeson, The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt edited by Elizabeth Kershaw, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton. I love so many poets: Alice Notley, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Buchi Emecheta, Cecilia Vicuna, Uche Nduka, Sarah Manguso, Eduardo Galeano, Adura Ojo, Anaïs Nin, Lyn Hejinian, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Leslie Scalapino, Sylvia Plath, Anna Swir, Tomas Transtromer, Nancy Gaffield, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kim Hyesoon, Lidia Yuknavitch, Anna Akhmatova, John Keats, and many others. How about you: what are you currently reading? And who are your favourite poets?
Ugochukwu: I just finished reading Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn, which is the last book on my list for May. So, I’m currently reading short stories and poems online. I love Ellen Bass, Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown, Romeo Oriogun, Safia Elhillo, JK Anowe, Andrea Gibson, Chibụìhè Obi, Saddiq Dzukogi, Pamilerin Jacob, and many others. Honestly, the list is a long one.
This conversation has been insightful, thank you for joining me.
David: Thank you so much for your time, Ugochukwu. Best wishes: poetry and joy.
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian writer and poet, was the first runner-up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2019. He was one of the 21 mentees in the second cohort of the SprinNG Fellowship, and an alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in African Writer, Kreative Diadem, Barren Magazine, The Penn Review, Rising Phoenix Press, and elsewhere.