MEETING OF THE BARDS: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN UMAR ABUBAKAR SIDI & DAMI AJAYI
Yesterday, Umar Abubabakar Sidi of Konya Shamsrumi published a conversation he had with fellow poet, Dami Ajayi. We have published here two parts of the conversation here and have provided a link to the complete publication.
1 – Poetry and the Question of Utility
UMAR SIDI: I do not totally agree with the maxim, ‘poets are born not made.’ Apart from being elitist, it is also illogical. I believe poetry can be learned. I began to learn poetry at a very early age in Sokoto. I was thought the Methods of Listening and the Categories of Silence in the Ajami tradition. Poetry was everywhere from the delightful verses of the blind poet Sambo Wali to the recitals of the Infiraji and other classical renditions. I used to brag to my friends pretentiously that my great grandmother, Nana Asma’u, the daughter of Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, was a poet. Then, I was seeking poetry. When poetry finally found me, I became obsessed. I remember writing 13 poems in one day, this became the nucleus of my juvenile offerings. At about the same time, I became concerned about the utility of poetry. Given that I was a cadet at the Defence Academy and poems could not strip and assemble my rifle or dig trenches for me, I concluded that poetry is useless. The functions of poetry only became clear to me, many years down the line, with the discovery of my patron saint, Adonis. I share Adonis’s view that poetry contributes immensely to the development of the human spirit, it distills, sharpens man’s intuitive and contemplative faculties. However, because, presumably, poetry has not been put to use in the service of power, that is, in technology, finance, political and military force, poetry appears to be useless. Unfortunately, this is the dominant perspective, it is dividing the ranks even among poets. Ismail Bala, my friend, teacher and mentor once argued that poetry makes nothing happen. I do not agree and so would the ‘the angry Nigerian poet.’ The exhortations of ‘the angry Nigerian poet’ are widespread and can be found in the works of Odia, in Okigbo’s Path of Thunder and even in the works of some poets of the New Ibadan School, of which I consider you a member. I am specifically referring to Servio Badamasi’s A Tributary in Servitude and Jumoke Verissimo’s The Birth of Illusion. Although, it can be argued that Verissimo’s poems are terrifyingly personal, they are in essence a ‘feminist howl.’ Verissimo has affirmed the utility of the poem as a veritable tool for socio-cultural criticism, it is protest poetry, containing hard blows against patriarchal conditioning and expectations, the poems seem to be saying in a stern voice, ‘we are women, make us a bed of daffodils.’ In contrast, your poetry, in both Clinical Blues and A Woman’s Body is a Country, offers an individualistic vision of a literary one-man band. I imagine the poet -persona in both books to be a well-built man in his bloom, a sebaldian. He is a pedestrian who carries himself with gait and elegance. His hobby is strolling in the walk-ways of life. This is how I picture him. He enters a pub, gulps down a bottle of beer to suppress the resurging memory of a lost love, he dances to high life music, he engages in a brawl with some offensive alcoholics, he comes out of the pub to meet an accident scene, a girl is knocked down by a car, she is bleeding, no one is attending to her, he rushes the girl to the nearest hospital where she gets medical attention, the next moment he is back on the street smoking, he receives a call from his estranged girlfriend , he goes home in a rush, they meet on the stairway, they kiss, they fuck, their rhythms correspond to the beats of a Rex Lawson song blaring from somewhere. Your poetry seems to have total disregard to traditional connotations of Nigerian poetry. Must poets reflect a seemingly significant socio-political message before they are considered relevant? Is poetry useless?
DAMI AJAYI: I think it is a bit preposterous and radical to declare unequivocally that poetry is useless. That strips the discussion of all contexts—and contexts are really valuable. Think about yourself and your realization as a cadet in a trench that poetry is utterly useless. Of course, poetry in that context is useless, momentarily. I also find poetry occasionally useless. I think that is the essence of my book, Clinical Blues. Useless poetry in dialogue with the fallibility of medicine. But poetry has its uses. My thoughts about its uses is that poetry gets its pinch from events and situations, not vice versa. Poetry is poignant when it reflects. I think we give too much currency to reactionary poems, may be too much to the notion of revolution. Of course, poems can stir a revolution. Poems will be the soundtrack of any meaningful revolution. Poems will be the aftermath of the revolution. And poetry will reflect on the historical significance of revolutions.
But then again, we insist on a certain kind of poetry in our appraisal of its uses. Poetry confined within text, within the cover of a book. This is poetry laid to rest, for the purposes of reference and preservation. We forget there is a kind of poetry that moves, the kind of poetry that is recited with anger and a vibrancy that is not only infectious but also passionate. This kind of poetry is set to music and song. How do we talk about African history, the Civil Rights movement, the scourge of Slavery, Apartheid South Africa without talking about poetry? Of course, poetry has political uses. But I am not perturbed about this kind of poetry. I am more excited about the kind of poetry that reflects on existential angst.
I think it is interesting you consider me to be a New Ibadan Poet. I have affiliation with not only Ibadan but Ife where I consider to my creative ancestral space. Now I live in the megacity of Lagos and I think I have started to write poetry about mobility within Lagos. These are the things that excite me. I write poetry that is totally bereft of traditional inclinations. But if you look again, you may find familiar tropes. My place is beside the griot, the poet of praise. And I am only going to sing the praise of humanity, because it is the most universal experience that we all share and it must be celebrated. Our humanness must not be in vain, there is a sense in which we as humans prefer to stratify and clarify our experiences through classifications, we fashion for ourselves a metric system that thinks about social class, religion, western education, materialism to describe our human experience. For me, all these classificatory systems are null and void. I am excited about poetry and music, how culture emerges from geniuses of a time and how it becomes communal, I am interested in the half-life of human relationships, I am interested in what becomes of love when it goes sour, I want to write epistles to my friends and loved ones in the afterlife, I am interested in how my life interfaces with yours and this is what I hope to achieve in poetry. You will find that your brusque and picturesque description of the poet persona of Clinical Blues, the Sebaldian, a bit of that temperament belongs in every one of us. We are all interested in the dualities if not the multiplicities of life. We are always negotiating up and down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That is my socio-political message. In the light of thieving politicians, ambivalent elites, desperately violent masses and a patronizing western gaze, it may be useless and I am not bothered.
2 – Woman is the Cornerstone of the Material World
UMAR SIDI: Let us go deeper into the interior of poetics. Inspired by Surrealist and Sufi ideas, I employ a number of motifs in experiencing my poems with one, the erotic re-occurring disturbingly; it is almost becoming a signature style. I used the erotic to explicate desire and sexual frenzy as a means to the transcendental. My poem The Veiled Secret of the Kamasutra or the Way a Certain Poet Interprets the Surrealist Manifesto at Night, appears raunchy on the surface. A friend once advised jokingly, after reading the poem, that it should be labeled for readers older than 18. While the erotic imaginary may be misleading, the poem is essentially a meditation on Ibn Arabi’s idea of the Unity and Oneness of Being (Wahdatul Wujud) and the idea of the Sacred Feminine. The poem is about fusion and union. It is about attraction and permeation. It is about the wedlock of the ‘sacred feminine’ (Surrealist) represented by a goddess and ‘unity of being’ (Sufi) represented by the poet. Unable to encompass the beloved, the poet becomes emaciated, he loses form, he staggers, he becomes stupefied, he goes mad, and in this state, he attains the transcendental, and he says in the words of Ibn Arabi, ‘I am I and the one whom I love is I.’ Through free rein of desire, the sacred feminine allows the fragmented man to be one with himself again, by saving him from the banality of daily life, and catapulting him to experience the cosmic. The Surrealists believe that ‘women open the doors of paradise to poets, in which can found forms and essences in existence.’ They went further to declare: ‘woman is the cornerstone of the material world; she is the future of man, his safety and his destiny.’ Interestingly, your poems are characterised by images bordering on love and the sexual. Since you consider a woman’s body a country, is love a patriotic ideal? Is woman the cornerstone of the material world?
DAMI AJAYI : I agree with your friend about The Veiled Secret. It is really a sensual poem and of course we as poets don’t have a monopoly of interpretation. The beauty of literature is the myriad of interpretations, the ownership that readers can bring to the sensate experiences and the dimensions of meanings and how they differ from what the author intended. I have read your poems keenly since The Poet of Sand, there has been a marked deviation from your earlier lyrical style in Striking the Strings to a more fluid, ruminating and transcendental style that takes into cognizance the rapturous and amorphous nature of poetry. It is incantatory and, in a sense, some kind of praise-singing, not such much in the sense of the griot who wields words for social approval and economic sustenance, it is more like praise for praise sake but with the intensity of a worshipfulness that is intense and all encompassing.
I am not certain there is anything more deserving of praise than the female form and I say this for obvious reasons. Now, to your questions. Is love a patriotic ideal and is woman the cornerstone of the material world? It would have been easy if these were just yes-and-no questions. To further simply your question to my own understanding, Is love some of kind of devotion? Oh yes it is. And it is a kind of devotion that requires worship, cue in sex. It is unarguable your other question: Women are the cornerstone of the material world, period.
The Mechanics of Craft
UMAR SIDI: Most poets possess secret bags where they hide their literary gimmicks, their mechanical devices of construction and composition and other tools of the trade. You know how these things work, they can be so intangible, sometimes a poet may be employing a device without even knowing so. Recently, I am inclining towards a compositional device, which is becoming a permanent tool in my secret bag. Before I put poems on paper, I usually undergo an ‘intense period’ during which I experience a pure, congealed, undiluted form of emotion. I call this the plunge, the plunge into the sea of feeling. It entails penetrating the depths of the unknown with a wide net, ready to trap the hidden, the mysterious. At this stage, it is all about feelings, emotional quakes, soul thundering, whispers from the sub-conscious, psychic orgasms accompanied by hallucinatory visions and visual concretization of metaphor. The poem is still in the process of becoming but without words. Words come later, after that I create a foundational structure which I call a mind scheme. This scheme is a blank score, containing the musical inflections and rhythm without a single unwritten line. Perhaps, I could call this potential poetry? Thereafter, I use words to place the images captured in the visual concretization stage on the mind scheme and voila, a poem is born. The process is not as mechanical as it sounds here, in fact, it is not even mechanical at all, it is a tumultuous, rapturous, incandescent, heightened awakening of the sub-conscious. It is a delirious, intoxicating, illuminating flight through the portal of bliss. In your poem, The Alphabet Laboratory, we witness ‘verbal orgasm’, followed by a race towards finding the right combination of letters to describe a beloved. The poem also reads like a poet’s meditation on craft. How do you make poems?
DAMI AJAYI: I have been thinking a lot lately about how poems come into being and I find your process quite striking, Umar. I think my process is not so much different from yours, although for me different poems come in different ways. There are poems that drop into my consciousness phrase after phrase. There are poems that come in one swoop. There are poems that are cathartic. But what I have been able to identify in my process is that there is an aura, that period around the poem where I experience what I have termed, for the lack of a better word, creative restlessness. I don’t imagine that it is much different from what you call a plunge. But here, I am in a kind of mental zone where I know I am about to birth something. It has the trappings of parturition without being as painful. It leaves me with anticipatory anxiety and sometimes I could control it and it will leave me. But often times, it will return even stronger. Once I find myself opening up to it, the poem begins to reveal itself without any particular schema. Words come. Phrases come. Stanzas come. My duty is lay them down till these waves ebb. Usually that is the poem, with a little bit of editing (which is essentially moving the words around) the poem is made.
Please find the full conversation here.