Uche Peter Umez interviews Sodiq Alabi, poet and essayist, and the author of The Texture of Air.
What’s poetry to you? And what defines a poem as a poem for you?
This is frankly a difficult question to answer. I do not have the right words to express my feelings about poetry. It is almost futile to try to define what poetry is as most of the definitions people put forward are not in any way exclusive to poetry. However, I think the most important thing about poetry for me is the use of language. I enjoy poetry in three different world languages and there is nothing more dearly to me when I read or listen to a poem in these languages than the poet’s dexterous use of language. I also enjoy ambiguity that poetry seems to encourage and enable more than any other genres of literature. In poetry, readers are not just spectators. They can be part of the process as they are allowed to derive meanings different from what the poet had in mind when the poem was written. A good poem leaves me haunted for days as I engage in unscrambling the numerous codes embedded in its lines. And when I realise a new truth once missed, I feel like I’m a part of an exclusive cult of super-humans.
There appears to be a burden of tradition for many Nigerian poets to write poetry that tends towards the didactic. What’s your experience of writing within this tradition, considering that a good number of your poems are markedly political?
I personally don’t feel the burden of tradition, as you’ve put it. I write what I want, and how I want. While many of my poems deal with political issues, there are others that deal with subjects that are neither political nor didactic in nature. And this is true for most of the Nigerian poets I have read. From Wole Soyinka, through Niyi Osundare, to David Ishaya Osu. Our poets have never been mono-thematic. There is a problem when people accuse our poets of being too political in their poetry. Poetry tends to be inspired and informed by the experience of the poet and one’s experience in a developing country like Nigeria tends to be affected significantly by politics, so it should be understandable if a poet in this kind of setting has some political poems.
It is difficult to ignore our reality when we create a work of art. Consciously or otherwise, our reality finds a way to express itself in our work. Take me, for example, besides being a poet, I’m a struggling entrepreneur who is trying to build a company. At every turn, the Nigerian state seems to be working against me, from absence of power to a senior civil servant asking for bribe, to omo onile demanding heaven and earth. And in all this, the Nigerian state has refused to provide a safety net for entrepreneurs like me. So, there is no way I would write poetry without some of the anger and frustration I feel finding their way into my poetry. My writing political poems, therefore, has absolutely nothing to do with some burden of tradition, but has everything to do with my daily struggle against state-encouraged poverty. Of course, it is left to the reader to now determine the kind of poetry they want to consume and consume accordingly. We must not dictate to artists, subtly or otherwise, what and how they should create.
What poets were important to you when you first started writing poetry?
Kofi Awoonor and Okot p’Bitek are two important poets whose works I have always loved. I have read Song of Ocol like a billion times because their poems are easy to access and fun to read. I diligently studied their works and was intrigued by the overdose of satire and sarcasm in their poems. I would later fall in love with the elegance of Mamman J. Vasta’s simple verses and the obscurity of Christopher Okigbo. Many of the poets featured in Rhythms of Creation: A decade of Okike Poetry were also instrumental to my development as a poet. I would read Chinweizu’s Energy Crisis almost every day. I also loved Funso Aiyejina and I still enjoy his poetry.
How do you go about writing a poem? For instance, Remember the Crested Genet?
Usually, there is inspiration and I scribble what could be called a sketch. Some poems come fully made and the final draft is not significantly different from this sketch. But in many cases, the final draft bears little resemblance to the sketch. Writing a sketch tends to take few minutes but editing it into a decent, readable piece may take a whole day or couple of years. When it comes to editing, working on a poem may not be different from working on any other piece of literature as research, fact-checking, weeding are involved.
Remember the Crested Genet has environmental degradation as its major concern and it involved quite a bit of research to ensure its content remains factual. It was inspired by an article I read on the crested genet, an animal native and peculiar to Nigeria but which has now been declared extinct. The early drafts of the poem had two stanzas that are now absent in the published version, thanks to two colleagues who read the poem at a critique session of ANA Abuja in 2014 and convinced me that the two stanzas were unnecessary and added nothing to the poem. So, my poetry also benefits from peer review and editing.
What insights have you gained in your engagement with the questions of mortality and grief, as reflected in the poems Innocence Pawned, When Aunti Dana Made Her Last Run, and A New Batch of Darkness?
That grief, in its chronic bitterness, fades away in the end and that mortality is one sure thing I would never really understand. In 2007, I lost a cousin who was very close to me as he lived with my family. It was one death that haunted me for several years because it made no sense to me. We talked in the morning and by evening he was gone, crushed into past tense by a bus. I was crushed by his death and thought I would never come over it. But I have found that time has a way of disrupting the flow of grief by messing with our memory and giving us new things to worry about.
What is the story behind Of Yam and New Year?
Of Yam and New Year wasn’t a poem I took seriously until it was accepted by a literary magazine that had earlier rejected three of my poems. I wrote the poem at a point when I was flirting seriously with pessimism. Ideas like New Year greetings and New Year resolutions were very irritating to me. And of course we now have stuff like ‘happy new month’ greetings and even happy new weeks. I still don’t get the reasons why people get all excited on December 31 and January 1. What is life all about? Are we not just helpless passengers in the canoe of time? January will come at its appointed time and we have no power over it and all our resolutions for the year may never be accomplished in several lifetimes. I felt we had more power over a tuber of yam than we do over a new year.
The tone of the poem Psychosis somehow reflects a kind of nihilism. The lines, ‘All things in the end/Do not exist’, in particular. Can you say a few words about this?
I do not believe in nihilism. Any kind of nihilism. And I’m not a nihilist, if that’s what you are reaching for. Psychosis is a playful poem on the ever irksome ‘poetry is dead’ movement. There are those who think poetry is dead because poetry is no longer written or appreciated the way they are familiar with. But perhaps poetry has never been in the frame they assume it had once been. Perhaps their idea of poetry is a product of their own delusion.
There are slight references to Yoruba mythology in some of your poems. Three Lobes, for instance. How much of your poetry is influenced by oral tradition?
I was first into Yoruba performance poetry, Ewi, before I started writing poetry in the English language. I had the opportunity of learning and drinking from the ocean of Yoruba oral tradition from a tender age. In Yoruba, every piece of poetry is performed. And I write my poems with this in mind. It is all right for a poem to look good only on paper but I want my poems to be great when presented. I also make use of traditional materials in my poetry. I allude frequently to figures and ideas in Yoruba mythology, cultural and geographical systems but I don’t always stay true to the ancient scripts.
Reading the poem I am Not Nigeria, I get a sense of disenchantment and cynicism. What are your struggles – or rather challenges as a poet in Nigeria?
The poem I am Not Nigeria turns the table on Nigerian youth when it comes to unemployment and other challenges we face. I have serious problem with people who are entitled and blame everyone else for their woes or expect everyone else to spoon-feed them. Many Nigerian youth are masters of this despicable attitude. And the poem tells them to bugger off and go put their brains to work. Nigeria is a really depressing place. On one hand is a government that has failed spectacularly in its duties for fifty five years, on the other are some young people who are not only indolent, but constitute a nuisance to those trying to do something for themselves, despite the hostile socio-economic conditions. When I wrote this poem, I thought I had had enough of this kind of young people but my experience trying to set up a business in Ogun state took me to a new height of exasperation.
I really enjoyed reading the poem I Want to Sing You, not only for its cadence but also its lyrical quality. There’s something quite personal in that poem. How much of your personal experience goes into your poetry?
A lot. I am not going to lie about this. All the love poems in the collection were inspired by my love. But some ideas in the poems are unquestionably products of my imagination. I Want to Sing You is a poem that my love and I read to each other again and again without either of us getting bored. I am glad it has found a new fan in you.
What inspired these lines, ‘The mathematics you do on my lips/shows in the intensity of the ride’?
The narcissism of the poet persona? Most likely. Quite frankly, I don’t remember. I was very drunk in love when I wrote the poem and I am still drunk in love as I type this.
The last poem in the collection, Spare Me Your Rant, is playful and yet sharp and satirical. Facebook activism appears to be all the rage for many a Nigerian youth. Do you think poetry makes anything happen, say, politically?
If you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have said yes without any hesitation. And I would have believed my own yes. I will now reluctantly say yes, poetry can make things happen politically and otherwise. Poetry can stir conversation, controversy and offer new ideas for a reading nation or a people that care. Take Gunther Grass and Amiri Baraka, for example. They both made things happen with their poems, Grass with Was gesagt warden muss(What must be said) and Baraka with Somebody blew up America. Poets are still being jailed in some countries for their work. That’s making things happen, isn’t it? But does poetry make anything happen in Nigeria? That is a good question I don’t want to answer now.
Tanure Ojaide once branded the new generation of Nigerian poets as “copycats”. Do you agree that the current generation lacks originality and ideological depth?
I would wager that Tanure Ojaide has not read Saddiq Dzukogi, Adeola Opeyemi, Peter Akinlabi, Okwy Obu, Dami Ajayi and other quite original poets of this generation. Instead of issuing a blanket statement about a whole generation of poets, he should produce a critical work on their poetry and offer helpful insight where he can. He should also probably name and shame the copycats.
Can you say a few words about the current state of poetry in Nigeria?
Literary wise, poetry is well and alive in Nigeria. It is a vibrant scene with strong and assured voices all over the place. Commercially, poetry is in a sorry state. We need to come up with new ways of making money from our craft. I’m a closet capitalist, you see.
Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
I am spending my time reading and studying the works of selected Middle Eastern poets.
Uche Peter Umez is a Nigerian writer and poet. He is the author of Dark through the Delta, a collection of poems.