By AiW Guest: Uche Peter Umez.
“Different writers in different locations at different times find their different reasons for writing.”
Interviewer’s Note: AFAM AKEH, the author of Stolen Moments (1988), has won prizes and other honours for his poems, short stories and journalism. He has years of editorial practice as a literary journalist – was Founding Editor of African Writing Online, and literary editor of the Nigerian Daily Times in the 1990s.
Currently based in Oxford, he has performed, broadcast and workshopped his poetry at literature events, the BBC and various UK school-related events and programmes, including a workshop event for the Oxford University Poetry Society. He was a mentor in the lottery-funded 2008 workshop between refugees and poets in the Oxford area, organised by Oxford Brookes University. See How I Land, an anthology of new writings, was published in 2009 from that project.
His writings may also be found at the online sites of Londonart, Sentinel Poetry, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, African Writing Online, and Fieralingue at The Poet’s Corner. Akeh has served as a judge in national and charity-based poetry competitions, in Nigeria and the UK. He is working to establish African Poetry Village, an online home for Africanworld poetries. His latest collection, Letter Home & Biafran Nights, was published in December 2012 by Sentinal Poetry Movement Publishers, and was longlisted for the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature.
Uche Peter Umez: Your debut collection, Stolen Moments, was published in 1988 to critical acclaim. How come it took you nearly 24 years to publish a second collection?
Afam Akeh: That early career publication enabled by the grace of Odia Ofeimun and the Association of Nigerian Authors really came to me as a bonus. A number of us who were published then, and that would include the poet Uche Nduka, were having a lot of fun with poetry, reading voraciously and writing with just as much enthusiasm and excitement, but up to the time I left Nigeria in 1992 we were not quite in that kind of professional or vocational survival mode that puts such a high premium on publication. In the UK, I was for many years a Christian minister, planting Churches, returning to writing only around 2004. There was to be another decade of just feeling the secular ground beneath my feet, tuning into the emotional frequency for practice outside the Church, then re-learning practice, reading, reading and reading, even going back to school for an MA in Creative Writing. I was of course also writing all that time, and when I did finally commit to making a second book of poems it took several attempts to achieve that. This is the personal narrative but I could also answer this question differently, focusing on the generational story, examining why many of the Nigerian writers who began writing at the time I did have not published as many books as you would expect.
Uche Peter Umez: In the first poem from Letter Home & Biafran Nights,’Letter Home’, the four journeys summarize the experience of an immigrant, attesting to the ‘tyranny of memory’, and how the immigrant attempts to belong to a new ‘perch’. I find this poem so insuppressibly touching I am drawn to the stark sense of loss, longing, distance and absence that punctuate the life of an exile on the whole. How long did you work on the four sequences in this poem?
Afam Akeh: Indeed there are four different narratives, four representative lives, in the poem but they all relate as one imagined exodus. You are right that there is a common thread of displacement in the narratives. However, there is also evidence of complexity in each of those experiences. It is about longing but more significantly about belonging, about rejection and acceptance. For the long removed it can also be about the management of emotional betrayal and fading memory. The original copy of the first movement in the poem ‘Letter Home’ was subtitled ‘in the fourteenth year’. That means it was started around 2006, fourteen years after 1992, when I left Nigeria. The final published form of the poem was completed in 2012. Six years then? Something like that.
Uche Peter Umez: There is almost a palpable sense of looking back in many of the poems in your collection. A masked feeling of nostalgia, the inexorable pull of memory. This image in the poem ‘Letter Home’ (pg 5) vividly captures this fact for me:
behind shut doors
to its new perch,
dreaming of home
in another life.
The familiar dream
a constant lure…
How much of your ‘travel guilt’ still clings to you? Have you been unable to shed much of it?
Afam Akeh: Memory is not always friendly. I carry my immigrant travel guilt with me always – not in any disabling way, but in the sense that I am frequently reminded of it by daily encounters. I am acutely aware that I am not alone in these paths taken, but have also committed my children and possibly their children. I frequently consider the consequences and possibilities, positives and negatives of this choice that was forced on me. The immigrant life is engaged with questions of home, land and country. This is the case even for people of a mixed race or mixed national background. They may conveniently roll with globalist perspectives but still have to deal with issues of longing and belonging. So there is that abiding travel guilt for the immigrant, but there are lots of welcome smiles in the present country to ease the burden, sometimes good news from the old country too. I find it helps also to remind myself that we are all just passing through even if we disagree on what happens afterwards, whether we all conclude in ethereal dissolution or head for a more substantial denouement. There is the potential for futility in that perspective but also the possibility of liberation, depending on how you engage it. In any case memory is quite selective in our “passing through” regarding the things of our past it wants to remain fiercely loyal to, or long for, or still belong to, the things it actually chooses to remember and how it chooses to remember those things. It is the case that memory not only remembers but also forgets – as in forget a once beloved face or language or land of origin and no longer care about or even know it, sometimes during a lifetime and sometimes after many generations.
Uche Peter Umez: Chenjerai Hove says, ‘Writers see, record and warn the nation about its human and general social conditions’. To what degree does your poetry collection reflect this vision, given that many of the poems reiterate the toll Diaspora exacts on the individual?
Afam Akeh: There is a lot to learn from what a writer says about writing, about how to write, etc, but never take only one writer’s word for it. There are as many ways of writing, as many reasons for writing, as there are writers. The statement you quote, useful as it is in the determination and evaluation of practice, also indicates the period concerns informing the familiar practice of Hove’s generation of African writers. Different writers in different locations at different times find their different reasons for writing. It is important to validate and respect difference in practice. I would like to hope that my work is open to difference in its concerns and interpretations. What was that cliché? Variety is the spice of life? Well, I like that spice in my poetry. This is the first collection I have made since taking up residence in a different country so it is heavily marked by my immigrant experience. There are two poems on the civil war, including the long poem ‘Biafran Nights’. But the collection also finds space for other subjects, for love and the creative process, for humour and the very joy of living.
Uche Peter Umez: Do you think your poetry in its attempt to ‘tell the human tale’ will rattle our national psyche against ‘nights that speak with clenched teeth’?
Afam Akeh: Do I set out to ‘tell the human tale’ in my work? I probably do, sometimes to awaken consciousness and conscience as you indicate, but primarily to reveal that ‘human tale’ in all its sometimes befuddling complexity, the beauty within and its attending banality, that familiar brutality often masked or written out of poetry around where I live in the West, every voice heard, all images exposed, the human without cover. Yes, I believe in art that tells all there is to tell of the human tale. But there is also something known as the consolation of art. I believe in that too. Great art is able to reveal those “nights that speak with clenched teeth” which politics may ignore or not see, but then go beyond that duty of representation to bring beauty and melody and comfort to such disconsolate nights of clenched teeth.
Uche Peter Umez: In your poem, ‘The Living Poem’, the impression this reader gets is that poetry should be familiar: ‘Unbound/living free, in rhythm with the rocking streets….Poetry should be shaking hands with normal folk…’ Some people tend to view poems that exhibit straightforward clarity as ‘unpoetic’, while others extol as ‘poetic’ any poetry that seems to be mystifying and obfuscating. What’s your take on such a perspective?
Afam Akeh: Again, it would be a mistake to promote what I am saying in one poem about the qualities of a particular kind of poetry – public poetry – as advocacy for all of poetry practice. That poem was written in response to another promoted idea that poetry can only be made for the private leisure or study consumption of the individual reader, or that poetry always needs to be rendered in a knotty idiom requiring the expert interpretation of initiates. Each poet to his or her craft is what I say, but generally I don’t like to shut so many of my potential readers off my work by needlessly complicating language or meaning. ‘The Living Poem’ is simply stated because it is celebrating value in access, in the possibility of poems being available to all, even in non-scribal forms and other media. It is about poetry being valued as a communal practice, as it was in the beginning and still is in many traditional practices across the world, poetry also valuable as popular song or mediated by non-alphabet signs, images and other visual practices. Graphology as a poetry practice. Asemic poetry. Collage. Visual poetry. Sound poetry. Performance poetry. Film poetry. Name it and I’ll probably say yes and amen to it as a consumer of poetry. And, yes, I actually practice some of these other forms too as I will show in the near future. Poetry is the only art form that still feels embarrassed about developing its consumer base by investing in its more public and popular practices. Fiction does, and so do music and visual art. There was always elitism in some of the royal and priestly company poetry kept even in earlier times, but the exaltation of ‘difficulty’ in practice is actually historically recent, traceable only back to the approach to Western modernism, when an emphasis on publication and learning, combined to promote a highly literate kind of rigor in practice, with academic patronage becoming the paramount provider and judge of value, also radically affecting the way in which poems are received and consumed. Interpretation became a highly skilled art. This is a poetry orientation that is being challenged by the fierce immediacy of communication, and the ready availability of information, in the social media age. Easier online access not only means greater parity in the dissemination and reception of creative work, including poetry, but also greater consumer choice. Now we don’t have to read and value only the poems and poets the academy and its associated publishers allow in the bookshops, or interpret and honour as valuable. We are all now empowered as consumers to project our reader perspectives and proclaim value wherever we think we have found it out there. There is of course the downside to this in the greater prominence now given to mediocrity, with so many young writers masquerading as masters, but I think there is generally a fair balance between that and the kind of equally unacceptable situation we had in the past when literary gate-keepers were gods with the power of life and death over which poet or kind of poetry could be allowed access and honour.
Uche Peter Umez: Given the raw emotions that trailed the publication of There Was a Country by the late Chinua Achebe, don’t you think that the ‘Biafran Nights’ in your title collection would scrape anew sore wounds and memories? Would it not have been better for the poet to just keep his mouth shut, in times like this – to paraphrase W.B. Yeats?
Afam Akeh: Yeats? He was a man of many lives, as much the mystic as he was the materialist, sometimes in his words a man of love and peace but in life also at various times very much the quarrelsome warrior kind. He wrote political work and also held political office in Ireland, and he was not exactly known for keeping his mouth shut, whether as a poet or as a statesman. But your focus here is on the politics of my poem ‘Biafran Nights’. I have been told by well-meaning fellow writers that some people will feel unable to buy and support Letter Home and Biafran Nights because of its title and because of the long poem ‘Biafran Nights’ in it. Those telling me this are friends so they must mean well, but if it is really true that there are Nigerians still bitterly opposed to the mere mention of the name ‘Biafra’ more than four decades after the end of the civil war, then it is especially for them that my poem has been written. You don’t go through life pretending you did not have your difficult past. Well, you can, but that life of denial is damn costly, too full of unresolved conflicts and needless tension. You live such a life looking over your shoulders all the time, trusting no one. What my poem on the civil war says you do with a difficult past is, process it and then bury it with honour. That is probably what I am doing at a personal level by writing the things I have written about that difficult past, including this poem. Nigerians need to properly process and then bury all their difficult pasts, including Biafra. The difficult past can either be employed as a tool of development or be allowed to rage on as a weapon of conflict by which we keep accusing and fighting each other. We have to engage all that anger from the past in a reassuring process that will convince us we no longer need to distrust and fear each other. If indeed people lost their lives on both sides of the Biafran conflict trying to keep the dream of Nigeria alive or refusing to accept a Nigeria that could not guarantee their rights to life and livelihood, then this situation in which Nigeria is divided in all but name, and can guarantee neither life nor livelihood mocks all of us who lived through the war and lost our loved ones and fellow citizens. Their sacrificial deaths have been in vain because we are all still weaponed against each other, some more obviously militant than others. My poem ‘Biafran Nights’ originally opened with the words ‘There are nights that speak with clenched fist’. After a number of re-writes I changed that to ‘There are nights that speak with clenched teeth’. The difference as you must have noticed is in the changed words ‘fist’ and ‘teeth’. But that was really a cosmetic change allowed because I did not want a mere word to become a distraction to certain readers and affect understanding of the poem. In the end whatever meaning you choose to invest in ‘clenched fist’ can also be allowed for ‘clenched teeth’ but it is possibly easier and quicker to read a war-like stance in the former than in the later. But this poem is about a different kind of rage, a rage against frustration, helplessness, hopelessness, against the unbearable heaviness of watching our country fail to learn from the historic savagery of its civil war. This is why I begin the poem by narrating my memory of that historic savagery, lest we forget. In the last two movements of the poem, I shift emphasis from the Biafran war to begin a meditation on what to do with a difficult past, referencing the slave, colonial and apartheid histories of the black and African peoples. Achebe’s There Was A Country was a more detailed account of the Nigerian past I was dealing with in my poem, but I believe that in writing that book he had the same sense of dismay with the Nigeria project that informs my poem, perhaps in his case a degree of bitterness too because he did carry a greater burden of our unresolved history than I do. However, if you are looking for Nigerian poetry which is really similar to Achebe’s memoir in the sense that it directly identifies some principal actors of our conflicted history and then proceeds to make controversial comments about them, you need to look into J. P. Clark’s poetic sequence on the crises in Casualties (1970).
Uche Peter Umez: There are always authors whom we admire or from whom we draw influence. Are there particular authors who have meant a great deal to you since you started writing poetry?
Afam Akeh: Let us just give thanks to some of those who were there at the beginning because it gets quite crowded after that. It was profiting to have Niyi Osundare (poetry) and Isidore Okpewho (fiction) as foundational teachers in undergraduate writing classes at the University of Ibadan. Still at Ibadan, I drew inspiration from the great crowd of aesthetes who were part of the Poetry Club, but Harry Garuba was the life force of those heady days. It was a very easy life of bukas, booze and books, exquisite words perfectly deployed, and, yes, women too. They were there but it was mostly boys’ company. After graduation, I moved to Lagos to work in journalism and found in Odia Ofeimun a generous mentor. I still have a book or two borrowed from his live-in library more than two decades ago. I read whatever came my way but frequently returned to work by Christopher Okigbo, T.S Eliot, Derek Walcott, Denis Brutus, two particular early collections by the Canadian poet Tom Marshall (The Silences of Fire, 1969) and the British poet David Harsent (After Dark, 1973), some of the poets of European (including Russian) modernism, and the Latin American poets Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo. I also found Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath intriguing.
Uche Peter Umez: Finally, internet has made poetry much more accessible as never before. What is your reaction to the current proliferation of poetry in Nigeria? Do you have any advice for up and coming poets who might be working on their debut collections?
Afam Akeh: I have already indicated my support for new media and the publishing and promotional access it allows writers, especially new writers. I have also noted the dubious value of work some young writers allow to represent them online. Once you put these things out there they are not so easy to hide when you no longer feel proud of them. I still belong to one or two writing groups. They are not just there to tell you how to write. They offer a ready support network for your career too, so if you are still working on your debut collection use these groups to workshop your material. Use available friends too. Whatever you do be careful about throwing new work all over the place online merely to show you are working or just because someone asked for them. Some of us have learned the hard way. Be calculating in the use of media and in giving out your work. Whatever work you allow online should be linked to some beneficial career purpose, especially if it is new work you are risking in that way. I think that in the developing world we cannot reject self-publishing. Poetry is not quite like the novel, with its large network of publishers and agents hunting for the next big thing. Much of the poetry in the world is achieved through some degree of writer familiarity with the usually small or independent publisher, and that includes the work of major poets in any part of the world. It is important, however, to recognize that unlike fiction where it is easy to build or rescue your reputation with one outstanding novel, the smell of bad poetry hangs around for a long time and once it is generally felt by the community that your poems have a stinking fish smell it is hard work getting folks to change their mind. Having said all that, your information that there is a ‘proliferation’ of poetry in Nigeria comes to me as good news. It gives me great pleasure to see that even now in Nigeria there is an identifiable poetic generation after mine, developing their craft and ensuring there is a continuing narrative of excellence for Nigerian poetry. Let a thousand poems be written is what I say. Every poem will find its level and every poet his or her interested public. You can always build career success from the support of an interested public if you are willing to take the criticisms and challenges, change what needs to be changed, and then work at becoming the outstanding poet you want to be.
Uche Peter Umez is a poet and short fiction writer. An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Uche has participated in residencies in Ghana, India, Switzerland and Italy. He was one of the winners in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively, and has twice been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007 and 2011. His latest children’s book Tim the Monkey and Other Stories has just been published by Africana First Publishers, Nigeria.