AiW Guest: Uche Peter Umez.
“Ironies and satires provide poetry with a kind of cynical beauty…”
Interviewer’s Note: Musa Idris Okpanachi teaches English Linguistics at the Department of English, Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, Nigeria. His poems have appeared in Vultures in the Air: Voices from Northern Nigeria, Kunapipi (Denmark), Pregnant Skies, Pyramids and Iraqi Literary Review. His first poetry collection The Eaters of the Living won the 2008 Association of Nigerian Authors/Cadbury Prize for poetry (2008) and was shortlisted for the 2009 Nigeria Prize for Literature. His second collection From the Margins of Paradise was longlisted in the Association of Nigerian Authors/Poetry Prize for 2013.
Uche Peter Umez: Philip Larkin said his aim in writing a poem is ‘to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.’ What is a poem to you? And what is your own aim?
Musa Idris Okpanachi: A poem, I think, is a short telegraphic means for expressing an emergency of meaning. Poetry is an ellipsis whose lacunae are recovered when the reader processes it and this is where it derives its power, from arrays of meanings and the occlusion of metaphors. It has a liberating effect on the poet after an effective execution of the subject matter, a purgatory satisfaction that a social process has been eternally captured in the maximum knots of metaphors. In this sense, it is a healing for the pain inflicted, a balm for the beauty experienced, captured and made perfect, a satisfaction for the fact that an ephemeral fleeting thought has been reproduced, in a permanent shape, in the best of forms within the limits of the linguistic competence of the poet. That is why I have said in an interview that I publish out of frustration (mind you, I did not say I write out of frustration). That is, I know my poems are imperfect but I lack the skill and inspiration to make them ideal.
At times, in its pragmatic function, a poem is schemata for approximating an experience that comes after its composition (prophetic?). In some countries a poem that precedes the independence of a nation becomes its national anthem. Or when Okigbo writes ‘When you have finished/And done up my stitches/Wake me near the altar/And this poem will be finished’, little did he know that he would die (obviously from multiple wounds) at the battle front of the Nsukka sector of the Nigerian civil war. During apartheid in South Africa, a South African student in one of the Nigerian universities, on reading my poem ‘Silence of Time’ in The Eaters of the Living cautions I should not allow anyone to read it, as it would provoke suicide. A female student who read the same poem burst into tears saying it aptly defined her dilemma.
Umez: I noticed in both collections, The Eaters of the Living and From the Margins of Paradise, your generous use of irony and satire in representing the depravity of the political class. In ‘The legion of Cain’, you wrote about the elite who ‘love the land/So they bite off her lips/In passionate kiss of patriotism’, while in ‘When they die, you proposed that the politicians, when they die, be made ‘high profile/Advisers from the graves’. In ‘The mice king’, you depicted a mouse king who ‘sits/On a clay throne/Wielding a tail of gun’, while in ‘The god we made’, corruption is the clay-footed god ‘for whom/The nation stands/Still.’ I am just wondering: do you view poetry as a kind of ideological communication?
Okpanachi A writer in our setting has limitations of metaphors that could aptly capture the current scenes of the world, especially if it is a question of public trust, responsibility and accountability. The bizarre conduct of those in positions of responsibility defies conventional tropes and is increasingly assuming the literary ethos of folktales, ironies to the extent that the scenarios of public accountability have become vast practical laboratories of satire and lampoon sketches. In fact, if one collects and publishes ‘facts’ in the news around the world, it would be sufficient as compendia of literary masterpieces. In a situation like this, poetry becomes a vehicle for ideological communication, especially as my style seeks to create images through expressions that are fresh and perhaps ‘unique’ reductionist tricks in satire that reproduce the subject matter in ironical and sometimes in diminutive forms.
Indeed, ironies and satires provide poetry with a kind of cynical beauty and protective devices for the poet, especially from those who crave absolute social control of human behaviour. Doubtless, a poem is stronger if it is moored and structured as a vehicle for ideological expression. That, however, does not mean we should lose sight of its double entendre and arrays of multiple meanings, which is the potent grace of poetry.
Then again, when cannibalism in high places becomes an open national debate on the television you know for sure that morality has gone berserk, which was what I tried to mirror in The Eaters of the Living. The nation and the masses have been eaten by the colossal index of corruption and the weak unity of the nation, and we are collectively hurt. As a poet, one is helpless as to the manner in which to represent the behaviour of political actors, especially the do-or-die games of desperadoes they play. When they fight, as with the lawmakers in the National Assembly and the recent Rivers State legislative house duel, I want to believe with the naive hindsight of a poet that they are driven by extreme patriotism to protect the interest and the mandates of the masses. Thus, my ‘Manifesto’ contains the dual ventriloquist voices of the actor, ‘the monologue’, of schizophrenic balances between the real intention and verbal camouflage of the inner musings of the public office holders (who intruded into office using arms and ammunitions).
Umez: In the poem ‘Words elude me’, the poet seems resigned to taciturnity, saying, ‘I was once a word/Then a syllable/Now a silent letter/In the fist of sphinx.’ But in a previous poem, ‘The secret word,’ the poet sounds eloquent and prophetic, even conjuring up images of the potent word as ‘a compass’ that ‘keeps the world orbiting.’ Do you think of poetry as a voicing of your dissent against the political system? An act of rebellion against silence, perhaps?
Okpanachi: I am greatly intrigued by the enigma of silence. I once asked my students the functions of silence. Poetry is a veritable voice of dissent against anything that works against human rights, freedom and humanity. Poetry is more dignified than politics. All over the world, many are silent. The greatest key on the tongue is silence. No one can pluck from your mind what you have refused to say and no one can take back from the ears what has been uttered. So, silence is protest. Some democracies from the US to Africa have measured their citizens into silence in recent times more than all the fascist governments put together, making the leadership have their way, as if they are presiding over cemeteries.
Umez: Most of the longer poems in your collections deal with the eternal themes of love and beauty, such as ‘My soul mate,’ and ‘My dove’, ‘Half of a poem’, ‘Flower in the rain’, and ‘Dossiers of flowers’. Did you start out first as a love poet? Are the poems addressed to an imaginary lover or are they symbolic expressions of your love for the country? Can you say just a few words about the stanza below?
O heart, is this what it means
To love my own beauty in another.
Okpanachi: I began as a committed poet who hates any form of injustice. My first poem was in secondary school when I was going to write my West Africa School Certificate Examination. I was told by way of rumours that the affair of the examination was usually a shoddy one, that results could be swapped. I could not imagine the injustice and wrote a poem along this line: ‘The sun sets at noon/The victim falls biting sand’. One of my students from a royal family surprisingly expresses my mind in this respect when she says that for weeks she would not go out because she is helpless in alleviating the endemic poverty she sees on the street.
Notwithstanding, I am basically a platonic lover because the admirable beauty of a woman needs a spiritual savouring and intense responsibility beyond sex. Some of my love poems are experimental attempts to test my skills of erotic expressions, addressed to ‘a dark lady’. A few are devoted to the nostalgia of the biblical look-back of Lot’s wife, without the forbidden fruits. I am generally a connoisseur of beauty. I worship beauty in whatever form and on whatever entity it sits as an artist. A look back to loves that were scuttled, sacrificed and that were never consummated as explained above, love that never went beyond a glance. Most of the poems are to my country which is slipping out of my fingers like some sand when I most value her.
The greatest gift of God to humanity is love in whatever form it takes. This psychological human capacity to sympathise, empathise and dissolve into another being in order to realize the self has ensured the continuity of generations of mankind. Some of my poems celebrate love because we live in a difficult world which has caused a lot of misery to the innocent in form of war, violence and gradual break down of family values and relating to others on contractual basis without passion or emotion.
My love poems are palliatives on the sores, bandages on wounds, the tranquiliser petering drop by drop into the minds and giving hope ‘they do not promise’ (Nuruddin Farah). In Islam, kalimat-tayyib sadaqat (polite kind words of goodness is charity). Therefore, there is the need to say something that piques, delights in the general aesthetic schemata of poetry. One of the poems is devoted to my wife whose love is an art that gives me the impression that each of us could amputate any of his/her limbs to keep the other alive, or perhaps she wishes we would die lying side by side like the couple in Taha Ben Jelloun’s Silent Day in Tangiers. After all, love is a chemical reaction whose equation is a mystery and whose tenor is zephyr that evaporates into the souls.
On the lines above, I wish to state that every instance of an act of love is narcissistic. There are traces and maps of the self in what you fall in love with in the other. This may be spiritual but there are invisible links, an essence or the inexplicable self in the other person.
Umez: Marvin Bell said, ‘Poetry is, after all, another way of thinking.’ What insight does the act of writing poetry offer you, in your attempt to grapple with the question of identity which recurs in your collections? Has your humanity been questioned on the basis of identity?
Okpanachi: Poetry makes me see nuances of spectra of colours in the rays of the sun; it makes me apprehend the substance without the shadow, to feel the deft underhand trick without the magic. And I would tell you that there is no conflict in the world since Adam cannot be traced to identity, from family feud to complete international anarchies; from the smallest population of Eden through the identities of God, Eve, Adam, angels, the snake, Bosnia, Rwanda to the People’s Republic of China. I personally have had to nurse my own little bruises of discriminations, insults and injuries. As soon as you are conceived you are different and your identity begins. As soon as you move out from your own ethnic God-given place of birth or the place of your residence, you become different and are in competition.
In most cases, my grappling with the issue of identity is empathy with others who know where their shoes pinch. It is hard to see anything else that is more inimical to the unity of this great country than ethnicity. Remove it and the sky would be the beginning of Nigeria. To me the only art that can capture the right mood and essence of identity is poetry and the poetic mind is sensitive. This can be seen in the Palestinian poems of Mahmoud Darwish. It is with a lot of insight for Edgar Mittelhozer to assert that even if men can live down discrimination on basis of race and religion they would still discriminate on the basis of height. Some of us would have been angels if we were accepted and assessed on our merits and our wings would have been larger.
In another breath, it is not hard to see the beauty identity affords us in the varying apotheosis and transformation of words into globules and arrays of signifiers that disturb and upset the stability of meanings in works of art, especially in reading poetry from ours and other cultures. This teaches us that there is no permanent way – of looking at the world as a crucible of meanings.
Umez: How do you go about creating a poem? Do you take mental notes? Do you take notes on a paper, or keep a journal? Or do you start writing the poem as it comes to you and later spend hours in polishing it? What’s the process like for you? Is it mostly ‘recollected in tranquility’?
Okpanachi: I carry my unwritten poems like a handbag; like a grudge seething with vengeful impulse, nurse it and write it. Poetry is a possibility with more than a thousand ways of reproducing an entity, impression or experience. One way I compose is to identify a theme and strike towards achieving its poetic format in a maximum literary expression in a way that it cannot be stated better. At times, the development of a poem clings to just a word as an appropriate inspiration and other words come in clusters to finish the poem. Some come about actually from dreams like my poem, ‘The Word’ and what is salvaged from dreams are often the very poor version when the sublime is gone with the dream. Some are never captured. At times, a dire situation presents itself and I have to fetch words from the lips of Muse and the eternal script of infinity.
What shall we do with anger if there is nothing to be angry about, especially if one’s anger is never felt by the object of anger? Hence, my favourite phrase from the Quran, ‘sumum bukmum umyun’ translated as deaf dumb and blind when the guide is blind. I am infinitely inspired by the human condition. My poems are the mouthpiece of the downtrodden, those of whom I told my creative writing class are reduced by the system to a social nadir below the dust beneath the shoes. They have no name and are never as individuals. They only appear on the TV as miserable examples of mass victims of natural disasters, strange disease, a group no one knows except as statistical figures and number, ‘We are marooned beggars/With no one to beg from’. These are my definite inspiration. The actual woman who deposited her child with the trader from whom she bought some food items at the market, and the man who came to ask after a worker in the office on a Saturday because his child had died and he could not afford the pall to bury him in. The tricks of the realities of their lives are beyond the waywardness of poetic licence. They are the ones who physically build skyscrapers and no street is named after them. They dig the graves of presidents, senators and prime ministers without epitaphs written in their memories. Yet, ‘big’ men do not bury one another.
I do not keep a journal, but I write directly on the computer. The mercurial flexibility of the computer screen helps me a lot in writing and revision so that when I have finished and done with my poems and they are published I can hardly read them again. I write instinctively and take the writing leisurely as if it is not a serious matter.
Umez: In writing a poem, what tensions do you undergo – besides mental strain? And how do you resolve them? Do you feel a kind of burdening or unburdening in the act of writing? Do you feel any release when you have finished writing a poem and you are at least satisfied by the result?
Okpanachi: The first tension I experience in writing is the struggle between my ideas and how they can be matched with words. How to transmit to the reader the same feelings, emotion and elicit the same empathy I feel from the readers. This is resolved by a detached editing of the text. When each poem fits and matches the subject matter, I feel a secret happiness and at times I can’t change even a word in the poem. So, I just leave it as it is. Poems like ‘Crush Me’ in The Eaters of the Living and ‘Lonely Road to Baghdad’ in From the Margins of Paradise really give me a relief and purgation after they were executed because I naively believe the wordings conveys the spirits of the themes and then I have this unburdening.
Umez: There is so much poetry online by young Nigerian poets. What do you think of the present situation of poetry in Nigeria? Don’t you think there is a decline in the quality of poetry published these days? What should we be doing to address this blight?
Okpanachi: Poetry is culturally focused in the broad sense of the word, ‘culture’ as a totality of learned experience by which, within schemata, we solve life problems. The school system is battered. The language of social networks is colloquial and cannot support creativity. The education and the attitude of the new poets to the process of acquired intellectualism are deficient and cannot support the creation of culture. There is a general decline in the quality of poetry but here and there we see some snippets of good poetry. This generation is not patient for the philosophical demands of poetry because wisdom precedes philosophy. It seems the quality of poetry follows the decay in the society. Writing poetry requires a lot of patience. There are no prescriptions. A proper acquisition of language skills is important. Finding a place where deep thinking can take place is equally vital. And originality should be strived for. Being a poet, mentally, all the time and converting situations into poems is needed.
Umez: In some of your poems there is a marked reference to “mother.” For instance, “Message from mother” in the collection From the Margins of Paradise and “Mother” in The Eaters of the Living. In both poems, mother assumes the persona of a prophetess, foregrounding a strong bond between the poet and his mother. What were you thinking of when you wrote these poems? Finally, what poets are important to you as a poet?
Okpanachi: Mother for me has protean poetic and cultural ambiguities: The earth as a mother and nourisher of mankind, the mother as a biological procreation and intimacy to whom one reveals poetic secrets. Much of my skill of my mother tongue which I brought to bear on English came from the diction of mother. Mother as a poetic type is an anchor from where to find the bearing in time of social dysfunction and anarchy. As for my favourite poets, I would include Wole Soyinka, Mahmoud Darwish, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Kofi Awoonor, Gibran Khalil, and Nizan Kabbani.
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.