Inua Ellams is in a state of flux. He is scrolling through the iPad in front of him, searching for a poem by the American poet Terrance Hayes to read aloud to the crowd of people who, I suspect, would rather hear what Ellams himself has to say. He quickly backtracks: “No, I should read only my own work”. A few minutes later, with typically quiet profundity, he admits the impossibility of “getting away from yourself” and returns to a discussion of how he first became interested in poetry at school. States of flux and fluidity are, apparently, familiar territory for the young poet, who talks with impressive poise about the implications of situating himself between Nigeria and Ireland, Islam and Christianity, Shakespeare and hip-hop, visual artist and writer. It may seem unusual for a performance poet to provide the extensive biographical preamble that Ellams does, but the setting is fitting: we are gathered for the morning session of the third African Popular Cultures Workshop, an event co-hosted by the University of Sussex School of English and the Sussex Africa Centre. Academia, as well as entertainment, forms the backdrop for Inua’s performance. Not that this fazes the young poet, who manages to weave thoughtful commentary and critical insight into powerful readings of his poetry, covering topics from childhood friends and city life in Dublin to Chuck Norris and Fela Kuti.
Following an early disappointment with the world of performance poetry – which, he tells us, involved a rainy Glastonbury, a water-logged tent and a crowd of uninterested festival goers – Inua Ellams seems to have found his feet. A poet, playwright, performer and graphic designer, Ellams is a diverse and multifaceted figure, and has been making a significant impression in the UK arts scene for some time. His first collection of poetry, Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales, was published in 2005, followed by an award-winning play, The 14th Tale, which enjoyed a sold-out run at London’s National Theatre in 2009. Ellams explains that he turned to theatre when he realised that what he had to say could not be contained within short form poetry, and the decision clearly paid off: his performance poetry is animated by an obvious love for the stage and an understanding of how to captivate and engage with an audience. Beneath this bold and enchanting personality lies another layer of Ellams’ poetry, denoted by acutely political and philosophical concerns. ‘Fragments of Bone’, the second poem Inua chooses to read, directly confronts sectarian violence in Nigeria, marking a distinct shift in style from the themes of magic and innocence that characterised his first poem. His sudden evocation of a machete cutting through bone also cuts through Ellams’s previously mellow unfurling of words, imploring the audience to align the personal with the political and to recognise the graphic imagery alongside the subtle.
An urgency for communication is at the heart of Ellams’ creative work, be it in the way he delivers a poem – with swift pace and carefully flowing rhythm – or in the subject matter of a recent theatre project – a play based on dialogues he overheard in urban African barbershops (Barber Shop Chronicles). And Ellams is aware that a physical presence is not enough anymore: he is enthusiastic about digital communication and keen to stress his active engagement with what he gleefully refers to as the ‘Twittersphere’. Where some poets would shy away from the prospect of audience participation, Ellams welcomes it not only in performances, but also through tweets. By opening up a space between poet and audience, speaker and listener, Ellams has deservedly become the poster boy for a new brand of all-inclusive performance poetry: one that pays as much respect to MosDef as it does to Keats. And, for once, it is not critics and reviewers who are carving out these definitions – Ellams draws the very same comparison on his website, and there is nothing contrived about how both Eminem’s first album and Terry Pratchett are slipped into the Q&A session. His performance seems to be the beginning of a dialogue rather than a conclusive or restrictive show in and of itself. Ellams asks a multitude of questions – what does it mean to be an African man in the West? How does migrant life interact with city life? Is displacement a prize? – yet purposefully leaves the answers open-ended: I find myself turning them over in my mind during the rest of the day’s events, a testament to Ellams’ poetic energy and intellectual curiosity.
Lilly Kroll is a final year English undergraduate at the University of Sussex, with dreams and schemes that involve many more years of study ahead. She has a fondness for West African string instruments, deep-fried plantain and contemporary poetry, and is on the lookout for a way to combine all three of these things. Her current preoccupation is a dissertation about Taiye Selasi, diasporas and thresholds: three things that are proving far more simple to combine.
This post is part of a series that engages with the third African Popular Cultures Workshop held on 31 March 2014 at the University of Sussex. This collaboration between the Sussex Africa Centre PhD committee, tutors from the School of English’s 3rd year Literatures of Africa course and the African Popular Cultures workshop (established by Professor Stephanie Newell), enabled a series of exciting explorations and connections around popular and/or public spaces, and cutting edge research and cultural production today. Across this week Africa in Words will be publishing pieces that document and respond to some of the conversations and exciting work showcased at the event. Read:
Thank you to Grace Pavey for permission to use her photos.