AiW Guest: Uche Peter Umez
Widely regarded as one of Nigeria’s leading performance poets, Efe Paul Azino has been a headliner at many of the nation’s premier poetry venues. He is the Director of the Lagos International Poetry Festival, Director of Poetry at the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival, and coordinator of spoken word poetry at the Open Door Series’ International Cultural Exchange and the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. Efe Paul Azino is the producer of Nigeria’s first spoken word poetry theatre production ‘Finding Home’ and has performed at Johannesburg Arts Alive Festival, Ake Book and Arts Festival, Lagos Book and Arts Festival, Lights Camera Africa Film Festival, and British Council Lagos Theatre Festival, amongst others. He is an Osiwa Poetry Residency Fellow. For Broken Men Who Cross Often, published by Farafina Books, is his first collection.
Uche Peter Umez: You have been active in the poetry circle for some time, so how come it took you this long to come up with a debut collection? When did you begin writing poems?
Efe Paul Azino: A range of reasons I guess, from my preoccupation with the stage, to waiting for the confluence between a manuscript I felt somewhat confident about and a reliable publisher willing to take it on. I have been writing actively for about 17 years. I approached Farafina in 2010 about publishing a collection that came with an audio CD, but they weren’t publishing poetry at the time, even though they seemed disposed to the idea. Three years later the elements had aligned, they indicated interest, I sent in a query, signed a contract in 2014 and by November 2015 For Broken Men Who Cross Often had come through the wringer.
Uche: Afam Akeh, in one of his poems, says, ‘Poetry should be shaking hands with normal folk …’ And much of your poetry is quite accessible – not obscurantist, if I may borrow Chinweizu’s provocative word. So what is poetry to you? What defines a poem as a poem for you?
Efe: A poem, I suspect, is the result of an often beautiful struggle to find the precise word or combinations of words and images, for a feeling or sometimes an idea. One, which if successful, is able to situate the reader or listener within the range of emotions it creates. If we peel back the layers of this question, however, we are likely to find elements of that recurring argument about what constitutes a good poem – with some insisting, without directly saying so, that it requires the deployment of complex language and codes. And also there is the seeming concern about the degeneration of the culture into a free for all, where every four sentences that rhyme pass for poetry. But some of the most profound works of poetry have been quite accessible. A good poem is not defined by obscurity. And the Internet has done what the Internet has done. Poems and non-poems will continually be pushed forth from a million devices, across multiple platforms, requiring no permission. Let a thousand flowers bloom…
Uche: There appears to be a burden of tradition for many Nigerian poets to write poetry that tends towards the didactic – socially committed poetry. To use your phrase, ‘Art in the Shadows of Protest’. How much of this burden applies to your practice?
Efe: For me it’s less a burden of tradition as it is a need to respond, through the primary means I can identify, to Nigeria’s continued attempt to kill me. If we all, out of a need to break away from this tradition, this social commitment, refuse to bear witness, interpret and imagine a better society, then who will speak for us, for our children? This idea of writing away from protest, this growing accusation of poverty porn, is in itself becoming prescriptive. Every poet, writer, artist, should feel free to tell their truth, as long as it comes from an honest place and does not sacrifice beauty, truth or rigour.
Uche: I have seen you perform ‘This is Not a Political Poem’ and was I goose-bumped. While writing poetry do you have in mind that you might have to perform your poems at one time? Do you write poetry with an ear for the page? Which of these comes easily to you – poetry for the page or poetry for the stage?
Efe: Sound has always been an integral part of my process. I write with my mouth, writing the cadence into the words and images. So there’s a sense in which I write most of my poems with an instinct for the stage. There are some poems that just want sit on the page, but even these I find how to make work out loud. I think the poems that will be effective today are somewhere between the page and the stage; poems that work quite well in both mediums.
Uche: Some literary critics tend to dismiss spoken word/performance poetry as not poetry, mainly because it tends to focus more on the performance/delivery than on the poem. How would you react to this?
Efe: I am yet to see a good spoken word poem, whatever that means, that focuses more on the performance/delivery than on the poem. Absolutely none. What is poetry? What is poetry supposed to do? Was there poetry in preliterate societies? Does the Iliad qualify as a poem? Was it textual in its original form? To think of poetry as something that originated from the page and must be defined by its conventions is to dismiss an entire canon. Some of the best works of poetry coming out today are from people who straddle the oral and literary traditions. Think Warsan Shire, Safia Elhillo, Nick Makoha or Selina Nwulu, London’s new young poet laureate. I think Dike Chukwumerije put it quite well when he said we compare the best of poetry on the page to the worst of poetry on the stage and dismiss spoken word poetry all together. There’s just good poetry and bad poetry, and discerning eyes and ears can make the distinction regardless of which medium it is received from.
Efe: I read more prose than poetry when I first started writing poetry – more Baldwin than Walcott, more Vidal than Heaney. But to answer your question more directly I would say Langston Hughes. Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems. Ntozake Shange. The title poem ‘For Broken Men Who Cross Often’ was born from a desire to explore how much control or not we have over our personal morality, perpetual moral struggles in the face of accepted standards of wrong and right, how broken we all are essentially.
Uche: What’s the story behind ‘I Must Die’? And how do you go about writing a poem? For instance, ‘I Go in Search for Sorrow’?
Efe: ‘I Must Die’ was me trying to write myself out of a place of intense personal struggle, me trying to resolve an enduring negotiation between conflicting selves. Writing a poem for me sometimes comes from a deeply personal place, sometimes from a word, a phrase or an image. ‘I Go in Search of Sorrow’ was from the idea of melancholia as muse, of subconsciously disrupting an otherwise happy relationship because your art flourishes in a space of sadness.
Uche: The poem ‘Hope is a Nigerian’ reads as a damning critique of our terrible inertia as a people, the overwhelming timidity of the mass of Nigerians to apprehend their destiny from under the stranglehold of an avaricious political class. What informed your use of satire to best depict the lived experience of the average Nigerian?
Efe: The poem, in a sense, lent itself to that. I don’t remember it as a conscious choice to satirize. But there’s a sense in which the generality of Nigerians funny-meme their way through the otherwise serious and sad issues that characterize living in these parts. There is also something timid about that approach. One would be hard-pressed to put it better than Fela’s Suffering and Smiling. ‘Policeman go slap your face you no go talk, Army man go whip your yansh you go dey look like donkey.’ Satire is a relatively easier or less risky means of subversion in this instance, albeit a necessary one.
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. He is the author of Dark through the Delta (poems), Tears in her Eyes (short stories), and Aridity of Feelings (poems). His children’s books include: Sam and the Wallet, The Runaway Hero, The Boy Who Throws Stones at Animals and Other Stories, and Tim the Monkey and Other Stories.
Efe Paul Azino performing ‘This is Not a Political Poem’: