AiW Guest: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike
Niran Okewole is the author of the widely-acclaimed Logarhythms. His poems have won the MUSON Festival Poetry Prizes in 2002 and 2003, and the Sawubona Music Jam/Berlin International Poetry Festival Prize in 2008. The Hate Artist is his latest poetry collection.
Uche Peter Umez: What is your earliest poetry memory? How do you go about writing a poem? Can you describe your own experience of writing this collection? And how come it took you nearly eleven years to put together a second collection, after your debut Logarhythms?
Niran Okewole: My earliest poetry memory is of reading Yoruba verse in Alawiye, a popular text that people in my generation read in primary school. I liked one of the poems so much I copied it out, and my dad, then lecturing at the University of Ife, stuck it on his office wall. By secondary school I was writing my own verse, much of which was influenced by Keats, Tennyson and other English poets. This juvenilia was mostly rhymed and was destined to be burned in a small cauldron. How do I go about writing poetry? It’s like carpentry now, really. You assemble material and try to fit it all together, saw here, hammer there, chisel there, all the while appealing to your bullshit detector. That’s more or less how this collection grew. It took precisely a decade; half of that time I was preoccupied with psychiatry residency and the politics of medical associations, while the other half went into building a base for psychiatry practice and research. The poems accumulated gradually over the whole period.
Umez: The opening poem ‘Lost Poems’ somehow brings up certain notions we have about the way many of us are prone to idealise, or romanticise, home. Can you share your inspiration for the poem? How might poetry, in its potential for uncovering the hidden, help us to recognise society’s truth, our Nigerian reality?
Okewole: The lost poem is a stand-in for lost creativity, lost opportunities. To that extent, perhaps, also lost spaces. ‘Forest of Europe’, written by Derek Walcott for Joseph Brodsky, is the obvious influence. I thought I would do something with the discipline of the sonnet form but subvert it a little. Regarding poetry and truth, I feel poetry is both a tool for hiding as well as for uncovering truth. The best examples of poetry as a hiding place for truth will probably be found in 20th century poetry from Eastern Europe: Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Miroslav Holub, and so on. Also anti-apartheid poets like Dennis Brutus. In these hands there are things said which could have endangered the life of the poet that nevertheless needed to be said; this is the poet bearing witness, being subversive, while trying to evade the censors. Poetry can also, as you observe, be a tool for uncovering hidden societal truth. Nigeria has produced several examples: Wole Soyinka, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare. How they do this is instructive: they bear record, they stay within the rigour of poetic form but engage societal reality. Soyinka in Mandela’s Earth, Ofeimun in The Poet Lied, A Boiling Caracas, I will ask questions with stones if they take my voice, and Go Tell the Generals. Osundare has a new poem, ‘My Lord, Where Should I Keep Your Bribe’ which is just hilarious but poignant.
Umez: Intertexuality is a signature trope in much of your poetry: ‘Caliban’, ‘Random Nights’, ‘Dropped Names’, ‘Zarathustra Blues’, etc. And so is your use of medical register. Some readers are wont to find such a technique rather alienating, particularly, in these days, when a lot of people crave the immediacy of “legible” verses. What might your take be on this – what you call “poems out of logos”?
Okewole: Intertextuality is one of the natural impulses behind many of the poems I’ve done so far. I enjoyed the process of creating poetry out of several nuggets; it was like building quantum structures out of elementary particles. I believe it was Yeats who said a good poem is polysemic. For the surface reader, it is possible, to paraphrase one reviewer, to enjoy poetry without understanding it. For the more serious reader, there is also the scholarly pleasure of searching for and finding hidden layers of meaning. This is not just a reflection of my own predilection as a maker of poems. It is also ideological, in the sense that I believe the kind of anti-intellectualism that insists on a poem yielding its entire meaning in one reading emasculates us and adds nothing to serious critical enterprise. Another worrying dimension I have observed is when a PhD student of literature sees nothing wrong in asking you to explain to him poem by poem what you have written, so he can write this down in his thesis. To my mind this is academic laziness, perhaps even fraudulent.
The second cluster of poems in the collection has scientific and medical themes. These poems were written with a premise, that while C.P. Snow observed that science and literature conduct themselves as though they belong to two cultures, it may in fact be possible to achieve some recombination, or grafting. These are biological metaphors which we associate with strengthening of the species. Again, a tourist can skim the surface and move on. Anyone interested in deeper meaning must be prepared to do the research.
Umez: Reflecting on these lines in ‘The Hate Artist’: He loves the texture of grief, like velvet/Loves the feel of passion in heat/Waves, shock waves, the erotic melody of a/Bomb blast, I am reminded of Uche Nduka’s statement that “poetry is the art of putting reality on trial”. How does your own poetry negotiate or reflect this? How much of art should engage with social reality, stir up an ethos of activism?
Okewole: This, the title poem, is from the third cluster which contains poems of a political orientation. The poem explores the many faces of hate over time and space, as a pervasive, defining feature of global politics. This past week, America – that supposed bastion of modernity – voted in Donald Trump as her 45th president. Someone tweeted that it was a vote for hate. This is so true, and we can only imagine where this will go – earlier in the year there was the Brexit vote in the UK. It is interesting that among the first callers to congratulate Trump are Vladimir Putin and the French far rightist, Marine le Pen. Parallels have been drawn between the fascist credentials of Hitler and Trump. It is also reported that Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, also referenced in the poem. These examples tell us that we cannot localize hate to the Boko Haram, or ISIS. Hate is the soft underbelly of the human condition which has become the governing dynamic of world politics. This brings us to the general challenge of public intellection, in whatever medium. Much recent poetry favours interiority and a suspicion of ideology and overt politics. I however grew up idolizing twentieth century writers and thinkers with a strong left-leaning political orientation, who believed that art should engage social reality and be a tool for shaping popular consciousness. Over the years, especially with the advent of the relativistic rhetoric of postmodernism, the orthodoxy has come to favour subtlety. However, one often finds that nothing gets processed in the public mind when the message is too nuanced. As such, in many of these poems I went out of my way to not be nuanced. Which, from the point of view of craft is rather a slippery slope, but one I was prepared to confront.
Umez: There is a lot of poetry circulating around these days in Nigeria, and one may say that poetry has never been so alive. A very encouraging number of vibrant young poets. What might appear to be lacking in some of these poems is social urgency, as if the poets are afraid of using language to represent radical ways of seeing and confronting our times – something which, we can say, was never in short supply in the aesthetics of the earlier generations. What do you think might be at stake here?
Okewole: I believe that sometime around 1999, Nigerian literature changed. This was partly due to the advent of new technology and new media. It was also, perhaps more importantly, due to a political transition that ended a decade and half of oppressive military rule. A key event was Helon Habila winning the Caine prize. His collection of stories, later republished as Waiting for an Angel, together with Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, set the tone for what was to be a new generation of writers looking back over the wreckage and carnage that they had emerged from.
In poetry, you had in this generation a number of ‘voices from the fringe’, to borrow the title of an important anthology in which some of them published. I’m talking about several poets who are now in their mid-forties to early 50s: Ogaga Ifowodo, Uche Nduka, Toyin Adewale, Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Tade Ipadeola, Maxim Uzoatu, Chiedu Ezeanah, Olu Oguibe. While a record of the anti-military struggles tends to glorify some big names, these people were among the anonymous foot soldiers, the ones who ran a samizdat press, got arrested trying to cross borders, or bore the indignity of forced silence. In the aftermath, several of them have left the country, left poetry, seeking solace in academia or other pursuits. It is the classic response to post-traumatic stress: avoidance. But some have persevered, and to my mind, the body of work that was produced, and is being produced, by their generation, represents for me the latest claim to the Nigerian canon as far as poetry is concerned. Their generation is also arguably the last to produce clearly socially conscious verse, which is touching because the oeuvre represents hope turned to defiance turned to despair. Everything that has been produced thereafter, in spite of the tendency for new media to amplify voices, is very much work in progress.
Umez: Tade Ipadeola cited you as one of his favourite poets in an interview with me. How much of an influence is he to you in your artistic practice? Are there particular authors who have meant a great deal to you since you started writing? What other poets would you be found reading, aside from Walcott, Neruda?
Okewole: I’m flattered that Tade would say that. He is, as one of our illustrious ancestors said to another, the far better craftsman. He has been a beloved mentor for over a decade, kept poetry in my consciousness over a period when I could easily have strayed. Regarding other poetic influences, besides the obvious two that you have mentioned, there are quite a few more, too numerous to mention. T.S. Eliot. Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath. Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. John Ashbery. Hugo Claus. Christopher Okigbo. Niyi Osundare. Odia Ofeimun. Femi Oyebode. Lenrie Peters, William Carlos Williams. Dennis Brutus. And several others.
Umez: Places are crucial to your poetry. Is there something to say about the places you have visited? How much of your poetry is informed by geopolitics? What truths have you amassed from your relationship with and representation of locations in your poetry?
Okewole: Presently I am grappling with one of the classic texts of postmodern discourse, titled The Location of Culture. It is, among other things, a challenge to think about the dynamic surrounding spaces as sites of cultural validity and validation. I suppose that is a prism through which some of the poems in the first cluster can be refracted. I believe the act of writing about places can be political, as seen recently in the huge debate over white writing about Africa and the Caribbean. There is the question of entitlement, and appropriation, and authenticity. In fiction we readily think about Achebe and Conrad but there is also in poetry the example of Walcott writing about the spaces of the colonizer, in The Fortunate Traveller and The Arkansas Testament, and even appropriating the cultural treasures of western civilization, as in Omeros and Tiepolo’s Hound.
Umez: Crisis is the recurring theme that strikes at me while reading The Hate Artist, crisis of modernity, the spectre of history and the abiding (neo)colonial anxiety, which poems like “A workers’ internationalist professes his love”, “Other voices I have known” and “Last night they put me in a washing machine”, highlight lucidly while gesturing to Marxism and Fanon. Can you speak more about these poems?
Okewole: Crisis is central to Marxism, postcolonialism and existentialism, which are the main coordinates I identify with. Our world today bears testament to many of the postulates of these ideological positions, and these poems are quantized attempts to engage with the discourse. Fanon in particular is at the meeting point of these ideologies, and for me his attraction is amplified by the fact that he chose the same medical specialty (psychiatry) that I have chosen. Although you could criticize him for lacking scholarly rigour – he was more man of action than scholar – he laid down much of the heuristic groundwork that is foundational to the liberation struggles of the mid-20th century, and to postcolonialism. It is actually amazing that postcolonial discourse, given its roots in Fanon as much as anyone else, is better associated with India than Africa. I have to also mention that though I have since gone on to acquire everything Fanon ever published, the first of Fanon’s books in my possession was given to me as a teenager by one of Nigeria’s foremost Marxists, a professor who was a neighbour at the University of Ife and to whom ‘Other voices I have known’ is dedicated.
Umez: And what might you be working on next?
Okewole: Presently I’m working on something made up of longer units. It is also more centred on home, unlike the global worldview of The Hate Artist.
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike has had his poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, and stories for children published in print and online anthologies. 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 of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (in 2006 & 2008 respectively), and has twice been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, in 2007 & 2011. He is a Board Member of the Ebedi International Writer’s Residency and a Mentor at the Ibadan Poetry Foundation, in Nigeria.