AiW Guest: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike
Kọlá Túbọsún is a Nigerian linguist and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is a joint winner of the Saraba Magazine Manuscript Contest in 2017 and the winner of the 2018 Miles Morland Scholarship. He is the recipient of the Premio Ostana Special Prize for Mother Tongue Literature (Cuneo, Italy. 2016). He writes in Yorùbá and English and translates between both languages. He has also been translated into Korean. Túbọ̀sún’s work has appeared in AfricanWriter.com, Arts & Africa, Aké Review, Brittle Paper, International Literary Quarterly, Enkare Review, Farafina, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Popula, Saraba Magazine, The Guardian (Nigerian and UK), ThisisAfrica, and recently in Literary Wonderlands, an anthology of literary essays edited by Laura Miller. Edwardsville by Heart, his first full collection of poetry, was published by Wisdom’s Bottom Press, UK.
Umezurike: You published a chapbook Attempted Speech & Other Fatherhood Poems with Saraba Magazine in 2015. Now that you have your first poetry volume Edwardsville by Heart, how long did it take you to write it? What have you learnt in the process? What is poetry to you?
Túbọsún: Edwardsville by Heart was written, in the main, within a six-week period in mid-2017 during which my wife was away in Europe on a work trip. It was the first time I had both the free time and the creative presence of mind to interrogate the memories I had carried with me for over seven years. There are one or two poems in the book that were written between 2009-2012 while I lived in the United States, but the book itself came from recollection in that recent (relative) tranquility. Relative, because I was still dealing with cat-herding our then three-year-old son, dealing with his needs and that of the house while our boss was away. What did I learn in the process? That memory is resilient. I had the idea for the book since about 2010, but never committed to it beyond talking about it and contemplating whether I wanted it as a novel, a creative nonfiction prose, or a self-help book about how to survive as a student and/or Fulbright scholar. Poetry was far away from my mind. But after I’d written the first few poems and the floodgates opened for more to come out, I realized that this was what it was always meant to be. It also seemed like the perfect time; being sufficiently removed from the events and activities that inspired the memories while still finding tangible resonance within today’s news on which to anchor my process. What is poetry to me? At that moment, a vehicle for telling stories and interrogating memory. But it has also been other things: a way to piece together parts of myself scattered in thoughts, emotions, aspirations, and memory. I grew up around poetry, though not always in English. So when I think of the medium, a number of images come back to me. But what poetry is is a medium, available for use in many different dimensions.
Umezurike: This collection maps itineraries, stories, and histories. “Meeting Rudy,” “Driving with Ron” and “Irish Mum” and “E.B.R. in Ìbàdàn,” all paint affecting portraits of human connections. Does poetry function as a form of narrative for you, an opening into “maps/ of the past”? Why is geography such an important theme for you?
Túbọsún: Well, I’ve always found myself fascinated by history, human and material. Most non-fiction work I have done (mostly with journalism and essaying) have focused on tracing human and geographical connections across spaces and time. What I didn’t know at the time I conceived of the book was that poetry can also function in this way. All I wanted to do was reflect on an important part of my life, and document it for others’ pleasures and, hopefully, edification. Poetry lent itself to that goal and I followed it. It has been a revelation. Geography is fascinating for the historical gems it throws out when pried open. We are living proofs of it rich and sometimes even violent conundrum. Nigeria as a concept, for instance, is just a century old. Imagining how much history transpired, all around the place, before these current maps descended on the place, is a rich and interesting inquiry, as you well know. We are still dealing with the implication of that imposition today.
Umezurike: How do you go about writing a poem, for instance, “Grapes of Recall”?
Túbọsún: “Grapes of Recall” was one of the first poems I wrote. I think this one was written before my wife travelled, actually, perhaps on my phone, perhaps on the way back from a shopping trip. I had experienced a sudden flush of memories occasioned by taste, in Lagos, and I rushed to put it down. I remembered often buying two packs of grapes whenever I went to the store in Edwardsville, because I often finished one before I got home, one hand on the steering wheel and the other back and forth from the pack. I may have even considered naming the whole collection after that title at some point. There were specific memories I had involving grape stalks or pips littering the rugs of my car. In Lagos, my wife would admonish me for eating them, usually without washing, as soon as we got them either in traffic or in the store, and I would tell her that I already have a history with the fruit that neither killed nor poisoned me many years earlier, in a different place.
Umezurike: Can you speak more about the inspiration for “Finding Lovejoy”?
Túbọsún: I had gone with a few friends, one time, to visit the Alton Cemetery, where Elijah Lovejoy, a famous American abolitionist, was buried and memorialized. I’d heard the name often around campus — the SIUE Library is named after him. So the trip was both a history lesson and an adventure on an otherwise depressing winter morning in 2011. After the trip, I went to read a lot more about the man. His story is tied to the story of the American experience with slavery and the Civil War. He was murdered for supporting abolition, for running a series of newspaper publications that argued that slavery was wrong. I felt a personal connection to that — a journalist and civil rights hero who gave his life for freedom. So the poem came, in 2017, as a homage to my memory of that trip.
Umezurike: Memory is a theme that underlines some of the poems. I remember Jumoke Verissimo saying that “memory exists so that we can ‘disremember’ – to place out of mind. In “Stepping Out,” and “Facing Westward,” the poet reflects on memories. I’m struck by these lines:
It’s not memories that bring me here –
for I share little, except the humanity
– but curiosity.
What were you thinking about when you wrote this poem?
Túbọsún: The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is an iconic structure for what it stands for, its location, its relevance in the American story and the expansion of the country westwards. In 1803, President Jefferson had bought the part of the US from St. Louis to the Nevada area from France, and dramatically expanded the land area of the new country. It was called the Louisiana Purchase. But no one knew what lay in the jungles they had just bought, that lay west of the Mississippi river. They didn’t even know the source of the river itself. So the president commissioned two men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (Lewis & Clark), to go explore and bring back the knowledge of what they could find. The following expedition turned out to be both a geographical and political success, as well as a humanitarian and ecological disaster. It was the beginning of the dispossession of the Native American populations that lived in those regions, along with the animals. But everything began there in St. Louis, by the Mississippi River, around the place now marked by the Gateway Arch. In the basement underneath the Arch is the Museum of Westward Expansion, which tells this story in greater detail, with props, archaeological finds, books, videos, and other markers. I have visited the Arch many times, and would often walk to the edge of the river. One day, I stood there and stared long in either direction. The idea for the poem came then: a recreation of ancient memories through the mind’s eye of someone standing there where I stood, back to the Mississippi, many years ago, facing a direction which, at the time, held a thousand secrets, and a people whose lives were about to change irrevocably.
Umezurike: “At the International Institute,” an unrhymed sonnet, evokes Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.” The poem explores questions of citizenship and the way English language works in constructing “new nations” out of “new arrivals” in the US. Of course, the poet mentions that language brought him there. In “Ghouls of Convenience,” he confesses that, My language had no word for such rites. As the linguist and cultural activist you are, I expected to see some code-switching or bilinguality in your poetry, but no Yorùbá words were there. How have you handled language in poetry? Can you say a bit about the politics of language?
Túbọsún: You know, I always thought that my first book would be in Yorùbá, so I’m as fascinated as you are — though I know why this is the case — that the book is fully in English: the audience is totally different. But this is not an apologia. Something I have always been passionate about with African literature in English (see this essay) is the idea of ensuring that words and names in those languages that find themselves in African writings in English be as authentically themselves as possible, properly written, in the right orthography, with appropriate diacritics. What will be obvious in this book, even without Yorùbá words dominating (there are a few), is that the poems were crafted to extend the idea of a poet as carrying a particular identity, even when that identity is sometimes in a flux, or sometimes challenged. After all, one of the three years memorialized in the book was spent teaching Yorùbá in an American university, so I wasn’t trying to escape it. But I’m a linguist, so my approach to the politics of language is both pragmatic and rebellious. I try not to be too pedantic (outside of my obsession with tonemarking. But even then, I’m aware of the tendency of language towards simplification and the need to accommodate different ways of expression if the aim is to find more speakers). As a poet, I only seek means of expression, and English is as good a medium as any, especially in this case when half of the audience is an American one. But English shouldn’t be the only medium, even while we seek to expand its capacity to deal with other richer realities. I still write in Yorùbá and I look forward to publishing in the language soon.
Umezurike: Humour is a strong feature of your poetry. I laughed while reading “Campus Deer,” “Effingham,” “Mardi Gras in St Louis,” and “Panty Bomber.” Was your use of humour a deliberate choice? What were you thinking of when you wrote this couplet: White boobs on balconies/appeared like gnome’s heads?
Túbọsún: About those boobs, if you have been to a Mardi Gras parade, either in St. Louis or in New Orleans, you would have a pretty good idea (here’s one:NSFW).
About humour, I think I found it easy to do because that was how I encountered many of those ideas and events. I joked about “Effingham” to my colleagues almost once every week since the first time I saw it. It was such an unusual name. A later search on Google and Twitter (see this, this, and this) eventually convinced me that I wasn’t the only one with the wandering mind.
But importantly, I wanted to write a book I would want to read. Humour is important to achieving that, even with very serious subject matters.
Umezurike: Peter Akinlabi commends your poetry for capturing “the experience of human connection with foreignness and difference.” Can you speak on this?
Túbọsún: I assume he was talking, generally, about the varying dimensions of this contact with that foreign place. I am Nigerian, and Yorùbá, and black, and African, taking fondly to a new place in Midwestern United States, where people like me had slaved and had been subdued and discriminated against many centuries earlier. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate. There’s also the idea that I’m not writing about New York or London — places that many Nigerians, and other writers, have sufficiently documented in literature, art, and film. I am just generally glad that my work can make connection with others on an intended (or unintended) level. It was hard sending out the drafts (especially when I wasn’t sure of how the book would be received) to those who wrote the blurbs. But I got good feedback, which is invaluable.
Umezurike: I loved the title poem, “Edwardsville by Heart.” It recalls, albeit implicitly, the dark, spectral narrative – or “the fangs of history” – behind America’s exceptionalism. What provoked your interest in places? What insights have travels provided you with?
Túbọsún: Thank you. I suppose I’ve always been restless. I remember now how much of Àkóbọ̀, where I grew up, that I discovered by myself by just walking around, alone and/or with friends. But as a young adult, I never had the chance — because of the ill-fated reputation of Nigerian roads, perhaps, or the trauma of military rule — to explore Nigeria as much as I would have loved. America opened up that opportunity to me in a number of diverse ways, and changed me as a result. I became more confident to go out of my way to explore my own local environments after I returned. Why am I drawn to places? The same reason I’m drawn to languages, I guess: because they offer new ways of being human, of dealing with the world, of seeing things that may be in front of us all along, hidden from view. My experience of meeting new people around the world has helped me better understand the issues and perspectives that make us both unique and similar. It was Mark Twain who said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” I suppose he’s right in the main, but the person travelling also has to possess a little bit of curiosity and open-mindedness for this to be true. I don’t think that travelling itself is the cure for all myopia.
Umezurike: Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is what I was thinking of when I read the “Panty Bomber.” How much of an influence is he to you? Are there any authors who have meant a great deal to you since you started writing poetry? Who are your favourite poets?
Túbọsún: You know, I have actually written a direct adaptation of “Telephone Conversation”, which I called Chat Call, an online conversation between a woman and her intended lover whom she had never met face-to-face. This time, I tried to satirize the concept of a blind date and men’s preconceived ideas about the female body. I showed it to Ṣóyínká himself once, and he seemed to love (or maybe he just tolerated) it. I decided against including it in this collection because it seemed incongruous to the overall theme.
But the man certainly has been an influence on my work, for his curiosity, his daring, and his fecund interrogation of Yorùbá culture in the modern world. I assume many in my generation feel the same way. But he’s not the only one. I share in the Yorùbá orality, cultural, and spirituality legacy that produced Fágúnwa, Ṣóyínká, Fálọlá, Tutùọ́lá, and many others. A previous reviewer also compared another poem, “Cold Change” to Telephone Conversation, so maybe the influence is deeper than I acknowledge.
But I like to think that my poetic influences are Yorùbá. My father wrote and performed poetry in Yorùbá, and I read a lot of books in the language growing up. Maybe what I have become is my failure to become a Yorùbá poet like him, and these English poems I’m writing are actually àbíkú apparitions of their intended Yorùbá ambitions. I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about. But I have enjoyed works from old masters like Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, to recent ones like Clark, Okigbo, Fátọ́ba, Abani, Shónẹ́yìn and contemporary ones like Verissimo, Àjàyí, Azino, Ikeogu, Udobang, and Ṣónúga. All these complement the oral Yorùbá poetry I grew up on, and seem to get along well.
Umezurike: Finally, can you say a few words about the current state of poetry in Nigeria?
Túbọsún: From where I stand, a lot of work is being produced, and spoken word is coming into its own in a formidable way. Poetry has always been a language of this culture, this environment, and it will continue to be so, even if only a tiny percentage of it will eventually become published — in which case the problem is with the publishing industry and not the production or consumption of poetry. Abani and Dawes are doing a lot of great work curating new poetry-in-English through their periodic chapbook sets. Aké Festival and Kabafest are thriving as safe spaces for annual performances, while the Lagos Poetry Festival continues to grow in leaps and bounds. A few weeks ago, I thought of the absence of sufficient spaces for the production and development of poetic craft in Lagos, like I had growing up in Ìbàdàn, as an opportunity to create the Lagos Poetry Club. I’m excited to see how this helps the sustenance of relevant conversation and mentoring on a local scale.
As with my experiment with Edwardsville by Heart, I also hope that poetry continues to be stretched to take on new genre-bending challenges.
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a PhD candidate and a Vanier Scholar at the English and Film Studies department at the University of Alberta. He has had his poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, and stories for children published in print and online anthologies. His articles have appeared in Postcolonial Text and Tydskrif vir letterkunde, etc. Currently, his research is focused on representations of masculinities in contemporary Nigerian fiction.