AiW Guest: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike
D.M. Aderibigbe‘s first book, How the End First Showed won the 2018 Brittingham Prize in Poetry and is published by the University of Wisconsin Press, November 2018. His poems have appeared in The Nation, Poetry Review, Callaloo, jubilat, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships from The James Merrill House, Banff, OMI International Arts Center/Ledig House, Ucross Foundation, Jentel Foundation and Boston University where he received his MFA in Creative Writing as a BU fellow, and also received a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. Born and raised in Nigeria, he is a PhD student at Florida State University, Tallahassee.
Umezurike: I like the title of your collection: How the End First Showed. It sounds like something apocalyptic, out of the Book of Revelation. How did you come about the title? What is your earliest poetry memory? And what was the experience for you while writing this collection?
Aderibigbe: I owe a jug of warm thanks to the celebrated American poet, Aimee Nezhukumatathil who selected this book for the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. I remember the series editor telling me over the phone that “the judge loved everything about this book, except the title.” I asked the series editor to get in touch with Aimee and ask what would make a better title. Then this slipped in with the next day. It took several days to see with Aimee’s eyes. Thanks to her generosity, I could never think of any title that succinctly captures my book’s mien – that accurately recapitulates the cyclic nature of my vision for the book. The experience was tumultuous. I mean, I wrote many of these poems sitting in one corner of my grandmother’s eye. Thinking of stories she told. Before each story, she would shake her head, and smile. Deep down, I knew those smiles were the saddest thing I would encounter that day. I mean, I wrote many of these poems sitting in darkness’s left elbow – with empty stomach. I would feel my childhood with my palms: My father’s blows. My mother’s hurting voice. My sisters’ cries. I mean, I wrote many of these poems after walking on the streets of Oshodi where I’d come across mothers begging so their children could eat. I mean, I wrote many of these poems after hearing my roommates talk about their fathers with bright admiration. In precis, this book is a compilation of these days and nights, and so much more.
Umezurike: Your collection is intense, intimate – full of pathos. It is an archive of a “tough childhood.” To what extent might we read your poetry as true-life? And how has poetry helped you to “rewrite [your] childhood,” as you avow in “A Fulfilled Childhood”?
Aderibigbe: I was asked a similar question a year or so ago, and here is the response I gave: My poetry feeds imagination to memory. Memory is its primary tool. It is the ground upon which imagination germinates. So, memory is the livewire of my creativity. Although it is imagination, which now determines if the piece is a retelling or reliving or if its purpose is just to be understood. My mind is faithfully married to this notion as we speak. I don’t think I could ever achieve re-writing my childhood. The type of childhood I would want is one where my father’s shadow is the last thing I see at night before turning off the light, and his voice replacing the morning cock crow. Where my mother can talk about things she doesn’t like without paying with the whiteness of her irises. Where, if such happened, I and my sisters could protect her with something much thicker than tears. Where hunger wouldn’t be a frequent visitor to our young stomachs. But none of these is yet to happen in my poetry. So in every way, I have not re-written my childhood. However, poetry has given me the access to invade this past and question it in a way that only poetry can.
Umezurike: I suppose you are familiar with Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy.” How much influence do you draw from the American tradition of confessional poetry? What do you think about the “self-indulgence” of confessional poetry?
Aderibigbe: In all honesty, I didn’t read any Plath, Lowell, Sexton, Berryman and the other poets M.L. Rosenthal tagged “confessional” until later. But that does not negate the fact that my poetry was (and still is) nourished by American poets who write about personal topics. On the other half of this question: I just don’t get the “self-indulgent” narrative. So if someone wrote on their recent divorce, does that mean that there was no process put into it? And if the other wrote about global warming, then it is more thoughtful, is that it? What if we focused on the diction, imagery, line breaks, form and structure, substance and other things that make poetry? Moreover, is there any experience that is unique to a single person? Why do people act like poetry belongs to them? Just read what you want to read and pick the ones you like.
Umezurike: The images of fatherhood, you present, are chilling. Men are abusive, unfaithful, and treacherous. Men are failures. The theme of domestic violence glares off the pages, too. The following poems are graphic: My father tightened his fists;/my mother’s face, /an atlas of injuries (“In Defense of Love”); In a room built with our silence,/father was hitting mother (“Hungry Man”); A man pours his folded/fists on a woman like stones (“Tiredness”); he with punches, my mother with tears (“Becoming my Mother’s Son”); Father, /you wrote a story on my mother’s skull/with a corkscrew (“Missing”). In “Legend,” the portrait of the violent man is complete:
He lifted up a stool like a trophy,
the stool on my mother’s
head, our parents’ love crashed
In fact, the poet says, to be my father was to cause/a woman pain (“To Be My Father”). Is there something to say about men and masculinity?
Aderibigbe: I have just been asked this question in a recent interview and here is how I responded, and how I’ll respond now: Toxic masculinity is my history. To give you a clearer picture of this history: as a child in the Bariga area of Lagos, I lived in a kind of house known as “face me I face you.” It’s a bungalow with rows of tiny rooms on either side of a passage. The bungalow housed 20 rooms in total – 10 on either side. So privacy was foreign. There was hardly any morning that a woman’s bruised voice wouldn’t rise before the sun. If it wasn’t my mother (whenever my father made his yearly cameo in our life), then it would be the woman in the next room or the one in the next. When they step out, these women would wear scarves around their faces just to hide the confluence of shame that had gathered around their eyeballs. On days when this didn’t occur, there would be a shabbily dressed woman running about on the street shouting “e jo egba mi ooo,” meaning “please, save me.” After her, a man with clenched fists and tightened lips. People—men and women—would look at them and laugh and say things such as “won ti tu bere were won,’ meaning, “they have started their madness again.” And they would look away afterwards. A lot of times, the shabbily dressed woman running was my mother, and the man with the clenched fist and tightened lips was my father. Later, the neighborhood would let me know that it was the woman’s fault. If she didn’t rile up her husband, he wouldn’t chase her like that. “What unprovoked man would be that angry, ehn?” So in an important way, this book is not just about tracing this lineage of violence against women in my family and at large, but also attempts to question the apparatus of patriarchy—the ludicrous notion that the world came into being through a man’s penis, and that everything in it belongs to him—which made it possible.
Umezurike: Women, in contrast, are presented as hero(ine)s, though they are victims of male violence. In “Elegy for my Mothers,” the poet laments: Lord, is this what it takes to be a woman? What insights have you gained in your engagement with questions of womanhood, as reflected in “Olumo’s Face,” “Oedipus,” “New Hell,” “Easter Night,” and “Love Story”? Why are loss, pain, hurt, and grief such important themes for you? What truths has poetry revealed to you?
Aderibigbe: I’m not sure if this contrast was intentional. What I will say though is that, the book deals with a lot of truths. The truth that, in addition to the spousal abuse these women suffer, they bathed their kids in the morning, made food for them, sent them to school, before heading for work. And when they returned deep into the night, they woke these kids, served them hot meals they had just prepared. Led them through their homework, they, too, knew little or zilch about. The truth, it took the speaker’s maternal grandmother to use her monthly salary to enroll him and his sister in school when their father deserted. These are truths served without hyperbole. To cycle back to the question about womanhood, I’m a man as such I can never know what womanhood feels like. I can only write what I witnessed as a grandson, son, brother, uncle, you know. As I once said in an interview: As a child, the biggest stories I read were written on my mother’s face. Her expressions were the first language I learned. But that’s as loud as my mother could go about what she went through. She didn’t have a voice, like most women of her time and place. Just her face and body. And if you weren’t close to her/them, you wouldn’t know any of these stories—these silent stories. For me, when I write, these bodies (and my sisters’) push themselves out of my head onto the page. These bodies always yearn to be heard and I’m just their agent.
Umezurike: I like the chiasmus in “the Beginning,” and the poem, quite epigrammatic, bears a sense of suspense and lingering, though one can make out the foreshadowing of heartbreak. What inspired this poem? Was this a conscious decision to write in this form? And why did you choose this form?
Aderibigbe: “The beginning” is one of the newer poems in the collection. I wrote the poem during a phase when I was seriously trying on received forms like some hand-me-down shirt. I believe that the poem being chiasmic encapsulates the cyclic nature of generational violence, and how those who inherit these hunted legacies cycle around them for a long time, if not for life.
Umezurike: Many of your peers tend towards confessional poetry as their mode of expression, seeming neither abashed nor taciturn to publicize private emotions and experiences. What might account for this trend? Why is the autobiographical voice significant for you?
Aderibigbe: I don’t know about other people, but voice is not something I just decide to seek. I let it come to me first. And because I’m more raw than refined, I follow it to wherever it leads me. That could be to paradise. Other times, to hell. To put differently, originality means everything to me, so instead of carving out a voice, I let it hatch in my mind. Many may see this as lazy, I respect their opinion. As my grandmother will say “obo oto oto loni ka luku fi ma nje Amala.” Meaning “people eat amala with whichever soup tastes best to them.” So this autobiographical voice is a reflection of my imagination’s present state of mind. As for my peers, I believe it is because we now realize that poetry is a country with open borders. Now younger writers are touching topics that were prior considered quotidian or unpoetic. A large reason for this is that people are now exposed to different ways poetry is written. And they are embracing these alien styles with alacrity.
Umezurike: Speaking of poetic influences, what poets were important to you when you first started writing? What poets do you read these days?
Aderibigbe: Naomi Shihab Nye is the poet whose poems gave mine their strongest muscles. I found her poems at a time when I didn’t know what to call what I was writing. I appreciate how the personal becomes the political, and how the political becomes the universal in her poetry. Natasha Trethewey is another poet who was a major influence on me early on. Her compact personal-cum-historical poems helped me reach for my past in a way I could never have. There are also prose writers whose work influenced me a lot. The fiction of Ama Ata Aidoo and Buchi Emecheta, for example, provided me with numerous windows into the lives of women I had always known. Their books taught me as much about these women as life. And EC Osondu’s short stories taught me how to sieve stories out of every moment—including silence. Right now, I’m reading Dustin Pearson’s debut book of poems, Millennial Roost. So far so good! Next on the line is Michelle Brittan Rosado’s highly-lauded debut, Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. I am also reading the yet to be published novel of a fantastic Indian-American writer, named Shilpi Suneja. Portions of the novel have won her the NEA and the Mass Cultural Council fellowships in America. Can’t wait till the rest of the world is able to see her genius.
Umezurike: I like the melding of English and Yoruba in some of your poetry, quite mellifluous, almost like a pleasant play with language. Why is bilinguality significant for you?
Aderibigbe: Because I belong to a class of people that can hardly afford three square meals a day, let alone send their kids to decent schools. By this I mean, the fishmongers, the pepper sellers, the food vendors, the roadside mechanics, the okada riders, danfo drivers, area touts, street urchins, and so on. Because Yoruba is the only language most of my people know, and I write primarily in English (due to the texts I was exposed to early on), code-switching helps me hold on to this aspect of my identity that I can’t afford to lose, while also writing in the language I think best creatively. In other words, bilinguality for me isn’t just a literary technique, it is an act of survival.
Umezurike: What is your experience of writing outside the tradition of Nigerian poetry that lends itself to social commitment? Can you say a few words about the current state of poetry in Nigeria?
Aderibigbe: That’s the thing. Because we don’t appraise toxic masculinity the way we should, even the brightest among us fail to see it as a form of societal failure. Even the brightest among us fail to see that the fabric of our society is sewn with patriarchy. My poetry—at least, much of my debut—attempts to impugn this apathy, and make us very uncomfortable. So in every way, my poetry “lends itself to social commitment.” However, because the themes I focus on are ones often overlooked or considered underling in our society unfortunately, and my poems are the type that people have called “strange,” I see why someone will consider my work to be outside the tradition. In any case, I’ve always been an outsider in the literary world. I mean, I was born and raised on the streets of Bariga, hahaaha. Even when I started writing seriously, I never knew that any conferences existed. I never knew writers met and shared ideas. I was just some University of Lagos undergrad making stories out of the dust of Lagos. It’s a lot different these days, though. The other day at my book launch, the poets, Ejiofor Ugwu, Gbenga Adesina and Romeo Oriogun came to support. At another reading, Romeo also came, along with senior writer, EC Osondu. All of which felt unreal and so amazing. I believe poetry in his good hands. The Older Generations (OGs) are producing new work, and the younger ones are creating, too. So, all is well with poetry. The only thing I will say is, I hope poetry gets half of the institutional supports that prose enjoys. What I’m saying is: I really hope some foundations can start supporting poetry the way they support prose.
Umezurike: Finally, what might you be working on next?
Aderibigbe: I’m starting to work on a sequence. That’s all I know about it for now, hahaha.
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.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A