Words on the Times | #PastAndPresent: Revisiting Kólá Túbòsún and Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike in conversation

AiW note: After our post on the poetry collection Edwardsville by Heart, reviewed for us yesterday by Tade Ipadeola,we are delighted to be able to share Words on the Times with the book’s author, Kọlá Túbọsún, and Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, scholar, long-time generous friend to African literature, and to the blog.
Words on the Times is an AiW Q&A set, initiated to connect up our communities and experiences of the pandemic around our common focuses and shared interests.
These short AiW Q&A responses also catch us up on and preface a longer conversation between Túbọsún and Umezurike, ‘Poetry as a vehicle for telling stories and interrogating memory’, today’s #PastAndPresent. About Edwardsville by Heart, this conversation was held on the book’s release and first published on AiW in April 2019. You can find this exchange about the poetry, publishing a collection, and its mapping of stories and histories at the foot of their Words below.

Words on the Times

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.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?
Kọlá Túbọsún: Until March 20, I lived in London as a Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library working on the African language collections (with a focus on Yorùbá). The pandemic and the attendant lockdown of national borders convinced me to return home, as I wrote in this piece. My fellowship has continued since then from Lagos. Other events that would have otherwise required my physical presence have been conducted online, like this conversation with two brilliant writers.

In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
One of the pleasures of being at the British Library in London is working with physical books, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in Nigeria today, or exist only in private libraries. And as my work involved dealing with the catalogue records, I needed to see the books before making any recommendations. I can no longer do that from afar, so this has been a major setback. Instead, I have been doing lots of reading, writing, research, and outreach, which also have their place.

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
Before the lockdowns became final, I bought a small guitar from a colleague who was returning home. The idea was to use the period to acquaint myself with an instrument I’d always admired from afar. Over the last couple of months, I have learnt how to play the major and minor chords, and finding the process useful in lifting my spirits or at least filling an otherwise stressful time. I also started working on an anthology of poems dealing with the theme of isolation. Reading the words of others has been surprisingly comforting.

How can our blog communities support you?
Buy my book :).

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.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: Thanks for asking about my work. I hope you’re doing well enough to stay safe. The pandemic has given me a lot to think about lately, especially on questions of vulnerability, debility, kinship, and privilege. It has reoriented my perspective on life, family, and friendship. I cannot imagine how those individuals in the frontline, essential workers and health support are coping with the “deathliness” of this moment, especially as our immediate comforts and survivability depend a good deal on them. I salute their courage and altruism. During the early days of the pandemic between March and April, I could not have any writing done at all because I felt disoriented and worried. I could not even read; whenever I tried pushing myself to read, I just could not concentrate. Fortunately, my family and friends have been extremely supportive, helping me to deal with the challenges of this grim moment, so I have surprised myself by doing some significant work on my dissertation. Somehow, I have managed to complete a collection of short stories and a children’s novel, while revising my dissertation on Nigerian masculinities.

In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
Under normal circumstances, I do a lot of my research and writing at the library, but since the university practically shut down as far back as March 2020, I have been working right from home. It has been for me a bit unusually exacting, having to find the right balance between family, work, and wellbeing, against the backdrop of unprecedented mortality rate, but if there is anything that I have been so grateful for it is to be blessed with a supportive spouse.

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
Poetry and short fiction have helped me adjust to the changing times. I have found myself taking long walks in the sun and lazing under trees to appreciate nature more.

How can our blog communities support you? 
I think your team at AiW is doing tremendous work! I would encourage you to keep the blog as vibrant as ever. Satiate us with more literary relish and delicacies from around the world.

Q&A: “Poetry as a vehicle for telling stories and interrogating memory.” Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike interviews Kólá Túbòsún.

AiW Guest: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike
First published on AiW: 18 April, 2019.

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”?

to read the interview in full click here

Read Tade Ipadeola’s review of Edwardsville By Heart, ‘A Soujouner’s Tale:

We look out for the traveler’s tale especially. They bear that extra flavour of the road not taken. They are the buffalo portions to our regular veal,  the Basmati to our usual fare of lowland rice. The journey yields gain for those who hear of it, more so with the knowledge that no real journey is entirely without peril. Humanity wasn’t always so mobile as it is today and if trends are any indication, the future of humanity’s tread on the earth may be more conservative and circumspect in the future. The poems in Edwardsville by Heart (Wisdom’s Bottom Press) — a clutch of even-toned reflections of a time spent in the United States of America, south of the Mason-Dixon line for the most part — described by the poet himself as poetry, travelogue and memoir, carry the flavour of such a tale.

The title of the collection co-locates the text’s two primary dimensions, the physical and the emotional, and, as the book unfolds, performs their fusion on occasions. Poetry thrives on these experiments and Tubosun, grown into adulthood somewhere on the prime meridian of Eurocentric geography, here makes reflective capital of his brief relocation to the ‘New World’…

And for more Words on the Times in the series, see the blog category.

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Words on the Times

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