Sentinel Poetry (Online) #39
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics
February 2006. ISSN 1479-425X. Editor: Amatoritsero Ede
The Self-Reflexive Imagination
Interview with Guest Poet, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi
By Amatoritsero Ede
Amatoritsero Ede: Your first formal and permanent introduction to the public was in Voices from the Fringe, edited by Harry Garuba and published by Malthouse Press in 1987. How has the literary journey been so far? How does your literary biography read since then?
Chiji Amu-Nnadi: That first outing came as a complete surprise, because I didn’t know the anthology was being prepared. But, as you may know, it was an absolutely exhilarating experience; to see your work in print, bound in a book. Of course, before then I had published some poems in The Guardian Newspapers, which at the time ran a robust arts section and that was equally exciting. Yet, Voices from the Fringe seemed to take it to another level.
Unfortunately, rather than stoke the fire of what ought to follow, it frightened me. I began to ask too many questions of the poems I wrote and I discovered it became increasingly difficult to write. The truth is, because poetry came to me late in life, in response to a challenge from a friend, rather than gift and learning, I’d never really stopped seeing myself as an impostor. Having not studied literature, even in the secondary school, there was nothing to found these new experiences upon, and no teacher to help you hone the craft. So, besides the books I now began to read, mostly in my spare time, there was nothing else to learn with.
As a result, I stuttered where I should have been eloquent and crawled where I ought to have been inspired, by Voices, to gallop. You see, if I had been invited to submit a poem to that book, I may not have submitted ‘poetry’, neither, I presume, would I have had the courage to submit any at all. Such was my lack of confidence, that for years after that, I wrote sparingly and secretly. My fertile period turned out to be the June 12 era, when ‘the abiola manuscript’ was compiled. These were poems which were written to express the anger of those days, and to express what I figured were “the abiola thoughts”. For instance, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed in 1995, I had written “suspended” as a form of letter from Abiola to Saro-Wiwa, lamenting that they were being “consumed/ by fires that never come”. Abiola was in almost similar circumstances, fighting against the same adversary, perhaps awaiting the same fate. Some of the lines in the poem read:
i gather my anecdotes in woven wickers
the shards of broken kernels
that tarmac our fattening rooms
and i am a hostage
to dreams that drip down
and are eaten by our hard soil
Yet, I filed them away and forgot many of them. I also lost quite a bit too.
But, when in 1994 I met the woman who would become my wife (a lawyer, she was reading one of those rare classics, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy), and I needed to impress her, I showed her some of those poems and her reaction turned out to be the shot in the arm I needed. Indeed, when I published the fire within in 2002, my acknowledgement to her was to the fact that she “took away the edges eaten by cockroaches” (where I left them) and “helped smoothen the crumpled fabric of my life”.
In 2000, when I moved to Abuja (Nigeria’s capital), I joined the Abuja Literary Society. There, my confidence began to grow. I also discovered that passion about poetry which most writers have. Living alone, away from my family, I turned my evenings into a theatre of sorts, and the ALS into my school. The result was the publication, in 2002, of the fire within. Fortuitously, it won the maiden edition of the ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry.
Since then, I have published another collection, pilgrim’s passage (2004) and I am currently working on a third, nene, the love poems. Hopefully, it would come out in 2006. I am also working on a novel, A walk with nothing and a collection of short stories, A light in the tunnel.
A.E.: How much publishing possibilities are there in Nigeria?
C. A-N. : Unfortunately, not too many.
Over the years, the publishing houses have seen their fortunes dwindle,
As an alternative, writers would rather publish themselves, with little or no external influence, editing nor supervision. All you had to have was a little cash, and a friend or godfather in business or government, whom you’d pester to help you ‘launch’ your book. Afterwards, they mostly moulded on private shelves.
Another alternative is a growing population of Nigerian writers, who have migrated abroad, where there are better opportunities. This drain has affected both the enthusiasm and the quality of books published here. The only silver one sees beneath the cloud is the endowing of new prizes, which has triggered a fresh rash of interest in literature. How this unfolds, or affects the poor state of publishing can only be told by time.
A.E.: Nigerian literature – and poetry, in particular – has a political undertone that mirrors a larger troubled socio-political ferment. Is your work mimetic in this way?
C. A-N.: Which work isn’t? Every society is mirrored in its literature, because what we become are chroniclers of society’s evolution, its interests and tragedies, its wars and peace, its love and hate. The many compulsions that propel societies, and regenerate them. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner is a reflection of Depression Era America. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe is a reflection of Nigeria’s encounter with colonialism, on the one part, and a reflection of true heroism and tragedy, against the corrupting influences of intervening societies on the other. Yet, what makes them great literature lies in the telling of those stories: the elegance of pure and clear thought and the art of controlled rendering.
For Nigeria, unfortunately, it’s been more tragic than pleasurable, more political because our culture has been subsumed under the politics of the day. And politics hasn’t been the swan song that it promises. For Nigeria, in spite of its blessings, in spite of what this great nation has been called to be, particularly in Africa, there has been a failing of such gross and tormenting proportion. This reflects in our literature, and is evoked in the poetry I have written over the years. And, why wouldn’t it. It is part of our everyday experience. As a journalist in early 1990s Nigeria, what else did we have to face but the unfolding tragedy of June 12, and the criminal arrogance of those who held the gun – and held the power.
While my early poems where love poems, the period between 1992 and, perhaps, 2002, were mostly political in tone. They were mostly angry, disillusioned, bitter and dark. When, for instance, I wrote “broken dreams”, I was somewhere in Ikeja, Lagos, during one of those June 12 riots and the lines: “how often we watch flowers die in our hands/ and bats eat the fruits of our trees/ and spiders run rings around our heads/ and flies wash hands inside our mouths/ and around us patient vultures stand/ eating to the bone the carcass of our dreams” were more than a refrain in a poem.
Thankfully, the love poems are coming back. And, again, it may just reflect one’s relief that, finally, we have a semblance of democracy, and within that system lie boundless possibilities, both good and bad. Yes, things may be tough, but hope springs eternal.
I still find a lot of residual anger in the poetry of the day, including mine. For some, indeed, nothing much has happened to abate that feeling of disenchantment, dislocation and exile, even within the homeland. But, we continue to believe that something better would happen. Not to hope is to die.
A.E.: Do you think literature has any notable influence on political life in Nigeria?
C. A-N.: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. I work within the political environment. There is no worse place in Nigeria to write poetry, because people laugh at the crazy-head who would rather bury his head in his books and his poetry. That’s on a personal level. On a larger scale, the quality of personnel involved in Nigeria’s politics are often men and women more given to other pursuits than the intellectual and the sublime. Here mediocrity is often enthroned. They treat writers with palpable disdain, so how well can the work produced have a better effect? As I always say, somehow, Nigeria would be retrieved from this poor state of affairs, because it is imperative that we become part of the civilised world, contributing to decisions that influence global politics with some level of sophistication and learning.
A.E.: Is there any guiding theoretical literary principle or philosophy behind your work?
C. A-N. : I don’t know, because I don’t know what the theories are. You know, sometimes I feel particularly daft and unlearned. I don’t know much about Shakespeare, for instance, as funny and/or tragic as that sounds. I can’t do a proper intellectual critique of another’s work. When I enjoy what I read, that’s good enough for me. I can’t explain similes and all that, even though I recognise them. So, when people sometimes commend ‘my work’, I am often bemused. When flaws are pointed out, I listen and do the best I could to sift the necessary from the egoistic. I am constantly trying to improve my craft, so I am always looking for new opportunities for interaction, to catch up with what I always feel I have lost. That’s why, when I hold talks in schools these days, I always ask the children to read and to write. That’s the best way to grow.
As for philosophy; I do have an evolving thought. You see, the very first poem I wrote began in my sleep. The threads of the Abiola dirge to Kudirat, “awakening”, came while I was asleep. So, I have had to wonder, what makes us write? Who makes us write? If one would write a poem in a state of unconsciousness (and I know this has happened to so many others), what right do we have to claim them as ours? Aren’t we mere vessels in the hands of a Great Influence? Isn’t our gift only a reflection of our frailty, our vulnerability, our fragility; just like sap that flows from the fragile parts of a shrub when it is broken? What makes a work immortal and why does Shakespeare remain a constant 500 years after, or Leonardo da Vinci a recurring name, or Pablo Neruda a well-formed genius even at twenty? And how did Mahatma Gandhi write such immortal poetry with his silence?
I write poetry without punctuation and capital, not for any other reason than the fact that “life is a fragile metaphor, told with neither capital nor punctuation.” We are mere tools in its hand. Life is a train of unbreakable and uncontrollable motions and emotions. Its essence is not in the punctuations, but in the story itself that unfolds. As I reflected in the author’s note in pilgrim’s passage, life, as with poetry, “is a rimless spiritual adventure teeming with mystery.” I publish without my personal data and name because I believe I have little control over what “I write”. Instead, I use my family name, amu nnadi, (together; never separated), because it is the only one that can survive me; that possesses a hint of the eternal, just as that Influence that inspires poetry. Just, as I believe, the things “I write”. I publish without my photograph because I do not want to add my image or arrogance to what is not completely mine. Because, as Gandhi says, “we must reduce ourselves to zero” to earn eternity. Sometimes it is contradictory and befuddled. Sometimes it is clear. But, that’s the stuff of art, especially poetry.
A.E.: What is your opinion on the new NLNG Prize and the poet Odia Ofeimun’s objections to its limitations?
C. A-N.: The Nigeria Literature Prize must be the best thing to have happened to Nigerian writers, based in Nigeria, with its terribly limiting opportunities. I don’t know what Odia’s objections are, but I suppose it is because it limits Nigerians living abroad from entering their works. One major limitation is that it precludes Nigerians who may otherwise have great works from being part of what celebrates them (wherever they may live). As the Nigerian Prize, it ought to encourage entries from every Nigerian, and by so doing, encourage the best the country has to offer.
But, if I am allowed some selfishness, precluding Nigerians abroad means that it offers to those who are not as fortunate to tap into the opportunities abroad, the chance to improve their craft, and, perhaps, earn a little recompense for staying and making something good out of a bad situation. As I told Thisday Newspapers in an interview last year, Nigerian writers abroad have a right to protest. But, I think NLNG is trying to encourage what is wholly home-grown: telling our story from a point that is peculiarly native, about our experiences and environment. Of course, we are all Nigerians, but sometimes what give us an identity may not be lineage or birthplace, but those experiences and encounters that define our character and loyalties.
Of course, it may be that it precludes what may be the best Nigerian book. But then, may be it doesn’t. It is just argument now.
A.E.: Who are your influences?
C. A-N.: Just about anyone whose work I have enjoyed, or anything whose beauty I have encountered. Because I don’t have conventional training, I have grown into some kind of forest where all manner of influences exist. Of course, there is Pablo Neruda, whose work I encountered for the first time in December last year during a visit to the United States, Leopold Sedar Senghor, who seemed to share the same voice, Dennis Brutus, whose poetry is so elegant you wanted to cry, Gabriel Okara, who traps pictures in his words. And there is Christopher Okigbo, about whose poetry I don’t know much, but whose stories are the stuff of legend. My wife is also a great influence, because she is never satisfied until the poems begin to sound satisfying. I am like the soil: I collect all influences and use them the best way I can.
My relationship with God is also a great influence. It helps me remain calm, humble, and eager to learn. And I can take the harshest criticisms. What better way is there to improve?
A.E.: chijioke , thank you very much for your precious time.