Sentinel Poetry (Online) #59 ISSN 1479-425X

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November 2007 l INTERVIEW

 

At the Confluences

 

Amatoritsero Ede: Did you start out writing poetry or prose because fiction seems to preoccupy you more than poetry these days.

 

Chris Abani: I began writing fiction and only, in fact, turned seriously to poetry to work through difficult material in my first collection that I felt fiction or prose in any case would not be able to serve. I am however about 50-50 with five books of prose and four poetry collections and some new ones on the way. It is just that fiction gets more attention than poetry and so seems skewed that way.

 

A.E.: Daphne’s Lot, your second collection of poems, seems to me an ambitious and theme-successful experiment with the narrative form. One notes the stylistic affinity, in tone and texture, with Walcott’s Omeros, even direct allusion to him. There are also allusions to Soyinka and Okigbo. In how far did Omeros influence that collection?

 

C.A.: Thank you for the kind words about Daphne’s Lot. You are right to think that Omeros influenced the structure and one can argue the language (even down to plays on syllabic counts). I was studying Omeros for my critical PhD dissertation, which was on the book and how Walcott employs signification as displacement, so it seemed natural that the creative book I was writing at the time should be influenced by him. Walcott is perhaps the only poet today who owns up to the fact that he writes the epic, even if we can argue that the so-called self-nexus lyric of the middle class American poet still functions as epic in that it still builds national mythologies. Daphne’s Lot was a play on the epic, a play that would center a woman and love against war and so deviate from the tradition. Walcott, by transporting the Odyssey to the Caribbean and making it native to the region, was the only guide point I had. Soyinka and Okigbo also have very clear influences on the work. In the case of Soyinka, perhaps Myth, Literature and The African World View coupled with his plays more so than his poetry and with Okigbo it was the unique voice he has made that seems almost entirely singular in Nigerian poetry.

 

A.E.: Would you say you have moved beyond models and found your own voice as a poet?

 

C.A.: I think I have. But I don’t have “a voice” in the way that for most poets it becomes a predictable style of writing. I feel I am in dialogue always with other poets and other styles such that every book is different and has a different voice or style. Perhaps this is my style, to be trans-stylistic and nomadic.

 

A.E.: As opposed to the mostly traditional form of Daphne’s Lot, your other collections show the influences of the new avant-garde. We find post-modern tendency’s like the diagram – in “Ritual” (Dog Woman, 29); or no words, but only cancelled out numbers in “Statistics II” (Daphne’s Lot, 96); prose poems scattered throughout your oeuvre, and in the deliberate epistolary form in part two of Hands Washing Water (HWW, 31-50) or in “Letter to the Editor” (HWW, 18-20) or “Letter to the President” (HWW, 67). How far has your American location inflected your work?

 

C.A.: America has influenced all my work tremendously. It was here that I had the first real opportunity to study the entire range of world literature. This is more to do with availability and access than any kind of negative comments on my other abodes, so yes it has. It has also given me a lot of distance from my subject matter and so I have had to come up with deeper and more complicated ways of approaching it, if for nothing else to defeat nostalgia and sentimentality. But you must remember that my first novel was a thriller that had neo-Nazi’s taking over Nigeria to start the fourth Reich, a Nigerian James Bond, a Jewish Nazi hunter and whose entire plot was a Bobby Fisher Chess Game. So experimentation and the idea of the hybrid form are not new to me.

 

A.E.: One of the blurbs on Daphne’s Lot describes it as “celebrating the courage and determination of the poet’s mother while charting his family’s difficult flight out of Biafra to England.” Is Daphne’s Lot autobiographical or ‘faction’? 

 

C.A.: Everything is faction. Even autobiography. So yes, it is faction and I point to it in the book, there are verses that acknowledge the poet choosing to remember something a specific way even when the research shows different.

 

A.E.: I have not read the collection Kalakuta Republic, which I presume is your first collection. Counting from the next one, Daphne’s Lot, a well-achieved collection in light verse, would you say the subsequent collections are a progression in your craft?

 

C.A.: Light verse, I’m not sure what that means. But I do hope that all my new work shows a progression not only in craft but also in my depth as a human being, as a writer who approaches the wound directly and doesn’t flinch from what is revealed regardless of how it might be read.

 

A.E.: ‘Kalakuta Republic’ echoes the Nigerian Muscian, Fela Anikulakpo-Kuti’s self-created republic of non-conformist Nigerian citizens on the fringe of that society. It also suggests his naming of his prison abodes in his eternal battles with corrupt Nigerian governments. What is your relationship to Fela? Did you ever meet him?

 

C.A.: My relationship to Fela is one shared by almost every Nigerian of my generation. He was the perfect voice of conscience – heady beats, contradictions, out spoken and uncompromising; a hero of the people, so to speak, and a man whose humanity was laid bare for all to see. Yes, I did meet him.

 

A.E.: Your bio-data, from book to book, detail your experiences of imprisonment, death threats, and general persecution in the hands of the Nigerian governments of the past, which forced you into exile. Are the blurbers, and the bio-descriptions, accurate or are these ascriptions bent on sensationalising the writer or are they due to the identity politics of the literary establishment?

 

C.A.: Not all my books detail my imprisonment in the bio-data. In fact it is largely absent from Dog Woman, Becoming Abigail, Song for Night and The Virgin of Flames (and of course wasn’t on Masters of the Board), which is 5 out of 9 books, so that more than half my work that doesn’t reference it. The negotiations between writer and publisher are delicate and not really relevant to public discussions. But I would prefer for it not to be there because it becomes a filter for reading the work. It is not really a matter of identity politics or about what is accurate, but for me, what impedes me as a writer from being read in a larger context or through a larger lens of experience and or craft.

 

A.E.: You are seen in photographs with a saxophone hanging from your neck. There is talk that you learnt the sax from Fela in jail. Is this true, and are you also a musician?

 

C.A.: I taught myself to play the saxophone (bar one or two lessons) in London after I turned 31 and not from Fela (although that would have been incredible).  As to whether I am a musician is a hard question. I may not be good enough to be considered a musician in the same way that I am considered a writer, but I can hold my own and it is good for my soul.

 

A.E.: Does jazz influence some of your poetry much like it did the poetry of the Harlem renaissance or even of the Beat generation.

 

C.A.: Music as a whole does – jazz, highlife, marimba, pop – everything. It inflects my language and syllabics; so yes.

 

A.E.: Thank you for taking the time off your busy readings tour of the USA.

 

C.A.: Thank you for having me do this.

 

Feedback

 

Chris Abani

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