My background - as a Californian was much more improvisational - appropriating forms when they worked, breaking them up when conditions and circumstances betray their use. So my poems become kinds of "walks" that accrue materials and particular shapes/forms as they move through space. And maybe - from my presence on the campus full of poets - brought that sense of "materiality' into the critical and creative dialogue.
NA: How did your own poetic culture work with the traditional as well as the emerging trends in Nigerian poetics of the nineteen-sixties? Did you take anything away and how has this impacted on your own writing?
SV: My background left me open to Nigeria in a variety of ways in which a perhaps more Mandarin sense of language would normally refuse.
I was happily listening everywhere I could place my ear. And there was no shortage of voices and materials in the air! Yet, I always felt like I was on the periphery of a diversity of cultures whose inner-workings would take me years to manifest and integrate into my own work. And maybe - without consciously purposing my intentions on that level - a work such as Walking
(the poem) with its allusive attentions to myth is incorporative of my Nsukka/Nigerian experience.
Certainly the experience remains deeply informative and present.
NA: I would like to learn more about the writers and ideas that influenced you in those early years of your career as a writer and creative writing teacher, and how, if at all, any kind of symbiosis between you and your students, especially in Africa, helped hone your mutual processing of your themes and language in poetry.
SV: I suspect in an old colonial tradition I imagined that my training and tools as a then very young poet had not only prepared me for any circumstance I might face wherever in the world, but that I would be able to cheerfully impart this training to my students at Nsukka! The work of William Carlos Williams was my primary modernist beacon, with me using "Not in ideas, but things" his famous objectivist criterion of how to approach materials. His work with it's highly focused attention of the rhythm and speech of the local - was incredibly important to me, and why not, by extension, student writers and my English Department colleagues who included Oko, Wonodi, Kalu Uka, Michael Echeruo, and K Saro-Wiwa. The lovely vanity of being 23 years old!
I was also much under the sway of the next generation of poets after Williams Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. Arriving and living in Nsukka put me into a wonderful state of shock. At once it was humbling. I quickly realized that there was no way I was going to write authoritatively about the African experience. I was from a country about 200 years old and suddenly in a world with languages and traditions that went back hundreds, if not thousands of years. I quickly realized though sometimes painfully - it was most important to listen as closely as I could and my students and colleagues became deeply important to me. Naming, coming of age, marriage and burial rituals began to resonate. Poems such as "Witch moth" and the one beginning with the line, "He worked the fields…" all came from essays and stories told by students.
Pidgin English offered another kind of transparency particularly it's satiric and comic components, and a real sense of play. It provided a vital way of looking at the African rub with European and American culture. "Everything was about to collap, everything was about to collap!" "Plural please Plural please." "Everything was about to collapse."