Nnorom Azuonye: My E-conversation with Emman Usman Shehu
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NA: In your autobiographical essay "A Journey Of Discoveries" you had mentioned as one of your earliest influences Edna St Vincent Milay whose body of work I happen to love for their simplicity and almost trespassing relevance to many of my own experiences. Who are the other writers that join Milay in forming a platform of support in your creative milieu?
EUS: Edna St Vincent Milay provided what I consider to be the key to my understanding poetry. Discovering her was like an epiphany, because prior to reading her poems poetry was just the usual stuff one had to grapple with at school. But reading her poems greatly changed my perception, and made me more adventurous in my reading. I realised at that point that there were quite a lot of writers out there whose works would not appear on the syllabus, and it was up to me to discover them. I had a voracious reading appetite and fortunately the school library was well stocked.
Prior to stumbling on Edna Milay, my contact with American poetry was very limited. But that changed and I read several anthologies of American poetry and discovered poets I hitherto had not known. Of course, I did not find all of them interesting. Indeed my initial contact with Ezra Pound and TS Eliot was a little bit frustrating, but that would change when I got to university because by then I had matured mentally and had the right exposure to explore beyond the superficial level.
Another poet who had the same riveting effect on me was Charles Bukowski. I discovered the startling simplicity of his poems and the down-to-earth treatment of his subject matter quite fascinating, at a time I had taken writing more seriously than just an escape from the reality around me. John Donne too had that kind of effect, the manner in which he deploys his metaphysical wit never ceases to amaze me. So too the two sides to his poetry, the religious and the metaphysical.
I went through a brief phase of appreciating African-American poetry, but the stylistic concerns became predictable and I lost interest. I keep going back to read David Diop not only because of his thematic thrust, but the manner in which he does not allow his anger to overwhelm his message, and the powerful ending of his poems.
Beyond poetry the influence is even wider and I have gone through various phases of interest in fiction, drama and literary essays. Of recent I have found myself devotedly re-reading Bernard Malamud, especially his 1963 collection of short stories - Idiots First. His terse and compressed prose appeal to me, as well as his concern about Jewish life. The latter aspect in particular because in the past few years, I have come to an understanding of what it means to be persecuted for one's religious belief and to be oppressed because one is a minority for the same reason.
Two years ago I also discovered Tobias Wolff, who is a master of the short story. I am amazed by what he is able to do within a few pages, pulling things together so effectively. Our own Cyprian Ekwensi has not had much critical success, but that does not diminish his ability and it was his short stories that got me interested in writing fiction.
NA: "Open Sesame" is your new book of poetry due out early next year? Reading the manuscript you sent to me, I am impressed by the lucidity and accessibility of your work with themes that explore complex emotional experiences of people in interaction with one another. Unlike many writings I have seen from Nigeria recently, which are overtly critical of the political and social decay in the country. You seem to address emotional frailties and the resurgence of confidence from the sympathy and support of a loving partner. Is it your view that the only hope for that country and humanity as a whole lies in our healing from inside out?