Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
When and why did you start writing poetry?
I remember the first poem I wrote: a sappy patriotic sonnet about Nigeria, in 1996, for a poetry competition in my penultimate high school year. I didn’t win. It was a vacuous poem, with overly simplistic aspirations, but it was my first attempt at the form, so I was really proud of it. I had just discovered a book about English poetry from a neighbour who was studying English at the university. I found Shakespeare, and the Sonnet, to be really riveting. A few days later, I wrote another poem, in another form, about slavery. Also very platitudinal, but quite structural: couplets and all. I was really enchanted by formal structures, because that was my first entry point.
My father had The Complete Works of Shakespeare in the house, along with many other books, literary, romance, educational, and other texts, in both Yorùbá and English. I mention him often because it’s interesting to not have paid that much attention to poetry until a neighbour lent me his English poetry textbook, many years after I no longer lived with my father. He was a poet himself, my father, but he wrote (and recorded and produced records) in Yorùbá. So, while I already had sufficient intimation with poetry, oral poetry, oral Yorùbá poetry, my encounter with English and my intention to write it came much later.
So, I started writing because I loved what Shakespeare and Marlowe and Wordsworth, Donne etc did with words on the page through structural forms. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to rhyme and make music with text. I wanted to impress my elderly neighbour, who didn’t write much outside of the confines of school, to show that one didn’t need to be in the university to be a poet. It was also then that I chose the university he attended, as my future institution, but I wanted to make sure that I had a collection of poems before getting in. I had the fantasy of walking into my first poetry class with poems of my own (perhaps in hope that I be allowed to graduate early for having already mastered the form. Youth is for dreaming, you see).
How aware were and are you of the dominating influence of older poets?
As usual, this will be answered in two parts: Yorùbá and English. The tradition of Yorùbá poetry under which I was raised was very strong. I was on the frontline to this, so to speak. My father had a record company that produced some indigenous Yorùbá poets, the first time that was being done since the invention of electronic documenting systems. Their work straddled both traditional and contemporary styles. Traditional because these were poets, chanters, and performers whose audience had hitherto been live crowds within the country. Contemporary because the vinyl and cassette had then offered a means to connect their work to the modern world, and it did. So while my father became a type of medium and curator for these movements, I was there merely as a witness, soaking it all in, and it would influence me a lot much later, in a lot of different ways.
But I assume your question was regarding English language masters. Shakespeare and the earlier structural poets I alluded to earlier were very strong and immediate influences. Much later, I would read about Wọlé Ṣóyínká whose work, at the time, was defined by its inaccessibility. There was also Christopher Okigbo, JP. Clark, and many other Nigerian and African poets whom we had to read to get into the university, and while we were there. I found it very hard to relate to many of these Nigerian/African writers at the time, a problem I now relate to the language medium. Either my competence in English wasn’t yet strong at the time or they were creating ideas from local idioms and images which didn’t successfully or elegantly pass through in English.
The work were often tough to get through, often obscurantist, and yet very large in our imagination. But I couldn’t relate with them much. They didn’t have the joy I found in the literatures written in the first language, English or Yorùbá. Not all, but many. It was in this middle point that neither satisfied as deeply as local language work would have nor inspired as much as native English writers would have. This would get better, much later, with writers like Níyì Ọ̀ṣúndáre who managed to bridge the divide and localize and domesticate English, so to speak. Akeem Lasisi, a Nigerian writer, is another one like this, and a few more. But at the time, I never understood what made African poetry in English any special, any better than serrated pain on the page.
What is your writing routine?
It depends, usually, on what is being written. With essays and other long forms, I prefer early morning or late nights. Get the words out, let them marinade, and return to them later for editing. I have a four-year-old so this is also very pragmatic.
With poetry, it doesn’t much matter except that they be set down as soon as the inspiration comes. There is a common curse among writers that ensures that a writing material isn’t nearby when an idea floats by. My mobile phone has helped mitigate this. Get the sentence out into any text app. Work on it later when I get on the computer. Sometimes I just send it to myself as an email.
I used to write longhand, on paper, but I’ve stopped trying to fight the inexorable march of civilization.
What motivates you to write?
Like every writer, I want to be heard and read. As a non-commissioned historian, I also want to document what I see, what animates me, what interests me, for others’ pleasures and inspiration, and for my own future self, because memory is unreliable over time. I live in Nigeria where history has been degraded both as a school subject and as a concept in civil society. I write to help preserve and enhance collective memory. Much of my essays and long-form journalism have stemmed from this impulse.
I started a travel blog in 2009 as a way to document my travel adventures in the United States. Over time, it became a space for documenting my own frustrations, triumphs, and other journeys. But it is a record of time, of my personal evolution both as a writer and as a citizen. I wrote my collection of poetry Edwardsville by Heart to interrogate America and my own memory of living there. I wrote it to claim my space in the world as a writer, and an African (a Yorùbá man) unbound by any particular limitations on subject or geography or language. On some level, I also wrote it to put the town on the literary map. New York and London have got enough air time.
I write because I have to, and because I can, and because readers exist to whom these words might mean something.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
It will be a tough task for the writer to pinpoint his own influences, mostly because we are too close to the subject and are thus not impartial nor even always accurate. I can trace my love for rhyming to Shakespeare, for instance, but I haven’t always rhymed in my work. I could trace my love for travel writing to Mark Twain or Jack Kerouac or Daniel Fágúnwà whom I read or Ọlábísí Àjàlá whom I only heard about, but there are obvious divergences. I was influenced a lot by Yorùbá oral poetry, but I haven’t published much in the language. So it’s safe to assume (or hope) that the influences on one’s work have transmuted into one’s own voice such that we can’t tell when one ends and the other begins.
Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I can speak instead of particular books I have read in the last couple of years which made strong impressions on me: The Idiot by Elif Batuman, for instance, is one, for her skill in carrying a fairly mundane plot (or lack thereof) through an engaging style that sustained the attention of both the nerdy linguistic and creative parts of my brain.
Then there is Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, which gives a new, modern, and fascinating insight into the concept of Ogbanje/Àbíkú, which earlier African writing masters have addressed in a far less involved and archaeological way. I also just recently read J.P. Clark’s America Their America, which I highly recommend as an important work on African travel writing and just delightful literature. It hasn’t got as much respect as it deserved. I usually like to add in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!as well, though it’s not a contemporary book. It is one book I read again every couple of years, for its beautiful tour of the mischief and genius of the world’s most famous theoretical physicist.
Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn is a contemporary writer I admire for her gut and grit. She runs two annual literary festivals and a bookstore in Nigeria, while being a poet and novelist herself, and has provided opportunities for many upcoming writers. Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà is also worth mentioning, and reading, here, for her understated brilliance. Get her book Longthroat Memoirs, which gives a delightful insight into the Nigerian gastronomic imagination. Third would be Nnedi Okorafor, for her seemingly boundless energy, and for showing the delightful possibilities of African science fiction.
Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I do many things else, actually. I just write, nevertheless, because I make better sense of the world that way.
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I’ll say that if you find yourself being very curious and imaginative, being unsatisfied with neat answers and explanations, often looking to mentally create alternative endings to real life scenarios, or to dig into answers for further questions, or to document what you see, feel, and experience for others’ or your own benefit, you might already be a writer. What makes you become one is what you do with that impulse. Often, the right answer is that you just write.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
While in the shower in Catalonia a few days ago, I got an idea to begin work on a manuscript about a time of my life from 2004-2010 and surrounding years and related tumults with personal, societal, and national significance. I don’t know if I will write it or whether I will write it soon, or whether it will be poetry or prose, but the seed has been sown, and I know what the book is going to be titled.
I also have a manuscript of interviews with some of my favourite African and non-African writers. Need to sit down someday to complete work on it, so others can read it as a contribution to the documentation of contemporary thought around creative writing on the continent.
And, of course, there are a number of unnamed and uncompleted manuscripts around my computer, waiting to be returned to, given the right atmosphere and motivation. I was recently shortlisted for a prestigious writing scholarship, (https://milesmorlandfoundation.com/morland-writing-scholarships-shortlist-2018/) the outcome of which will, really, determine the next eighteen months of my writing life.