Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Ernest O. Ògúnyemí

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.

Ernest

 

Ernest O. Ògúnyemí

is an eighteen-year old writer and spoken word artist from Nigeria. His works have appeared/ forthcoming in: Kalahari Review, Litro ‘Comedy’ Issue, Lucent Dreaming, Low Light Magazine, Canvas Lit Journal, Agbowó ‘Limits’ Issue, Erotic Africa: The Sex Anthology, and elsewhere. He is a 2019 Adroit Summer Mentee, and a 2019 COUNTERCLOCK Arts Collective Fellow. In 2018, he won the Association of Nigerian Authors NECO/ Teen Prize for his manuscript of short stories, “Tomorrow Brings Beautiful Things: STORIES“. He is currently working on his first novel.

The Interview

  1. When and why did I start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry when I moved from Lagos – that mother with too many children, that one city that is packed with all kinds of people and things, that is loud in all forms: speakers blaring ” shepeteri” (street) songs, pastors filling mics with tongues that feel as ragged and unrefined as the many screams of cars and “danfos” and “okadas”, the smooth voices of muezzins calling Muslim brothers and sisters to salatt, matched with the voices of a new crop of evangelists who do the work of God with megaphones – to Abéòkuta. Abéòkuta is the very opposite of Lagos. In Abéòkuta, I met calm – the calm of a river untouched by the wind in fact.

This change of place brought me to solitude, and it was my aloneness that brought me to the page. I came to the page to express all that I was feeling, that I had no one to talk to about. And, at the time, I had some real questions about God and Fate and Destiny and Culture, so I asked those questions on the page.

I was sixteen or so.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Somehow, a teacher.

When I was in Lagos, there was this festival that gave space to students to present dramas, songs, and dramatic poems (presentation of a poem accompanied by drama). It was also a competition. Our school was invited, so a teacher, one of my English teachers then, (I don’t remember her name right now) – she asked me to write a poem. I didn’t. She wrote the poem and gave it to me to present.

I recited the poem at the audition, with the cast dramatising. Though we didn’t get to perform at the finale, we were awarded the fourth position at the finale.

When I moved to Abéòkuta and there was a competition for dramatic poems, I presented the poem with a cast made up of students from my new school (I directed the drama). Funny, but we won the competition with that poem.

After sometime, I started writing poems, too. I stuck them to the small notice-board where nobody read them – nobody but me.

Soon teachers started noticing what I was doing, and, while they didn’t introduce me to poetry or groom me, they made me love what I was doing.

After sometime, I met someone who first taught me certain basic things about poetry. His name is Ayoola Goodness, author of “Meditations” (one of the very first collections I read that influenced me at the very early start of my poetry-journey).

3. How aware are, and were, you of the dominating presence of older poets, traditional and contemporary?

I would say, at the start of things, when I first began writing poetry, I was more conscious of older poets—the traditional ones. This was because the poets we read in Literature Class, the poems on the syllabus, were poems by old traditional writers—George Herbert’s “The Pulley”; Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”; William Blake’s “Schoolboy”; Robert Frost’s “Birches”; and, of course, Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day.” We never read any contemporary poet. Even the African poems we read were by old poets, the custodians; the likes of Christopher Okigbo and Lenrie Peters.

The other reason I was more aware of older, traditional poets was that the books I had access to were the old books, the ones by older, traditional poets. There was nowhere I knew where I could buy the new books—where I stay presently, there’s no bookshop selling new books (there is more than enough in Lagos though, an hour’s ride from her); there are only two or three men who sell old, still covered, sometimes tattered, books by the roadside. It was from those men that I bought the books that introduced me to poetry, the traditional poetry by Emily Dickinson and Matthew Arnold and other traditional poets. It was also from one of them that I bought The Complete Works of Shakespeare, a big book containing all of Shakespeare’s works with green hardcovers with the titled engraved in golden letters on the front cover. The African poets I met, too, in anthologies weren’t contemporary, and, yes, they weren’t traditional poets either; they were just old poets.

I didn’t know any contemporary poet until I met works by new Nigerian writers, who, though writing in this time, would still fall under the category of old poets. There was no innovation to their poetry, but for the works of a few of them. One of the few was Ayoola Goodness’ Meditations, a poetry collection that shifted my eyes away from the traditional poetic form to something somewhat new.

However, it was until I, by chance or fate, picked up a Pushcart Anthology at one of the bookstalls by the roadside that I began to see what poetry could be—fluid, like water. But then, the Pushcart Anthology was published in 1993 or so, so it was still the old kind of poetry in a way. I remember writing a poem after one of the poems in the anthology, which was titled ‘Green’ and was written by an eighteen-year old Canadian writer. When I submitted what I’d written, inspired by ‘Green’, I got a rejection where the editor mentioned that the form was old.

When I began playing around with my dad’s phone, in late 2017 and early 2018, I began to witness wonder, in poetry. I read every poem I could find online, and I really fell in love with Danez Smith, and, very recently, Tianna Clark and Ocean Vuong. I also remember buying a copy of both the translation and original of Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses; it changed my life. A Feast of Return by Odia Ofeimun did a lot for me, too.

Today, I’ll say I’m fascinated by both poets. Though I read more contemporary poets, I do read older, traditional poets, too, because I need them both as ancestors on this path, as guiding lights on this journey.

3.1 How did “Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses and Feast of Return by Odia Ofeimun” change your life?

Before reading those two collections, I had read no poetry collection at all; but I had read a few poetry anthologies. One of the anthologies I read was “An Anthology of African Poems” whose editors I can’t recall now. The anthology included poems from the oral Yoruba poetry to Taban Lo Liyong and Niyi Osundare and Fusho Ayejina. And those poems were helpful.

However, it wasn’t until I read Odia Ofeimun’s “A Feast of Return” that I really felt a strong connection to poetry. There were times I sat outside and read the collection out loud, imitating the voices of all the characters in the poetry book. Whenever I finished reading, it felt as if somebody had immersed me in water and brought me out refreshed. I just felt light. The effect it had on me is quite similar to the effect weed has on people.

“A Feast of Return” had a freshness of imageries and an Africanization of poetics that made it beautiful and accessible. Also, because it was a communal kind of poetry collection (a dance drama in poetry), I felt as if I was a part of community, a part of the South Africans who were fighting apartheid. I don’t know, it just spoke to me. It still does.

On the other hand, Neruda’s “The Captain’s Verses” was a revelation. Reading that collection made me understand that poetry doesn’t have to be complex to be poetry; it could be simple and yet powerful.

Though the poems were love poems, I still connected to them. And the recurrence of certain imageries – earth, flowers, rivers – in the collection was something that stuck with me.

The collection also helped me understand that poetry is a thing of the heart first; the heart is the important thing. That a poet can write about the most mundane things in this world, the things that go unnoticed by the human eyes, and those things would be beautiful and become things we find very hard to forget – the only thing is, whatever you’re writing as a poet, let it matter.

3.2. What do you mean by “Africanization of poetics”?

What that – *the Africanization of poetics” – means is, “A Feast of Return”, for me, is poetry that is African in every way I know: the language, the voice(s), the characters, the imageries. It felt as if the collection was written in a particular African language first, and was later translated into English. But that’s not really true. Odia Ofeimun wrote it in English, but because the story the book tells is first an African story – a story about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and about Africa – there is a way he Africanized his poetry. For example, the poetry is really oral poetry and is meant to be performed, though it is written. In fact, Odia Ofeimun makes notes on how it should be performed at the end of the book. So, maybe it is “the Africanization of poetry”, instead of “the Africanization of poetics”.

Note that before “A Feast of Return”, I had encountered other poems that were written in English but were African (Woke Soyinka’s “Abiku”, most of the poems written by Kofi Awoonor, the poems of Niyi Osundare, among others) – but in “A Feast of Return”, it was extended.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Do I have a writing routine? I don’t think I do. I just know I write, and I do that every day. No day goes by that I don’t write something, even if it’s trash.

I write mostly at night, especially when the day is very tight for me. Or some times, very early in the morning.

Still, I won’t say I have a writing routine. I just write. However, that I don’t have a writing routine does not mean I write whenever I feel like, I write even when I don’t feel like.

5. What motivates your writing?

My motivation varies. Sometimes it’s the want to record a moment; at other times, it’s a story asking me to write it. But then, there is the joy that I feel when somebody reads my work and connects with it, when my name is there on the cover of a literary magazine. So, yes, those are motivating.

However, my greatest motivation is survival. I write to survive. If I get not to write again, I will most likely die. So, when I think of survival, I think of my writing. It’s all I have.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I’m still very young, so I’m still reading and I’m still influenced by what I read. However, the works I read before I even thought of wanting to write anything – books by Frank Peretti, Ted Deker, C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, and a lot of children or YA books written by Nigerians and Ghanaians – made me believe in a different world from this; they helped my imagination. I don’t think there’s more that I learned from those books asides that, and that, the broadening of my imagination, is one of the reasons why I am a writer today.

6.1. What “children or YA books written by Nigerians and Ghanaians” broadened your imagination?

I can’t remember any specifically. Those books were tiny story books that were self-published by the writers. They weren’t even so well-written, but they were interesting. I don’t remember any now.

7. Who of today’s writers do you most admire, and why?

I don’t think there’s a specific writer writing today that I admire the most, but there are a whole lot that I really admire – and for different reasons.

I admire Ocean Vuong for his poetry. There’s a way his poems reach out to me, even though some of the themes explored on his works are not directly themes I can relate to. (I’ve been reading his poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” every day for the past few days.) More than that, I admire him for who he is. I don’t know what it is specifically about him that I find interesting – I mean, he is Vietnamese-American, I am Nigerian; he is gay, I am not. But there’s something to him, a kind of simplicity to his personality that I find interesting. And, maybe because my mother was also illiterate and could speak no English, and because of the kind of feeling I got from knowing there was a time he had no place to stay and was sleeping in Penn stations.

8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Lol. I’ll probably suggest reading “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore, but don’t mind me, I won’t. I think I don’t know how people become writers, but I guess it all starts with reading. If you read so many stories, you get to some point where the stories you read either bore you or appear to not be what you really want to read. Because you are not getting what you really want from the stories you read, like Achebe once said, you write your own.

9. Tell me about writing projects you are involved in at the moment.

A few. I’m curating an anthology of poems by young African poets between the ages of 15 and 19. I just won a small grant to start the first literary magazine for young African writers and artists. I should be writing my novel but I’m too lazy I guess. I’m also looking at writing a chapbook. And, as always, I’m making art and sending work out.

 

 

 

 

 

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