August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Inua Ellams by Fajar Ahmed
1. How did your journey as an artist begin, and how did you come to writing poetry?
It started when I was a kid in Dublin with a bunch of male friends who I played basketball with. We had a really good English teacher and we started writing because of one particular friend called Steven Divine. He was very argumentative and we would sit down and argue about the colour of the sky and the clouds – it was very playful, very friendly and sometimes very intense. One summer holiday Steven Divine committed suicide and when I returned to school having heard of his death, the part of me that existed with him, the part that argues, no longer existed, and so I started writing more to get down the part that didn’t exist any more, that argumentative part – it wasn’t to get rid of any great pain. I came to London in 2002 and I couldn’t afford to buy paint so I started to write poetry. For me, it was like painting with words, it was a very similar creative process.
2. What sparked the desire to write your first poem – reading a poem or a personal experience?
I read a poem by John Keats that sparked my first desire to write. It was a sonnet; I really liked it and thought I could do one too. I remember trying to make it sound like it was from Keats time rather than the time in which I lived. It was something most people do when they start – and by imitating him, I was flattering the ghost of Keats by trying to write and sound like him. It took years before I could start writing about my own personal experience, because previous to that I didn’t think I had anything unique to say about my life or the world based on my experiences so I imitated Keats.
3. Do you find writing to be a self-serving exercise or do intend for your words to reach out to others?
For me, it’s half and half. Gandhi says, “you should be the change you want to see in the world”, and so when I see something in the world that dissatisfied me, I try to interrogate and contrast it with my own personal life and hope people can understand what I’m on about. I reach out through my own experiences and my own life rather than the other way round. I write to understand myself and those around me, and if I do that honestly, other people can come to it and take the same meaning from it. To write for others is as much a fallacy as it is to write solely for you.
4. Which literary artists have influenced you the most, and why?
Keats, because of his emotion, his personal tragedy, his romance, the metaphysical nature of his work, his youth, his daring, his vitality. Also Williams, an American poet who did what I was trying to do and showed me it was possible. Although I don’t try to write or sound like him, he showed me what was possible with language, how to be an African, Westerner and ‘Mr Cool’ at the same time. Also Terry Pratchett, the novelist. Kwame Dawes, a poet who tutored me was pivotal and influencing in changing and understanding my voice and how it worked. Nii Parkes, my editor and mentor – the first person to say that I was good and he liked what I was doing.
5. You have mentioned that the hip-hop generation, music and culture influence your work. Can you elaborate on how you incorporate this into your poetry?
It a mixture of a few things; one of the classic images of poetry is of a man sitting by a canal and burning the midnight oil, trying to conjure and put down the world in a dark part of the world. For me, there is nothing more strongly similar to that than a rapper beneath the streetlight writing, with nothing to show for his existence but his words – they do the same thing for me. One thing I love about hip hop is the idea is making something out of nothing – to make a dollar out of 15 cents, and it’s something I take from my Nigerian culture and heritage- how to never take no for an answer, to keep toiling to find a way to make something even when the odds are stacked against you. For me, poetry sits between lyrics and prose which is the kind of hip hop that I like, one where the verse has a rhythmic pattern and something so conversational but sounds so free. That freedom of language and structure is what I search for in poetry and I think that is also the poet’s job, to forget the rules of language and to sound like them.
6. What does the word ‘poetry’ mean to you?
I want to say poetry is a grand statement, a way of life but perhaps it is more of a political act, more often it is intensely personal. It means bravery, daring, a calculated callousness, freedom, voice, identity, place, destiny, time, to capture the fleeting and make it art.
7. One of the many things that astound me about your writing is how it’s always so ambitious. What inspires you to use these big themes?
I guess it is because where I am at the moment and because I think I can do it with a degree of justice and because I am not yet afraid. The fearlessness of youth gets lost increasingly far too easily and I am still in the wind of that, I still fly and write fearless although not as much as I did when I was starting out. I think that is why I still try to tackle big themes, but I try to do it playfully and I do it from a unique perspective. I write because I imagine no one has done it quite like this before. To shine a new light on an old topic is what excites me. If I wrote something that had already been done I think my voice would have no purpose and I would not be contributing to the conversation or the world.
8. Other than writing global poems, you are also a playwright. How do you cope with writing and performing work that is based on difficult topics?
I don’t think about it, I don’t factor in the word ‘cope’ I do it because it is all that I have known and it feels right. I think that is a Nigerian aesthetic, if you can get the job done, get up and get it done. Get up and ask the big questions and see what comes. If nothing does, ask the question in a different way and keep toiling. Also I try to travel across the world and for me I think writing is difficult but the sharing of writing is the best thing.
9. Lastly, what is the relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice?
They are very similar; when I write poetry I try to make sure that it sounds brilliantly to the ear, simultaneously making sure it looks well structured on the page so my voice comes across on both levels. When you write, there are tricks and degrees of complexity that the pages afford you but the stage doesn’t. I think this might be the only difference; the written poems are more complex than the stage. On the stage, they say 70% of language is nonverbal so the stage gives me more physical space to communicate an idea or a theme. But the relationship between my speaking and writing of poetry is very tight and close.