The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Interview
Uche Peter Umez interviews Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo
“Poetry succeeds through the deployment of graphic imagery.”
Interviewer’s Note: AKACHI ADIMORA-EZEIGBO – lecturer, writer, essayist and administrator – has had a brilliant academic career for over three decades. With over thirty creative works to her name, she has won virtually all the literary prizes in Nigeria and has been a visiting research fellow at SOAS, University of London, University of Natal, South Africa, University of Bayreuth, Germany, Royal Holloway, University of London, and was recently inducted as a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. Akachi is probably as one of the most prolific writers in Nigeria. In this interview she sheds more light on her latest collection of poetry, Dancing Masks.
Uche Peter Umez: You started writing poetry seriously in 2006 and so far you have published three collections. What inspired you to veer off prose for a while and take to poetry writing? How does a poem start for you? What’s the role of imagination for you in this process?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Actually I have published four collections: one, Cloud and Other Poems for Children, is for young people. The truth is that I started writing poetry and plays before I wrote prose fiction. However, the things I wrote were not published except the few poems (and short stories) that appeared in student journals and in magazines while I was an undergraduate. So in a way you’re right – I wrote poetry consistently and with serious intent in 2006 when I was at Royal Holloway University of London as a Visiting Research Fellow. I was actually invited to write a novel, but I discovered that I could only write poetry initially. And I did that consistently for a few months before writing the novel (my Biafran War epic) that took me to the university. A thought, an idea or even an emotional experience comes to mind and that’s it: I begin to write a poem. It’s as simple as that! Imagination has been described as the Third Eye. Only the few who are conscious of it and its power, and make use of it can create literature.
Blake once said that the world of imagination is the world of eternity; mental things alone are real. For me, imagination is real; it’s like my twin sister and stays with me always. Sometimes I’m frightened by the thoughts or ideas it brings to my mind. That’s the force that propels me to write. One of my teachers once said to me: “You have a fertile imagination” – those were her exact words. She later wrote this in my report card for the benefit of my father who, based on that comment, encouraged me to be a writer. [You can now understand why my maiden name features in my creative writing: Adimora.] I believe without it no one can create, no one can write creatively.
Uche Peter Umez: I find your first collection Heart Songs essentially effervescent in tones, your second Waiting for Dawn brooding and tense for the most part, but your latest collection Dancing Masks straddles the cheerful and the serious. Is that a conscious technique, do you set out to affix a ‘signature’ tone on each individual collection before the actual writing? Or is it something that just happens while writing the poems? In fact, what determines tone for you?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: I wouldn’t say I deliberately set out to write the poems you refer to with a particular tone. For me, the tone of a poem is determined by the emotion that takes hold of me at the particular time of writing it. If a poem is inspired by a cheerful subject or experience, the tone will be coloured by the emotion of joy or cheer that gives it life. If I am unhappy or feel devastated or upset about something, this will drive the tone. I recall the poem “Pain Graph” in Waiting for Dawn which has a pervasive tone of despair, because it was written at a moment of near despair. However, sometimes, I use humour to capture the tragedy in a situation or an event – like I did in my pidgin poems in two collections, Heart Songs and Dancing Masks. This is particularly the case in the poems “Tornado Jam London” and “I no fear Boko Haram”. These are serious subjects that are treated in a light and playful tone. The techniques deployed in these poems are thus deliberately chosen to create a special effect, as you rightly observed.
May I draw your attention to the varying tones or atmosphere in the sequence of poems known as the great odes written by the famous Romantic poet, John Keats. Consider, for instance, “Ode to the Nightingale” or Ode to Autumn”. The former which deals with Keats’ sorrow at the loss of Tom, his brother, has a brooding atmosphere of sorrow and a sad tone, as the poet longs to escape via “the viewless wings of poesy” from the world of pain (in which people die and disappear) to the world of immortality represented by the bird’s song. Now compare this somber tone to the joyousness and light-heartedness that suffuse the latter “Ode to Autumn” and discover the world of difference in the tone and atmosphere that inform the two poems. I believe this is the path every poet walks: sometimes sad, moody, disenchanted, and sometimes humorous, joyful and carefree.
Uche Peter Umez:In your collections, you explore various forms – even haikus! In ‘Brainwashed” and “Homeland Calls” in Waiting for Dawn, both poems are terse and lean in form, unlike “Sex Change” and “I No Fear Boko Haram” in Dancing Masks which have an expansive and playful form. Speaking of haikus, I like ‘Sea of Heads: Bristles” the best. What determines the form of a poem? Do you think form really matters in a poem? Can you describe your own experience of writing toward a particular form?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Yes, I love the haiku. A haiku, as you know, is a type of Japanese poem with three lines consisting of five, seven, and five syllables. I got acquainted with Japanese poets in 2010 when I was in Tokyo and read many poems written in this form. But even before then, I had encountered this form as an undergraduate in a poetry class. I fell in love with the haiku form when I studied Ezra Pound (a close associate of T.S. Eliot) and read his very imagist poems such as “Alba” and “In A Station Of The Metro” which actually inspired my haiku “Sea of Heads: Bristles” which I wrote at the busy Waterloo Station, in the UK in 2006. Here is Pounds lovely imagist poem: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” And here is another poem “Alba”:
As cool as the pale wet leaves
She lay beside me in the dawn
You see how simple and evocative these two poems are, very striking in the use of imagery. I believe the subject of a poem determines the form. The form my poem takes depends on what inspires the poem and the depth of the emotion that triggers it.
Uche Peter Umez: The poem “Inevitability” has a rhythm that is controlled and yet so arresting. There is a lot of imagery in that poem. I particularly like this stanza:
A baby gurgling, like a spring flowing over rocks,
When tickled by its mother’s loving hands.
“Flint”, which describes an encounter with a would-be rapist, is also image-laden and precisely visual.
Spade teeth nibble my point-down breasts
The swollen gourds of the market god.
How do you decide on an imagery that appeals to the senses, emotions and imagination?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: A poet is an image maker just as a musician is a music maker. Poetry succeeds through the deployment of graphic imagery. As you write, the images can come spontaneously or they come when you return to a poem to polish it. It depends. And when you feel strongly about the subject of your contemplation, the right images will come.
Uche Peter Umez: In his seminal essay, Can Poetry Matter, Dana Gioia lamented that, ‘Poetry reviewing is no better anywhere else, and generally it is much worse. For most newspapers and magazines, poetry has become a literary commodity intended less to be read than to be noted with approval.’ How do you respond to these assertions with reference to Nigeria? What might account for the dearth of poetry criticism in Nigeria?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: It’s probably right to say that few people review poetry these days and some of the few reviews available are not inspiring. This is the case particularly in our country. Some critics have observed that much of the poetry published here is not good enough. However, there are a few people that write good poetry, so it’s not a disastrous situation. I cringe when I read some poems published in the newspapers, and wonder why the editor or whoever is responsible allows this to appear in print. I speak now as a critic and teacher: I’ve been reading, studying and teaching poetry for decades. I write poetry as well and would leave my readers to judge my work or make of it what they would. There is some level of poetry criticism going on in the universities but perhaps more attention needs to be given to this aspect of criticism. Fiction seems to grab almost all the attention in criticism at the moment. It seems fiction is more popular, especially with publishers and sponsors of literary prizes. People seem to flock where there is more profit or visibility. Little wonder poetry criticism appears to be neglected.
Uche Peter Umez: You have got this reputation as a prolific writer. Does it now affect the quality of your writing somehow? At what point do you allow yourself some distance from writing to be able to contemplate writing? Is there any vital link between your own poetry and prose, a kind of continuity?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Well, I don’t know whether to call myself a prolific writer. I express myself in many genres, though: novel, poetry, drama, short stories, children literature and, of course, researched papers or academic writing. So perhaps you are right. As for this affecting the quality of my writing, you should tell me. I can only say that I strive to write better each time and seek the opinion of friends, family and colleagues. The various things I write complement one another and have a salutary influence effect or influence on each other. I do not write all the time, you know; I have enough time to contemplate writing, as you put it, and to read what others – friends and relatives – write. It’s a very busy life I live, but I’m coping well enough.
Uche Peter Umez: As someone who has written no less than thirty-six creative works, not to mention non-fiction works. How do you manage? Looking at all the responsibilities in your life – family, academic, socio-cultural, I mean, where do you draw your energy from?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Hmm. The secret is very simple. My Creator blessed me with exceptional good health. Besides, I have the affection and support of a sensitive spouse and the powerful intellectual support of my two daughters and a few friends and colleagues. Moreover, I am supremely organized and work hard. There is probably more to it, but I’ll stop here.
Uche Peter Umez: Doubtless you have mentored a lot of students, from undergraduate to postgraduate. How do you evaluate a poem that is successful – that is, a poem that has accomplished its purpose? How would you know if a poem is effective? What is it that appeals to you in a poem? Is it its sound, sense, or structure?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: What is a poem worth if it does not display an intensity of feeling, emotion? We are all familiar with William Wordsworth’s definition of a poem – “powerful feelings recollected in tranquility”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as “the best word in the best place”. I also like poetry that makes profound statements in an accessible manner. This is the quality Theo Vincent tells us makes Gabriel Okara a great poet: the ability to combine accessibility and profundity, two aspects of the communicative force of poetry, without falling into the trap of incomprehensibility. A great poem would normally have made judicious use of the various senses – auditory, visual, tactile, etc – and the structure would simply be appropriate.
Uche Peter Umez: Audre Lorde said, ‘The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” Your poetry draws on a whole lot of contemporary issues, even touching on the menace of Boko Haram in Nigeria. You have written some thought-provoking essays on feminism and I was hoping to see that connection to feminism in your poems, but I could find only three poems on “Gendered Musings” in Heart Songs. And in the other two collections not much really. Don’t you think, given your background, you have a responsibility to engage this issue more thematically and broadly in your poetry?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: When I write creatively, I’m just a writer, not an activist, ideologue or campaigner for any ‘ism’ or movement. I simply explore experience as my mood, feeling and emotion dictate. I write a lot about women simply because I’m a woman and feel like a woman. I write about all kinds of issues that take hold of my imagination. I don’t think ‘feminism’ or ‘ideology’ when I write my novels, poems, etc. I must add, though, that there are many poems about women issues and for women in my three collections. On the other hand, I have written extensively about gender and feminist issues in my academic writing. Apart from numerous articles published in these areas, I have also written books in the two fields; two examples will suffice: Gender Issues in Nigeria: A Feminine Perspective (1996) and Snail-Sense Feminism: Building on an Indigenous Model (2012).
Uche Peter Umez: One striking feature of your poetry, in all your three collections, is its accessibility. Almost anyone can access your poetry, young or old – they don’t have to be much oriented towards poetry. One won’t get “mental indigestion” from reading your poems – à la Chinweizu. But don’t you think this makes your poetry seem a little too familiar? Are you not concerned that some “formalist” critics may interpret it as bereft of rigour and density? Finally, why does poetry matter to you?
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: The response I gave to your previous question has already answered this question, hasn’t it? The simplicity one finds in my poetry does not reduce the quality of these poems, I think. I guess the reader has a right to his/her opinion in this matter. One thing I can tell you is that my poetry has the powerful influence of oral traditional forms and this often imbues it with simplicity of diction and lyricism. I’ve never been a follower of “The Aesthetic Movement” or their doctrine of “art for art’s sake” (“l’art pour l’art” ) which insists that a work of art has no claim beyond its own existence, that the end of a work of art is simply to exist in its formal perfection, and to be beautiful. I’m not obsessed with form either though I believe that a work of art must have some form and beauty. It’s interesting to note how some writers have defined poetry in the Nigerian tradition. I’m thinking now of writers like Niyi Osundare and Afam Akeh among others. Let’s consider, for instance, Afam Akeh’s “The Living Poem: Manifesto for the public poem” (taken from his latest volume Letter Home and Biafran Nights) where he writes: “Poetry unbound, living free/ in rhythm with the rocking streets,/ … Poetry shaking hands with normal folks,/ not proud and poor like a listed building/ leaning on public pity.” Like the traditional oral artist, I’d like to demystify form, language and metaphor in the poetry that I write. Being esoteric is not all one expects of good poetry, and is not necessarily the best approach; in fact what captures my interest is the captivating lyricism that good poetry is imbued with. Perhaps that is why I love the work of certain Nigerian poets, particularly Niyi Osundare, Femi Osifisan, Tanure Ojaide, Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Promise Ogochukwu, Afam Akeh, Obi Iwuanyanwu, Idris Opkanachi, Remi Raji and a few others.
I love to write poems that are marked by simplicity of language just as in the best of our oral traditional poetry or songs. My Igbo sensibility manifests in everything I write – my poetry, fiction, plays and, to some extent, my academic writing. Some critics have told me that my work is distinct in this way. They say that my profound understanding of my culture and the historical evolution of Nigeria from colonial to contemporary times as well as the realistic delineation of characters, especially women, of various periods, in Nigerian society, are the factors that give my work its distinctiveness. I believe this is also true of my poetry in which I have confronted issues of the past and the present, issues of cultural, political, religious and economic import. Really, I think my growth or development as a writer has been influenced and nurtured by the great tradition established by writers such as Achebe, Armah, Ekwensi, Nwapa, Aidoo and Emecheta, Ike (in fiction) and Okigbo, Clark-Bekederemo, Soyinka, Osundare and Ojaide (in poetry). These are some of the writers I admire their work. There are, of course, writers from outside Nigeria that I find equally interesting, especially Jackie Kay, in poetry – since the emphasis is on poetry in this interview. Does it not strike you that the new poetry written in the West, for instance is characterized by simplicity and lyricism – the kind of poetry that is vibrant and life-enriching, making a tapestry of voice, feeling and communal understanding. Ha, formalist criticism indeed! I hope you will excuse my “ikpem” language when I cry “Formalist criticism gbakwaa oku!”
Uche Peter Umez is a poet, short fiction writer and children’s novelist. His latest children’s books The Boy who Throw Stones at Animals and Other Stories and Tim the Monkey and Other Stories have just been published by Melrose Books and Africana First Publishers (Nigeria) respectively.