Read by Paksie Vernon
Echezonachukwu Nduka, poet and pianist, is the author of two full-length poetry collections Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts (Griots Lounge, 2018), and Waterman (Griots Lounge, 2020). He holds degrees in Music from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Kingston University London, UK. In 2016, he was awarded the Korea-Nigeria Poetry Prize on World Poetry Day. Hailed by Guardian Life Magazine as Artist Extraordinaire, Nduka’s literary works have been published in The Indianapolis Review, Transition, Bombay Review, Saraba Magazine, Jalada Africa, Kissing Dynamite, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry Vol. II, and A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others.
A specialist in piano music by African composers, Nduka has performed at the National Opera Centre in New York, Gateway Playhouse (New Jersey), IMI Concert (St. Louis, Missouri), as well as numerous other venues. His work has been featured on BBC Newsday, Radio France International, Classical Journey Ep. 134, and Radio Nacional Clasica de Argentina.
He currently lives in New Jersey where he teaches, writes, and performs regularly as a solo and collaborative pianist. Official Website: www.artnduka.com
This interview by Sentinel Literary Quarterly Founder/Editor, Nnorom Azuonye is taken from the feature ‘Echezonachukwu Nduka, Monday Writer 12 October 2020.‘
Son of an itinerant minister, what sort of literatures, apart from the scriptures, were you exposed to when you were growing up?
Fiction and plays. I have thought about this fact many times because now, I am more of a poet than a fiction writer, even though I have written and still write short stories. I have never written a play, but I read a lot of plays while growing up. For instance, Ola Rotimi’s ‘The Gods Are Not To Blame’, ‘Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again’, Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Lion and the Jewel’, ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, and others in that category. Camara Laye’s ‘The African Child’, Chinua Achebe’s ‘Chike and the River’, Ayi Kwei Armah’s ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’, Chukwuemeka Ike’s ‘Toads for Supper’, ‘The Bottled Leopard’ and ‘The Potter’s Wheel’ were part of the first works that introduced me to the world and genre of fiction. My parents owned a decent library. But more interesting is the fact that some of those books were bought in their early years as college students, and they sometimes had annotations which aided my reading and made me see things from their own perspective. I wasn’t thinking so much about what I read at the time. I only enjoyed the stories and how I was drawn in by the depth of language in which they were written. Perhaps, I should give some thought to why I was not very much interested in European literature, especially children’s stories at that stage. We had them in our library, but I was more interested in books by African authors. Poetry came into the picture much later when I was in secondary school.
At what point in your life did you realise you wanted to write? Do you recall your earliest pieces and what they were about?
It must have been in 2012 when my poem was published in The Kalahari Review. I had just started writing again shortly before that publication. My earliest pieces were a lot of garbage presumably, because I wrote more than I read at the time, and I was more ambitious about getting published than learning the actual skill of writing. I wrote political protest poems, love poems, and poems about my environment.
Who formed your support and encouragement base when you started out? Are they still there now?
When I finally decided to take writing seriously, my support and encouragement base were mostly writers on Facebook who had formed literary groups online where comments were made on my writing. Griots Lounge published one of my poems on their blog and encouraged me to keep writing. Fast forward to six and eight years later, they have become the publisher of my two poetry collections. I am indebted to the generosity of writers such as Dami Ajayi, Jumoke Verissimo, and others who shared candid feedback on my early poetry manuscripts and gave me the support I needed to thrive. Timi Nipre encouraged me to finish the early drafts of my first manuscript. Toni Kan published my poems in Sunday Sun Revue (SSR) of Sun Newspapers where he was editor at the time. Those platforms, among others, were a huge source of encouragement. I still enjoy unalloyed support from some writers who supported me when I was starting out.
Your first and masters degrees were in music, and your analysis and research is on West African Composers. Sounds fascinating. Tell us a little about your work as a musicologist, particularly about Choreowaves.
My earlier preoccupation was with European classical music in all its many forms and styles: choral music, organ music, piano music, etc. But in addition to playing organ music in church, I performed as accompanist to choral societies and solo performers before I decided to focus on classical piano music for a while. It was while I was studying the rudimental European repertoire that my teachers, Dr. A.O Adeogun and Professor Christian Onyeji, introduced me to piano music by Nigerian composers. First, it was Joshua Uzoigwe’s ‘Ukom’, then Christian Onyeji’s ‘Oga’ and ‘Echoes of Traditional Life’. Their compositions were quite unique, different in rhythmic and harmonic structures, and imitated traditional instrumental styles that I could relate to. So, I thought: African composers wrote piano music too! That was all I needed to know that I had struck gold. I did engage in popular music studies and analysis at some point, but I redirected my focus to African pianism. Since the past few years, I have dedicated my time to finding, studying, performing, recording, writing, and speaking about piano music by mostly West African composers. Recently, I recorded selected pieces from J.H. Kwabena Nketia’s book ‘African Pianism: Twelve Pedagogical Pieces’ published in 1994 for International Centre of African Music and Dance.
In 2018, I decided to record an EP that will comprise only solo piano works by Nigerian composers. I selected pieces by Christian Onyeji, Emaeyak Peter Sylvanus, Fred Onovwerosuoke, and Chijioke Ngobili. The recording was time-limited, together with a discomforting process that stirred my resolve to complete the recording. I had doubts at some point because I was concerned about the EP’s overall quality. However, I needed to get the work out there, to make a bold statement about this genre of piano music which I believe deserves more attention and appreciation. I gave some thought to what I wanted to call the EP, so I coined the word Choreowaves: a combination of dance and sound. What it implies is that African Pianism embodies the kind of classical piano music one can dance to. As I mentioned earlier, many compositions in the genre imitate rhythmic structures of indigenous African instrumental music, which are often responded to by dancing. In many African cultures, audiences do not sit still to watch instrumentalists perform, waiting to applaud afterwards. Everyone dances, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell performers and audiences apart, if there are no costumes for distinction.
Shortly after Choreowaves came out, it drew some attention and got featured on BBC Newsday, Classical Journey Ep.134, and Radio Nacional Clasica de Argentina.
Are you optimistic that West Africans will one day warm up to classical music by West African composers and that this will someday appeal to the rest of the world?
I am optimistic, but I must admit that we have a long way to go, even though African classical music enjoys a bit of appreciation and patronage in Africa. What feeds my optimism is the enormous work that many artists such as William Chapman Nyaho, Rebeca Omordia, Glen Inanga, Darryl Hollister, Emeka Nwokedi, James Varrick Armaah, Jude Nwankwo, and a host of others are doing to promote African classical music both on the African continent and in the diaspora. A few years ago, Dr. Edewede Oriwoh launched the African Composers website that archives profiles and contributions of composers from all parts of Africa. I have always maintained that one of the major points of action would be to take African classical music from the universities and conservatories to major concert stages, while seeking useful collaborations. If you visit many departments of music on the continent during performance examinations, you would be overwhelmed by the rich diversity of music by African composers which a lot of people both within and outside the university know nothing about. Unfortunately, many of such performances come alive and die right there. That shouldn’t be so. Africans will easily connect to this genre of music because there are several elements in such compositions that people can identify, understand, and appreciate. With constant performances, recordings, publishing, masterclasses, and collaborations, African classical music will take its prideful place on the continent, and in the world of music at large.
There is a temptation to think that writing is a side gig for you, but you have an impressive body of work in poetry, fiction and essays. Does your writing have a different life from your music, or do they work together?
They work together, I suppose. I write as much as I play music because I am dedicated to both art forms in equal measure. In other words, I split my time between music and writing. My writing schedule only suffers a bit of neglect when I focus more on music mostly because I am preparing for a concert. To be clear, I don’t write all the time. But I consider reading, research, and meditation on themes as part of the writing process. There’s a lot of music in my writing which could be found in themes, but also in the musicality of my poetry. As a creative and thinker, I am often caught in the web of exploration where both art forms feed each other.
One of the things I found fascinating whilst researching you for this interview was that in 2015 you translated the poems of Vladimir Vysotsky into Igbo language for the International Poetic Project Anthology (Marlena Zimna, ed.) was it a one-off thing or do you have original writings in Igbo and other translations into the Igbo language?
All of my original writings are in the English Language. The 2015 translation project has been my first and only translation into the Igbo language. I was specifically contacted for that project, and I took the offer with enthusiasm. To me, it was a huge opportunity to share my language with the world. However, I did not quite understand the importance of what I had done until I received a complimentary copy of the anthology, and saw my translation alongside the works of many others in various languages. In the future, perhaps, I might consider taking up the task of translating literary works of interest into the Igbo language.
In October 2018, Griots Lounge Publishing released your first collection of poems; Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts which ‘explores the intersections of death, love, music, wine, and the otherworldly.’ Walk us through this book and what you set out to do with it.
My first poetry collection is a dark work of art. I set out to re-imagine the idea of death, afterlife, and love with an inquisitive language. There are also poems about religion, cities, and seasons. Speakers in the collection ask existential questions that tug at the heart of what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The few love poems in the collection are mostly on the negative side of romance. In fact, a reader took it personal and queried my love life, wondering why I didn’t write a love poem with a happy ending. In one of the reviews of the collection, a critic argues that in the collection, I tend to build a bridge across the sea of grief. I agree. But of course, I am hopeful that the poems will speak to readers in many ways.
Just two years later you have another collection, Waterman, tell us about this book. Thematically, what sets it apart from Chrysanthemums?
Waterman takes a sharp turn away from the main thematic concern of my first book. It does not lend itself to dark themes of death and ghosts, but re-imagines the lives of people and places, interrogates memory, the sacred and mythical, sings aloud in many voices, all with a different depth of language and musicality. If there’s a thread that connects all the poems in Waterman, it is music.
Waterman is due to be launched virtually on October 16, 2020. You will be reading and discussing your poetry. You are looking forward to it, surely, we wish you every success with the launch at https://griotslounge.com/waterman-the-book-launch/
Thank you so much! I appreciate you and your team at SLQ.
An interview with Mary Jo Balistreri
by NEIL LEADBEATER
Wisconsin poet and former musician, Mary Jo Balistreri, speaks candidly about how she came to poetry through a desperate need at a time when her life and that of her family endured unimaginable tragedy. Balistreri spent her life in music as a classical concert pianist and harpsichordist. It wasn’t until the deaths of two of her grandsons from mitochondrial disease, followed by her own cancer diagnosis and loss of hearing, that Balistreri found strength and consolation from some patient friends and the power of words. This was the moment when she turned, in her grief, to another art – that of writing poetry. Her stoicism and bravery is a testament to the healing power of poetry.
Mary Jo, tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I was raised on music. We lived upstairs in my grandparent’s home and they were both concert performers, she with the piano and he with the violin. They played duets most nights after dinner. Our family, cousins, aunts and uncles, drifted in during the evening to listen although there was quiet conversation too. My grandmother also taught piano and was the director of the choir. My father sang all the time in our upstairs apartment. He was a lyric tenor and at one time had a radio show. My mother was the rhythm section with her career as a teacher and performer of tap dancing.
I began performing at age three. Music was my life until I became a grandmother myself. By now I had switched instruments and played harpsichord professionally. Performing tapered off almost completely in my grandmother role to four wonderful children. The two boys had Mitochondrial Disease and the little one, though leading a fairly normal life, died unexpectedly when he was seven. We had lived with the knowledge of a shortened life, but Sam kept defying the odds.
Music, for the first time, was not enough to rise above Sam’s death. A friend thought writing might help bring me out of depression. She brought me with her to a poetry workshop. I was not a writer, certainly not a poet. The instructor had lost her son and my friend thought perhaps her experience of survival through writing might be able to reach me. The miracle is it did. I did not ever want poetry. I didn’t understand it, so feared it. I came to poetry through desperate need. I came to poetry through loss.
Music was an interpretive art for me. I needed something to rein in my emotions by creating. Poetry was that container.
What do you see as the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
I think the role of the poet is to tell the truth however slant. The poet does this by being attentive to the world, by loving the world with all its imperfections. To look at it straight on and yet be able to say, but…so not a Pollyanna version but to try and see the whole picture. Poetry is about discovery for me — of ourselves, of our place in the world. It is a means of dialogue, a means of listening carefully. A means of creating beauty and also a means of praise for what we have. For me personally, it is life. I truly don’t believe I would have survived emotionally without it. It gave me a way to express my heart. It showed me how to stand strong and be a witness to one little boy who lived a big life. To do what he had done all along — live joyfully, live with wonder. Continual grieving would have dismissed all that. Sam’s legacy would have been lost.
When you write your poems, where do your ideas come from?
Many of my ideas for poems come from walking each day. My mind, unfocused, tags along with my feet which in turn alerts my senses, which in turn might jog a phrase or an image loose from my morning reading, or it might be the sun shining a certain way on a tree that I hadn’t noticed before. I also get many ideas from reading. I journal in the morning and read some Rilke or Rumi — usually a few poems from some other poet and then walk. I read at night also.
Describe for us your writing process.
I write at the kitchen table and look out at a small lake and woods. I invite the new day in and often start by listing, without comment, thirteen things. A phrase or an image might present itself. Sometimes a prompt that is sent to me on email triggers a thought. I write whatever comes to mind, and then with a drafting pencil and a yellow legal tablet I’ll write words. Ideas come from that and when I get a few lines, I re-write them without all the cross outs. I do many re-writes. When I feel the poem is close to being finished, I rush into the computer to see how it looks on the screen.
When the poem is as close to finished as I can make it, I let it sit and don’t look at it for weeks. When I was performing on the piano, I did the same thing but left the piece of music for my ideal six weeks. It was/and is with poetry, amazing at what I did not see the first time.
What are the main influences on your poetry and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
I think music, art, nature, and reading have a great influence on my poetry; relationships, family, loss, and renewal as well. Ekphrastic poems often show up, and color is abundant in my work. I wasn’t even aware of that, so it must be second nature. I write from experience, in response to reading other poets.
Do you have a favorite genre of Poetry? If so, why does it appeal to you?
I don’t believe I do have a favorite genre of poetry. When I began, it was free verse and I do enjoy the beautiful images and language of lyric poetry. A good narrative poem is also appealing. I like prose poems, and I admire the skill of formal poetry. I’ve been writing haiku and senryu lately and the juxtaposition of images, and concision is appealing as is haibun which combines prose and poetry, (a haiku).
Do you have a favorite place in which to write?
As mentioned above, the kitchen table has always been a favorite in Wisconsin, but when I’m in Florida, I enjoy writing at an open-air table by the sea. It might be my very favorite place with the sound of waves, birds, the scent of salt air and brine. Watching children play and people in a kayak or sailboat going by. It arouses all my senses and there’s nothing better than daydreaming, reading and writing there.
What collections have you published to date and what are you presently working on?
Bellowing Ark Press published Joy in the Morning and Gathering the Harvest. (2008-2012), Future Cycle Press published Still, (2019) and Tiger’s Eye Press published Best Brothers, a chapbook, (2011), which was re-printed in 2014. Tiger’s Eye Press also published a mini chapbook of haiku, Along the Way (2017). At present, I’m working on a book of haibun and several personal essays.
How are you coping with Lockdown?
As social distancing continues, I find myself moving in ways I haven’t encountered before. I’m an introvert and have never had a problem with solitude, but this feels more like aimlessness. It’s a feeling of walking under water, everything in slow motion. The less I do, the less I want to do. I’m having trouble making decisions. Some of this is perhaps depression which is anger turned inward so that’s my next question to myself. What am I angry about? That would take pages in this political climate. There is a feeling of helplessness underneath the anger which is perhaps fueling it. I walk each day, write in my journal, but there is no relief from myself. I’ve fallen in a well, have retreated to a cave. Even when I venture out as I will today, the thought of it is more a chore than something to look forward to. It points to how much I need other people and realizing this Introvert has always moved within a group of people. Writing alone at a café or at the beach, there is the undercurrent of conversation, and occasionally someone stops at my table. When I’d return home, having been in a social setting, I was content.
I have tried Zoom as a way of connecting with other poets live, but it has lost its fascination.
What lessons have you learned from writing poetry? Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
Read extensively and don’t limit yourself. Keeping a journal is helpful to me. There are days I don’t write in a formal sense, and I used to worry about that. Now I know there is no such thing as writer’s block. To quote Ecclesiastes, there is a time to sow and a time to reap. Just as a field must lie fallow to restore its fertility, so must most writers give themselves time to gather thoughts, let them marinate. One thing that has been helpful to me is to take a first line from a poem I like, close the book and write to that line for 15 minutes. Just write. It sometimes helps jog me out of inertia.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.