A graduate of Mass Communications from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, amu nnadi began writing poetry in response to a dare, having not studied English Literature. He publishes without his photograph, convinced that no poet owns what he writes and that poets are only vessels in the hands of a great influence.
All his books bear a dominant black image, which, he says, represents the mystery of the poem, as well as the primal essence of being, “the presence and absence of things”. He also writes poetry without capitals nor full stop, for he says again that life “is a seamless stream of commas and no stops.”
A poet of great and irresistible energy, he is currently concluding work on his seventh and eighth collections, “the love canticles” (2020) and “eucalyptus”, which he hopes to publish in 2021.
He is the Resident Poet of the Port Harcourt Literary Society, but works with the Niger Delta Development Commission, an agency under the Presidency, Federal Government of Nigeria, as Deputy Director, Corporate Affairs.
He lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State of Nigeria.
The SLQ Monday Writer Interview – amu nnadi on his writing
I started writing poetry a long time ago. In 1983, as a first year student at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I studied Mass Communication, a friend and classmate said I was uneducated and unsophisticated because I neither read nor wrote poetry. And he declared that I was going to be a failure as a journalist if I didn’t start. He ended by saying I was dead without poetry.
We were all hanging out with some female friends by Okpara Hall, one of the female hostels in Nsukka at the time and there was laughter all around me. I was humiliated. I stood up and left them and returned to my hostel. But rather than wallow in displeasure and hurt, I rose to the challenge. The following week, I went to a bookstore and bought a number of books, including the iconic Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, and began to read and study them.
I hadn’t studied literature in high school. I didn’t know what to expect, what to look out for, and so I was led by a hunger to prove I was better than what I had been called. That was my first sentiment and longing: to be accepted among my friends. But I discovered that the more I read poetry, the poetry of Dennis Brutus, J. P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Leopold Sedar Senghor, David Diop, Birago Diop, Odia Ofeimun, so many poets I discovered at the time, that my desperate ache for acceptance transformed into a passionate hunger for the words and images those poets evoked.
As a young Marxist, the poetry of David Diop and Agostinho Neto, the protest poetry of Dennis Brutus and many black Southern African poets inspired emotions stronger than mere words. And so, when I woke up one morning in August of 1983, during the long vacation, after my first year, and discovered I had written my first poem, my first words were of protest and an interrogation of the social inequities we were concerned about. Over the years, my concerns have shifted to compassion and because the poetry I found accessible during those early days were those of J. P. Clark, Odia Ofeimun, Dennis Brutus and Leopold Senghor, poets who romanticised their concerns, I found that I developed as a romantic poet.
I don’t quite remember those early poems I wrote. I lost quite a number of them. But I remember going to see Chinua Achebe at the time, with some of my early writings. He was teaching in Nsukka at the time. I remember his encouraging words. But, more encouraging was the fact that my very first published poem was by Achebe, who was editing a journal at the time called Okike. I don’t remember the poem now. I lost my copy of the journal. But, that was all I needed to have my growing love kindle into flame.
It was difficult at the time. Not just because I was coming from nothing, but also because I always felt like an impostor, and outsider. But I met quite a few poets, particular at the English Department, on whose notice board I used to post my poems, poets like Uche Nduka, who encouraged me, welcomed me and helped me grow. And growing meant that it became easier to write; my steps became surer over the words and the lines and the vision.
As I said earlier, my first poems were predominated by concerns about social injustice and the naïve protestations of a young Marxist. My first published book, the fire within, is dominated by such concerns. But I discovered a more tender, subtle tone to my protest, my social concerns, my calls for equity and justice, over the years. I don’t think a poet is in the best position to situate or define his poetry. That should be the work of academics. But I can say that my beginnings influenced me deeply and today I can easily – and this is no attempt to appropriate the right of the critique to define my art and poetry – call myself a poet of the romantic tradition.
Love has become a more urgent theme and preoccupation. Not love in the way a man loves a woman, but in the way a human being views the world around him. I have just completed my sixth collection, and the title is instructive. It is titled the love canticles, a book of one hundred poems. There is a preface to the poems in the book, I believe, that attempts to shed a little light on my preoccupation with love. Permit me to quote a part of it:
“those who seek to change the world, to make it a better home, must first embrace the magic of love to birth and to nurture. they must find in the poetry of its power, the will to heal, the passion to change, and the capacity to influence and reorder. they must find in its gifts the beauty of magnificence, honour and grandeur. for how can you bring about, inspire or sustain positive change, over anything or anyone, without first knowing love? how can you love, without understanding its portents and potency?
“love is life’s greatest force. it is the primordial through which everything that exists was created: the heavens and earth; what is known and what remains a mystery; what remain, still, the secrets, the depths and the unfathomable miracle, myth and mystic of the human spirit. it is with, and through, love that a man feeds his relentless and restless hunger for knowledge and self-improvement; as well as his epic work in the arts and philosophies, all the remarkable discoveries in science and the unravelling of his most primal ache.”
Further down the “preface”, I also offer:
“a love poem, therefore, is more, than its letters. it goes beyond its literal understanding, or definition, as a “confession of eros from lovers to each other.” the riches of a love poem extend to the precincts of an enriching conversation, not just with humanity, but the connection between humanity and all which surround it. This is why a love poem to one person often has, in equal measure, an effect on another person or why a love poem to nature arouses an equal love in another reader, wherever that reader may be, whatever age or gender, beliefs or expectations, or none at all.”
And so, you find that in my later books, such as through the window of a sandcastle, a river’s journey, a field of echoes and the love canticles there is a deliberate effort to romanticise places, people and my overall hunger for a more ennobled humanity.
On why he writes
I write because I write. And I think I speak of every writer. There is no deliberateness to it. You know, and I’ve said this before, my first poem was written in my sleep. I woke up and saw it on my desk and I still do not remember writing that poem. Over the years, I have woken up with lines of a poem and I’d just write them down. That has fed my belief, and I hold this very strongly, that what we write is not wholly ours. We are just vessels. God continues to extend creation through writers. Because when he enjoined us to go into the world to multiply, he spoke about what is both physical and metaphysical; about procreation and creation. And so, creatives are as quills in the hands of god. That is why none of my books bears my own name (amu nnadi is my family name), nor my photograph. And I write without capitals and full stop. We do not own the beginnings, neither the end of what we call our works.
While I was working on a field of echoes, two of the invocative poems began while I dreamt. Indeed, the poems ablution and shrine started from a dream of childhood, where I saw myself being initiated into the masquerade cult of my people. And while I wrote them, I remember there was a sense in my living room, at 3am, that I was not alone. It was a frightening experience and when I related it to my wife in the morning, all she did was plead that I should leave writing for a while. (Laughter.) I think she was afraid I was losing my mind. But which poet is sane? In one of the quotes in the love canticles I said: “What makes the poet special, and in this lies his torment and madness, is that he sees what does not exist, and writes it into being.”
I have often pondered on the concern I heard in my wife’s voice that morning, as she took the kids to school. And I fear that writing is both pleasure and pain. It is both gift and burden, but something we bear with pride and compulsion. The words come and you yield to them. They control you. They move you. You know, it is said that it is both inspiration and perspiration. And I agree. The inspiration controls you, while you control the perspiration. And because you render your deepest emotions, of course most of what one writes is autobiographical. They are recordings of our encounters, experiences, beliefs and convictions. You write a love poem, for instance, because someone or someplace inspires you. Poetry is something lived, a life shared.
On challenges he has faced as a writer
There are challenges that are artistic, and there are those that are socio-economic, political, personal, and the moral questions. I have faced all of them. As a young writer, I was concerned about my art, working to let it evolve into something distinct, peculiarly mine. But after centuries of writing, what ever can you write that could be called amu nnadi’s? Early in my life as a poet, I discovered that I was a montage of many voices. I don’t know if this is peculiar to me, but because my poetry developed off the books I read, I flowed as a stream collecting the voices of the poets I encountered in my journeyings.
But one underlying thread remained: the romanticising of people, places and pursuits. Today, people say I have evolved. People compare my poetry with that of Pablo Neruda’s. While it humbles me to be so defined, I think it is often an admission that, for both of us, poetry is confession and declaration, especially of love. Love is not intellectual, nor should it always be shrouded in obfuscations and mystery. It is already a mystery and to render it, to speak of it, one should be clear both in thought and of emotion. But then, when you read the invocative poetry, the philosophical poetry, they lose that identification with Neruda.
Of course, there were the economic challenges. When I was much younger, the passion for poetry made it difficult to hold down a job for long stretches. The 1990s were an especially challenging decade. I lost as many jobs as I got. I was a journalist, a public relations executive, a printer, a conductor, and a lost soul. But I met my wife and slowly I began to find a stronger reason to be responsible for more people than myself and so when I got my present employment at the Niger Delta Development Commission, I had matured enough to know how to balance expectations at work and my writing. And I am grateful to God and men like my former editor at the Daily Times, Onyema Ugochukwu, and Timi Alaibe, a man of whose kindness I cannot stop speaking, who tolerated my insanities and allowed me to be both civil servant and poet.
While I spent the first 20 years as a poet to develop and become surer on my feet, NDDC has been the place where I have published all my books. It has been a challenge, balancing my work, and its demands, with the demands that come with writing. I have often wondered if my poetry has suffered or flourished because of my employment. There were times I wanted to quit, to concentrate on my writing. But my wife would always say that my pension is equally important and you realise that you have people to take care of. Bills to pay. So you sit back and deal with the pressures the best way you can.
Would I have published more if I were in the academia? No one knows. After through the window of a sandcastle won the inaugural Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry Book in 2014, there were offers from outside Africa to relocate and teach and grow as a poet. But you weigh that against the pension you would earn after retirement and you decide that those offers could wait. (Laughter.) I don’t want to go through my old age begging for grants and help from friends and institutions. And I’m being very honest here.
I remember Achebe’s advice most of all. He told me that my gift was obvious and I should not lose it. And I have always striven not to lose it. When I was insulted for being inelegant and unsophisticated many years ago, I decided at a point it was more prodding than a dampener. In my first book, I referenced that in my appreciation, saying that I chose poetry because I chose to live.
And I keep living.
His advice to other writers
The same advice I was given: whatever you do, don’t lose your gift and passion as a writer. I always say that writers (and artists, all creatives), more than any other human, share the same attribute with God the Creator. That ability to bring to life that which never existed. And so to write, or create, is to affirm our godhood. That is why writers never die. For as long as man has breath, Shakespeare, Soyinka, J. P. Clark, Neruda, Ovid, Homer will never be forgotten.
Yet there were wealthy men of that period who cannot be spoken of. If we speak of the great men and women of history, it is because first writers gave them a measure of our divinity and immortality, through the words we write. And so we speak of the giants of ancient Greece, or the rulers of ancient Rome, because people wrote about them.
But then, there are many writers, as much in those old times as perhaps there are now. Not all are remembered. Those who are remembered are because they took time to develop their craft and made their writings immortal by so doing. And so my advice is simple. While you retain your art, hone it, refine it, find a voice that is peculiarly yours and poetry and stories of enduring craft and quality. And let history bear you on its wings, towards eternity. Of course, there is the concern about financial reward. That may come. That may not come while you live. But while money solves many urgent and present challenges, your writing resolves the future questions and concerns.
I just completed work on my sixth book, the love canticles. My books include the fire within (2002), which won the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) Gabriel Okara Poetry Prize, pilgrim’s passage (2004), which was shortlisted for the Nigeria (LNG) Prize for Literature, through the window of a sandcastle (2013), which won the ANA Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Nigeria (LNG) Prize for Literature in 2013 and won the Glenna Luschei African Book Prize in 2014, a river’s journey (2016) and a field of echoes (2016).
I am also putting finishing touches to my seventh book, eucalyptus, which will be published next year.
On the best 5 books he has read and which, if any, he wished that he wrote.
This is a very difficult question, because my life has enjoyed an enduring love affair with books. Let me see. Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (a very difficult book. The first 72 pages took me over a year to accomplish), Patrick White’s Memoirs of Many in One, Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (someone stole that book when I came back to Nigeria) and Dennis Brutus’s Letters to Martha and Other Poems. And please allow me to include Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths.
There are too many worthy books not included here, definitely, which have influenced me. I have deliberately not included the Bible. You don’t include the Bible in any categorisation because, well, that’s the Bible and no book has been as influential to me as an individual and as a writer. I used to read the bible to improve as a poet. I learnt a lot from it and I always ask young writers to read the holy books. There is so much poetry in them that to know them is to become better, as a human being and as a poet.
I wish I wrote all of the five books. Why? Because they are divine. They hold immortality in their stories and in the way they are written. You know, as a young poet, I met this American lecturer who told me, in recommending that I read The Sound and The Fury, that great writing is not just the story that is written, but how it is written. I spent years at the British Council library trying to understand how stories are written. Some day when I try my hand with prose, I want to remember what I learnt in those books.
The books above have influenced me. And many more. I have been influenced by almost every poet or writer I have read. I did not mention Frank Yerby, Gabriel Marquez, J. P. Clark, so many gorgeous writers. There are many young writers too, like Chigozie Obioma, who are creating magnificent works. And in their hands our heritage as writers is assured.
Is there something about you and your work nobody knows or have misunderstood that you wish they knew or actually understood?
Well… (laughter), I wish people see that my love poetry is not always about a woman.
autumn grows old on me
weary leaves, cold sidewalks
and creaky trees leaning on bent canes
i grow old with it, weary from running mile
after mile, my head crowned
with its changing hairs like
the chill clasps mean fingers round my throat
the only drink i offer arlington, brutal host
with scarce a smile, i have
nothing to smile about, so i stare back
tears forming, heart unfeeling, hands
stuck deep into deeper pockets
where the last coins tell you
how far from home you are
it is strange how sometimes you cry
like meat thawing, losing arrogance
benumbed more from fears of the unknown
than these stark reminders that slowly,
everything finds its way home
you think of home when everything is strangely
suffocating, when duvets are not enough
you think of growing old
when all around you leaves brown, trees
undress, reveal bare essentials,
grey mourning grey mornings reveal
as we inch slowly, slowly
to our destination
home comes soon enough for those
who grow old, grow weary
from all the miles run, naked from
all the leaves shed, trees
that drop their weary souls on you,
awaiting the rebirth of a season, awaiting
a new place
home comes soon enough
for those who grow old
© amu nnadi, through the window of a sandcastle, 2013
through the window of a sandcastle
the wind says many things:
rivers grow many nipples
as they dance
reeds, slim and gullible as a girl
giggle as you tickle, bending
by the waist
coconut trees are fertile with many testicles
here in badagry, they bear many sons
and bury some in the sand
there are many paths to a river
marked by where our feet buried our souls
they gather waters of our lives
and grow deep in grim memorials
across paths skeletons crisscross
in medieval meditation
the wind speaks with astringent tongue
asking, why is the heart of crabs
all soft and tender
why must we break bones
to find the marrow of a man
there, where waterweed fix eyelashes
to a dirty road, wary of saltwater
a lone egret stands, peering into the sun
searching for the father who dressed her
for a wedding
she has chosen her own path
made her vows, and grown lean
standing on one leg after another
bent to a will
the wind reveals her pride
magnifies the bones she stands on
the egret looks to the sun to light her spirit
covered by plumes of pretences
she wills the wind to lift her feathers
air, grains, smells and all
i am a hump of sandcastle
filled with unspeakable dreams
through the window of her eyes
i see the sun hiding, brooding
startled by the darkness that lives there
here in badagry, egrets walk over graves
of poems, filled with empty metaphors
paths lead over exposed roots
across paths bleached as skeletons
and the wind mutters incantations
willing me: rise from the dead
here, where my river bends
i am lost in sand, ankle deep in dung
take me there where my river ends
and night begins to woo his bride,
take me there where waves laugh
mocking our silence
rising to slap her swollen breasts
against our shore
the wind bids:
suckle and write the poem of your life
fill your bucket with better than sand
empty, i cross myself, thinking
life is not religious
a poem is not a river
there is more sand in the world
© amu nnadi, through the window of a sandcastle, 2013
woodpeckers of sambisa
and there is nothing more savage
than the love of a woodpecker
the trees bear witness to her fury
eyes, gouged, weep without tears
lives torn out from the socket of a
country, their faces scarred, their
branches spread as veined arms
in perpetual, pathetic surrender
they wield weapons with pride
afar off the kalashnikov of beaks
explodes as thunder, drilling holes
into sturdy bark resolve of hearts
within which hate builds its nest;
alas! the anguish of loving without
heart, of love too blind and academic
to see the sightless root of trees
how can mere flesh contain the love
sharpened to pointless point by rage
when hardy trunks are no match to
kisses, nor the cracks of lightning
and so we stand, stunned into silence
as trees lament a savage tenderness
of love exploding out of sambisa
drilling holes into the spirit of people
does a tree love back, i often muse
standing here, its leaves too remote
to cover all his shame, stripped of will
being but aso rock-hard weak, being
plume plucked from rump of a bird
blown here and there by every wind,
does his heart not lie within a trunk?
to love with fury is a savage sound
when every stripped tree stands still
stuck in our muddled mindless mud
and the lost, rootless girls of chibok
gouged by beaks, hearts hollowed out
twisted narratives of leaves too green
and white to understand the vastness
of forest, too ass dumb to command
a cry of equal fury, and flint affection
are nothing, but these sad, harsh tags
on bruised soul of man, and country
© amu nnadi, a field of echoes, 2016
how so many on earth dwell
and how we are but each one
how so many trees there are
and how very few we climb
how many rivers daily flow
and how only one we swim
how many planets we find
and inhabit but one earth
how many tongues there are
and only one tongue we own
how many places there exist
but one birth place we have
how many fruits earth offers
and how few we pluck to eat
how many paths we discover
and only one a time we walk
how so many great sights exist
and how so very little we sight
how many stars in our universe
and how few are revealed to man
how much knowledge there is
and how so small our minds are
how so far our souls can sojourn
how unclad and without wings
how often we sleep and awaken
and sleep once to wake no more
how so immeasurable mankind is
how little and finite a man is
how we think ourselves masters
of the cosmos, the true emperors
how so little we know
how so little we see
how so little we eat
how so little we own
how so little we are
how so little, is man
no matter how much water
earth cannot drown in it
© amu nnadi, a river’s journey, 2016
beside you, fiery one, unclasped, i sit
drinking this black coffee, as though
from your lips of the shadowy voyage
slowly, something native, out of you
as mist ascends, infused with earth’s
exhalation, occult of the wild mocha
your touches, intense as warm water
brew my thirst into ardour of the poem
and bring to being the aged kingdom
where with charm a sovereign reigns
and i give, drunken, to the liquid lure
in mildewed mug of my caffeine ache
tongue of honey, heart of organo gold
your breath out of the caliginous lake
abides as steam upon the dark planet
wooing the pilgrim’s primitive blood
through boundless tributaries of awe
slowly, with tremblings, i too ascend
rekindled thus, at thirst’s end i arrive
insatiate, doomed to cafe latte kisses
lip upon lip, bound to a darkling flow
so coffee, the bard’s black magic brew
alchemizes into a raw, naked longing
settling still in love’s awakened heart
© amu nnadi, the love canticles, 2020
amu nnadi is available for interviews, readings, festival appearances, and discussions. Send your enquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org