Peter Akinlabi earned his BA from the University of Ibadan and his MA and PhD from University of Ilorin, Nigeria. He is the author of A Pagan Place, issued as part of the APBF Chapbook Box Set: Eight New-Generation African Poets in 2015 and published by Akashic Books, and a collection of poems, Iconography, which was long-listed for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2017. He also won first prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (October 2009). He lives in Ilorin, Northern Nigeria.
The Monday Writer Interview
I must have written a couple of ditties at some point in High school. I remember I used to possess some reels of paper, off-cut, scavenged from a near-by paper mill, on which I wrote some things in verse –nothing precocious; in fact, I suspect these must be mostly my own rewriting of poems in Poems of Black Africa. But I cannot recall what they were like now; I lost that treasure in the great flux of growing up.
But I recall that I wrote some inscrutable poems in the university which I put up on the notice board at the English Department in Ibadan with half-hope that nobody would really pay attention and if they did, wouldn’t bother to ask me what the poems meant. Student verse was not so difficult to write because it was student verse; but one of them made it to the second place of the Okigbo Poetry Prize that year, 2000 – my first literary garland.
I write about stuff like memory and temporality, epistemic spaces and transitions – basically, things that lend themselves to ritualizing estimation. I suspect I possess what will appear an anachronous sensibility and style; I peddle some kind of modernism in a postmodernist, post-global, transcultural world. But that is all right; there is still a place for the numinous anchorage even in a relentlessly changing world.
On how much of his work is autobiographical and why he writes
I believe all literature is autobiographical. A writer may succeed in masking or ambiguating their self-location in text, but there is always the tell-tale hand, or mind, of self-account goading words to reflexive incandescence. Pace Barthes, the author is alive and scheming. You can see it – even in works that invoke the ethereal, the unrecognizable worlds, such as Garcia Marque’s and Amos Tutuola’s – you can feel the ghostly presence of the author as she goes about defamiliarizing and destabilizing the known milieu, for sport.
I don’t know why I write, or have to write, but I know it fulfills some kind of duty or purpose…maybe a longing for salvation. In a way.
On challenges he has faced as a writer
There really are no personal challenges as such, barring the fact of one’s postcolonial condition. That condition invades your personal life and space, makes you a little slow for the world, a little nervous and unproductive sometimes because of all sorts of lack and occlusion; but it also makes you long for distance, the contrived fields of dreams.
You learn to approach the postcolonial condition as a gardener would an unruly hedge.
Best advice from writers and non-writers, and advice for other writers
I don’t befriend many writers, but the few I know are in no position to offer me advice – they are fellow spelunkers. We may sometimes sit at bars and parks to talk about the literary greats, Fela, polity and Afrobeat or Afripolitans, but we largely nurse our individual doubt, individually.
But non-writers have offered me precious advice; they say things like “oh you are a poet that is kind of quaint”. I listen to them.
Advice to other writers? I also have none. Ok, one thing: (as we say in Nigeria) they should face their work.
The 5 best books he has read and why?
Boleros by Jay Wright: This is the book that spelled out “poetry” for me in caps, like no other before or after.
The Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde: This book redirected my understanding about the cross-cultural resonances of form and tale and archetype. It pushes the limits of creative representation and diffusion in exciting ways.
Children of Gebelawi by Naguib Mahfouz: Because it is a very powerful allegory, simultaneously irreverent and devoted. A book that can swing such dialectic is no doubt an extraordinary book.
Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison: This book animated my interest in rethinking the interplay of space, place and built things as art. It links actual spaces to imaginative representations and possibilities, blurring generic distinctions between architecture, fiction, poetry, philosophy and human capacity for articulate abstraction. An inscrutably important book for me.
Selected Poems of Tchicaya Utamsi translated by Gerald Moore: Utamsi is easily the best African poet for me. This is a book I return to every time.
A book he wishes he’d written
The book I wish I had written is Wole Soyinka’s play The Road. I like its eccentric playfulness and its awfully forbidding language.
Have the authors of these 5 books influenced his writing?
Yes they have, with the exception of Mr. Mahfouz. Two other “authors” that have been major influences are the Yoruba verbal artistes Odolaye Aremu and Ogundare Foyanmu and a Nigerian poet, Akomaye Oko, who wrote a fine collection titled Clouds in the 1990s. Clouds was an important early influence.
On misreading and misunderstanding of his work
A fellow Nigerian poet recently placed my work, alongside some others, within the ebbing flame of “rituality” in poetry, by which I think he meant that we are associated with retention of old consciousness, perhaps a traditionalism. I believe he was correct in his estimation in a way, but too hasty in concluding that such rootedness was at some risk. He spoke in favour of a new conceptuality, a new international aesthetics with relevance to the modish transnationalism of a post-global world. As important as this new orientation is, it is my belief that what Okigbo calls the “urn of (the) native” is still half empty; it has to be accounted for. The urn of course can sling in all directions, but it has to be kept earthed and illuminated, at least in memory of the ancients.
(For those on the frontlines)
Now that we have mastered the habit of men at war
Casting eyes far too often into the horizon, skimming
the anguished language of newscasters, cameras unfolding
a montage of faces and bodies, between droning of men and machines
And the stabs of quick exits, we have grown sticky with silence.
We have ridden the waves too far, with neither sign nor compass.
Men too broken with fear and duty to yodel at lunch
Confess to unrelenting dreaming even in mere stolen naps
Of distant youth and freedom or invasion of aliens.
The chatter of the birds outside the windows seems all unkind now.
Men, changing shifts, walk out of or into the evening
Slinging hope on their shoulders like retaining walls
Wondering what touch or breath is that death mark
They may take home with love.
A First Responder Takes Stock of Empty Streets
Even now, when time’s emptying out
into silent, paler streets, moving by degrees
love’s echo might still be heard whittling a pair of gloved hands
wrinkled with effort to clear the mist clouding a future anterior.
No one asks questions more that hope can affirm.
The streets have grown silent now, as if evil too
must bow to the higher order of devastation:
an Eastern migrant defying border protocols,
feet firm across various dreads, smirking at a tramp’s
sudden distrust of familiar pavements.
Hardly Easter yet, but the year has grown so old.
and we too are stretched thin and voluble,
like a regular day in isolation,
trading memories of last yuletide, contesting the certainty
of auspicious air even then, craving the dialectic
of human touch.
But the streets are still preeminent, even if their sensory core
has dropped its active verbs, like nervous birds leaning
on a rumor of light and warmth, learning to coo out a wail
which a woman’s voice, somewhere in the swaddling gloom
of a door defiantly ajar, accepts like a dare
stroking out its austere note to a still intensity .
For all else is nothing.
A draping darkness has descended
on the cool confidences of this street.
And we shall all be changed.
Three Strophes for the Body
That the body darkens in bloom to engage itself
with illuminating ghosts is a pulped given;
at some point, at a singular profusion of perspective,
we dissolve into a veiling.
Henrietta Lacks is darkening amidst all that white,
and after, a multi-million dollar devastation
travelling the world first class, cultured,
In similar lab of white, an invisible snarl
stretches my own skin to the limits
of decay or orgasm.
I imagine the body disguises its own surrender
in order to figure out what echo, like a bird,
wilts without a benefit of shade.
I can myself be multiple in such dimension, soul folded,
in the manner of say a crossing of arms,
some kind of Buddha, surveying the mass
of greying humanity, with a coroner’s intent.
I will assume that the body prefers an appearance
of distance to clarify sensations
in their perfect order.
Yet the body often forgets the silence it has outlined
to confront such a moment as this.
An old poet lays awake in the night, flipping a tie around
his neck, listening to strange echoes bodies make
bumping across time –
Cesare Borgia, Maupassant,
He bumps in that wander on a devious parley
of mind and body narrating a Neapolitan nightmare,
like a passage of fear on the body’s diaphany.
There is a historic burden placed on all souls that are tuned
where darkness mauls reality like an invading army.
But who hears his own slow song of descent
if the voice keeps failing at the patterning
of the body’s explication?
But shuffling still, he slings the tie like conceptual webs
around his neck –
and on the field outside women come and go
talking of suicide.
The moon, sitting on the face through the open sky,
seems misplaced, like dirt on a flower.
Something had reversed the geometry
of the sprawl.
The scene defies the carelessness of precision;
of time aggregated in a tidier image.
The body insists on unyielding notes
of silence, so willing to accommodate
the powerlessness of lights;
or the sardonic surprise on the face
of a deserted night.
Alemayehu at the Victoria and Albert Museum
so again I return to the pains of the recumbent body,
Alemayehu, the young prince whose body –
dragged from twilights of youth
into the white cold – could not come forth to light, or return
beyond the Feroze, to the hills of Makdela, to the stones
which wove his father’s body to legends – except as memory
how often did he look back towards sunset, grey with unspoken terror,
amidst the white swarm of conquering feet?
how often, alone in his head, like a bird trapped in a cave,
without the forest of its birth to fill the hollows of its body
perhaps the Royal Surrogacy meant well:
but who could match the extent of “difficulties of every kind”
with the immaculate solitude about him, the amputative silence
read as dignified foreignness, unintended mockery of a voluble lineage
all is images now, curated canticles of curious cameras,
obscuring the clenched soul and the vastness of loss.