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Echezonachukwu Nduka in conversation with Nnorom Azuonye

Echezonachukwu Nduka

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.


Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts is available here.
Waterman is available here


SLQ Daily, 01 October 2020

Esiaba Irobi
Photo: Olu Oguibe

October 1, 1960, Nigeria shook off the tyranny of colonialism
from Britain to become an independent nation.
Many Nigerians across the world celebrate this today.

October 1, 1960, a poet and playwright, Esiaba Irobi was born,
in Biafra. He lived in exile all his life in Nigeria,
Britain, the United States and Germany.
Of all the places he lived in exile, he loved Nigeria the most,
fondly referring to his host as “My own fucked-up cuntry

We celebrate the birthday of Esiaba Irobi today.

May 3, 2010, a mischievous rumour spread across the world;
DR ESIABA IROBI IS DEAD. THE MINSTREL HAS DIED IN BERLIN.

How does somebody who wrote Nwokedi, The Colour of Rusting Gold,
Hangmen Also Die, The Other Side Of The Mask, Cotyledons, The Fronded Circle, Inflorescence: Selected poems, 1977-1988, Cemetery Road
and Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin & Other Poems get to die?

Many of us, Esiaba’s friends, don’t even believe he is dead.
Maybe we are mad, yes, like those nuts out there who don’t buy
the deaths of Tupac, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, the last superstar.
Esiaba is one of those people that defy death.

I even wrote a play, Funeral of the Minstrel, a rite,
to process this, and it still does not add up, so I will just say,
and I hope you all join me in saying, as loud as possible:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ESIABA IROBI.

Nnorom Azuonye


I am not a major poet? But Philip is? What makes Philip
a better poet than me? Because he wrote, “they fuck you
up your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do…?”
Who, in England, from a middle class family, was not
fucked up by his mum and dad? Who?
– (excerpt from ‘Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin’ by Esiaba Irobi)


OLU OGUIBE
Seven Stations of The Cross
(For Esiaba Irobi)

From Leeds to Liverpool,
Liverpool to London,
London to New York,
New York to Towson,
Towson to Athens;

The beaconer takes his bow in Berlin
And the exile becomes Myth:

Seven stations of the Cross.

I leave to live, said he
I exit to exist.


“When man waits and waits for God to act and God does not act, he takes on the role of God and acts. That’s why He made us in his own image.”
– Esiaba Irobi


ANDY WILLOUGHBY
Elegy for The Minstrel: Esiaba Irobi (after Neruda)

Through the drag of workdays, with your
Starburst smile and your flash of light,
With your syncopated rhythm,
Over piles of fractured bureaucratic language
From marking cover sheets, from tedious evaluations
Of quality, I hear you faintly, so distant now,
But the volume builds as you pound the big
Drum between your legs, call out for a response,
Over years, over continents, over the debris of
Our prime – you come drumming,
Banging through the buzz of humbug,
Silencing the moronic harpies of political correctness,
Shutting up the shrivelled whine of dry balled academics,
Calling forth a dance of resistance and orgasmic joy,
You come drumming,
Over ruined dreams of independence,
Over fields of civil war dead,
Over the hidden corpses soaked in oil
And covered up by shells full of dollars,
You come drumming,
In your fine robes with your pounding feet
With your thrusting hips
With your raucous laugh and righteous howl of laughter
You come drumming
Beating out a warning to the Beasts of Sandhurst,
Dragging into the light the secret police with their
Cowardly meals of ground glass in mashed potato,
Their Columbian neck ties,
Reducing the roar of tyrants into the buzz of
Dirty little mosquitos,
Composing your dance of rebellion and unstoppable human joy,
You come drumming,
Over the fields of middle age, over the fearful desert,
Over unspeakable silence of loss,
Over the graves of poor mothers,
And poverty emasculated fathers
Over the stilled rivers of molten steel,
Over the waters of the Tees, the Thames, the Mersey,
The Niger, all the world’s rivers, over pipelines greased with
Sweat and human blood,
You come drumming, and singing
Of revolution, of love, of sexual joy,
Of the pleasure and fires in great poetry
Of early Walcott and Neruda, of Soyinka,
Of Guevara, of Brecht’s first anarchic ballads,
Of Oxtail soup and the best kind of chilli
Of Goat curry with Rice and peas
Drowning out the drone of the conformists,
The vicious rumble of the bigots,
Cancelling out the hum of the vacuum of infinite space,
Demanding a place at all the parties to celebrate freedom
You will never be able to attend with us in person again,
Ensuring we will sing your songs and dance with your
Smile exploding within us,
Old friend, you come DRUMMING.


excerpt from ‘King James Version’ by Esiaba Irobi in Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin & Other Poems

I KNOW A FUCKED UP ENGLISHMAN as clever as a fox
who does the mischief that is done in everybody’s heart
anywhere we gather to celebrate the festival of Ogun.
No one ever sees blood on his fangs but we all know,
deja vu, that everytime Ogun is rimmed or nibbled in the arse,
it, most certainly, is by his imperial majesty, King James IV.


ZINO ASALOR
The Returning
(To Esiaba Irobi)

Buried behind blinking seas
Of fire
Is a glance that beckons,
Death-cries of a Lion
Teasing the hyena’s gut
Yet retreat in a twirl
A giggling seduction

Seeds of your sowing
Sprung from my soil, questions
The sort of a setting sun
Turning her back, returning
Already sure
Of my speechlessness

Hearts must be brave in wars
Of life, I know; but glints
Of bow’d arrows reveal
Crimes un-committed
My feet remember
Another law of war
The lore of Gomorrah’n
Candle sticks that dared trap
Quills of wind in their eyes

So I flee, a free man
With slave chains to cotton
Fields; the cracking whips of
Eternal tutelage

Who are we but as errant ships
Sailed from the ports of mercy
Calling onto the other
As to a mother, and you are
The rain that relieves the cloud
The howl of the moon that excites the sea

Sequestered in questions,
Conundrums burst open
Coconut water of undiscovered selves
Penning shadows on pale pages by day
Pilfering snatches into
Drooping eyes of your night

Are you all one, cocooned
In this caves of wonder, teeth
Of the same slanted smile?
You smile as though
It was you who first discovered wine

Cast away in the corner rooms
Of maybes, struck in mid-speech
Like eyes caught in the fishing nets
Of Calliope’s bust
Your genius illumines the shadowed
Places of my heart

Reeking of inchoate
Desires and shameless thirsts
For the punch of your gin
To which no throat replies
The caress of vines that stable
Drunken tremors of a life without

When all that remains is
Tar stains on Life’s aged lips
When all left behind is
Ashy tendrils rippling
Through the desert dunes of Heaven’s gates

Who. Will. Tell. Your. Story?


excerpt from ‘Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin’ by Esiaba Irobi

I

NOT BECAUSE he wrote obnoxious verses such as
‘Prison for the strikers, bring back the cat.
Kick out the niggers, how about that?’
or
‘Who is that feeling for my prick
Is it Tom, Harry or Dick?’
afterall we all wrote such doggerels at Oxford
just to amuse ourselves while listening to Louis
Armstrong’s ‘When the saints go marching in’
on Philip’s gramophone: His master’s voice.
It was the age of jazz. in those days it was fun
to jazz things up a bit. Just a bit. A little bit…

Yeah man!

From W.H. Auden we learnt jazzing things up.
Jeering, we learnt from T.S. Eliot, that erudite,
anti-semitic arsehole, whose surname and initials
are an anagram for ‘toilets’, who mangled verse
like an idiot, an art perfected in Gerontion:
‘My house is a decayed house. The Jew
squats on the window sill, the owner…’
or
‘Full fathom five your Bleinstein lies
Grave’s disease in a dead jew’s eyes…’
I forget the rest of his seductive, scintillating shit.
You see, Philip, was sometimes, like T.S. Eliot,
a political blockhead but, always, a marvelous craftsman.

Yeah man!

SLQ Daily, 30 September 2020

Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (October 2020)
EARLY BIRD PROMOTION ENDS 30-SEPTEMBER-2020

Roger Elkin, Judge

The SLQ Poetry Competition this quarter to be judged by Roger Elkin will close on 31st October. The Early Bird Promotion offering 15% Off Entry Fees must end at midnight 30th September.

We are expecting a strong contest having already logged 250 entries from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, China, France, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Netherlands, Spain and Malta. Get your entry in today and let’s see about prizing it.

Prize Fund £535.00

Learn more about the competition and enter now >>>



Gap Year by John Foggin and Andy Blackford, SPM Publications, Poetry


Ukamaka Olisakwe, Monday Writer, 28 September 2020

The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Monday Writer this week is Nigerian essayist, poet and novelist Ukamaka Olisakwe. She is the author of Eyes of a Goddess and Ogadinma – a novel published in September 2020. Learn about the author, read the Monday Writer Interview, Ukamaka Olisakwe in conversation with Nnorom Azuonye. There is also a short excerpt from Ogadinma and ‘Girl to Woman’ her short story first published in Sentinel Nigeria in May 2011. This is Ukamaka Olisakwe, SLQ Monday Writer>>>



Read of the Day

A.C. CLARKE
Starvation 1945

A woman scoops tea from the week’s ration
into the prewarmed pot as her mother taught her,
settles herself with the morning paper.

Grey bodies strew the page in random heaps:
somewhere in Germany she’s never heard of,
bare ground, black trees. And bodies.

The picture brings to mind that morning after
a Blitz night, when she walked down Regent’s Street,
shopfronts blasted out and mannequins

scattered across the street awkwardly splayed,
and much too thin for life. She turns the page,
sipping her tea. Best not to look too close.

Her daughter leans across the table:
we’re running low on butter coupons.

‘Starvation 1945’ by A.C. Clarke was highly commended in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (July 2020) judged by Terry Jones.


Blast from the Past

CHRIS MAJOR
Diagnosed

We stayed the night,
and left as chilly dawn
broke a pale yoke above
an empty car-park.
Groups of birds flapped in trees,
like strips of black sky
torn by barbed branches.
A week into Spring,
and now its starting to snow;
perhaps the years heard your news,
gone mad –
shuffled its seasons
to end in May.

‘Diagnosed’ by Chris Major was first published in Sentinel Poetry (Online) magazine in September 2003.


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