The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Nigerian poet, Inua Ellams, whose poem “Crime and Punishment 3” revolves around a hilarious joke but also underscores Africa as an emerging world power.
ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?
ELLAMS: In my first poetry monologue “The 14th Tale,” I wrote about an incident that occurred in secondary school a few months after I arrived in London from Lagos, where I watched the new kid Luis, who’d just arrived from China, who spoke barely a word of English, pee against a wall. We had skipped a lesson and were hiding from teachers in one of the playgrounds in Holland Park School. A conversation broke out on different shapes of excrement (it’s what boys talked about back then) and after laughing, nature called. We lined up to pee against the wall and something curious happen. Whenever I pee (stay with me) I get a tickle, a tremor that travels the length of my spine. Of the four boys who passed urine, only one shivered as I do, as I have always done. Luis. It was a simple, insignificant thing, but to my twelve year old mind, it proved that regardless of race, background, age, culture, Luis and I shared something intensely personal; we were viscerally the same I believed back then. I still believe in the universality of the human experience, I write poetry for that reason, trying to show the many ways we are similar.
ABR: Your poem, “Crime and Punishment 3,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, occurs against the background of traditional moonlight tales and seems to suggest a passive struggle between old world hegemonies and emerging African powers.
Can you discuss the inspiration for this poem and post-colonial Africa, Nigeria specifically, as a world power? Or is this more a commentary on Nigerians who are finding innovative ways (writing a cheque for a dead man) to announce themselves on the world stage and take advantage of its resources?
ELLAMS: The joke came first. I think it was originally an Englishman, a Scott and an Irishman with a dead American colleague and the Irishman walked away with the cash. When I first heard it, I laughed for one whole week and began to realise that the same culture/stereotype dynamic would exist if a Nigerian was to walk with the cash, perhaps even more fitting given our notoriety, so I reset the joke within that context and began telling it at poetry events that attracted a large African clientele, and I’d make the deceased colleague a Ghanaian. It worked, they got the joke and months later, I attempted to write it down as poem.
The poem is a comment on all of the above, but I primarily wrote is as a response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative which is actual and growing so rapidly, we can’t keep up with ourselves. Embedded in this narrative is a growing awareness of how we fit on the world stage, who we were, who we have become, why we are, and the various ways we take advantage of those aspects of our identity.
The poem echoes a trend in contemporary African art: the growing bravery and agency to be unapologetic about ourselves; to show our scars (if any) and laugh proudly ‘so what? my scars are bigger than yours!’
ABR: As a Nigerian poet, how has Nigeria influenced your works?
ELLAMS: I think the strong narrative slant to my work comes from my childhood in Nigeria, the stories I was told and observing my father talk; the way he would gist with his friends over suya and jollof rice, the mythical yet everyday quality to those early years govern the way I write. My father was a Muslim when he married my mother who was a Christian and I grew up following both faiths. This taught me to balance opposing (apparently) faiths, opinions and worlds from an early age and a lot of my work is about balancing truths and lies to tell a greater truth. It is heart breaking to see how things have deteriorated – that I as a child could hold both faiths in mind effortlessly, yet it is causing such havoc in the country.
ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?
ELLAMS: I am currently working on three books and three plays. A pamphlet of poems called Crime and Punishment, another called #Afterhours and my first full collection called Of All The Boys Of Plateau Private School. I’m also working on a poetry and basketball project called ‘Spalding Suite’ with a team of five other poets of which I am a contributing editor. I’m working on another poetry/basketball epic called ‘The Half God of Rainfall,’ and finally, working on two versions of the same play. The first, the hour long version is called Fast Cuts and Snapshots and the second, the two hour long version is called Barber Shop Chronicles – both plays explore contemporary African masculinity, globalisation and fatherhood through the lens of barber shops.
Inua Ellams is a Nigerian poet, playwright and performer. He has published two poetry collections, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars and Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales. His first play The 14th Tale (a one-man, self-performed show) was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, and another play called Black T-Shirt Collection was staged at the Royal National Theatre (UK). He is currently working on new plays and poetry collections. Follow him on Twitter @InuaEllams.