So what? my scars are bigger than yours!- Inua Ellams

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?

Inua Ellams

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.

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: An Interview With An Ethiopian Poet

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 the winner, Liyou Mesfin Libsekal, an Ethiopian poet whose fun poem revolved around the influences of tradition, modernization, and globalization on Ethiopia’s rapid development.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Libsekal: Writing is something that allows me to sort through thoughts and gain some sort of personal understanding. I’m inspired by what is happening around me, by my environment and my own experiences as well as those of others.

Liyou Libsekal

ABR: Your poem “Riding Chinese Machines,” which is a finalist for the Brunel African Poetry prize, juxtaposes motorcycles (‘mechanical beasts’) and lions (‘natural beasts’), to discuss the tensions of modernity and tradition. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of writing it?

Libsekal: The inspiration for “Riding Chinese Machines” came from observing Addis Ababa at this moment in time; the poem is a result of living in a city that’s in the midst of an economic boom and immense transformation. There is overwhelming infrastructural change, with old roads being broken up, new asphalt roads being laid out, and much much more. So Addis has become a city of detours and congestion, of construction and ever-present foreign machines. That’s where the inspiration came from; from observing roads spotted with massive equipment, workers and operators, from noticing changes in lifestyles and landscape; it’s impossible to be in Addis and not be affected in some way by these projects and progresses and questioning the process is a part of it all.

ABR: As an Ethiopian poet, how has Ethiopia influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Ethiopia is? What ideally would you like it to be?

Libsekal: Ethiopia is one of the biggest influences in my writing. I’m really an observer so my surroundings are what I draw from. It’s fascinating to witness such intensely visible changes that the country is so rapidly experiencing; there’s a lot of progress and naturally, there are also a lot of problems, there’s so much hope and frustration at the same time. It’s a critical time in our history so it’s impossible to ignore.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African books/ books by African authors? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you just love for some reason?

Libsekal: I read a lot of poetry and Kwesi Brew is among my favorite poets, African or otherwise, simply because his poetry is such a testament to how powerful and relevant the medium is, or can be. I’m really drawn to his work and admire how effective it is in so many ways because his poetry is a reflection of his identity and that really appeals to what I value about poetry.


Liyou Mesfin Libsekal 
 was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University, with a minor in international affairs and a concentration in international development. Liyou found her way back home to Ethiopia after spending a short time in Vietnam. She writes about culture and the changing environment of her rapidly developing country for the Ethiopian Business Review. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Find more of her work here.