“Art comes to us because we are, essentially, fragile people.” – Chijioke Amu-Nnadi
Uche Peter Umez interviews Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, poet and the author of three collections: the fire within (winner of the maiden edition of the ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry in 2002), pilgrim’s passage, and the recently-published through the window of a sandcastle (shortlisted for the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature/won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize for 2013).
Uche Peter Umez: Imre Kertész said, “Every artist has a moment of awakening, of happening upon an idea that grabs hold of you, regardless of whether you are a painter or a writer.” So what was it that drew you to poetry? What is your earliest poetry memory?
Amu-Nnadi: An insult and a challenge. Those were my own moment of (rude) awakening. They drew me to poetry. As a first year student of Mass Communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, so many years ago, I had the uncommon privilege of sharing the same class with a few young men who loved poetry. In our close group, I was the ‘odd’ man; the only one who had no time for poetry. The only one who didn’t study literature. I remember then I would always declare that poetry meant nothing to me and would spare no time to read what they wrote.
Paul, particularly, wrote more than the others and was wounded more by my action than I figured. So, on this quiet night out with the girls, he found time to tell me how uneducated I was; that I was going to be a failure as a journalist if I didn’t appreciate the elegance and sophistication of language, which poetry embodied. Then he said I was dead without it. It was an insult that went deeper than everyone then knew; perhaps because it was quite embarrassing to stand before a girl you fancied and be told you were dumb and coarse.
But, rather than let the insult put me down, I found (a) better reason to rise to the challenge. I thought; nobody is going to insult me in this manner ever again. So, secretly, I began to read poems. I spent a great deal of my pocket money on every kind of book; books by African poets, American poets, British poets, any poet. I bought good books and crazy books. I bought new books and second hand books. The ones I couldn’t buy, I borrowed. I bought books I could read and books by William Faulkner that I suffered through, like some rite of passage.
I remember running into this European lecturer from the English department at the university bookshop who advised I bought The Sound and the Fury. It took me the whole of my second year to finish the first 72 pages. But it left a profound scar on my mind. The poems of Dennis Brutus, of J. P. Clark, Mazisi Kunene, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Christopher Okigbo, Keats, Laurence Dunbar and all those Negro poets, opened my eyes to the mesmerizing magic of words. Soon, Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa became both initiation and consecration. It was my bible; I was a disciple. Those books became my classroom and teacher. And then, one night, I woke up and scribbled down my first poem. I was half asleep, so when I read it in the morning, it blew my mind. I had written my first poem. It was the most liberating feeling; it was like an orgasm.
And I knew how right Paul was. I had found a world filled with magic. I was captive. I think I am one of poetry’s happiest prisoners. You know, years later when I published the fire within, my first appreciation was to Paul. He said I was dead without poetry and I chose to live.
Uche Peter Umez: Your latest collection, through the window of a sandcastle, has scores of poems that are replete with fruit images – floral imagery, mostly. Do you see yourself as essentially a romantic poet? A love poet?
Amu-Nnadi: Without shame. I offer no apologies, because I love love. I love what it presents; what it represents. We are often too caught up in our everyday lives we fail to realize how love enriches us and makes our lives more beautiful. And, pray, what is more enchanting? Can you imagine being read a poem over the phone that begins with:
my morning begins with many sounds
birds, cars, voices, trees
life outside the window of my heart
but it is of you breathing softly beside me
i hear most eloquently..?
Or being read:
i think it is your eyes
deep and quiet
with the satin grey of dawn
like the cross river
which lures the tired feet of the troubadour
cockerel to the pen
at the twilight of youth,..?
Nothing comes close when you rejoice in love. Kingdoms have risen and fallen because of it and the religions of the world, right from the first question of who we are, were founded by inquiry and sustained by love. You know, the first time I read Pablo Neruda, his love sonnets, I called my wife from Washington and told her I’d found the finest love poem ever written, and how I wished I wrote it for her, because it said everything I’d like to say to her. It was the sonnet that begins: “I don’t love you as if you were saltrose, topaz or arrow of carnations that propagate fire…” Her weeping over the phone, and the hug I offered her from thousands of miles away, were a most touching spiritual experience. Nothing tops such an experience; not all the money in the world.
The truth is that the very essence of man is found in love. Our very creation was founded on love. And love sustains us. I believe love allows us to see deeper into the heart of God. That is why the beautiful images of creation find themselves easily in lines of romantic poetry. You can say romantic poets offer, in its finest form, the language of God and the essence of creation. It is like the gospel. We are life’s best preachers. My brother, it’s edifying to be called a romantic.
Uche Peter Umez: In the collection, the longest poem “zizi” deals poignantly with the grief of a family, especially a father’s lament, and “the malevolence/of death”. It is very personal. Was it a poem for a daughter? Do you perhaps find anything therapeutic in writing poetry? How does poetry help you come to terms with loss and grief?
Amu-Nnadi: Zizi was the second of three children I had the terrible grief of burying. Nothing can be more personal. The night she died, I sat at the reception of the hospital for hours, not knowing what to tell her mum, who was upstairs in her room recovering from surgery. She was three days old. And then the first words came and they came with the tears and I couldn’t stop writing, even as I cried. I think I frightened a few nurses that night. Zizi has remained essentially as I wrote it that night, which is why I added ‘unfinished’, because I rejoice and hurt in its raw and original form.
Two years later, I lost a boy. The second boy I would lose. This time I didn’t want to be bothered by the protocol of burying him. I would not see him and instructed that the nurses should do with him what they pleased. That day I wrote “somewhere they will find a grave for you”.
For me, they were as much poetry as mourning; as much word as lament and physical tears, and each time I read them, which I find myself doing time and again, I renew my torment. But it is a good thing. We can never, and should never be too tough to wave off personal tragedy, and think to show grief diminishes us. They should be with us. They are with us. They should fill us with their pain and discipline us with their lessons. And they should remind us that, above all, we are human; we live and we die and that’s it.
Is writing them therapeutic? Of course. Do they help you come to grips with grief, come to terms with loss? Who does that? Whoever comes to terms with loss? They live with us every day. We are the sum of all our experiences, all our encounters, all we know and feel; the joy, grief, loss and gain.
Uche Peter Umez: There is a melancholic tinge – a slight tender kind – in much of your poetry, even when you have written a poem about beauty, and love, and delight; a melancholy that might come from one’s appreciation of the transience of anything that is pleasurable and beautiful. If you don’t mind my asking: are you a withdrawn person?
Amu-Nnadi: People say that of me. I’d like to think I’ve been disciplined by life. My childhood was spent in perpetual fear of my dad, and my older siblings. But I hid it well. I laughed a lot on the outside. It’s sad to say that now. In my second collection, pilgrim’s passage, the sixth sequence under the sub-section “childhood” in the title series reads:
if i were to count my years backwards
there are numbers i’d skip
and there are many
detours in the fork on the road
i’d rather not take
memories fierce some leap at me
from thicket of youth
and i cringe among familiar numbers
with tales forked out
from debris of childhood
Yes, you find it reflected in a lot of my poems. They are part of who I have become. I remember someone asking me of the poem, “my poems will cover you”, why I say I’d cover the subject of my worship “with my kisses, my life/my melancholia…” What adds a deeper edge to my writings is the melancholia. My wife asked me the other day why I appear so sad in my poems; if I was happy with her. If anything were the matter. I told her, and this was not a very easy answer, that she needs to learn to live with me the man and me the poet. That I, as a person, am often subsumed by the poet when I begin to write. There is a deeper puddle to my soul that collects and keeps the waters of my experiences. These add to what I already am; to what surfaces when I write.
Am I a happy man? Sometimes. Am I essentially a sad man? I don’t know. But my mind is always full of questions, full of questioning. And sadly, it has deeply affected my Christianity, because when you are like this, when you ask a lot of questions, when you love to believe and then you see that there is a lot of hypocrisy, even in exalted places, you withdraw and choose to reside in your place of comfort. Like I used to do so many years ago. I haven’t been to church in over three years. The last time was the Sunday after we buried my father.
Uche Peter Umez: e. e. cummings is obviously an influence on your poetry, as regards form, but your lyricism reminds me of the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Léopold Sédar Senghor. Are they part of your literary influences? And why have you consistently written all your poetry collections without punctuation and capital? Is this merely an aesthetic choice? Or something reflective of your philosophy?
Amu-Nnadi: I didn’t know about e. e. cummings until Maxim Uzoatu mentioned him in his introduction to pilgrim’s passage. I didn’t read Pablo Neruda until I saw his books in that Washington bookshop in November 2005. Léopold Sédar Senghor I read like you ate ice cream. But my most profound influences at the time were Dennis Brutus and J. P. Clark. They shared a profundity and a simplicity that were both enchanting and exhilarating; that were insinuating and instructive. Because I had no disciplined literary education, I fear I am a mixture of many voices; there is something almost schizophrenic about my poetry in that it speaks with many voices.
My first two collections were written without capitals and punctuation. It was founded on the belief and principle that what we write is not ours to claim as ours, because we are nothing but vessels in the hand of a great influence we flippantly call muse. Art comes to us because we are, essentially, fragile people. I tell people that the easiest part of a plant to break is where the sap comes out from. The plant’s most creative place. The mind is like that. That is why you find a thin line between madness and eccentricity in the artist, the profound artist.
Therefore, the telling of the story of life, as we do with poetry, or visual art (now think of van Gogh), comes as a fragile metaphor, told with neither capitals nor punctuation. Because the first poem I ever wrote came when I was semi-conscious, while asleep, I came to the understanding that we have no authority – just authorship, I believe – over what we write; because what we write is a spiritual rendering of life; its origins and ending. And that is beyond us to define, to punctuate, to make our own. That is part of the reason I publish my collections without my photographs, nor my first name, Chijioke. Just my family name, Amu-Nnadi, which I have no control over, because that is the one that shares the same character as the poem: it survives us. It lives beyond us.
But I have grown from that. Now I know that life, indeed, comes with punctuations. It comes with questions, with commas, with separations, but no full stop, because there is no ending to life. Five hundred years after da Vinci, we still talk about Mona Lisa as though she were alive. We talk about Romeo and Juliet as though they only committed suicide yesterday. We talk about Homer, Aristotle. Milton is alive in his works. You see, art endows us with immortality, because it comes with the soul of God, which is the essence of creativity and creation. And so God works through us to confer endlessness to life, for in asking us to go and multiply, there are in that injunction the physical and the metaphysical; procreation and creation. So in through the window of a sandcastle I offer that “our lives are a/seamless stream/of many commas/but no stops”.
I believe it is too profound to be called aesthetic, because art is more than an enrichment of life. Art is life rendered with the spirit of God. That was why my first poem came when I had no clue whatsoever, because God chose that experience to reveal the true nature of art: music, drama, poetry, dance, painting, all of those. And our place in it.
Uche Peter Umez: Your first collection, the fire within, radiated a lot of political energy, unlike your third collection, through the window of a sandcastle, in which the poet persona, apparently far removed from the ethos of social commitment, is primarily animated by self-reflection and the personal. How do you reconcile this? Has your poetic vision grown less political, perhaps with age, or with circumstance?
Amu-Nnadi: Politics was borne out of reflection. The greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, their greatest works, which define our every life, sprung from thought. I laughed when the judges for the Nigeria Prize for Literature commented that the poems in through the window of a sandcastle were mostly personal. Every poem is personal. But there is a deceptive simpleness in those poems to which you must find and append their deeper meanings. Take the poem, “you are more than the sun”.
At a reading in Ibadan, I took time to explain that the reason those poems did not appear under the section ‘garlands’, where the love poems appear, is because that poem, as many others, was written as a lament over what Nigeria could have been, as I saw on the streets of Barcelona. Here was a city I fell in love with, for its simple neatness and order and beauty. And promise. And I reflected that in Nigeria’s best moods, she could actually be beautiful; she could actually inspire us into lofty thoughts and dreams. And my dream, my desire was to reinvent her in the bright moods of Barcelona, so that the city of my love could be the country of my birth at the same time.
But I believe I have become more subtle, and perhaps, more difficult. What appears as simple love poems, or private excursions, may indeed be interpreted differently and given the social edge because of our eternal commitment to the questions of life and society. They may not really be that simple. But then, that is the stuff of inquiry; that we take time to study and break down what we read so that we find the true and deeper meanings presented.
But, then, I also say that love is the single most defining character of life; in personal relationships and in the relationship between man and state. Some of the poems are easily understood. Some are not. But the very title of the collection, through the window of a sandcastle is a political statement. Read the title poem again. It says in part:
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
Further down it says:
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
It truly asks deeper questions than a cursory eye would offer. We must find the patience to see this. Because poetry is like a river. It comes with levels of meanings a naked eye cannot see. When we see only the surface, we forget how deep it really is, offering life, as I say in one of the poems, levels and layers of translucent interpretations.
Uche Peter Umez: I noticed that through the window of a sandcastle is divided into four parts: wreaths, voyages, garlands (and milestone – which strangely strikes me as a postscript), and I could not help thinking about connotations such as loss, pleasure, love. Why did you structure the collection this way? Why did you choose to open it with a poem about loss/aging and end it with indifference/isolation?
Amu-Nnadi: I truly don’t know. I chose “Arlington” first because I loved that poem. And in that section are poems that stung deeper; the poems of loss. The last poem in the collection, “a poet writes”, was the last poem I wrote. I was already putting the book together for publishing, the pages set, before I wrote that. So it appears only where it was most convenient. Nothing structured there. But the sections only help to tell the story of the book. The beauty of poetry is in its capacity to offer many interpretations, as you have just done. I leave further interpretations to those who encounter the book, who rejoice or suffer in the words and lines it contains.
Uche Peter Umez: Some critics have said that poetry is language rendered musically and this is reflected effectively in your poetry. How fundamental do you think musicality is to poetry, given that you draw heavily on it? What kind of music do you listen to? What’s your writing process like – do you listen to a song while writing? Have you in any way considered setting some of your poems to music? By the way, do you sing?
Amu-Nnadi: I don’t sing. My wife would tell you that. But I love music. I love all kinds of music and listen to all. But I don’t write to any beat, nor listen to music while writing. I think the music is within, the cadence and melody of the soul. It’s interesting to hear you say this though. I have been told this many times, by many established writers and critics. It is not what I do deliberately. I suppose I was born with music on my tongue and it simply alights on the poems when I write. Would it be interesting to set some to music? But who would do that? I know I have discussed with my publisher, he’s a great guy, Richard Ali, about burning some on cd, just reading them to background music, especially the love poems. But it’s a project we are still considering. Whether that would see the light of day is another matter, though.
Uche Peter Umez: There is a recollection of foreign cities such as Arlington, Manhattan, Barcelona, and London in your collection. And in the sensuous poem, “i cannot be free of you, barcelona”, the city evokes intimacy, a distinctive feminine aura, so I am wondering what particular fascination Barcelona has for you? Likewise, is there something to say about these places you have visited?
Amu-Nnadi: I love travel. I have had poems come to me during these trips; surrounded by the exotic strangeness, beauty or discomfort of these cities. But, always, they come as lament and sour grapes. I believe we can do better as a country, to energise our love in this great country. When we travel, we go with Nigeria in our hearts, but there is a strident effort in these places to supplant and overwhelm our love for Nigeria. When you see how things work, how effortless governance almost is, you are filled with grief and sadness. And in that state, words come. Poetry takes root and flowers.
Barcelona hit me in a bad, but good way. The first day I got there, I went looking for African or Asian food. And I came upon this garden of statues and splendid flowers at Pedralbes, where I stayed. I walked in and hung around there for a long time. It was so beautiful, I forgot food. All I wanted was to take that beauty into my heart and make it mine. Make it Nigerian.
But there is only so much you can dream. There is only so much of Barcelona, Arlington, Manhattan, London, you can make yours, because it is not yours. So they come to you as women you can only love, but whom you could never make yours, because you are married to another to whom your soul and umbilical are tied, inexorably. Nigeria. This is such a great country, a country of such great promise, she breaks your heart all the time you travel. That’s just it.
Uche Peter Umez: While reading your poems, I am particularly filled with images of a serene landscape. Do you have a poem place, that is, where you go and write your poems – secluded from the pull of family and job?
Amu-Nnadi: The toilet. That’s my best poem place. Or strapped to the seat of an aircraft. But, seriously, I have no particular place. For instance, the poem “bitterness” was written during a party and its irony is in the fact that no celebration can be so consuming that you cannot find your usual solitary place, even surrounded by noise and music and jokes and general revelry, where you are alone, removed from the world, to pour out your soul. Poetry comes when it comes. Whether you are awake or not. It owns you, runs your life. To submit to it is the finest service, the essential worship. Like they say these days, it’s your blood group. It belongs within. Your soul is your poem place.
Uche Peter Umez: Finally, what insight does the act of writing poetry offer you, in your attempt to grapple with the themes of loss, beauty and love?
Amu-Nnadi: Poetry is the greatest gift God has given me. It took Paul to open my eyes, to see the true meaning of (the) gift. It honours you, makes you better than one coarse, crude, uneducated boy. And it affords you that special vehicle through which you pour out your soul, and in doing that, allows you a certain room to breathe. To live. To become. Poetry makes you more than – and as – you make it. It evolves from you. You pour out your soul on paper and ask it to go into the world and multiply. It approaches blasphemy to speak in this manner, but poets, as are all artists, are tools in the hands of God and he allows us, as we create, to share a bit of him. It’s frightening to think in this manner, but that’s some kind of insight, and it gives you something to reflect upon. Doesn’t it?