Poet Saddiq Dzukogi interviews Dike Chukwumerije, one of the prime lights in the business of performance poetry in Nigeria. An award-winning Novelist, a poet and book lover, Chukwumerije has over the years distinguished himself as a revolutionary on the stage. He speaks on the wealth of talent that abound in the country and underscores the differences between spoken word, performance poetry and poetry as poets know it.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Dike, you are revolutionizing poetry, rescuing it from the dormancy of pages and giving it life on stages. Can you talk more on what drives you?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Thank you for the kind words. In many ways, I am on a journey of self-discovery, just following a path the end of which I do not honestly know. In that sense, you can say I am driven by curiosity. How far can this thing go? How much can this thing do? Fundamentally, though, it is that stubborn desire to express oneself – one’s creativity – and find fulfilment at the end of the day.
Saddiq Dzukogi: There is a lot of talk about how performance poets have watered down contemporary poetry. As a performance poet, what’s your take on this?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: For me, the literary art is a continuum. This, sometimes, makes it hard to tell when one genre ends and another begins. That said, I think most of these comparisons (between contemporary and performance poetry) are flawed by the fact that they are usually made between extremes; typically comparing the best of contemporary poetry with the worst of performance poetry. If you come to the middle, you will find the differences between the two less distinct. In my opinion, at its best, performance poetry does not water down contemporary poetry. In fact, it enhances it by bringing it alive and extending its reach to the non-literary audience. However, I also believe that when taken to a certain extent, performance poetry begins to morph into a distinct genre. Let’s just call it ‘spoken word’, closer perhaps to hip-hop and related musical traditions. At this point, it would be slightly unfair to judge it the same way you would judge a basic poem.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What is the role of performance poetry in promoting tradition?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: As an oral/spoken art form, performance poetry is in itself an incarnation of a very, very old tradition. More so for us in Africa than elsewhere, our history was preserved orally. And even people of my generation can remember growing up and being told folktales by candlelight. We are a ‘speaking’ culture in many ways and, sometimes, it just feels a lot easier to express our idiosyncrasies in spoken form than in written form, particularly when one is trying to write according to the ‘rules’.
Saddiq Dzukogi: You have taken a bold step, taking poetry to stage and most recently you did a video. You also have audio cds. What do you aim to achieve by these strides?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Well, firstly, like I said above, I am looking to find fulfilment. Secondly, I came and met Nigerian poetry somewhere; I would like to be part of those who take it further. Thirdly, I am seeking wider recognition and acceptance for the genre.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Do you perform poems by other poets?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: No. But could I perform poems by other poets? Yes. It just happens that I have a lot coming out of me at the moment. So, I’m not short of material right now. But performance is itself a skill. So, I always encourage people who are so inclined to perform poetry, even if they don’t write it themselves, so long as the writer is acknowledged.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What does it feel like to be on stage with your poem and having an audience listen to you?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: A combination of excitement, pride, nervousness and peace.
Saddiq Dzukogi: I wasn’t surprised when you were long-listed for the ANA poetry prize, but I was shocked to see you win the ANA Prose prize. So can I call you jack of all trade and master of all?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Master? Then what would you call Achebe? Seriously though, at the moment, I am totally immersed in what I’m doing. Let posterity be the judge.
Saddiq Dzukogi: How does one remain relevant on two jealous fronts of creative writing?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: To remain relevant, don’t worry about remaining relevant. Worry more about the honesty and authenticity of what you write. Worry more about how close you come each time you write to expressing yourself EXACTLY. Add to that discipline, patience and consistency.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What’s your prose (Urichindere) about?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: It’s about Nigeria in the 1990s. It’s also the story of boarding school life at that time and the coming of age of a young boy. It’s very funny. In fact, I always tell people; if it doesn’t make you laugh, bring it back to me. I’m not so sure about making you cry. But it could just do that as well.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Do you think there are distinct differences between spoken word and performance poetry?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Like I said above, the literary art (to me) is a continuum and so drawing distinctions can be hard. However, performance poetry is more closely related to poetry as we know it. To me, it’s basically writing a poem (respecting most of the disciplines of poetry writing while at it) and then performing it. Spoken word takes more liberties. It could, for instance, become prosaic, or conversational, or dramatic. The focus is not so much on how it reads in this case, but on how it sounds, and how it comes across to the listener.
Saddiq Dzukogi: You are arguably the finest performance poet in the Country; can you recount your steps to stardom?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Thank you for the kind words. But like I said before, my brother, let posterity judge. I began with writing poetry and reading it out whenever I found the opportunity. Then, about 9 years ago, I stopped reading and started performing my poetry. When I came to live in Abuja, I joined a literary group (the Abuja Literary Society) and became a regular at open mics and poetry slams. Winning a few slams helped. I started a blog as well, and writing regularly online. Then I joined ANA. And released a poetry CD too. Then, still in pursuit of that elusive ‘fulfilment’, I began to experiment with other ways of communicating poetry. So, I went into videos. Honestly, I’m not too sure about the ‘stardom’ thing. But where I am now is a culmination of all this activity.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Do you think the cries about the dearth of Nigerian literature is justifiable, or is it just a foul cry by a group refusing to embrace the new guys because of its fraternity with the old guys?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Are you trying to drop me into a war zone or what? Well, I belong to the camp that thinks Nigerian literature is alive and well because I see it every day on-line and in various literary groups around the country. Yes, there are those who think it must first have been published by a ‘traditional’ publisher before it can qualify as literature. That’s fine. It always takes a while for the establishment to catch up. People are writing and (I must add) reading voraciously. Quality varies wildly, as is to be expected in a free market. But the existence of a vibrant undergrowth is one of the best indications of the state of an economy. So, Nigerian literature is alive and well – at least, to me.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Do you have a word for writers who may want to be as successful as yourself in performance poetry?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Determine your own parameters for success. Study those you TRULY admire. Work tirelessly on your craft. Do not be easily discouraged, for many, many times you will have to perform to a cold or hostile audience. Take every opportunity to perform. Don’t be intimidated by any platform or competing genre or act. Have confidence in your gift. Be yourself. And, while at it, don’t forget to enjoy the ride because it will end one day.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What are the specific things you are doing to get young guys come to your passionate genre?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Currently, I volunteer with the Abuja Literary Society. So, I host open mics twice a month, providing a platform to writers, poets, performance poets, spoken word artists to share their works with the public. I’ve also done spoken word workshops with ANA and other organizations. Two years ago, I collaborated with ANA Abuja to host a special spoken word event on Valentine’s Day. It was lots of fun! I regularly organize poetry events in Abuja as a way of introducing even more people to the genre.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What’s your view about ANA, generally?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: It’s the oldest literary association we have and the only one that can truly claim a national spread. It’s done a lot to groom and give visibility to writers; and in my city of Abuja it gives me somewhere to go at least once every month. Plus ANA looks out for home-grown, home-based writers. And that’s something that should never be taken for granted.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Would you consider taking up a position anytime ahead?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: No, not really. I prefer to volunteer my time (which I do regularly) because, at the moment, I am totally immersed in what I’m doing.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What’s your dad’s response to all this?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: My dad? He is very happy with it.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Chukwumerije politics, Chukwumerije sports, Chukwumerije writer, why the mix-up?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: There is no mix up. I am a writer. I have two brothers who are professional sportsmen, and a father who is a politician. It’s not as if I combine all these things in me. In our family, we believe in people following their paths diligently. So, no ‘mix up’ at all.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What other creative enterprise we are not aware of do you engage in?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: I draw comics. Not seriously though.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What are you doing now?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: I am working on a few poetry videos, a collection of short stories and (maybe) a novel.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Are you married? What did you read at the university?
DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE: Yes. I am married with two children. I read Law at university.
Image: Dike Chukwumerije