“Poetry for me is release…a means to deconstructing preconceived notions, in a bid to getting better understanding. Poetry to me is freedom to be.” – Iquo Eke
Uche Peter Umez interviews Iquo Eke, a poet who has performed her poetry on various platforms across Nigeria, usually to the accompaniment of traditional drums, flute or strings. Symphony of Becoming, her debut poetry collection, was long-listed for the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature. Iquo DianaAbasi Eke also writes short stories.
Uche Peter Umez: Symphony of Becoming is your first collection of poems. I like the title, sonorous, especially the aspect of ‘becoming’, say, a voice, a songbird. How long did it take you to put this collection together? What limitations did you face? And what did you learn in the process?
Iquo Eke: The collection has indeed been a long time coming; the oldest poem there dates as far back as 1999, yet I would not wish to use that as yardstick for measuring how long it took to put the collection together. About three years ago, I decided that I wanted to publish a collection and so began the arduous task of defining myself as a writer. My Becoming, so to speak.
I grew to own my voice and be proud of my thoughts and stance on different issues. Learning to accept my place and opinions enabled me to appreciate the individuality of all other authors and to respect the space that we each share. As regards challenges; there is the challenge that comes with the wonderful peculiarity of the publishing business in Nigeria. There was also the question: Why publish poetry? People don’t read poems in Nigeria. But I didn’t let any of these stop me.
Uche Peter Umez: Robert Frost said, ‘a poem begins with a lump in the throat.’ How does a poem begin for you? Which comes first: the idea or the words? If idea, do you jot it down? Or do you start composing immediately it hits you?
Iquo Eke: I usually get an idea first. Occasionally, I get a word or two, or a phrase around which a poem will eventually revolve. An example of this is ‘Slow Tide’. I find that when an idea strikes me and I am unable to put the idea down, I may lose it. This can be very disturbing, especially as one has to face daily struggles and tend to the needs of other members of the family.
Uche Peter Umez: I can’t help but feel that some of your poetry is addressed to an absent lover. And this feeling is somehow reinforced by the poems in ‘Heart beats’. What state were you in when you wrote this affecting part? Why is love so important in your poems?
Iquo Eke: Absent lover ke? Uche, you are on your own o! Maybe I was missing my muse when I wrote the majority of the poems in ‘Heart beats’. Irrefutably, some poems in that section are the most emotive, beginning with ‘First Fruit’- which is dedicated to my son. In that section of the book I chose to explore the various ways love can affect a person. So the poems may be addressed to an absent lover, a giving lover, a passionate, sensuous lover, a soul mate and even the lover who left regret behind. Love is important; why not? It is after all that journey which picks one up like a whirlwind, energizing many a person to heroic feats. Love indeed is the stuff that life is made of, be it love for nation, child, partner or even love for nature and humanity. It is important.
Uche Peter Umez: Some of the poems deal with the theme of reminiscences. In ‘Autumn Leaves,’ loss operates as a central motif alongside loneliness. Could you talk a bit about this poem? Why do you think ‘winter is not the glue to hold/this crack together?’
Iquo Eke: ‘Autmn Leaves’ does speak about loneliness and heartache occasioned by the end of a relationship. I sought to explore the complex emotions that arise from the torture of memory, especially when love no longer resides in a relationship; ‘leaving a faint whiff of the past in memories and vagabond thoughts’. In this state, the reality of the cold weather is no guarantee against the ensuing loneliness.
Uche Peter Umez: I remember happening upon a quote by Joyce Carol Oates about poetry being ‘private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web,’ while reflecting on the poems, ‘In the web’ and ‘Chosen’. How do you respond to Joyce’s statement? Also, in the poems, ‘I set sail’ and ‘I am’, I was thinking of the connection between women and nature, ecofeminism – so do you think poetry has an agenda, in a positive sense, however subtle it may seem?
Iquo Eke: When I write poetry, I do not set out with an agenda, except of course the agenda in itself is to get people aware and enlightened about a given issue. I think that writing with an agenda can give poetry a contrived, unnatural feel. Poetry should be allowed to breathe. ‘I set sail’ and ‘I am’ are two works in which there is a sense of acceptance of one’s place as woman – in the face of trials, in the enjoyment of life’s offerings or simply in the sense of beauty which she exhibits. Much as I know that woman has finer sensibilities than man, I had no grandiose ideas like Ecofeminism in mind when I wrote either.
And I do agree with Joyce Oates that poetry is private, allusive and idiosyncratic. I suppose that in a sense, a writer’s subjective views take centre stage and at once give her ideas a unique twist that is very private to her. ‘In the web’ and ‘Chosen’ speak about the failure of the nation state from two very different perspectives. One compares the nation to an empty tune gyrating on the precipice of never becoming melody, while the other speaks about faith in a certain saviour chosen to rewrite the nation’s elegy.
Uche Peter Umez: In Symphony of Becoming, there are allusions to the poet persona struggling to find her voice, be ‘true to self’, to flex her ‘virgin wings’. In fact, nowhere is this struggle more evident than in the poem, ‘The caged one.’ Notwithstanding, the poet seems to have consummated her journey in the last poem, ‘Home at last,’ where she regards herself as no longer ‘the lonely branch’ and ‘rootless’ but ‘buoyant with radiance.’ Do you think you have found your voice as a poet? Or are you still in the chrysalis process of becoming a poet? What might account for the abundant bird imagery in your poetry?
Iquo Eke: I couldn’t have explained it any better myself. Symphony of Becoming for me is the journey that culminated in the assertion of my voice as a poet. And the simplicity of this voice is one which I am grateful to have accepted in the fullness of experiencing.
Abundance of bird imagery? Really? And there I was thinking there was an abundance of rage and fire in the collection.
I suppose the bird imagery you speak of was very prominent in the caged one. Well, at the time I wrote that piece, the analogy of a caged bird seemed the most appropriate in exploring the story of one who was struggling to fulfill, to become. You got the picture perfectly; I daresay the bird analogy worked
Uche Peter Umez: Some critics tend to dismiss spoken word/performance poetry as not poetry, partly because it seems to lack depth and partly because it tends to focus more on the performance than on the poem. Don’t you think there is no art in performance poetry, just the mere ‘dramatic act’ of performance itself? Don’t you think that performance poetry/poetry slam brings pop culture into poetry, thereby devaluing the high art form that is poetry? How would you say performance poetry have affected your poetry and writing?
Iquo Eke: I believe that the performance of poetry in itself is an art. Would you say that drama was lacking in depth because the words are given interpretation on a stage? Sometimes a poet just happens to be doubly blessed with the capacity to deliver on paper as well as on a stage. This need not be a minus. On the other hand, I have listened to spoken word poetry which sometimes pays more attention to the melody and rhyme of words than the rhythm that is presented in the coherence of thought and in the beauty of language used. This again depends on the writer. And this is the point where it can be said that the infusion of pop culture can negatively influence the high art form that is poetry.
For me, I do not put the entertainment value of a performance above the poetry. I have a bias for imagery, language and rhythm in my lines and would not sacrifice these for rhyme in order to satisfy a performance. This is my personal stance. And every writer has a right to decide what it is they want to write. We all keep evolving in our crafts, and at some point we choose what paths we intend to follow, and we encounter muse in various forms along these paths. So let each be appreciated for what it is they bring.
Uche Peter Umez: What does poetry do for you, I mean – in terms of writing or reading poems? Why write poetry and not fiction? Who are your favourite poets? And what do you think of the present situation of poetry in Nigeria? Do you think contemporary Nigerian poetry lack any ideological investment in the main? Finally, when do we expect your next collection?
Iquo Eke: Oh, I write fiction as well. And I have done some scriptwriting for radio and TV. But I like to think of myself as first and foremost a poet. Poetry for me is release. It is a means to deconstructing preconceived notions, in a bid to getting better understanding. Poetry to me is freedom to be. On ideological investments…? Well, who are we to dictate what manner of ideological investments contemporary Nigerian poetry should have? Now, depending on my mood, my favourite poets will include Maya Angelou, JP Clark, Gabriel Okara, Soyinka, Pablo Neruda, Kalil Gibran, to mention a few. Really, I don’t know when the next volume of poetry will be ready, but right now I am working on fiction.
Photos: Courtesy Iquo Eke’s website