Gbenga Adesina is from Ondo State, Nigeria. His poetry and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in Harriet’s Blog for Poetry Foundation, Africanwriter.com, One Throne among others. He has also been published in Jalada, Premium Times, Open Society Foundation, Vinyl, Brittle Paper, Pairie Schooner, and Soar Africa. He was a resident poet in Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, 2015. His chapbook, Painter of Water, is his first collected work published by APBF. He and Chekwube Danladi are the first Nigerians to win the prestigious Brunel African Poetry Prize in 2016. He speaks with Olajide Salawu about his craft and what the future holds.
Your profile reads so many things to different people: a poet, an essayist, and of course, a trained scientist. What is the role of your background as a child raised in Nigeria, and how has that role brought forth the Gbenga Adesina of today?
Nigeria is a meld of cultures, right? And it is also a space consistently in flux. So that naturally fuels me. There are things you can only learn through osmosis. Nuance really is what this system teaches you, but you will have to find a newer way of looking first. There is a guy on my street; for instance, who barely finished primary school. He rides a bike for a sort of living. But you know what? This guy can’t even stand the music of Olamide. He prefers Tupac. Our best moment together on the bike is when we are both rapping the words to Dear Mama. My friend Ibukun is privy to this story. Opeyemi and Tolase also. I know the story is incredible, that’s why I’m providing witnesses. And I offer this example because it is current, in fact ongoing, traceable, and verifiable. But in a way this is what this country is, this system has always put out there before our very eyes as we navigate our everydayness. The system, the streets are just saying, “Look differently; look differently just for a moment, and you will be shocked.”
The easy binaries, the easy categorisations, the over-simplifications are simply not true. So my artistic heritage really is an overlapping-ness of sorts, an in-between-ness, subliminal spaces, duality, multi-layerness, I’m never comfortable looking at something on a narrow purchase. I’m asking myself what are the folds here; what are the layers beneath the easy definitions. That’s the guiding energy of my art and hopefully of my life too.
You live and work in Nigeria. Would you consider Nigeria as a fertile ground for science or an ecosystem of inspiration for creative writers?
Let me just focus on the creativity aspect. This is the home of my stories. The human swirl of Lagos, the hum of the other cities, the homeward call of the hinterlands, the raucous but humorous politics of this country, the warmth of the people, the kindness of total strangers. That’s what Nigeria is made of. And it is upon this that the cathedrals of my narratives are built. A friend of mine and I passed through the street of his childhood once and he was visibly swept over by nostalgia and the pull of stories. He kept speaking of how these walls wear our faces. It is of these things that I write. How about the economic terrain as it relates to the practice and push of poetry or even writing as a whole? How about navigating the social space as someone that wants to be taken seriously like any adult? Well, that’s something else entirely.
Are you a poet?
So you expect me to say yes and the ghosts of Chris Okigbo and W.B. Yeats will wake up from their graves and give me a knock, abi? Lolz. You know that thing they say about trying to write the type of things you like to read? I think that might just explain me here. As a consumer of literature, I’m looking for transport, I’m looking for a language that kneels me over, I’m looking for a tongue of water or fire or urgency or something, something elusive, I’m looking for illumination. And poetry offers that tightness and density to sidestep conventional syntax and cut straight into the soul of things. Conventional speak is kind of slow, right? Full of prevarications. Poetry takes me to where I want to be in an instant. So even in my fiction or non-fiction (except for the unkind scissors of the editors), it is such language that I still pursue.
To some, writing is a spiritual process, a time of madness, a moment of silence, a snap within. What is writing to you? What kind of environment do you write in, and what period of the day do you write?
For me it is everything (I mean the time of madness, moment of silence, a snap within etc., etc.). But the outward environment doesn’t…has never counted much. It’s the homoeostasis of the soul—if there is something like that–I have always tried to anchor. I write anywhere, anytime once the incubation period is ripe. Most of the writing happens in my head, I merely, not all the time though, pour them out. And I have noticed–though in truth, it’s been happening all of my conscious life—I stand up from the desk or whatever at intervals and stare out of the window in quietude a lot when I’m writing. I go for walks sometimes. It clears the head. But my main ritual is sitting down and getting the writing done.
In Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom argues that writers live in the constant shadow of older writers? To what extent do you think you can subscribe to Bloom’s position? And if yes, who are the poets or writers you read? And how have their works influenced your poetic imagination. In addition, would you consider yourself walking in the shadows of some great poets of our time? Or, are you finally a shadow to be walked in?
Of course, you are kidding about the “Or, are you finally a shadow to be walked in?” part, right? I’m sure of that.
Shadows, in this context, are real and they are important. I’m referring to Harold Bloom’s argument now. Except you are writing in an invented language—the one you made up—you are at least linked in the grappling with and smithy of that language to previous users of the language. Oh, the new playwright is deploying words like Shakespeare. Oh no, it’s actually like Soyinka, no, I swearigad! It’s more like James Henshaw! You get my point? But no writer ever even gets just that slight comparison on the basis of language alone. The comparison moves well into layers and then multiples surfaces of things. The truly great gift of the human race, I think, is specie memory. That we are here. And then we are not. But we leave something, a tiny dot that joins other tiny dots from across the centuries in forming the vast ocean of human knowing. So there really is no stand-aloneness here. We write looking backward in the hope of pushing the frontiers forward.
Poetry has different genres/forms, i.e. spoken word poetry. What kind of form do you like and why do you privilege this form above others?
The truly beautiful poetry is its own thing and everything at the same time. It dances, it sings, it performs, it leaps out, it grabs, it takes up space whether on the page or the stage. It does something to you. It does not let you be. I think, quite cheekily now, that really, the different genres of poetry that should exist really should be good or bad poetry. The distinction, if you insist there has got to be some, then should be between those who are willing to hone their voice into fire first or those who just rush things out for instant gratification. Because when a poem is awesome, whether spoken or written, it leaps at you Jide, it does something to you. (Let us “practicalise” this by google-ing Kei Miller’s poems and videos).
In your interview with Geosi Gyasi, you said that you have learnt to wear your inadequacies like a badge. While we would say the courage to fail is very cheap you have recently left an imprint as a voice/force to be reckoned with among new generation poets in the continent from your nomination as a poet in residence in Goree Island, BN Poetry Shortlist, to the blueprint accolade of BUAAP joint winners of 2016. How has failure become a streak of success?
Well, what sort of success are we talking about here? Of course, there is obvious good fortune, there is blessing. And one is grateful. There is the possibility of a Mathew effect of sorts, a serotonin kick. And one is grateful. But success, as a writer, isn’t that something that gets recalibrated and starts from ground zero anytime one picks the pen/keyboard to write? I have always thought the aspiration every single time, really, is to be luminous, to make words into eyes with which others can see, to convert what was glimpsed into an image without losing the essence in the transpose? That’s hard, always elusive.
I could also say what then comes to the rescue is what Elizabeth Gilbert calls sheer human stubbornness. You’ve got to be a fighter. You’ve got to keep coming back. You think what you have written is trash? Well, welcome to the world! We all feel the same way. The feeling never goes away. You just keep polishing your gem. That’s what I tell myself. I don’t know what ground I hold to extend that advice to whosoever might need it now.) What then happens, irrespective of whatever inadequacy you might be feeling? You will notice a renegotiation in the relationship of your work with the world, with readers, with even you as a primary reader/consumer of your work. It’s lifelong struggle really, a long distance run of sort; never a dash or a burst. It’s lifelong.
What do you think about literary awards? Do you think it is a measure of success? Clout/access to wider audience and literary circles?
Again I ask, what sort of success? Clout, access to wider and literary circles, that’s one dimension, right? There are other dimensions, which no prize but a lifelong commitment to your craft will give you. If as V.S. Naipaul puts it while paraphrasing Proust, you are lucky to attain a sort of truthfulness, to be vulnerable, to be susceptible in your craft to the things humans are susceptible to in their lived lives. To write something that speaks to people, that goes in the dark to lonely places like the voice of a friend, nobody, no Prize will throw that at any writer, that’s what I think; it will take a body of work and lifelong commitment to come to such level of “contribution”.
You and Danladi are joint winners of Brunel Prize for African Poetry 2016 and are the first Nigerians to be on that list. Do you consider yourself faming your country and walking in the canonical shoes of poets like Okigbo, J.P Clark, Soyinka, and among others?
Our history, yours and mine, in terms of poetry and poets, the history of any Nigerian poet out there or the younger ones honing their voices in unknown places but who will soon come to our consciousness like a burst of songs, our history as Nigerian poets, true, is an incomparable headstart.
Sometimes, I consider your poetry drifting or journeying into so many things at the same time in a kind of musical chart. I can speak of “Journey into Songs” which is an echo of loss, metaphor for migration, and a symphony on nature in this respect. “Discography” and “How memory Unmakes Us” are two poems that set you for your recent monumental achievement. What informs these two poems?
What comes to mind right now is what Lauren Russel had called music without full instrumentation. Hayes, and I love him so much, said, “Language is just music without full instrumentation. Music doesn’t have the burden of connotation that language does.” What might be accounted for the brewing of these two poems is the pursuit of heightened meanings through musicality and multiple meanings. The sociologies and the sub-climate burst forth because those are things my heart cares about and my eyes have recorded but in the actual process of the writing what I followed was the non-linear path the music in my head was taking me.
You have published a chapbook titled Painter of Water. What is it you are doing with water in that collection?
I am looking for something beyond. The transcendental. Beyond the ordinary. And in Njabulo Ndebele’s phrasing, ‘the rediscovery of the ordinary’. The extended metaphor. Because you cannot hold water in your bare hands, it will slip, drip, or stream away. That is why meanings around human existence and complexity around life is my target in Painter of Water.
What is it like, your literary ambition in the future?
By Olajide Salawu