Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is a literary conversationist, editor, and writer. Chisom Okafor is a poet and clinical nutritionist. They wrote back and forth in early April, discussing intersections between medicine and poetry, the possibilities of clinical disability poetics, and more.
Anuonye: Hello, Chisom. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2022 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. I remember telling you when we met at the Lagos International Poetry Festival in 2019 that you’re a poet of consummate artistry. That was in response to some poems of yours that I had read earlier and hoped to include in the collection, Kilimanjaro Voices, one project I am yet to complete. In your characteristic modesty, you bowed slightly in thanks. Since I couldn’t see your face, I didn’t have a way of knowing if you believed my additional comment that the literary world would soon wake up to the luminosity of your original talent. Well, I don’t bother myself anymore about your reaction, because today I feel justified not only by the ability of the judges to identify your genius but also by the growing number of readers who find in your work the possibility to create healing and hope. I am hopeful that the symbolic cultural capital which the Brunel Poetry Prize grants its shortlistees and winners will create more conversations about and around your poetry, which reflects the interconnectedness of literature and medicine. What does it mean to be an artist and a health worker?
Okafor: Hi, Darlington. I hope you are well and safe. Thanks for the amazing work you’ve been doing. I like to think, each time I come across your published dialogues with writers of African ancestry, that you’re actually fulfilling what I consider to be the most important job description in literature. You write, but more importantly, you curate. You ensure that nothing is ever lost. Legacy is a complicated and continuous thing, such that we are not just drawing from the legacy of our forebears but also making ours in an ever-evolving process, and that’s what we see you do everyday, creating, recreating and archiving. Thank you for your labour. Thank you too, for the generous words about me and the work that I do as a poet of witness. This modesty you speak of springs from the recognition of the fact that for me, nothing is ever promised in poetry. By this, I mean that I started writing because I needed to travel, like the great Carlos Castaneda, on that path that has heart, and so regardless of whatever rewards that may come on the way, I’d still write with same passion and intensity as though there were no validation, as though prizes never existed. I also feel I owe my growing circle of readers lots of gratitude and responsibility, which of course translates to more work, so as to always meet them at their point of expectations. Which is also to say, I suspect that the Brunel Poetry Prize shortlisting would probably make more readers become aware of the work that I do, and so, I try to put in more work and more discipline.
Working in the health sector has taught me this great discipline, because there are hardly any rooms for errors. There is this constant back-and-forth that happens in my head, borne out of the need to frequently switch between my reality as a poet of witness and my responsibility as a healthcare professional, so it takes a lot of discipline to keep the line permanently drawn between these two very different spaces that have claimed me. But this is not to say that there are no points of convergence. The therapeutic diet clinic has further broadened my artistic sensibilities and led me to the many possibilities of poetry. I approach poetry the way I’d go into a counselling session, travelling the long road where everything begins with questions and ends with even more possibilities. I say possibilities because there are bends on this road, and the path opens itself to you, as you journey.
So, you can safely say that the health profession has a considerable degree of influence on my art. My most recent poems navigate trauma and loss in the face of clinical vulnerability, seeking also to speak to the geometries of bodies marked by disability and chronic illness, and then the neurodivergent, who form a vast majority of my patients and whose journeys I get to partake of, each clinic day. The famed disability poet, Jim Ferris, coined the phrase “atypical embodiment” to describe the possibilities of clinical disability poetics, in which “atypical” bodies and body-minds suggest novel ways to hold words on a page. For me, this poetry of embodiment partly takes its root from the daily demands of my work as clinical nutritionist, and then of course, from personal histories and micro-histories of the heart.
Anuonye: Thank you, for this warm response, and for your kind words. I woke up to watch Wrestlemania. But it has started raining and the light is out. It may return or not. What is important now, which I am grateful for, is that poetry returns to us the things we have lost. I think this is the point you make about your work. Those who go for counselling and diagnosis are searching for lost things: lost health, lost memory, lost vision, lost will. The process of restoring lost things is challenging for those involved. I imagine it is more demanding for you, a health worker who is equally a poet. Or are you a poet who is also a health worker?
The reference to T.J. Dema, which opens your poem “Woodsmoke” is a moving tribute to this loss that I speak of: “Each one of us is born sensible/a heart incensed, then falling.” In “Woodsmoke,” the poem persona speaks of falling as a medical metaphor for lost things, “a/ synchronized/art of dying.” This depiction of the diseased body becomes properly illuminated when the persona clarifies that by falling they also refer to “something/burning in [their] chest.” I think of the persona as an ulcer patient. But I am pondering the words: “I/have been touched by wild fire/in a previous life” and I hear the voices of the dying and the dead intersecting with chequered melancholy. The concluding lines “I too, have memorized/the simple art/of free-/falling” blur the boundary between memory and reality and foreground the human resilience in the face of suffering. This poem speaks to me with such visceral force, for I too am a witness to the onslaught of disease as well as its survivor. The power of “Woodsmoke” lies in your deployment of metaphor to say the unsayable in a manner that dispels the trauma of disease, while interrogating and immortalizing memory. What is a wood-smoke if not smoke? What is smoke if not the things that we have lost or are about to lose? You see, poetry assists medicine to fulfill its own function of healing. But where healing is not immediately possible, as it appears here, then poetry gives medicine the symbolic facility to re-invent a life that it cannot cure. What inspired the writing of “Woodsmoke”?
Okafor: Oh. Wrestlemania. We had same electricity situation here, so I could not pay my respects to Stone Cold Steve Austin for giving us beautiful childhood memories. Back in the days, there were hours of video-gaming, when we had heated exchanges over who should “own” the great Steve Austin. But it did not rain here. I spent the better part of the night, recording poems for National Poetry Writing Month. I realized, near the end of this exercise, the practical inevitability of poetry in our lives, even in the dark times, like Bertolt Brecht would say, “there would still be singing about the dark times.”1 This singing, this poetry, urges us, as Kwame Dawes observed in The African Postman, to “return to the roots” where “healing shall take place.” We, as you rightly pointed out, write to reclaim that which we may have lost, but this is not to also say that there are things that don’t get irretrievably damaged and broken. In this case, poetry accompanies us, providing what I regard as a companionship of common loss. We see our image within the larger image, within the pages of a collection of poems. It’s as though you’re taking a look into your own face, knowing that you can see yourself while also feeling seen and you emerge from that experience with a great reassurance. Not one that comes from healing, but from companionship. And you’re right, the process of restoring lost things is a challenging path.
Am I a poet who is a health worker or a health worker who is a poet? I have no definite answer to this. I’ve become so submerged in the things that I do that I find it difficult to identify which comes first for me. These spaces, as I previously mentioned, have both simply claimed me, and have also opened my eyes to the interdependence of all things. I dwell more on the point of convergence. The poet is a horrible worker. The health professional is also a horrible worker. I don’t expect to get famous for any, because fame is a fickle thing. As such, it is difficult to place one endeavour above or before the other. I can only admit that I started writing long before I thought of being in the health profession. However, this makes little difference if you consider the present demands of both and how I apply myself to them. But I love that there are very interesting points of convergence between these two disciplines and this explains why I’m often found dancing between them.
Also, I should give thanks, Darlington, for this powerful dissection of “Woodsmoke.” I firmly am in the school of theory that when the poem leaves me and enters the public eye, it’s not entirely mine anymore, but I think you scored delicate points here. There is an intersection between the scientific and the spiritual, which I always seek to interrogate in my work, and which I believe, is palpable in “Woodsmoke.” Which comes first and when does one morph into the other? How do you apply Einstein’s relativity theory to the poetic notion of death—which greatly fascinates me by the way and may become the foundation for a very robust conversation on its own—and drowning? I also love that you noticed the “blurring of the line between memory and reality” and “strength in the face of vulnerability.”
Can you imagine, for a moment, how illnesses invade the human body? Perhaps, you may wish to shut your eyes and picture a Picasso of the gut. How pathogens arrive without even the slightest knowledge of the host. From the inside-out, there are about four primary lines of defence on the walls of the gastrointestinal tract: the mucosa, sub-mucosa, muscularis, serosa. But none of these intercepts this colony of bacteria invading the Bowman’s capsule, or the islets of Langerhans, or trying to sneak past the sphincter of Oddi, or where the canals of Havers are situated, or just anywhere, until it is too late and the victim comes down with illness, the severity of which is dependent on the site of invasion, nature of disease-causing agents and time of discovery and treatment. So, with this knowledge, which is quite terrifying, assume also that you’re that professional accompanying a patient on their own journeys to recovery, while they leave a part of themselves with you in the aftermath, and overtime, these deposits accumulate and become something you may never recover from. But this is why I write. Poetry becomes a part of this journey, becomes the third man on this long, winding path, so that the burden is equally shared between me, the patient and the page. But the written word carries this weight so faithfully that it eventually outlives both the patient and the poet.
“Woodsmoke” comes from this need to agonize on the page so as to create a companionship or chronicle of common loss urgently needed in the absence of complete healing. It comes as a direct response to T.J. Dema’s gripping lines, hence the epigraph. I read T.J. Dema’s The Careless Mistress a day or so after I had that conversation with you at the Lagos International Poetry Festival. I hit those lines and paused, took a walk, returned, read the poem from where the lines were lifted, stopped at the same point as before, went for another short walk, returned, and realized that I could not go any further. This was shortly after I was told that my cardiac dysfunction had somewhat degenerated. I did not immediately heal, but I found a certain companionship in our common misfortune. I like to think that this is what you meant by poetry “re-inventing a life that medicine cannot cure.” “Woodsmoke” speaks to this re-invention. The persona probably suffers from a chronic ulcer or angina pectoris or heartburn of unknown cause, but in placing their experience against ours, we find something that’s consistent with our own experiences: the refusal to completely slip into the many darknesses waiting at the door. “Come celebrate with me,” announces Lucille Clifton, “that each day, something has tried to kill me, and has failed.”2
Anuonye: You know, till date I cut my hair the “Stone Cold” style. My barber knows what to do: he removes every strand of hair till my head shines together with the sun. It would have been difficult to carry this kind of haircut were it not done in honour of the legendary Steve Austin. I am excited that he won the match against Kevin Owens.
Speaking of the necessity of poetry in dark times, I do not know any artist who vicariously embodies the experience of medical darkness with the profundity of the Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, who took to writing in order to find healing for himself and his “mentally handicapped” son Hikari, whose birth he once described as “the personification of [his] unhappiness,” a condition that made him suicidal. But Oe’s visit to Hiroshima, where he witnessed the “dignity of people who refused to surrender to their hardship” and the resilience of Hiroshima health workers “who did not commit suicide in spite of everything” helped him to overcome his sadness. It was in the process of caring for this son “who looked like a baby with two heads” that Oe discovered the benefit of rehabilitation and the unmistakable joy of uprightness, two subjects he pursued so vigorously in his writing. I am conscious of the fact that Oe is essentially a novelist, but the serendipity of healing expressed in his novels embodies sublime poetry. Oe himself underlines the poetic essence of his writing by identifying his shared “spiritual affinity with the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.” And Dawes is right that poetry and music serve as founts of healing. This is what Oe celebrated Hikari for in his Nobel Prize lecture. Remarking “the voice of a crying and dark soul” in Hikari’s music, Oe confessed that the “music [cured] him of his dark sorrow in an act of recovery.” Hikari’s experience of healing made it possible for Oe to believe “in the exquisite healing power of art.” But as you noted, even when poetry provides healing to neither the diseased nor the caregiver, it attempts to offer us some companionship necessary for enduring the arduous journey towards healing. Chisom, discovering your experience of ill-health and now placing it beside your work as poet and health worker, it is striking how the images of the healer and the healed could so perfectly fit into one portrait.
Your poem “angina decubitus” is set in and against “the face of darkness.” The persona, who shares some kinship with you, talks about the discovery stage of their ill-health and how the diagnosis made them more aware of life: “signs are the demons you see/symptoms are what permits you the sense of feeling.” This consciousness of death created by illness leads to a situation of medical ambivalence marked by a simultaneous desire for and an aversion towards life. It is so that in spite of “the repeated promises of moon,” the persona still suffers from “an impenetrable darkness/trapped within the slaughter-house of [their] body.” The pathogenic misery of the persona is reminiscent of the finality of disease explored by the American poet, James Dickey, in “The Cancer Match,” a poem that underscores the limitations of medicine. Dickey paints the picture of a time when “medicine has no hope, or anything/More to give.” What do we do in such a time? Is it at this point that we should inevitably seek as well as mourn lost love as you did in your poem “Otherwise, I choose to die interstate”?
Okafor: Yes. Yes. You’re right about Oe and the enduring therapeutic power of art. I just read a great essay by Chelsea Bieker on grieving the death of her father, which starts by considering the possibilities of her father’s survival that could have been of her own making, thus: “if my novel was published, surely my father would stop drinking. If my short story collection was published after that, then miracles beyond my understanding would take flight.” Another novelist/essayist that I love with great intensity is the excruciatingly brilliant Karl Ove Knausgård whose epiphany, as documented in the My Struggle autobiographical series, first came at the moment of the death of a man onboard a capsized boat. He was (un)lucky to be a lone audience, witnessing the man’s final moment of suffering and eventual transitioning. His father never believed him, but unlike Oe towards his son, he grew apart from his father afterwards and wrote as a way of seeking companionship. Writing to speak to Hikari’s agony did Oe a lot of good. Drawing from the moment of agony that he witnessed in the news became for Knausgård a comforting path and strength for his sojourn. Postulating that her writing could have saved her father was therapeutic too, for Bieker.
This is great proof that there is always some companionship in words. I read the opening lines of Louis Glück’s The Wild Iris and I was never the same. Here, it says: “At the end of my suffering, there was a door.” It was an invitation to an open door of a room. I went in and emerged a different man. Grief, for me, is not really something I set out intending to celebrate in my work, and I still don’t address grief in a celebratory manner. But then, that emotional outburst comes and goes, and always leaves me following the dictates of the poem. There is this lasting conflict between what I want to achieve in a poem and what the poem itself has made available for me. And again, there is this conflict in how much I want the things I want in a poem. Sometimes, it is as though I want healing, and at other times, I want death. But one thing is clear, as you aptly stated, I want a release either by healing or by death. I know I may never fully arrive at this place of complete healing. The fact of being a healer does not guarantee your own healing.
As I previously mentioned, there is something about the idea of demise that holds me spellbound. Probably because sometimes I imagine I can see my death approaching. You think differently when you know that among the things that possess the power to take your life, a cardiac arrest most likely would come first. So, if you have the slightest chest pain or palpitation, you imagine you’re in the early stages of a heart failure, if you feel dizzy with fatigue, it may also mean the beginning of a cerebro-vascular accident, or ischaemic stroke. You see? You tend to give other interpretations to what you feel, which may be very normal, because you know something akin to what you think would probably kill you. “The worst thing about death,” Juan Ramón Jiménez pointed out, “must be the first night.” But then, you’ve already had your first night.
But this overt awareness of the body is not a resultant effect of fear, it proceeds from a place of knowingness. From knowing your body so well, from knowing that the body, plagued with illness and strife, is a site for hope but also a site for darkness, despite all “the repeated promises of moonlight.” It comes from preparedness. You’re on the lookout for the worst, but you hope for the best. You remember those promises of moonlight? The body does not understand them. The heart beats for as long as it could, then simply stops out of exhaustion, or is compelled by other forces more powerful, more alive somehow. “But I’m part of this body,” writes J.K. Anowe, “just as much as the shipwreck, spat towards shore, is part of the sea.”3 So, I live with all the ugliness inherent in this body, take my medications and fight for daily supremacy. Whether I succeed or fail at this, time after time, these moments of success or failure, coming in crests and troughs, determine how the poem speaks to me at any given time and are reflected in “Woodsmoke,” which speaks to resilience from knowing, and in “Otherwise, I choose to die intestate,” which speaks to despair from knowing. This, I suppose sums up what you referred to as medical ambivalence evidenced in my poems of embodiment.
With “angina decubitus,” I try to modify the Sahara of my body, in the way that it becomes responsive to me, even though it isn’t responding to treatment. This probably answers your question about what to do when it seems all other medical approach fails. I try to make the poem listen to me and to my body, but as I pointed out, I often don’t succeed in this endeavour, and because most times, the poem simply leads you and not the other way round, you end up painting a picture of despair, as could be seen in “Otherwise, I choose to die intestate.” My cardiac malfunction was first diagnosed when I was 22, so the cardiologist concluded that it came from an essential hypertension, which is high blood pressure of unknown cause, most probably hereditary. So, in the poem, the persona tries to “forgive his father for passing unto him, a literal and metaphorical heart of stone.” But he does not believe in forgiveness anymore. This is what it means to have a chronic disease before you’ve even started living your adult life. You simply stop believing in anything, and at the same time there are moments when you try to believe in anything that could grant you asylum or reprieve, as you rightly observed.
I once had a patient below the age of 12, who, upon her miraculous recovery from a diabetic coma, and a very severe keto-acidosis, simply wished to return to her coma. She couldn’t understand why she must fight at such an early stage of life, what her parents started fighting during adulthood. But then, I think that even this patient’s despair helped her navigate her medical trauma. Every feeling has its place. Having stated that, it’s important to also note that the human response to trauma, as could be seen in those poems, is never something set on stone. It becomes even more unpredictable when the trauma comes before we’re fully ready for it. But then, can anyone ever be fully prepared for trauma?
Anuonye: The narrative empathy of Beiker’s writing is so profound that it can enliven the quotidian anguish of loss. Likewise, her attempt to resurrect her father through her work is an eloquent testament to the power of art to reify the impermanence of death. Beiker and I are alike in our grief. It is almost impossible not to be moved by the passions of this daring woman rewriting the finality of death with the quiet preeminence of art. Knausgård is peerlessly gifted with imagination and empathy. The elasticity of emotions that runs across his novels is a conflagration of the vicarious and the visceral domains of compassion. It is wonderful that you experienced Glück the way that you did. In Alex Shephard’s estimation, Glück is an “unimpeachably literary” talent. I am glad that she opened her mind to you through her work.
Both your personal journey towards healing and the story of the 12-year-old girl remind me of your earlier response, in which you emphasized your fascination with “the poetic notion of death.” One of the profoundest poetic engagements with death that I am aware of is the abiku concept. In their individual abiku poems, J.P. Clark and Wole Soyinka illuminate the African worldview of the continuum of life in death. The abiku thus transverses the liminal space between the living, the dead and the unborn in their frequent birth, death and rebirth. In his own poem, Clark identifies the abiku as the child who comes and goes. The abiku dwells in the surreal world of traditional Africa. In that world, there is no concrete presence of time or age. Everything is measured by the progression of life demonstrated in numerous births and deaths. Clark’s admonition to the abiku: “Follow where you please your kindred spirits” is an acceptance of the finality of destiny and the communion of the living and the dead in traditional African culture. Like Clark’s, the operative vision of Soyinka’s “Abiku” is the reinforcement of the Yoruba mythology of a spirit-child believed to be engaged in the cyclic journey of life. While it is the poem persona that identifies the abiku in Clark’s poem, in Soyinka’s, the abiku reinforces their own identity: “I am Abiku, calling for the first/And the repeated time.” Here, just as we find in Clark’s poem, time is measured by the sequence of life through birth and death.
In your poems “In another life, I am twenty-two, gifted and curious” and “Echo cardio-gram,” there are sufficient illustrations of your exploration of death. The poems invoke the spirituality of death. In the first poem, “The boy on the other side is waiting, arms outstretched, as though to receive a prodigal advancing/to the interlocking welcome of an embrace” and in the second the poem persona asks: “Who says the dead are farther away from us?” These poems underscore the proximity of the dead to the living, that mystery undergirding birth, death and rebirth. How fascinated are you by the poetic notion of death?
Okafor: I wish I had that longing. Yours and Bieker’s, for my own parents. My mum passed on when I was just 7. It didn’t break me so terribly, probably because I did not know her too well. But from my patients, I realize every day what it means to lose a loved one as an adult. Also, as you aptly pointed out, it’s indeed near impossible to be unmoved by the sheer brilliance and soulfulness that is Bieker’s writing. Knausgård and Glück, too.
The idea of death and its inevitability interests me, as does the human path to death. Helon Habila’s Measuring Time resonates so well with me, especially when LaMamo, having survived a car crash, closes his eyes and death, no longer life, becomes to him, a miracle. “A human’s body is designed to survive against the strongest odds,” Habila writes, “his cells to repair and regenerate themselves. His body merges effortlessly into its surroundings for protection, and the very atmosphere, the air, is food to his cells. It takes the most extreme kind of violence to kill us and of course old age. It is not life that is miraculous, it is death.” Elsewhere, there is a testimony embedded in Plutarch’s letter of consolation to his wife after the death of their 2-year-old daughter, which has not left me, “for each person takes grief in of his own accord.”
A line starts with a point and ends in a point. That’s one out of the many possible ways of seeing death: the final visible point in a line. This is not something I romanticize. But then, more than a finality, I like to see death as a release, within an ending, even though as a Christian, I feel inclined to believe in the afterlife after the ending which means there is no release, only a transformation of body, and continued existence in the world beyond. But for the sake of this conversation, I’ll focus on death as release. In a recent essay, heart-wrenching and filled with flawless literary grace, one of my favourite poets of atypical embodiment, Katie Farris (co-writing with her partner, Ilya Kaminsky), on discovering another lump around the area where the first one had been, cries out these words that still shake me to the core: “My God. I’m only 38. I’m not ready to be dying.” This line speaks differently to me, because I said something similar on discovering my cardiac disease. Then, elsewhere in the essay, she strikes a note akin to resignation and preparedness, same with me, too. I found an immense companionship, as always, in Katie’s work. This is her testimony:
I run scenarios in my mind of what I could do if my cancer has metastasized. What if I have only weeks left? I’ll host dinner parties at my house and fly my friends and family in. We’ll laugh and eat silly food under ridiculous floral arrangements. The musicians will play and the poets will read and the actors will perform; I’ll surround myself with the art of my dearest friends. I’ll finish setting up my living will and have a calligrapher write DNR on my chest in permanent marker. With months, I’ll take a couple of trips. With a year, I’ll complete two more books. But even these plans can’t settle me.
Truth is, I may apparently be on my path to healing. But you don’t completely heal from progressive disorders, like chronic non-communicable diseases. You manage them, instead, controlling possible risk factors and treating signs and symptoms, and getting ready for eventualities. Armed with this medical knowledge, I literally go to sleep at nightfall, without expecting to rise with the sun, and then I wake each day, expecting to die in the course of the day, expecting to have a heart attack or a stroke, and depart. I’ve taught my family and friends how to perform CPR, because I suspect they would soon need the skill that this medical procedure requires, to try to revive me and though, I wouldn’t wish to be resuscitated, they may need this knowledge for someone else. The fascination I have for death, as evidenced in my recent poems, probably has similarities with the notion of birth and rebirth as you observed, but tends more towards the poetry of atypical bodies. What one may see as the concept of rebirth, denoting an aforementioned release, as against actual reincarnation.
The natural urge when I write is to depict death as some sort of impermanence, “a continuum of life,” as you so brilliantly stated, with some semblance to, but not in the exact way of Clark and Soyinka. But the poem, as I earlier stated, often leads me to other pathways, and I often surrender to the darknesses that surround the idea of death. Personally, I think the worst thing about death has already happened to me. During my National Youth Service, I was so tired of having to take daily, unending medications that I simply stopped, willing the hands of death to come quicker. I was 23. This happened at about the time I first encountered the confessional poet, Anne Sexton.
I like how the highly distinguished and cerebral poets, Clark and Soyinka engaged this theme, from the standpoint of spirituality and African mythology. And how the idea of life after death can be as fascinating as the idea of death itself. But I don’t think the people in my poems want to return to anywhere, physical or spiritual, after death. They merely seek an avenue to get to that point and, like Kofi Awoonor, “cross to the otherside, and go beyond.”4 Whatever happens beyond, they’ll get to see. Documenting that journey is what fascinates me.
The poems you referred to, try to speak to this point, where “there is a boy on the other side.” The way Glück follows up that first line of The Wild Iris with: “hear me out. That which you call death, I remember.” This boy isn’t an indicator of the possibilities of reincarnation, as we tend to imagine, he is an allusion to home, a different kind of rebirth. A place where “an interlocking welcome of an embrace” awaits. Even though the people in my poems try to speak life “into hearts, feeble and dying with cardiomegaly,” they still manage, like Faris, to have dreams about a different kind of happy ending. I want to remember death with this feeling of triumph, that I’m departing and never coming back, though the poem may want to lead me to other “promises of moonlight.” The personas in my poems, sometimes, don’t seem to want these promises, otherwise, they could have chosen to become reincarnate beings. But even if they had chosen that, would they have returned to earthly existence with brand new hearts, or their old hearts, feeble with cardiomegaly? Even spirituality does not seem to be enough comfort for these people that populate my poems. Which is why, on the day I wrote “Echo cardio-gram,” I was crying and writing. Something I’d never done in my life.
Having made these points, I must also be clear about this: I’m not obsessed with death. I engage this idea chiefly because this is my reality, and it stares in me in the face, more than I can even imagine, and though I try to put away this inevitability, with my medical and nutrition therapy, and certain lifestyle changes, it draws closer with each passing day. So, I try to engage this familiar realization through the science and spirituality of poetry.
Anuonye: Your perspective on life and death reminds me of Paul’s struggle with the compulsions of life and the infinite glory of salvation claimable only in death, as expressed in his letter to the Philippians. Hear the voice of one of Christ’s greatest apostles, the one whose passion for the gospel is almost unparalleled by any other biblical figure and whose courage in the face of opposition and persecution is hardly replicated in our own time: “But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I know not. For I am in a strait between two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better/Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful.” Paul’s experience seems to present that companionship that you seek.
For some writers, writing is a tedious exercise, for others it is free-flowing, may I know, what is your writing process like?
Okafor: Indeed, the words of Paul and John always come as great consolation for those in the body of Christ, and as food for their journey. I actually have poems that seek to dig into the thoughts of the beloved John, as he lay dying, on the isle of Patmos. Hopefully, we’ll be around for longer time than we envisaged, but we’ll keep drawing from these great people of letters, and keep using language as tool for companionship and strength.
Writing is tedious for me, I should say. I agonize over every word, then revise and revise—up to fifty-ish times. Nothing has ever come fully made for me, except perhaps, for “Woodsmoke.” During my periods of intense writing, I’d do a lot of things to stir up my poetic antennae, for instance, spend nights gazing at the “starlit constellation overhead” in my aloneness and wondering how many light years it took the starlight from each “cellphone-holding species” to reach earth, listen to Queen and Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Gregory Porter’s 1960-what, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, especially the choral part, or Patty Smith as she performs Bob Dylan’s soulful “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” or try to dissect a Picasso, or a Rembrandt, or a Van Gogh.
I’m really interested in the poetry of space and time. In Einstein’s laws of relativity, Newton’s laws of motion and the physics of nature. So, I could also start by thinking of the trees, how they strive to make use of the sun whose light has journeyed for 93 million miles from space to reach earth. The trees use this light to make sugar and food through photosynthesis, and make oxygen afterwards. Oxygen, being the very essence of our lives. Give thanks for these things.
When I write, I’m a sojourner on a long, dirt road, full of sharp bends and birds dust-bathing by the wayside. I let these birds lead me. Let the path reveal itself as I travel. Drawing from the incomparable Chinua Achebe, I do not own the poem. It’s the poem than owns me.
Anuonye: Thank you, Chisom. I admit that this conversation with you has strengthened my faith in the longevity of art, even as I remain conscious of the brevity of life. I hope the companion and healing your art offers others become your own incontestable possession. I look forward to reading more of your poems.
Okafor: Thank you so much, dear Darlington, for your time and labour and for the camaraderie. Honestly, I almost always shy away from accepting praise for my own work but I think I should say, thank you again, for paying attention to the work that I do in the silence of nights.
1 Svendborg Poems by Bertolt Brecht, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn.
2 “won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light by Lucille Clifton.
3 “The Fracturing” from Sky Raining Fists by J.K. Anowe.
4 “I heard a bird cry” by Kofi Awoonor.
About the Authors:
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, a literary conversationist, editor, and writer, is the editor of The Good Teacher: An Anthology of Essays in Honour of Isidore Diala and Samuel Anthony Itodo, Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories and the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. He is also co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction. Anuonye was awarded the 2021 Amplify Fellowship of the MasterCard Foundation, longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award, and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency.
Chisom Okafor, a Nigerian poet and clinical nutritionist, has been nominated for the Brunel Poetry Prize, the Isele Poetry Prize, Frontier Award for New Poets, the Gerald Kraak Prize, the Jack Grapes Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. His debut full-length poetry manuscript, Birthing, was a finalist for the 2021 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He presently splits his time between the diet clinic of a military hospital and its college of nursing, where he teaches diet therapy and clinical nutrition. He tweets @chisomokafor16.