In early April, Nigerian poet, Adedayo Agarau, was shortlisted for the 2022 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. In this interview, the editor and writer, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, engages Agarau in a conversation about/around his poetry and his contributions to the growth of contemporary African poetry.
Anuonye: Adedayo, congratulation once again on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize on its tenth and final year. In 2018, when I first read your poem “Stone,” which was shortlisted for the Babishai Niwe African Poetry Prize, I was stunned by the brilliance of your mind, so I reached out and congratulated you. Moreover, our shared admiration of the gifted and gracious Brigitte Poirson brought us even closer. Since then, I have followed your career with interest and enjoyed the privilege of including your poems “baptism” and “First portrait of me as Adedayo” in the forthcoming edited collection Kilimanjaro Voices. Having familiarized myself with your work, I think that the only thing more extraordinary and more permanent than the literary legitimation and recognition that you have garnered over the years—Sillerman Prize finalist, African Poetry Book Fund, among others—is your poetry itself. How do you identify as well as respond to the invitation of the poetic muse?
Agarau: Thank you, Darlington. It’s been an enormous honor knowing you and knowing that you pay attention to my art and journey. Words cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunities that have come my way as a budding poet living in his father’s house in Ibadan. And the history of the reemergence of contemporary Nigerian poetry cannot be told without reference to the projects of Brigitte Poirson in collaboration with Samson Kukogho and his Words Rhyme and Rhythm. I remember winning several competitions Brigitte sponsored; I remember her actively supporting my art and editing my work. Brigitte is an international gift.
Now to answer your question, I identify with memory. I attempt to create stories around the tiny things I have seen, heard or witnessed. I remember sitting with my daddy, watching the NTA news at 9pm, when the news about the Lagos bomb blast aired. My mum, who used to travel to Cotonou to buy clothing materials and groundnut oil, had travelled to Lagos to trade. I saw the fear in my father’s eyes. The memory of that picture stayed with me. I am always grounded by things that have terrified me. I am writing about ritual killings and kidnappings that happened in Ibadan. My poem, “Ibadan,” which interestingly is also part of the pack of poems I submitted for the Brunel Prize, is a part of this series of essential poems. I was kidnapped as a child, but miraculously, I was found. I am still not sure what happened, but I remember my mother’s face when the people who found me took me home. My poems attempt to bring realism and surrealism into the space of things. As I have come to understand, identity is a function of language—and this is what determines where I go when I go in search of poems.
I attempt to write with purpose, most of it a failed attempt at forgetting. My first collection of poems, The Morning The Birds Died, which made the finalist of 2021 Sillerman First Book Prize, is a good example of my attempt to write so I can forget. It’s an intensely spiritual collection that interrogates my grandmother’s death. As her favorite grandchild, we shared a bond that I didn’t even realize until she passed. The collection also attempts to give insights into the processes of funerals in Yoruba land. What does it mean when you dream of the dead? What did she mean when she asked me to come to her in those dreams? I go in search of answers—with language—in fear, because who knows what the poem will unearth? My poetry is an endless list of unanswered questions. I try to point the pen towards the softest part of my grief and write the hard things from that place of softness.
Anuonye: I agree with you that language is central in the act and art of recollection. Even when memory fails us, it is language that strengthens the imagination. Your poem, “to go gently into the night,” depicts the memory of loss that you speak of. The image of an anguished mother mourning the loss of her child, while gathering their remains, is devastating. Although the poem persona is just a witness to this tragedy, the resonating power of sorrow with which the incident is rendered makes it impossible for them not to be drawn into the cataclysm of the bereaved through the visceral force of empathy. Broken at last by the burden of witnessing, the persona reaches out to the bones, which I read as a metaphor for the human family, to serve as their co-witness. This collaborative witnessing underscores the communality of death and social tragedies.
I remember the mournful silence that followed the Bellview and Sosoliso plane crashes in Nigeria. We were all overwhelmed by the enormity of such irreparable loss. I imagine that the Lagos bomb blast must have had such unforgettably shocking effect on you. The space between the past and the present is preserved by memory. By “[twisting] the story towards the door of the house where there is an escaping,” the persona demonstrates the redeeming possibilities of art. But as the child does not respond to the beckoning of light even after they crawl out of darkness, the limitation of art to offer total restoration in some cases is exemplified. How do you negotiate the redeeming possibilities and the limitations of art?
Agarau: The metaphor that door holds is one that is endless—one that preserves within it a factor of shock, and surprise. What is on the other side of the door? What grief, what joy? What concept of light, what shade of shadow? Poetry offers the poet the power to put light where they can—but the power for redemption is solely reliant on where the poem is going. I am fascinated by the idea of redemption, and how it is fashioned in stories. When light falls into a dark place, what is redeemed is subjective. However, the possibilities of art (light) are limited by the width and length of the room. My poems provide me access to landscapes. What happens there depends on what the poem makes possible. You know, sometimes, what is redeemed is the self—the poet—the boy in the darkroom searching for songs; the song even. Light does not save you. It gives you the clarity of escape. Imagine you are in a dark room with a small window and suddenly a light comes on. You see that there is a window and you sit inside the light. Redemption is rooted in kinetics, in moving, the motion found in metaphors and language. Art is never limited, what is limited is the venue, the landscape, the confined space where these possibilities take place. In recent poems where I interrogate my vivid dreams, I wade in and out of them. The fluidity of a dream is that you do not control where it takes you. Now you are in a vast field of lilac, next you are in a house with no window. This is where art takes over—how does the poem take the persona from the field of lilac to the room with no windows? How does the poem end itself? How does the persona continue to live? Where does the poem leave them? The negotiation of possibilities and limitations is a shuffle of imagery the poet gives his reader. I want to put you there, in the surreal landscape in my head. I want you to wander like me—like a child in space. I want you to be trapped there, unable to leave when the poem ends. Or maybe the poem does not end. Maybe it’s circling back to the beginning and maybe we will now realize that we are in a loop of time, and poetry is how we make sense of tragedy.
You remind me of the streak of silence that fell upon me, trapped me for years. I couldn’t write about Alhaja until after three years had passed. What was the body doing? Such was my inability to properly interrogate the loss that befell me. When something that we love leaves, something like a twig or branch of a tree breaks in us. And it takes watering and silence to rebuild or re-grow. I remember the morning after the Sosoliso plane crash, the silence that clipped our lips, the inability to sing. Being a witness is a powerful role, especially if you are witnessing closely, close to the grave or the burning house. Witnessing, however, cannot entirely capture what the body of the mourner feels. So poetry, a witness of things unfelt, makes a magic of the silence.
Anuonye: The irresoluble fate of the child in “to go gently into the night” reminds me of Thomas Hood’s affecting poem, “I Remember, I Remember,” in which the poem persona laments their lack of redemption even with the possibility of an escape. Hood illustrates the daunting struggle with the compulsive frustrations of memory and forgetfulness:
I remember, I remember, The house where I was born, The little window where the sun Came peeping in at morn; He never came a wink too soon, Nor brought too long a day, But now, I often wish the night Had borne my breath away.
As you noted, you write to remember as well as to forget, just like Hood. Memory, borrowing Oliver Tearle’s poignant phrase, is an “exercise in nostalgia,” a fickle thing that is, nevertheless, powerful enough to recreate what is past and forgotten. But to bind memory to forgetfulness, to task the mind to forget what it has resolved to remember, is beyond the self. This is where imagination and hope coalesce and, being rooted in language, erupt with a poetic force. The simultaneity of acceptance and rejection of fate, which characterizes your reaction to your grandmother’s death, is what makes the desire for forgetfulness inevitable. But to forget is to return inescapably to memory in an attempt to document the unspeakable. When I read The Morning The Birds Died, I was gripped by the magnetic intensity of the collection. The poems in the anthology enabled me to reflect more deeply on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s belief that “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly—in the expressed.”
Life is miraculous, just like poetry. My idea of the miraculous derives from and extends beyond that which has a beginning and no ending. Does the Yoruba myth of death as a passage, and not a finality, help you in coping with loss?
Agarau: Thank you for taking how I deal and cope with loss into the subject. I think we all deal with and cope with these things differently, although we cannot undermine the influence of internalized cultural beliefs. The end, I believe, is not a destination; it’s a passage. Origin of Names, selected by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes for the New Generation African Poet, is a research project in which I explored the concept of naming in Yoruba land. Names, like death, and birth, are significant. And these three things are closely knitted. Babatunde, for example, is a name that suggests that the father has returned. Yetunde suggests that the mother has returned. In either case, the Yoruba people would not name their child any of these if there wasn’t first the death of a loved one: a grandfather, a grandmother, a father, or a mother. The idea of reincarnation, which is Agbowo’s theme for its 5th Annual issue, is one that spreads across Africa. I had a conversation with a group of white people during a workshop I facilitated at Waterloo, Iowa, and they agreed that there is a sentiment that people who died come back, or shift places. So maybe this is a universal phenomenon?
But what is comforting about death as a passage? It is the idea that the shift takes place in the realm where shadows sift through spaces towards a destination: a resting place. The Yoruba believe that if the dead decided to return, it’s because they are not ready to rest. Or because there is some task they must fulfill. The year before my grandmother died, my aunty died during childbirth. Imagine the weight of grief that pressed into my grandmother. Before she died, my cousin impregnated someone and she named the child Enitan, which means “a person of story.” Look at the trajectory of birth and death. What is comforting is that the family blooms; that, as someone leaves, someone is coming back. We are unsure who returns and why, but are grateful that no one is trapped on the road, no one is sealed inside the mother.
Anuonye: Origin of Names is an important contribution to literary and cultural studies. “What is in a name?” Juliet asks in Romeo and Juliet, as she expresses her disappointment that a family feud stands between her and her lover. Without justifying the exclusionary and repressive exploits to which names could be put, Shakespeare uses the case of Romeo and Juliet to illustrate the centrality of names in the framing and reframing of identity as well as in the consolidation and contestation of fate. A name is a heritage and as such embodies opportunities or roadblocks that the bearer is either blessed with or condemned to suffer. Or both. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie insists that “names matter,” because they express the worldview of the bearer and that of their society. In Roots, there is an enduring depiction of the cultural essence of names among African people when Kunta’s father, observing the rites of naming, raises his son to the sky and, with the authority of his ancestors who are equally participants in and witnesses to the ritual, proclaims: “You must hear your name first. Your name is your spirit. Your name is your shield. Your name is Kunta Kinte.” Throughout his life, Kunta endures many trials, but the most emotionally distressing is the attempt to change his name and thus erase his identity. Kunta’s protest against this act of cultural and historical discontinuity shines brighter than the intolerable darkness of racism.
I acknowledge the regenerative power of birth and death, just as I am convinced that names tell stories, embody personal and collective histories, and express triumph as well as defeat. What you have done in Origin of Names is similar to the literary achievement of Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me by My Rightful Name, a novel that, in Isidore Diala’s words, “appropriates the techniques of magical realism that the novelist locates in African folk imagination” to account for the journey of a black diasporan in his search for his primordial root. “At the core of Okpewho’s vision,” Diala concludes, “is the belief that life and death are in reality only relocations, and memories or previous incarnations are remembered.” This is what your poetry equally demonstrates.
In “Bad Dream with My Grandmother’s Stroke,” an autobiographical poem, you depict how your grandmother’s struggle with illness broke you. This line rings with misery: “my grandmother is dying & there is nothing I can do.” And in “levitate,” you mourn her passing, even as you ponder: “Where do birds go when it’s dark?” Looking back, who was your grandmother? And, to what extent has your sublimation of grief helped you to find release?
Agarau: One of the many blessings of creative writing is that it allows you to rewrite the script all over again, which most of the time, what you get is the same ending—you are carrying her, rocking her in your hands, but she gives up the ghost. In another one, you are washing her sore when she dies. The possibility shifts in the metaphorical ways that you cared for the dead, but it doesn’t remove the scorching reality that they are dead. In “Bad Dream with My Grandmother’s Stroke,” I attempted to reshuffle and reset the room where my grandmother lay dying. Her children, the ones that cared to visit, by her side, sitting in silence, scouring the room with their eyes. My father walking in half in confidence, half in faith, asking everyone how she’s doing. I think this was the point where someone started to cry—her sister, who had recently been diagnosed with clinical diabetes. See, I know Jabez knew sorrow but my grandmother broke pain with her body. The doctor said that it was a shock, asking if anything spectacular happened that week; what happened was that she lost her child—my aunty, and her second husband—my step grandfather, in the same week. Grief wrecks the body. My father told me when my grandmother finally figured out that her child died during childbirth, she slumped.
The earliest memory I had of my grandmother was of one late afternoon: I was outside the face-me-I-face-you apartment on Ogunleye Street in Ibadan, playing football with friends. A green taxi rattled into the street, gently gliding towards us. It halted right in front of our house. The driver alighted from the car and opened the door, and the woman I recognized as my grandmother alighted. The driver opened the trunk of the car and began to offload the many goodies my grandmother brought us. I think I ran towards her, and when she recognized me. She called my name, Olajire. This is how I choose to remember her, that fierce woman. Maybe memory is kind to her because of how much she endured when she was alive. Her first husband died in the year that I got electrocuted, the year after I was born. Her first daughter died during childbirth. You see this was what I was saying about birth and death as a concept of exchange.
The poems in The Morning The Birds Died are my close examination of the process and procession of grief, the passage of loss, and the destination the body finds itself, both literally and figuratively. I didn’t stop writing the poems until I found peace, or felt ease. During the last editing stage, my editor, Sophie Klahr, noted that the strength of the collection, aside its metaphoric element, is its thematic coherence. Release, as the process of writing that book has defined, is in the patience and attention I gave to writing it. It’s like the figurative process of washing my grandmother’s body after her death. Or cleaning and bathing her when she had stroke, which I did for about two years. Right now, I am where I want to be with the book, with the memory, and I feel at peace with the idea that maybe someday, I might see her elsewhere, living another life.
Anuonye: O, Adedayo, I’m so sorry that your grandmother had to endure such harsh conditions. But I’m proud of you for staying by her till the end and for offering her such intimate support that sometimes seems only possible among people of the same gender, even if they are family. Let the words of the brilliant Tia Walker keep you company: “To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.” And, yes, I am drawn to the prophetic power of your hope that one day you and your grandmother would be reunited in another life. Even your poem, “First Portrait of me as Adedayo,” bears witness to that hoped reunion, as you declare: “let there be a city/let god be known/this body, dead with bones, shall rise &in the lifting/my grandmother shall rise to sing me back to sleep.” To your prayers, I say, amen.
I am also aware of your role as curator and editor, your contribution to the production and propagation of African literature in contemporary times. I think of early African editors like Chinua Achebe and Margaret Busby as forces that confronted the imperial and racial myth-making that Achebe himself identified as the colonization of one people’s story by another. What inspired you to become a curator and an editor? How relevant is the role of the curator/editor in literature?
Agarau: Darlington, I appreciate your vision and heart. And how you have conversations with my writing.
My writing received blessings from editors who paid attention to it, cared about what I wanted to say and helped me perfect my voice. I am talking about Kukogho Samson, Su’eddie Agema, Poirson, Shittu Fowora, Laura M Kaminski, Dawes, and in recent years Salawu Olajide. I am also grateful for the input of my professors, Tracie Morris and Mark Levine. Editors are the eyes of the voice; they see the resonance, perceive where the echoes will land, and help the voice to get there.
Like almost everything I do, I start naturally before finding purpose. I am all for opening new doors and spotlighting people, but editors do much more. I started my journey years back when I began publishing budding poets like me on my blog, Quality Poets. The blog got locally popular and I published about sixty poets until a Nigerian school took the dream away from me. After I met Elisabeth Horan on Twitter, I joined her small press, Animal Heart, as an editorial assistant, reading submissions and studying publishing patterns, politics, everything. At that time, I also joined Barren Magazine as contributing editor, where I read over one thousand submissions monthly. I think my experience working for foreign presses and journals made me realize that African literature is a minority.
My friends and I, who are now the UnSerious Collective, had a conversation about the archiving of contemporary voices in Nigerian poetry, so I spoke with Elisabeth about the dream of making an anthology of Nigerian Poets. The anthology, titled Memento, featured up to fifty vibrant emerging and established voices in today’s African poetry scene. The anthology, interestingly, was the first collection of contemporary Nigerian poets in the last fifteen years. It featured works of Gbenga Adesina, Itiola Jones, Jide Badmus, Hussain Ahmed, Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu, Dami Ajayi, Daisy Odey, Chisom Okafor, Wale Ayinla, Pelumi Salako and other interesting voices like Nome Patrick, Adebayo Kolawole, O-Jeremiah Agbaakin, Michael Akuchie, and Pamilerin Jacob.
I left Barren Magazine and joined Feral Journal briefly before joining IceFloe Press where I started a series to focus on editing and publishing African voices—New International Voices Series—which has been in motion for about two years now. Because I think poets should be paid for their work, I started paying $10 per writer from my monthly stipend.
It’s been a long journey. I remember attending the first Arts and Chill organized by Agbowo at the University of Ibadan. Years later, I am the editor-in-chief of the magazine that I celebrated getting published in. I am really excited about what future and possibilities my position at Agbowo brings because we are at the point where there is a new wave of literary catapulting in the African literary space. The vision is to create a space that publishes nothing but the best writing. In the same hope, I am working with a team of communications experts, PR strategists, operation managers, lawyers, and brand designers to see if starting a Nigerian Prize for Poetry will revitalize the literary economy in Nigeria. The idea is to keep creating opportunities for this well of talent that blossoms in Nigeria.
Anuonye: Thank you for the paths you create and the roadblocks you shatter. Tom Rath’s search for “a language for contributions that captures the humanity of what we do—that expresses how we draw on our human talents to make contributions to people” seems to have been fulfilled by the coherence of the immense curatorial and editorial works that you do. Moreover, you have shown, as Lucas Shallua describes it, that “a selfless contribution is a silent measure of our life philosophy and core value; it is the unspoken gesture of what we believe and value in life, an investment with divine returns.”
You have paid moving tributes to your mentors and compatriots; I imagine that other writers and artists already celebrate your impacts on their career. Having recently left the continent in pursuit of an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, what opportunities does America hold for you as a poet?
Agarau: To be honest, I am still adapting; it was a big move. I am still tending to the big cultural shocks, the cultural differences. The racial abuse and the direct slurs that have been jabbed at me. The heartbreaks. The distance from home.
I cannot even lie that I do not want to be here. I want to. I am better positioned for the future I am looking for, one where I am able to interrogate, have conversations and teach African poetry, and by this I mean poems written by my contemporaries. Right now, I am just writing poems about being lost. I am writing stuff that seems to have the coherence that I need to build into my thesis, and maybe a second collection. The idea is to build writing that I can stand by, or that can stand by me in the place of memory. I am bringing surrealism into my writing. I was encouraged to do so by Tracie Morris last semester when I wrote most of the poems that made the shortlist of the Brunel Poetry Prize.
I am sure that there are several opportunities and possibilities for me in the West, but that does not alienate me from home. My identity is strongly tied to home. Every memory that shows up in my writing is about the emergence of self, which did truly emerge in Ibadan. Although I seek to understand the heat and the heart of the poem better, I am holding strongly to my language because it’s all I have here.
In the few months I have spent here, I have seen the difference in structure and empowerment. No one cared if I wrote poetry at the Federal Polytechnic Ede or at Rufus Giwa Polytechnic Owo where I studied Human Nutrition. Here, I have met with three different literary agents, won the Stanley Travel Research Grant and the Roberts Hayden fellowship at Stockton University. It baffles me that Nigeria brims with such an amazing list of talents, yet there is little that is done with it. The creative will always look for spaces where they can find food or meaning in their art. I recently started a weekly nugget on how to prepare for MFA on my Facebook. The response has been crazy; it shows that everyone is attempting to leave.
I look forward to the promises that America holds for me. And I pray they are exciting things.
Anuonye: I am touched by your honest confession that everyone is attempting to leave. The tragic condition of our country, as you have already pointed out, necessitates mass migration. Warsan Shire is right: “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark/you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” The playwright and poet, Esiaba Irobi, describes the condition of the Nigerian artist in a manner that evocatively depicts the nation as antithetical to dreams and triumphs: “A swollen seed, I live my buried life/In the entrails of the earth/Like a crescent moon whose full beauty/Is hidden by the clouds.” I’m glad you are documenting your journey in America by transforming your experience of loneliness and racism into a feral repertoire of poetic inspiration capable of offering an endless drawing. I leave you with the blessings of Sneha Subramania Kanta: may the “unbridled hymnal” of your poetry grant you “sustenance” in this new beginning.
Agarau: O, Darlington, your words are very comforting. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you about my art and projects and, of course, what the Brunel shortlist means to my career. I wish you all the best too.
About the Authors:
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, a literary conversationist, editor and writer, is 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.
Adedayo Agarau is a 2022 Robert Hayden Scholarship fellow of Stockton University and the recipient of the 2022 Stanley Awards for International Research at the University of Iowa. He is studying for MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’ 23. His manuscript, The Morning The Birds Died, was a finalist in the 2021 Sillerman Prize. His chapbook, Origin of Names, was selected for New Generation African Poet (African Poetry Book Fund), 2020, while Vegetarian Alcoholic Press published his chapbook, The Arrival of Rain in January 2020. His poems are live or forthcoming in World Literature Today, Anomaly, Frontier, Iowa Review, Boulevard, and elsewhere. Adedayo is the Editor-in-Chief at Agbowó: An African magazine of literature and art, and the editor of New International Voices Series at Icefloe-Press. Adedayo edited Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. You can find me on adedayoagarau.com and @adedayo_agarau on twitter.