Our assistant editor, Uchenna Emelife, posed five questions to all the authors shortlisted for the 2023 edition of the Isele Prizes. The questions stretch from their writing processes, to the themes they are most drawn to, their inspirations, and more.

See Echezonachukwu Nduka’s responses below. Also, read his “Four Poems”. 

Uchenna Emelife: Could you talk about the shortlisted poems, your writing process, and what informed the poems? 

Echezonachukwu Nduka: Thank you, Uchenna. The shortlisted work is a suite of four poems I wrote in response to some of my reflections and curiosities. I was listening to a lot of jazz music, thinking about black history, civil rights movement, and the place of music in the struggle for liberation and preservation of memory. The liberation to which I refer is both personal and collective. In addition to Jazz, there is Fela’s Afrobeat. Anyone who has listened to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s “Zombie” and “Yellow Fever” would find subtle references to the song in the first poem. In fact, I refer to the genre as government. And it is true that Fela’s music was an alternative kind of government that resonated defiantly in the face of military dictatorship and brazen corruption of the political class in Nigeria. Why would I refer to it as a kind of government? Beyond the music and the band’s incredible range and structure, there was Kalakuta Republic where Fela was president. The first poem closes with the issue of brutality and state betrayal. The rest of the poems deal with a range of themes including introspection and renewal, but also the contemporary debate of returning stolen African art works displayed in Euro-American museums and art galleries. While a few countries are beginning to talk about returning some of those artifacts and paying reparations, I would argue that it should never have been a topic for debate in the first place. Even today, we hear excuses about how some of those works would not be properly taken care of when they are returned to the rightful and original owners. Why?! I believe that somewhere in this world, just somewhere, there should still be some shame left. 

Akin Euba, the originator of African Pianism, a genre of African art music which I champion—makes a cut in the closing poem with the line: “…my fingers speak in dialects of drums/ & the clanging of rattles like bells…/

What is evident in my shortlisted work is that the suit of four poems, although different in form and subject, is firmly held together by music as the central theme. The poems were written within a space of two weeks and taken from a larger WIP which is now nearing completion.

UE: How do you tell a work is ready to meet the world? 

EN: When there is nothing else to offer the work in terms of rewriting and editing. This is also tricky because sometimes you may find yourself getting back to the same work for revision after a while. The passage of time does something to many of us, you know. Perhaps it is growth, doubt, or not. There are writers whose manuscript you must snatch off their hands. They just never let go. There’s always something to edit: a line here, a verse there, a particular word that doesn’t sound quite right. In this instance, I am guilty as charged. My publisher bears witness. Here’s a famous quote by Paul Valerie: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” This is true for many poets. However, there are times when one writes the last line of a poem with a clear tone of finality. If you are lucky to pull that off, you come away with a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. 

UE: What does writing mean to you? 

EN: Writing is one of the surest ways of bearing witness to the vagaries of time. To me, it is making and remaking of histories, preserving memories while stretching and conveying our imagination with the best form of language. It is where the height and depth of human emotions crystallize on the page. In addition, I like to think that writing is also another way of making music.

UE: If you could only write about one thing, what would you write and why? 

EN: Music. The main reason would be because I am a musician. It is often said that there is a song for everything. And it is true. Music is the sound and silence of the world. It is the point from which one can navigate the universe while rediscovering oneself in that process. Even now, I am intentional about leaving behind a body of work which I hope would sing to whoever encounters them.


UE: Whose works speak to you? Why? And how do they do that?

EN: I have a long list of poets whose works speak to me in many ways. However, I’ll resist the temptation of listing names here and mention only one poet: Kamau Brathwaite. He mastered the art of dancing with language, and the sense of identity in his work is unmistakable. His poetry has held me gently, leading me from place to place and showing me that even the mundane is in fact not only significant but necessary. I love the musicality of his work, and it is easy to see right there on the page that he paid attention to details. Braithwaite knew his craft. I think that everyone, poet or not, should read his trilogy, The Arrivants. He is one of the many poets whose works I return to again and again. I owe immense gratitude to him and others like him whose contributions to the literary world continue to teach and inspire us today.

About the Authors:

Uchenna Emelife: Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, a bookseller, and a human rights advocate. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. Uchenna Emelife is as well an advocate for Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and anti-Sexual and Gender-based Violence. As a fellow of the African Youth Adolescent Network (AfriYAN), he has been contracted for various virtual campaigns to support the cause by Education as a Vaccine and United Nations Population Fund (UNPA).

Echezonachukwu Nduka, poet and pianist, is the author of two poetry collections, Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts (Griots Lounge: 2018), and Waterman (Griots Lounge: 2020). He is fascinated by wildlife and complex jazz chords.