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How piles of rejection slips made us set up Saraba Magazine – Dami Ajayi

How do you think of yourself, as a writer who became a medical doctor or a doctor who became a writer?I see myself as a…

How do you think of yourself, as a writer who became a medical doctor or a doctor who became a writer?
I see myself as a writer and as a doctor. I am one of the fans of Parallelism. I don’t think my writing had anything to do with my becoming a doctor. My extended family was longing for a doctor so I was co-opted into that role earlier in life. This was reinforced with small gifts and I was also unfortunate to have been academically efficient. Writing was something I came into differently. It was of my own volition, I just picked a pen and started to make sentences. So there is no cause and effect here. I am not a writer because I am a doctor or a doctor because I am a writer, I am a writer who happens to be a doctor.

Fascinating. In spite of your medical background, you are building a reputation as a poet of note, even though you are also a remarkable prose writer. Why the tilt towards poetry?
Thanks for that compliment. Maybe I should announce that my next book may be a work of fiction. Yes  I write prose. I write poetry. I do book reviews. I even write prescriptions. And tweets too. I like to see myself primarily as a writer, but the poet appellation is unavoidable because I have published more poetry and by extension, my poetry is far more popular, but I guess time will change that. My tilt towards poetry might be borne out of my love for language and might also be as a result of my day job and lack of discipline. I think I do too many things. Too many things at the same time.

Your book Clinical Blues has been published to critical acclaim as was your poetry chapbook Daybreak and Other Poems. Does this validate your aspiration as a poet?
Yes, it does. I wanted to be read and I am being read. I have a book that is cheap and a booklet that is free and they are both well-read, what else does a poet need?
Your medical practice is heavily reflected in Clinical Blues as is your love for literature. What set you on the part to producing this anthology, was it something to do with your medical practice?
Now I want to come back to your first question seeking intersection between my writing and my medicine. Clinical Blues was a reflection on medicine through the eyes of a poet who was turning coat to become a doctor. I was having life-changing experiences that I tried to resolve with poetry. So I started a sequence of poems (I being a man of a short attention span) depicting different scenarios. Concurrently, I was in university and having all the problems of the young adult notably relationship problems so I was also writing poems about girls. And then reflecting on the space I occupied, religion, femininity, alcohol, friendship and memory. The successful poems became what is now called Clinical Blues, my first full length volume of poems.

Interestingly you started the popular literary magazine Saraba while still an undergraduate alongside Emmanuel Iduma. How did that happen exactly?
Ife is very important to Iduma and I for many reasons. That was where we started writing and because of us, Ife is now being known for a certain movement of writers. It started harmlessly in a vicarage( Iduma’s dad is a clergyman) I usually visited Iduma for two reasons: his mother’s soup and some gist about literature. We were gathering rejection slips from all over the globe and getting frustrated especially when we sent work to some obscure literary magazine in say Ohio, probably called Oklahoma Review and they will reject us within the hour. So we said let’s start our own. So Saraba was born, the name borrowed from a glossolalia in one of our friends, Akande Itunu.

That is a funny account. Being a poet and an administrator of Saraba where you receives tons of submissions, (hopefully you don’t reject as many) how would you assess contemporary Nigerian poetry. Do you think there are more pretenders than the real deal?
My current job title in Saraba is Publisher/Fiction Editor. I don’t edit poetry in Saraba anymore, although I was said to have edited Clifton Gachagua’s poem at some point and I relish that. But yes, I get to read a lot of poetry, I even publish some on my blog  I won’t say pretenders or even poetasters, I will say babblers and it is those that babble that will also pronounce real words, in this case, write real poetry.

What is poetry to you and who do you think is a poet?
Poetry is the engine of language. A poet is anybody who agrees with the aforementioned statement.
I should ask you this because of the type of prose you write, which is often explicit in an artistic way, what do you think of Charles Nnolim’s critique of some contemporary Nigerian writing as “literature of the flesh”?
Eh hen! That is quite new to me and surprising. I hope he did not mean it in a derogatory way? Well, it sounds derogatory to me like you will call the
Allen Girls the ladies of the night. Well writers are the barometers and manometers of the society, we only write what we bear witness to. Sex, sexuality, nudity are fast coming out of the closet. Nobody has time to write about sex in that Ben Okri manner anymore. That kind of writing is valorised for being ridiculous, so I guess that statement itself, literature of the flesh, metaphoric in that puritanical sense is ridiculous.

Which work has had the most profound influence on you and the direction your writing has taken?
She Died Yesterday. A book by Hansen Ayoola first published in the 80s. I also have a very serendipitous relationship with this book. I wrote about it even. Here is the link, http://nigerianstalk.org/2013/09/07/forgotten-heroes-disappearing-acts/.

What next after Clinical Blues?
A book of prose, a short novel about contemporary bourgeoisie Lagosians.

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