I did not set out to write poetry—I didn’t set out to become a poet. Since I was a child, I had always been somewhat of a sentimental writer. Our dog would die—I didn’t know what poetry was—but I’d write such a verse that my parents would identify it as poetry. When I felt deeply about something, I wrote something that was deep about it and, often, people would look at it and say ‘this is poetry’. And I believe for most of the people, if you write from the heart, and you’re very comfortable with the ability to manoeuvre with the language you’re using, chances are what you come up with may likely sound like poetry.
At what point did you decide to adopt dub poetry—to accompany your poems with musical instruments?
It was after I had published my first two collections— Bee Buzz and Baby Babble and Songs of Life. I realised that circulation was limited, not really because of the structural problems that a lot of publishers confront in circulating material in Nigeria, but more because a lot of people, once they knew that it was poetry, didn’t express much interest in [it]. There were those who were addicts—they would go for it, read it from cover to cover and relish it. But for a majority of the people, once it was poetry, it was something for a few. I had a burning desire, as an unrepentant mass communicator, to be a messenger for all.
I didn’t like it that one would do something and it would be said to be limited to a small, elitist—some times some people say arrogant—audience. So I said to myself it is not for me to blame the audience for their choices. The audience, the way I was trained, is my master. So if my master says he doesn’t like to be served in a certain way, then I must find, as a professional, another means by which I can serve my master with which he is much happier. The audience in Africa, and Nigeria in particular, many writers will tell you, are not very voracious readers. Some of us would go as far as saying that Nigerians don’t read. I think that there is no point in blaming the victim. There are so many reasons why Nigerians don’t read. But it’s just like a teacher coming to the class and saying ‘my students are useless, hopeless, and can’t understand what I’m teaching; they’re too shallow and dumb’. I think that teacher needs to be fired. You’re a teacher because it’s assumed that those you’re coming to teach do not know what you’re coming to teach. Therefore you must find a way of meeting them at their level and be able to pass that information in such a way that they become interested and hopefully raise them to your standard. I think the writer or the poet or whatever anyone in this field might call himself should also take that position—not to blame the audience, but to try to find a way to reach the audience. This is where the professionalism in the writer should come into play.
Do you also compose the music?
I work with a team of musicians. But because it’s my poem, I know the feeling, I know how it came, and I know also what kind of medium would best express [that feeling], I guide the musicians.
If you’re asked to define poetry, how would you go about it?
It is difficult to define life. Poetry is life. But one thing we know about life is that it’s got meaning. If life hasn’t got meaning, then it’s not life. Another thing we know about life is that it has to be enjoyed, to be savoured; it’s full of rich experiences—the same with poetry. But the other thing which puts it all together is that life has to be beautiful, because life is beautiful. So also is poetry. For it to be poetry it has to be beautiful and it has to be witty—contain a kernel of wisdom which is the main reason why it’s there in the first place. I’d rather define poetry by these indices.
To some Nigerian poets, any poem without the metre and other poetic elements is not a poem; while others strive to imitate proponents of the African oral tradition. To which of these styles do you subscribe?
My choices are very clear. I don’t think that, like dance, poetry should be metered. Western dance is metered—you take two steps to the right, then you go to the left. Then you take two steps forward then you come back. If you don’t dance that way, you’re not dancing. But in Africa, we don’t dance like that [laughter]. We dance from our heart—every part of our body moves to the rhythm. And every little percussion in the music is attended to by our movement—we don’t calculate it; it comes vibrating from [the] soul to the body. That’s Africa. The same thing goes for poetry.
So you’re pro-oral poetry…
[Cuts in] Yes, if you want to put it that way, but usually I try to prevent myself from being boxed. But if I were to favour, I’d favour those who go for the oral poetry, because for me, what is written is what was said—in other words, as you write, it’s the sound you’re trying to capture in cold print. The sound precedes the written word. Poetry has always been there even before the written word. It is the sound of life. Anyone who looks at poetry as a written word is completely, in my view, off the track. And when you write poetry, you write it for the ears, and not necessarily for the eyes.
You also write short stories. Where do you get the inspiration to write these stories?
Again, just by observing and taking an interest in life. Life is full of comedies and—some people would say—also many tragedies. Life is full of so much sophistication and so much hypocrisy. And some times you’re so filled with the goings-on that you want some to drip off you. And then you find a medium of expressing yourself. It depends on the situation that is begging to be expressed. There are some situations that can be best expressed as poetry, and then I’ll attempt to write poetry; and some come to me to be best expressed as short story, then I write short story.
Which one are you more comfortable with?
What I think propels me most is sound—sound as is spoken. Ordinarily, if I were in the university, or if I were in a cultural centre, I’d probably have written more drama, because of the voices that play in my head. And if you look at the short stories I have written, you’ll notice that there is a lot of conversation coming through. But unfortunately I don’t have that platform—of a theatre—to work with. So poetry, especially when it is communicated to the people, would be my choice.
Do you have any particular time you set aside for writing?
When I feel guilty about not writing—that’s when I write. Because I think I should write all the time. But often, because of work—we all have to feed our families and do other kinds of things in order to survive—one is taken away. But writing is a calling; it comes knocking on your door—you should’ve written this or that—and then you keep telling yourself there’s no time; but when the guilt is loaded enough, you write.
How do you feel when you write something that people like?
It doesn’t really excite me that much. What excites me more is for someone to experience what I’ve done and benefit from it. If my work makes your life better—adds something, not just for your enjoyment of literature—then my job is done.
Do you write in your mother tongue?
Unfortunately, I’m not able to write in my mother tongue because I didn’t have the opportunity of learning how to read and write in the language; but I speak my mother tongue. And I can speak in such a way that it could be poetry. Secondly, it’s not something that really excites me. The reason is I come from a very small national group—we’re no more than 300,000 to 400,000 people. This is not the audience I want to write for. I believe that a poet should cut across boundaries because the wisdom of life cuts across boundaries. So if a poet from Katsina writes, his work should be able to inspire somebody in Port Harcourt or Calabar. If he doesn’t use the English language which common to all us, then he’ll be circumscribed.
But translation (of works from one language to another) is a means of making your works accessible to others. Have you ever thought of translating from English to your mother tongue or any other language for the benefit of those who cannot understand the language?
It’s something that’s on my mind. In fact, as I speak to you now, I’m thinking that because I live in Abuja now, I interact more closely with northerners, and I don’t speak their language; but my heart goes out to the language. I’m a poet and these are my people—I want to reach them—how do I get to them? I’m very glad to embrace translation, not just of the words, but also the music, into a medium that a Hausa person can easily relate to. I’ll be extremely glad to have the opportunity to do that.