Inua Ellams is an award-winning poet, playwright and performer. His pamphlets include Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales (flipped eye 2005), Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars (flipped eye 2011) and The Wire-Headed Heathen (Akashic Books 2016).
Hi Inua. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet The Wire-Headed Heathen. Reading the poems, there is a sense they are rich narratives which evoke a storytelling tradition. Do you think this is a fair description of what you are trying to achieve in your poetry?
The short answer is yes. I grew up watching my father tell stories – that was my first introduction to the art of performance on a sub-conscious level. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote initially about the world and my political position within it. I was young, opinionated, and believed the world was going to shit. I thought if I threw a pen at it then I’d be bound to hit upon something wrong and write poems about that.
But I guess the older I’ve become, the more I realise that actually the world is seeing less conflict and less deaths associated with conflict. It’s just that we’ve just gotten better at reporting it and translating these stories across cultures and languages.
There’s this old saying ‘to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve come from‘. And I find myself a lot of the time in limbo as an immigrant in the West, floating between various political and socio-economic dialogues of conversation and argument.
I’m always in check, always wondering who I am, where I am, and how that informs my responses to these things. And the way to answer these questions always seems to be to attempt to construct a narrative at how I’ve arrived at a particular situation.
So essentially I find myself an active storytelling animal. And that comes from a sort of survival instinct as well as an entertainment one, and a deeply personal one which is related to my father and how I first came across storytelling as a way of captivating audiences when I was a child.
So yes, it definitely informs my approach to writing poetry. It took me a while to start writing narrative poems and to base them on myself because initially I didn’t think there was anything interesting I could write.
It was only when I was challenged by Roger Robinson to write my first play The 14th Tale, who sat me down and said “when you’re stood before an audience make sure they leave knowing more about you than they did when they arrived”, that I was required to think more about myself, to think about what I could tell, why I should tell it, and how I could frame it.
Those early lessons informed that play entirely and informs how I continue to construct my work.
You mentioned in a previous interview that the Romantic poets have been an influence on you and their use of heightened language charged with emotion. Just how vital do you think it is that a poem comes from an emotional place?
There’s something Maya Angelou once said which is often quoted because of its truth:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
And I think the best poems do that. They somehow leap beyond the mathematics of language, go beyond representation into a place that defies logic almost, in the way that emotions do. Poems have to defy logic to be poetry, else they’d be speeches, else they’d be manifestos, else they’d be washing machine manuals. And for me the best way of constructing that is with emotions. To make sure my poems are not washing machine manuals, they have to come from an emotional place.
There’s a term I like which is used to describe what happens after you ring a bell and it’s called ‘the decay’ – the decay of a sound, the decay of music, the decay of a note. And I think that is what emotions do to poems. After the last line, they reverberate within you. They echo. They decay somehow. And I think it is vital to poetry, for me at least.
As someone who is also a playwright, I’m curious if you know when you sit down to pursue an idea whether it will be a poem or evolve into a play fairly quickly, and do you think there is any cross-pollination that occurs from working in two genres?
My plays tend to begin as attempts at writing poems which just grow and become more theatrical and require a plethora of voices.
For example, I’ve been working on a play for the past four years called Barbershop Chronicles. Initially, I wanted to be a resident poet in a barbershop and write a series of poems about the conversations that I heard. But the more I sat and thought about it, the bigger the project became until I realised the truth I was hinting at would be better served by a play.
More recently I moved to a block of flats in Brixton. I stood outside the building and thought ‘A Block of Flats in Brixton’ sounds like a nice title for a poem. Then I looked up and realised there were thirty or forty people who lived there and that could be a series of really interesting monologues which might become a play – or might not.
I’d like to initially interview my block of flatmates to see what arises from that. I don’t know if the end result will be poetry or a play. It doesn’t happen quickly. I just begin questioning and probing to see what lands and what might be required to complete the project, whether a poem is enough of a full stop or a play will give it more resonance.
There is definitely a cross-pollination that occurs from working in both genres. I think the more I learn about the possibilities of theatre, the more it informs how I construct poems and vice versa. It’s taught me how simple theatre can be – i.e. a spotlight and a voice speaking. And if the voice is dramatic enough, or the language is compelling enough, you can really captivate an audience.
An example of this which really humbles me is a group of blind fans I have in Liverpool who come to see my one man theatre shows. And they like to come because I paint such vivid pictures with language. They can sit and ‘see’ the world purely from my descriptions.
For me, that demonstrates how important poetry and language is to my theatrical productions. Those girls would not be coming if I didn’t try to use language and narrative so richly in a theatrical context.
You put together an event called ‘The R.A.P (Rhythm And Poetry) Party‘ which is an evening of hip-hop inspired poems and hip-hop songs. Can you tell us a bit more about it and in what ways the music genre has informed your own writing over the years?
It was a very simple idea which struck me where poets gather to read a poem inspired by hip-hop culture. And by that I mean anything relating to the culture – such as the music, rapping, graffiti art, breakdancing etc. Each poet reads their single poem and then a DJ plays two of their favourite hip-hop songs. The poet sits while the music plays and the audience is encouraged to sing, dance, or rap along.
The party is meant to feel more like a party in your own home than it does a rave. I wanted to create a space for conversation and poetry in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, because that is how poetry came to me. And that is how hip-hop came to me too.
In Dublin I used to hang out with a group of nerds who I played basketball with and I hated hip-hop at the time. I could not understand why people would create beautiful, complex, intricate music and then some randomly aggressive dudes would speak on top of it. It infuriated me.
But the guys I played basketball with listened to a lot of rap music. And our English teacher, who was also our basketball coach, set us writing exercises which we would work on in the classroom soundtracked by the best of 90’s hip-hop. So I began to think of John Keats in the context of Mos Def, or of Elizabeth Bishop in the context of MC Lyte.
And a lot of these voices were playing in my head still when I came to writing poetry – those voices, the echoes of them, the decay of them still rang true within me. I began writing at their meeting point and it definitely affected the way I constructed my poetry.
The hip-hop I really like has a strong narrative twang to it and its use of internal rhyme schemes, upon which a rapper can express their personality freely against the stricter beats of the music, is similar to the loose internal rhyme schemes I employ sometimes in my own poems.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year?
Going to New York to read and perform as part of the African Poetry Book Fund, which published my pamphlet The Wire-Headed Heathen was a definite highlight. I did a reading at the Ford Foundation in August and it was a glorious experience.
I’ve also done a couple of readings for my next book, one was for a whole hour at a festival earlier this year in Canterbury and it was really fun.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
The poem I’ve submitted is ‘Short Shorted/Odogbolu 1995’ from The Wire-Headed Heathen. This is an attempt to make sense of something that happened to a friend of mine called Balla at a boarding school in Nigeria, where violence struck in a way I had never considered to be possible in a setting like that.
It’s an attempt to make sense of the violence, to try and situate it within my narrative and those of my friends, and also to show how it can affect a friendship. It’s also an attempt to show how memory works and that when we remember something we are in fact remembering the last time we thought about it, which is to say memory is an active process of reconstruction. It isn’t fact. It isn’t trustworthy,
A memory is a construction as much as a poem is. A memory is a fiction as much as a poem is. This poem attempts to tell a story while at the same time deconstructing it – as seen in the stanza headings All this is fact, All this is possible, All this is fiction. It’s a poem that haunts me as I still remember Balla and how much the situation shocked me at the time.
Short Shorted / Odogbolu 1995
All this is fact /
That Jebo had a knack for melodrama.
That his slight weight barely marked
That boarding school ground.
That he was teased for his fair complexion.
That he’d skim most crowds in search of me.
That his left arm crowned my shoulders so often
That some thought us more than good friends.
That we walked to dormitories after classes.
That we were gathered out in the cold courtyard.
That we were lectured on theft and property.
That Balla was nabbed with bags of stolen food.
That our knees knocked in our short shorts.
That a storm roared over the fields.
All this is feasible /
That Balla was Goliath to Jebo’s David.
That a visible tension lay between them.
That Balla ate rice laced with rocks.
That these were the building blocks of his muscles.
That once he picked a senior clean off the floor.
That we called him Spartacus, a hero to us.
That Balla wasn’t guilty of theft.
That he was too thick to master such things.
That the prefect chose the toughest canes.
That lashes flashed down with such force
That Balla could make no sound at all.
That Balla chose to make no sound.
That the prefect so hated his show of strength
That he broke two canes on Balla’s back.
That another ripped a cable off the wall.
That its sparks hugged air for a second.
That he touched this to Balla’s wet skin.
That Balla shook like a bird on fire.
That Jebo smiled when Balla screamed.
That Balla broke free, ran for a window.
That the search party never found him.
All this is fiction /
That I pulled Jebo’s arm off my shoulder.
That I joined those who taunted him.
That Balla lost all diction that night.
That when he landed, he ran for the mountains.
That the storm struck the last of our Titans.
That often when lightning strikes those fields
instead of thunder, something / someone screams.