Photo: Gbenga Adesina
Gbenga Adesina lives and writes in Nigeria. His poems interrogate love and loss and the miles in between. In his works he seeks to map out the historic in the intimate and the daily. His poetry, essays and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in Harriet’s Blog for the Poetry Foundation and in Jalada, Premium Times, Open Society Foundation blog, Brittle Paper, Africanwriter.com, One Throne, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, Soar Africa(OSIWA anthology of new African poems) and others. In 2015, he was an Open Society Foundation Resident Poet on Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal. His first chapbook, Painter of Water, will be published by APBF in the spring of 2016. Follow him @Gbadenaija.
Geosi Gyasi: You live and work in Nigeria. My question is that, is Nigeria a fertile ground to thrive as a writer?
Gbenga Adesina: (Chuckles) Geosi, there are really no stringent binaries to this question, honestly. I think the truer picture will lie somewhere in between a lot of subjective experiences and angles. Let’s look at the net flow of creatives in and out of the country, the continent for instance. There is actually a flight of young musicians, poets, writers, visual artists and other creatives of African descent but born and perhaps bred in the diaspora who are moving back to stake a place for themselves and base their lifework on the home continent. There’s got to be some form of pull, some form of magnetism or “fertility” driving that, right? On the other hand there are lots of young dreamers, young artists here in this country who can’t wait to get out. A true approximation of the truth will be somewhere in between those subjective experiences.
On a personal angle, this is the home of my stories. The human swirl of Lagos, the hum of the other cities, the homeward call of the hinterlands, the raucous but humorous politics of this country, the warmth of the people, the kindness of total strangers. That’s what Nigeria is made of, Geosi. And it is upon this that the cathedrals of my narratives are built. A friend of mine and I passed through the street of his childhood once and he was visibly swept over by nostalgia and the pull of stories. He kept speaking of how these walls wear our faces. How they wear our faces. It is of these things that I write.
On the other hand there are constraints: Books? Libraries? Nah. Right now, I really want to read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The logistics for shipping is crazy. So I have to wait till summer for folks visiting from the UK or US or if I travel. And in that regard I’m even extremely lucky and I don’t for one second take it for granted. There is the social space also. Let’s just say being a writer (when you are still unmade, which is in most cases) is not how you engage the Nigerian social space, nobody will take you as a “going somewhere person” except in writerly circles. You use what you studied in school, which is what pays your bills right now. But don’t let us pretend that this does not in a way create a gap of sort between you and your counterpart elsewhere who can give the totality of a life to his or her craft. So when I’m chatting with young poet friends from across the ocean and they are talking about fellowships and grants and residencies and teaching fellowships and all those stuff, I just put my Kendrick Lamar on repeat and nod away.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard yourself as a poet or writer?
Gbenga Adesina: (laughs real hard) Geosi, you ask the hardest questions in the world! I suspect you are the one who sets the LSAT! But seriously I’m thinking now that what right do I possibly have to call / designate myself a poet or writer of some sort. This is what I suppose I can say though: Poetry and its inflections play a central role in who I am as a human being. It’s been so for a while now. And I don’t just mean the writing of it but also the pursuit of its elusive ideals: justice, fair shot, kindness, forgiveness, humility, open spaces. These things have a pull on me. I often find myself on the left (or occasionally left of the center) in the politics of things. I’m human first, then a poet, right? And my poetry is an extension of my humanness. The things I feel strongly about as a human being naturally find expression in my poetry. I’m also interested in transcendental language. I don’t remember the last time (may be ten years ago? lol) that I read a book in pursuit of the plot. I’m looking for transport, I’m looking for a language that keels me over, I’m looking for a tongue of water or fire or urgency or something, something elusive, I’m looking for illumination (Everything is Illuminated, right?). And poetry offers that tightness and density to sidestep conventional syntax and cut straight into the soul of things. Poetry takes me to where I want to be in an instant. So even in my fiction or non-fiction (except for the unkind scissors of the editors), it is such language that I still pursue.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think about literary prizes in general? Do you think a writer ought to rely on prizes in other to blossom?
Gbenga Adesina: I read this somewhere not long ago, and I find it so comforting: Sharon Olds—that magnificent poet of urgency and intimacy and such overwhelming beauty and power, if ever there was one— said she writes as much shit as everyone. I nearly fainted when I read that!
Of course she was just being kind.
But I have learned now to wear my inadequacies as a badge. How I fail at these things, how words often fall under the weight I put on them. My point is that even in the private space there is often so much uncertainty with what has been produced. So how on earth can anyone possibly rely on external forces (like judges of competitions/Prizes) to bring that work to light? Geosi, the name of this game is uncertainty, that’s what we do: doubt, to be unsure, to occupy liminal spaces. But you keep hammering on, right? You keep soldering on, what Elizabeth Gilbert called the sheer stubbornness of the human spirit. And by the way, the greatest gratification of art is art itself. I have come to discover that. When in my struggle with a poem or a line, I suddenly come into some form of breakthrough: a word, a phrase, a burst of songs like light that is a point of turning, where what has been an average meld of words suddenly becomes a force that changes the world. You jump! You shout! You are the new Ben Okri of time! Of course you wake up the next day to discover it is total trash. But don’t worry. That’s what we do. That’s what we do.
Geosi Gyasi: You were the 2015 Open society for West Africa foundation resident poet in Goree Island. Do you mind telling me what this residency was all about?
Gbenga Adesina: Well, the idea was to create an assemblage of sort of young and not so young African poets to “rethink or re-imagine” Africa. Now, I really loved this at the idea level. It appealed to the young dreamer in me who is fascinated by the sociology of thought patterns. But it was in the capacity of a poet that I was invited, so our fort was narrative. And it was not to recreate the African narrative as it were, rather it was a call to look differently, a little more mindfully as poets and writers at the essentially complex realities of our people and how they defy, if you care to observe, the limiting pigeonholes and clichéd binaries of the media. I loved every single bit of it. Breyten Breytenbach is a human being divine. He spoke deeply and movingly about poetry’s power to change the world. He spoke about humanness and the human condition. But he wasn’t just about Breytenbach. There was Veronique Tadjo, Dominique, Harry Garuba and Akwe Amosu. Excellent people, all of them. We had a couple of orientation exercises and then we forked into different workshops (French and English). We spent most of the time writing or rewriting in private and then coming together for revisions and comments; break fasts and dinners, a tour of the land etc. I discovered my poems in the mouth of others for the first time ever. Because some of those people were excellent readers, I fell in love. But I think what really did it for me was that soil, Goree itself, the Island. It’s a land made for poetry. On stepping foot on it, I cannot explain it; I became a burst of songs. Poems came in full, the structure, details and all that. Everything. I don’t remember ever experiencing anything like that before. I didn’t bother to write them down immediately. And that’s unusual. I met excellent poets from across the continent: Lekpele from Liberia, Renaud from Togo and a host of others and Fatamouto, a lithesome poet of immense beauty and power from Niger, of a voice that sometimes still come to me in the dark, whose eyes, it strikes me now, were/are in a way open cities.
Geosi Gyasi: How much does the element of metaphors feature in your poetry?
Gbenga Adesina: I fantasize a lot, right? So I have always thought about how I might one day come to write a monograph tentatively titled “The Death of Metaphor or the Resurrection of it”. You must have noticed, I’m sure, that there seems to be more propagation of the experiential writing as against or over say ekphrasis or the meditative or contemplative form of narration in all genres. And poetry is no exception. These days, readers, it does appear want the stuff of your life or your perceived life. And they want it now. They want it to be intense too. They want it to be haunting, to stick to memory, to jar and be jarring in its aftertaste. So poetry can seem confessional a lot these days, poetry can seem like direct narration. But that does not in any way negate the centrality of metaphors. Metaphors are the horses of narration, they travel through human psyche in ways words fail to.
So they are key to me. I curate them, I cultivate them, I watch out for them, no matter how subtle. I love them, how they lead to multiplicity of meanings and misreading (if there is anything like that) which are the pathways, I believe, that often lead readers to the discovery of truer things.
Geosi Gyasi: In just a paragraph, tell me about your chapbook: “Painter of Water”
Gbenga Adesina: Kwame Dawes asked me to come walk on water, that’s the central idea here and like Peter, not the Apostle, I followed him.
Geosi Gyasi: What is it about ‘love’ and ‘loss’ that you often write about in your poetry? Is there a specific message you want to convey to readers through these themes?
Gbenga Adesina: I have to admit that I didn’t come to this light by myself; that it was my readers, friends who pointed this out to me. And I have always relied on them to tell me what my poems are saying. But again I find myself returning to what I said about being human first and then a poet and how my poetry is an extension of my humanness. Of course like John Burnside said, I dare not speak for mankind (humanity)/ I know so little of myself. However in writing essentially as an attenuation of my own aloneness, I find myself connected to the broader geography of aloneness in a world outside me (story, story. Lol).I try to be susceptible in my craft to the things humans are susceptible to in their lived lives. Everydayness is the single most important quality to me in writing, I’m irremediably moved and susceptible to human narratives and I try to display a certain fidelity in rendering them. And what is human story, these plots that write us if not love and loss.
And perhaps I should add that the poets and writers that move me the most move me in this direction: Oswald Mtshali, John Burnside, Kwame Dawes, George Szirtes, Gabriel Okara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Okogbule Wonudi, Frank O’ Hara, Sharon Olds, W.B Yeats (But I, being poor/ have only my dreams/I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.), T.S. Elliot and lately Sarah Howe and Mona Arshi and others.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your process of writing?
Gbenga Adesina: Things speak to me powerfully. To a point that response becomes inevitable. The wirings are set up inside me subconsciously for some time. Then one day, I pick up my pen or gadget and start to write. I tend to write sequences around the same idea for a long stretch until I have fully responded to whatever ignited me in the first instance. Because meaning making is not really my pursuit, heightened meanings by rendering language in music is what I think I seek after, so songs, especially in foreign languages that I don’t speak and don’t even comprehend (Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, Hebrew etc.) are often my ready companions.
Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your future literary ambitions?
Gbenga Adesina: One cannot really say, right? I’ll like to write a couple of anthologies that try hard to move the equation forward. I really want to write a significant book in my lifetime as impossible as that is. And I really want to teach. I love teaching: the pull and pull of ideas, the openness of mind like water and that joy that cannot be touched to know that people are kinder now, better now because you led them to words.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you optimistic about winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Gbenga Adesina: Being on that list is a blessing. A big one. I’m still trying hard to believe it. Some of the most amazing amazing poets of our generation are on that list. And I don’t take that for granted. These guys have done incredible things with their gifts; they have touched the world, touched the skies, gone to the best schools in the world and have excellent pedigrees to show for it. But, Geosi, ours are the stars too, right!
Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Gbenga Adesina’s poems.
Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’
The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.