Biography: Uche Peter Umez has won awards in poetry, short story and children novel writing. He is the author of ‘Dark through the Delta’ (poems), ‘Tears in her Eyes’ (short stories) and ‘Aridity of Feelings’ (poems).
Geosi Reads: How did you come to write poems?
Uche Peter Umez: Although I wrote my first poem titled “GRA” while I was in SS2, I didn’t take poetry seriously until in 1994 when, as an undergraduate smarting from the frustration that came with incessant strikes in Nigerian universities, I chanced upon the omnibus version of Shakespeare’s works in an uncle’s library. I have taken to poetry since then.
Geosi Reads: Do you remember the first lines of poem you read growing up?
Uche Peter Umez: I really can’t remember, but I suspect it must have been any of those West African or English poetry collections, where you have “who sat and watched my infant head/while sleeping on a cradle bed?”
Geosi Reads: Are you a great fan of form? What is the relationship of form and content with regards to your own poems?
Uche Peter Umez: I’m hardly a great fan of anything, since I tend to get easily bored. But I doubt you can have content without any semblance of form. Every work of art has a given form and content, even when it appears not to be immediately or palpably discernible; visual or aural, form and content undergird much of what we regard as art.
Geosi Reads: What do you mainly read? Poetry/ Short Stories/ Novels?
Uche Peter Umez: I try to read anything, and everything, that’s fun and educating.
Geosi Reads: How do you arrive at a finished poem? Do you show it to friends for approval?
Uche Peter Umez: I suppose by a finished poem, you mean, one whose relative quality you feel satisfied with? Whenever I show my poems to close friends, I am usually much more interested in the poems being criticized than praised. Then again, I don’t mind having a good poem of mine commended by established poets, seeing as writing is essentially back-breaking.
Geosi Reads: Does motif play integral part of your writing?
Uche Peter Umez: I strive to make use of motif in my poetry, as much as I can, but I try to not get particularly fussy over it.
Geosi Reads: Your first published work of poetry, Dark through the Delta was highly received in Nigeria. Was that the defining moment for you as a writer?
Uche Peter Umez: I was fortunate to have accomplished poets like Prof MJC Echeruo, Prof Isidore Diala, and Prof Adebayo Lamikanra commend my debut poetry collection. So I guess it is a sort of the “defining” moment when I thought to myself I should probably take this whole writing grind a bit more seriously. Having that collection published in 2004 was very important to me as an aspiring writer at the time, particularly because I was at a nadir moment when it came out and, well, turned my life around. Prior to its publication, Dark through the Delta had received – in manuscript form – a commendable mention by Dr. Nduka Otiono in the ANA Review of 2003. By the way, I am considering re-publishing it for some universities that have shown interest in using it as a text.
Geosi Reads: How useful has your background as a Government and Public Administrator been to your writing career?
Uche Peter Umez: In Nigeria, a great number of students read certain undergraduate courses that fit within the margins of their parents’ expectations, but only for them to realize much later, sometimes between their third or final year, or even when they might have graduated, that those courses are not really their desired courses. That happened to me, too. So now I have a first degree in GPD, as we call it, which has had no impact whatsoever on my writing career.
Geosi Reads: At what stage of your career did you decide to write for children?
Uche Peter Umez: I only ventured into writing for children when a friend of mine Wingate Onyedi urged me to try my hands at it. This was in 2005. I didn’t take his promptings seriously anyway, until I travelled to Oyo State to visit my wife who was doing her youth service there. I churned out a manuscript a year later, which would later earn me an ANA Prize and a shortlist on the Nigeria Prize for Literature. I have had 3 children’s books published after that.
Geosi Reads: You are alumnus of the Caine Prize for African Writing Workshop held in Accra in 2009. Can you tell us about your experience in Accra?
Uche Peter Umez: Writing is a solitary business, so the cliché goes. So the Caine Prize workshop is an experience every aspiring African writer should benefit from. It was fun, but more than that, I find it altogether enriching as a writer. I was in the company of great writers like Jamal Mahjoub, Aminatta Forna, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Henrietta Rose-Innes, etc. and enjoying the opportunity of learning a few things from them, especially about how bittersweet it is being a writer. We were all lodged in a waterfront hotel at Kokobrite, on the outskirts of Accra. It was a fantastic mentoring programme which I wouldn’t hesitate to take part in, that is, if the chance ever came my way again!
Geosi Reads: My very last bland question – Is poetry hard work?
Uche Peter Umez: Writing generally is hard work. Only the mental strain is enough to discourage you from undertaking it. And considering that many readers, especially Nigerians, would rather read prose than poetry makes it harder for many of us.