Ejiọfọr Ugwu is a street photographer. He lives in Nsukka, Nigeria. He has edited poetry for The Muse, a journal of creative and critical writings at the University of Nigeria. A graduate of the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop, Ejiofor has had his poetry and short fiction published in Drumtide, The New Black Magazine, The Muse, Sentinel Nigeria, and The Kalahari Review. His work is also forthcoming in African American Review.
Geosi Reads: Between photography and poetry, you honestly have a first love?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: Poetry. I’m not sure I have a very beautiful story of childhood and writing. I wrote the first thing that looked like poetry inform three in High School. It was after I encountered a poem by an English poet which I don’t remember the poet’s name. I have gone online to search for the name but I did not succeed: “There Is No Sanctuary for Brave Men.” I think the Collection is Oladele Taiwo’s. The poem made me think that I should begin to look for words because I already had stories. I come from a Community of stories: beautiful and gory. Alor-Agu has a rich oral lore, which I’m yet to fully explore. I encountered it quite early. My mother is a storyteller. She married early and had turbulences early too but that’s not the source of her stories. They come from deep, deep within. She was her grandmother’s pet and that was usually an opportunity for many a child to get spoilt. She picked a different thing. She gave us the image of her grandmother as one all season beautiful old woman with hawkish fingernails. At least we were able to learn that she used the fingernails to ‘chuck’ sense into anyone around who acted silly. I refuse to think that there’s more to the fingernails. But as a child the fingernails conjured the image of a merciless witch to me but I did tell my mother that. So my mother has a photographic memory almost comparable to her own mother. I got stories quite early from them but I didn’t have the words that early. Immediately after High School I wrote a story of the size of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was my first outing. And I will get it burnt very soon. I burnt my first poem that way and was purified. That is one thing fire can do to your life. Photography is a newer art form for me. I know I have always wanted to do a particular photography but I didn’t know the name until I met Teju Cole. It was not the commercial photo that I was thinking of. It was photography for me and me alone. You know, as selfish as that. Then with Teju Cole, everything took shape.
Geosi Gyasi: I am curious to know what entails in the work of Street Photography?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: The kind of photography I am talking about is the achievement of a thing similar to what Teju Cole and everybody in that group does. I recommend Teju Cole’s “Who’s Got the Address” in Guernica Magazine. Go, see and watch. You will get a big feel of what is involved in street photography. Hear Teju Cole, “The element of surprise is the key. You head out of your house not knowing what you’re going to encounter. After a while, you see lyricism inherent in the world. To capture this takes tremendous amounts of luck”. This is the kernel of the art. And there is something with image and my poetry. Much of it happen first as images before becoming words. Street photography has poetry in its soul – the poetry of instance. But the art is risky too considering the security situation of the world today. People can think that you are a terrorist taking pictures of places to bomb and you may get lynched before your true identity is revealed. So you have to be careful. Possibly, steal your art. Let me also make this confession once and for all. There was something functional in that description. I did not want to be described immediately as a writer or poet because I was not sure. I was not sure whether I was getting it. I felt safe with being described as a street photographer even though I am yet to develop the art form to my wish.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there a Nigerian writer who is particularly important to you?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: Afam Akeh is an important poet to me. There is this indescribable depth in his poetry. Just have a feel of it:
There is a hole in the ground the dead cannot fill.
Only memory can feed it. And silence,
that populous sound. What the world calls power
is suddenly rubble, concrete piled on grief.
The ruins of everything everywhere
evidence of dreams not traveled.
Assorted body parts in disposable bags,
dust coated, almost earth.
People look like rubbish
when they are no longer people.
Memory is the cruel companion –
familiar voices in old phone calls,
remembered faces, traveled spaces,
the loves that time locks in a heart.
They lift boulders, gather bones,
looking in the rubble for somebody’s father.
Some sift the tale, filling the gaps in spaces
where things once were.
As if the sky crashed, taking the top to the bottom,
breaking faith. And there is no longer certainty,
no sunlight, only craters and mystery, gravity,
absence, the violence of not knowing.
There you are. Afam terrifies me like Rilke, Camus and Kafka. If you can’t have access to his books of poetry such as Stolen Moments; Letter Home and Other Poems immediately you can get considerable e-copies of his poems or you watch what he and his team are doing for African Poetry at the Centre for African Poetry (CAP).
Geosi Gyasi: What relationship do you have with short poems?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I don’t particularly set out to write short or long poems. My work as a poet is similar to that of a midwife. I think I’m echoing someone here: dead or alive but I don’t remember who now. I help them to be born. I don’t determine their growth. ‘Blood Rain’ was a terror and I just had to flow with it.
Geosi Gyasi: From your poem, “Sunrise”, is there any relationship between the sun’s reluctance to rise and the rope that almost loops in the feast of beheading?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I am not the best reader of my work; especially because I don’t know where this thing (poetry) comes from or what it is in its nature. But it seems to me that there is a connection. And you just made me to begin to see. I suspect this case of monstrous hope. Maybe the persona shouldn’t have taken the pain to beseech the sun-god because everything is innately damned.
Geosi Gyasi: What activities do you engage in before the start of a poem?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I can’t really pick out particular pre-writing rituals; because I write anywhere. I respond to a story anytime and where it comes from. It could just be a line that can even take months to gather and take life. Others can come fully made in a day. Some two poems came around recently. One is ‘I Bought My Banana From Ayetoro’. The other is ‘A Game of Magun’. The former took three months to gather. The latter almost completed her life cycle in a day. So it depends on the individual poems. What may look like a ritual is that I tend to write after reading. I also do not force myself to write. There is this thing they often say that you should try to form the habit of writing something or some number of words daily or weekly but I’ve not been able to. Maybe I’ve not been regular or I have just been lazy. I would really like it if it is possible but not yet. I just take it that I would restart anytime favourable to my system and writing would begin. And I don’t fall short of what to write with. My phone is always there. Unless the battery is down. I have something like a Microsoft Word app called Kingsoft Word on my phone so that I can type and format anywhere. Technology is a beautiful thing. And I belong to the Facebook generation.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about your education at the University of Nigeria? What happened to your writing there?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I trained as a graduate of English and Literary Studies at the University of Nigeria. But if you looked closely you would notice that I do not emphasize it. In all the brief bios you can find about me on the internet and in print you won’t see a thing like this; because people would always like to give one excuse or the other for their inability to try. ‘Oh! He is a graduate of English. That’s why. That is why he can write’. That’s a huge lie. I was already writing before I joined the Department. I am really trying to say that whether you studied astral Physics or the Mechanics of Dam you can still be a writer. In fact I dearly wanted to study Economics or Law but with some twists of events (Life has a cause often known to it alone) I joined language studies. I don’t write off its importance (which I will return to later) but that is not why I write. When I joined the Department in 2008 it was really an event. I met a literary environment. The spirit of Achebe was hovering over there and ever. He started The Muse journal in the University in 1963. I would always pass his office in order to walk up to my class on the second floor of the Faculty of Arts, Block B – a name tag on his door – “Emeritus Professor Chinua Achebe”. We had this big spirit ‘Achebe was here’. I am part of the people that inherited The Muse, ‘the spiritchild that took life and dwelled among us” in words of the poet James Nnaji. The names of other inheritors cannot be exhausted here: Dubem Okafor (of blessed memory. He is an ancestor now, just like Achebe). Chimalum Nwankwo. Emeka Nwabueze. Osita Okagbue. Fidelis Okoro. Chika Unigwe. Obari Gomba. Unoma Azuah. So many. I edited Poetry for its 40th edition, 2012. There was also a young literary group in the school called The Writers Community. I was a member. They published my poetry and short fiction on their board and I got tremendous validation. We also organized Workshops. We had such venues as the University zoo where we read our works, critiqued and drank Sprite amidst the chirpings of birds and crickets and the chatters of monkeys. I had such interesting individuals as Ruth Atuh; Kelly Enoche; James Nnaji (Aronsi); Adaeze Amaka; Ifeanyi Edeh; John Attah; Jane Ejibe; Gerald Olisemeka; and some I can’t remember now. Writing was not easy with coursework and personal demons. Then in 2011, I entered for the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop and was shortlisted. We were taught Writing by Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub, British Diana Evans and Nigerian Helon Habila. I’m always grateful to these Big Guys and the Fidelity Bank PLC. This is where I met the poet, Iquo Eke, shortlisted for the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature. I can also remember Obinna Udenwe and Jessy Mallums. I will not forget the gods I met in the Department. These three stood tallest: Albert Camus. Rainer Maria Rilke. Franz Kafka. Rilke’s poetry, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Camus’ The Stranger and Notes From Underground almost drove me crazy with numinous illuminations. The magic is that they all translations. Rilke and Kafka: German. Camus: French. I was a lover of Star beer and occasional spirit and Guilder in School just like James Nnaji. Timo Alabi drank Harp. And Alex drank Stout. At the beginning, evenings were spent in the female hostels and we were usually richly blessed. And sometimes, cursed. My favourite female hostels were Balewa, Akintola, Akpabio and Zik’s Flat.
Gyasi: Is poetry a difficult genre to indulge in?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I don’t think it is for me. But for others it can be. People see writing and even reading Poetry as a difficult work. And I think they are not completely wrong. The fact that Poetry tends to gather so many within a terribly small space and in a language often similar to that of madness makes it quite an engagement to many. But I think people should see its beauty first of all in its ability to do that magic within that short space. If you still care about the complications of the human condition in general, Poetry should not be an enemy. As for Poetry as a form it is up to you the writer. If you have a story and you think the form can carry it try it. If it can’t try other forms such as Prose-fiction (the Short Story and the full length), Creative Nonfiction or Dramatic Literature. It mustn’t be Poetry. I can say now that Poetry comes naturally to me. But I’m working very hard to fine-tune my two other interests, which are Prose-fiction and Creative Nonfiction. I’m hoping strongly.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as the best time to write?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: Anytime. Anytime you feel like writing or find something writable. Spontaneity can really be a genius. Because something can walk past and get lost forever. Have some listening ears. And watchful eyes. Get lost in the world. Take risk. Feel pain. Be ready to kill, at least your characters. Have sex in abundance. Be careful though. Visit the brothels and cool off. The mortuaries and the cemeteries can give you beautiful treats on a Christmas Day. Have a God. Jilt and get jilted. Fall in and out of love. Fuck and forsake. Listen to your daemons. Read your Bible regularly. The writer is no spirit or saint. He is a normal human being you see on the street, who can do all that (if not for his or her enduring fascination with words, with stories, with life and with death and dying) That saying ‘go ye into the world and multiply’ is yours alone! If your guardian is disturbed by all that tell him you are training your imagination. But be polite enough. Then write anytime. Anywhere. Even in the toilet.
Geosi Gyasi: Blood Rain falls into the category of long poems. How long did it take to write?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I kept on returning to the draft for more than three weeks. I can’t remember exactly but it was not written in a day. Something makes me think that it’s not even complete yet. Or maybe no work of that nature is.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you want readers to like your work?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: Yes and No. Yes because writing is like giving birth. You would be happy that your children do well. You are happy that your solitude pays off. Writing is really a solitary path. Sometimes you are just there alone with spirits of dead writers. You are fighting your own daemons too. That’s why it brings you joy that people appreciate what you do. But to say that you now write to please them is a risk. The ugly has a natural place in your writing too. The Other (otherness) can even be the spirit of your writing. And people can then place your neck on a slaughter slab. You may have read about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. So I am more comfortable being free. That is how political I am. If you like what I write good for us. But if not, and not that it is bereft considerable craft but because one ingredient of the work shocks your belief, I can say I am not obliged to. My primary duty is to my craft.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you reading now?
Ejiọfọr Ugwu: I am reading some ten short stories by Alice Munro, which include “Boys and Girls”, “Face”, “Deep-Holes”, “Runaway”, “Train”, “Wenlock Edge”, “Amundsen”, “Passion”, “Gravel” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. I am also reading the 2014 Cain Prize shortlisted stories. And that of the Commonwealth Prizes. The only book length is Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I follow these magazines and e-zines always: Granta; The Atlantic; n+1; Foreign Policy; The Virginia Quarterly; Transition; The Paris Review; The Kenyon Review; Boston Review; Words Without Borders; The Kalahari Review; Harvard Business Review; The Financial Times; The New York Times; Gulf Coast; Eclectica; The Oxonian Review; The Coffin Review; The New Inquiry; Per Contra; The New York Review of Books; The Millions; The Stinging Fly; The Post-colonial; The Wasafiri; and The New Yorker. I am facebooking too. Any upcoming writer who doesn’t take Facebook seriously may just have been posturing. And it is not good for his health. All he needs to do is to get connected to the right persons and his skill will be richly blessed daily. I am a facebook child. And we in the facebook generation of writers are really lucky. We no longer find it too difficult to emerge. All it takes is to produce something good and people are ready to watch you. They are even ready to pay you before you get to the publishers. That is if, for instance, money is considered as a push. So, no excuse again. Get to work.