Dami Ajayi studied Medicine and Surgery at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife where he co-founded Saraba Magazine for which he now serves as Fiction Editor.
He is a resident doctor in the day but moonlights as a poet, short story writer, book reviewer and music critic whose works have been published in numerous reputable art journals and literary magazines. His poetry pamphlet, Daybreak, received rave reviews and became an underground success in 2013. He has been praised as one of the key Nigerian poets of his generation.
Clinical Blues is his first volume of poems.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from where I ought to begin. What is the medical doctor doing in the circle of writers?
Dami Ajayi: (laughs). Believe me, that question should be, “What is the writer doing in the circle of medical doctors.” I started writing way before I got my medical degree.
Geosi Gyasi: So I ask, what is the writer doing in the circle of medical doctors?
Dami Ajayi: It is not a new trend, writers amongst doctors. Since Anton Chekov, there had been Maugham, Williams Carlos Williams and even from Nigeria, there are writers like James Henshaw, Wale Okediran and even Femi Oyebode. I am just following that tradition.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be addressed: Poet or Writer?
Dami Ajayi: I am a bit of both. You can call me a published poet or compulsive writer or even an occasional essayist.
Geosi Gyasi: You are the co-founder of Saraba Magazine. Could you tell us about how it all began?
Dami Ajayi: It began in 2008, one fateful afternoon at the English Department in O.A.U. Emmanuel Iduma and I met in front of one of the Student Magazine Boards. We had a long talk about our lives as aspiring writers, our literary idols and the rejection letters which we were both gathering in staggering numbers. It started as a vague idea. Iduma said you know we can start our own magazine and I was like yes, we can. This is six years after and we have got Saraba still growing stronger.
Geosi Gyasi: You have an interesting poem, “I Know What Lagos Does to Dreams”. In reality, is Lagos a harsh place to live?
Dami Ajayi: Your question reminds me of my favourite song about Lagos, Chris Ajilo’s Eko O Gba Gbere, which loosely translates to Lagos does not take shit. Lagos can really be a harsh place to live in, man. Emphasis on the word “can”. In Lagos, the rich and the poor live together in a kind of harmonious chaos. You need to stand your ground in Lagos lest you are swept away by spivs, thugs and even law enforcement guys. I wrote that poem in response to being overwhelmed by Lagos on my return after a nine year absence.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about style when you write?
Dami Ajayi: I guess style is another name for an abiding technique. I aim for beautiful expressions, that it is my style.
Geosi Geosi: When writing, is the length of a poem a major concern to you?
Dami Ajayi: No, it isn’t. Every poem has a mind of its own. It is the job of the poet to follow the poem to wherever it wants to go.
Geosi Gyasi: As a Medical student at the time, did you read lots of literary books at the expense of your medical books?
Dami Ajayi: Yes, I did and I got lucky and passed my exams.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your main interest as a writer?
Dami Ajayi: To bear witness to my time. To tell the stories of my generation. I strive to do this in the various art forms that I can wrap my hands around.
Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering if medicine and literature have any similarities?
Dami Ajayi: We are back to this question again. (LOL) There must be a common ground. They both intersect on humanity. While medicine is concerned with perpetuating humanity by curing ailments and preserving our existence, literature is concerned with taking the minutes of our lives in a form which will outlast our existence.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever made money from writing?
Dami Ajayi: Yes I have, but not as much as I want to.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you bother about the comments critics say about your writing?
Dami Ajayi: No, I am not bothered. That is not my job.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you have a plot for your poem, “Clinical Blues” in mind before you set out to write?
Dami Ajayi: No I did not have a plot. I just knew I wanted to write a sequence of medically-inclined poems.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your hopes for the future – as a writer?
Dami Ajayi: To write a good book every year or so. And maybe one great book in my lifetime.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think it would ever come to a time when you would lay down your medical tools to pursue writing full-time?
Dami Ajayi: Yes, of course, after I retire from the medical profession after a long fulfilling career.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us something about your chapbook, “Daybreak and Other Poems”?
Dami Ajayi: Last year, I was feeling stifled. I had written CB in 2011 and nobody was willing to take the poems out of my hands, so I kept revisiting my poems and tweezing them. At some point, I began to feel my creativity was stifled. I even thought I was through with poetry as I was not writing at all. A change of scenery from Lagos to Anambra brought fresh perspectives in slow trickles. The poems started to come back. I began to gather them in bits and pieces until I had the poems that became Daybreak.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you consider your book, “Clinical Blues” your best so far?
Dami Ajayi: Yes, it is my best so far. Daybreak is an e-chapbook, but Clinical Blues is my first real book.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you conceive the idea for your book, “Clinical Blues”?
Dami Ajayi: It began in the middle of medical school. We had just graduated from the cadaver room to the clinic. It was a different experience. I felt like an observer who was not quite impressed by what he saw. The grim reality of death was overwhelming, maybe overbearing. My methodical response was poems which tried to make sense of it all.
Geosi Gyasi: You were shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 Melita Hume Poetry prize for Clinical Blues”. I could tell being on the shortlist of this prize meant a lot to you?
Dami Ajayi: It did. The inaugural edition of the prize validated Clinical Blues in manuscript. The other shortlisted authors were big names in the literary establishment and I was the only poet from Africa, living in Africa. Shortly after that, the prize was closed to people who do not live in the UK.
Geosi Gyasi: I implore you to close the interview?
Dami Ajayi: It has been nice chatting with you Geosi.