I have always described Dami Àjàyí as one of the important voices of his generation. With Emmanuel Iduma, he founded Saraba Magazine while they were at university. It has now established itself as one of the leading literary publications on the continent, with a diverse and nimble editorial staff. As a poet, music critic, fiction writer and publisher, Àjàyí’s voice and passion has been felt in Nigeria and around the continent. Just recently, it was announced that his sophomore poetry collection, A Woman’s Body is a Country, will soon grace our book shelves, courtesy of Ouida Books. I caught up with him to talk about his latest work and other matters of note.
What can you tell me about your sophomore collection of poems?
It is definitely different from my first book. It is not as dark and existential. It is more mature in its handling of craft. It doesn’t lean as heavily as the first on literary influences. The book took much longer to write and was more exciting to work on.
How long have you been working on it?
The earliest poems were written in 2013. So, give or take, about four years. But not actively. I don’t have the facility to write poems actively. I take them as they come. Some days, a poem may come. Some days, a verse may come. Some days, even long spell of days, nothing at all. And you know, I am still working on it.
What is the process of compiling a collection?
I have only written two collections and my discovery is that each collection dictates its own process. For my first book, I was halfway into writing the poems before I realised that I had a book in my hands. This new book is a bit more deliberate. The moment I began writing the poems I was sure that I was working on a collection, so it was easier to point the poems in the direction of a desired thematic concern, and to mull over the issues I hoped to deal with in the new book.
I think there are two approaches to compiling poems. I find my authoritarian voice quite pitiful, but anyway, you can write poems over a period of time and collect them. Or you can have a theme in mind and then write poems to explore that. I think with my new book, it was a bit of both. I waited to see the directions my poems were pushing in, then I decided to write more poems in that direction.
All or most of the poems in this collection are about romantic pursuit. How easy or uncomfortable is it to bare oneself to the world in this way – I mean, beyond the direct expression of these feelings to the target of one’s affection?
Oh yes. Human beings are emotional beings and poetry is the closest genre of literature that cuts deep into our emotive expression. There is such an important line in one of the poems, The World According to Affection, which is like the scaffolding, or should I say fulcrum, on which the entire collection revolves:
In the world according to affection, we all are plagiarists.
This assertion presupposes that all the ranges of human expression are imprinted on each and every one of us. We are pretty much capable of the same type of emotional response. I wanted to write a book of poems about this. The emotional responses we have about things, places and bodies. I wanted my book to show how the noun “affection” becomes a verb, and in my attempt I was drawing from a personal reservoir, hoping that my experiences are singular as well as universal.
I have no qualms about being open. These poems speak to an era or place in my life which I think I have moved away from. The poems are like memorabilia which I am quite proud of.
What has changed in your voice and craft since your first collection, Clinical Blues?
It is too soon to assess any growth or change in my voice and craft. Of course, it has been three years since Clinical Blues and I feel my voice has matured. I am a bit less exuberant, probably also more nuanced. I also imagine that I strive for greater balance these days. The poetry that excites me now is less dense, less conceptual. I am more interested in how the poems sound. I am interested in the rhythm of words and the manner in which I can arrange them to deliver a more affecting melody. Less heavy on register, medical and non-medical, than in Clinical Blues. I think I have deviated a lot from my earlier influences.
When will the book be out in print?
Certainly before 2017 runs out.
Who is your (ideal) reading audience? Is it different for this new work compared to the previous one?
This is a difficult question. I don’t really know. You know I write across genres – fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Generally, there is that strong sense of interest in the reader’s experience in fiction and non-fiction. In prose, I find myself asking if the reader will understand that phrase, if that sentence should be further fleshed out to clarify my thoughts, but when I am writing poetry, I am in another zone. I trust the reader to come along with the aptitude for work. I trust that the words I have chosen are strong enough to convey the emotions that best reflect the moment of the poem’s creation, so for poetry I am just in a place where I am trying to connect with the core of my own humanity, but I am certain that the reader will catch something.
What is your assessment of the creative scene in Nigeria today, particularly with poetry? What is working and what needs to change? I don’t assume that you have all the answers; I’m just interested in what you see.
Vibrant. Really, really vibrant. Pretty much since the early 2000s there has been a recrudescence of a sort of culture, even if the vitality did not return fully until about a decade ago. The scene is not fully realised but the cultural space is evolving. Talented writers inking great book deals, getting fellowships and commissions.
In Nigeria, we have about five or so big book festivals that make other countries green with envy. Poetry is not exempt from this vitality. There are no barriers to expression anymore. The zeitgeist dictates individuality and an exploration of identity – be it of gender, sexuality or philosophy. There are no barriers in terms of influences. No zombie-like following of what the previous generations explored thematically. There is truly a democracy of thought, as it were, and there is a multiplicity of narratives.
Performance poetry is also enjoying a vibrancy like never before. Spoken word poetry is at an all-time high and young creatives are bold enough to confront their existence with a singsong voice and a microphone. Of course, as with all things human, outliers are few, mediocrity is dominant. Most young creatives don’t realise that talent is meant to be honed till it shines. Talent is pretty much a raw material that should be refined to perfection by continuous rehearsal.
Where did your obsession – if I could use that word – with T. S. Eliot originate? And what other traditions of poetry, and masters, have inspired you over the years?
I won’t call it an obsession, just deep love and respect. T. S. Eliot is such a looming figure in 20th century literature. His poem The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock changed my outlook on poetry forever. T.S was a reawakening for me, and then reading his essays – most importantly, Tradition and Individual Talent – set me on the path of bridging the gap between the ancient and modern as it were.
I can’t deny the influence of the confessional poets: [Robert[ Lowell, [Sylvia] Plath, [Anne] Sexton. I care very much for world literature, so my influences are diverse. I care for [Octavio] Paz and [Pablo] Neruda. I love Frost and Pound. On the continent, the works of J. P. Clark, [Christopher] Okigbo, [Wole] Soyinka, [Niyi] Osundare, Femi Oyebode, Niran Okewole, Tade Ipadeola and Peter Akinlabi have been inspiring.
And because of my love for music, I find myself writing poetry to songs. In A Woman’s Body, there are poems inspired by Buena Vista Social Club, King Sunny Ade, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Of your work at Saraba Magazine, what can you say about the role of electronic outlets in changing the landscape of writing and publishing?
Digital publishing is largely responsible for the renaissance that literature is enjoying. It circumvents a lot of the difficulties of traditional publishing without altering that end product the consumer seeks: the reading experience.
I started Saraba with [Emmanuel] Iduma back then because we were frustrated. We are trying to get published, but, you know, in the 9 years since we started, a lot of other digital platforms have come out. The likes of Okada Books, Praxis magazine, Afreada, Expound and so forth. These platforms are where you can read the freshest stories in the country and on the continent. This is where raw talents are allowed to flower. Many times, these platforms are where people publish for the first time.
We hear that Saraba is going into print this year, with an issue coming out in November at Aké Festival. What can you tell me about the thinking and planning behind it?
We will be launching at Aké, as well as in Lagos, London and New York. We are trying to make a statement and we are moving, as it were, into the international space – upping our game, so to speak. We have a lot of plans for becoming a better literary magazine, undertaking more projects and finding new and delightful ways of doing what we are doing, and going to print is just one. We are curating a collector’s item and this will be the first time Saraba will charge readers. Going forward, we intend to make more demands of our readers.
You have also got a project you call Tuesday Poetry on your blog, which seems to have caught on as a new place for fresh voices every week. How did it start? What are your plans for it going forward, and what has the response been to the poems published here?
I don’t remember when it began exactly. I started a blog in 2013, my second blog on WordPress. I outgrew my first on Blogger. But I wanted to blog because I think there is a place for blogging too; the role it plays especially in mediating things. So when I started my new blog I wanted it to thrive, and so I began to publish my poems. The odd poem every week. I soon ran out of content so I started to buy beer for my friends in return for their poems. That also helped till I began to get a steady stream of submissions, from which I now pick.
I have only one policy: that I like the poem and it has grown really popular among readers. Tuesday Poem has grown its own audience. Sometimes I forget to put up a poem and someone comes to nudge me, asking about a new poem. I even post a link to an old one sometimes to trick them but readers will say, “We have read this one before.” So it has grown into something. I don’t have any concrete plans yet. Perhaps I will organise a hangout and have all the poets in one room to read. I am not sure yet. But this already sounds like a good idea.