We asked the poets shortlisted for the PEN Nigeria/Saraba Poetry Prize 3 questions about their practice and contemporary poetry, and they responded with staggering insight. Here is Su’eddie Vershima Agema, author of Tales one shouldn’t tell often.
Why do you write poetry, and what fascinates you about poetry?
Sometimes it is hard to simply say why one does something especially when that thing has become a way of life. It is like asking ‘Why do you breath?’ Several answers come to mind: ‘I write to pass messages’ ‘I write to change society’ ‘I write to … this or that’ I can think of a million reasons why I think I write, but the truth I believe is that I write poetry (scribble what I hope passes for poetry J ) because it is something that has come to be a part of me. Everything else follows – to pass a message, to let my soul speak to someone, to carry a code and all. All these follow but first, I write because it is part of who I have become. True as time goes on, it gets harder to write poetry because you are conscious of each word. When a few people begin to take you serious, more, when you begin to take what you do serious. Every word has its purpose. Is it really saying what you stand for? It becomes a tool … But maybe I am beginning to talk much like those writers with a purpose thing, abi? Hee hee hee. I be Naijarian man original!
One’s fascination with poetry comes in a myriad reasons and when one is limited in words, you have to only pick a few and wonder if it suffices to show the extent of its beauty. Poetry is one genre that gives you the opportunity to tell a lot in so little. It brings the entirety of the vast lines of prose into a few tight lines that leave you as fulfilled as if you had read the whole work of prose. Imagine Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ as a poem. I dare say that many more people would have read the book to the end and enjoyed the profoundness. Imagine Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as prose… Poetry weaves a lot into smaller fragments of such beautiful conciseness that leaves one marveling. Yes, it carries the action of plays too in that same conciseness. More than that, if you consider poetry to be the air out there, the breathtaking wonder of life, the stillness of nothing, the spirit of the moment; everything and nothing – then you see that poetry is indeed so much more than can be contained in words. It is the glue that brings it all together in beauty and just leaves you marveled with that ‘Wow’ feeling. Poetry. I can almost taste it now.
Is poetry important?
Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. Okay, I am just being naughty. Poetry is important. It holds much together. While not too many people can grasp it singularly in its form in lines and stanzas, you can’t help but notice them bow when it comes out in other forms. Imagine the words as someone tries to woo another. Imagine the words as pearls of infinite wisdom pour out, for instance, in that form of our civilization that came from years on years till we can now contain in a few scripts. Think more now of apt descriptions in such imagery that leaves you marveled. Whether you find it in its strictest sense (of lines and stanzas that most people take as some form of Mathematics) or in its various other forms – as prose descriptions (as used by Toni Morrison, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Carlos Ruiz Zafôn, Unoma Azuah, Maik Ortserga, Pever X, Ada Agada, Toni Kan, Habila, Iduma e.t.c); those lines in a play (as perfected by the likes of Soyinka, Shakespeare, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Femi Osofisan, Jude Idada, Joshua Agbo and numerous others), then you would understand.
For the beauty of the other forms, there is reason to have poetry go on and on. Little wonder then that Chimamanda Adichie says she reads a lot of poetry before writing any work. NOTE that she stresses that she doesn’t write poetry… Read her work again and find out if you wouldn’t find it there.
So, in every way, yes, poetry is important as glue holding all together and on its own, as a distinct form that unites so much in so little bringing a beauty that only the most perfect of paintings or music can compete with.
In your practice, what do you aim for, especially in relation to your shortlisted poem?
Saying what I aim for in ‘my practice’– I like the sound of that, practice, much like the lawyer stuff – is really subjective to time, and specific experiences. It is always a response to something – a feeling, a movie watched; a poem or other literary work read; to a call for submission or a competition (kidding)…
There was once when I had to beg a sweet heart when we had an issue. ‘Mea Culpa’ (a poem I wrote) was born. At another time, I had to just bury some thoughts that wouldn’t leave except if I let them out. I spoke them much but they remained. I wrote, they remained but without the former burden they had carried.
It is the way my first published collection, ‘Bring our casket home: tales one shouldn’t tell’ was born. An answer to many situations. In ‘Tales one shouldn’t tell often’, I was playing with the origin of man and sex. You know, both are so intertwined. If we can find an answer to the quarrel that has us at ends to choose between our ‘rod’ and the ‘Lord’, we might find some peace and ease to conscience and yes, loins (perhaps). That’s on the surface. Deeper levels? We can go on forever.
So, there you go: My poetry is a response to situations in the hope of a message passed that would touch someone somewhere and cause some change – whether it be a laugh, a hope or some transformation. Do I dare hope for so much?