Reimagination and the Decoration of Language: An Interview with Nome & Salako

Nome Emeka Patrick is a blxck bxy. He graduated from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where he studied English language and literature. His works have been published or forthcoming in POETRY, Poet Lore, Strange Horizons, Beloit Poetry Journal, The FIDDLEHEAD, Notre Dame Review, Black Warrior Review, Puerto Del Sol, FLAPPER HOUSE, Gargouille, Crannóg Magazine, Mud Season Review, The Oakland Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, African writer, Kreative Diadem, Kalahari Review, Vagabond City, and elsewhere. A Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and Pushcart Prize nominee. He’s been on the shortlist for Pin Food Poetry Prize, Poetically Written Prose, Sevhage Prize. He co-won EOPP in 2019. His manuscript ‘We Need New Moses. Or New Luther King’ was a finalist for the 2018 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He guest-edited, alongside Itiola Jones, Nigerian Young Poets Anthology. He is a reader for Palette Poetry. He writes from Lagos, Nigeria. He is extremely shy, say Hi on twitter @paht_rihk

Pèlúmi Sàlàkọ writes from North Central, Nigeria where he presently studies for a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Studies. His writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacarpress, Ngiga Review, the rising Phoenix review, Palette Poetry, Agbowo, Memento: An anthology of contemporary Nigerian Poetry. elsewhere. He is the chief editor at The Zango Review. He is the creative director of Yellowcab and tweets @Salakobabaa

This interview was conducted in a WhatsApp group chat of over 200 creatives from Kwara State, Nigeria on the 4th of May, 2020. Interviewer: Akinwale Peace (Philip Peace).

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INTERVIEWER

Nome, poetry is most regarded to be written in verse(s). However, most/some of your poems are written in the prosaic form. Take the poem in The Upstairs Journal, Flapper House, etc. What informs your style when you write?

NOME

Thank you for this observation. To answer your question, I’d say I love to be experimental when I write. What informs my style isn’t really specific —because, after my drafts, I experiment with words, shapes, forms, and to cap it, style.

This might sound weird and awkward; I think the poem itself, its existence though contingent, informs my style.

INTERVIEWER

Beautiful. I love that your poems go through quite a series of consideration before publication. I’ll come back to the concept of the drafts.

Salako, thank you for considering our invitation tonight. Let’s start with your office as the director of the Yellow Cab. First, tell us about Yellow Cab and what you want to achieve with the initiative. You can also share with us what you’ve achieved since the start of the movement.

SALAKO

Thank you, Philip.

Yellowcab is a non-profit organization that is run by university students thru personal donation and paltry sponsorship. We try to keep the literary culture alive in Ilorin by organizing readings. We also collaborate with organizations that share the same vision. So far, we have organized readings and we hope to keep going.

INTERVIEWER

Your initiative must have done some good. I’ll ask a question about the reading culture as you’ve written here later.

Nome, I’ll quote a passage from one of your poems that I’m very fascinated with.

Two lovers are hills casting shadows upon a sleeping ocean, their silence is air cutting air,…we listen to another bomb roar up into the sky, and my lover mutters God, her voice a drizzle guitaring the earth on a silent night. The sirens swallow the world.” This poem is titled “Dusk”, published in The Indianapolis Review.

NOME

Yea. I remember this. Been a while, though.

INTERVIEWER

(laughs) Yeah, the selection is intentional.

Nome, in most of the poems I’ve read, poets have a dimension in which their writing operate. It’s no longer the narrative/story sometimes, it’s the language doing magic. In many of your poems, I’ve seen the beauty of language. How do you make language do the things you want it to do; the decorative feature it gives your poem, how does it happen?

NOME

I love this question.

I’m fascinated at the veridicality and ability of language, too. And it is one of the reasons I love poetry. I think we, no matter how talented we are, do not exist in a vacuum, and that’s why personal study and self-education come in. Whatever I do with language, no matter how beautiful and terrific they might appear, has been done before by our literary heroes. I am only following that tradition.

The decorative feature of language you find in my poetry is intentional. I mean you don’t want to write a poem that reads like an everyday conversation, though there is a place for that, too. The decorative feature which, I believe, means the aesthetic strength in the level of syntax is achieved because I believe the beauty of poetry lies in it is written. Language, and other aesthetic features. I hope you understand. Now, how I use language to achieve this decorative feature is through constant revision, and study of the older poets I admire.

Drafts are often very flawed. You make mistakes: concord mistakes, weak lines, unnecessary imagery, etc. In revision, I think you approach the draft with new eyes, with a new sense of awareness. You begin to take out the unnecessary things that are in the draft, and also add new stuff.

Doing this puts you in communion with the language. Revision also opens you to the beauty that you didn’t achieve in the draft. However, we write in the shadows of other writers. So, if you admire, for example, Safia Elhillo’s works, I think you’d always go to her poems for guidance.

INTERVIEWER

This is a beautiful way to explain the blindfold language poses. Fine response, Pat.

I’ll love to pose this as a sub-question.

I know that some of the poets here bother about how to make a line sound poetic (whatever this means). I find this sound of poetry in many of your work and I notice that language is a sexy beaut. What has enhanced your fluency and vastness in the understanding of language? You’ve answered the question. Can you shed more light?

NOME

Good question.

Trying to sound poetic is enhancing an ordinary statement. E.g. ‘The moon is out in the sky‘ is an ordinary statement. To enhance this statement, as a poet, you have to look beyond where others stop looking. You have to pay attention. You also have to allow yourself open to doubts, because it is in doubtfulness that we allow ourselves to experience new worlds.

For the enhancement, I’d always say this: I study older poets every day, and this opened my mind to a pool of imagery, metaphor, etc., that can be recreated.

INTERVIEWER

I’m fascinated by ‘it is in doubtfulness that we allow ourselves to experience new worlds.’ I am glad about your response, Nome. Thank you.

The next question is for Salako. As the editor of the ‘Zango X Annual Anthology’; while other editors seek imagery or figures of speech, some seek rhymes before they accept a particular poem; what are the sentiments you consider before you accept a poem? In other words, what makes a poem a poem? Kindly treat the last as a different question.

SALAKO

Thank you. Being an editor at Zango is one opportunity I’ll forever be grateful for —it has opened my eyes to a considerable amount of things. I get to read a lot of wonderful poems from a growing community. Selecting works for publication in Zango is not a one-man job. It goes through a collective process. That means all the editors must agree about a certain work to pass it as fit. Personally, I am fascinated by language, it buys me easily. I’d elect any poem written in uncommon or beautiful language. I like poems that take me to the places I want and do not want to go to.

INTERVIEWER

This is a beautiful perception of poetry and the growing community of UNILORIN poets. Of course, poems take us places we want and not want to go.

SALAKO

Ah. This question. For your second question, I’ll simply say what makes a poem a poem is a writer or the reader’s approach to it.

However, I also agree that what makes a poem a poem is the poem’s consciousness. The tension therein. The love, the tenderness, the little miracles, the mercy.

All of these and more. But these are things that come to mind at the moment.

INTERVIEWER

A poem’s consciousness. You sure have a beautiful perspective at considering these things. Thank you for your honest response.

The next question is for Nome. I’ll quote another passage from his poem published in a 2019 issue of Flapper House.

“I love you brother with all the birds psalming in my bones… That’s your lips o brother where prayers & ablutions grew wings…O brother the lonely lamb where the forest is wildest. Until your eyes wore the skin of night & your hands grew into a garden of cold fallen leaves, you were the vision I never had. You were all the places I always dreamt of.” — ‘Monologue in a Room with the Portraits of My Dead Brother’ from The Flapper House.

Pat, I’m quoting this poem because I love the care and tenderness (which Salako regarded) with which it is written. Also, because the poem appears as you documenting what it is to be a kind of an Islamic extremist. It appears as you telling what love is and how such families treat such form of grief, faith & betrayal from the perspective a young boy.

However, it seems more personal than it appears: with respect to your Christian background, why does the poem read so sincere, so true— what inspired such writings (as you’ve written a handful of them)?

NOME

I think the first thing a poet should understand when writing is sincerity: sincerity to the language, to yourself, and to the experience or imagination you’re writing from.

In 300L, we read a drama titled “Heart of Stone” in which the protagonist, if I can remember clearly, bombs a church. The protagonist’s action is as a result of misinterpretation of doctrine on the part of his teacher. The protagonist has a wife whom, I think, he just married. And I felt the catharsis in my bones. I also felt for the wife.

So, I decided to talk about family, to fuse this story into the tale of two brothers. I wanted everyone to feel that emotional break down I felt after reading “Heart of Stone,” and so I wrote the poem.

INTERVIEWER

And I did feel the emotional breakdown. I first read the poem last year. It took me time to fully grasp the poem. While preparing for this interview, I read it again and again and again. I find it fascinating, how a poet’s mind works. Thank you for this response.

Salako, let’s chat about ‘CRANK SHRAPNELS’ published in Prachya Review. It’s one of your earliest poems and I’m fascinated by these lines: “Picture young boys lying inhumed / in the earth. and dreams lying in craters / – unclaimed, unlived, dead -just like their / owners / Or grieving mothers searching for / the carcasses of their sons. … / I found this poem waiting to be / hanged on a guava tree”.

I find them taking loss in its heavy manifestation, I find them examining the concept of loss and how some dreams lie wasted due to war. However, war has been sort of a fundamental of every society: talk about world wars, inter-continental wars, wars of independence, communal crisis and civil wars, what does this say to you as a historian, writer and human?

What does the narrative of war & the abuse it leaves behind say to you & do you think a poet has a role in war?

SALAKO

That’s a really old poem & thanks for seeing this poem in that light.

War has always enticed me (as bizarre as that might appear) and it seems I’m caught in one every time. The history of the world is founded in war as you’ve noted.

My fascination with War is not for the love of death or blood spillage. It is for the condition of those caught in the middle of that war, how it affects them, how they survive or not. I am deeply touched by the circumstances victims.

I must have written that poem after reading Ishmael Beah’s book, a long way gone. That book broke me. Made me cry for days.

INTERVIEWER

Ishmael Beah wrote a really terrifying book! I agree. I agree.

SALAKO

Like every sane human and historian, I find wars to be senseless and entirely baseless. It has never solved any problem as history has shown.

As a poet, I am deeply touched like every other person. At times I cry after watching news of mass destruction and elimination. I write sad poems, I criticize the politicians, the civilians who amplify or perpetuate violence. I do all this.

But what can it achieve?

I don’t think I have yet figured what a poet’s role in war is.

INTERVIEWER

I am deeply touched by the question here. I understand how critical it is to exist in a world where war is seen as a necessity. Respected presidents of America (the country of world liberty and equality) have present war as a necessity at some times. Thank you for your honest response, Salako.

Nome, Congratulations on your publication on POETRY magazine a few months ago. It’s one of the biggest platforms in the world, I’ll ask how you feel about it. LOL.

But before you answer that, your poems explore grief. What does that have to do (or what do you have to say about it) regarding contemporary poetry? Most poets seem to explore grief across concepts of depression, longing, migration, loss etc. It appears a bandwagon in poetry, does it seem the same to you?

NOME

Thank you. POETRY magazine felt good. It also came as a miracle because the poem was rejected six times elsewhere. And also, it was my first time sending POETRY magazine a submission.

I think we are in the age of confessional poetry where writers have developed that unflinching courage to express themselves. I think today’s writers are not servile, they are rather recalcitrant in their course to document the stories of the self and the society, just like that the past generations of writers.

I have, like you pointed out, noticed the ubiquity of the subject of grief, depression etc., in many poems. LOL

I think we exist in an outspoken generation. People are confronting their abusers, are documenting their fears, are shifting that sour tradition of pretense, are trying to be real. I think the subjects of depression, grief etc. have always been in poetry. Take Sylvia Plath’s poems, Walt Whitman’s poems, some Mahmoud Darwish’s, some Kaveh Akbar’s poems etc., you would find these subjects in them, either witnessing or professing.

I think it all boils down to the genuineness of the writer. And that, too, might not matter because a writer can write from a place of imagination. Thus, giving voice to the stories of those wounded persons around them.

INTERVIEWER

This is very beautiful, Nome. This is very beautiful. My next question will take form in this. The genuineness of the writer. In fact, in imagination, I think that the genuineness in emotions is extended too.

I want to know, Salako, what informs your poems? The themes and the writing process: how would you explain your philosophy of writing including the style(s) you use? If it isn’t a lot to ask, tell us about your writing process.

SALAKO

My poetry is informed by a wide range of things including tragedy, history, joy, longing and love. I am triggered by small things, little insignificant things.

Presently, I am experimenting with language, especially through the infusion of Yoruba language or logic. I am trying to see how my Yoruba identity could take place.

I have flirted with form by way of physical structure in times past, however, I am presently just writing without much consideration for form.

My writing process is a tad funny. I am a snail man. It takes me a while to write a poem on an average. My writing spends time in my head before I commit it to paper or to my writing device.

INTERVIEWER

Ohh. This is beautiful. I’ve seen this in your poem, A Small Bloodied Thing, on Palette Poetry and in your recently published poem, A Writer(Poet) Recounts Grief on Agbowo. It fascinates me, how grief takes face in writings. But as Nome said, our generation is outspoken and we’re confronting things we didn’t pay attention to before. Beautiful!

Nome, you wrote that the poem published on one of the world’s biggest platforms was rejected six fucking times before that period. On rejection, a lot of writers find themselves depressed and utterly dejected after a rejection mail. How do you treat rejection in your career (and say your personal life)? I believe that our personal lives influence our writings and our writings, our personal lives.

NOME

Rejection is one of the substantive elements that our existence is roped by. In writing, rejection is normalcy. I think to grow as a writer, you have to consciously normalize rejections because they will ALWAYS come.

For me, I usually draw up a plan to receive a certain number of rejections a year. Like last year, my target was to get 50 but I got 39 or so. I do this to normalize rejection.

Also, when I send my works out I’m 50% optimistic, 50% pessimistic, no matter how sublime the poems may be. I think this has allowed me to cope with rejection so far. And this is the honest truth: rejection used to make me feel I wasn’t doing enough —a sort of incompetence on my part. But I realized, along the line, that that was a very wrong thought, a thought that could throttle towards lack of self-belief.

The art of writing itself is an art that balances on rejection and acceptance. Just like, not everyone would love your work (rejection), not everyone would hate your work (acceptance).

INTERVIEWER

This is beautiful, Nome. I love the 50% acceptance and rejection scale at which you expect a rebuttal from a submission. I also love that you gave a way to normalize rejection. Thank you for this. It’s, of course, a wrong thought to think rejection is a lack of competency on a writer’s part. I think myself and other poets should know this and build up our self-esteem. Thank you for this!

Salako, I want to quote one of your poems. “But we took ritual in forms/ / To renounce the hexes you left/ behind as verbs/ / That day you left Baami/ we bought rose / in memory/ of our eschewing father/ / And gifted the wilted/ remains to the bin.” from ‘In Memoriam’ from Ngiga Review.

I want to take it that ‘…renounce the hexes (that attach us to) you left behind / as verbs’ mean that the narrator attempts to outgrow his grief over the absence of the father. However, the end of the poem read as if the narrator doesn’t care about the absence.

However, the wilted rose should be a memento for the absence of a dear one; it is why it appears quite complicated to me. Can you shed more light on this and probably talk about why sometimes, poets withhold some lines and leave the readers to fix the puzzle?

SALAKO

First, this poem stemmed from imagination, however, I’m not going to pretend that there was no nonfictional inspiration.

You read right. The narrator doesn’t really care about the father’s absence. The poem is simply an act of protest against a dysfunctional father figure. Why keep an item, figuratively or otherwise, as a memento of someone who has inflicted recurrent hurt?

A poet withholds lines or details for different reasons and each can only speak for himself.

For me, hiding details might be a way of inventing speculation in the reader’s mind. It might also be for the security of identity or a secret. This (hoarding details) might add or subtract from the poem’s general standing. But that’s still subject to the Poet.

INTERVIEWER

This is beautiful, Salako. Beautiful & quite relative. I understand the perception of discarding items belonging to people that hurt us. I also appreciate the writing of a poem like that.

Beautiful! I’ve found myself asking what I should leave out and what I should add into a poem. I think this dilemma will be addressed through the process of draft, revision and rewriting as Nome noted.

The last question is for Nome. These lines in ‘AUBADE FOR THE HANDS REACHING TO THE PAST AUBADE FOR THE HANDS REACHING TO THE PAST” published in ALEGRARSE: A JOURNAL FOR POETRY:

what is it about age that knives us into walls? / what’s it about growing up that puts us in separate ships? makes me think about this. About rejection, acceptance and growth of a poet, what does age and/or growth say to you?

As a poet, human, what dimensions do age and growth take in your life, career and perspective about life? I’m basically asking how age impacts us, what ageing says to you.

NOME

I think age has taught me, as human and poet first, that uncertainty lurks in the core of humanity. Today, we are making plans, & tomorrow the plans might be changing either by choice or by the inevitability of some circumstances guiding our lives such as time, seasons, etc.

I think age has helped me to be more focused on shaping my present to fit into the kind of future I’ve always dreamt of. For instance, if I am not here today —that is if I’m no more in this good-bad world — what are the things people would say about me: would it be laced with goodness or evil?

I’ve grown more philosophical. I have struggled with being a theist and being an agnostic. And I have come to the conclusion that I just have to live a life that doesn’t hurt others or place others at the verge of any danger.

INTERVIEWER

Hmm. Your intention is noble; and I hope you really find yourself in positions that don’t hurt others although this isn’t pretty certain. I love your point, Nome. Thank you!

As a matter of Resolution, Nome and Salako, what message (s) do you have for poets?

NOME

I was asked to say some last words…LOL

Maybe, these words also u-turn back to me: Just keep on writing and believing in yourself. And also, surround yourself with like-minds that can challenge you to be better —and this isn’t in the way of competition. Competitions aren’t very healthy.

I think we as writers should read more, too. Read beyond just poetry. Read books on history, philosophy, religion. It helps. I’m just sad I realized this kinda late.

SALAKO

The poet’s journey is a lonely, painful one. Don’t forget why you became a poet in the first place. Constantly find new reasons. Find a community and make connections. Do the things you love/enjoy. Be humble enough to learn from those ahead of you and be generous enough to help those behind you.

Read everything just like my chairman Nome opines. Interviews inclusive.

Thanks for your time and invitation.

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