UCHE Nduka is one of Nigeria’s most revered poets on the international circuit. He left the country in 1994, and settled in Germany after winning a fellowship from the Goethe Institute. He lived in Germany and Holland for the next decade and immigrated to the United States in 2007. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry and prose, including Nine East (2013), Ijele (2012), and eel on reef (2007), all of which were published after he arrived in the United States. Earlier collections include Flower Child (1988), Second Act (1994), The Bremen Poems (1995/99), Heart’s Field (2005); If Only the Night (2002); Chiaroscuro (1997), which won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize; Tracers (2010). Belltime Letters (2000) is a collection of prose. Raised bilingual in Igbo and English, he earned his BA from the University of Nigeria and his MFA from Long Island University, Brooklyn. Nduka, who currently lives in New York City and teaches at CUNY-Queens College, responded online from his base in the US to HENRY AKUBUIRO in this illuminating interview on his writings and the implications of cultural straddling.
You have published nine poetry volumes, from Flower Child (1988) to Nine East (2013). Looking back at your earlier works, how did each aid your growth as a writer?
If you add my e-book Tracers (2010) –a full volume of poems –I have written ten volumes of poems to date. Each of the books aided my growth by showing me how poetry’s wobble has been generous to me: processing the corporeal and the philosophical; a freer space for both materiality and spirituality; an axis around which appearance and reality revolve. The books I wrote helped me discover my own ideas of what counted and what counts. Sometimes the sequence in which a poem appears is as important as the poem itself. In the books, I notice that I still have an ongoing dialogue, particularly with Nigeria, Germany, Holland and Romania. Those are countries I lived in so far that impacted my development as a writer, thinker, traveller, spiritual activist.
The books also aided my growth by allowing me to serially see how in some poems of mine I projected other versions of my selves and intimates and the world outward. The immensity of artistic motion is uplifting. In both life and poetry, each book helped my refusal to be typecast in any way. So the question is: does the poem determine in some way how it should be momentarily disrupted so it won’t block out a poet or a reader? I can say that my energies flow through my relationship with the art of writing. So, now when a poem calls, I answer it more confidently. Our interaction is not a quixotic communion. A poem that, at least momentarily, walks you through a psyche. I will like to be a poet who doesn’t write the same poem over and over. I aim to defy any branding ploy.
According to McSweeney, your work is noted for surrealism. How deliberate is this artistic bent?
Surrealism is not the only lens through which my work is viewed. It’s just one of the arsenals of my craft. I am in the service of expanding the reaches of poetry. Some days, my vocation entails waiting for the surreal moments. But, lots of times, my poetry refuses to explain or reveal its intentions. Just busy? Recalcitrant? Well meant? Take it any way you want. Poetry is a volatile art form. I am not interested in playing to the crowd through my writings or through my lifestyle. In spite of it all, I am positively inclined towards humanity. I have a love affair with the world. Surrealism? I don’t stay in one place too long. I keep transforming. I like testing the limits of poetry. Voraciousness fascinates me, because I am a student of behaviour. Questioning form is essential to my writing. I love poetry that encompasses all spheres of life. Still, I remain very grateful to poet-critic Joyelle McSweeney for her robust and perceptive essay on some of my books.
You spent thirteen years in Holland and Germany, and critics say that changed the tone of your poetry. How do new environments affect a writer? And you have been living in the US since 2007. Is the dislocation of émigré still a subject that tickles your consciousness?
I have been described as the Underground’s underground poet. I like that description sometimes. I operate in the interstices of culture. I cannot discount those spaces. The heightened state of some of my writings showcases slit canvasses. Do you feel the tactile presence of the poet in the poems? Why not? Each country I have lived in has etched itself into my poetry, prose, photography. And how can a writer not be affected by the environment he or she is living in? New environments give new thematic, stylistic, social, political and philosophical vistas to a writer to explore. Some people are hardwired to appreciate beauty and whimsy anew daily and seasonally. I am one of them.
You have expressed a distaste for “buying into the hype of either formal or informal English; traditional or avant-garde usages”. How far do you go in discovering linguistic trenches for your poems?
With regard to poems, I don’t care for the smooth veneer of lasting value. I refuse traditional virtuosity. Since choosing to write poetry, it has been a linguistic journey –sometimes fascinating, sometimes threatening –with no return ticket. The situation of a poem while being written is very unstable. Without notice, it can veer off into any direction –past, present, future. To be audacious aesthetically; to be fearless thematically. I do not approach the writing of a poem as a problem-solver. A poem grabs you and takes you over. One day, these poems will gain a revolutionary status of their own.
In Germany, your songwriting skill was more visible. Do you still write songs? How connected is songwriting and poetry?
In Germany, I had a band named “Uche and The Fugitives”. We played mainly in basements in Bremen to entertain ourselves. Occasionally, we played in public, but we were not professional musicians. Our musical fares were some Rock ‘n’Roll songs I wrote. Yes – I still write songs for fun. I may put a band together here in Brooklyn soon. Poetry and songwriting are connected rhythmically and sonically.
You are a member of Kristiania, a Brooklyn based literary collective. How do poets leverage on one another? Is that a model you will like to recommend to Nigerians?
I enjoy the company of my fellow writers in the Kristiania Collective. We mutually inspire each other. Such groups existed in Nigeria before I left the country –The Forge in Lagos; Thursday People in Ibadan; various chapters of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA); The Okigbo Poetry Club in Nsukka and Ibadan; The Nigerian Poets League of which I was the founder. Yes –I will recommend any grouping that helps writers improve their craft and celebrate their vocation in Nigeria.
You have also tried your hands on prose with the publication of Belltime Letters in 2000, among others; but these works are not easily available at home. What are you doing to liaise with African publishers on the continent to bring these books home to its primary audience?
I hereby announce now: any publisher interested in publishing my books in the African continent, please, get in touch. However, regarding the audience, I don’t write only for Africans. I write for any literate person anywhere in the world.
You edited an anthology of poems in 1988, Poets in Their Youth. Are you impressed with the quality of works of young poets writing today compared to when you edited that anthology, after complaining of the abundance of sterile poetry in 2005?
I am impressed with the works of some young poets I saw online. I am happy to say there are many of these poets with great potential –Saddiq M Dzukogi, David Ishaya Osu, Adeeko Ibukun, Okwudili Obu, Okoroafor Chibuzor, Timothy Ogene, Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu, Wale Owoade, Emmanuel Iduma, Shitta Fowora, Echezonachukwu Nduka, Gbenga Adesina, Chibuihe-Light Obi, Okwudili Nebeolisa, Demi Ajayi, Halima Aliyu, Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Uche Peter Umez, Sen Ihenyen, Rasaq Malik Gbolahan, Mary Ajayi, Binyerem Ukonu, Jennifer Chinenye Emelife, Mcpherson Okpara etc They are challenging the boundaries of Nigerian society and leaping beyond them. They convey their enthusiasm for the erotic, social and metaphysical issues. I admire their ongoing attempts to reconcile their day-to-day lives with their creative proclivities. They have their rightful places as poets who prize universal themes. I don’t doubt their imaginative capacities.
You are chiefly concerned with securing poetry against loss than getting published by big publishers. Do you hold a similar view on writers winning big awards as a form of ultimate validation?
Each writer to his or her own choices. I can only speak for myself here. Big literary awards do not impress me. I don’t write in order to be validated by awards or anyone.
You are something of a non-conformist who detests post-colonialism, postmodernism, artistic magic, and what not. What governs your universe?
I believe that human beings are not separated from the world of the unspoken any more than they could be separate from the world of the spoken. There is nothing wrong with refusing to express or fall for the popular mentality. I reject resignation.
While many writers, especially in Africa, are clamouring for residencies, you hold the view that too much residencies neutralise the fire in the poet/writer. How does this help the cause of the African writer?
It is my personal choice not to apply for lots of available art residencies. I don’t think it will improve my writing or thinking or activism. Other African writers are free to make their own decisions regarding this issue.
Back home, untold hardship, Boko Haram and the rise of anti-government groups are on the rise, but we don’t have dissident writers joining the fray. Should writers separate themselves completely from politics as JP Clark said?
Nigerian writers individually have to decide the extent that they wish to be involved in public/political battles. Pressure should not be put on them to become political activists. JP Clark was involved in politics during the Nigerian-Biafran War. He was one of those sent abroad by Yakubu Gowon for Propaganda purposes on behalf of the junta then in power on the Nigerian side. His poetry volume Casualties was very politically motivated.
By the way, there are contemporary Nigerian writers in the fray. The public writings/articles/columns of writers like Pius Adesanmi, Ogaga Ifowodo, Obi Nwakanma, Okey Ndibe, Pa Ikhide, Molara Wood, Elthan John, Odia Ofeimun, Rufus Okonkwo, Crispin Oduobuk, Victor Ehikhamenor, are crusading pieces. These writers are involved in the battle to save Nigeria now. I personally think that Nigerians acted against their own interests by electing General Buhari as the current president. I can see through his actions, policies, appointments, and pronouncements so far that he is still an unrepentant and heartless dictator. He completely lacks the give-and-take of democratic leadership.
What is going on in Nigeria at the moment is that a bunch of thieves are hunting down other thieves and prosecuting them for thievery and corruption. Public officials are busy stealing the country blind. How come the school girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram are still missing till now? Why are armed herdsmen allowed to run rampage killing innocent citizens? Why do soldiers get ordered to shoot peaceful protesters and marchers in the streets? Why are schools and universities in Nigeria being starved of funds? Why is the Nigerian State antagonistic to writers and journalists?
Out of the five poems published by Actionyes website, three are prose poems. What determines when to choose prose poems? Any special attraction?
I am attracted to the prose poem as just another way of writing. I like stylistic variety. To write a poem is to desire. Ijele –my 2012 book –is entirely a volume of prose poems.
I am looking at some of your recent poems published online by Hyperallergic, and I noticed profound images being deployed in “Up to the High Dive”, “Art Nouveau” and “Bets Off”. These are images of love, melancholy, disappointment, etcetera, couched in highly elevated diction, perhaps out of the ken of the ordinary reader. Who do you write for?
I write for every living person in this planet. I don’t underrate the intelligence, empathy, and sophistication of my readers. I want to bring both the non-western and the western worlds closer in all my books; to open up a space for dialogue or trilogue.
What are you working on?
I just finished writing my latest volume of poems Sageberry. I plan to begin work on another book of prose.