DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE is a Nigerian Spoken Word and Performance Poetry artist and an award winning author. He has eight published books to his name including the novel, Urichindere, which won the 2013 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Prose Fiction and a poetry theatre production – Made In Nigeria – currently touring the country. He was born in Lagos, and had his primary and secondary education in that city, before moving north to Abuja where he studied Law at the University there. His interest in writing and Poetry came as a child from his elder brother, Che Chukwumerije, an avid poet and musician, and from a childhood friend, Onesi Dominic, who both shared their poetry with him. He was also heavily influenced by his father, Uche Chukwumerije, who published a pan-africanist magazine, Afriscope, from the 1970s into the early 1980s, and by his mother, Nwoyibo Iweka, a gifted and natural storyteller, who helped him see magic in every day things. He is a member of the vibrant Abuja-based literary group, the Abuja Literary Society (ALS) and the host of the group’s Book Jam and Poetry Slam. He has won several poetry grand slams in Nigeria including the maiden edition of the African Poet (Nigeria) Grand Slam competition. Since 2013, he has hosted and directed the annual Night of the Spoken Word (NSW) performance poetry event. as part of a movement to insert performance poetry into Nigeria’s mainstream pop culture He also hosts weekly Open Mic performances which include a mix of acts from readings of short stories by their authors to musical performances, poetry and spoken word acts. He also speaks at workshops for amateur writers. He is Nigeria’s most prolific Performance Poet with three successful Performance Poetry videos, a live Poetry show (NSW – Night of the Spoken Word) now in its 5th year, and a theatre production (the Made in Nigeria Poetry Show) that had been successfully staged seven times – in Abuja, Lagos, Enugu, Benin – between September 2016 and May 2017.
Hello, Dike. We are delighted to have you join us. What prompted you to become a performance poet and writer? When did you first realize you wanted to be a performance poet and writer and how did you work towards actualizing the dream?
I was born into a creative family, and was surrounded by diverse artistic expressions growing up. So, I picked up writing at a young age. And it has stayed with me ever since. I first delved into performance poetry in my late teens/very early twenties. I came back to it in my late twenties with more intention, when I fully realized its potential for communicating ideas. It was at this point I became more focused on exploring the full potential of the art form.
Can you tell us more about how you prepare for a performance, and do you find it challenging to balance the writing and performance aspects of your poetry?
Ahead of any performance, I like to know who the audience is, and what I would like the audience to take away from the performance. A clear understanding of the topic is also critical. Rehearsals form a key part of my preparation for a performance. Writing and performing are two different art forms. And how you write when the audience will read for themselves, and how you write when the audience will be listening to you, is – and must be – different. In the latter case, as you are writing, you must keep in mind that people will be listening to you. This should affect the how you choose words and expressions.
How do you think your poetry has evolved over time and what would you say has influenced that evolution the most?
Over time, I have increased my range as poet. And the spaces I can write into. My evolution has been driven by a desire to communicate effectively to my immediate community.
How do you see your work fitting into the larger literary landscape, and what impact do you hope it has on the world?
My work is positioned in the gap between the literary world, which sometimes can be insular, and the wider world. To make it easier for people to understand and consume literary works. Ultimately, I hope my work inspires positive social change. And also encourages people to discover their talents, and use it intentionally in pursuit of purpose.
What do you think makes a good writer succeed, and what are some of the literary trends and artistic troupes you believe has impacted the thematic essence of modern poetry the most?
I think being curious and observant is critical to being a good writer. As is cultivating the habit of critical thinking. This must, however, be balanced against remaining highly intuitive, and in touch with your deep inner feelings on whatever subject you are writing about. I think one of the most influential trends for me in modern poetry is the tendency towards simplicity and the use of colloquial language. It’s helping to break the perception that poetry, to be poetry, must be obscure and written in high language.
What is your thoughts on the state of performance poetry and writing? What do you think are some of the challenges facing poets and writers around the country today, and what can be done to address these challenges and make performance poetry and writing more accessible in Nigeria?
Performance Poetry and Writing are doing well in Nigeria today. They are both great outlets for young people, with lots of energy and plenty to say. They are constructive ways for expressing grievance and the idealistic desire for a better world. The challenges center around sustainability, and being able to make a living from performance poetry and writing.
How has your own work been influenced by your exposure to different cultures and perspectives and how do you balance the personal and universal elements in your poetry?
Creativity is always fed by exposure to different cultures and perspectives. Because, at its core, creativity is the capacity to find new connections between things or concepts that have always existed. A creative is not a creator. He or she simply finds new ways of connecting things already in existence, thereby generating ever new meanings from what is. This process is fed by exposure to diverse experiences. With reference to the second part of the question, the universal is always in the personal. If you drill deep into what is peculiar to you, you discover values or concepts that are relate to everyone. Because we share a common humanity. And that is what good art does. It allows everyone to find a connection with something that is personal to you, the artist.
Can you discuss a specific poem of yours that holds a lot of personal significance, and what it means to you?
I write a poem titled ‘The Revolution Has No Tribe’. It talks about how social ills, like corruption or poverty, affect us all, regardless of ethnicity or religion. And, therefore, to deal with these things effectively we also have to unite across lines of tribe and tongue. I wrote the poem in 2005 or so. And it has always marked a transition for me to a more socially conscious phase as a creative.
How does one even begin to judge poetry? Are there some yardsticks that help you define a “good” poem from a not so great one? Basically, what do you consider to be the most fundamental element of a successful poem?
What a ‘good’ poem is can be both objective and subjective. But most people agree that the use of language is really important in judging poetry. It’s always important to see a strong use of figures of speech in poetry. Other important factors to consider when judging poetry include structure, rhythm, theme, and relevance. I generally prefer poems with social relevance.
What was the process of writing your prose book “Urichindere” like and how long did it take you to write the book?
I had an idea, developed a plot, created characters, paid attention to dialogue and the construction of suspense. It took me about a year to write.
The recent NLNG Prize for Poetry was a break from the norm, with the three finalists being writers who started out being derided as “social media poets”. As one of the judges do you see this as a turning point in the Nigerian poetry community in terms of the message it sends to older, more traditional poets?
A literary competition is not really a commentary on the entire state of writing in a community. We were asked to judge the specific entries submitted for the competition. And we picked the ones, that in comparison with the others in the lot, we thought were outstanding. This is not saying we thought the writers that came out on top were better than the others. But that we thought the works those writers entered for the competition were better than the others. Ultimately, the important thing is to produce quality, whether you are working in an older, more traditional style or a younger, more contemporary one. It is the quality of your work that matters. Not your age, or the age of your writing style.
Are there any types of book you don’t enjoy reading? Or do you believe that there’s value in all forms of writing regardless of theme, style, and intent?
I believe there is value in every artistic expression, whether I personally enjoy it or not. That said, personally, I don’t enjoy reading abstract poetry.
So, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to? Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
I am working on several things, including a new spoken word theatre production.
Finally, if the world’s last remaining library was burning, and you could only save three books, what books would there be?
Three of my favorite books are – ‘The Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran, ‘The Diaries of a Dead African’ by Chuma Nwokolo, and ‘The Matarese Circle’ by Robert Ludlum.