Good poetry for me is one that takes stylistic and thematic risks | A Conversation with Uche Nduka

Libretto had a conversation with award winning Poet and songwriter. Uche Nduka is a poet, essayist, collagist & songwriter. He is the author of twelve volumes of poems of which the most recent are IJELE (2012), NINE EAST (2013), SAGEBERRY 1 (2017), LIVING IN PUBLIC (2018), FACING YOU (2020). His writing has been translated into German, Dutch, Arabic, Finnish, Italian, Serbo-Croat, Romanian. He teaches at CUNY(Queens College) and lives in New York City.

Libretto: Hello Uche. We are beyond pleased to have you join us. 

Uche: Thank you for the invitation.

Libretto: What prompted you to become a writer? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and how did you work towards actualizing the dream?

Uche: It was a natural inclination. At some point in my teenage years I discovered that I could not function well as a human being without reading and writing. Somehow, the love for writing creatively got wafted into me. My response to that fact was to read across genres, reflect, and write daily. I wrote the poems that appeared in my new book-FACING YOU-within a period of four months.

Libretto: What is the process of writing poetry like for you? Has there been any radical changes between how you wrote your first poem and how you write now?

Uche: I try to find out where a poem wants to go and then go there stylistically and thematically. Sometimes I go through several drafts for a poem; sometimes not. I don’t think there has been much of a change regarding the way I write since I first wrote a poem more than thirty years ago till now.

Libretto: How important is research to you when writing poetry, and in what specific instances has it been a defining factor?

Uche: I stay open to new experiences and influences while writing. The weather, news reports, dreams, history, mythologies, visual art works, overheard conversations, music etc Permeate whichever poem or poems I’m working on. But I guess I did a bit of research while writing CHIAROSCURO which came out in 1997 and won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Poetry Prize for that year. Some research also happened while writing my latest book (Still in manuscript) titled SPEAKING OF WHICH.

Libretto: What do you think makes good poetry, and what are some of the stylistic innovations you feel have elevated the art form in the last twenty years?

Uche: Good poetry for me is one that takes stylistic and thematic risks. Predictable poems don’t attract me or delight me. Regarding innovation , poems that are capacious enough to contain bits of fracture, documentary, abstraction, direct statements, gender-bending, jazzity, reveries, prose,  humor, visionary projections, resonate for me.

Libretto: A lot of people don’t know you are also a songwriter and that you used to be part of a musical band. How would you describe the ways in which music and poetry intersect, and the manner in which they differ?

Uche: Sometimes there is music in poetry and at other times there is poetry in music. The flourishes of rhythm and cadence and melodies are priceless. One can’t discount the affirmation in the music of words themselves.  I don’t really see much difference between music and poetry. Craft-wise, I need both.

Libretto: Still on the subject of music. If your favourite poem was a song, what song would it be? And if your favourite musician was a poet, which poet would they be?

Uche: As of now, my favourite song is “Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan. And my favourite musician/poet is Mississippi John Hurt.

Libretto: How long did it take you to write the two books: Ijele” (published by Overpass Books, 2012) “Sageberry1” (published by AMAB Books, 2017)? What is the inspiration behind the titles? And if you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in either of the books?

Uche: IJELE took six months to write. I’m particularly fond of that book because it’s my only book of prose poems so far. SAGEBERRY 1, which is a cross-genre book, got written within a year. The title of IJELE was inspired by Igbo culture. It is the name of a masquerade in Igbo land in Nigeria. The title for SAGEBERRY 1 came to me in a dream. I wouldn’t change anything in both books were I to write them again.

Libretto: Now to your new book: “Facing You” (Published by City Light Books, 2020). What is the book all about? What inspired the titles?

Uche: The book is about truths deeper than factual truths. Personal and communal intimacies are highlighted in the volume. Travels, racism, fury, joy, spirituality, sex, are some of the subjects written about in the book. The title emphasizes relationship, communion, connection.

Libretto: What is the most challenging poem you’ve ever written, in terms of theme and intent, and how long does it generally take you to finish a poem?

Uche: I find almost every poem I’ve written challenging. Poems take so much out of me- psychically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. The time for finishing the writing of a poem varies from poem to poem.  It takes between an hour and a year or more.

Libretto: You’ve spoken in the past of your distrust for protest poetry, but in a year that has witnessed much racial tension especially as a result of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, how do you think poetry can be used to not only understand these events, but to also acknowledge the need for progress when it comes to race issues?

Uche: If a poem needs to rant, let it rant. If a poem needs to dream, let it dream. A poem can deal with any situation.

Libretto: Have you ever had to deal with racism on a personal note? If yes, has it had any impact on your poetry? And if no, do you think the fact you haven’t had such an experience has to do with your individuality overriding your identity as a person of colour?

Uche: My individuality does not override anything. I cannot whitewash injustice and bigotry. Racism is systemic. There is no person of colour that is not affected by the brutality of racism. I’ve written against racism and colorism in some of my books.

Libretto: Poetry means different things to different people, and over the years, a lot of literary critics have struggled to define you as a poet. Do you see this as one of the most integral aspect of your poetry, or is it something you are not particularly intentional about?

Uche: I try to write the poems that I can write and leave the commentary on those poems mostly to readers and critics.

Libretto: Nigerian poetry has been in a transient state for almost the same length of time as the amalgamation of the country. We went from didactic poems influenced by griot culture, then to poems written to denounce tyranny. These days most Nigerian poets choose to write about the body or their mental health struggles. How would you describe Nigerian poetry, and are there any core elements you look forward to when reading a Nigerian poem? Is there even such a thing as a “Nigerian poem”?

Uche: There should not be an effort to pigeonhole poetry by nationality. Nevertheless, I think that what is needed in the poetry written within the geographical space called Nigeria is freedom. Freedom for the poets to write about whatever they like. Freedom to write in any style they invent or admire. “Nigerian poem” sounds limiting.

Libretto: You’ve lived across Europe and America, and you’re known for being a cultural pilgrim. Do you think your love for travelling influences the fluid and non-conforming authenticity of your poetry, or is it the other way round

Uche: Certainly, travelling influences my work. Some of my poems tackle things hidden in plain sight. Travelling nudges me to focus and pay attention to each place I am.

Libretto: For every poet a poem has a starting point, some context or background that inspires and bestows it weight in the form of words. But what’s your opinion on the notion that a poem never ends, and that a good poem should transcend the finality of its last word?

Uche: A poem is an intervention on values, on hopes, on disappointments, on time, on aspirations. It tends to be both personal and universal. Who defines what a good poem is?

Libretto: What do you make of poetry prizes and how enamoured they often are of “serious poems”? That is, poems focused on existential themes that examine topical issues relating to culture, society, religion, human rights, and politics, rather than poems concerned with the simple singularity of the individual human and his seemingly trifling reality?

Uche: Poetry prizes become inhibiting when poets self-consciously write in a certain way in order to win them. Sometimes the prizes provide much needed money to poets in need. They also draw attention to the works of some poets who may remain underread otherwise. Therefore, I wouldn’t dismiss prizes as completely useless. I simply feel that poets should never allow prizes and prize-givers to tame them.

Libretto: So, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to?

Uche: I am working on a scrapbook and typing an as yet untitled volume of new poems.

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