My poems come from sieving the world through prism of self | A conversation with Richard Ali

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Richard Ali, lawyer, poet, and author, was born in Kano State, Nigeria and grew up in the resort town of Jos. He holds an LL.B in Civil Law from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010. He was the youngest magazine Editor in Nigeria at the Kaduna-based Sardauna Magazine [2004—2006]. Author of the warmly received 2012 novel, City of Memories, Richard is also Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and was a runner-up at the 2008 John la Rose Short Story Competition. In March 2008, he was selected amongst 50 other emerging Nigerian writers to participate in the British Council’s Radiophonics Workshop. He joined the Sentinel Literary Movement of Nigeria in 2011 and has undertaken the editing of its quarterly Sentinel Nigeria Magazine since then.

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

Richard: My pleasure entirely.

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?

Richard: I’d say it was being surrounded by books from an early age. The previous generation, my father particularly, had amassed quite a lot of books in his Kano years and by the time I was starting to be curious about the world around me, there were several five-feet cartons of everything from the African Writers Series to James Hadley Chase to wander through. From this, writing was a logical next step.

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?

Richard: Poetry is quite tricky to get right because you’re trying to find something essential, to put your finger on something that’s unquestionably true, whether it is about human nature, love, one’s own self, and so on. Considering how various we are, how altruistic and conceited at the same time, how we, as humans, are capable of the most admirable consistency and shocking about-faces, you can appreciate the difficulty. But a poet tries. And when one is dealing with the bigger stuff, the nature of the world, of deity, of knowledge, things get even trickier. My early poems were more honest, and perhaps that is why there are so many of them? Now, poems come through much difficulty because one has seen quite a bit, experienced so much, and we do not have the confident ease of a decade or two ago.

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

Richard: I do not research for my poems, those are not the sort of poems I write. I believe I have written only one commissioned piece, and that was about Italy–a cooperative anthology from a few years ago. So, even there, the scope was broad enough for me to have something to say. My poems come from sieving the world through my own distinct, peculiar, unrepresentative prism of self. One’s self simply is, for better or worse. What research is possible there?

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?

Richard: Good poetry must always strive to capture the essence of its subject; the better it achieves this, the better the poem. I’ve argued elsewhere that poetry is about seeking the moment before the Big Bang, as it were, a primeval state of things before the dispersion and the katakata that makes today’s “reality”. The poet is uninterested in this reality, and quite frankly uninvested in it, and wants to know how it came about. There has been nothing new in poetry over the last two decades, only newer creatives dealing with the stuff they are dealt in their own ways, with tools handed to them or innovations they bring with them. So, nothing new. The rise of the internet and social media is more about new platforms that democratize access to creating and sharing poetry and though it is unfortunate that a lot of times, those with nothing rigorous or thought out or even acutely observed, to say, nonetheless say something, and to an audience too. . . this is part of the nature of the times we live in. Good poetry exists regardless and it will, does, will continue to change lives.

Libretto: Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your poetry? And what books have influenced your writing the most?

Richard: Every poem I have ever written is my blood on the page, mixed with the ink. There is no fictional poetry for me, so if you know me well enough, or follow my interviews and travels and life for long enough, you will be able to identify which poem comes from where, who inspired it, quite visible beneath the surface. My earliest poetic influence was the English poetry cannon, with its rhyme schemes and metre and so on and there I developed my ear for the line, to be able to manipulate the words so they say more than they are. For this, we have everyone from Tennyson to Eliot. The poetry that slapped me awake, however, was Niyi Osundare, particularly his collection, Waiting Laughters, which I got from a friend at Malthouse Press in Jos. That was the moment, if I may emphasize, that the possibilities of poetry made itself known to me.

Libretto: How long did it take you to write your two books: “City of Memories” (published by Parresia, 2012) “The Anguish and Vigilance of Things” (published by Konya, 2019)? And what is the inspiration behind the titles?

Richard: City of Memories came from a short story I wrote while an undergraduate at Zaria, so its roots lie sometime around 2005 or so. I started cleaning it up after leaving university and I believe the first draft dates from about 2010. Then came editing, with the help of angels like Uche Peter Umez and Jude Dibia, and then the publishing process. The poetry collection dates farther back, and the oldest poem in it, Buddha Child, was published in Chuma Nwokolo’s African Writing Journal in 2008. I was a poet long before I turned my eye to prose.

Libretto: Last year, 2020, was a tough one for almost everyone due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you reckon the whole experience is likely to impact or the kind of poems that we would be seeing this year and in subsequent years?

Richard: Definitely. It is in the nature of poets to grapple with existential realities and the Covid-19 pandemic has seen to a rash of poems dealing with several aspects of it–the invisible virality of the menace, isolation, what it means to be forced to be vaccinated, and so on. Whether any of these poems will have staying power, and seem essential say ten years down the road is a realization that is ten years down the road away from now.

Libretto: 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?

Richard: I’m working on a new novel about a WW2 Nigerian soldier who is deported and detained in Lagos after the war, for certain subversive notions he picked up in Europe. It’s not going very well, I’m afraid and I am thinking of abandoning it, even if temporarily, and working on something else. Or, maybe, the reality is that I no longer have anything to say? Who knows. Time reveals all.

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