POETRY IS BOTH CRAFT AND INSPIRATION | DR. FUNMI GAJI

Funmi Gaji was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She began writing poetry at the age of 13 because she felt she should, then discovered she could, and had to. She earned her first and master’s degrees in Literature-in-English from the Lagos State University and University of Ibadan, respectively. She proceeded to bag her doctorate degree from the University of Ibadan in Literary Theory and Ciriticism, specifically exploring the metaphoric inscriptions of identity crisis and identity construction in Global South migrant literature. She is the author of The Script of Bruises. Her poems have appeared in Jalada, ANA Review, Olongo, and elsewhere. Gaji is a member of the advisory board of Paradigm City Publishing House. Articles by Gaji, a literary researcher as well, have appeared in local and international journals.

Hello, Dr. Funmi. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.
Thank you. I am very happy to be here. I am an ardent admirer of what you do, so this means a lot to me.

What prompted you to become a poet? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and how did you work towards actualizing the dream?
I wrote my first poem at the age of fourteen, the first of many poems burdened with teenage angst. I was moved to write it because it was sort of a fad that year around me. People threw words on paper, indented both sides and that was it. My earliest poems were pretty lame. But they achieved the biggest thing – they broke the dam. I like to think of it as the digging of a well. The earliest poems were simply efforts that I will liken to getting everything in the path of the water out. Having done that, the water, like water always does, found its way. It keeps finding its way. I got to a point where I allowed it lead but now, I see my poetry like water bending in the series, Avatar. It is now a collaboration between me and the water. I bend it, it bends me and between us, we fashion what feels like our truth.

What was the process of writing your first book like for you?
Like preparing a fridge-raid soup. They were different poems I had written in different periods of my life. It was more about putting together a collage than it was about writing, a collage about everything that I felt mattered at that point.

As a poet, you’ve evolved and grown in your craft. Could you describe a specific moment or experience that marked a turning point in your career as a poet, shaping the direction of your work?
I think the experience that marked a turning point was realizing that while inspiration would not always visit me, I can visit inspiration and draw from it as abundantly as I would allow myself. I came to the realization that poetry is both craft and inspiration.

What do you think makes a good poet succeed, and what are some of the literary trends and artistic troupes you believe has impacted the thematic essence of the modern poem the most?
At the risk of sounding evasive, I think it depends on what the poet considers success. To have written a poem that feels true to you is success. To remain original and honest is success. To write fearlessly to me is success. The world may try to censure your writings, but that you don’t do that to yourself, to me, is success. I know there are others who can sense dishonest writing as well. A dishonest poem always gives itself away.

Her recent poetry book

Your poetry often explores intricate themes and emotions. Can you share a specific poem that holds a deep personal significance for you and explain the story or emotions behind it?
“Limbo”. It was the first of my seen poems. Some of my poetry comes to me as scenes that I see in my mind, scenes that leave me transfixed, the magic of which I try to communicate in words. The poem opens: Roses sprouting and wilting… I tried not to insert myself into it. I did not try to say anything. I just allowed myself to see it and write it.

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?
Poetry for me is the soul of the universe and its fragments yearning to come together. It is the human story and it allows us to shapeshift and experience what makes other people human. Suddenly, you are the Wordsworth’s solitary reaper or JP Clark’s Agbor Dancer or you are the Abiku child daring the amulet. The personal has always been universal for me and I have always understood that I is we that is unarticulated so many times. I live for the moments that people see themselves in my personal.

In the digital age, social media and online platforms have become important for poets to reach a wider audience. How do you navigate the intersection of traditional and digital forms of poetry, and what impact has it had on your career?
It is a beautiful intersection. The digital age has made the table longer. I am always a little anxious about plagiarism when it comes to posting my poems on social media though, so I have sometimes hesitated to simply throw a poem that means so much to me out there. I mean, one time, I did a very personal post about my father on his birthday and I was stunned to find that someone had copied it word for word, merely changing father to mother. However, I have immense appreciation for digital platforms that have done so much for the poets of my generation.

How does one even begin to judge poetry? Are there some pointers 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?
I consider deft metaphors and conceptual frameworks the spine of good poetry. It niggles at me to read and have metaphors that are not “gelling”. I always mentally doff my hat when I see understanding of symbolism and metaphors and analogies shining through a poem, not overtly but subtly inscribed like a gift left for the discerning mind to savour, while not repelling shallow feet dipping as well because there is beauty in just being able to sit at the shore and admire the beauty of the wide ocean for what is visible from the shore. A good poem is like an oracle, not a mirror. It speaks the mind of the poet and goes beyond that to become defamiliarized to the poet and to the reader. Like the oracle, not even the priest knows the fullness of what is coming. You read a good poem and you feel the words, polished respectfully, not overdone such that it becomes mere artifice. You get the sense of an acolyte tenderly allowing his gods to tell him where to put them.

What was the process of writing your book “The Script of Bruises” (Konya Shamsrumi, 2021).” like and how long did it take you to write the book?
It was a mosaic of things that tugged at my being held together by poetry. They were various poems written over the space of like four years. Each poem was an unburdening and a heartfelt question thrown into the chaos.

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?
Dishonest writing. I always have a sense of these things somehow. I can tell when a writer is performing, being hampered by a mask. I always have respect for honest, skilful, inspired and slightly off-kilter writing that makes me pause. I love profoundly human writing that dares the heights, plumbs the lows, and exploits humanity, all without trying too hard. I am skeptical of writing that is scared of committing.

You recently got your Doctoral degree from one of the prestigious universities in Nigeria. What was the experience like for you and what advice will you give to young poets who may be considering quitting writing to focus on their education?
It was an intense experience. Sometimes I wondered what I was doing and felt like the proverbial fellow who swallowed a mortar and could neither sit nor stand. The turning point was when I got to settle down and commit to it. You have to be willing to commit to things. Commit to your writing, commit to other things as well. You may not be able to write that often for stretches of time but when you expand youself, you also expand your writing. I presented myself to my supervisor, the wonderful Professor Dasylva and said I was ready. I bared my mind to him and presented my fears to him. It turned out I had been missing out on so much by trying to do it all alone and not being honest about my struggle. From that time, it took less than a year to be done with writing the thesis. It ended up being an amazing experience that enlarged the boundaries of my mind, boosted my intellectual stamina. I have always wracked up academic prizes from childhood. But PhD was a different ball game because you are trying to juggle family, career, writing, sanity. But once I took it one day at a time, it came to an end faster than I envisioned and has proven to be totally worth it. To young poets who may be considering quitting writing to focus on education, I would say, I wish you would not quit writing because writing is empowering. You can write your safe space, write yourself into mental wholeness. Didn’t Kafka say a non-writing writer is like a monster courting insanity? Or something to that effect. You would need to be patient with yourself if inspiration eludes you because academic writing and creative writing can seem incongruent at first but there is a meeting point. At the point I got more serious, I resolved to allow my creative side merge with the academic side and resolved to write a thesis that would be interesting to read. I would like to believe I succeeded at that. And when I could, wrote poems for myself, to soothe myself, and hopefully, say something that matters to, at least, one other person. You have to be honest, open with yourself in going after your dreams, which include writing.

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 a collection of poetry and I am finally sitting down with characters that have been running around in my head for years. They are finally answering. I have had a female terrified character running around in my head for a while now and she catches the eyes of a man at a window. I have also had the story of a young man building up in my mind and just yesterday, it just came to me clearly, how could I not have known all along that he was the man in the window? So I am just trying to censure myself less and just write out my heart, hoping I have beautiful poetry and stories to offer to a world that has given me so much poetry and so many stories.

Finally, if the world’s last remaining library was burning, and you could only save three books, what books would there be?
The Chronicles of Narnia, Judith Viorst’sNecessary Losses and HG Wells’ Time Machine, perhaps there will be a trick there that will enable me hack time, so that I can create a loop where I go back in time to save more and more and more books until I have saved all the books that matter.

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