I AM A MESS
I am a mess
Like a deserted night club:
Roaches and butts in ashtrays,
Broken beer and whisky bottles,
Left–overs of binges, orgies
And sweet misadventures.
Dami Ajayi is one of Nigeria's rising literary stars. His is a multi-faceted craft that has received critical acclaim for everything from his poetry to his music blog. His debut collection of poems, Clinical Blues, is on the shortlist for the coveted ANA Poetry Award. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to provide in-depth answers to a few of our questions.
Rachel: There is a great tradition of romantic poetry in Nigeria. Many of your contemporaries write in this style. Your writing, on the other hand, is edgy, at times dark and always crisp. For example the first stanza of 'I AM A MESS' from your debut collection, Clinical Blues, which I've taken the liberty of opening this interview with.
What/who inspires your poetry, and what place does it fill on the Nigerian scene?
Dami: I draw my poetry from experience, be it lived or observed. The strongest impulse of my writing is to bear witness and, as such, I reserve it for what I feel strongly about. Poetry is, for me, a personal ordeal so I will say I draw my inspiration many times from personal preoccupation. Of course, there is the undying urge to speak for the people, speak for the time, speak into deeply ingrained issues but, many times, I find that impulse secondary and very cautionary. I am first and foremost a poet for myself and perhaps this might be as a result of the readings that most intrigued me. Sylvia Plath. Robert Lowell. Anne Sexton. I started to write poetry seriously in the phase of transition, I was engrossed with my personal experiences and I found, through these poets, the legitimacy of the personal. Some will even go as far as to say that the personal is the new political.
My poetry, I guess, must be important in the Nigerian scene. In a year, the first print run is done. This is not a usual occurrence in poetry even globally, and this is not to say that I have been made rich, but that people are interested in my story, how I meld my poetry of experiences, with hospital and barroom observations, how I try to break free of the existing tradition of what Nigerian poetry is into a mould that is both authentically Nigerian and globally acceptable.
Rachel: Speaking of the Nigerian scene. What's happening in the Nigerian lit scene that the world should get excited about? Besides Chimamanda. Tell us something we don't know, from the fringe.
Dami: Of course, we must all agree that the best Nigerian stories do not reside in Ms Adichie’s inbox. She is at the forefront of the renaissance that Nigerian writing is enjoying, but she is also one in a million voices. You have to understand that Nigeria has this mega-huge population and Nigerians an innate tendency to imitate things, especially successful endeavours.
There is a lot of writing coming from different places, both online and offline. My publishers released about three titles after mine. Olubunmi Familoni’s collection of short stories, Smithereens of Death, is a recommended read. It is masterful work obsessing about death and brilliant sentences. Servio Gbadamosi’s Tributary to Servitude is a more well-behaved collection of poetry compared to mine in the place of existing literary traditions. Parresia just released Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms and Cassava Republic Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday. I guess both are in contention for the idea of the Great Nigerian Novel.
Of course, there is a lot happening on the stage, too. Spoken Word poetry is the new sensation. Efe Paul Azino just released his poetry book, For Broken Men Who Cross Often, with an accompanying CD. Obari Gomba also dropped Thunder Protocol, a sheaf of collected poems. Titilope Sonuga, Obii Ifejika, Wana Udobang are at the forefront of what is going on on the stage. Books by Soonest Nathaniel and D.M Aderigigbe will be released by African Book Poetry Fund next year and we haven’t even started with what is in Ms Adichie’s inbox.
Rachel: You're a doctor, and we all know doctors lead incredibly busy and stressful lives. Yet, you find time to write poetry, short stories and blog about the music scene in Nigeria, and you're the fiction editor at Saraba Magazine. This flies in the face of the excuses so many use not to write. What writing habits have to developed to give yourself the time you need to write?
Dami: I have 24 hours like everybody else and as you say I am uber-busy, but I come from a family of multi-taskers. My mother is a primary school teacher who drives about three hours in total to and fro from home and she is a published author of several practical arithmetic texts for children and also in the process of bagging a PhD.
I don’t really have a healthy or, should I say, consistent writing schedule, but I have the discipline of writing often and the good luck of writing very fast. These days, money is also an incentive; commissions make deadlines sweet.
Rachel: You and the team at Saraba Magazine are at the forefront of the new wave of African publishing – Saraba came before Short Story Day Africa, before Jalada etc. Saraba has been publishing African writing on our own terms since 2009. How important is it that African writers and publishers wrest control of our industry from the traditional large publishing houses in the West?
Dami: I will say that we are not wrestling for our industry, but for our stories. On account of the power the traditional large western publishing industries have they have been able to prescribe a certain dominant aesthetic for us and many times, we unconsciously, write in this prescribed fashion.
That we are nurturing a home-grown response to this is sort of like saying, Fuck You, we know our stories and we can tell them as we like; it is beginning to yield fine results. People are writing on the continent and travelling around it carrying their works to newer audiences on their own terms. In every country that nurtures its literature, there are one or two identifiable platforms where things are going on and what looks like just humble beginnings is bringing forth big fruits.
Rachel: Your debut collection, Clinical Blues, has been nominated for two prestigious poetry prizes in the past, and is now on the shortlist for the ANA Poetry Prize. There is a feeling amongst some people that literary prizes impact negatively on writers and the industry.
How important are literary awards to you as a writer? What impact do you think they have on your career?
Dami: Literary awards are important in the process of canonization. They also play a prescriptive and gate-keeping role; they often align with the zeitgeist and many times with the politics of their judges. Literary awards for new comers can boost confidence and awards and generally help boost book sales. I like both. I also believe that the process of giving the prize must indulge as many community participants as possible. The book is celebrated and, to a lesser extent, the author. That there is a shortlist, readings and possibly tours and engagement of the work that might even birth adaptations.
All this process, I must say, is rigorous and emotionally tiring, especially for the writer. That is an impact albeit physical. On the career aspect, some awards have a note of finality to them. Say the Nobel for instance. It’s like saying, Attaboy, now go die or rest at least.
I see prizes as some form of literary lottery because the process simulates a standardised form of lottery to me. So I don’t take it much to heart; in fact being on a shortlist is many times okay for me.
On Dami's Bedside Table
Marlon James’ Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Clifton Gachagua’s Madman at Kilifi which I am reviewing for Wawa Review of Books.
Fela: Kalakuta Notes by John Collins.
Dami Ajayi is a Nigerian poet, short story writer, music reviewer, publisher and medical doctor. His book of poems, Daybreak and Clinical Blues, have been well-received and showered with awards and accolades hailing him as “one of the new voices in African poetry.” His fiction has appeared online as well as in print in several anthologies including, Gambit: Newer African Writing and Songhai 12: New Nigerian Voices. His music reviews, book reviews and journalism have appeared in the Guardian UK, Wawa Review of Books, OlisaTV, NaijCom and elsewhere. When he is not studying to become a psychiatrist, he is editing fiction for Saraba Magazine, listening to contemporary Nigerian music or writing esoteric tweets. He is currently working on three projects, another collection of poems tentatively called The World According to Affection, a short story collection and a book on contemporary Nigerian music.