Tares Oburum on winning the Sillerman Prize

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AWAAL GATA interviews Tares Oburumu on his winning of this year’s Sillerman Prize for poetry.

How did you feel when it was announced that you were the winner of the Sillerman Prize?

I felt happy, but not in the sense of the ordinary; not that common expression of joy. I bestride, now, two worlds: the droopy and that of fulfillment. Sad, with no feeling of immodesty, for the tenebrific past, yet a little bright for the prospects and the vantage point I have been asked to stand, and from which I look, with certitude, at the future, most especially, of the poets in a world where we are given a dot-size or no chance to survive.

Did you expect it, given the energy you poured into giving life to the collection?

Expectations bore me. So, after piecing the collection together from my diary, I submitted the work and chose to forget. My focus has always been on publishing and not winning. From when I decided to give my life to writing, the odds dictating the pace of how I grow seem to have the better part of me. Winning was something far too close to the unreal. It’s not what I think I wanted, it’s what I think I will never get to know, looking at a field that teems with talents, not only in the diaspora. At some point in my life, I gave in to despair; believing I was one of those that write for the sake of posterity.

It was one of the moments I broke down and cried, literally. I threw my weight behind publishing this collection, and the process wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Sometimes I mentally counted the rejection letters and let the book be. Oftentimes, when I feel very sad, I open it and read. There is the joy that comes in reading my manuscripts in their raw and unpublished states despite the emotional drive towards publishing.

Now, I also think about the joy that comes in sending my works to publishers for them to read. Back in my privacy, I feel satisfied, having a vague sense of authorship; that someone is reading my book in some place far away from where I have, with all the energy expended, put it together; not just to be read.

It is quite starting to write a book and expect nothing, resigned to an unknown fate. If you have written so much, and are yet to find even small size of audience, the need to let fate run the dream becomes more important than anything else. In that state, you run dry of expectations, being suspect as well as the process of moving a manuscript from hand to hand.

Under what spell was the collection penned?

One of the belief systems where I do see myself as a die-hard non-conformist is the belief that something extraordinarily spiritual called ” Muse” in the arts, and ” Spirit” in religion, drives the physical world from a subconscious level. Creativity, even if it has to be so circumscribed, should not be explained away with such terms. The world is physical and it’s sustained by the known. What we do not know exists outside the common human experience and the attempt to give it meaning and identity has imperiled the beauty of living on earth made physical from the very beginning. I write with the belief that what I am putting down comes from the energy I have been able to embody over the years of turning millions of pages of the book, one after another, my own experience, and tradition as T.S Eliot holds on to. The gathering is an integral part of the arts; piecing together a thousand works of art without knowing one is doing so. It’s an experience. Man loves naming things. Muse and spirit are phenomenal but not the means to our sublime experience. Naming gives rise to schism. Dissension breeds asthenia; the art of weakening the self to credit what doesn’t ask for it. It took two years of reading to able to come up with the title of the manuscript. I have asked myself the best way to write about my hometown and the experiences that sustained me in an area submerged in water. How do I come out of the depths of water surrounding me? I read a lot before I write either a short single poem, a long one, or a collection.

How did you start writing poems as a person?

A walk in the evening, through the empty streets, an avenue, a lonely place that was once populated with living things, a sitting before a river, a beach, a time spent in the library. Then I go into my room, open my phone, bring out all the ideas, and images that have been swelling in and out of my head, and put them down, first in their scattered forms. I love seeing my concepts in disarray because I love gathering them in those broken states. Perhaps, I have been a broken man for years then it’s normal for people like me; who have all it takes to break out of the shell contrived by society to truncate the whole process of growing into a man.

The first thing I pick up among the fragments of what looks like a poem is the title. Drafting, much as it is a task, it’s bliss when I finally know what to leave out and what to bring into the poem. Sketches, I do a lot of them; it’s from them I learned the art of substitution. And substitution enables grand editing.

Editing is sweet-sorrow. It is akin to setting up a skeleton with a small number of bones. But most importantly, I leave my poems to themselves for days in their raw states before editing them. After the first edit is done, I keep editing it endlessly till it is made a public poem for readers.

How did you learn the ropes?

I remember Osagie Fervency asking me the same question a long time ago. The answer I gave him, is still the same answer I will give here; by reading. I started reading at a young age, books that are way above my level of understanding; there was a time I was taken over by the English Dictionary. One of my uncles came into my room and forced the dictionary out of my hands. His judgment was directed at my age; I was too young to read books that will weaken my understanding. From that day on, I read the dictionary in hidden places: by the side of a huge cupboard, in the forest, or the classrooms when school was over.

By reading, I opened my distinct doors to a lot of opportunities. Not only opportunities, but people, ideas, leanings, and events. One book at a time, religiously, led me into the world of writers, idealists, and painters. I learn a lot more from painters than I do from writers. Every single word, every single story, every line of painting matters to me. The paintings of Van Gogh do a lot more to my writing than a lot of writers except Derek Walcott.

Sometimes I dwell on a line of poems for months like a hermit in his cave. Memorialization has a solid effect on me, as well as quotations. There are lines of poems I write and rewrite until they become part of my sullied existence.

Who are your role models?

Derek Walcott is not just a role model; he is the beginning and the end of poetry as I see it. There are a long line of influencers: T.S Elliot, Tomas Transtromer, Seamus Heaney, and young Ocean Vough, but no one dares to make me feel beautiful writing poetry as Derek Walcott has done. Although I started with Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, I ended up with Derek Walcott. Walcott’s oeuvre dares my sensibilities as a writer. His sustained nostalgia, his delve into his origin, and his love for the Caribbean traditions inform me of my world and where I come from. Derek instilled in me that niche that defines you in your roots about the worlds different from yours. The tendency to see yourself in the light of your origin, and make beautiful your world about others; this is what Derek does with poetry and I am bound to it.

This affinity with Derek did not just start as a protege and cause celebre relationship, it began as a worshipper and his demi-god. What I find most stunning about Derek’s poetry is its bent toward historical preferences, allowing the spaces that exist within the Caribbean traditions to take absolute control of their beauty. It’s what I find scintillating enough, to earn my admiration and respect. His power to make imagery speak for itself vividly gives me a sense of the otherworldly or the paranormal experience. With Derek, imagery stands concretely on its terms without employing other means as support for what it is. Having read St. Lucia’s finest for more than fifteen years, it becomes imperative that I place myself in his hands and let him direct my poetic journey.

What are your challenges as a poet living in Nigeria?

Twelve years of poetry is akin to twelve years of trauma, twelve years of begging, twelve years for a single story. my story. The Nigerian space stifles dreams more than it stimulates them. Whenever I tell my story, I do see thousands of young writers out there who share the same fate as I had. The dream of every writer is to make meaning of his existence and experience through the written word, which is not a word until it’s published and read.

Five years ago, after putting together a collection of poems, I naively looked for a publisher. There’s the tendency of every publishing firm in Nigeria to look at the young Nigerian writer as antsy, impatience, not having what it takes to publish a book, and not mature enough to handle the challenges that come with the publication of a book. We all know the stories; the single cash-and-carry story told by every writer. We all know about the death of traditional publishing houses. So for the young Nigerian writer, it’s a dream killed long before it started. With a book on my phone, I talked to many publishers who told me that poetry doesn’t sell and they better put their money where the wealth is: prose, than have it wasted on poetry.

Everywhere I turn, the price to get a book published is as high as a million Naira. And where can one get such amounts? At the time I had approached quite a good number with the same response, I stopped begging for money to have it published and resorted to social media which provided that platform where I can dump my poems and take to babbling. Thousands of anonymous poets and writers exist in the Nigerian space, who, frustrated by the system self-publish their works and call it the safest way to author a book. Writers here find Amazon fascinating. It’s almost a tradition that to become an author, one doesn’t need a publishing firm but the comfort of your home; using Amazon. The beauty of most of the books they publish is lost even on them. There’s no promotion, little or no reading, and no market. It’s rather a personal adventure, where you publish and sell your book all by yourself. Quite encouraging and as well sad to know that the system truncates the process rather than elevating it.

How does your oeuvre solve Nigeria’s problem?

Reading is divine. The divinity seems to be lost on Nigerians. Writing for a hungry country that doesn’t read requires a lot more energy than it should have. I have written three downloadable chapbooks of poems, and I believe that only poets read such books, while the larger population eats and goes to bed, dreaming of a luxurious life given on a platter of gold. I can say this of all genres. How do you get a hungry human to read?

People don’t read here, so it’s hard to bring them to see what change is needed to propel society through books to attain the heights necessary for growth. What I can really, or with all comfort say about any book I have written or will write in the future is that it can, of necessity, bring about a change in the way people think, minimally.

Moreso, when people begin to see ideas that were once absolute as obsolete, through reading, things will be in good shape for the advancement of the human course. But this isn’t so with Nigerians.

Even before I started writing, I have this feeling that Nigeria’s problems are far beyond reading a book written by a Nigerian. It goes beyond the socio-economic milieu. It’s something that has to do with the political class as well as political correctness, and not books from a writer whose works will not go beyond the avant-garde.

Where do you want to see yourself as a writer a few years from now?

There’s a movement going on among the best writers of not just Nigeria but of the diaspora. A lot of poets are becoming emigres. Young poets are writing their way out of the country and it’s a dream for most of us; to leave the country through writing and I am not an exception. Writing seems to be a Western call. And no one writing in Nigeria can resist the dream of an MFA.

Quite sad to leave your country but it’s the most reasonable thing to do at the moment in this era. My generation seems to understand that to succeed as a writer, one needs to go to the places where the facilities provided for you to succeed are as good as art itself. I see myself packing my bags soon and tilting my head toward the places where I can live as a writer.

What are you going to work on next?

I wouldn’t want to say much here, but I am working on something not heard before in the history of writing, not only in Africa but the world over. A new way of writing as I did with my poetry chapbook ” someday I will be the shape of my story”.

Poetry should not be limited to the internet, paperbacks, and video clips. The genre should take all the forms of art; music, painting, drama, and prose, all in one. The orchestra fascinates me. And I am working on what will be the most sought kind of poetry the world is yet to see.

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