I have interacted with Dami Ajayi more than any other writer in this series; easily he was the choice for the final conversation. I have lived with Dami, shared books with him, written about him, dreamt with him, fought literary wars with him; together we have co-founded a literary magazine, organized workshops, readings, etc etc. He's kin, as well as colleague. So readers will notice how we easily lapsed into ourselves in the following conversation, referring to subjects and experiences that is peculiar to our shared moments. Even more when we go back and forth about my new novel.
Knowing Dami, I am certain we would go through this conversation again and again in person, referring to how articulate we sounded, how brilliant, and how cogent. In concluding this project, I believe no other conversation would have been better suited than this, no other writer than Dami, and no other sensibilities than those shared within.
Although Dami has received acclaim more as a poet than as a writer of fiction, I do not doubt that his fiction will become a tour de force when he is eventually published. I daresay he reads more fiction than poetry; the right moment for fiction often comes as a revelation. His time will come. His time is here.
Damilola Ajayi, born in 1986, graduated as a medical doctor from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and is co-publisher of Saraba Magazine. His poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Saraba, African Writing, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, AfricanWriter, Pala Pala Magazine, Story Time, Sentinel Nigeria, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Ilesha, Nigeria.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Let’s begin at a point of intersection—between wisdom and delight. It was no other than W.S. Merwin who quoted the 16th century poet Philip Sidney: “Poetry begins in delight and ends with wisdom.” Merwin was of the opinion that, “… people are happy enough to talk about how it ends in wisdom, whatever that may mean, but they don’t dwell enough, I think, on the delight.” Do you think this is an important distinction? How do you respond, first as a poet, and then as a budding writer of fiction?
DAMI AJAYI: Indeed Philip Sidney’s profound quote is a good place to start. It lends itself to many turns and gives tons of meaning and complexities. Delight is an emotion most poets encounter. I have, in my rather short stint with poetry.
There is that giddy way one feels when a phrase begins to pirouette in one’s mind, the opening verse of a new poem or a prelude that would lead to one. Wisdom is another emotion I often identify with denouements; it is the grief that occasions the end of a poem, the resolution that follows the justification of a poem, or an attempt at one.
Of course, there is that erroneous and popular belief that poetry and/or literature must give itself to a definite message, that it must speak for a moral, that it must be didactic in its thematic leanings. I suppose one can christen this attribute African, in that our literature shares a firm kinship with folklore, but this is debatable. It is an exorbitant demand that our communal characterization of literature makes in the declaration of its reach.
What really strikes me about delight and wisdom in poetry is that it can foretell the course of a poetic career.
Again, to approach the matter differently, the Nigerian poet Remi Raji once said that the poet is the eternal child in everyone. But maturity is a virtue time bestows on poetry; poets grow in the mining of their muse. For instance, take a look at the early stance of poets such as Wisława Szymborska and Miroslav Holub—they embraced communism at first and later gave that up. One can see the wisdom time afforded them, the gift of discernment. So indeed, the life of a poet or poem can begin with delight and culminate in wisdom. I suppose you might have something to say to this, especially with your wealth of interaction with fiction.
EI: For me both qualities are mutually exclusive, even inclusive. By which I mean wisdom is a necessary feature of delight, and vice versa. It's akin to reading the prose of Michael Ondaatje or someone like Susan Vreeland. Perhaps it's in the use of language, the infinite possibilities of word-use, and then again it could be the fact that fiction is a necessity, and given that delight cannot suffice as its singular quality. G. K. Chesterton says literature is luxury and fiction is necessity.
So, why did you write your first work of fiction? I ask this because you write such touching poetry—so delightful, true, so cogent. Are you equally drawn to fiction and poetry?
DA: My first work of fiction is a published short story called “The Love Below,” which was an attempt at examining illegal abortion, deploying the point of view of the victim’s ghost, recounting her plight, and following the misery of her accomplice and lover. I could have written a poem instead, something like Lola Shoneyin’s poem “For Kittan,” which chronicles a lady’s abortion experience. The poem was successful in the depiction, the vividness, and the clarity of the gush of emotions.
Anyway, I felt more comfortable with the milieu and mileage of fiction. The complexities of the emotions and circumstances, I felt, deserved the clarity and poise of copious sentences. The hawser of poetry was too taut for what I conceived as an angling foray that required a slack line, hence my choice. I am drawn to the possibilities of fiction, and I consider myself a student of fiction because when it is successful, it gleams. But the practice of fiction is excruciating and often exhausting, and it requires a discipline that is much more than I can afford because of my day job. Perhaps this is why I often ease into poetry.
EI: Do you remember any event as a child that you have always wanted to capture in words? Is this the way with your writing—an attempt to capture, whether or not you succeed, a feeling, a moment, an image?
DA: Oh yes, there are many moments. Many of the stories are unpublished. I have published a few in an essay called “The Economy of Loss,” a tale of how I watched my parents lose their loved ones. I was at that time engrossed by grief and how people dealt with it.
I believe that writers are constantly obsessed with X-raying—or Xeroxing, if you wish—images, situations, encounters. Often we do this subliminally, by burdening ourselves with the plight of our characters. Like the Christian assessment of forthright actions, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), writers often ask themselves, “What would I do if I were my character?” A thorough and unflinching attempt to answer this is perhaps essential to writing meaningful fiction that will pass the litmus test of reality.
EI: A mutual friend of ours remarked on how in a work the language must exist not just as a vehicle, but as a living being. Does this conform with your view on language and word use?
DA: I often attempt a delightful and thorough depiction of an account, be it fictitious or otherwise. I insist on glorifying an idea or engendering a moment that is as rapturous as words will allow. I am also obsessed with the voice, which must resonate beyond the boundaries and reaches truth and originality.
Language is what we writers subsist on. Language is integral to the concoction of make-believe. Language must become a character in a writer’s work. It must pierce the reader’s experience—poke at and jar the reader’s consciousness. In essence, it must draw the reader into the substance of the piece. I believe in what Borges once said, “He who reads my work, creates them.” The writer-reader relationship is not give, give, and give; the reader should not slouch and take and take and take. It must be a collaborative association, an amalgam if you wish. But for one to gain a reader’s trust, one’s work must thrust at the reader.
Apt word use goes without saying. The writer must carefully choose his words to be clear, crisp, concise, meaningful, and unambiguous. Anything less is fraudulent.
EI: How important to you are the poems you wrote as a medical student?
DA: These poems were very important to me as a fledgling poet. You see, my foray into poetry as a mode of expression coincided with my clinical experience in the Teaching Hospital. My clinical experience as a student was a mixture of thrills and sadness; it was rather a glut of emotions. We can simply say we won some and lost many others—to cancer, to infectious diseases, to trauma. That’s the result of failed governance and the tendency of humans to explore danger, which can either be youthful or irresponsible or both. While all these were ongoing, I was also growing in my poetics. And I was just commending my experiences to verse, which is not particularly new to doctors and practitioners of medicine; I have a kinship with the likes of Miroslav Holub and William Carlos Williams. What I did was just to perpetuate a tradition, the obsession of science with humanity.
EI:I haven’t seen a collection of poetry from a mainstream publisher in the last decade, except perhaps collections from older Nigerian poets like J. P. Clark or Soyinka. Is this an indication of a greater malaise?
DA: If one wants to be political and go into recent history, poetry has suffered a great deal since the days of the older poets you mentioned. I do not know if you recall the 2009 Nigerian Prize for Literature, where nine poets were shortlisted and a winner did not emerge. The judges argued that their poems were substandard and their books were badly done, and as such, undeserving of such prestige. The money was supposedly given to a phony academy that did not achieve anything tangible with it—at least I am yet to be convinced they did. That is poetry being trampled on the local scene.
And what should one expect from the international scene? The poets of yore were published traditionally in the African Writer Series and their books enjoyed better global coverage than what newer poets enjoy today. Who publishes literature locally these days? A handful of daring publishing houses. How many titles do they churn out? How many of these titles are poetry collections or anthologies?
Poets who are restless about being heard often, if not always, resort to dipping into their own pockets to self-publish, and this is not without its compromises or shortcomings. In fact, I know that the cost—both monetary and kinetic—of self-publishing is probably the same amount of energy needed to produce another manuscript. These are the plagues that befall poets today.
There is the part the Internet and social media play, which is biphasic and not always exhaustive or beneficial. I suppose as a writer who honed his craft on the Internet, you might have one or two things to say to that.
EI: I am very wary of feedback on the Internet, as I've never imagined myself as a social media celebrity. So I really don't take seriously acclaim on social media. Yet, I figure there's a distinction when we refer to the Internet broadly, when we refer to blogs, web journals, etc. Most of my writing has been published on such platforms, and I know the intricacy that goes into writing, editing, publishing.
But I'd like to take you up on that word, kinetic. In my mind it represents a sort of diffusing of energy; I have always held the view that self-publishing leaves you fatigued. But I could argue for the poets and how they feel their work demands cogent attention. How do we argue against kinesis and yet support cogency?
DA: I totally agree that self-publishing is an occupation that can exhaust a writer or make him into a poor one. But again, there is urgency in the need to be heard, which if unattended can starve one’s creativity. And there is the miscellaneous risk of not being a genuine voice in the first place or perhaps a voice that has not grown into its own. Then there is kinesis, the writerly stimulus for a reader’s attention, and cogency, its merit. I say there must be a balance, as both phenomena are mutually inclusive. A cogent writer must be heard, should be heard, and will.
EI: Would you say the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, which aims to become Africa’s biggest poetry prize, will resurrect interest in publishing poetry?
DA: Well, one can’t disregard the role poetry prizes or any prize at all play in literature. They often serve as a communal validation of writers; they often go a long way to instill confidence in their beneficiaries. The best quote I can refer to is that of Bernardine Evaristo, who chaired the 2012 Caine Prize. She said the Caine Prize chooses to pour fairy dust on an African writer annually. That is exactly what a big African poetry prize will do. It will make one big name and cheer a myriad of other poets into the possibilities of their craft, if practiced conscientiously and with a touch of genius.
I doubt if it will resurrect interest in poetry.
EI: What will, then?
DA: I know poetry will resurrect itself. I am sure that poetry and its recital will find a way to work itself back into being fashionable and popular. Social media might play a role in that; we can boast of Facebook poets and poetic tweets. Spoken word poetry, a hybrid, is also playing a role. I think I will just stick to the possibilities of poetry as its own messiah.
EI: As co-founders and publishers of Saraba Magazine, how do you think we can cross the border into immortality? I know this sounds very metaphysical, but lately I have given thought to cogency as the need to be judged by posterity. How do you think Saraba can speak to, about, for, this generation? And is it in an attempt to do this that sustainable literature lies?
DA: I am strongly of the opinion that Saraba is doing all these that you ask for and more. Saraba, a modest and selfish idea, which we nursed for less than four years, has morphed into an international literary phenomenon publishing as much emerged as emerging voices, as many provincial artists as international artists, collaborating in translation projects and still seeking new ways of being relevant in the literary sphere.
The journalist Akin Ajayi already described the Internet as the home of contemporary African writing. It’s unarguable that the internet bypasses the bureaucratic chain of traditional publishing, or quickens it at the very least. Saraba is one of the homes of contemporary African writing and I remember that our mission statement is to create unending voices. Ours is to do just that. Immortality often takes care of itself. Besides, who will be here to judge?
EI: One of the arguments we have made together is that a new form of literariness is rising. How is this happening with our generation of Nigerian writers?
DA: I haven’t categorized our generation, if it can be so-called, as exceptionally different from the previous. What is a generation anyway? Three decades. When do we start counting our generation? Thirty years forward or thirty years backward? I am more intrigued to hear your thoughts.
EI: I am not really interested in how we might “number” our generation. I am just keen on our shared nuances—such as social media, social technology, collaborative energy. Defined in this manner, we are free from the complexities of age or educational qualification and all the blah blah blah that easily stereotypes.
Specifically, I’d remind you of the International Chain Story Challenge that we both took part in, which we won and earned “international bragging rights.” Was that competition an indication of the open-ended possibilities of storytelling, of collaborative energy?
DA: Yes. Yes. It was indeed a successful experiment, which I am very proud of. I risked a day at work in the hospital for it, and I was most delighted that our team—comprised of the youngest and most unevenly matched writers—won. Biyi Olusolape described our victory as a tyranny of heavily skewed social media demographics, but I saw it, rather, as a validation of collaboration as an important venture for the near future. I am in awe of the possibilities that could result from being handed the baton of someone’s fiction and wary of how much trust and literary cooperation is needed to build characters. It was a giddy experience and I am also sure you have something to say, especially as you set the ball rolling by imbuing our characters with such emotional landscapes.
EI: I like the idea of the collaboration, even over the story. I wasn't really bothered about winning, so maybe the story didn't particularly interest me. The fact that six writers could tell one short story, tell it well, in about six hours, though they were in separate corners of the world, was simply the triumph for me.
Ah, there are so many points we could consider. Let’s consider how much you have been influenced by Eliot (recall that we jointly wrote love poems, copiously referencing him). Now, Eliot acknowledges that Pound “was a marvelous critic because he didn’t try to turn you into an imitation of himself. He tried to see what you were trying to do.” Has there been anyone with this form of influence in your writing life?
DA: That was another collaborative effort which I enjoyed being part of—writing a corpus of poems that seemed to lure personas and concerns of the 20th century to our time. These poems, autobiographical in their lilt and exuberant in their mode and form, still pierce my consciousness. I must ask how you felt writing that final poem. I recall your lines “Your Eliot-ness/Too much affection/Is cure for caries.” I am taken aback by the clarity of this pseudo-maxim and the complexities of its meanings.
To mention people that played the Pound in my career will be to recur the recent past. Between the years 2008-2011, the likes of Biyi Olusolape, you, and Ayo Famurewa were at Ile-Ife and we exchanged ideas and works-in-progress. When I remember, I am filled with nostalgia; I wish I could buy a time machine and visit this period repeatedly.
EI: Also in that regard, there’s an obvious attempt in your poetry to name-drop. Take for instance, the sections in the poem “The Suicide Notes.” What do you suppose you can achieve with name-dropping?
DA: I refer to this period of my poetry as my fleeting obsession for the mentally morbid. I was rotating through psychiatry, a field of medicine that both confounds and interests me. I was very much interested in suicide, especially among writers. The likes of Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Anne Sexton preoccupied my reading list. “The Suicide Notes” was an attempt to condense my summations into poetry and I deplored the metaphysics of a séance, a fictitious letter, and a modern elegy to examine the complexities of mental disequilibrium, the nerve- and life-wracking tendencies of literature and sweet escapism of suicide. A few names dropped inevitably in my attempt, perhaps intentionally as postcards and clues for readers. I would rather deploy a name than launch into an arcane regurgitated biography. I often strongly adhere to the triad of successful poetry: beauty and brevity and precision.
EI: I recall how I celebrated your story “You and I Will Leave at Once,” which tried to chronicle a family’s ordeal in the Ife-Modakeke crisis. You wrote about an event that could easily be dismissed as inconsequential in the huge montage that is the history of Nigeria. What moved you to work on what many would consider a minor historical event?
DA: Well I suppose a personal fascination with a “small-scale” genocide that has been recurrent, ancestral, and varying in its magnitude might be a good place to start. I have been visiting Ife since childhood, and I also saw a bit of the havoc the war wreaked on society’s harmony and the loss of property, without trivializing the death toll. It is unfortunate indeed that this war passed into insignificance in the literary landscape, just like the psychology of middle-class Nigerians during the military dictatorship would have if you hadn’t written your novel Farad.
EI: Do you suppose we are tasked to speak to collective memory? Mine it? Re-present it?
DA: Yes, yes. We certainly are compelled by the duty of literature and mimesis.
EI: I believe you speak to a universal dilemma in your short story “Henry’s Hypothesis,” which is captured in the question your character poses, “How could I drown again in rivers of formulas, lakes of measurement, and depths of objectivity?” Do you agree?
DA: Yes I do. Characters can and should often undertake grand conflicts, such as the dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity and the tenacious stubbornness toward achieving objectivity.
EI: What was your first reaction when you were shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize?
DA: I was elated. Often, in secret, I doubt my abilities as a poet and the significance of Clinical Blues, as I often refer to it as juvenilia. This was some form of validation for me as a poet and as a writer. To be the only African writer shortlisted for an international poetry prize is a significant feat. Shortly after, Clinical Blues was shortlisted for the Erbacce Poetry Prize. This further seals the importance of the collection as a corpus and my major literary preoccupation is to give the collection a life of its own in print.
EI: How have you coped with trying to fulfill the demands of your medical practice? You have been a medical doctor for about a year now, and I know how difficult it has been even for you to maintain personal relationships. Have you considered the need to sacrifice one career for the other? Is there any form of pressure to sacrifice? Or not?
DA: Medicine and Literature are two demanding preoccupations that demand to be practiced conscientiously and whole-heartedly. This past year has been hectic. One often has to give for the other, and I think I am in the best position to understand Anton Chekhov’s analogy of medicine being a wife and literature a kept woman.
Often, I have considered sacrificing one for the other. As much as I love to write, I also enjoy saving lives. And medicine is what pays the rent and puts food on the table for now. So I must say that literature will continue to come between my matrimony with medicine, or better yet, be thrown into the polygamous mix.
EI: Was Clinical Blues an attempt to reflect the science of being human?
DA: I once wrote about how in his collection Satellites, the Gambian poet Lenrie Peters showed me how poetry could measure humanity in the realms of medicine. So, yes I agree, Clinical Blues is an attempt to reflect the humanity in science.
EI: Which globally-acclaimed writers have influenced your life the most? Let me add that when I speak of life, I am interested in books and writers that have an affect not merely on your writing, but on your nuances, perceptions, outlook, gaze.
DA: I will always go with books rather than authors, although there are a handful of authors whose careers have been resplendent with enviable literary accomplishments—the likes of John Irving, Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, and John Updike.
I really can’t lay a finger on what I owe to the authors who are my influences. I suppose it is a gift from God, or that I might need a truckload of critics to unpack them. I am drawn to the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, Pansies is an all-time favorite; the short stories of Borges, E.L. Doctorow, Steven Millhauser; the magic in the prose of Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game; the breathtaking oratory tendencies of Maya Angelou’s poems; the distinctive identity of the poetry of Lenrie Peters, Kwesi Brew, Gabriel Okara, etc. My influences are numerous. Can I add to that the exuberant innovations of Lil Wayne, Terry G, and Beau Sia as my influences?
EI: If you were to pay some form of homage to Nigerian writers of our generation, not simply for their prolificacy, but for their outlook, which writers would you name? And why? Do you agree this is important for the simple reason that recognition carries with it and imposes a baggage of temerity?
DA: Rotimi Babatunde’s devotion to craft is just delightful. Niran Okewole’s poetics make me giddy. Ifesinachi Okoli-Okpagu’s seamless fiction measures up to reality appreciably. Sylva Ifedigbo Nze’s essays remind me of conscientiousness often expected of valuable writers. Your meta-psychological tendencies in fiction pummel my soft spots.
I am proud to be associated with our collective corpus as a worthy tract of our movement and, most of all, our individual works, which speak at length about our devotion to craft and our conscientiousness to our time.
August 7, 2012
The Call Room & Romasinder Blues, Ann Arbor Review
The Suicide Notes, Maple Tree Literary Suplement
The Lackadaisical Blues I: Promenade, Sentinel Nigeria
Clinical Blues, African Writing
Pot of Gold, Sentinel Nigeria
Henry's Hypothesis, Palapala Magazine
Confetti, New York, Nigerians Talk
Note: Dami Ajayi's fiction, poetry and non-fiction has been published several times in Saraba Magazine, from the first Issue until the tenth issue. You can download past issues of the magazine here.
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
Dami Ajayi, Gambit, Nigeria, Poetry