Iquo DianaAbasi is easily the Amazon of the poetic craft. Her new work Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten has a certain uniqueness about it from which she earlier extrpolated a poetry-music album titled Beyond the Staccato. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, DianaAbasi lends urgency to Nigeria’s socio-political situation and urges immediate action
Congratulations on making the longlist. Of course, this is not your first time. But how does it make you feel?
THANK you. You are right, this is not my first time on the list, but it still feels good to be here. In many ways it is a big validation of my efforts — to be among the few who were chosen from such a large pool; I feel honoured, and validated.
What is the thematic preoccupation of your collection?
My collection, Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten, touches a lot on existential and political issues as they affect the everyday Nigerian. It also looks at love in the times we live in, coloured as it is by the staccato of violence, insecurity, hunger and disenchantment.
Your political sensitivity is at an all time high. How much of that spilled over into your poetry in this collection?
It is near impossible to write poetry in these times without my political sensitivity spilling into the poems. So, yes, this collection is quite political.
Do you think Nigerian literature is capturing enough of the seeming ahistorical, nihistiic times we live in? Is Nigerian literature responding enough to the politics?
It is the nature of literature to mirror, immortalise and attempt to shape and shake the consciousness of the times, and, in my opinion, the poetry being written by Nigerians today fulfils this function quite well. Whether it’s the published poetry found on The Nigeria Prize for Literature longlist or the spoken word poetry performed in venues and on stages across the country, Nigerian poets are responding to the politics in Nigeria.
Over 250 poets entered for the prize in a country where reading is challenged and universities are shut for over five months. This seems unusual. Who are you as a poet then writing for?
It is a real shame that our tertiary institutions were shut down for over five months. What’s worse is the apparent nonchalant disposition of those in power. The strike would not last forever though, and I believe even in the midst of the strike, poetry can still be read. I write not only for academia, but for the everyday Nigerian who can see his or her reality mirrored in my words. The ones who will read the poems and dare to believe that they too can take a stance, even if only with their choice at the election polls. Those who will come away from the poems angry enough to change themselves and hungry enough to fight for a better future, whether it is in politics, love, or in the way they open up and empathise with the plight of others.
What possibly explains the boom poetry is experiencing even when the political and economic spheres are falling apart? What gives writers like you motivation to still write?
I cannot speak for other poets, but I know that what gives me motivation to still write – particularly poetry, is the fact that poetry is the channel to air my pain and joys and displeasure and confusion.
It is the way I attempt to make sense of what’s going on around me. And because I have come to see that my poetry lends a voice to many who would otherwise be muffled, I cannot but keep writing and speaking these realities through my poems.
You have travelled this lane before as a longlisted writer. What are your expectations this time around?
I have no expectations. I am happy to have made the longlist, and I am honoured to be in such brilliant and experienced company. I will not allow myself the torture of any expectations lest I come undone (pun intended) under the weight of disappointment.
And then you’re the only female writer among 10 men. Where are the other female writers? Do you feel intimidated? What are your expectations?
Where are the other female poets? I would like to know the answer to this question myself! Maybe we didn’t publish enough, maybe this, maybe that… whatever the case, it would have felt better to have more female representation on the longlist. I can only wish my work represents us well.
Some poets on the longlist are familiar names to you on this prize quest. Is this a good space to do literary combat again?
Yes, the longlist and the events around it provide a good platform to engage in literary combat with my colleagues and friends once again. The combat is of course a fruitful exchange of ideas and appreciation of each other’s sensibilities.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature has come of age. What do you say for its longevity so far in lifting the country’s literature?
The Nigeria Prize for Literature has done well in terms of longevity. 18 years of sustained commitment is commendable. My humble opinion is that it would be more memorable if the run up to the prize could involve country-wide engagement with the authors and their books. This could take different forms – regional readings, more virtual engagements, purchase of the books for university libraries where readings with the authors could hold, etc.
Still, The Nigeria Prize for Literature must be applauded for doing this prize for this long.
You recently launched a music-poetry album. At what points do the two works – Beyond the Staccato and Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten intersect and diverge?
Where the book has over 70 poems, the album Beyond the Staccato has 14 tracks – 12 poems and two interludes. Eleven of these tracks can be found in the collection Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten. The album is 90% political, touching on the politics of herders, of extremist opposition groups, of oil and the despoliation of the Niger Delta, the politics of bad governance, #EndSARS, election fever. Suffice to say that both works have more points of intersection than divergence. They both speak to the times we are in; one with poetry set to sonorous, arresting music, the other in undaunted verses on paper, urging you to wake up!
* Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten is DianaAbasi’s poetry collection in the race for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022