Poets Talk: 5 Questions with Musa Idris Okpanachi

Musa Idris Okpanachi

Konya Shamsrumi: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Is it a lot of hard work or easy?

Musa Idris Okpanachi: The process of poetic creation is opaque in some respects. You know the acre and have a vague architectural format but you do not know the finesse of the aesthetic finishing. What is concrete in your mind is the subject matter, and the final schemata of the basic idea can only be grasped when the poem is finished, if it can be finished anyway? The task is how to shroud the poem in the subjective linens of subliminal finale. This wall, covering the map of creative territory, made me ask Zaynab Alkali one day to compare the travail of child birth with literary creation. She said childbirth is a natural process while literary creation is not. That is why I said that I publish my poems out of frustration in an interview with Abubakar Ibrahim Adam. I know the poem I publish is inadequate and needs improvement but I lack the capacity to improve on it, to rise beyond a mere statement to artistry.

Anybody can make a statement or express an idea in banal, obvious ways, but adding art to it, or to make an expression metaphoric and to achieve double entendre, is poetry. The pain lies in the drudgery of writing, cancelling, contorting, twisting, editing and cavorting with words on pages till the words befriend your tired, exhausted, burned out body and soul, then, you hate and loathe the compound, the house, the room and the bed on which you and you feel nothing can heal your extreme exhaustion. Because you have tasked your brain searching for words your mind has hidden from you, or the ones you have never learnt, or a word that has atrophied. To me, very few poems are finally written. So, one works hard to make them parallel the art it should be. Neither explicit nor opaque. All said, poetry is the easiest way I can record my thought.                        

Konya Shamsrumi: Please describe your sense of identity in this or any possible world in imagery or metaphor?

Musa Idris Okpanachi: Identity is the anchor to which all the coordinates of one’s intimate life graph, socially and culturally, hang. It is the sum total of how and why one perceives, defines, thinks about oneself as he relates to both visible and invisible communities that help to situate him as a human being in remote and immediate environments, especially in terms of spiritual, ancestral and those one relates to in comity of the poetic covens who share one’s poetic vision as critics and readers. For me, many things help define me as a poet. I feel I am an ever-fresh flower with dew drops, on whose petals the best love lyrics are written that cannot be bettered. I am a silent being whose limbs spread out to the limits and the extremities of the horizon, beckoning to new, nice and amazing people out there to become siblings while keeping my soulmates carefully like eggs or porcelain or overinflated colour balloons. I am ubiquitous trying to imitate the omnipresence in trying to be every place, past, present and distant future beyond the boundaries of geography and history with my imagination, feelings and an acute awareness that seasons my verses. In my life, I have been defined by the sense of both telekinesis and memories of odour, and the déjà vu of smell has followed me as a reminder and a sense of history and being. The wonderful soulmates and the teachers I come across in life. Those who taught me directly and those who never knew they were my teachers. My mind, my DNA, the flora and fauna in which I grow up, the animals I encounter, both the wild ones and pets and many more, add up to make me what I am.               

Konya Shamsrumi: If any of your poems could literarily save a person’s life, which poem would it be and can you describe the person whose life you think it would have saved?

Musa Idris Okpanachi: A poem is like a trap or an idea into which people’s experience or the schemata of their minds could just fit in. The point is not the hypothetical redeeming power of poetry but it is a practical saving grace for the thoroughly downtrodden. In my early days of writing, I gave some of my newly-written poems to a few students to read, to observe their reaction. One such poem is Silence of Time which later appeared in (my collection) The Eaters of the Living.

First, I gave it to a female student who is herself now a lecturer. After reading it, she bursts into tears, saying the poem seemed to have defined her dilemma at that point. It was a sort of purgation. Then she started to explain her predicament to me. The situation she narrated was very pathetic and after reading the poem, she said “This is my life, this is what I am undergoing now”, and she sounded happy. Is any poem imbued with a kind of Coast Guard saving power? In reality, no, but psychologically yes. When a student refugee from South Africa in the 90s read the same poem, he remained silent and advised me not to give anyone else that poem to read as it might provoke suicide.

The poem seems to have antipodal effects. Still I think it could save victims of institutional oppression as well as those in clutches of individuals. Silence of Time runs as follows:

 Shriek!
Bones crushed
Under the menace of boots
I heard a strangled
Voice of liberty
Stifled in freedom           
            Curfew, emergency
            Riots on the streets
            Blood flooded
            Dying was more precious:
            We sacrificed ourselves
            But the gods
            Would not take
            The offering
            We offered our necks
            But the butcher
            Sheathed his knife
        We lay on the eternal road
        But the traffic stopped
        We dived into the ocean
        And found it shallow
        We took poison
        It became inert
        We wanted to hang
        There was no rope
        Until the General
        Put our backs to

It may save those who seem driven against the wall and seem to entertain the pessimistic finale of their lives, not by providing a solution but by helping them come to psychological terms with their predicament, similar to the unfruitful and desperate remedies of the personae of the poem seeking death and not finding it in the material depression of the ideas of death but ironically in a human agent that is more brutal than death itself.   

Musa Idris Okpanachi

Konya Shamsrumi: What does Africa mean to you, as potential or reality?

Musa Idris Okpanachi: Africa is both potential and reality. Africa is a continent of ironies and it is the mother of continents, the cradle of civilization, the home of the gods, the abode of magic, the theatre of wars and the table talk of peace and fragmentations. Africa is where the first man breathed the first fresh air of vegetation, lakes, rivers and the dust of the Sahara with its meadows, glades, horizon of walls of rainbows dazzling the ancestor of mankind. Africa the land of scraggy mountains, hill homes of termites, pillars of the earth with lush rolling green fields. Africa is the land of the harvest of stars and the marvel of perfumed moon by whose luminous beam love letters are read at night by streams and on beaches. I love the chirping insects in Africa that add to the incantations and fertility of the continent. I love the beauty of her darkness, her transparent blackness, the maze of her jungle and her emerald sand is the rosary of the gods. I love the sermons of her rivers, the enigma of her spaces, the democracy of her silence and the chaos of her peace. I love the natural rhythms of Africa where each step on her soil is a century, each note the music of the soul, each day a vast chapter in history, where the body of water is a holy text and each dawn a new constitution. I love the richness of her abject poverty which you cannot find elsewhere, the fat aridity of her fertile earth, the mystery of her hunger and the statuesque state of her leaders. I love the eternal myth of her smiles, the music of her secret laughter, the fragile permanence of her arts and her magnificently tattooed body. I love African women, members of my extended family who carry babies, firewood and pots of water at the same time and who are ‘Europeans’ in high rise offices. Above all, I love Africa for the humanity of her borders across which kinsmen feet tread the lines of the map. These are the realities and potentials that make Africa an enigma to me. Sans negritude.                 

Konya Shamsrumi: Could you share with us one poem you’ve been most impressed or fascinated by? Tell us why and share favorite lines from it.

Musa Idris Okpanachi: My most fascinating poem to date is Becoming Stranger published on page 114 of From the Margins of Paradise (2012). What intrigues and surprises me about the poem is its subtleties. It is a poem, I think, I cannot repeat or reproduce. I admire the cadence of the revealed lines and how words fall in place to express my soul in the theme:

 Only the code of anguish
In the scar of the escalating pain
Only a strange name
Carried by a distant echo
The message of fading letters
And tears slowly writing anew
Under the skin of a caryatid
 
I like the poignant finale coded in the following lines:
 
The faint footprints
On the forgotten routes
A thousand rhythms of sighs
The last glance over the shoulder
As we went our ways.

Musa Idris Okpanachi is a Professor of English Language at the Department of English, Federal University Dutse, Jigawa State, Nigeria. His poems have appeared in Presence Africaine (Paris), Kunapipi (Denmark), Iraq Literary Review and Pyramids. Silence of Time was broadcast over the BBC, London in 1995. His first poetry collection The Eaters of the Living won the 2008 Association of Nigerian Authors/Cadbury Prize for poetry and was shortlisted for the 2009 Nigeria NLNG Literature Prize. His second collection of poems From the Margins of Paradise was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2013. The third poetry collection Music of the Dead has been extensively reviewed, one of which appeared in Africa Literature Today(Focus on Egypt).

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