But what’s contended in contemporary African poetry is of a different kind, the poets writing now are more inward, stepping off on a private foot to demand how they’ll be received, both at home against conventional norms, and globally against what’s stereotypically African.

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

Ebenezer Agu: It is definitely a lot of hard work; when it comes easy, that is only a blessing, which is very occasional. The things I write about are in themselves not easy, which is not to say that there are subject-matters that are easy to write. But my writing is concerned with condensed experiences I’ve had, all of which are properties of my private and familial past. Therefore, I’m always trying to go back in time, to memory, in rethinking aspects of my (religious and deeply spiritual) upbringing, preconceived ordinances that shaped my understanding of life and, more importantly, several other aspects of existence.

Other times, I write about loss, of the deathly kind, because in my short life so far I carry an index of several young dead names. Or of love, romantic or the intimate friendship kind, of the couple of relationships I’ve been into and how they have left various impressions on me. But whatever the subject matter is, it answers to an existential reflection.  

The implication of this mode of
living as a poet is that whatever I write has to pass through interconnected
thoughts. Therefore, I’m always faced with the task of pulling them apart, like
one would do trying to straighten out tangled hair.  I cannot progress to the technical aspect of
writing a poem if I’d not first dealt with the basics of not just understanding
the thought I have in general, but which features of it I’ll use immediately
and which I’ll keep for later. Most times, when I’ve failed in pulling off the
composite image of a poem, it is because I had not well assessed the raw
thought behind it.

After the thought process comes the
technicalities, the craft. Here I have to determine what form of language will
work best, which images and metaphors are best suited for the individual
aspects of the thought that will enter the poem. Of course, other properties of
craft necessary to the poem have to be considered, but principally my poetry
relies on language, imagery, and metaphor.

Now, having to manage each of these
individual processes, that has never been easy for me.

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

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Ebenezer Agu: Because I’m thinking a lot about my individual existence and how my life is driven by personal choices and will, the image I often have of myself is an existential equation trying to solve itself. That equation is still largely unsolved, but it entices my full curiosity.

Recently, I have been reading philosophical books, or books with
existential/ontological inquiry in the poetic or the non-fiction form. Here I’m
thinking names like John Berger, Rilke, Susan Sontag, Albert Camus, W. G.
Sebald, Jean-Paul Sartre; I’ve read most of these names and am discovering
more. This is important for me because as a child, I was raised to believe in my
own predestination and that of everything I could associate with life. This
understanding has failed against some realizations I’m making as an adult
invested in living, interactions (both conversational and observatory), and reading.
I’m writing about these things too, which is more about my own cognitive
evolution than about a rejection of my upbringing.   

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?

Ebenezer Agu: I’d be very surprised if someone ever read my poem and said it saved their life. I don’t think that is even what poetry is intended for, saving life. I believe there is wonder in good poetry, profundity as well, and that poetry can shake things up socially, politically, or culturally. But for it to have such functional ability of saving a life, it’s hard to say. Maybe I’m speaking from my experience, and that may vary, but I hardly think a lot of people would be interested in the kind of poetry I write much less having their lives saved by it.

Ebenezer Agu

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

Ebenezer Agu: First of all, my native continent. Beyond that, it is hard for me to say because Africa is a very wide place, with numerous people and cultures, and I prefer to rather speak in microcosm. But if I must say, I believe there is so much that can be achieved here in terms of cultural material and the human resources ready to drive it. I’m speaking with respect to culture because that’s where my involvement is.

 I mean, you just have to look at contemporary African poetry; compare that to the hibernated periods that came after the surge of poetic expressions during the colonial period and you’ll realize that there’s a renaissance happening. It’s not just that a lot of young Africans are writing poetry, there’s a need to it in terms of the predominant subject matters. The sense you get in reading these young people is that there’s a new way of seeing, which is only in contrast to the traditional mode by not being reliant upon it. Of course, because these poets come from a region of the globe where they suffer so many privations and much dysfunction, their writing isn’t entirely free of contention. But what’s contended in contemporary African poetry is of a different kind, the poets writing now are about how the individual African demands to be received, both at home against conventional norms, and globally against what’s stereotypically African. The implication is that contemporary African poetry is personal, which I keep saying is a productive liberty.

 I, however, do think that within this new way of seeing in contemporary African poetry there is yet the problem of excessive mainstreaming in the practice of some of the local poets. It’s all not entirely “new”.” Being the editor of 20.35 Africa, reading as many contemporary African poets as I can reach to keep myself abreast in this editorial capacity, sometimes I’m realizing an attempt to fit into a certain narrative trend or, say, a particular voice. These poets need to take authenticity very seriously, which I understand is hard to deal with when you have a lot of things of the same kind happening around you at once. But it’s not impossible, especially if one takes what one does in earnest.

Notwithstanding, I don’t believe this mainstreaming
invalidates the work these poets are doing. It’s rather challenging when you
understand that poetry is an art form. Then the craft, starting with the
sentence level, because I believe language, first, makes all the difference in
writing. There is also style, which is the function of originality even when
two poets are writing about the same subject matter. Training in general in the
art of both writing poetry and reading poetry as a poet.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the institutional structures
that can give these poets the training they need beyond their personal efforts.

So, it turns out Africa, as potential or reality, means
poetry to me. Ha-ha! I didn’t see that coming at first.                       

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.

Ebenezer Agu: This poem is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Love Song.

  How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn't touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn't resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin's bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.

This is the
entire poem, and it is the most memorable poem I’ve read. Rilke’s genius was in
the way he could say complex things in the simplest ways. It is hard to find an
image or a metaphor in any of his poems not taken from everyday experience. The
same goes for this poem; words, images, metaphors, all so familiar, yet you
can’t lose sense of the density of the poem. It is a love poem which does not
tie itself down to a particular kind of love, it reaches across the spectrum,
even to the realm of the sacred love between man and divinity.

The language of the poem is another thing, establishing a feeling of its own. It is pristine and tempered, making it easier for the poem to soak me up each time I read it. This is the same across Rilke’s writing, the other reason after his wisdom that draws me to him.


Ebenezer Agu is a poet and an essayist. He is editor-in-chief of 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and poetry editor at 14: Queer Art.

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