Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Washington DC Nigeria and other debtor countries have been warned by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of risk associated with debt repayment following growing global debt levels. This is even as the IMF has warned that voters’ disillusionment raises the threat of political developments that could destabilize a range of economic policies in…
Ahmed Maiwada is a Nigerian lawyer based in Abuja, Nigeria. He is the author of four poetry books: Saint of a Woman (Hybun 2004), Fossils (Hybun 2008), Eye Rhymes (Mazariyya Books 2013) and We’re fish (Image Books 2017). He has published Musdoki, a novel, with Mazariyya Books in 2010. Ahmed Maiwada is currently working on the first of two sequels to the acclaimed Musdoki. He intends to write across all the genres in the nearest future, which is his idea of qualifying for the “writer” tag. HENRY AKUBUIRO encountered him in Abuja, where he sheds light on his new poetry volume, which has broken new barriers in Nigerian poetry.
The cover of your latest poetry volume We’re fish has a dominant blue colour and white background. This seems to suggest aquatic connections.
On the surface, We’re fish contains the surreal reflections of a fish at that critical point of giving up the ghost, at the sea. The blue colour of the cover page represents the sea water. It is where the fish persona has lived since arriving from the waters of the hinterland, along with its family and friends, until the outbreak of an apocalypse that slaughtered every fish in sight. The sketch of a fish in white represents all the white, black brown, red, yellow, gold, glow fish of the aquatic world. It is a universal truth that some fish live in the sea. Therefore, both colour and image, representing this universal truth, become the platter on which I seek to present to the reader a new universal truth in form of a thesis, which says: the fish and man are the same animals. It is a gesture aimed at earning the reader’s trust, in order that the thesis served in the book may be received with an open minded, so that justice might be done to the book. The cover says to the reader: take a look at this new way of looking the fish in the sea right here, could you spare a moment to treat?
Something must have triggered your imaginative fecundity to explore and weave an entire collection around the fish. What’s it about the fish that matters to the bard?
I think one can argue both ways that We’re fish is a “collection” of poems as well as a book of just one poem. I suppose I’ve succeeded in designing it that way, by leaving doors and windows (valves, if you like) open for such a possibility. Nonetheless, since 2004 when my first poetry book, Saint of a Woman, was published, I’ve mulled over the ideal structure of a poetry book (or a single collection of poems by one author). My conclusion, since 2008, is that such a book should contain just a poem. Otherwise, such a book should contain a number of poems that present not only thematic unity, but organic as well. I started the paradigm shift from a poetry book of straggled poems in Fossils, my second poetry book, which contains what is arguably a redesigned epic poem. My next poetry book, Eye Rhymes, continues the journey, with the title poem itself running through the entire book, though different individual poems are sandwiched in-between the stanzas. We’re fish seems to present a more perfected result of that experiment, which explains the fish motif that runs across the length and breadth of a single poem titled We’re fish. But, what is it about the fish? This question brings us to another aspect of my journey as a poet. Back in 2004, my poetry was a mixture of concrete and imprecise images. I was less concerned with the sophistication that my readers would bring into the appreciation of my poetry. But, I was fortunate that the criticisms started coming thick and fast early enough. They redirected me to giving concrete imagery a good look. A fossil is a concrete image, so is an eye rhyme. However, as concrete as they are, not everybody has seen a fossil or an eye rhyme (not even many poets). So, I said to myself that this time around, while working on We’re fish, that it was time to use an image that everybody could relate to. And, what other image is there to beat the fish, which every human being under the sun is familiar with? Everything about the fish fell into the right places for me.
For instance, the state of our world in a free-fall into Armageddon became my concern, and it was my view that people all over the world have found it quite easy to kill, steal and destroy because their victims possess some qualities different from them. A difference in colour makes the next man not only a stranger to today’s human being, but also a log of wood. Same is the case when he is of a different religion or sect or ethnicity or geographic entity, etc. The only check to our cannibalistic nature is the sameness we see in others. Else, we can simply snuff the life out of anyone. With this carefully observed nature in us therefore, I decided to carefully choose the fish as a mirror of who we are, based on the many attitudes and characteristics that we share. By this, it is hoped that at a point in looking into this mirror, we may, first, of all be convinced that the fish is to us every inch alike. I assumed that once this is achieved, the second stage wouldn’t be hard, which is the likelihood of developing an empathy for the fish, which is possible, because it is this kind of intimacy with animals that has produced the vegetarians among us. Once empathy is achieved for the fish, than I suppose the war to empathy for all other things and people who are so much like us but also so much different from us, might be paved. If, from encountering a life-sized fish in this book, we are able to get that intimate with the fish, then we can hope for intimacy among people with different looks, worship, speech, etc. If and when that happens, then that necessary surgery of the heart would have taken place, and man should begin to exhibit less tendencies to annihilate the next man who shares no similarity of constitution, language, faith, etc., with him.
And the introductory poem in the collection echoes the imperative of saving the sea. Is this representative of We’re Fish?
The sea is the major habitat of the fish, as well as the earth is the habitat of man. Therefore, if fish is mirroring man as claimed, the sea must mirror our green earth. My “Introduction” to this book simply says, “Save the sea”. That is as good as saying, “Save the earth” or “Heal the world”. One could say this is representative of We’re fish, because the ultimate message that is being sent across is that of saving our world from the anarchy that man has brewed all over the place that is destroying us in stages. Yet, I would still be glad if, while taking those three words at their face value, attempts are made towards the actual saving of the sea. This is the level on which the book achieves marine environmental utility. You may have noticed that I also dedicated one of the opening pages of the book to an iconic quote by the American marine biologist, explorer, author and lecturer, Sylvia Earle. The whole essence is: if you missed all other sediments of meanings in of this book, then you must not miss its clarion environmental call to save the sea. I am convinced that there wouldn’t be any need for man to save himself from himself if he would end up at the mercy of the very nature that he has succeeded in infuriating by the means of his sustained activities that degrade his environmental. The “Introduction” is suggesting for us that we may start healing the world at that sea.
One is immediately struck by the aesthetics in this poetry volume, page by page. Evidently, painstaking fine art has been brought to bear on the poem, given the artistic depictions of fishy movements and aqua. What went into the concrete articulation, and how did it crystallise into reality?
Part of what went into the concreteness of this poem is my promise to make each next poetry book of mine completely different from the previous ones. I do not only set out to distinguish one book from another; I also try to distinguish my books from all others that preceded me or those being released in the same period as mine. For me, it isn’t enough to just disengage from going down the well-worn paths of corruption and politics in Nigeria or sentimental love poems. I must dig deeper into the imaginative realms, fish out something not only fresh but of universal appeal, and then present it on an appealing platter as a courtesy to the reader. I must always guarantee something new, in order to truly claim writing new poetry. It is, therefore, a part of that courtesy that resulted in the forms you have observed in We’re fish, taking diverse concrete shapes and complimenting the concrete images that bedeck the lines of the poem. Luckily for me, I had my fine art background to tap from – all it took was to call the Lazarus out. I did it. And, drawing figures with pencils and paints transmogrified into putting down the texts of poetry in the form of images, which you see in the book. It is aimed at heightening the real experience of the reader concerning the contents.
Remixed versions of poems feature prominently here. This is rare in contemporary poetry. What’s the thinking behind the remixes?
The only place I have encountered the “remix” concept is in popular music, particularly Rhythms & Blues. I may, therefore, conclude that it made its debut appearance in poetry in We’re fish. The thinking behind it is associated with my desire for fusing one or more genres outside poetry into the genre. This desire stretches across my entire writing career. It started with Fossils, where I used the mediums “Acts” and “Scenes” from drama to present the poetry in the book. In We’re fish, I attempt showing other boundaries where poetry and contemporary music could fuse. I want to do new things, not only in the genre that I am writing, but also new and different from all other works that I did before. In this vein, I have set for myself the mark of quitting writing at any stage where I couldn’t find any new idea to add to the genre I’m writing in.
The diction of this poetry volume is condensed. Does it have something to do with your bent as a minimalist?
The poetic diction is an area of my writing which I consciously did all in my power to develop, starting from my first collection. I did write with no regard for the poetic diction, without sensitivity to the relationships between the first word and the next, as regards their sounds, except when deliberately working with metres or rhyming or alliterating. I used to care less about whether a line sounds like a sentence in a prose or like a line in a poem. I used to write without taking much care to weed my lines of those unnecessary words (including those adverbs and adjectives that I call weevils in the otherwise fine grains of poetry) that must come with poetry writing. But the journey from then to now has been a rewarding one, as you have just attested to the austerity in the structure of my diction in the book. The diction of poetry is, unlike that of prose and any other genre, necessarily austere, bare, lean and stark, often rearranging the order of words in a line. The best poems come with no wastages of words. They come crisp, unconcerned with volume, but satisfied that they have walked down that catwalk to a thunderous applause. You take out a word from the lines of these poems and everything in those lines disintegrate. It is this marshalling of diction that I attempted to do in this new book. Your testimony points to the fact that I did my best. Nonetheless, to label the poetry in this book “minimalist” should not be in my power to permit or refuse. It isn’t in my place to brand my own poetry. That is for the critics to do, if they can. My job is to write. And I wrote.
The reproductive images “gametes” and “gonad” recur in the early poems in the collection. Is something fishy here than meets the eye?
There is nothing is fishy at all. Those images are to serve as key into the book’s thesis, which is “man is fish”. Gamete stands for a matured sexual reproductive cell, such as a sperm or egg, that unites with another cell to form a new organism. I have a concrete poem right in the opening part of the book that represents a spermatozoon, which is a famed swimmer. It is this swimmer that, upon escaping from the “gonad”, swims to the ovum in order to commence the process of becoming a human being. By these imagery, I aim to hit the ground running, in proving that man and fish are the same animals, because the very first activity that all humans do, in the form of gametes, is swimming, which is what all fish do all their lives. This is a book of poetry containing the account of a fish in the throes of death, on how it got to that very situation. In line with the process of coming into existence of the human being on green earth, this fish swam, together with other fish, from the river and the lakes in green earth, into the sea, in the quest for the taste of salt that is in sea water and a bigger space (freedom) in which to grow into whales. The fish swims successfully into the sea, like we humans who made it to the green earth have successfully swum our way here, in order to become grown adults. It is, therefore, expected that these two key images should guide the reader into making sense of the thesis put forward in the book. Nothing fishy about that. Rather, it is an attempt to be more transparent than in past efforts.
On page 10, you wrote: “We flounder in mud and in crystal/We speak in tongues. We talk rubbish/We’re vegetarians/We devour our own flesh/ Therefore, we’re fish.” Obviously, this is de-familiarised diction at its best, but, on the plain, very little is given away. Why do you think we are fish on account of those behavioural traits?
After giving the reader the key for accessing the argument and after dropping other hints along the way to this page, the fish narrator and poet persona thinks that it has made enough case for man being fish. It begins to reflect here on the close similarities in behaviour between man and fish. The reflection is done in man’s voice, because it is assumed that the reader would have been soaked into the man/fish blend in the preceding pages, well enough not to distinguish the voice of one from the other. It is expected that at this stage, the mirror image should reflect to the reader the “fish” that man stands in the mirror to see, which is no more than himself. Therefore, these lines you have quoted attempt to draw direct parallels in the behavioural attitudes of both man and fish. And I think, as the lines show clearly, we truly have quite a lot of common characteristics, enough to clear any doubt that may have existed in the reader’s mind prior to page 10, that man and fish are one and the same animals. Aren’t fish vegetarians? Aren’t fish devourers of one another? Don’t we devour each other, sometimes for the sake of our own existence or of our children?
The undertone of war features, too, in this collection. We encounter references to troubled spots in the world such as Malala, Taliban, Kabul, Kandahar, Mahatma land, Bushland towers, etc., in one verse. Can this be read as a political statement from the conclave?
If I am painting the world of man in this book, then the portraiture wouldn’t be realistic and complete without the air or atmosphere of war that hangs over our heads these days. A lot has happened, involving those characters I’ve mentioned and those places they represent. Their mention in one verse can represent the sudden intensity of the Armageddon that I have mentioned earlier, which has visited the earth, as mirrored by the Armageddon at sea. In my view, it should be read more like the natural setting of the state of the fish that man ought to see upon gazing at the fish in the narrative of the book. It is our reality, which at the beginning isn’t so. The fish lives in relative peace, while existing in the river and the lakes and the ponds and the aquariums; man himself lives in relative peace in the “gonads”. Then comes the swim out of the relative peace (as man does). The fish arrives into the sea, and begins to enjoy life of abundance. But, soon, the colour of the sky begins to change. It is this already changed sky that I have painted by the atmosphere of war in the verse you’ve mentioned. Of course, it is a political statement, by whichever standard you look at it. There is war and threats of war at every nook of this universe. Man’s inability to tolerate others has risen to a dizzying height. And that explains why this book is proposing a way of reversing the situation; a process by which the healing could start, in order for us to witness a healed world.
In the poem, the “Trawled fish from Chibok count as fowls”, and the Old and New Jesus suffer mixed fortunes, as the red sea gets redder. What’s the role of a poet in a society riven by terrorism?
As I mentioned earlier, we have only one poem here, woven around a fish-in-water narrative. Therefore, where hints are dropped on terrorism, they necessarily constitute a part of the narrative, which started, like the Scripture, in the beginning, where the fish (or man) swim their way into being. It is a fact that life on earth has witnessed heightened rates of violence. It was not so, in the beginning. But we, who live in this same world, are forced to live in it – poets or non-poets. The poet, as every responsible human being, must never accept the degeneration into the realm of terror. The poet must join hands with all parts of society that have taken necessary steps to combat the global menace. I think the basic contribution that any poem could offer is taking the pains to engage terror by presenting to the reading audience poetry that sincerely takes on the menace, but this time in the form of art that is on a higher dais above the tepid and uninspiring poetry that have proceeded from us into the public space.
Surprisingly, your collection has overt aquatic connections, yet you hail from a city not particularly associated with rivers and fishes. Eco-critics would find this baffling; don’t you think so?
I have stated earlier on that there is hardly any more universal animal as the fish. Water is also an element that is familiar to all. Therefore, my familiarity with the fish and with water shouldn’t surprise anyone, except if the surprise has to do with my familiarity with the fish inside water. Yet, even that would be misplaced. In this book, the narrative of the fish persona doesn’t exclude the fish in the water familiar to my locality, which includes the rivers, lakes and ponds. Nevertheless, I have lived in Lagos for several years, during which I had an intimacy with the lagoons of the city and the Atlantic sea at the coast. There is a scene on that coastal water in my debut novel, Musdoki, which remains to me one of the most enduring scenes in the novel. I am fascinated with animals generally, and I particularly love fish. That led me into studying them, which, in turn, led me to the works of Sylvia Earle that opened my eyes to the humanity of the fish and the importance of sea life to our own life here on earth. All those jelled for me into the metaphor of fish and water in this book that represent man and the green world. You may, therefore, consider We’re fish as my little activism towards preserving sea life and therefore, preserving the life on dry land. We do not need to look for another planet when we could, by some attitudinal changes, improve upon the conditions of our world in such a manner that we would be forced to seek repentance for ever conceiving the thought of human life outside the planet earth.
You threatened burning Achebe’s Things Fall Apart late last year on Facebook, which attracted an uproar. Up till now, you haven’t fulfilled your promise. When are we expecting that to happen?
Yes, I did threaten late last year in Facebook to burn my copy of Things Fall Apart. For those abreast with the current affairs of the world, the name of Pastor Terry Jones should immediately come to mind. He is the America pastor whom in 2010, threatened to burn a copy of the Qur’an on the ninth anniversary of the September 1999 attacks on the Twin Towers at New York. The reactions that followed Pastor Jones’ threat from the Muslim community worldwide was derided by many so called liberals, leading to the banding of Muslims as extremists. But, I wasn’t surprised when a similar reaction followed my “plan” to burn Things Fall Apart. I knew exactly that I would catch several hypocritical liberals who had stood in the forefront of accusing the Muslims of being insensitive in the case of Jones, threatening fire and brimstone against me that time. It was a trap I set in order to prove that most of us are only paying lip service to the claim of being liberals, we would sooner explode when those things that we hold dear or sacred are equally threatened. Both the elite and sophists, mostly Nigerians, showed up that time as Taliban and ISIS and Boko Haram and even as Bin Laden himself. Do they blame the Fulani herdsmen for killing people because of their cows? Well, I encountered the fury of the so-called Nigerian elite, who would gladly have killed me on account of threatening to burn my own copy of Things Fall Apart, bought with my own money. Truth is, I would never have burnt that book, or any other book for that matter. Not after knowing the value of the book. Not after I have devoted a whole poetry book, Eye Rhymes, criticising people that, by their actions, kill good books, which John Milton equates to mass murder. The threat was a mere trap by which I caught several feral terrorists in the garb or liberal elites and scholars.
What’s your impression of contemporary Nigerian poetry?
If by “contemporary Nigerian poetry” you mean the poetry written by Nigerians today, whether old or young, then my answer is that it is the same old song. You pick one collection after the other, and all you see is poetry about love or about Nigerian politics, which includes issues such as corruption and maladministration. You ask yourself, where is the place for the imagination to conceive and bear fruit. We are scarcely able to think outside the box. As if that isn’t enough, the art by which such well-worn subjects are served is either too prosaic to pass for poetry, or it comes in dead metaphors used by our forefathers, but served as new poetry. Generally speaking, contemporary Nigerian poetry is tired and pining for a release from the prison the contemporary Nigerian poets have kept it – and what a crime that is! Or it is breathing its last in the hands of so-called poets that would not learn and cannot be taught. That said, there are new names in the current generation of poets, whose promise does lift the spirit. I shall not mention names, but I have them grouped as the “silver-spoon” generation of Nigerian poets. These young ones are not afraid to take on any subject, and to do so using fresh metaphors and radical forms. It is in their direction we should look in order to escape death with the dead and the dying poems from the poets in mostly the generation before mine.
You came close to winning the NLNG Prize in 2009. Do you think NLNG has got it right since then?
I think there has been a huge leap in my writing since 2009, towards becoming a world class literary prize administrator. I think it is assuring to observe that NLNG has been responsive enough to the genuine complaints that came up since 2009, by making some far-reaching adjustments in the administration of the Prize. The responsive attitude, in my view, is what gives me the confidence that we’re well on our way towards having the best Literature Prize in Africa, and possibly one of the best in the world.