Dike Chukwumerije is the author of eight books. A spoken word and performance poetry artist and prose writer, his novel, Urichindere won the 2013 edition of the ANA Prize for Prose Fiction. He runs a poetry theatre production, Made in Nigeria, which has toured many cities in the country. He hosts the Abuja Literary Society’s Book Jam and Poetry Slam. He has won several poetry grand slams in Nigeria, including the maiden edition of the African Poet (Nigeria) Grand Slam competition and, has, since 2013, hosted and directed the annual Night of the Spoken Word (NSW) performance poetry event. He also hosts weekly Open Mic performances which include a mix of acts from readings of short stories by their authors to musical performances, poetry and spoken word acts. Chukwumerije is regarded as one of Nigeria’s most prolific Performance Poet with the release of three Performance Poetry videos. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO, he spoke on his fascination with literature, which has eclipsed his childhood ambition to be a medical doctor.
Growing up in the home of the famous politician, late Senator Uche Chukwumerije, I guess it was not easy deciding to be a writer. What was your ambition as a child? Was writing your first love, or it later came to you?
Writing was an early love of mine, inspired by my father (who was a journalist), my mother (who was a teacher), my elder brother Che (who was and still is a writer), and his friend Onesi (a fantastic poet). I didn’t consider it a career though, just a way of self-expression. So, as a child my ambition was to become a medical doctor. Imagine that?
At what point did it occur to you that you were better off as a performance poet than the conventional bard given to showcasing magical tropes and images?
I was invited to a show once to read some of my poems. This must have been some 12 years ago. And I saw other poets reciting their poems from memory, and it was immediately obvious to me that this was a more effective way of communicating poetry, because you can maintain eye contact, and simulate this conversational atmosphere that makes understanding easier. Reading is still something I prioritize though.
What was it like the first time you went on stage as a performance poet?
I felt a bit nervous, having to remember my lines with so many people looking at me. But, at some point, I lost that sense of self-consciousness, and just began to enjoy myself. There is this sense of freedom that one can sometimes stumble upon on stage. It’s a very beautiful feeling.
When you are on stage, do you get energy from the audience to get involved the more?
Yes, audience participation is always energising. When an audience is cold, it can become distracting for you, as you begin to wonder if you’re communicating at all. Obviously, the more nervous you become, the more likely you are to forget your lines.
Do you ever forget lines and improvise sometimes?
Regularly! It’s one of the first things a performance poet must learn, how to recover from forgetting his or her lines! The important thing is not to freeze, to take it in your stride, because the audience watching you often does not know what line or lines should come next. So, if you act like nothing happened, they will believe you.
You also write prose fiction and, in fact, your novel, Urichindere, won the 2013 ANA Prose Prize. What was the inspiration for the novel?
Novels like Chukwuemeka Ike’s Bottled Leopard tell the story of the secondary school experience of that generation. I wanted to do the same for mine. So, Urichindere documents what it felt like to be a boarder in a Federal Government College in the early 1990s. I also wanted to tell the story of the political turmoil of the time, as seen through the eyes of young boy. These were my inspiration.
You are a writer but also involved in assisting fellow writers and writers’ organisations. How do that add to your role as a writer and community builder?
It adds immensely! Sometimes, as a writer, one is unable to appreciate the amount of work it takes to bring your work to an audience. But, working as an organiser of literary/creative events, you gain an appreciation of the entire value chain. This helps you as a writer in many ways. For one, you learn better how to write in ways that are accessible to your target audience. Also, as you rightly pointed out, one gains a better appreciation of the power of literature as a tool, not just for making the writer rich or famous, but for sparking important conversations and bringing people together over shared perspectives. In a space that is deeply divided other issues of tribe and religion, this is a very important function.
Sometimes you codemix Igbo in your works. Do you think a performance poet like you isn’t African enough until he fulfils certain cultural functions in his art?
No, I don’t think so, because the answer to the question, “What does it mean to be African?” is not a straightforward one. In that sense, “trying to be African” can lead to the production of very shallow and clearly superficial works of art. I tend to focuse more on being honest to whatever emotion or sentiment or value I am trying to express. And, if speaking in Igbo, or tapping into whatever cultural reservoir I have within me, is what I need to achieve honesty, then so be it.
It has been argued that the spoken word scene is getting saturated with artists who repeat the same performance on stage over and over, especially ones liked by the audience, barely offering new things. What do you think accounts for these oft-talked repetitions?
I have no problem with repetitions. After all, we have been reading Things Fall Apart since its publication in 1958. If a creative expression has long-lasting value, why should we artificially shorten its life-time just so we can be seen to be “fresh” all the time? Also, sometimes an artist may produce his/her masterpiece very early in his/her career. That’s just the way it is. So, those who have the capacity to be “fresh” all the time, should do so. And those who feel they have said everything they came to say in that one creative expression should feel free to stay on it for as long as they want.
So far, you have three performance poetry videos to your credit, making you one of the most prolific Nigerian performance poets. How far do you intend to go with these videos?
As far as Fate will allow. It is the desire of every artist to be heard or watched or read or seen by everyone. That’s why we make art, to touch the lives of our fellow human beings. So, I hope the poetry videos I’ve put out there on Youtube will continue to attract views and reviews. I also hope that it inspires other poets to think of even more creative ways of expressing and communicating their poetry.
“The Wall and The Bridge” easily resonates with Nigerians from different walks of life. Do you think that’s your Midas touch as far as performance poetry goes?
There’s a lot more where it came from. But the factors that determine what goes viral and what does not are beyond my control.
The Made in Nigeria Poetry Show has been staged several times since last year. How has the experience being like?
It has actually been staged 11 times in 5 cities with a cast of between 15 and 24, depending on scale and location. So, you can imagine, it’s been quite an experience. First of all, to create a proper spoken word theatre production with a cast, costumes, props, lights and everything, and then to go on a proper road tour, that is, getting into a bus with your cast and equipment and hitting the road; to enter into cities, you’ve not been to before and successfully gather audiences from scratch around your production; to do all this without sponsorship, totally dependent on ticket sales and the ability of your content to move those who see it to recommend it to others, and to do this in the middle of a recession as well! You can imagine that it’s been quite an interesting experience. And it has not ended. Because the show is still touring 13 months after its debut. That, for me, is simply amazing!