Olalekan Ajayi is a poet, scriptwriter and has practised as a researcher and journalist. An alumnus of Edo State University (now Ambrose Alli University), Ekpoma, Nigeria, where he was inspired by Frank Mowah to search for his own voice, he has published two poetry volumes, A Day Shall Come and Questioning Voices. The poet draws his inspiration from the world around him, but admits the works of Pablo Neruda, Garcia Marquez and Olu Oguibe have influenced him a great deal. Ajayi holds a Master’s degree in International History and Diplomacy from the University of Benin and is an alumnus of the New York Film Academy, New York, where he studied scriptwriting. The former News Editor of The Nigerian Observer was interviewed by Henry Akubuiro.
Your first poetry volume, A Day Shall Come, came out in 2015 after decades of the poems being in limbo. But this latest effort, Questioning Voices, was written in the year of the Coronavirus pandemic, and is already out. What informed the quick publication?
Questioning Voices was actually completed in the year of the pandemic. Not all the poems were written in the year of the pandemic. Indeed, some of the poems are as old as those contained in A Day Shall Come. As you are aware, the COVID-19 pandemic came with weighty uncertainties that hovered over every home across the globe. The fear of contracting the virus with the possibility of dying, coupled with the government lock-down, dictated that people had to channel their energies into worthwhile ventures else they risked losing their sanity. I chose the period to bond with my family during the day, while I allowed the Muse to lure me at night. I revisited many unfinished poems of mine and just kept chiseling until I felt they conveyed the actual messages the voices within wanted to be expressed.
In your debut outing, you set out to be heard as a poet by defamiliarising language, did you succeed, going by audience feedback?
Truth be told, the collection received positive reviews and the feedback was quite impressive but not as widespread as anticipated. I will be true to myself by admitting that some persons also viewed the language as being too defamiliarized in some cases, thereby losing meaning along the way. In all, it was a huge relief getting the collection out in print after decades of procrastination.
Why do you consider Questioning Voices a new beginning for you as a bard?
Every writing venture, and, indeed, every artistic journey, in my view, is a new beginning for the artiste to improve on his or her earlier effort. The feedback I received from my maiden effort necessitated that I had to find another way of conveying meaning to the reader. In writing and reworking the poems in this collection, I had to listen more attentively to the voices within in order not to confuse the message.
In the Introit, you grovelled at the feet of the muse for guidance to soldier on, what role does the muse play in your art and how and when do your encounters with the muse take place?
The Muse I refer to is not Calliope, the daughter of the Greek god, Zeus, and mother of Orpheus, the bard, or any of her eight sisters. My Muse is African. She is that unseen Mother figure I go to when I seek to make meaning of the ideas that hover around me. The Muse is always around me; hence, I try as best possible to always have my notepad handy to scribble whatever idea flashes across my mind. About encounters, I think nighttime, when all around me is calm, is the best time to hear from the Muse.
I am curious about the title of this volume, Questioning Voices. Whose voices echo in these many questions?
The original title was just “Voices”, because that was all I had in my head. However, a senior literary artiste and writer, Denja Abdullahi, went through my second draft and suggested the title “Questioning Voices,” which I ran by my editors at kachifo (Titilayo Alaba and her team). The voices are those of Everyman (or woman).
The Conversations segment begins with “Conversation with Myself” with many unanswered questions. What makes a poet like you unease?
The poet, like every man or woman, has blood flowing in his veins. And all through life, we encounter loads of unanswerable questions that make one uneasy. You wander the streets of your country and cannot but wonder why one man could hate another so much as to want to see him dead. You are awed as to why a civilised man so-called will engage in acts so bestial that even beasts will cringe at his presence.
The Homeland poems in the collection remind us how unsavoury the bitter pills have been, what’s the role of a poet in a season of anomie?
I have read arguments in some publications that the role of the poet is not to persuade. Nevertheless, I believe that the poet is a philosopher and his or her role in a season of anomie is to continue to speak truth as best possible, hoping that some form of order will be restored in the chaos society finds itself.
In the midst of pervading gloom and many unanswered questions, the Love Themes poems offer a soothing balm. What’s the meeting point between love and disillusionment?
Love, as bards of old have noted, is the greatest force on earth. By love, I am referring to all forms of it except the maniacal type which is obsessive and, therefore, quite negative in expression. It takes love to break through the veil of disillusionment that pervades us on our continent and, indeed, the world.
The language of this poetry volume is much simpler than the previous collection, is it deliberate?
Really? Well, deliberate effort was made towards achieving simplicity without being too prosaic. I hope I get more of that feedback in the months and years to come.
What’s your writing routine like?
I try to always move around with a notepad. I do loads of jottings when ideas creep in. Night, for me, is when the day dawns for writing because of my regular work schedule. Be it poetry or prose that I have been working on for a few years now, I make out time at night to write at least a page when I am not reading any book.