“I held my 13 Negro tales
And made a backbone
Swapped it for my own
Stood to the wind and dared earth
To spin me off its shoulders
Not knowing I had soldered my pen to its core
And ink planted a metaphor” –
13 Negro Tales by Inua Ellams
Nigerian born Inua Ellams is one of the most exciting poets in the UK right now. Still very young, he’s already published a book of his poetry, sold out the National Theatre with his one man show, toured all over the country and was even one of the first poets to win a Fringe First award.
His words, his passion, his achievements and his humbleness has deeply inspired me as a writer and performer.
Me and Inua are part of the same poetry collective (PiP) and we were speaking recently about whether the artists involved in our art form should call themselves poets, Spoken Word artists, writers, performers, performance poets, live literature artists or show boaty wind bags?
Q. Inua, are you a show boaty wind bag?
In my younger days, I wrote and performed things, which if I saw on stage now (with a better grasp of what this game is about) I’d consider to be hot air. Yup, I was the wind baggiest of them all. But now, I consider myself a poet and a performer. I don’t write poems for stages, and don’t see a stage as the end-goal of a poem. For me, the performance of a poem is secondary to the act of writing and creating. The label we choose to attach to what we do should come from a sort of honest, critical S.W.O.T analysis. Only then are they meaningful.
Q. How can you tell when a poem wants the stage or a poem just wants the page?
The difference between a stage poem and a page poem are as thin as line breaks. That is to say, a poem on a page fools around with visual tricks, with layout, with shapes, with word spacing etc and a poem on stage is purely audio. If with a voice you cannot recreate the tricks of a page poem, then it has no business being on stage, and would make for a poor reading / performance of the poem. – That does the poem a disservice. // Anything else should work decently on a stage, if the poem is read with enough command, intention and control.
Q. A mate of mine once said “one of the biggest influences of a writer is their environment.” How does your Nigerian heritage combine with the experience of growing up in London and how does that translate into poetry?
Nigeria itself has had little to no influence on my writing. I only discovered the power of language in Dublin at 16, 5 years after I had left Nigeria and 3 years before I would consider myself a writer. But it has created a strong sense of responsibility. Naija, holds the belief that stories, poems have to carry a message otherwise they are pointless, might as well be a large dot in the centre of a page / a black hole centre stage.
The Nigeria that exists as a shared headspace within my family has however; my father is a great story-teller, my mother is moralist. My father is quite daring and charming, my mother very respectful. These traits of theirs are tinged with their strong Nigerian backgrounds. Subsequently, I am coloured with it and it dictates what I write about, why I write about it and how I do.
Q. You write a lot. I’m jealous. Apparently writers block is a necessary part of writing quality work. Do you agree?
I don’t think I write a lot. The last poem I finished, that I am happy with, that I have shared on a stage and has been published in Journals took a whole year to write. // I do think a writer’s block is necessary though, if you liken it to climbing the steps to a waterslide, the actual slide is the pay off, the fun bits, in order to get to it, to enjoy it, you gotta climb up.
Q. Your book and your one man show ‘The 14th Tale’ was funded by The Arts Council. Do the recent cuts in arts funding worry you as an artist?
YES and NO. // YES because it means that work such as mine will be difficult to create without support. NO because art will always find a way. // YES because undoubtedly a smaller amount of art works will be produced. NO because when things are created, when free time and effort are spent on it, it’s gotta be good, will be brilliant, has to be worth its while. // YES because some good artists will give this up to find 9 – 5s. NO because it is poetry, we are not exactly rolling in it anyway. // YES because we will have to think smaller and go back to the basics. NO Because we will have to think smaller and go back to the basics //
Q. You’ve achieved a lot this year. What new tricks have you learned?
“This above else: to thine own self be true.” As Ol’ Bill put it in Hamlet. There will be critics and counter critics, poet and rival poets, room to be jealous, and rooms full of jealousy. The important thing is to stick to your guns, do what makes you happy, run your own race.
Q. Lastly Inua, your book is brilliant, I’ve read it front to back many times. Plus your one-man show blew my mind, even my girlfriend really liked it and she thinks “poetry is naff!” Can I have your autograph before you get too famous for these kinds of interviews?
haha. You can get an unlimited supply of graph anytime, but it’ll cost you a gourd of Nigerian palm wine, Ghanian red red, Senegalese Jollof Rice, 3 kola nuts, a stick of pure white chalk, and the Tail of a Blue bird. - deal?
Follow Inua on Twitter
GO AND SEE THE NEW ONE MAN SHOW 'UNTITLED' AT SOHO THEATRE!
here's the trailer -