“emotion runs under one umbrella, it is the ‘weather’ that changes.” Uche Peter Umez interviews Jumoke Verissimo
Interviewer’s Note: JUMOKE VERISSIMO has performed her poetry in Nigeria, Macedonia and Norway; some of which have appeared in “Migrations” (Afro-Italian) Wole Soyinka ed., “Voldposten 2010” (Norway), “Livre d’or de Struga” (Poetes du monde, sous le patronage de l’UNESCO) and are in translation in Italian, Norwegian, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Macedonian. Some of her fiction has been published in print and online magazines. Jumoke is regarded as one of the most exciting poets amongst her contemporaries in Nigeria. Her poetry collection I am memory was adapted for stage by Crown Troupe, Nigeria.
Uche Peter Umez: Your debut collection I am Memory was hailed as “passionate, sensual” by the multi award-winning playwright Biyi Bandele. You’ve been on the literary scene for a very long time, why did it take you so long to publish a collection?
Jumoke Verissimo: Well, one never knows why these things decide the time they do. For, there were indeed plans to get the book published, but it just never became a reality for one reason or the other. It is good to recount how I had people who were genuinely interested in publishing my first collection. However, it found a home with DADA Books, because it shared the ideas I had for the book. At the time, I was thinking of some sort of collaboration—drawing and poetry, photography and poetry etc., and Ayo Arigbabu was thinking along the same line. We spoke about it when he came to The Guardian newspaper, where I worked as a freelancer at the time.
In the earlier days, it was called Songs of Reparation. By time it would get to Ayo Arigbabu, it had been rewritten too many times and the voluminous pages had slimmed down into a very different book from its earlier version. For this reason, I like to think the book came out when it was ready. It is a rather slim volume—and I am proud of the effort that entered into it. Now goes that cliché: “it is not how far…”
Uche Peter Umez: A friend who recently read I am Memory said it was “seamless, flowing non-stop.” I admire the way you use language in a very musical way; each poem is so lyrical it could be sung easily. How long did it take you to write “Memory Lane 1”? Was there a point when you thought the poems will have to be performed on stage?
Jumoke Verissimo: I appreciate that consistency in the response I have received from readers. I have always been fascinated by the tonal possibilities of my indigenous language—Yoruba. This is not possible with English, but with a careful choice of words one can create some sort of harmony.
As for the period it took to write, “Memory Lane I”, I can’t tell. Perhaps it is time to confess that the first few lines were written for someone I had a crush on as a teenager. This was in 1998, or so. It is therefore a poem given to a non-fulfilled desire and imagination. I developed some other lines in an exercise book; I wrote a long poem and handed it over to him. Some made it into the published version and some did not. The first five lines would later be ‘pasted’ on a press board in the university in 2001 and the response I received made me decide to explore the theme of love much further. I continued rewriting now and again. Soon, the poem became entirely different from what it started out as, different from the first five lines. Perhaps, it is what I called a ‘memorial deviant’ of love in an interview I had with Dr Nereus Tadi (published in Matatu (No. 40). It is no longer a poem for someone I had a crush on. The persona in the poem: ‘Ajani’ has become a good resource objectifying romantic love not only as an emotion, but a participant in the course of mundane human lives. More so, it gave shape to the idea of ‘reparations’ which I was pursuing as a book.
Uche Peter Umez: Sappho, that’s who I was thinking of when I first read your collection, which is intense and replete with erotic impulses, even though the themes you handled are purely political. Audre Lorde stated that the erotic approximates the “assertion of the life force of women”. Still, why did you appropriate an erotic metaphor to frame your poetry? What attracted you to this approach? Don’t you think it will detract from the political urgency in your poetry? Is there a dichotomy between the erotic and the political?
the raped vulva pleads for menopause,
oversexed vulvas beg for a sex-change,
against violence, your thrust on their impotent will.
Jumoke Verissimo: Yes, too many good literatures are replete with the trope of eroticism and this is rather different from soft porn. I have to explain something however, before I delve into answering whether the metaphor in the poetry would detract. First, I’ll like to say, I would love to use the word ‘sensual’ rather than erotic to describe my poetry. My preference for the word is that indicates an experience being imagined—something anticipatory in a desired emotion. In this case, the narrated is experienced. Eroticism, most times, is the experienced being narrated. That said, the Niger-Delta experience has made an advocate of too many Nigerians. I think this is one poem that came in later to the collection. The situation of the place was brought to life through some photographs which Muhtar Bakare and Yemisi Ogbe (editor of Farafina at the time) commissioned a particular photographer to take. The images were haunting and I wanted to know more. This was alongside the lackadaisical response of government to the issue— considering that the environmental policies that should protect a place like that. I was angry and desirous of change at the same time, because I was experiencing also the first-hand suffering of people ‘shuffering and smiling’ each time I was on a bus. Bus-stops housed numerous zombies who appeared not to know what to do with themselves as their humanity has been stripped away. The masses living in a horrible condition—such a state of destitution was haunting. I must say, it is not that the situation has changed; lives are still impoverished and people are still angry, but we now have Zombies seem living on a shot of false hope: this time we assume our humanity has been restored again. The rape was in the Niger-Delta, but the dehumanization went across borders. The shame of the rape was for us all.
As for the dichotomy between the erotic and the political, I would only say that emotion runs under one umbrella, it is the ‘weather’ that changes. In this regard, I will conclude that though passion might be different in context. I have since found eroticism as a voice to exact a metaphor that repugned an environment that denied logicality. I did not set off to use eroticism as a trope in my writing; it only answered the messed-up emotions in me.
Uche Peter Umez: How do you approach the process of writing a poem? Do you have a concrete image in mind, or you start a poem by playing around with a few words, expecting them to cohere into something of meaning? For you, what often comes first – words or image?
Jumoke Verissimo: I am not sure. I am at times inspired by a word on a page uttered or read from a book. There are days, an image inspires me. I once worked with a photographer, because I was trying to experiment how pictures inspire words. For my books, I love to work on themes and to do this; I meditate for long periods—viewing the subject matter from different angles until I am sure I have an idea of what I want to write about. The writing process has to be planned these days. In many instances, I have a line come to mind and I play with the words until I have a picture of something I could interpret into a body of meaning. In this regard, for me, anything is possible—it could be words or image.
Uche Peter Umez: The ancient Greeks personified memory as a female Titan by the name of Mnemosyne. And it is quite interesting to note that Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses. From your experience in writing this collection how does poetry make history memorable – seeing as you evoked a lot of remembrances? Is poetry an act of remembering “of dry bones that failed to rise” or “yesteryear’s wound”?
Jumoke Verissimo: I love to think that memory exists so that we can ‘disremember’. I have used the word ‘disremember’ because it is only a medium to place out of mind, rather than delete from it. The multi-dimensional lifestyle in contemporary time has placed memory as a result of our collective living experiment. In borrowing Roger Moseley’s phrase, although he was referencing music adaptability and extemporaneousness. I will like to borrow that phrase for this purpose. Poetry is: the “improvisatory fluency in historical idioms”. History as a past would at times need reinvention and rendering of which poetry becomes a variable medium for actualizing this as a possibility.
Uche Peter Umez: Afam Akeh says, “Memory is the master griot stubborn with tales”, and in your collection I find this statement quite true, even truer in your poem “Mnemonics”, in which Calabar and Badagry signpost our colonial legacy. In Nigeria, however, there is a deliberate striving not to remember, to forget the “festival of transgression,” to evade our history. As a nation, it seems to me that we keep struggling against dealing with our bloody past. How, then, can poetry help us as a people not to keep “voyaging into waters of amnesia”, given our penchant for misadventures? Politics-wise, is this nation doomed to becoming another “generation of fief’?
Jumoke Verissimo: One of my favourite poetry lines is from Derek Walcott’s poem, “Origin”: “Memory in cerecloth uncoils its odours of river…” The imagery captures the entirety of the question you’ve asked.
You see, I have grown rather significantly from the time I wrote this collection, from being a very angry younger person in need of answers to all the social maladjustment around me. Today, still the questions I seek are yet to be answered. The present we live in is as bloody as our past—for me. We’ve only reinvented the past in series. Too many atrocities happen across the country; shared calamities like the Boko Haram, Niger Delta, social unrest, ‘Official’ Corruption, or is it plane crashes due to ineffectual government policies, and of course personal ones like Armed Robbery, assassins, drug counterfeits, and the never talked about depression, which many Nigerians are presently suffering from! Nigerians are daily conversing with disillusion. In this situation memory is a revision of needs.
Uche Peter Umez: The late Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai said, “Women’s issues are environmental issues are issues of social justice. No separation.” How do you react to this? As a female poet, excuse my catergorisation, what do think is expected of you by the female sex? Is it to give voice to their fears, dreams and hopes? Is it to bear witness against male privilege and domination?
Jumoke Verissimo: You could as well ask me why I write. (LAUGH). Understandably, women issues are a confounding representation of many years of how sexual category has become an identity. That is why I must first state that I think women issues is a collective responsibility, and whoever you are and whatever you do, it is important to stand against injustice, if you believe in humanity. Well, if you look at it, don’t you think it is interesting that there are just two divides—male and female; and one would expect that both parties respect themselves to make progress in the environment, but in many cases, those who even raise the issues of desiring “equality” for women as “male privilege and domination” as effrontery and trouble making. Even with widespread public relations on this, we still have some tradition that makes many women timid by imposing subservience on them. Indeed, this is why your quote on Maathai is rather significant for the cheated becomes the stripped that strips what is around it. Summary: a society that does not take care of its women loses its environment and its future.
As for what is expected from me as a ‘female poet’ I must confess I do not know. However, I would rephrase that to be, how do I intend to make my writing a tool that represents the cause of women? To this, I would write, I have and would always stand against injustice in whatever form it comes.
Uche Peter Umez: There is a lot of energetic writing by many aspiring poets and social media have made it much possible for anyone to access these writings. You would have heard some older Nigerian writers sneering at the writing of your own generation of writers. How would you respond to that? And what differentiates your poetry from the immediate generation before you? Do you feel connected to them in a literary sense?
Jumoke Verissimo: Well, I think this is something that has always been in the arts is for preceding generations to be condescending of the one before it. Personally, I think it is simply a way of validating and perhaps, understanding their art better in the context of a newly developed intellectual culture which appears to ‘ease’ things for the younger generation. The coming of the internet has communalised knowledge and this appears to make our lives ‘easy’. The hypertextuality of the arts even makes it all the more complex for many who are still steeped in the debate that certain things are to be done ‘traditionally’. Culture is dynamic, and what I referred to as intellectual culture is not exempted. In this regard, I see the older generation as a foundation—and even in certain cases where they are still writing, a newer lens to view social issues from a different dimension. You know there is a Yoruba proverb that says; Agba gbon, omo de gbon la fi da Ile Ife: (Translated: The wisdom of the young and the old built the city of Ile-Ife; this is with a background that ancient Ile-Ife was a vibrant city). Anyway, any young mind that wants to grow would not abandon the wisdom of the old, and would most importantly, not walk away from the reality of her time also. I guess one just have to understand the idiosyncrasies of both categories and reinvent it, perhaps one might find audience among them. I’ve always believed if your art is true to self, it is valid for all.
Uche Peter Umez: In using graphic sexual images, especially in the poem, “The Rape”, what did you hope to achieve? Is this some sort of feminist agenda to draw attention to male violence – or man’s tendency to disfigure what is held beautiful and sacred? Finally, what is the future of poetry in Nigeria, since there is so little public support for the arts?
Jumoke Verissimo: Many women would see rape as the highest form of debasement that can happen to their body. The words that came showed the contempt I felt, in that degree—speaking for a land which had in the past, enjoyed enormous fertility and hope. In that regards, I opt for your second assumption ‘man’s tendency to disfigure what is held beautiful and sacred.’
I think the best thing that can happen to the future of poetry in Nigeria is for poets to continue to write poetry. The issue of poetry advocacy is something topmost in my mind, especially as we have no records to how many poetry books are published annually, and by whom. How then would we generate interests from sponsors? Do they even know what we’re doing?
Although, the first step would be an aggressive poetry advocacy and I think it is coming—though slowly. Small groups across the nation organizing poetry events and sharing their talents, as for publishing, we have more of online magazines like Saraba, NigeriansTalk, etc., sustained by the individuals with their own funds, a few publishing houses are genuinely interested in publishing poetry. The structures for publishing are tilted towards prose, and the energy for poetry is much of a virtual world these days, and I can’t tell whether this is a good sign for now. Perhaps, the poetry ‘saviours’ are online. (LAUGHS)
One thing though, the more aggressive the advocacy the better, as it would come to a point where the audience is sensitized enough to desire to make an input. People would support what they are passionate about, and have an understanding of.
Let’s do our bit. Every poet should write in journals across the globe. Organise events if you have some skills with that. Do something. In the process, the form will adapt and reinvent itself into some form of importance—perhaps then, it would find widespread support. We are all just doing our bits. And no, I won’t bring government not giving artists grants into this; although there are bodies that should ensure that ideas are traded to encourage art grants and foundation for poetry, and other art forms.
Uche Peter Umez is a poet and short fiction writer. An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Uche has participated in residencies in Ghana, India, Switzerland and Italy. He has twice been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007 and 2011, and was one of the winners in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively. His latest children’s books The Boy who Throw Stones at Animals and Other Stories and Tim the Monkey and Other Stories have just been published by Melrose Books and Africana First Publishers (Nigeria) respectively.