Interview with Rasaq Malik, Poet Lore Pushcart Prize Nominee. Interview conducted by Ellie Tipton, managing editor of Poet Lore. This is the fourth interview with our six nominees.
WHAT MY FATHER SAYS EVERY NIGHT
If we wake up tomorrow, he says,
we will pray to Allah
until our knees
bleed, until our foreheads darken,
until the only words that linger
in our mouths are Allahu Akbar
If we wake up tomorrow without
having to search for our beloveds
at the scenes of bomb blasts, in the wreckage
of burnt cars, in the ruins of buildings,
in the fields of graves, we will recite
until our voices reach the
of God, until our eyes spill tears.
If we wake up tomorrow without hearing
bullets, without smelling corpses, without
enduring the news of war from Gaza, without
reading the list of the dead in Rafah,
Jabalia, Khan Younis, Maghazi,
North Gaza, we will shout Allahu Akbar
until our throats slacken, until our chests
quake, until the only thing we remember
is how to love God. If we wake up
tomorrow, he says, we will go to the streets
to help the wounded, the dying,
the young learning how to remember
their country, the orphans saying Help us,
, the old in clothes filled with dirt,
the sick gasping for breath in hospitals.
If we wake up tomorrow, he says,
we will learn how to survive another night.
ET: Can you tell our
readers where you are from?
RM: I am from Nigeria. I was born and bred in Iseyin, Oyo
ET: I am gripped by
this poem’s force and forward momentum. The repetition built within the poem
and the syntactical structure of the stanza drive the movement forward. I feel so
within the space of the poem that I must remind myself it is a constructed
space. Can you talk a little about your process? Did the poem rush out of you
onto the page or did you accumulate your father’s phrases and slowly stitch
them into the poem? Or, is there something in between these processes that is
more reflective of how you composed it?
RM: This poem struck my mind the moment I read some articles
about the Israelites’
“continuous attacks” on Gaza
. Many Palestinians died; mostly children. I
pondered on many tragic happenings in the world. Children are always at the
risk of being massacred.
In Nigeria, the boko harams ravage
the Northern part of the country
. They throw bombs and destroy houses. Many
northerners are exiles in their homeland. Recently, there was a bomb blast by
Nigerian air force, which was said to be “accidental” at an IDP camp in Borno.
I mean there is this universality of war that haunts me. The
world experiences annihilation.
In Gaza, in Syria, in Aleppo, etc, there is no peace. People
wake every dawn to realize there is war lurking in the air. They wake to the
sound of bullets, and safety seems to be a dystopian dream.
In addition, I would love to say that this poem, apart from
being inspired by the violence around us, it also captures the struggle we
encounter when inhabiting a troubled place. It talks about the parental fear,
and the use of “father” connotes the inherent care showered on the children by
their parents. Every mother wants her children to be safe, from war, from
blasts, from carnage, from missiles, etc.
Writing the poem did not take me months. I spent some weeks
and revisited it. My ritual is: a poem needs to speak to the soul. It should be
able to paint events through the careful handling of language. Since it carries
every language, it should speak to humanity.
ET: What do you feel
that this poem can teach Americans?
RM: This poem is dedicated to everybody because the
irrefutable fact is that we lose parts of ourselves when we pursue the mundane
things. The only solace is narrating our stories to the world, to people. This
poem should teach us how, as humans, we should be compassionate and peaceful to
others. There is no peace in war, and no matter how we try to escape, there
will always be testaments of ruins created by man’s inhumanity to man, man’s
unrestrained act of unleashing terror and torture to his other man.
America and the world should realize that it takes time to
heal, if there is a sure healing at all for the victims of war. Being human
transcends bearing a name. It transcends our physical features. Being human
means kindness and love for other humans. Being human means embracing others
and allowing them into your life.
ET: Along those lines,
it appears to me from reading your poetry that poetry is a lifeline for you. But
I’m curious to hear in your own words: what does poetry mean to you?
RM: Poetry is what leads me to my desk to write even when my
body aches. It is the eternal silence of a departed soul. It is the scarred
face of a war-victim. It is the grief of children abandoned during war. It is
what haunts, what shocks, what invokes, what breathes, what rises, and what
It is the documentation of world’s diverse experiences. It
operates as an archive, a library for unborn generations to learn about their
Poetry is sitting in a room to paint the thoughts of people
walking the streets, the dreams of people sweating under the sun, and the
cravings of people living as aliens in their homelands.
To me, poetry is a perfect photographer. It depicts and
portrays every man’s countless dreams through the deployment of verses that
seek a deep soul to comprehend.
Poetry survives death because it immortalizes life. It
recreates and reincarnates people through words.
Like a character named Style in “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” by
, poetry is a perfect photographer. It saves the memories of
important events in our lives. It electrifies and magnetizes our souls. It
brings us together to narrate our collective struggles. It binds and unchains
us. It is an unrestrained freedom.
ET: Wow. Thank you for
that impassioned response. I’m very curious to learn more about your
perspective as a Nigerian poet. From your experience, how do Nigerians view
poetry? How do they celebrate it?
RM: According to Edgar Allen Poe, “With me poetry has not been
a purpose, but a passion.” To my culture, poetry is passion. It is what we do
with immeasurable joy in our hearts. It is what strengthens and uplifts us. It
is what humanizes us and demeans stereotypes. It fosters unity.
A typical example of this unity is the moment when poetry
performers at festivals entertain the audience and praise dignitaries. Poetry
performances are always included at different festivals. It is also a means of
teaching morals and propagating the values of our cultures and traditions.
However, beyond this cultural demarcation lies the bigger
picture of what poetry entails in my country. Over the years, Nigeria has
produced brilliant and inspiring poets. Nigeria has witnessed the high influx
of writers using social media to reach a wider audience. These poets have been
able to connect with the outside world, to the world afar, to the world that
embraces writing and applauds commitment and devotion. We also have budding
writers wowing us with their groundbreaking and insightful literary pieces. In
their bid to explore and document their experiences and those of others, these
writers have been able to read and reflect some of the societal happenings, and
they have been able to proffer solutions to some of these debacles.
ET: Who are your
ET: Are there Nigerian
poets or poets from other cultures that you feel more Americans should be
RM: In Nigeria, the young poets have started a literary
revolution. These poets have invaded social media platforms to aid the
propagation of their poems. Some of them are transcending boundaries by being
published in international journals.
They include Wale Owoade
recently accepted by Guernica
brainchild behind the Expound Journal
accepted by Beloit Journal; David
, a poet and an editor of Panorama: the journal of intelligent
, an MFA graduate of Boston University, a two-time finalist in
Sillerman Poetry Prize, and a poet widely published in international journals; Gbenga
, a joint-winner, Brunel Poetry Prize (2016) and a finalist in the
Sillerman Poetry Prize (2017); Saddiq Dzukogi
a published poet, whose books have been shortlisted for major awards in
These poets have been able to react to the problems
happening in their society. They have been able to project their aches through
their writings. Americans should look out for these poets. They are
unforgettable through the images they paint.
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