Monday, March 20, 2017

Poetry is What Haunts, What Shocks, What Invokes: Fourth of Six Interviews with Poet Lore Pushcart Prize Nominees

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.

Rasaq Malik

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
the Qur’an until our voices reach the heart
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,
we’re hungry
, 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 state.

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 glows.

It is the documentation of world’s diverse experiences. It operates as an archive, a library for unborn generations to learn about their antecedents.

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 Athol Fugard, 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 influences?

RM: Jumoke Verissimo, Laura Kaminski, Danusha Lameris, Tarfia Faizulla. These poets explore the world in their poems and invite the reader to relish its beauty and cruelty. These poets tell important stories. Their poems are reflections of life’s manifold encounters and struggles.

ET: Are there Nigerian poets or poets from other cultures that you feel more Americans should be reading?

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, the brainchild behind the Expound Journal; Okwudili Nebeolisa, recently accepted by Beloit Journal; David Ishaya Osu, a poet and an editor of Panorama: the journal of intelligent travel; D.M Aderibigbe, an MFA graduate of Boston University, a two-time finalist in Sillerman Poetry Prize, and a poet widely published in international journals; Gbenga Adesina, 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 Nigeria. 

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.

Purchase the issue where Rasaq’s poem appears here.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

This great poet is vast and passionate about his passion. Great interview!