“Read a lot and be patient” – Interview with Anthony Okpunor
As we anticipate the fourth edition of our Annual Creative Writing Contest, we recently interviewed the winner of the third edition in the poetry category, Anthony Okpunor.
Anthony hails from the Southern part of Nigeria. In this interview, he discusses his passion for writing; including his early days as a writer as well as some of the challenges and inspirations behind his art.
Ready? Let’s go!
Kreative Diadem: Who is Anthony Okpunor? Tell us briefly about yourself.
Anthony: Anthony is a mix of quiet and trouble. Fun, with a flair for solitude. Also a good listener & conversationalist. These provide the space for me to be an artist. I write poetry as an aesthetic. I love music a lot, a whole lot that I find myself singing almost all the time. There is then this attraction to people, not just my own space. I enjoy the company of (the right) people, gathered anywhere having long laughs at the silliest of things, toasting to friendship. This hybrid longing makes me omniverted. Before all these I’m a Nigerian male, dark skinned, from an Ibo speaking tribe in the South. I’m also a Christian. I love God.
Winner of the 2019 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Content (Poetry Category)
KD: When did you first discover your passion for writing and what inspired you?
Anthony: I’ll have to take you back to my secondary school days to give you an answer.
There was this tradition at the time where English teachers gave students compulsory essays with a title to write on. The tradition was in the title: “A Day I Will Never Forget”. I do not know if they still do it.
I remember I wrote a fiction. At the time I did not know it was called that. I did not mind, so long as the ideas kept pouring out of my head, I was happy. I remember I wrote about a robbery, what made me think of something like that; I will never know.
At the dawn of the following term when our exam papers were handed back to us, I turned out to have scored highest in that section. I still see the smile on my teacher’s face sometimes. I remember she made the entire class know I wrote the best story.
I got home and showed it to my sister who read it and said she loved the story. Ever since, I’ve grown one or two writing limbs.
KD: What are some of the challenges you face as a writer and what steps do you take to overcome them?
Anthony: I believe writers in Africa (Nigeria especially) have a challenge of getting access to good & contemporary books. In my country where there are not many libraries, & the ones available carry the weight of old thoughts, this is a huge challenge. There is hardly a place here where contemporary works are displayed for writers to have access to them. This is why literary festivals are such miracles.
Then there is the struggle to be “seen”. It is sad that writers are not really “writers” except they have been published in a foreign journal or have won a major award— which has to be foreign, else you were just lucky. Who made foreignness a test of true art? There’s no one to point a finger at anyway, because before now there was no platform to celebrate the younger generation of writers. But now there are literary bodies here and there, big and not-big. The Nigerian Students Poetry Prize at the moment is the highest platform for emerging writers that are undergraduates, and it is such a beauty because it gives every student a chance to express their art, & winners get recognition from home and abroad. Before now it wasn’t so.
I get my books online, some of which I have to pay for. Others I get from friends and colleagues. Being a writer anywhere is not easy, but I think here in Nigeria the volume is turned up a lot more. The good thing is, none of these hindrances have stopped us from telling the world we exist.
KD: What are some literary figures that inspire you and your work?
Anthony: I think Ilya Kaminsky inspires me a lot. I don’t know if it’s because I have read his jaw-dropping Deaf Republic countless times. I appreciate the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie too. I like her stories and the voice behind them. There is Chinua Achebe, who I believe to be the father of African literature. In that light, I still go back to the works of Wole Soyinka from time to time. Chris Abani. Kwame Dawes.
Coming down to a younger generation, there are a lot of them that have really dressed the Nigerian literary bed. They are poets like Saddiq Dzukogi, Romeo Oriogun, David Ishaya Osu, Okwudili Nebeolisa, Kechi Nomu, Chisom Okafor, JK Anowe, Theresa Lola, Logan February, Kolade Olanrewanju Freedom, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, Jide Badmus, Gbenga Adesina, Rasaq Malik, Gbenga Adeoba. They are beautiful poets like Michael Akuchie, Adedayo Agarau, O-Jeremiah Agbaakin, Ogwiji Ehi, Hussain Ahmed, Nome Patrick, Ernest Ogunyemi, Chukwuemeka Akachi (RIP), Wale Ayinla, Hauwa Shafii Nuhu, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Taiye Ojo, Ugochukwu Damian, Pamilerin Jacob. Some poet like Anthony Okpunor.
I also enjoy reading Safia Elhillo. I love how she uses language and metaphor to navigate identity. Also Aja Monet, Warsan Shire, Ladan Osman. There are many not mentioned here I would have loved to talk about. In general good art inspires me, not just poetry; songs too. Movies. Paintings. Drawings. Anything that has rhythm to it. And oh, I enjoy reading Shakespeare big time!
“It is sad that writers are not really “writers” except they have been published in a foreign journal or won a major award— which has to be foreign, else you were just lucky. Who made foreignness a test of true art?”
Winner of the 2019 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Content (Poetry Category)
KD: Last year, you won first prize in the flash fiction category of Kreative Diadem’s annual writing contest. What was your reaction like?
Anthony: The funny thing is I didn’t get to see it till an hour or two after the winners were announced. When I got the email, at first I wasn’t all jumpy. I wanted to be certain I knew what I was reading. It wasn’t until I began receiving accolades from friends that it started to dawn on me that I had won. It was a joy.
There is a kind of noise that comes with winning, that day that noise was all I could hear. And it’s great because before then I was seriously getting kicked by rejections. (I still get slapped around with rejections a whole lot). So there was no way of assuring success, but I won regardless. It came with both grace and light.
KD: What was the inspiration and meaning behind your winning poem: ODE TO OUR BODY ON FIRE?
Anthony: The poem on its own has no origin. It is a sequel to another poem I wrote in 2017, “When We Started Taking Notes”. I had told a friend that if she would take out time to write something, even if it wasn’t a poem, that I would write her a poem. A love poem somewhat about survival, for at the time I was reading Romeo Oriogun a lot. So my poems started to look like his. I believed I was “scammed” because she didn’t write anything that day, but I wrote mine. It’s sounding funny in my head. Anyway I posted the poem on Facebook before sending it out to African Writers.
That was where it all started from. So when I was to write for the competition, I went back to my old poems to find inspiration. As fate would have it, that poem was the first poem I read. I thought of creating another like it, and I did.
The winning poem carries the same thoughts with its antecedent; survival. The struggle to be anything at all. Not only the struggle to love, although it looks as if the poem takes just that one shape.
Now I write about love. But not the juvenility that parades the internet, I aim to heal. I believe there are many things that make up this ocean so I write about them too: things like grief, acceptance, peace, death, laughter, silence, thirst, lust, kindness, sacrifice, long-suffering, betrayal. There is no love without loss, so I write both black and white.
KD: Do you have any other published works aside from ODE TO OUR BODY ON FIRE, as well as any other achievements you’d like to share?
Anthony: I have works published on African Writers mostly. I’d be glad if readers took out time to read them. I have also had works on Rattle, the McNeese Review, Praxis Magazine. As for the achievements, I’m still working on those.
KD: What are some of your long-term goals as a writer?
Anthony: My long-term goals are really long. I prefer not to say for now.
KD: Any forthcoming works or publications?
Anthony: Yes. I have works forthcoming on Palette Poetry, and Frontier.
KD: What advice would you give to young writers like yourself, especially in Nigeria?
Anthony: Read a lot, and be patient with your art. In time it will be kind to you. Rejection is a crucial part of the journey so do not take any comment on your work personal. Every comment is an opinion. Have yours (an informed opinion), and grow.
Then write. Tell your story. Tell your truth the way only you can. The prize is not what is gained when you win, remember. When you don’t win— tell yourself nothing was promised.
Any final words for Kreative Diadem and its readers?
Yes: thank you.