“Poetry is imperfect and it’s that imperfection that makes poetry beautiful” – Interview with Okwudili Nebeolisa

“Poetry is imperfect and it’s that imperfection that makes poetry beautiful” – Interview with Okwudili Nebeolisa


“Poetry is imperfect and it’s that imperfection that makes poetry beautiful” – Interview with Okwudili Nebeolisa

We recently met up with Okwudili Nebeolisa, a heavily-decorated Nigerian writer.  His manuscript, “Country” was one of the final shortlisted entries for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets in 2016.

That same year, Nebeolisa was shortlisted for the Writivism Prize for Poetry-in-Translation and earned a coveted selection for the Ebedi Writers Residency. We discussed his beginnings, influences, abandoned projects, creative process and momentary feelings of despair. Enjoy.

KD: Can you please tell us about yourself? What was your childhood like?
Okwudili: My childhood was quite funny and very normal like anybody’s. I was very inquisitive and, according to my mom, I wrote on any blank sheet I could find, even the back of doctors’ prescriptions. My father loved reading; he was a fan of Achebe and he even had two books by Wole Soyinka. He read a lot of newspapers, sometimes several newspapers in a day, though he didn’t have a tertiary education. He just loved the idea of investing in someone’s thoughts. I got that reading streak from him. I don’t think I read as much as he does, though.
KD: At what age did you know you would follow a literary profession?
Okwudili: I think I started writing when I was sixteen. I was in SSS 2 at that time. But I started writing seriously two years later in my first year in the university.

Okwudili Nebeolisa

Photo accessed via Facebook

KD: You were one of four Nigerian writers selected for the Ebedi International Writers Residency in 2016. Could you describe your experience and the impact on your writing?
Okwudili: It was memorable. At least I got to write a complete poetry collection that got lost when I was kidnapped – but that is story for another day. I was also able to meet Rasaq Gbolahan, a wonderful poet in his own way. I was able to write some poems about Iseyin where the residency is located. I was able to have cherishable conversations with my very good friend David Ishaya Osu.
KD: Accept my sympathy. But what effects would you say that ordeal had on your writing? Did you at any point feel like quitting after losing such a body of work?
Okwudili: Of course, I felt like giving up in the beginning; but then that feeling of despair dissipates, and then you find yourself writing. I mostly wrote poems about the experience after that event, and then I began to make outlines for stories.
KD: How far gone is work on your first novel The Spirit House?
Okwudili: It was just halfway gone. That, too, went with the kidnappers. Sometimes I think that was a good sign for me to maybe discard the project.
KD: When you said you discarded the project, do you mean you are not going to write this particular book the same way you conceived it before it was lost, or that you don’t intend pursuing it any further?
Okwudili: I haven’t totally abandoned that project, but I do hope I will come back to it someday. Writers hardly totally abandon projects. I think I need some sort of luxury like the one at the Residency to return to that project.

But then, I found out that much about poetry is imperfect and it’s that imperfection that makes poetry beautiful.”

KD: You write poetry, fiction and nonfiction. When you have an idea do you immediately know the medium it will take? Of these three, do you have a favorite? Why?
Okwudili: I think, for now, my favorite is fiction, if we go by which genre I read the most, though that may change in the future. But I read across genres. It matters what I want to get across to my audience. For example, if I want it totally fictional, I write it as fiction. If I want it autobiographical or totally true, I write it as nonfiction, if I want it to be both, I normally use poetry.
KD: Is ‘The Pages’ in August autobiographical? To what extent do you allow memory in your writings?
Okwudili: Partly autobiographical, if by that you mean true. I was writing a batch of poems based on familial and personal themes. Currently, I am still working on very personal poems, trying to assess what I think of things that have happened to my parents (my mum especially), though fictionalizing some part to effect.
KD: Who are your favorite writers and what do you value in their works?
Okwudili: It matters across genres. In fiction, I adore Chimamanda Adichie, Marilynne Robinson, Edward P Jones, Anne Enright, Colm Tobin, Chinelo Okparanta; basically because of how they treat their novels on the character level and the relative ease with which they seem to make writing look. In nonfiction, I like Teju Cole, I like the essays of Atul Gawande and Samantha Powers. In poetry, it’s basically a thing of generation: the older generation has Louise Gluck as my favorite. I also like Wole Soyinka (though I haven’t read anything by him lately); I wish Chinua Achebe had written a lot more poetry. I like Sharon Olds, Spencer Reece, Charles Wright, Alice Oswald; in the younger generation, I love poems by Gbenga Adesina, Anthony Carelli, Mathew Dickman, Gbenga Adeoba (he has a way of saying the usual in the unusual way), Kechi Nomu, and Katharine Larson.    
KD: Ishion Hutchinson has said that a poem is the vehicle of reciprocal tension between what came before and what is present, not as perfect synthesis but from, and towards, memory. Would you agree with that?
Okwudili: That reminds me of a saying Jameson Fitzpatrick told me, ‘that prose proceeds and verse reverses’. I found out that when I am writing poetry, I am often going back to make sure there aren’t redundant statements, and in that sense I think I am trying to make sense of an event. I don’t know whether it’s reciprocal, it may be, I don’t know. But then, I found out that much about poetry is imperfect and it’s that imperfection that makes poetry beautiful.
KD: Thanks for your time.

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