To celebrate the launch of the latest in the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set series, Saba, and the opening of the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize in African Poetry submissions period, our book prize coordinator, Jamaica Baldwin, is talking to poets whose chapbooks are included in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba). This series continues with a conversation between Jamaica and poet Adedayo Agarau. The interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited for publication.
Jamaica Baldwin: Your chapbook, The Origin of Name, is published in the gorgeous New-Generation African Poets Box Set that just came out. Is this your first book publication? If so, how does it feel to have your first chapbook published as part of this series?
Adedayo Agarau: I woke up around 1:00 am that morning to the acceptance mail, and I remember screaming in my room. Although this is not my first chapbook, it is one of the most important works I’d ever do. The New Generation African Poets Box Set is every African poet’s dream, and it feels great to have found my work in the hands of people who have walked the forest for years and in the company of emerging voices whose poetry and friendship have always stayed. Beyond the publication itself, I am proud and happy of the company of writers my work sits with. So, it is all joy for me, forever. I have always wanted this, and now it’s here —that is my flex.
JB: Describe the process of constructing your chapbook. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?
AA: It is funny that the supposed titular poem in The Origin of Name did not make the book. But here is the story—
When I got the invitation to submit, I had just written a poem titled The Origin of Names, whose conception was very random. I was both nervous and afraid that I might not be submitting because I didn’t have a chapbook or a central idea to work on. I spoke with my support system, Salawu Olajide, and he asked about what I’d recently worked on. That was it. That was just it. I then started to research.
I have always believed that fiction is the story of the unknown. By this, I mean there is still someone’s truth aching in your imaginations. For example, I have a friend whose wife had a stillbirth, and for weeks, he kept dreaming about carrying a backpack with a child wailing from inside it.
In 2013, an older colleague died while trying to give birth to a girlchild. In every way possible to blot out a thing, I have invented ways to forget my colleague, but each time I see her child, the striking resemblance, it becomes so hard to walk out of that room of memory. The Yorubas, hence, have cultural and traditional establishments that surround every element of grief. The stories that we grab from the soil, the ones we catch in the air — everything that gathers within is a foundation settled in grief.
I have never seen— maybe because I haven’t traveled widely — a people whose history holds the pillars of existence as closely as the Yoruba’s does. Everything that happens here, now, in this very moment, has been foreseen since a bird became a god, since the inception of divinity. Our metaphors pluck for themselves all the important elements of this world: sea, water, night, cowries, salt, bird, god.
So, this work is a brief dissertation about origins.
JB: That’s powerful and beautiful. Thank you for sharing this story.Tell me,did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?
AA: I think what worked for me was that I had a titular poem. Then a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the chapbook. What I later found out was that throughout the poem, I ferried my conversation about grief and how it is a bedrock of our history, how “naming” can be a way of admiring and exalting grief. Also, there was no way I’d attempt something as brief as a consideration of history without ticking the box of Godhood and Mythology in poems like “The Cross and The Crossing,” “In This Poem The God of Iron Takes Over a Child,” “The God of Thunder Struck My Father While He Fled The Night I was Born,”and some other poems in the chapbook.
JB: I’m glad you brought up mythology. What I find so striking about this collection is the way so many of the poems act as both elegy and ode, celebration and mourning. In “A Portrait of My Sister as Talabi” you write, “My sister stands before a mirror, / counts the number of eyes growing on her skin. / She bows her head in prayer & returns to the grave” (14). The speaker, as Mahtem Shiferraw notes in her introduction, often embraces “the solitary hybridity that comes from surviving in the liminal space between existences” (5). These poems read as creation myths calling forth ancestors and Gods while simultaneously reckoning with the violence of living. In “Abiku” you write, “Imagine each closed door is a mother / crying her child back into her womb. // Imagine the grave as a reunion / of kids falling out of their mothers’ wombs” (19). The grave is a consistent image in the book, but it’s not always a letting go, but sometimes an embracing. Could you talk a little bit about the role of death and birth in the book, about the liminal spaces?
AA: I like to believe that the grave is the place for the actual revival. This question reminds me of the account of Jesus’s death and its several significances, the liberation it ensured. When he died, he went to liberate the dead (Mt. 27: 52-53). Moving away from that, I’d like to say that dying, according to the Yorubas, is a transition, not an end. Birth also isn’t a beginning. It is a phase. I read somewhere that the Ogberis feared death because it moves them from the known to the unknown. Growing up, I heard a story of a man who died in Ibadan but was found in Kaduna as a father of three and a Vulcanizer. He was a wealthy Yoruba chief priest in the first life. In the second, he couldn’t even speak Yoruba. But on the day they discovered or identified him, he stopped existing. The science of tradition is a fragile one, one on which a long line of history rests. I started to write about grief because of how many friends have left this world. My friend, Taofeek, walked me home in Primary 5, then went his way. The next morning, we got the news in school that he fell sick the night before and didn’t wake the next morning. This absence begs for questions or answers…was he waiting for his time? Was he gone because he actually fell sick?
Eleven years later, I had a dream that Taofeek impregnated someone I know. A few days later, I found out that she was indeed pregnant, but for someone else. That opened up another question. Was that a dream, a preoccupation with my beliefs and unbelief? Was it a revelation of my grief? Did Taofeek wear someone else’s body?
What I use my poetry to achieve is to attempt to question answers which I am unsure of. Birth and Death are a part of our human existence, they are phases that we shall dive into, and it is at that point that we can truly come to an understanding of what has been and what will be. Poetry does the job of shifting our imaginations out of the ordinary. I believe that each story has its owner.
JB: Indeed. Beautifully said. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?
AA: The editing process was an important experience in my writing journey, and everyone should have an editor that is patient with detail, has eyes for cohesion, and allows themself to dive into the writer’s heart as Kwame did with my book. I was surprised when I got back the editing suggestion and saw that my favourite poems weren’t even going to make it. I understand, through that process, the need for correctness.
Every publisher should hold carefully every process when publishing anything from acceptance to editing for the selection of cover. I was shocked to read Mahtem Shiferraw’s Preface. No one would have been able to usher in my writing with so much insight and light as Mahtem did. Without APBF, it may have been really difficult to have gathered this much range in such a small book as I did in The Origin Name.
JB: Yes. Mahtem and Kwame are generous readers and editors. What project (s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?
AA: This would be a collection of poems about my dead grandmother. Poetry helps me to document experiences and reimagine my relationship with the dead while they were alive and beyond. My grandmother had a full stroke before she died, and it was financially, emotionally, and physically exhausting for every one of us at home. When she died in 2016, I remember my father walking into my room around 12:00 am to break the news to me, the wind that violently gathered itself in my room after he left. It took me years to properly articulate this grief, this loss that shook my family so angrily. I started to write poems about the memories of her that I carry everywhere. I hope it transforms into a full-length sometime.
JB: I’m sure it will. This has been an incredibly tough year in so many ways. Yet there have been some unexpected connections, insights, and new ways of being in the world that have sprung from this hardship. Is there anything you’ve learned this year? Any insight, hope, experience, etc., you’d like to share with us?
AA: 2020 is an unusual year, to be very honest. It has been my year of learning and relearning. The year that I started to love the way I have always wanted to. My year of expression. The miracles of tiny things like a smile. The year I found progressive friendship in writer friends who are now my family—Patrick, Pamilerin, Adebayo, Henneh, Jeremiah, Wale, Michael.
As Henneh said, we’ll leave this year knowing that we need people more than we thought we did. My miraculous has been in the people I met and stayed with this year.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add about your chapbook, the series, poetry in general, the world, anything at all?
AA: Oh yes, it is important that we as poets remember that we are custodians of memories. And that history is passed down through different means. It is one of the functions of the poet to preserve history, story, tales, experiences using his craft.
Adedayo Agarau’s chapbook, Origin of Names, was selected by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes for New Generation African Poet (African Poetry Book Fund), 2020. He is the author The Arrival of Rain. Adedayo is an Editor at IceFloe, Assistant Editor at Animal Heart Press, and a Contributing Editor for Poetry at Barren Magazine. His works have appeared on Agbowo, Glass Poetry, Mineral Lit, Ghost City, Temz, Linden Avenue, the Shore Poetry, Giallo, and elsewhere. Adedayo curated and edited an anthology of Nigerian poets, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. You can find him on Twitter @adedayo_agarau or agarauadedayo.com.
Jamaica Baldwin grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. She earned her B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific University. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Third Coast, Prairie Schooner, Hayden’s Ferry, Rattle, The Missouri Review, and TriQuarterly, among others. She was the winner of the 2019 San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Contest in Poetry and received an honorable mention for the 2019 International Literary Award’s Rita Dove Prize. Her writing has been supported by Hedgebrook and the Jack Straw Writers program. Jamaica lives in Lincoln where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.