A Conversation with Rasaq Malik
Rasaq Malik is a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including Michigan Quaterly Review, Poet Lore, Spillway, Rattle, Juked, Connotation Press, Heart Online Journal, Grey sparrow, Jalada, and elsewhere. He is a two-time nominee for Best of the Net Nominations. His poem was among the finalists for the 2015 Best of the Net Nominations. Recently, Rattle Magazine and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. Rasaq was shortlisted for the 2017 Brunel African Poetry Prize.
You’ve lived in Ibadan all the while. How has the city shaped or motivated your literary pursuits?
Ibadan is a city of stories. It is a city decorated with garlands of histories. From ancient histories to the unbroken link of recent stories surfacing in the city every day, I would say I have learnt in/from this city canonized by J.P Clark in his memorable poem. When I migrated to Ibadan in 2009, I never thought of the inherent beauty and accommodation showered on me by this city. University of Ibadan housed me. Okigbo Poetry Club, situated in the English department, has helped improve the writing skills of some of us. We used to hold meetings and discuss literary issues. We held readings in the department and attended readings off campus. Then Servio Gbadamosi and Femi Morgan emerged with Artmosphere, a monthly reading and discussion of art. We would attend and meet other literary enthusiasts and mentors. The likes of Baba TadeIpadeola, Aunty Jumoke Verissimo, Madam Ayo Olofintuade, Joseph Omotayo, Oladele Noah, Kayode Olla Taiwo, etc. would grace the readings and dazzle the audience with their literary pieces. I remember contesting for Okigbo Poetry Prize when I was an undergraduate. Santi Femi has just started a documentation of events that happen in Ibadan, on the wall he christened “Awa ti Ibadan.” I have learnt a lot by reading the stories he posts on Facebook and Instagram. In all, Ibadan has motivated my literary pursuits.
This came to mind particularly because you studied in the University of Ibadan and the school is known to have produced some great Nigerian writers. I am tempted to think that what lured you to the university was the Ibadan history of these writers. Is this true?
I never knew about the literary history that started with the Mbari Mbayo club, nor the wealth of writers that started the literary struggle in 1961. I grew up in Iseyin, and I learnt about Ibadan through my mother—a businesswoman—who patronized Agbeni and Idi-ape to buy whatever she needed. So, when the time was ripe for me to further my education, my father bought the form and filled it. I sat for the exam and passed. The rest is history. When I gained admission to the University, I read the Idoto magazines in the library. I later learnt about writers like Christopher Okigbo, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Ademola Dasylva, Ibukun Babarinde, Yeku James, Akin Sesan, Yomi Ogunsanya, etc. who jointly contributed immensely to the growth of literature in Ibadan and the world.
Cities interest me—the physical place, people and their pains and pleasure. I would like to know: what pains you about Ibadan?
I have never discovered the painful part of Ibadan. Or maybe the city’s calmness, unlike Lagos, shadows the pain. I have met people in this city. I have visited a few places, and I can say Ibadan is a city with beautiful people.
And then you moved to Benue state for your compulsory national service. What did the new place do to your psyche? What were your experiences?
Benue was a difficult place. I was posted to Government Secondary School, Mbaduku, Vandeikya Local Government. There was blackout for eight/nine months. I was determined to finish my Yoruba prose work and other literary works, but the erratic power supply truncated my dream. However, the first month in Mbaduku was profound. In spite of the obvious challenges, I slept on a mat for a month. I wrote some of my poems when night beckoned. The empty house at the façade of our house symbolized many things to me. I used to charge my phone at a nearby shop. I also heard about deaths in Benue: a teacher died the first week I resumed to the school; one of my students died too; we heard news about deaths in town. Coffins are more popular in Benue. I saw coffins everyday: coffins at carpenters’ shops, coffins at backseats of cars, coffins everywhere. Every week was a feast of funeral. The strange thing was the rate at which young people died. It shocked me. People would dance at funerals, eat akpu, and leave for their homes. Man, I began to dare death in Benue.
What do you feel when writing a poem?I mean, many of your poems come with a melancholic presence. Is this only about your writing, or a projection of your temperaments?
Think anger. Think fear. Think emotion. Think love. Think war. I feel the world gathering in a poem. I like to touch every part of the world. I feel light and darkness. I feel hope and losses. I feel ache and laughter. I feel bliss and war. I feel everything I want to write is going to reflect people’s thoughts and transform them.
I feel there is a need to say that there is an urgent need for the proper documentation of stories that invoke and evoke, that incite and instigate, that dim the bright light of humanity and trouble our hearts. In Nigeria, apart from the socio-political quagmire that continues to mock our collective struggle, it is pertinent to state that the hapless masses occupying Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps are among those who, like us, never prayed to be victims of war. Unfortunately, there was war, and there is still war, perpetuated by those who find bliss in shedding blood and wrecking our country. My poems emanate from these occurrences. My poems capture the events in a way that would make people reflect and ponder, and even offer lasting solutions to the diverse problems that affect the growth of humanity. They have nothing to do with my temperaments.
Do you see yourself branching into other genres of literature and art forms?
I write prose. I am also working on a memoir. I like pictures. Sometimes I draw with my eyes before I write. These things have helped me in understanding the world better.
You write in both English and Yoruba. Which of the two do you prefer to write in?
I prefer writing in both languages. Both capture my mind and the stories that gather in my head every day. However, Yoruba language paints deeper than English language. It may be because Yoruba is my first language. There are some stories that are more beautiful when written in Yoruba. Some expressions dazzle more when written in Yoruba.
What frightens you about poetry?
The pity it exudes when something tragic happens, the emotion that erupts when we read it, the fact that it opens doors for us to explore the beauty and shock that populates it. Defining poetry, Emily Dickinson says: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”. Emily’s definition captures my phobia. Poetry tends to rattle one’s wholeness. It voyages one to another realm of existence. It is magical and transformative.
What five poetry books do you return to again and again?
Jumoke Verissimo’s I am memory, Tarfia Faizulla’s Seam, Laura M Kaminski’s Dance Here, Danusha Lameris’s The Moons of August, and Peter Akinlabi’s Iconography.