Art is Not Snobbish
David Osu speaks with Romeo Oriogun about writing, verbs as boys, and being shortlisted for the Brunel International Poetry Prize.
Romeo Oriogun‘s poems have appeared in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, Expound, Kalahari Review, and elsewhere. Shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2017, he’s the author of Burnt Men, a chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online. He lives and write in Udi, a small town in Eastern Nigeria.
Where were you when you received the news of being on the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlist? And how does it feel?
I was at work. The news came at a time when I was emotionally down; so it came with hope. To be truthful, it still surprises me; people like hardly have good things happen to us and when it does, we don’t know how to react, so I’m trying to tell myself that I deserve this, that I worked for this, that I have to relax and enjoy the moment while it lasts.
Could you walk us through your journey into writing?
Unlike a lot of writers, I can’t say I started writing early. Writing came to me late in life, in my late twenties. I have always been an avid reader of poetry and had tried writing while I was in junior secondary school but it was nothing serious. I started writing seriously three years ago; I was at a point of losing everything, I was tired of life and was looking for a rope to hang myself when I found a book of poetry gifted to me by my literature teacher in secondary school. The first poem in it was JP Clark’s Streamside Exchange; after reading it I felt as if I had been immersed in water; it gave me strength to look at life and its uncertainties and that, even with the chaos and turmoil going on in my head, I have a place here. That poem gave me permission to write and I started to write about my memories and other things, and since then I’ve not look back.
Your writings have reached many readers via your regular presence on Facebook. And this is really great a means and significant a time—reaching an audience at quick clicks. Interestingly, your chapbook is published online. On the other hand, there has been an argument from the Nigerian literati dismissing online literary publishing. What’s your take on this?
To each his own means of reaching out; everyone’s experience is valid just as everyone’s journey. When I started writing, I submitted works everywhere and they were rejected. I then stumbled on poetry in Facebook and Instagram and it was amazing—a lot of poems were so bad but then there were good ones, beautiful ones that blew my head away and I thought it was beautiful how these poets were creating their own paths, their own journey, owing their experiences. I know the Nigeria literary gatekeepers frown on poems published on social media and even poems published in some foreign journals; I really don’t care what they think; social media has brought art closer to a lot of people, it has showed them that art is not snobbish. When someone inboxes me to say a poem of mine helped him through difficult moments, all I think about is how privileged I am to be alive in this time when a click can give people access to your work, when a click can sometimes give them the key to open rooms that can save them. I’m justified in walking this path when people reach out and say how my poetry helped them or how they feel valid in their bodies. I’m grateful that I’ve walked this path and that I own this part of my journey.
There is this assertive flavour in your poems—how chaos and harmony occur all at the same pace in your poetics. For instance, “a boy learns about the wetness of his thighs on a cold night”. There appears to be both pleasure and pain happening at the same time. Can you trace the history of this particular metaphor and how it dawned on you?
I have a friend who is gay, who told me that when he felt the desire rise up in his body he felt like dying and also there was a feeling of joy finding home in him; he lived with this conflict for years before finding home in his self. When I was writing ‘Invisible Men’ I was wrung between his journey as well as mine as well as a lot of people living with the conflict in their bodies.
Still on the same poem, ‘Invisible Man’: who is the invisible man? I see a scenario of a repressed male in conflict with his desires and bodily fulfillment. The scenario of wet dreams. I personally remember how guilty I felt those days as a teen when I woke up in the morning with flashes of an erotic dream with a wet pant to prove. Somehow, I have heard similar childhood stories from other boys. While this was entirely a natural occurrence, a boy suffers guilt which in turn distresses his erotic life in future. What’s your take on this?
You are right, wet dreams are part of growing up for most boys; but for queer boys it is different, it comes with shame, with a need to keep the experience secret, most times they don’t know what they are feeling because homosexuality is not permitted to take air openly and so they think of their bodies as evil and it goes on till adulthood. In reality, wet dreams are natural just as being gay is natural, and they shouldn’t be ashamed; but society tells them that they are bad lights that must not shine, so you have boys hating themselves, boys wishing for death, boys struggling to kill this desire for love when they are beautiful beings filled with love and sunshine.
In primary school we had a quick definition for a verb: a verb is an action word, straightforward. And in this poem, you say: “Verbs are boys learning how to kiss…Verbs are boys learning how to love.” I find the image you’re making here true—that is the act of learning how to love; it’s a behaviour that we daily repeat and never get tired of, whatever our sexual or religious understanding. Somehow, to some readers, the image of boys kissing would appear unconventional; yet it does strike me as an idiom saying that love is universal, that love and loving are basic amenities for humans. Do you share in my view? And if yes or no, how do you handle confrontations from the public especially as you write on sensitive subjects and as yourself hold to beliefs in defiance to public acceptance?
I agree with you. While love and hate are always present in humans, the expression is learned, we pick it up from people around us and we choose which way to follow based on things around us—for instance, the practice of boys hugging each other is frowned at and so you have boys growing up afraid of touch from other boys and this deprives them of a type of love that is not sexual but natural and something that should be in us. It kills the softness inside us and you find men walking with a fear of touch. I feel as humans, we are full of love and we should give out that love freely and willingly. When I write about queerness I don’t think about the reaction of the public; I know that I’m putting myself in a dangerous spot but I just write because someone has to write about this inhumane treatment of queer people going on; we have to remember that once people seeking to love were persecuted, that our future has to look at the past to understand why men ran to darkness to love; and if, in the present, these poems help someone to leave homophobia then I’m happy about it. People have insulted me and someone reported me to the police, I was scared during that episode but I know most people hating queer people are confused and afraid of change. Queer people have always been here and everyone’s body is valid and deserves to walk in the open, free of shame or lynching or death. It is this that keeps me going.
If one is to bash into your room right now, what authors or books would one find spread on your table or bed?
At the moment I’m moving to a new apartment, so my room is a mess. I’m reading for the fourth time Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, there’s Ocean Vuong Burnings, Richard Siken’s Crush and Khaleed Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns nearby.
You are a road safety officer and you’re also into photography. How do you juggle all these demanding occupations? Could your case be likened to the biblical parable of the talents, where one servant puts to use his talents and gets them multiplied? Because I see you moving from one art form to another.
At work I play drums because I’m a member of the band and it’s amazing what sound can do, how it can twist a man into different emotions, how it can show a man songs falling out as memories; for me, art is a way of living, of documenting, of relaxing; every form art is filled with impossibilities, it is filled with ways by which we can discover our humanity. It is this that pulls me into different forms of art; when I’m about to write or to take a picture or standing as music tear into me, there is this feeling I get, that we are the ones to save ourselves, to put smiles on our faces, we are earth therefore we are alive and beautiful and we have to strive towards this. Maybe art can’t save us but it’s a vehicle we can take to saving ourselves. I do not find what I do demanding, even when I’m writing a poem that will leave me broken—I find what I do liberating, I find freedom in it and I go into it again and again because there are pains that leave us as seeds and because of that we have the means to grow anew, to experience life in a new phrase.
I hear writers love coffee madly, what do you love?
Red wine. Give me a vintage bottle of red wine, a book, a beach front and leave me for hours or days and I’m okay.
It’s a big pleasure talking. I love you, Romeo.
I love you too and I look forward to read more of your amazing poems. We are the future.