Okwudili Nebeolisa

I Come From A Home Where Laughter Is Always Available

Born in 1993, Okwudili Nebeolisa is a Nigerian writer whose works have appeared in Commonwealth Writers, Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, Transition Magazine, Crannog Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Salamander Magazine. He has appeared on the final list of the Okot p Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation, The 2017 Erbacce Prize and the ongoing 2018 Gerald Kraak Award.


I want us to begin from joy: what gives you the utmost joy in life? 

When my writing is going well, it gives me joy, regardless of how slow the writing process is, as long as it is flowing, I’m very grateful. 


And so what fascinates you about poetry, about writing in general?

What fascinates me about all writing, especially poetry, is knowing that language doesn’t have a barrier/boundary. I like to see where these boundaries are stretched but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to see where the rules of language and form are strictly followed. Following the rules is also a kind of stretching the form. 


Talking about language: in what language do you think and perceive things? considering that you’re Igbo and that you’ve lived all your life in northern Nigeria where Hausa is what’s mostly used for communication. How would you describe your integration into both languages as a poet writing in English? And from your knowing that boundaries can be stretched. Let me also ask: what is the language of poetry? 

I think in English though I understand a little Hausa and a lot of Igbo. I have occasionally used these languages in my poems and I have found out they can also be used metrically, which is a nice thing when you’re proficient in those languages. But I am not proficient in these languages. I believe the language of poetry is musical. I strongly believe a poem without music is not a poem. It has to be melodic in my ears because I love music. 


How do you then achieve musicality in your poems? What patterns do you follow in bringing out the music with ease during composition? I am particular about your process, ’cause I notice your arrangement of consonants in the poem, The Pages in August.

The musical part of my poems, if there’s any, comes unconsciously. Because I’m mostly listening to music when I’m not reading, I think my poems tend to follow the rhythm of the song(s) I’ve been listening to around the time of writing the poem. Like you, I am a fan of replaying one song over and over again and only then can I know the ‘mechanics’ of the song. Sometimes you can’t tell why you love a song you just unjustifiably love. I remember telling a friend that I know a poem I have written to be good only when I can recognize my voice in it. Music may be like that, too. 


That reminds me of what Jane Hirshfield said in an essay. She said, “the power of beautiful sound and structured language is one such lure”. You know, sometimes I ask the open air, especially when sound or a very beautiful song is making butterflies out of me, “where is this coming from? Where does music come from? From what root or bottom does good music come?” It seems abstract or intangible, yet the body carries it. Is that how you feel with songs that blow your mind?

Songs I feel passionate about make me forget myself and I just delve into them. And since language and music are synchronous, you find that songs that thrill you also do something with language. Sometimes just to find out the musical parts of prose, I read it aloud and you can see how the writer was able to achieve something musical with their writing, like in prose writers such as ZZ Packer and Anthony Doerr.


Humor is a significant element in your work—both prose and poetry. I laugh like a pregnant chicken anytime I read your poem, Vigilante. You painted the picture of a curfew and its emptiness and the ‘duties’ of soldiers in such a time. And then the irony of them watching nude photos instead of watching over the city. It really shows the two sides of a coin. The event isn’t palatable, of course because a curfew is mostly as a result of some unrest; yet you drive the telling of the story with amusement. I want to investigate your sense of humor. (Laughs).

(Laughs). People tell me I’m funny when they read my work, though my humor is unintended. I come from a home where laughter is always available. If you’re found frowning, someone would pinch you or make jest of your face or the odd shape of your head. So when I apply that knowledge, when I look at an image, I just wonder what part of this is odd, and usually that odd part turns out to be funny. Beloit Poetry Journal calls my poem in their journal an elegiac poem but when my brothers read it they were laughing, saying that I was just making jest of our mother, which was kind of true. 


It’s interesting to know that you share your work with your family. Are there not pieces you wouldn’t want them to read or know about?

Sure, there are. I don’t allow them read works in which they are portrayed in an unfavorable light. I was advised by an editor who said Julian Barnes told her that the writing advice he has taken along with him is “Write as if your parents are dead.”

Two questions in one: you’ve been writing for a while now, how would you describe your evolution as a writer over time? What significant changes do you notice with your work (and even within yourself as a person)?

I remember when I was experimenting with form and my choice of words, when I was obsessed with numbers in my poems. Like three years back, in my final years in school, I only wrote at night on my way home and the poems were full of dark images and probably the moon. Now I seem to be interested in the weather because I’m always looking outside when I get stuck in my writing. So I fill up that vacancy with talk about the weather. Within me now I have realized I’m never eager as I used to be to finish a poem, I let it write itself in my head and it could take four to five days to write the first draft of a poem. As long as I’m satisfied with the result. 


So, your negotiation with the muse is quite on the level of staying with the poem and observing and embracing the result, of course while you do your work as a craftsman. I remember you used to write in notebooks, do you still do? I mean, which do you consider convenient in trapping that sudden flash of inspiration: a phone, a notebook or your laptop?

For a flash of idea, I use my phone. I have a notebook app that doesn’t use a fancy font. I am particular about fonts because I think they can be deceptive. For fiction I still work on paper. But for the poems, I think I might go back to notebooks because they are good when you’re writing on a theme, which I’m doing currently.


What’s the beginning of a poem for you like?

The beginning of a poem for me is an image. Recently I was talking with my mother while she was cooking and in the hot atmosphere of the kitchen I realized this was an image, in fact a complete poem. I had to leave my mum there and then start the poem. The image is something that sparks a lot in me, which is why I said in this interview that when I’m stuck I look outside—I guess what I’m looking for in that process is an image that can trigger the deadened process. But sometimes a bit of a conversation from a friend could also ‘spark’ a poem and I’d stealthily pull out my phone to steal that bit of the conversation for a poem.


Between your poetry and your prose, which do you trust the most?

That’s a very tricky question. I feel like anyone I don’t choose is the one I’m betraying. I’ve recently been working on a short story which is kind of rare but then poetry seems to come easily to me because it doesn’t require the amount of development required in fiction. All that treatment of themes and character can be so gruesome when you aren’t achieving the kind of results you desire, in that is the purpose for the story met?  Poetry is a slippery thing. You have either written a good poem or not but you can be forgiven for a ‘half-good’ story. So I think I trust prose more. 


One of my favorite poems of yours is Mermaid. The poem is heartbreaking and at the same time beautiful. I read the poem out over and over, and I get this thought that the metric employment particularly shows variations of feelings the speaker is struggling with (first, as a person, and then as a narrator). Tell me: how did this poem happen?

Because it’s an old poem, I don’t really remember how it came to be. I was still an engineering student. I had seen a documentary about a man who goes fishing with only a spear and that image of him underwater walking as if he were on land, with his spear, was arresting. And I think it was raining and Minna can be full of moths then and all these images added to a story of a girl who drowned in the water, unknown  to her friends, most probably in the night because that was the time I was obsessed with the night. 


I’m curious about this in the poem: “Ada had gotten more intimate with / water more than anything else”. I find this metaphor very striking; plus, water as a metaphor for life. Permit me to ask a personal question: do you have some spiritual affinity with water? ‘Cause the lines I culled above have a million layers of meanings and revelations. I am also interested in knowing how physical elements metamorphose into metaphors for you. How would you describe your relationship with dreams and the conscious realm?

Spiritual affinity with water? I think then I had that kind of relationship but now I’m more in a spiritual relationship with the land(scape) than with water. Physical elements feature repeatedly in my poems, especially when it rains, I feel more attached to the earth (not sand per se but everything in it). Most times you can know in what weather I wrote a poem from merely reading it.


About the unconscious, I usually like to have a difference between the two so much so that I hardly remember my dreams. I dreamt last night but I don’t even know what I dreamt about. I like to feel like I fully own the poem even though sometimes it seems like the poem is writing itself. I immerse myself more in the conscious than in the subconscious.  


That takes me to landscapes. As a student of architecture and city planning, I like to engage with people’s perceptions about places of dwellings and cities in general. What are your favorite Nigerian cities? And how much do they influence your writing?

I am not a fan of cities. I love sleepy places.  While I was serving the country at Bokkus, [After University, students are required to do one year of national service in Nigeria] a sleepy village in Plateau state, I was able to write a lot of poems from merely looking at the massive expanses of land that they used for farming. But I still hold Kaduna dear to my heart maybe because it’s where I have lived for a long time.


You’re a small town person. A quiet green village and you’re good to live and write (laughs). Let’s talk a little about new writings in Nigeria:  what’s your perception of the new crop of Nigerian writers and your vision for the literary culture in general?

Young Nigerians writing poetry today are resilient. They are pushing the boundaries every day and making statement by the places they are appearing in, trying to deconstruct constricting beliefs about the form held by the predecessors. They are making one clear statement: that no one can define them.


You’ve been publishing for a while now. How do you deal with rejection? What motivates you to keep going, to keep writing?

Nowadays I’m particular about the kind of response I get from an editor, especially when it is a rejection. Of course I have grown a thick skin from many rejections and they have built me in some kind of way but then when I see a standard rejection from an editor it hurts but for a short time and I have to move on like every writer who is used to it. I have also come to realize that a rejection doesn’t mean that the work is not good but maybe that it is not suited to the editor’s taste. 


What books are you currently reading?

I’m reading a novel and a poetry collection, switching between the two anytime I am tired of it: XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century by Campbell McGrath, and, The Road by Cormac McCarthy.


According to your preference, what books will become classics of the twenty first century?

That’s a difficult thing to say. But I think, for the twenty first century, there’ll be more books by women to be remembered as classics than men.  


For poetry, this is a random guess but these books are very good they will certainly be remembered:
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück 
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds 
Olio by Tyehimba Jess 
Moy Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon 
Dart by Alice Oswald

For novels:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie 
The Master by Colm Toibin
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Atonement by Ian McEwan 
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This is speculation, I say. Basically, what I have done is list books I have read and reread or hope to reread in the future.


When should we be expecting your book(s)?

That doesn’t depend on me. Depends on whether a publisher is willing to take up my project(s) but I do hope in the next three to five years I should have a book out.


Fingers crossed. Wishing you all the best, Okwudili. It’s been good talking with you. Thanks so much for your time. 

Thank you very much. It’s being a pleasure answering your questions.