“No Society Develops without Signification of the Creative Sector” INTERVIEW WITH PAUL LIAM
By Haneefah Abdulrahman (Literature Voices)
(Paul Liam is a poet, critic and author of two poetry collections: Indefinite Cravings (2012) and Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014). Liam has published several critical essays on contemporary Nigerian literature, and is a co-editor of Ebedi Review (Journal of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State). He is the Prize Administrator of the Aroja Students Playwriting competition, Associate Editor of The-Arts-Muse-Fair and Head of Operations of Isu Media Ltd, Abuja.)
Haneefah: Good day Sir, my name is HANEEFAH ABDULRAHMAN from literaturevoices.com. It is such a great honour to have you oblige me this interview. How do you want people to perceive you considering that you are a man of two worlds: literary criticism and poetry?
Paul Liam: Thank you, it is an honour. Well, to be honest, I want people to perceive me, however they may wish to see me; I am a poet and a critic and I should be seen from both worlds equally.
Haneefah: Most people see the genres of literature as different realms with similar characteristics. Some writers manage to live in more than one realm, other writers stick to just one realm. What is your view of the genres of literature in terms of their power and functionality and which have you chosen to live with and why? I mean, which one comes to you naturally with a strong spiritual connection?
Paul Liam: Indeed, the genres of literature are different and so are the interests of writers different. Individuals often opt for that which they are most comfortable with. As for me, I am a poet, prose writer and critic; however, I have become known more as a critic and poet than as a poet and critic or prose writer. This is not farfetched though; I started writing prose then switched to poetry and later found the art of literary criticism fascinating and invested much of my energy into private study of the rudiments and techniques of literary criticism until I further developed it in the university. However, with two poetry collections; I think I am a poet by any merit. Interestingly, people prefer to see me as a critic than a poet and that is okay with me. As for my prose, I am yet to publish any even though some friends have seen and critiqued my short stories over the years and some say that they are good works but I have my fears about letting them out just yet.
And on the functionality of the genres, I would say that each genre of literature has its own uniqueness and place in the scheme of things; in terms of power and functionality. Over the years, and centuries ago, literature continues to speak to humanity in many ways and in different forms and would continue to do so whether in written or oral forms. All literatures thus have the same capacity to conscientise, chastise or recondition the mind of its adherents towards re-envisioning their roles and the consequences of their actions on the larger society and humanity in general. Literature affords us the gift of empathy and selflessness towards others and ourselves; hence, the seemingly overt consciousness associated with writers or deep readers. A poet has the power to make you cry, laugh or sad, just the same way a story, novel or play has the powers to elicit the same emotions from you. Suffice it to say that all the genres of literature are powerful and have equal functionality depending on the cause to which it has been ordered to serve.
Haneefah: Indeed, all the genres of literature are unique in their own ways. Moving to your specialty which is poetry, some say ‘Poets are so predictable’ while some other say, ‘Poets are so unpredictable’. Which do you think is true and why do you think so? Others even talk about some kind of mystery overwhelming writers of poetry. Have you ever encountered such mystery in your poetic journey or production?
Paul Liam: Well, poets being predictable or not is predicated on the intention of the individual making the assumption. There are as diverse poets as there are lovers of poetry. How I conceive or perceive poetry is certainly different from how another poet might see poetry. In other words, our experiences and motives for writing are not the same. However, what I do know to be true is that, poetry has some mystery around it and I know many a poet whose life has been affected in one way or another by this mystery which often leads to a sense of abstraction that alienates the individual from the realities of the real world. For one, I know that poets have a weird sense of utopia which contradicts with what is obtainable in the society. This vision of perfection or the expectation of changing or causing into effect an egalitarian society, hinged on the ideals of justice, fairness and human dignity, becomes overwhelming for the poet. So, yes, there is a force that is akin to a spirit that hovers around the life of a poet and often the poet’s life is affected by this reality. Of course, I have been affected by this force and continues to be affected by it even now. Poets are almost purists even though they may not in themselves be pure; they want, simply, a more humane society. As you are aware, poetry is an emotional venture that renders bare the humanity of the poet. A poet deserves some reverence from the society and indeed, in the past, poets were regarded as prophets with extra-ordinary visions.
Haneefah: I agree with you that poets and writers as a whole do exhibit certain superior behaviours often forgetting that everyone is intertwined with art. Art is as old as man. The life of man is all about art. Do you agree? If you were asked to create a world without art; writing, painting, dancing, etc., what would the world look like? What makes art perpetually irresistible, especially poetry?
Paul Liam: Yes, I agree. Man is art! So, it is true that man and art have existed side by side since the beginning of the word. The plants, flowers, animals, birds and everything around is enmeshed in beauty. If you pay attention to things around you, you would realise that you are surrounded with beautiful art that is manifest in everything around you. A look at the sky leaves you with astonishment of the aesthetics that nature is. We are art in ourselves, so there cannot be a world without art. Poetry on the other hand is a mirror through which human beings attempt to manifest the art around them. What I mean is that poetry simply conveys to us what already abounds with us. It helps us to see the beauty we ordinarily would have not noticed in the abundance that we live with. That is what makes poetry powerful or irresistible for me.
Haneefah: There is this unquenchable fire and energy sensed in your collection of poems SAINT SHA’ADE AND OTHER POEMS? What triggered you to write the collection? What is the whole purpose of writing the collection?
Paul Liam: Saint Shaade and Other Poems (2014) is my second collection of poems after my first; Indefinite Cravings (2012), and it is a collection after my heart for two reasons: firstly, it was inspired by the person of my late mother who died in the mid-90s when I was still very young. Her life continues to inspire me till this day. I had set out primarily to immortalise her, and as a poet, what better way is there than to turn her into a metaphor that will be remembered on the lips of people even after I am gone? Consequently, the collection is titled after her; Shaade, which means wonder or wonderful in Tiv language, was her name and because of her egalitarian lifestyle, her valour is still celebrated today by those who knew her closely. The second reason why it is special to me is that, I wrote it for me! It is less ambitious in comparison with my first collection or even my third, which is still in the works. To be more specific, the whole essence of writing the collection was to immortalise my late mum and to satisfy my artistic freedom as an artist. It is a very personal collection that speaks to me as an individual in many ways. The first collection was more about proving my worthiness as a poet and the third collection which is yet to be published but ready, is more about affirming my worthiness as a genuinely gifted poet with a responsibility to the society and the world at large. It is the coming of age collection as described by Dr. Emman Shehu and other distinguished poets and scholars that have read it.
Haneefah: We are glad you allowed us this glimpse into the woman that was your mother. So, for this book, your source of inspiration was she. Now, Philosophers have different views of poetry. Plato and Socrates are of the view that poetry derives from inspiration rather than wisdom. They also have the view that a poet himself is in the state of “divine possession” and speaks not of his own voice which is merely a medium through which the gods speak. Thus, poetry is an imitation of the transcendental realm. But Aristotle disagrees with the theory of Plato and Socrates by stating that poetry is derived from basic human instincts. Each poem in SAINT SHA’ADE AND OTHER POEMS, one way or the other, gives a vivid representation of the physical and transcendental realms, as such which philosopher’s theory on poetry do you agree with and why? How does your poetry relate with the philosophers’ theories?
Paul Liam: I believe in the sacredness of poetry to the extent that it is humanistic and evocative of pure emotions. I have always argued that poetry should speak to us in the purest of language possible; that poetry may not be for the consumption of all but a few who have been blessed by the gods to dine at their tables. But, on the aesthetic level, I would align to both philosophers to the extent that poetry, aside its purist inclination, should be able to speak to all who would listen to it; speak to them. On this note, I would say that poetry for me is beyond mere beauty and feelings and truth telling. It must speak to the conscience of the reader and the poet himself for it to be something or imply something to me. So, I like to see myself in the idealistic sense as a Social-Marxist and you would find this element in most of my poems.
Haneefah: In Saint Sha’ade, your poems’ titles and themes are vigorous; you explored the themes of death, mystery, loss, gift, fear, etc., in such poems like SCENT OF SAINTHOOD, DOOM AGE, FEAR 2, CHANTS OF PENURY, DON’T ASK ME 1, THE CALL OF DEATH, etc. You also explored the theme of love and lust in poems like AMARYA, LUST, LOVE, STATUS QUO, GARDENER, LOVE VIBES, BESIDE A SINGING BIRD, SHE 2, etc. You also explored the mythical aspect of life in poems like NATURE’S MYTH, THE MIRAGE OF LIFE, BY THE END, OF FAITH, etc. How do you come about such titles that deal with themes of such exquisiteness? They sound as personal experiences. Can a poet remove himself from his poetry?
Paul Liam: No, a poet cannot remove himself from his poetry because the pure emotions I mentioned earlier can only emerge from a place of truth and honesty. In other words, poetry is often the reflection of a poet’s vision and ideology of life. So, because of the very personalised and “abusive” relationship that exists between a poet and his poems, it is difficult to say if a poet can remove himself from his or her poetry. I don’t really think that such poetry would be genuine enough.
Haneefah: So, it’s safe to say that you are what you write. Interesting! What relationship does your journey of poetry have with writing associations like ANA, Hill-Top Arts’ Centre, Isu Media to mention but a few? Must writers converge under an umbrella before they grow? Comment on the proliferation of writers’ organisations and platforms in Nigeria. How do ANA people resolve their factionalisation?
Paul Liam: This is a serious question as all the other questions, I must say. Nevertheless, I have an interesting relationship with ANA, Hill-top Arts Centre and Isu Media Ltd. Let’s start with ANA. My literary career has largely benefited from ANA and in particular, ANA Niger, where I learnt most of the things that I know today. I started out quite early as a secondary school student, I mean my relations with ANA. However, my writing history dates back to 2003 and 2004 while I was still living in Zungeru with my folks. I met ANA through my secondary school; Government Day Secondary School, Bosso Road, Minna in 2005. I was a participant at the Mazariyya Teen Authors’ Creative writing workshop facilitated by ANA members which took place at the school that year. I was invited to the workshop by my teacher and mentor, the great Nupe Film Actor, Jibrin Bala Jibrin (Yikangi). From that point, I became a child of ANA and grew steadily through the warm support and mentorship of a lot of people, especially the older writers you know today. In a nutshell, ANA Niger is where my writing found root. And I will forever be grateful to ANA for the unforgettable support I received while learning the process. I have met great people who showed me unadulterated love courtesy of ANA.
The Hill-top Arts Centre, on the other hand, is an extension of ANA Niger because the person who founded the centre, BM Dzukogi is one of the elder statesmen in ANA today. The Hill-top Arts Centre was where I got the opportunity to grow, not as a writer, but as a human being who could contribute to the development of others and the betterment of society. It was at the centre that I learnt so many life lessons such as being an organiser, coordinator, anchor, teacher and mentor to others. So, at the centre, I learnt through teaching others and improving on my skills. I was almost always responsible for everything while at the centre, and that experience moulded me into a conscious and functional being that I am today. I was privileged to be part of the grooming process of noticeable writers like Hauwa Shafi’i Nuhu, Deborah Oluniran, Zakkiya Dzukogi and other promising voices who are today making their mark in the Nigerian literary scene. The centre provided me with the life skills that I am proud of today. So, in brief, this is my relationship with the arts centre.
And Isu Media Ltd is currently my home and source of livelihood (laughs). As you might be aware, I am the Head of Operations of Isu Media; a communication development company that services the communication needs of NGOs and others. My job with the company facilitated my relocation to Abuja. It had been a long-time dream of mine to relocate to Abuja for greener pastures since nothing tangible was available for me to do in Minna. Isu Media for me is another grooming ground where I have been given the opportunity to improve my skills for bigger future endeavours and I am grateful for it every single day. Don’t mind me; I am a very grateful person by nature. I continuously acknowledge people for their support towards me. This also is the brief of my relationship with Isu Media, which is also owned by a renowned poet and media expert, Mr. Diego Okenyodo.
Writers must not converge under an umbrella to grow, but aspiring writers need guidance and support and that is what associations or literary clubs provide for the novice writer. So, I would say that everyone aspiring to be a writer needs a helping hand, and belonging to associations help you learn faster and better because of the availability of resource persons and other opportunities that you could take advantage of to grow. Some writers have grown and blown without belonging to any literary organisation however. So, it all depends on the circumstances and what the individual wants as a person. People should go for what works for them. And on the proliferation of literary platforms in Nigeria, I would say that it is a good and a bad thing at the same time because the proliferation means that more people have become more aware and are interested in the literary field as such these platforms serve as channels through which younger writers express themselves and they are heard. So, I would say it is a great thing that we have more platforms showcasing the many voices that would have remained unheard where it not for the existence of such spaces.
However, the downside for me is that the proliferation of literary platforms implies that less attention is now being paid to the quality of work that these platforms project and celebrate. What would have ordinarily passed as a first draft becomes a published work with its many errors. So, we have plenty of beautiful nonsense which is as a result of the neglect of the formal practice of rigorous editing process which helped to bring out the best elements of a work. Also, the proliferation means that everyone is now a publisher or an author because most of these platforms are easy to own. This has also resulted in the decline of quality readership since works are being consumed by clicks and friends more. These organisations also promote themselves and their members with prizes and accolades so much so that it becomes disgusting to be identified as a writer. People celebrate publication by a mere blog as though they have won the Nobel Prize; I mean anyone can have a blog. But this is our reality today. Professionalism is gradually giving way to mediocrity as a result of these proliferations, but I often would say that people should do what works for them or gives them what they want. So, it has both the good and the bad side to it.
ANA would only resolve its current crisis of factionalisation by dialoguing and upholding the sanctity of the constitution. All the parties must sit down and come to a compromise. The association has lost its place of pride as a result of the crisis and many of us want it to end, but as you know, conflict is sometimes a necessity that brings about greater understanding amongst people or group. We are optimistic that this phase too shall pass soon.
Haneefah: You have really come a long way considering that you agree that the above have shaped you into what you are today, what do you think on the fact that some writers believe that mentorship is slavery? They believe that when a writer has a mentor, the mentor cages the writer in his way of thinking, thus restricting him or her from exploring his or her own way of thinking in the literary world. What is your take on literary mentorship in Nigeria?
Paul Liam: That is perhaps, the most ignorant anti-mentorship remark I have ever heard in my life. What is mentorship and why do people need mentorship in the first place? You seek for mentorship because you admire a person or the things that he or she does and you wish to learn and become like them or better than them. Of course, they will only teach you what they know and you will only take away what you want to learn from them. Mentorship is not slavery; it is a strategy employed by visionary people to wish to attain greatness by ridding on tested waters. Go and read about writers and mentorship and you will be shocked to realise that many of the renowned writers of the world were mentored by older writers. The mentor not only teaches you but provides you with opportunities that facilitate your growth faster than you would have grown on your own. You are free to be smart enough to define your path as a person with a brain and thinking faculty.
Haneefah: In the late 80s, the Nigerian literary environment witnessed an exodus of writers out of the country. Then there was calm. Now, there is a new wave of migration by young writers to the west. What is responsible for this quest to check out of Nigeria? What do we lack that is available, elsewhere?
Paul Liam: The military repression coupled with the dwindling economic fortunes were perhaps amongst the reasons why many creatives sought for greener pastures abroad. The era you have referenced was also the era of the structural adjustment programme of the General Babangida regime which was in a way anti-intellectualism, where the educational system began its journey to the pitiable condition that it has become today. Today, many creatives are seeking for better living conditions outside the country due to similar realities. There is no denying the pitiable condition in which we live today and the worst hits are often creatives with no form of formal support from the government and the private sector. Creatives are daily becoming disenchanted with their motherland for similar reasons as those who first left the country in the 80s and 90s.
The motherland has become a dystopia that kills its own and hinders the growth of its sons and daughters. A writer for example, has no hope in living off of his art in Nigeria, as a result the only available option is to seek for an alternative environment that values and honours their contributions to humanity. Also, the publishing industry in Nigeria is dead and the only available outlets are interested only in recycling already successful authors, particularly, those who have made their names through foreign establishments. To be more specific therefore, I would say that we lack the basic structures and organisation to support the publishing and creative sector in Nigeria and unless we put in place the appropriate structures that appreciates and supports creative writing, our creatives would continue to seek for better opportunities in the west. Elsewhere, like in the west, the structures are basically the attraction that attracts our writers.
Everyone is looking for better opportunities that would facilitate their growth and the realization of their dreams. However, I would like to think that migration is a natural phenomenon; man is innately driven by the desire to explore alternative realities and experience new experiences.
Haneefah: There’s no doubt that we have a long way to go and also that we all have a part to play in the grand scheme of things. If you had the chance to meet the President of Nigeria what would you say to him regarding writers and what would you say to him as a writer?
Paul Liam: I would tell him to institute a national grant for the creative sector and enact laws and policies that would guarantee the sustainability of the arts’ sector. No society develops without recognising the signification of the creative sector. Literature continues to play a vital role in not only documenting the way of life of society but also in decolonising the minds of people across the world; literature is the neglected stool we turn to when we want to truly understand our history and the value systems that have sustained us across generations and it would be suicidal not to pay attention to such an integral component of our existence. Africa’s civilisation was misappropriated by the jaundiced narratives of the colonialists several centuries ago and we would be doing a grave disservice to Africa’s future if we do not put in place functional systems that deliberately capture our experiences and retell our distorted past. Our children and children’s children would end up once again not knowing who they were as a people; because they would have grown into a world totally dominated by a western value system that continues to ridicule their existence. I would tell him to ensure a social system that is hinged on the tenets of justice and egalitarianism. We are nothing without a system that recognises the equality of our humanity irrespective of our religious or ethnic dichotomies. I would tell him to recognise the writer as a critical stakeholder in our journey to a prosperous future.
Haneefah: I hope one day Nigeria will learn to appreciate the role of a writer as a critical stakeholder indeed like you said. People like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe have often been referred as the founding fathers of writers in Nigeria. What can you say about them? How have they inspired you? Are they the founding fathers of Nigerian literature truly?
Paul Liam: What do you mean by ‘they are the founding fathers of Nigerian literature?’ Is that to limit the scope of their influence in Africa and the black world at large? No, they are not the fathers of Nigerian literature alone; they are among the fathers of African literature. Wole Soyinka is the first black man to win a Nobel Prize in Literature; his wining that prize holds a gargantuan signification for the whole of the black race and not just Nigeria or Africa. Chinua Achebe’s reputation as a literary figure has a global signification that is beyond the prescriptive demographics of the African continent. He is studied across cultures of the world and rightly so, he is among modern literary figures of the world and his place in literature cannot be limited to just Nigeria and Africa. He has shaped the way the rest of the world see the black race today, because of his novel, Things Fall Apart, which has been translated into over a hundred languages of the world. We are here today because these pioneers existed and set the pace, redefined and negotiated our place in the world through their art and talent. They embody black pride and the crux of our cultural excellence. This, for me, summarises their place in our lives as writers.
Haneefah: As a writer, if you were asked to choose between fame and money, which will you go for and why?
Paul Liam: This is simple! I am known already as a writer who is after fame and not money. The crux of my writing career has been to express myself and get my vision of the world known by all those who encounter me or my works. I have never considered money as a motivation for my art; hence, I have been less interested in literary prizes all the while. I hardly pay attention to awards even though a few friends have constantly nudged me to enter for prizes and all those stuffs. If I get my work read or seen by as many people as possible, then I would have gained my satisfaction. But again, prizes are not a bad thing as they also help you get the attention that you need. But I would go for fame instead.
Haneefah: Where are you heading to with your writings?
Paul Liam: This is a profound question, I must say. My writing is largely a conversation between my inner self and the world. I want the world to see itself through my writing and my perception of things. Thus, I would say that I am headed the way of every great writer; immortalisation. I want my writings to live long after I am gone from this space and to continue to speak to a new generation of people who would look back and say that once upon a time, a writer like me existed; who spoke his own truth to the world irrespective of what the odds were. I would greatly love to live in a future that I might not be a part of, to continue to exist through my words and books. If I could achieve this, I would have fulfilled my purpose on earth as a human being who lived his dreams.
Haneefah: Thank you very much sir for this indulgence. ‘Literature Voices’ appreciates your time and we hope to see you at the top!
Paul Liam: Thank you for this very profound interview.
Haneefah AbdulRahman is a spoken word artiste, poet, writer, interviewer and social entrepreneur. She has published some of her articles, short stories and poems in different journals including the Nigeria Review. She is the Financial Secretary and Editor I of Creative Writers’ Club, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where she studies Literature. She is from Kogi State, Nigeria and lives in Kaduna. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, IG: neefahwords, BLOG: trendyneefah.blogspot.com, Twitter: neefahwords_, Facebook: Haneefah Abdulrahman, YouTube: Hanifah Abdulrahman