“Politics and Poetry will never be Friends” INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD ALI
By Haneefah AbdulRahman (Literature Voices)
(Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer, novelist, poet and author, of the warmly received 2012 novel, City of Memories. He was Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and was a runner-up at the 2008 John la Rose Short Story Competition. He has been Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (2011 to 2015). A founding member of the Nairobi-based arts collective, Jalada Africa and he also sits on the board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, based in Kampala, Uganda, which runs BN Poetry Award—Africa’s only in-Africa continental poetry prize. He has served as a consultant, holding a public policy-shaping role as Technical Assistant to the Honourable Minister of Interior from 2015 to 2017, working on the Ministry Strategy Group (MSG). He is presently Programme Manager of the Association of Nigerian Authors Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (ANA PCVE) programme, which seeks to use literature to counter extremism. A noted expert in issues of violent extremism; he is an alumnus and member of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and has participated in several roundtables across Africa. He is also an alumnus of the US State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He co-founded Parrésia Publishers Limited in 2012 and practices law in Abuja, Nigeria. His debut collection of poems, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, was published in 2019 by Konya Shamsrumi. He recently co-authored a chapter entitled “Governance, Climate Change and Security Challenges: The Case of Lake Chad in Governance and Security in the Sahel” published by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Rome.)
Haneefah: I am Haneefah AbdulRahman from literaturevoices.com. Sir, it is an honour to have an amazing literary figure to converse with. Please, do me a favour with a unique introduction of yourself? I mean, introduce yourself in a way you have never done before.
Richard Ali: That’s a tall order, I’d say, simply, that I am Ajuma’s son. That is perhaps the most truthful fact that anyone can know. There is an Igbo name that I love so much, two names actually—the first is Nneka, which means “Mother is supreme”. But the second name is Lotanna, which means, “Remember your father”. I am Ajuma and Adejo’s son, the first one, and the one who started to do many different things differently.
Haneefah: Your tale shall never be indeed complete without mention of the ones from whom you were birthed. Beautiful introduction. Some writers usually say, “There are too many of us (writers) around in Nigeria and we tend to lose the energy of striving to be heard and seen while some other writers keep fighting to succeed.” Other writers believe that connection is the whole idea of what’s needed to be a successful writer in a country like Nigeria. How have you been able to stand out in the crowded literary world? What keeps you going? How have you been able to keep your readers reading you?
Richard Ali: I think yours is a question about voice and authenticity and it can be answered in many ways but, at heart, there must exist the possession of a voice—there must be something you want to say in a true way, in a way only you can say it. But no one is ever born with a voice in this sense. We acquire it, in the ways we look at the world, in the stories that those before us tell us, in the books we read, by intuition, and I think these are the things people distil in their minds, which form their personalities. Writers are a peculiar sort, in that it is not enough to distil, not enough to have seen this or heard that or known that. Writers feel an urge to express, and when we express, we inevitably recreate. A true writer is a unique voice, or else he is just playing at being a writer, a poser, a writer so-called. This is true, so there is no crowd, the crowded space you refer to does not exist.
When I write a poem, or perhaps a passage from my novel or an essay is read, and the reader’s entire mood changes, there is just me and him or her. What they take from me, no one else can give them. The second part of your question is about success, so how do you mean this? If a writer has expressed what he has distilled as best as he can then that’s done with, right? If you mean accolades, recognition, prizes and so on, I do not think those are important to most writers, definitely not to true writers. These are shady things, tricky things that come by the way and, if they do not, do not merit tears. This is how I see things. I may be wrong, of course.
Haneefah: True, after all the ultimate purpose for true writers is to express and impact, every writer is unique in their art. “Poets are cowards of their own words,” some non-poets say with the thinking that poets hide behind their stanzas and lines, at a corner of society, never taking on the guts to participate in the appropriation of its operations. How can you explain this supposed cowardice of poets who are largely sitting away from the active society on social and political fronts, dishing out prescriptions from some assumed purity of self?
Richard Ali: I think this is a very lazy and a very ignorant thing to say. Lazy, because it is not original. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato thought to ban poets from an ideal republic is sacrosanct and we are still here writing poetry; so, how much less seriously should we take a Nigerian non-poet’s opinion on the cowardice of poets? Ignorant, because, if poets were to enter into society the way these lazy people imagine, it will be to lop off heads, likely starting from these same people because these same people are the ones who, time and time again, vote or allow the very worst forms of government which they turn around to complain of. For the poet, they being less a head solves the problem of true cowardice. The fact is that people gathered in a group are a mob, not a democracy or any sensible thing. There is a Yoruba idea of Otolorin, which means “one who stands alone”. The poet stands apart not because he fears standing with others in their pretences at “bravery” but because he sees a truth—that there is no wit in a herd, only mindless danger to all. This is purity. To be an Otolorin is to be brave.
Haneefah: And may we continue to stand out. So, there’s a strong connection between religion/spirituality and poetry. Poets also claim that poetry has its own spirituality that manifest in higher degrees at various stages of writing it. What can you say about this connection with references from the Medieval Period (Dark Ages) to the Renaissance down to the present age? How can you connect your poetry with religion? And, what spirituality is in poetry? How much of it have you experienced? Why do you love to talk about Sufism?
Richard Ali: I think that God, by so many and whichever names called, is a poet. It must be a poet, because poetry is about concentration, finding the core. Regardless of which side of the science—religion divide we are at, there is always a beginning, right? With the Jews, Muslims and Christians, it’s the “Let there be Light moment”, or, with Islam, that one alongside when Allah asks Prophet Muhammad to “Read.” Current scientific thinking posits a Big Bang event from which the universe started expanding and cooling down, allowing planets and life itself to form. Poets precede religion because they root themselves in a period before religion, in the period before light, or a big bang, or even the word Iqra. We root ourselves to where the creative force exists. The tendency and nature of the poet is to reach out to the core of the core and speak to that. Poets have thus been profoundly spiritual beings, even if their relationship with religion tends to be tricky and explosive. Religion creates clerks and clerics, and these need order and hierarchies and systems but the poet knows that beneath all this is chaos and chaos is the true stuff of the universe and that’s where God must be found. Have no faith in the political order or religious hierarchies or administrative systems of this world; it’s only a small part of what is.
Haneefah: ‘The Anguish and Vigilance of Things‘ is the title of your first poetry collection. What a striking title! What were you thinking when you crafted it? Is it the usual anger and the disenchantment associated with poets? They are always angry. So, what are you hiding in there?
Richard Ali: The title came much later, after most of the poems had been written. The poems gathered in the collection were written over a 15-year period. There’s about that number of years between the first ones that were written and the last ones. Every few years, I would throw away poems I didn’t like anymore, usually the ones where the craft was poor or age and maturity had given me a different insight and so on. Eventually, a final curation was done and the ones gathered were selected from about a hundred and thirty-five poems. So, the collection is not unified in terms of theme, nor in terms of style, nor in terms of form. Each poem stands alone, which presents problems when you are trying to create sections or a title that speaks to all. So, what I did was to seek out what must be a poetic sensibility beneath them all and this led me to re-read, again, a Spanish poet—Federico Garcia Lorca. The title is taken from a line in the poem, Landscape of the Pissing Multitude, which captures the idea of penultimacy. A poet, and poems, exist in a penultimate space, at an angle to the stairs.
Haneefah: I see you as a universal poet as you touched different cultures and places in your collection of poems, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things. You explored themes in diversity; love, disappointment, admiration, religious belief, etc. How were you able to travel with your pen to gather such universality? Did you set out with your eyes focused on the global literary scene? Do you think Nigeria can accommodate your vision?
Richard Ali: I’ve always seen myself as a global citizen, from a very young age. I don’t know how far back I read this but the Bolshevik leader, Lenin, wrote “Man of letters” in his passport, under occupation. As a young person, this fascinated me to no end, at the literal level at first. An intellectual is a man who does the most work in his mind, who evaluates and interprets and I have always been drawn to people like these, modelling myself and my reading on them. Consequently, there has never been an opportunity to travel, which I have not taken up eagerly because how better to know other people and their cultures than by travelling? So, I have done quite a bit of travelling and these played a part in how I see myself, as an African and a citizen of the world. Of course, “I am human and nothing human is alien to me” as old Terrence famously said. I did not set out deliberately to find some global literary scene, I assumed from the beginning that I was already part of it and my job was to discover everything, to interpret and then to create. All else comes afterwards. Recognition. Accolades. Or not.
Haneefah: You are also a publisher, a good one for that matter. You publish books at Parresia and Konya Shamsrumi. Your prints were accepted by Nigerian writers on your first go. How were you able to break into the market with so much attraction? Are you still at Parresia? What are your targets with those imprints?
Richard Ali: With Parresia, the initial break was our decision to pay advances on the books we published. It was meant from the beginning to be a traditional imprint where the publisher takes all the risk and pays a royalty to the authors. In this method, publishers often offer an advance on new books that are yet to go to the market but the difficulties in publishing in Nigeria had put an end to this practice. We revived it, paying royalties in advance (I think it was N100,000 back in 2012) and this gave us a lot of PR and established us as a serious publisher. I’m still at Parresia. I own half the shares there. I do less and less there these days for various reasons: professional engagements, other platforms, some not related to literature, and so on. For Konya Shamsrumi, the idea was to create a publishing collective that was a poetry publisher as well and that’s what Umar Sidi and I have done. The Covid-19 lockdowns have affected our rollout but we are also entering into new agreements to re-boot the publishing house in the coming weeks. I am interested in creating or fostering platforms, but I also think that the best platforms are the ones that can take a life of their own.
Haneefah: Politics and poetry seem not see eye to eye. Poetry is of truth and politics fights off poetry. Similarly, poets have great disdain for politicians while politicians have high suspicion for poets. Why are the both practitioners in this game? How do you think poetry and politics will ever come to be friends?
Richard Ali: Politics and poetry can use each other, but they will never be friends. It’s in the nature of oil and water to not mix. Poetry is the genre in which there can be no lies. For example, no such thing as the fiction—nonfiction binary exists with poetry because what you read on the page is blood and sweat and guts, not engine oil and machinery that mimics something alive. For the politician, the people are best led when they are mindless; when they can be controlled. For the poet, his mind is always alive and he is a wind chime out in the sun, responding to the elements. As Professor Dugga famously subverted the law and order maxim—the situation is under alarm, there is no need for control. Poets insist on there being no need for control, and are the first to protest censorship, dictatorship or the other stupidities of power, which politicians are susceptible to. Oh, I do not think highly of poets who write “to order”.
Haneefah: You take delight in appropriating the English Language. I could feel you on Facebook with such consciousness. Comment on the appropriateness of language in excellent poetic or literary products. Young writers may wish to know.
Richard Ali: Language is the stuff of poetry, it’s the life blood as it were and without a familiarity with language; possibly even a command of language, there can be no poetry. It’s that simple. I think what creates a poet are two things—experience and language. Experience in that you must have lived, or seen, or felt, deeply and truly, and interpreted these. This is where the urge to poetry comes from. Expressing this, in a way that has an impact on readers, is done through language and language alone. To use language, you have to have immersed yourself in it so you know its rules and figure out how they can be subverted. A poet is always a subversive. But language itself is broken down further into sounds, and here the poet must also operate, having good ears for sound. Have you listened to poetry in a language you have no access to yet have been moved by it? It’s because all languages share the same sounds and the poet is the master in manipulating this.
Haneefah: I agree, one must wield great command of language before venturing into poetry. Young writers think the old ones do not care about them. I think they are right. I am a young writer too. Why are the adults in many Nigerian sectors finding it difficult to give the young ones chances to grow through neglect and uncared for? Secondly, “calling yourself a poet is one thing, being one is another thing”. What can you say about this statement with regards to Nigerian writers? I am told it is the most widely written genre in the country, today. With that, do you think poetry is enjoying general dilution and melting away of its potency and compactness in Nigeria?
Richard Ali: No one cares for anyone just like that and definitely not in the writing community, not with poets. You have to go out of your way to make friends, find mentors, lend books, buy books, and so on. You are not owed a duty of poetic care by anyone. For example, we are having this interview because you reached out to me and I recognize that this interview is going on for longer than you expected, but I am here and this is happening. If you had not reached out, we would not be here. So, reach out. A hypothetical young poet who has not bought my book, has not read my poems online, has not read my interviews related to poetry online or offline, not attended or followed my events, is a ridiculous prospect if he or she imagines I owe a duty of care to them. There’s a number of stunning young poets I know and who I consider my friends but they reached out to me, just as in my time I reached out to others, even my contemporaries. Secondly, your poetry must be good if not you would be wasting the time of anyone you reach out to. Your poetry is lovely, Haneefah, and here you are. I cannot say the same for many of these younger writers so-called. It’s harder even when there’s attitude that where they are at present is the height of greatness, perhaps fuelled by social media approval ratings and insincere feedback. These ones cannot be improved. So, write well, reach out, join platforms, seek informed feedback, and you will become better poets, confident and aware.
Haneefah: How fulfilled are you as a poet? Are there unsolved puzzles in your world of poetry and art?
Richard Ali: One tries one’s best and I think this is the most you can do really—so, there is always that fulfilment in the little, little things. I feel fulfilled that my poems have been published. I am happy when, from the whole book, someone reaches out about a particular poem. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tattooed four lines of a particular poem on her arm. I was touched by this, and this is what one lives for, the true accolades that mean something. As for the unsolved puzzles, there is only one—tomorrow and while we are all hurtling towards it, there is nothing we can do about it in life, in poetry, in arts.
Haneefah: Thank you, Sir.
Richard Ali: My pleasure, Haneefah.
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: email@example.com, IG: neefahwords, BLOG: trendyneefah.blogspot.com, Twitter: neefahwords_, Facebook: Haneefah Abdulrahman, YouTube: Hanifah Abdulrahman