Abu Bakr Sadiq is a Nigerian poet. He is the winner of the 2022 IGNYTE award for Best Speculative Poetry. His work is nominated for the Rhysling Award and is published in Boston Review, The Fiddlehead, Mizna, Palette Poetry, FIYAH, Uncanny Magazine, Augur Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and elsewhere. He writes from Minna. Find him on twitter @bakronline
Blessing: Thanks for granting this interview despite your imminent examination. And Congratulations on being shortlisted for the inaugural Evaristo Prize for African Poetry.
Abu Bakr Sadiq: It’s a pleasure being in conversation with you, Blessing. Thank you for having me.
Blessing: I can remember where and when I saw the shortlist. I was at home, checking through my email. I later saw it on HCAF Abuja Daily’s wall. I was overwhelmed with joy to see you on the shortlist. Can you share with us what you were doing when the news came to you and what your reaction was?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: It’s the day before Eid, right? I was at a barbershop in Zaria with my brothers to get our trims. We were just out there, excited to see ourselves again after a few months away in school. As is the case with most barber shops, there was music blaring from the speakers and as usual, we catch a vibe. I pull out my phone and start making snapchat videos. After a few clicks, I began to share some with my friends on WhatsApp and that’s when I started to see these waves of congratulatory messages. I was like “whoa. Wait, what’s happening?”. A friend filled me in and at that moment, my head went white. ‘Shocked’ is an understatement. I turned off all notifications on my phone and put it away immediately. Back at home, after getting our trims, I called Martins Deep and he went wild with joy. We talked about it a bit. He noticed my lack of excitement and as always, tried to call me out for it. My excitement was, in a way, overshadowed by how overwhelmed I felt about the news. With my notifications off, I tried to focus on my Eid celebrations. It took me well over three days to process the whole thing; that’s if I ever got to, I mean.
Blessing: Many poets have tried to describe what poetry is to them and the definitions varies from one poet to another. From the point of a speculative poet, what is poetry to you?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: In the words of Emily Dickinson, “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. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”
It is the same thing for me. Essentially, it is a medium of expression, and exchange between myself and the page, speakers, readers, etcetera. Whatever form(s) or sub-genres I choose to give life to that expression and exchange on the page with, doesn’t change that definition for me.
Blessing: An award-winning poet once told me how tight your language is. How do you come about the language you use in writing what you want the world to know?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: I guess my language is informed by the works of art I consume. These works are not limited to writing alone. However, I try to read works of writing from a wide range of writers coming from different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, geographies, etcetera. That way, I’m acquainting myself with the myriad possibilities of what has and is being done with language, and what could be achieved with it. Through my research and reading, I see how far other writers are pushing language and bending it to their will, making the language work for them. I try, then, to follow in their footsteps; to trust that their language will lead me to a language beyond theirs. Or maybe not.
With language, I’m often trying to write something that makes the next man stop and ponder a little about what he just read; to feel something different than he’s felt before from reading anything similar. Sometimes, I succeed, but most times, I don’t. At the end of the day, I try. To arrive at the shores of a language whose appearance and purpose offers me any sort of satisfaction, first as the writer, I have to sit for several hours(might stretch to days or weeks even), running in circles with the countless lines that fill my stream of thoughts. In a way, in order to achieve this satisfaction, I often have to see myself as a mountain climber: I take with me only those things I need, shedding off whatever wouldn’t help me reach the summit. To recognize what I do not need of the writing that came from the first draft usually requires multiple sessions of revisions and rewriting.
Blessing: Do you still have fear of rejections? What determines when you submit a poem?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: I wouldn’t say no because how much fear I have for a rejection or how bad I feel when I get one all depends on how much I’ve emotionally invested myself in a submission. To keep my emotional investment at a minimal level, I try, as much as I can, to submit and forget; to stay emotionally detached from the submission regardless of how I feel about the poem(s) I’ve sent out. It works for some magazines but there are certain places I can’t just submit my work to and forget that I did. Nahhh.
I like to think that I’m more of a craft person. 9 out of 10 times, I am more likely to be found occupied with trying to learn a thing or two that will help improve my craftsmanship and skill. It’s not easy but I try as much as I can to separate the poet in me who does the writing and the one who handles the publishing part, or at least my approach to them. The writing part is my favorite of the two. Sometimes I wish I had someone else who would handle my submissions. Perhaps, with a little supervision and instructions because I tend to be very intentional and a bit picky about where I send my works. The determinants are probably my feelings about the readiness of the poem to go out into the world.
Blessing: You started as a spoken word poet. How does the stage and page feel for you?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: Given my experience with the stage, I love to think that the divide between the stage and page is more or less like a thin layer of ice. Build up, execution and delivery is key to the success of both forms. I try to write my poems in a manner that makes them as sonically appealing as they would appeal to the eyes. I understand this may not always be the case with all of my poems but it is one of those things I keep in my head when I sit to write. I have a great affinity for tonality and musicality in poetry and for that reason, I read my poems out loud right from when I put down the first line of the draft. I love to feel a sense of synergy and synchronicity between the words I’m seeing on the page and what my ears perceive of them.
Blessing: The world hasn’t read prose or essay by Saddiq Dzukogi and Romeo Oriogun. Do you, like them, write poetry only?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: For now, yes. But you never know what the future holds, no? I’m not closing the doors to trying other forms of writing just yet. I pretty much just began writing poems, so I feel it might be a bit too early to say poetry is the only form of writing I’ll engage in. I enjoy reading prose and comics a lot. I may have drafted patches of essays and comics ideas here and there but I don’t know if they will ever be a thing. We will see.
Blessing: You are a member of Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation known to have organized a workshop on speculative poetry. And they have always celebrated you. How much speculative poetry is written at Hill-Top?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: When my friend, Peter Kwange, who is the co-founder of Just For Words asked me to come facilitate the workshop under his platform, I had no idea it would be a learning experience for me. I learned a lot just by sitting down and talking with the immense fold of talent at the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation. The teenage writers there showered me with their raw gift for speculative poetry writing which was filled with so much potential.
Abdulrazaq Salihu, from HCAF, is doing an amazing job with the sub-genre. He has honored me with some of the poems he’s been working on even before the workshop and they were wonderful. I believe there are more like him there who are still sharpening and honing their skills on that level.
Blessing: In 2022, you won the IGNYTE Award for Best Speculative Poetry with “Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation” published in Uncanny Magazine, the same poem that got you this feat. Did the award ever make you feel different about the poem?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: I don’t think so. Thanks to Chimedum Ohaegbu, the poetry editor at Uncanny Magazine and my wonderful friend, Mayowa Oyewale, who had both completed the job of getting me to see the potential of the poem even before it went out in the world. Having it picked up and published by Uncanny Magazine sealed my belief in it. It was humbling to see the poem receive such recognition but my feelings about it never changed.
I think it will be good to make it clear that “Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation” is listed on the shortlist because it happens to be the first of ten poems I entered for the prize as was required by the guidelines.
Blessing: Reading a good number of your published poems, I conclude that “Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation” is the most experimental speculative poetry you have written due to its style and the language deployed. Do you share the same sentiment?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: Not exactly. I love to think that Mona Lisa’s “Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci” is more experimental than “Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation”, regardless of the fact that the former conforms to a traditional form of poetry (which may be more reason why I think it’s more experimental). Why so? The abecedarian is written from the perspective of both Mona Lisa, the wife of a Florentine merchant, and Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting. I’ve always wanted to write persona-poems long before I started writing speculative poems. After my first formal encounter with speculative poetry, I immediately thought it a good avenue to finally explore this fantasy. One might argue that Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation is also a persona-poem due to the active presence and involvement of the speaker in the poem but unlike Mona Lisa’s Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci, the speaker isn’t a woman or genderless painting(or a combination of both) from centuries ago in which I did not exist. Clearly, that woman is not me.
Blessing: Would you say there are elements of contemporariness in every of your poems even though they are speculative? Relate one of your speculative poems to the contemporary events in Nigeria.
Abu Bakr Sadiq: Even though most of my poems, owing to my approach, are perceived as speculative poems, a closer examination reveals an embodiment of several aspects of contemporary issues around us. I’m very conscious and sensitive to the events happening in my immediate environment. As a matter of fact, these events are often instrumental in informing my approach to the speculative poems I write. They serve as my compass as I try to navigate the universe(s) availed to me by speculative poetry. It’s only justifiable that I bring these events and experiences into my writing; to create a space and say to them, “here, you can exist here, without fear. Feel at home, for as long as the poem lives.”
“Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation”, which was written in response to the killings during the EndSarz protest is a perfect example of this case.
Blessing:You are a student of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. How do you navigate between your studies and writing, especially being a student of Fishery and Aquaculture?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: It’s usually all about finding balance between my studies and writing. I constantly have to remind myself that there’s a time for everything. Writing when school is in session is not exactly my favorite thing to do but sometimes, the muse doesn’t really care about any of that. Drafting new poems in this period is quite the labor. So, I often use this time to focus more on living, revisions, submissions, engaging the writing community, reading and doing other stuff I enjoy.
Blessing: I noticed the consistent use of Islamic or Arabic terms in your poems. Aside dexterity, is there any other thing we should know about your style?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: My style is pretty much one of those things I’m constantly trying and failing to understand. Perhaps, due to its instability or my failure to recognize it the way other readers might. Many things come to play in informing my style. Structural experimentation is something I enjoy playing with in most of my poems. I love to see how much work could be done if the words appear a bit unusual or differently on the page. I also enjoy working with concepts, ideas and theories that may not necessarily be thought of as portals where poems could come out of or be written into. Sometimes, I make these concepts and theories apparent in the title or the meat of the poems. Other times, the execution and delivery of such concepts is what informs the reader of what’s being attempted. So yeah, a lot technicality is involved. Musicality is another feature that I love to see and hear in most of what I write.
Blessing: I have read and reviewed with my mentees, ‘Post Massacre Psyche Evaluation’ for the umpteenth time. And I keep wondering if there’s something you would love to share with us about the birth of this poem.
Abu Bakr Sadiq: I wrote the first draft in response to the horrible events that unfolded during the EndSars protests in Lagos. At that time, I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing a “speculative poem”. I remember how particularly difficult it was finding the words to convey how I was feeling about the whole situation at that time. It took a lot of labor to finally get the first draft done. I had almost given up on the poem but one night, while watching a show, I saw a scene where a prisoner was being subjected to a psychological evaluation in order to assess if he was fit enough to go back into the world from which he had been locked away for years. That scene brought the spark. It had taken me weeks to get the first line but after that, I wrote the first draft in one sitting. Did I know that I had written a speculative poem after I wrote the poem? No. Here’s what happened: so I’m trying to make a submission to Uncanny Magazine for the first time. I’ve already written what to me was my first speculative poem, Mona Lisa’s Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci. Before hitting the submit button, something tells me to include the Psyche Evaluation poem because why? They might like, you never know. And that was it. That acceptance broadened my understanding of what could be considered a speculative poem.
Blessing: During a conversation with an Award-winning Nigerian poet living in the diaspora, few hours after the shortlist was released, he said: “Abu Bakr writes some of the most experimental poems I have ever read.” How do you feel to know your works have travelled across lands and hearts?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: It’s always humbling for me. I know what it takes for me to sit down and write these little words. To wake up and realize that someone else recognizes them as being good, or just reads and resonates with them on any level, will always fill me with humility and gratitude.
Blessing: Looking at the shortlist of six and the dominating number of three Nigerian poets, do you think the prize is coming to Nigeria?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: You never know with things like this but I will be happier if a Nigerian wins it. Either way, I’m hoping for the best for everyone on the list.
Blessing: Irrespective of the outcome of the Evaristo Prize for African Poetry, will you experiment with other styles of poetry or you have carved a niche for yourself in speculative poetry?
Abu Bakr Sadiq: Absolutely. I’ve always been passionate about experimental poetry. I see speculative poetry as a door opened by my love for experimentation in my writing. I trust this love to lead me by the hand towards the many more doors waiting to be opened. I’ll be glad to do the honors.
Blessing: Finally, can you share a list of your favorite poets who may or may not have influenced your writing.
Abu Bakr Sadiq: I’m afraid this might be a long list but here’s a few off the top: Aremu Adams Adebisi, Mayowa Oyewale, Safia Elhillo, Alycia Pirmohamed, Forough Farrokhzad, Nome Emeka Patrick, Ladan Osman, Akpa Arinzechukwu, J.K Anowe, Layli Long Soldier, Garous Abdolmalekian, Fady Joudah, Goodness Olanrewaju Ayoola, Yusef Komunyakaa, Mahmoud Darwish, Ilya Kaminsky, Franny Choi, Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong and Martins Deep.
Blessing Omeiza Ojo is the Deputy Editor of Litvo Magazine and the Chairman of Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, Abuja. His works have been translated into several languages including Yoruba, French and Italian. His poetry has received nominations for Best of the Net, Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize, Creators of Justice Awards, Castello di Duino International Poetry and Theatre Competition, Jack Grapes Poetry Prize, Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest and the Korea-Nigeria Poetry Prize. His literary awards include the Korea-Nigeria Poetry Prize (Ambassador Special Prize 2019), the 2020 Artslounge Literature Teacher of the Year Award, the 2021 Words Rhymes & Rhythm Nigerian Teacher’s Award, 2022 & 2023 Maryam Aliyu Award for Best Teacher (Male) and the 2023 Nigeria Prize for Indigenous Languages (Yoruba). Omeiza is a Creative Writing Mentor with progenies already prize winners and slam champs.