Rasaq Malik Gbolahan (RMG) is a graduate of the University of Ibadan. His chapbook, “No Home In This Land”, selected for Chapbook Box edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, has been published. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, LitHub, Michigan Quaterly Review, Minnesota Review, New Orleans Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, Rattle, Salt Hill, Spillway, Stand, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. He won Honorable Mention in 2015 Best of the Net for his poem Elegy, published in One. In 2017, Rattle and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the Pushcart Prize. He was shortlisted for Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2017 and was a finalist for Sillerman First Book for African Poets in 2018. In this interview with CỌ́N-SCÌÒ MAGAZINE’s features editor Ehi-kowochio Ogwiji, RMG talks about his writing, depression among writers and increasing concerns about plagiarism and originality in the literary scene.
“Writing is not what everybody should do –especially the lazy ones.” You made this statement in a 2017 interview with Blueprint Newspapers. Now, can you tell us who a lazy writer is?
RMG: Well, what informed that response was the art of being a writer, the task of carrying the burdens of generations, the endless encounter with rejection letters and the resignation to silence birthed by the troubling question of being or not being enough to survive as a writer. In many ways, I have had my share of frustration and doubt. I started writing a decade ago, and the journey has been terrific. There are days of hunger, years of editing/reediting, weeks of arranging verses, and months of aridity. These inevitable events are enough to scare us into silence, to haunt us forever. Because they evoke fear in the most courageous of us. They beset us with things that can traumatize us. Reading Rainer Rilke “Letters to a Young Poet,” aided my beginning as a poet studying the poems of the masters. I found myself enmeshed in the webs of thoughts, and those thoughts enabled me to map my literary journey. For to be a writer is to seek an acceptance into a world governed by one’s constant interaction with humanity, with history, and with events beyond the mirror of time. Your words become a boat that ferries hope across generations. You become a light that illuminates the dark paths of existence. You speak to the souls, and you weave the fabric of hope in the time of disaster. When we consider these, writing, as elevated as it is, becomes mysterious. Thus, being lazy is antithetical to what this profession craves.
Your poem made a Poet Lore Pushcart Prize Nomination and made the 2017 shortlist for Brunel Poetry Prize. In addition, you have several works published in prominent journals and many consider you a successful writer. How long did it take you to work on your craft before achieving these feats? Were there any important growth influences?
RMG: I am skeptical about success as a writer. I mean writing doesn’t offer you the kind of success you desire. I think it offers fulfillment. When people see you and say they read your work and like what you do with language, with ideas, with meanings. This has nothing to do with money, with prizes. All my life I have always been zealous about writing. I have this unalloyed passion for it. I understand that there is no perfection, and there is never going to be one. Because writing opens into diverse things that teach us the fragility of existence. This frailness emanates from the gradual study of the world. We always quest for wholeness, which also reveals our vulnerability, our inability to conquer life. For me, I never started writing to win prizes, or attain the title of award-winning. The first journey was love. It is love, till date. When the love erases other interests, the rest is history. I remember vividly my first day at the university’s bookshop. I had visited the bookshop to get acquainted with poetry books suggested by a friend. Before that time, Akeem Lasisi’s “Night of my Flight,” had become a trusted ally, as I carried it with me like a passport. I bought Niyi Osundare’s “The Eye of the Earth,” and other compelling books. I started reading voraciously.
Working on my craft has always been a consistent task. I devote ample time to each phase of growth. For example, as an undergraduate I used to perform my poems on campus. Sometimes I would memorize verses, rehearse my lines, master my voice, and face the crowd to deliver. It takes time to complete a poem. The first thing I do is to create a draft. Sometimes I return to this work weeks/months after the first draft. Also, I pay considerable amount of attention to the way I engage books. I read books to learn, and not to bask in the quick pleasure of glancing through pages. I have writers that I read, and I return to certain books to relearn. I have lost count of rejection letters decorating my submittable account. It is part of the craft, part of what constitutes being a writer.
As someone described as “a cultural enthusiast and an indescribable lover of Yoruba cosmology,” what do you think about the themes in modern Nigerian writing? How have you managed to retain the African cultural flavor in your works while creating art that appeals to the West as well?
RMG: The discourse about themes is not alien to the literary terrain. However, the themes that occupy the modern Nigerian writing nudge us to be more conscious of what inspires us to write, and whether our work foregrounds the manifold happenings in our society or not. It is unarguable that there is no monopoly of themes, and being a creative writer allows that we engage and explore the world as far as we can. Studying Literature, I have encountered the generational differences in the works of older writers and the emerging ones. For example, writers like Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Olu Oguibe, Remi Raji, Henry Garuba, and a host of others carved a lasting emblem on the wall of time by being unrepentant in their scathing criticism of the chaotic political state of the military era. In their poems, the themes are both provocative and revolutionary. In recent times, there has been an increasing curiosity occasioned by the exhibition of supposedly new themes. These themes are familiar. Writing about home, family, lovers, immigration, etc. are familiar. I think the focus should be on how we explore these themes. The way we deploy diction, the way we explore and dissect these themes. I am not ready to do this for anyone. I once told a friend that we should ask ourselves the reasons why we write. We should investigate thoroughly the impulse that triggers us. What are the goals? What do we want to achieve with every work we scribble? The moment we displace these germane questions, the moment we begin to encounter problems in our craft. Because nothing is written in a vacuum. I learnt this as an undergraduate from a literature professor, and it has always helped me design my thoughts. In my poems, I commune with the language. It is a weapon to me. The way a hunter uses his dane gun to kill animals, the way I use my language to teach, to profess, to invoke, and to incite.
Also, the continuous retainment of cultural texture in my poems is influenced by my background. I grew up in Iseyin, and in my formative years I witnessed different cultural performances that enriched my knowledge about what it means to be a Yoruba man. I started reading Yoruba books under the tutelage of my mother. There were nights filled with her sonorous voice ferrying me to the memories of my forefathers. She inspired me and still inspires me. As a budding writer, I enjoyed most of the collections written by older writers. I have read poetry collections by Niyi Osundare, Harry Garuba, Maik Nwosu, Olu Oguibe, Femi Osofisan, Remi Raji, Akeem Lasisi, Tayo Olafioye, Jumoke Verissimo, Tosin Gbogi, etc. Despite the fact that these collections explore themes that function universally, there is this cultural consciousness in their use of diction. The way you read Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” and find a sense of African identity, of belonging; the way you read Wole Soyinka’s poems and feel connected to the root, and the way you speak your language in unfamiliar places and people want to hear you speak it again. That is my dream. My mission. I remember that in secondary school I became a disciple of Kofi Awoonor. I memorized his poems and embraced the lyricism that reflects in his verses. Kofi’s poems reminded me of my ancestors and their legacies. I read Negritude poets, and Leopold Senghor’s alluring verses united me more with home, with my love for Africa. It was later in the university that I discovered other poems written by African poets. In my poems, I am keen about projecting my life and cultures, my people and their language, their songs, their stories, their dreams, their rituals, and their performances. In my relentless pursuit of propagating my indigenous language, I co-founded an online Yoruba literary journal with Oredola Ibrahim. We have a website where we publish work written in Yoruba. Our language is the past, the present and the future.
In his review of your debut chapbook No home in this Land, Rahaman Abiola describes you as “a revolutionary necessity” in a time when the acute leadership failure continues to challenge the Nigerian dream. This description seems to put you in the path of the Greats like Soyinka, Achebe, Okara and others whose use their creativity for social good. Does this define who you are? Do you think socially conscious writers are necessary?
RMG: I used to write political poems. I hunger for change, but I am aware that writing doesn’t change everything. Instead, writing creates a debate. It resists oppression. It gathers songs and chants. It reveals what seems to be blurry. No home in this land was included in the box set edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. In the chapbook, the themes are familiar, and haunting, because there is an absence of peace and the victims of blasts remain scared of a homeland where they grew up before bokoharams started unleashing mayhem. Being a writer living in a country where the radio staggers every day with the news of blasts raging in the air is more than enough to push me into the arms of sorrow. There is this collective sense of grief, this unending realization that no one is safe.
In a country like ours, it is okay to write about the turbulence, the aches, the losses. In my work, I seek to document. I believe that the work of a writer transcends being a passionate lover of nature, or being a lover boy counting flowers in a field with his girlfriend. In my work, I am curious about how the system works, how people are rendered homeless, how the number of the dead is counted, where they are buried, how they are remembered. It is my task to let people hear their faint voices, their pleas, their dialogues, their frustrations. I have always believed that not everyone will write, and not everyone will think the way I think. There are many untold stories, stories lost to time, stories murdered with their tellers, stories buried in unidentified places. Insofar I still breathe, I want to tell these stories. When tomorrow comes and someone picks up my poems, I want him/her to know about my country, about the past, the experiences of my loved ones, of the dead, of those whose photographs are faded, those whose pockets are filled with letters from missing relatives.
Your poems are warm, often purring at the softest parts of our hearts. We absolutely love how your poems discuss love and home in novel ways, but we wonder whether they come from a place of longing since some people believe that most writers had unhappy childhood. Does this apply to you?
RMG: I had a childhood characterized by my mother’s love and the longing for my father who spent his life as a civil servant in Nasarawa. My dad would visit us once/twice in a year. Growing up, I loved solitude. Instead of joining other children to play ball or attend a birthday, I preferred being with my mother. I was satisfied by her words and thoughts. I learnt the language of love from her. I mean she taught me the syntax and semantics of love. You know, love embodies everything that satiates our thirst for hope. Love teaches compassion. It allows us to perform patience and kindness. It shapes our understanding of the world. In secondary school, Leopold Senghor “I Will Pronounce Your Name, Naett,” became my mantra. Despite the fact that I didn’t understand everything in the poem, the repetition of “Naett” delighted me. “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell remains one of the best poems I read in school. As an undergraduate, I studied African poetry and I have read other love poems by African poets. In addition, I find writing love poems an escape from the colossal tragedies that occur daily. There are people dying, people burying their loved ones, people saying their last prayers. Covid-19 has unveiled to us the uncertainties of our dreams and aspirations. Nothing is promised, because every minute reminds us of the finality of life.
Home is another topic that intrigues me. In my definition of home, the most important thing I cling to is the sense of belonging, the spirit of communalism, the wild and unresisting passion for the root. You know, my umbilical cords remain buried in this land. I can see the graves of my grandparents and relatives. They occupy the swath of this land that reminds me of my identity. I think that gifts me the badge of a native. I speak the language of my ancestors. I know my kith and kin. I sing their songs. I understand their language. I chant their names and render their stories. I hear their words from far and near places. Some days ago, I picked a book and I marveled at the grace of language, the undiluted flavor of a language that remains our heritage, our undying legacy. Home answers and sustains my curiosity about selfhood. Despite the unrest and the problems accumulating daily, I find my heart immersed in the aesthetics provided by home.
From your interviews, one gets a feeling that you write poetry for the sake of art, that you enjoy it. For example, speaking with Nitty Wall, you said, “I am happy being a poet. It is a source of healing to me…. I love writing.” How do you pass on this ‘overdose’ of optimism to emerging poets, most of whom seem saddened by the fact that poetry is less lucrative than other genres?
RMG: Like I said in my previous response to a question, we need to reach an abiding conclusion about the reasons why we write. I have always been a passionate writer. My life is regaled by the memories of my actions as a performer and a poet climbing stages in Ibadan, delivering lines and feeling the power of words in the hearts of the people. I always tell emerging writers to be wary of canonizing monetary part of a creative life. Do the work first. Consume books. Read like your mind depends on reading for survival. Because it actually does. Reading transports us to nirvana, to a place where we approach life with a full understanding of how things work.
I have read books that rendered me speechless, books that continue to dazzle me. Instead of valorizing mundane things such as money, writing offers us immortality. It builds for us a monument. It projects us to the world. You see, winning literary prizes is a good thing. It opens doors. It stabilizes your confidence and centralizes your name. People begin to notice you. You begin your journey to stardom.
But before this happens, you need to remain resolute and unbroken despite the whirlwind of criticism and rejection engulfing your life. You need to keep writing. You need to trust the process. Over the years, I have had to coach some guys about how this thing operates. I always cite myself as an example. Being on Brunel shortlist took six years from me. I always submitted, and I always received a rejection letter. I didn’t relent. I was very persistent, while working on my craft. When I received a message that I was on the shortlist, I couldn’t believe it. It happened. I haven’t stopped working on my poems. Whether it is lucrative or not, the goal is to keep archiving my stories and the stories of my people and the world.
Depression is a recurrent theme among young poets these days. What do you think is happening? Should we be worried?
RMG: This is a scary topic, and I think we need to focus on how we interact with the world. I have read people posting about being depressed and opting for suicide. I have read books about writers committing suicide, writers resorting to drowning as a way of escaping the cruelty of the world. It happens. Personally, I like being alone. In the moment of being alone, I think about things that petrify my life. In as much as being alone fuels my writing, I am also scared of being on the brink of depression, or negotiating suicidal acts. What keeps me going is the fulfillment I find in writing, the love I have for it, the love and kindness of friends and strangers. We should not allow despair to slip into our lives. These days I try to leave my room. I want to avoid extreme loneliness. It affects. I understand that there are problems affecting all of us. Family issues. Personal issues. Varying degrees of disappointment and rejection. However, we should not allow these to deter us. We should always hope for the best.
Let is go back to the Blueprint interview. In it you said, “My poetry identifies with victims of war and sufferers in an unjust country, […] people summoning the courage to survive in war-torn places” and your poetry paint you as one who carries a big fraction of Borno and the pains of her distressed people in your heart. How did this happen, seeing that you were born, and raised in Iseyin, Oyo State?
RMG: My poetry speaks the language of the masses, of the world, of people and their dreams. Writing expands and widens our scope. It voyages us across borders, beyond places known and unknown to us. In Odia Ofeimun’s “The Poet Lied,” there is a revolutionary anthem in the first page, something akin to a pledge. Niyi Osundare’s “Songs of the Marketplace,” is a revolutionary testament and a proof of how poetry can agitate for a good leadership and the freedom of the masses from the shackles of looters. In writing my chapbook, I focused largely on the war-torn places in the country. I wanted to raise a discussion, and at that moment it was pivotal for me to do so. It is still an important issue in the news, in the world.
Nothing has changed, and even when the government wants us to believe that they have been able to curb the incessant attacks masterminded by bokoharams, we still wake up to read news about people fleeing their villages, people kidnapped and killed. In the south west, the lives of the people are no longer safe. Everywhere hurts, as Warsan Shire would say. This atlas breaks us more. I have written poems about these issues, and I continue to represent and document stories that need to be told. Because it is our collective responsibility to depict, narrate and address issues affecting humanity. Whenever I read Mahmoud Darwish, the map of exile unfurls in my mind. His poetry probes and examines the devasting consequences of war and displacement. In Nigeria, people are displaced. Beyond physical displacement experienced by people attacked by bokoharams, the mental torture inflicted on the masses by the leaders is enough to displace their patriotism and love for their homeland. Darwish was a widely celebrated Palestinian poet, but his poetry is global. His poetry leads us through the fossils of history. We become internalized in our reading of his monumental poems. Literature has always helped us understand our situations better.
There is increasing concern in the Nigerian writing community that many about contemporary poets seem to be creating copies of the works of popular or award-winning poets with slight variations. Do you think this is true? Do you agree with those who argue that imitation is a part of the growth process toward originality?
RMG: It is important for us to know that we must learn from the masters. This reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s “Traditions and Individual Talents”. In this seminal essay, Eliot opines that the present must build on the past. There should be a conversation between the works of the masters and the emerging ones. Interestingly, it is impossible to write without observing the ritual of reading. I subscribe to reading, but I also submit that in the process of grooming ourselves as writers, we should work towards crafting a voice. Crafting a voice doesn’t displace the place of learning from the masters. The art of being a writer is gradual. Learning is continuous, and nothing stops us from writing in as much as we believe in finding a voice. At first, it may be difficult for us to locate the bearing of our work. It may be difficult to trust our work, but being unable to do this shouldn’t stop us from writing. Each poem we write draws us close to discovery. I would like to recommend Rainer Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” and “The Triggering Town,” by Richard Hugo. There is this profundity evident in these books.
Tell us about your coronavirus lockdown experience. Have you been turning the abundance of silence/solitude into poems? Or did it lock down your creative juices?
RMG: It’s been a challenging year for me, but I am grateful for the gift of life. Here, Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” resonates perfectly and fits into the space of gratitude. In this poem, there is praise. There is redemption. There is salvation. There is a voice saying come celebrate with me repeatedly. The lockdown affected me in many ways. I was broken by the reality of staying indoors for months. I tried to read and write. I woke up each to read news online, and the number of the dead and affected people scared me. I thought the world would have ended by now. I lost people to death, and I mourned silently. I wrote new poems, and I am still working on them. For two months I couldn’t write. But later I wrote some poems about losses, family, my grandparents, the world, etc.
Are you working on any collection now?
RMG: I have two complete poetry manuscripts, and I am looking forward to publishing them. Presently, I have written some essays, and I am working on editing them. Let’s see what coming years will offer. For now, the work continues.