Interview with Inua Ellams

Inua Ellams

Magical Realism panel

Poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer.

Interview conducted by Beth Roberts.

Inua Ellams is a Nigeria-born, London-based poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer, once described as the love child of Yasiin Bey and John Keats. I spoke to Inua to find out more about his poetic and dramatic process and to discuss how his other artistic ventures relate to his writing. We also discussed his role in running poetry workshops for multiple age-groups around the world and how the last year has impacted him.

Q: You describe yourself as a “poet and a playwright, a fantasist and a thief”. Can you elaborate on why you describe yourself in such a way?

The poet and playwright part: that’s what I do. Most of my work begins as an attempt to write poetry and sometimes ends up as conversations in a scene. With regards to being a “fantasist”, I think it’s impossible to be a poet or playwright without being a fantasist, without living a bit in your head. Keats said that “poets are the midwives of reality” and I think that encompasses where we sit – on the boundary between reality and fantasy. The “thief” part is really because I don’t try to be new when I create, I just mix what already exists. In the West, we’re way too focused on trying to be new. I attribute this to capitalism which is built on ownership and one-upmanship. I come from a hip-hop background where mixing and remixing, recycling is how the genre started, so I’m less concerned with being “new”.

Q: The Half-God of Rainfall, from which you will be reading at the festival, is a play that uses epic verse. Where do you see the line between poetry and drama? Is there a line to be drawn at all?

I don’t think there is necessary a line. The Half-God of Rainfall has been performed with two actors on stage, with lighting and props, so the form worked on stage. I don’t think there is a line as such and, if there is, I do everything I can to undermine it. It’s up to the writers to decide how to present work and up to the audience to decide where they will go to meet the literature. I saw a production recently of classical Greek literature performed on stage, where the actors went up one by one to voice the characters – they just read the text behind a lectern – and it worked beautifully. I think you can present things any way you want to as a writer.

Q: You have travelled the world, running workshops on poetry and playwriting, working with all age groups, from primary school to university. What do you enjoy about the teaching and mentoring process?

Realising how wrong my interpretations of texts are sometimes and how limited I can be in my ideas of what a poem can do. I love arriving in a country and asking what they think about a poem and listening to vastly different interpretations. We’re having many conversations about decolonising literature at the moment and I think we also need to talk about decolonising the way literature is taught. It’s as much about the writer’s intentions, as it is about the reader/audience understanding. A poem is more music than mathematics, so we shouldn’t interpret it as if it’s an equation. Running these workshops has made me re-evaluate how literature is taught and why some literature is valued more than others.

Q: After having judged several poetry competitions, such as the UK National University Poetry Slam and The Roundhouse Poetry Slam, do you find that the process helps your creative flow and process?

Yeah, definitely. I recall a poet friend saying, “to each generation there shall be born a new language and that language will describe and capture a new age” and that’s how I feel about the next generation of poets. I see my work in a new light when I listen to young people’s poetry and I consider who is speaking and who they are speaking for. I hope that I can be the same type of mentor to these young poets as the poets who came before me, who championed my work. Poetry is generational and, as in many aspects of life, to create a better and more unified world, we need to walk forward whilst also looking back.

Q: As a graphic artist and designer, do you see overlap between your written and drawn work? Are they separate entities or does one help inspire the other?

They definitely inspire one another. Most of my poems begin as images to take as metaphors. My visual brain seeds my literature brain. I illustrated the entirety of my first pamphlet, The Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales. When performing the Black T-Shirt Collection, I had artwork projected behind me, which consisted of still images matched to an audio and musical track which worked to tell a story. With The Actual – my most recent book of poems – I plan to illustrate all 55 poems, a long process that I’m slowly working on. As a curator, I also orchestrate the graphic work and visual representations of my events. In terms of publication, I’m heavily involved in book design and marketing material related to my work.

Q: The Midnight Run, a “walking, night-time, arts-filled, cultural journey through a city” is one of your creations. You started the project by running writing and poetry workshops yourself and then began inviting other artists and activists. Where do you see the connection between locality, place and space and art, writing and activism?

When I first created The Midnight Run, I wasn’t thinking about those things. Perhaps subconsciously, but all I wanted was to create a way to share poetry together and walk through London. I never thought about it as activism (which it definitely is), I was just having fun. It is probably partially rooted in being an immigrant. I wanted to create lasting memories in London, of London, I think of poetry as time capsules and TheMNR as a way of capturing moments of places in the world. The Midnight Run is also a communist and Marxist endeavour – it is a big leveller. It isn’t about what you do for a living or what you earn; you come as you are, I provide the pens and we all experience the journey together.

Q: This last year has been difficult for many people, including writers and artists who have often been side-lined as a workforce. How has this year been for you as a writer and artist? Are you currently working on any new material?

I haven’t been writing as much poetry as before. My last book came out in October and I’m still immersed in its world, I’m waiting for the new things to settle within me. I lost 70% of my income because of the pandemic. I’m self-employed and have a company which wasn’t supported by the government’s schemes, so I accepted my losses and just tried to keep going. The impact of the pandemic on the theatre industry probably spurred me on to writing more for TV/ film because I could work alone indoors. Theatres are opening again and it’s exciting to see how the conversations that have taken place over the last year regarding Black Lives Matter and representation will be played out in those spaces. I don’t want to think that it was all just lip service. It will be good to see what long lasting change will occur following 2020.

Speaking with Inua was an incredibly transformative experience and an absolute honour. It was enlightening to gain insight into his writing processes, inspirations and beliefs and to hear his meaningful views regarding the very relevant issues of decolonisation and representation. Inua will be reading from The Half-God of Rainfall at this year’s festival and I am hugely excited for everyone to experience the epic nature of his poetic voice and the important messages woven into the compelling narrative. With an intuitive grasp on the world today, Inua Ellams is just the voice we need.

Buy The Actual

Longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2021 The Actual is a symphony of personal and political fury-sometimes probing delicately, sometimes burning with raw energy. In 55 poems that swerve and crackle with a rare music, Inua Ellams unleashes a full-throated assault on empire and its legacies of racism, injustice and toxic masculinity.

Written on the author’s phone, in transit, between meetings, before falling asleep and just after waking, this is poetry as polemic, as an act of resistance, but also as dream-vision. At its heart, this book confronts the absolutism and ‘foolish machismo’ of hero culture-from Perseus to Trump, from Batman to Boko Haram. Through the thick gauze of history, these breathtaking poems look the world square in the face and ask, “What the actual-?”.

‘This is what poetry looks like when you have nothing to lose, when you speak from the heart, when you have spent years honing your craft so that you can be free. This is what poetry looks like when you are a word sorcerer, a linguistic swordsman, a metaphor-dazzler, a passionate creator of poetry as fire, as lament, as beauty, as reflection, as argument, as home.

I was blown away by this book’- Bernardine Evaristo

To find out more about Inua Ellams go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information. To buy The Actual head to Appleseed Bookshop.

Beth Roberts is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing Saturday lunchtime’s Magical Realism panel during this year’s festival.

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