Nathan Suhr-Sytsma

On encountering ‘Gbenga Adeoba’s poems in 2018 I was struck by the tonal restraint with which his poems took up the urgent subject of migration. Lyric more than documentary, and rarely far from water, Adeoba’s poems concerned themselves with coasts and ports and those traveling the open sea. His poetry, to borrow a phrase from his poem “Resurrection,” kept “retelling parables of no return.”

That same year, I was fortunate to meet Adeoba in Ibadan, Nigeria, and begin a conversation about his work. He had just been shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Since then, he has completed an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry. His first full-length poetry collection, Exodus, was published earlier this year, with a stunning cover photograph by Adeolu Osibodu, as part of the African Poetry Book Series. This series, edited by Kwame Dawes and published by the University of Nebraska Press, provides a home in print for both classic and contemporary work by African poets.

This interview was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity.

Nathan Suhr-Sytsma: Congratulations on the publication of Exodus! We’ve spoken about how you grew up among books. Could you tell readers where you grew up and how you found poetry—or how poetry found you?

‘Gbenga Adeoba: Thank you! I was born and raised in Akure, Southwest Nigeria. My earliest exposure to poetry was via Yorùbá poets on the radio. Chief Túbọ̀sún Oládàpọ̀, in particular, was a major feature. One of his works was often infused into the marriage announcements.

About a decade before I was born, a traveling neighbor, a “Mr. Ominu,” left his stacks of books with my father but never came back to retrieve them. The neighbor’s books (they mostly bore a “Cobra Ominu” signature), my father’s, and old newspapers and magazines occupied quite a chunk of my childhood. I found Niyi Osundare’s writings, a book of nineteenth-century narrative poems, and The Complete Works of Shakespeare in that lot. There was also the late Akínwùmí Ìsọ̀lá’s Ó le kú, which has some of the best love poems I have read.

I tried my hands at poetry privately, and as responses to assigned schoolwork in my teenage years. But it wasn’t until I got to the University of Ibadan that I got fully interested in poetry. The rich literary tradition in UI was of great advantage, and “Artmosphere,” a literary and cultural event in Ibadan, opened me up to a large and diverse literary community.

NS: The first of the book’s two sections bears an epigraph by the late Derek Walcott: “The sea is History.” That section confronts readers with vivid poems about both the Atlantic slave trade and present-day migrations across the Mediterranean. How did these concerns become linked for you?

‘GA: I was interested in history and memory and was writing some poems in response to Peter Akinlabi’s “Ouidah” and “The Last Winter of Pa Cudjo Lewis,” Walcott’s “The Sea is History,” and other texts and images I came across in my readings. I didn’t quite pay attention to present-day migrations across the Mediterranean although I had written the poem titled “All the Little Lights Going Out” in 2015. This was in response to the case of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy that washed ashore and broke international news.

Mid-2016, I stumbled on a news report about a Nigerian boy comforting his sister after they were rescued from an overcrowded boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. According to the report, their mother had died in Libya. A portion of that news report included some statistics about recovered and drowned bodies; it reminded me of the Zong massacre, which NourbeSe Philip’s important book Zong! explored, the presence of the past in the present, and this line from Walcott’s poem: “Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors who sank without tombs” (emphasis mine). It was impossible not to see the sea as a large tomb, or a “grey vault” as Walcott called it.

NS: Was that news report the impetus for your poem “Seafarers,” which appears early in the collection? I recall encountering an earlier version of that poem, which is set on a boat in the Mediterranean somewhere north of Tobruk, Libya, when you were shortlisted for the Brunel prize. I think its concluding lines are among the most powerful in the collection:

     What binds us,
     in this boat, is a known fear,
     a kinship of likely loss,

     the understanding that we, too,
     could become a band of unnamed migrants
     found floating on the face of the sea.

The power here derives partly from your decision to write in the plural first-person voice, yet I wonder, did you worry about your right to inhabit the seafarers’ story in that way?

‘GA: Yes, although the poem isn’t only about the incident in that report. I think there is a way the mind draws from what it has encountered, things one might not even know are present there. The poem has undergone multiple revisions since I wrote it. I showed it to a couple of friends who offered feedback and suggestions but it was Jody Bolz, editor at Poet Lore then, who largely shaped the version that you read.

From my notes, it took me four months to come up with a full draft, partly because I was working through what it was that spoke to me in the first place. Research, too. Also, I was negotiating my options, fully aware of the tension between ethics and imagination as a practice of empathy (or vice versa). I do not seek to speak for anyone, because this suggests an assumption that people cannot speak for themselves. My intention or approach was to use poetry to interrogate what moved me and discover what it might mean for me. The lines you have referenced proceeded from that posture, how we—beyond the direct “we” of the poem—are all caught up in this. And that required making some craft choices, with the hope that what I have put on the page will signal the possible reasons. Reading the poem alongside other ones in the collection with similar concerns might also make things clear.

NS: The title Exodus evokes for me the perilous sea crossing in the biblical book that recounts the people of Israel’s liberation from slavery as well as the more colloquial sense of mass departure. You’ve mentioned in this dialogue with Peter Akinlabi that your interest in migration stems, in part, from “Nigeria’s expulsion of Ghanaians”—a kind of forced exodus—in the mid-1980s. “Exodus” is also, of course, the title of a poem in the collection. Would you like to discuss how that poem brings the Caribbean into your consideration of the sea? When did you know that it would lend its title to the book as a whole?

‘GA: When I wrote the poem with that title, most of the poems had not been written, so I was only focusing on the motif of movement in that particular poem, highlighting survival, which isn’t often the case in the other poems about migration. What prompted the poem was a video of displaced Haitians, in their thousands, making for a ferry, on dinghies, after the 2010 earthquake. They had sat at the wharf for days, waiting for evacuation after the earthquake struck. I wasn’t thinking about the Caribbean in general. But I knew it would be the title once I saw the connections in the poems and began to think of them as a manuscript. That was a year before I submitted the manuscript for the Sillerman Prize.

NS: The epigraph to the book’s second section, nodding to Nigerian writer Tade Ipadeola’s contemporary epic The Sahara Testaments, reads, “Here is remembrance beyond the reach of memory.” I would not want to give readers the impression that your book deals only with situations distant from you in place or time. This second section is framed by poems that consider memory personally and playfully, imagining, for example,

     the hippocampus as an ark,

     with varied events walking in,
     side by side, […]

Yet what they frame is still momentous.

In what had been the title poem of your 2019 chapbook Here Is Water, a boy wades into a river:

     Here is water, he says.
     Here is memory shifting in its form,

     bearing things heavy and lost. […]

Subsequent poems meditate on “things heavy and lost” in relation to those displaced by conflicts in northeast Nigeria, Uganda, Syria, and Myanmar. Is there a distinction, for you, between History and memory? What precedents did you find in art or literature for rendering displaced people legible in poetry?

‘GA: Yes, I think they are distinct but linked. I consider memory, either personal or collective, to be what we remember or choose to use to remember a particular history. The overlap is inevitable since people are at the center of both. I am thinking of Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Miscegenation,” a meditation on a personal/familial memory, which is also rooted in the history of the American South. Or Okey Ndibe’s “My Biafran Eyes”—a personal essay, yet not separable from the history of the Nigerian civil war. That epigraph from The Sahara Testaments was useful for me in thinking of art as an attempt to “remember,” beyond the faculty of the brain. Several poems, including Warsan Shire’s viral poem “Home,” offered examples of talking about displaced people in poems. The Alan Kurdi poem I mentioned alludes to a line from “Home.” But beyond poetry, fiction and non-fiction works like the Okey Ndibe essay I mentioned earlier were quite useful because of what those genres afford(ed) the writers to do.

NS: While poets in Nigeria—as in many places—have often approached politics by vehemently denuncing the powers that be, it seems to me that your poems tend more toward imaginatively identifying with those who suffer. In what sense do you consider your writing political?

‘GA: That kind of approach has its place and has helped to get a lot done, but it didn’t quite fit into what I was reaching for in the poems. In “Why I Write,” George Orwell offered four possible primary motivations for writing, which he called “Sheer egoism,” “Aesthetic enthusiasm,” “Historical impulse,” and “Political purpose.” I agree with his assertion that these motivations exist in different degrees in every writer and will vary from time to time, according to the age in which the writer is living. But of the four, it is historical impulse and political purpose that I am most drawn to, even though I came to writing through “the joy of mere words.” I think his description of political purpose captures my approach: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” To offer my way of seeing and thinking about these concerns without being polemical.

NS: Orwell also wrote, “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.” Has your relocation from Nigeria to the US inflected which issues or injustices you find yourself drawn to address?

‘GA: Yes, but I think what has stood out is how being here compels one to think more about the complexity of these issues, and how deeply rooted they are in institutions. Consider the case of kids being put in cages at the border or the forms of social injustice in housing and education. Also, to be here is to be aware of racial relations and tensions. One might choose not to write about it, but it is impossible not to pay attention because it can’t be divorced from daily living.

NS: May I conclude by asking where you are heading after Exodus—in your life and in your poems?

‘GA: I hope to continue to read and write. My MFA thesis allowed me to explore my interest in ekphrasis and photographs further. I intend to continue to work on that and see where it goes. It is still somewhat related to my general interest in history and memory. There is a Zora Neale Hurston picture of Cudjo Lewis and his great-granddaughters that I found intriguing. I am also interested in the photographs of Eli Reed, Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and others. Beyond creative writing, I have more years of graduate school ahead.

Nathan Suhr-Sytsma is associate professor of English and a core faculty member of the Institute of African Studies at Emory University. His first book, Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature, was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press. He is now at work on a book about contemporary poetry and pan-African literary communities.