New Voices: Uche Peter Umez interviews Umar Sidi, Striking the Strings

In another of a series of interviews with the new voices shaping Nigerian literature, poet and short story writer, Uche Peter Umez, interviews a second Parrésia Poet following Saddiq M. Dzukogi’s interview HERE. Umar Sidi is a helicopter pilot with the Nigerian Navy. He is the author of Striking the Strings [Origami Books: set for release] and The Poet of Sand. He lives in Lagos.

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Umar Sidi

1. What is poetry to you? And what defines a poem as a poem for you?

My best answer would have been ‘I don’t know what a poem is’ but that would have been quite dishonest. Perhaps I know a bit about poetry but I don’t know how to define it. For this reason I won’t define but I will attempt to describe. The inimitable Borges is of the opinion that language is unnatural to the human species. What is natural to humans is feeling. Language is an artificial necessity we invented in order to express feeling. Poetry, I believe, is a propellant, or a vehicle which takes humans back to the pools of pure feeling. So, primarily poetry is not about language, poets use language and its associated components to evoke feeling. A poem, therefore, is that which seeks return and union, that which takes man back to the point of primordial origin. In this sense, every poem is mystical and every poet a mystic.

2. There appears to be a burden of tradition for many Nigerian poets to write poetry that tends towards the didactic. What is your experience of writing outside this tradition?

I am not very much aware that I am writing outside any tradition. I am just catching fun and always pursuing new ways of archiving my experiences. But, I became aware, at some point that there is an indescribable joy that comes with exploring the possibilities of experimentation, there is almost a rapturous and exhilarating delight in treading on dark and mysterious pathways of thought, there is always a perplexing and enchanting satisfaction associated with going outside oneself, all in a bid to seek the new and the hidden. Poetry is not to be imprisoned within the cage of any tradition; it is not to be caged even in its own tradition, to do that is to do the sacrilegious, and the consequences, to say the least, are disastrous. It means, in simple terms, stagnation and death for society and mankind. I share Adonis’s view that development is not achieved only through scientific and technological advancement; it is achieved more importantly through the development of the human spirit. And what better way is there to facilitate the development of the human spirit than through poetry? But can the spirit develop when poetry is caged? By spirit, I am referring to our intuitive and contemplative faculties.

3. What poets were important to you when you first started writing?

I am still an informal member of the Kano School of Poetry, or what I like to call the Ismail Bala School of Poetry. This is a group of poets unofficially led by Ismail Bala, who are living their lives and writing poetry. I discovered them when I was idling after I graduated from the Nigerian Military School and I glued myself to them. I followed them everywhere; on the internet, on the pages of newspapers, in journals and in dreams. Meeting these poets was and is still very instructive to me. Before then, there was Muhammadu Bello, popularly known as Katib, the writer. He is a poet, a grammarian, a philosopher, a mathematician, a programmer, and a novelist; in fact, he is a polymath of some sort. Katib was my tutor when I was about 8 or 9 years of age in Sokoto. He taught us, his pupils, the rudiments of poetry in the ajami tradition, including the techniques of composition, the varieties of silence and the many methods of listening. Last year, Origami issued his debut Hausa novel, Rudanin Tunani. It is a hallucinatory philosophical novel written in the style of Ibn Tufail of Philosophus Autodidactus fame.

4. How do you go about writing a poem? For instance, ‘Seven Days to the End of the World’?

This depends on a variety of things. There are times when I get immersed totally into an imaginary pool of feeling or what I like to call ‘source of poetry’. And there are times when it appears as if I am receiving dictations from angels, demons and even oracles. As for ‘Seven Days to the End of the World’, it came one morning on a working day. I was putting my duty reports together when an idea struck me: what will happen a week before the end of the world? I meditated and after that I wrote something down. Sometimes, I like to think that the poem was dictated by an angel.

5. Love recurs in much of your poetry. Why is it such an important theme for you?

I love love. I love to love. I have always believed that love is one of the most important aspects of being human. If we can learn to love genuinely, we may be able to annihilate the ‘I’, obliterate the ‘Other’ and attain Oneness. I also believe that through love we can understand ourselves and our place in the universe, through love we can make sense of the mysterious dimensions of life and discern the magical and enchanted aspects of our complex reality.

6. In Striking the Strings I noticed a strong reference to the luminaries, sky, clouds. Was this preoccupation influenced by your profession as a pilot?

Well, I am not very sure about that. What I am sure about is that I have always been bewildered and enchanted by the heavens and I used to have a secret ambition, as a child of wanting to become an astronaut.

7. You began and ended the collection ‘Striking the Strings’ with a meditation on ‘beginning and end’, what informed this approach?

Perhaps, I wanted to give the reader something to think about, to point the reader to the notion that ‘the beginning is poetry, the end is poetry’. Perhaps, I was thinking of the cyclical nature of reality, where it is presumed that the end is the beginning of another cycle, and the beginning the end of another cycle and so ad infinitum. May be this also has a bearing on what Billy Collins wrote in his poem The Trouble with Poetry. The trouble with poetry, according to him, is that it inspires the writing of more poetry, the end of one poem signals the beginning of another. Perhaps, this is why poets are miserable fools who are entangled in an infinite portal of poetic continuum.

8. What inspired The Poet of Sand? It is simply delectable!

The desire to seek. The quest to know. The boundless possibilities buried beneath the question mark (?): What am I? Who am I? What is reality? Why are we here?

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Umar Sidi in his private library

9. Unlike Striking the Strings where the poems are restricted and sparse, The Poet of Sand is hearty and demonstrative, and surprisingly a little irreverent, given that you are coming from a background where poetic license is mediated by fear of censorship. How did you manage that?

Intoxication. Drunkenness. I got high on the dope of poetry. In experiencing the poems in The Poet of Sand I unconsciously don the garb of the holy madman and assumed the role of a dervish, particularly a drunken Sufi. Drunkenness and madness have always offered mystics cloaks in which they hide or reveal their true selves. With drunkenness the spirit becomes ecstatic, illuminated, light feathered, and free. With madness the soul negotiates dangerous and dormant pathways of thought and as a result it is able to think the unthinkable and utter the unutterable all in a bid to seek the hidden and the transcendental. In this state there is no question of fear. There is only revelation, reverie and freedom. I have always been fascinated by drunken mystics and mad poets: they tend to utter the most profound of truths. El- Hallaj, Laikhur, and the Zen Master Ikkyu are a few examples.

10. Do you feel that “A poet is a blind artist painting upon/ The invisible mirrors of the sky”?

Yes, absolutely.

11. Tanure Ojaide once branded the new generation of Nigerian poets as “copycats”. Do you agree that the current generation lacks originality and ideological depth?

I strongly feel that to call a whole generation of poets “copycats” is unfair. You mentioned ideological depth, this resonates Adonis’s definition of a poet: a metaphysical being who penetrates to the depths. I do agree that some measure of penetration or immersion into the depths of something is required for one to experience serious poetry and I see that a lot of that is happening currently. There are many assured and promising voices sprouting all around.

12. Can you say a few words about the current state of poetry in Nigeria?

Many things are happening. There are problems associated with sharing the poetic experience with a wider audience. There is the ubiquity of poetry or what appears to be poetry on the social media, I don’t know whether this is good or not. And besides that, there’s The Sahara Testament inspired by the sheer magnitude and density of the Sahara, there are gentle songs written in through the window of a sand castle, there are love Letters written in longing for home and country, there are Blues written with a clinical touch of pedestrian elegance, there are sensuous lyrics recorded in the Memory of a personal pronoun, there are Rubayyats (Al- Sudani’s) being composed in the style of Persian masters but with some delectable personal flavour, there are laments and love songs echoed From the Margins of Paradise, there are lines crafted under Sunbeams and Shadows. There is also the issue of the function of poetry in the society. Is there enough poetry in our lives? How many poems are appreciated outside literary circles? How many poems are read during professional, political, or social congregations? Do we have a national poet? I think we need a lot of poetry in these troubling times. We need poetry to enable us peer through the fog and see the many nerves and arteries that bind us together.

13. Do you think that poetry can really “stir passion in /in schizophrenics, lunatics, mental patients”?

Instruction to a Poet, the poem from which these lines are taken from is simply a call to the poet to seek the highest in him and seek ways of speaking (probably through poetry) to the highest in others including of course the mentally challenged. So I suspect there is some kind of poetry that could stir passion in schizophrenics, lunatics and mental patients. And I want to ask, aren’t all writers some kind of lunatics, isn’t there schizophrenia in the creative process?

14. Many an artist is often tormented by images-even sounds-that are too ineffable. How do you cope with “the disturbing claptrap of dumb demons arguing in your own mind?”

I love demons. They are the most reliable facilitators of the creative process. My intercourse with demons however depends greatly on my inclination to artistic reception at the time of contact, and of course the severity or intensity of the demonic influence. Some are so powerful; they can wrestle their victim to the ground and consume him.

15. Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

I was working on a novel, a book about a book, before the demons of poetry came knocking by. I am enjoying the intercourse. The poem they brought is very stupid and nonsensical but I like it.

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