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Interview: “What the actual — ?”: Inua Ellams’ new book of poetry is a symphony of personal and political fury

Image credit: Photo of Inua Ellams

Inua Ellams, internationally touring poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer has written a new book of poetry, ‘The Actual’, published by Penned in the Margins (5 October 2020) - the publisher that creates publications and performances for people who are not afraid to take risks.

Writer and performer Vera Chok interviews Inua about his latest work.

[Content Warning: racial violence, strong language, political injustice.]

Because Christ was the first Black man lynched / who went viral / and what the world did was white/ wash / his / story … to preach to us some turn the other cheek shit -  extract from Inua Ellams' poem 'Fuck / Sympathy'.

This was not what I was expecting to read in poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams’ latest publication. I’ve always held Inua in my mind’s eye as a gentle soul. (Full disclosure, I know Inua from us being writers in The Good Immigrant, a 2016 collection of essays sharing experiences of being immigrants of colour).

Inua - in my mind - is a Nice Guy. He’s a gentleman who’s had tea with The Queen, and has plays on at the National Theatre. He produces lyrical work and organises literary walks through moonlit cities across the world. But Inua 2020 seems to be raging.

English-wielding, gentleman Inua, born in Nigeria, based in the UK, presents 55 poems in his first full collection of poetry, The Actual. Each poem’s title bears the prefix, Fuck. Straight up. Inua gives us 55 fucks.

What makes a gentle soul rage?

Perhaps it’s because of he carries with him the stories of ancestors whipped to string meat - Fuck / The Incalculable Unknown. Maybe because the country he lives in doesn’t teach its young about the violent history of Empire. Is it because corporations like Nestlé are controlling our lives, the trees we need are being shorn off, the patriarchy is suffocating boys’ emotions, white women are fucking black men for japes, etc.? Fear, and thus anger, is part of our fibre now, and with that, a deeply cutting sense of loss.

Fuck / Sympathy, Fuck / Our Future, and Fuck / Boys are some of pages that swung at me. I admit that, before interviewing Inua about his raging work, I was afraid of my anger getting (re)ignited or my hopelessness plunging me back into paralysis. Thank fuck Inua complicates the situation and offers more than these two options!

When writing this, I was asked to perhaps mention National Poetry Day or Black History Month and I’ve caught the bug. Fuck that! A month to remember so much? A mere day to feel poetry?! Lit by Inua’s energy, I start panicking about everything I am not doing enough of to halt the emergencies we face everywhere, every day. I got angry at Inua. What am I supposed to do?!

The interview below gives a soul some good ideas.

Who gives a Fuck? Inua Ellams. Who’s asking difficult AF questions? Inua. Who also reminds us of clear truths. There are no borders in the sky. We can enjoy the flow of our bodies in motion. There is safety and home, albeit fleetingly, in a loved one’s arms. Urban spaces hold beauty. Being alive is a creative, generative act.

I don’t want Inua to feel, love, or rage, less. The act of feeling is action-based and hopeful. Am I wrong?

Vera Chok: How are you doing today and what is today’s fuck?

Inua Ellams:
// I’m stressed today, I am running around the city, have a show to perform, and 3 meetings. Today’s fuck - ExLovers - long story.

Vera: Is there anything you wish you had added to the book? What is Fuck 56, 57, etc.?

// I ran outta steam after the last one I wrote: ‘Fuck / Batman’. I have a half-written ‘Fuck /Tourism’ about my two-week vacation to Cape Verde. But given the state of the tourism industry, and the people suffering as a result, it feels like punching down, so I won’t publish it. I’m not sure how much anger I have left in me. I’m not a very angry person. It takes a lot to push me that far.

Vera: How would you complete this sentence, “After anger is - “

// transformation.

Vera: Do you feel hopeful?

: // I really wish I did, but I do not. Our leaders simply do not care enough. They are chasing the next election, thinking about money and power, and are too short sighted to see the world we are walking towards will make money and power completely irrelevant.

Vera: If you don’t feel hopeful what’s your strategy?

// Create stories that make the scale of change needed feel achievable, possible, individual, local, within our reach.

Image credit: Photo of Inua Ellams by Andy Lo Po

Vera: What do you want us to feel, to DO?

// Lean in. Feel empowered. Communicate. Search for nuance in all things. Look SIDEWAYS at the world. Deconstruct our constructs, reconnect with the natural world… things I fail at doing.

Vera: Tell me about “Am I wrong?”, a phrase you use often in your book - Are you waiting for confirmation from anyone in particular?

// I’m creating the space for conversation, discussion, inviting the reader in. Definitely not confirmation, but the start of communication.

Vera: White people? People in power? Black people?

// Anyone. The reader, the listener, whoever wants to lean in, whoever agrees or disagrees.

Vera: What if these people all say, “You’re 100% right”? What do you hope happens then?

// For the speaker in the poem to fold their arms and say “How am I right?”

Vera: I want to know more about writing poetry in English and code switching. You reference American hip-hop, south London chat, Arabic, dialects, lost languages. You write about self-expression and the celebration of non-Western/classical culture. You shine a floodlight on being colonised. Where then do you feel most safe and comfortable? And for how long can you feel safe before loss and anger etc creep in?

// I never feel really safe, never really comfortable. I regularly write out of my comfort zone… this whole book comes from that impulse, and many times I thought I had set myself up to fail, that the book would undo me. Perhaps the most comfortable I feel is after having completed a poem, play, project. But I turn the page, wake up in the morning, get an email, another person of colour is attacked, another person I have unintentionally mistreated reaches out, and I am made aware of the work to be done. I get uncomfortable again, and begin.

Vera: Bernardino Evaristo says that this collection speaks as though “you have nothing to lose”. What are you afraid of losing, if anything?

// Perhaps the small moments of joy I have left, which these days I only really find when I’m talking to DB, with whom conversations are expansive and limitless, yet specific and nuanced, or when I’m playing basketball, when I forget to think and it is my body reacting to the swell and pull of the game.

Vera: I was surprised to see you mention the Opium War - when the British introduced China to opium in order to control the Chinese. What made you think to include that?

// I discovered it years and years ago and could not believe it. I kept researching and reading over and again. I included it in a play called ‘Cape’ but I wanted to add it to poetry, and Fuck / Empire was perfect. I wanted to show the scale, temerity, impunity and corruption of British imperialism, and how it played across the world, from China to Nigeria.

Vera: A person has a soul. So what?

// So you are more than you are, than what you feel, than what you are able to perceive and understand. That should invite a humility to our every action and reaction.

Vera: Jules Orcullo, an Australian-Filipinx writer, asks how we can decolonise our selves without erasing our selves. What’s your response? What spaces can people who cross cultures and borders exist in?

// Jules should write a poem called Fuck / Inua - for not knowing the answer to this question. But I think we can exist in liminal spaces, borders, never-wheres of our own creation.

Vera: What advice would you/ do you give yourself?

// Sleep more. Don’t love too hard.


‘The Actual’
Published by Penned in the Margins
Available from: pennedinthemargins.co.uk

Book launch: online event
7pm, Friday 9 October
More info and book your place: eventbrite.com

Image credit: 'The Actual' bookcover artwork by Liam Relph

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