Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Kind of Quest that Never Ends: In Conversation with Uche Nduka

DCW: I don’t know if you have ever seen Nardwuar’s interviews, but he always leads with this question, which I think is an important one: Who are you?

UN: I am a nomadic living archive. I am not willing to entirely concede to things and rituals that overtake us as human beings. Overcoming limits is part of what a poet does. I aspire to be true to my emotional intensity and personal sensibility while writing. To be aware, to be attentive, to be a positive force in the world. I am committed to living practical poetry.

DCW: Living in Public, your 10th volume of poetry, was released in July of 2018. Having been a little more than a year since it’s been out, how has the reception been? What are your feelings about it now?

UN: That’s my 12th volume of poems. The book is now out in the world and getting into the hands of those that need it. The batch with the Small Press Distribution (SPD) outlet is sold out. Some bookshops still stock the book. Copies are available in libraries too. I am happy about that. I wrote the poems in that book in quick succession. The voices in the book are anti-assimilationist in stances. Wordstrokes of personal and spiritual veracity. Writing a poem makes me realize that I am interested in something or someone. I tend to think that the political does not always have to become Agitprop. My feelings about the book now? I feel I am still in a generative phase of my work rather than retrospective.

DCW: I recently finished reading eel on reef, and I feel as if I’ve just returned from a long journey. I’m wondering if you could share with us where a poem begins for you. What brings you to the poem, and how do you know whether or not you’re on to something?

UN: The beginning of a poem for me is both exciting and frustrating. I build a poem moment by moment. Mostly I know I am on to something when the process of birthing a poem underscores my allegiance to the tangential, the ecstatic, the expansive and minimal frequencies. And to chance. Yes, eel on reef (2007) was truly an artistic journey. During that phase of my work, I reclaimed the essence of freedom and translated it into poems. The factors that bring me to a poem and get it rolling are remorselessly awkward and variably manifold. A kind of quest that never ends.

DCW: One thing I admire about your work is the need to return, re-visit the work; in order to pick up something that may not have been apparent during the previous encounter. What is it about surrealism specifically which allows for a sort of ambiguity, possibility to sprout?

UN: Perhaps surrealism is a continual voyage. It’s an ongoing revelation of inner and outer selves/states. A surreal poem is partly an autonomous channel. Its efficacy derives from the freedom of the spirit and the freedom of the body. The poem is immune to literary, moral, social, nationalistic, and cultural overdetermination.

DCW: Human beings, and humanity as a whole, are very complex organisms. Your work definitely reflects those complexities. As well, you recently wrote that you were rallying against conservatism in contemporary Nigerian poetry. Do you wish to elaborate more about what you are aiming at? How is this campaign fairing?

UN: Calling it a campaign was just speaking tongue in cheek. But nevertheless, I am very bored with poems that are overweaponized. Poems don’t always ask questions and they don’t always give answers. Poetry is not a mirror. Poems invite us to see and feel the world through new ways. I am against conservative poetry everywhere, not only in Nigeria. I oppose a singular approach to poetry. I don’t support generalizations. There is no barrier or boundary in poetry that I don’t want to cross. I don’t care for poetry that venerates classist social and political conventions. I love scandalous poems! And I need to state that so far there is not enough debauchery /eroticism in contemporary Nigerian poetry. The literary canon ought to be elastic.

DCW: Thinking now of the fact there are many artists, writers, thinkers whose work did not gain traction among the masses until after their deaths: Van Gogh comes to mind, as does Basquiat, among others. Why do you think this is the case? Why are societies, as a whole, so impaired in recognizing the greatness of the artists who walk & work among them?

UN: Most societies spawn zombies. That’s why. Most people prefer the familiar, the routine, the tame, the comfortable, the predictable, the agreeable. Daring is anathema to the status quo.

DCW: In a recent interview with Paul DeRienzo, you spoke about performing poetry, and how the poet and the audience come together to make the moment happen. How it’s a two-way street. What about the relationship with the solitary reader? Do you see any similarities and/or differences in how the moment is made between poet and reader, as opposed to poet and audience?

UN: I really don’t separate the page and the stage. In each of those spaces, engagement is indispensable. Even with a large audience in a hall or club or bookstore or stadium, I aim to speak individually to each person. To communicate one-to-one. I believe in the earthy and the transcendent power of poetry. Thus my relationship with the solitary reader is based on sharing and exploration too. A nourishing mutuality. This relationship is very active because a poem is changing (in motion) while you are reading it or listening to it being read. I hope that nothing I said here limits what my poetry is trying to do.

DCW: Thank you for your time, Uche. I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you would like the people to know?

UN: Thank you for your curiosity! My new volume of poems titled FACING YOU will be published in Spring 2020 by City Lights Publishers in San Francisco.

Uche Nduka is a Nigerian-American poet, essayist, collagist. He is the author of twelve volumes of poems of which the most recent is titled LIVING IN PUBLIC(2018). Some of his writing has been translated into German, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Arabic, Spanish, Serbo-Croat, French. A 2017 NYFA Poetry Fellow, he presently lives and teaches in New York City.

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