When I first discovered Pamilerin’s poems, his writing bordered grief and mental health, but now, he tells me, he writes about ice cream, his dog, loneliness, pigeons, and things people consider too ordinary.
He feels a sense of fellowship with Nigerian poets like him creating opportunities even in the face of abject disadvantage, this inspires me. The Nigerian bard suffers a kind of erasure due to a lack of record-keeping, and poets like Pamilerin have dedicated themselves to filling this gap.
Sometimes I find his writing clutching on memory and personal experience, skirting the borders of spirituality. In this conversation, we discussed the politics of grace, the function of Pamilerin’s poetry, his work as a curator, and future plans.
What does it mean to be a Nigerian Poet?
Haunting question, really.
To be a Nigerian poet means to battle communal amnesia that happens every 20 years or so. To know strife and be ridiculed for the writing of it by those who are “tired” of reading about your strife. To be a Nigerian poet is to be inhabited by loneliness of the generational kind—the old/young dichotomy, and all variants of it that come up. To be a contemporary Nigerian poet is to battle extinction, not just yours, but of your peers. To depend on foreign systems—American, Canadian, British, Australian etc—for the preservation of your literary history, for grants, for residencies, for “big” poetry prizes. It is to live, always, trying to find an escape from a country that wants you dead. Our Arts Councils are dead, ineffectual. We always have to rely on Goethe Institute, British Council, Korean Embassy, etc, for life in the scene. It is to always target the MFA. To have a government that awards millions of naira to (badly written) poems that only sing its praises. It is also to fall in love with a country that hurts you over and over and over. To be owed money by “progressive literary institutions” because they know our scene lacks accountability. I could go on & on & on… but there is also the beauty of our tenacity, this renewed sense of community we’ve been experiencing recently.
New prizes, new fellowships, new residencies—it’s a whole renaissance!
Your poems usually interrogate the subject of mental illness, grief and death. What informs your bias in these themes?
Personal experience. And my poems don’t always do that—these days, at least. Earlier they had that focus, yes. But these days, I write about the moon, my dog, loneliness, pigeons etc.
And maybe they’re not so different—wellness & illness, grief & joy. These days, I can’t write all that much due to my schedule, & when I try, I find myself weeping. For no just cause. Weird thing though, what I write in that headspace isn’t usually “sad.”
The other day, after my weeping, I wrote a poem about ICE CREAMS! Fascinating, really.
Elsewhere, you have been quoted as saying you write to ease internal turmoil. To what extent could poetry be therapeutic to you? Do you intend for your poetry to do the same for your audience?
Like I said earlier, poems, ah, poems—& the writing of them—can be very multi-faceted. I’m not sure poems heal directly, but they sure do carry healing. This is why I do not like to generalize in matters like this. Some people really just need therapy, not reading more poems about wanting to die. Catharsis does not equal therapy.
It brings to mind Denise Levertov’s comment on Anne Sexton’s demise, “We who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction.” I remember reading that comment years ago & feeling a chill in my bones (I still do). The distinction between creativity and self-destruction. You know, the literary complex today has fallen into the habit of deifying suffering—the starving poet, the suicidal poet, the traumatized poet & all variants of it. Sure, we have these realities which must be spotlighted, but it seems so counterproductive to focus too much on these archetypes, and then equate them solely with genius.
Sexton wasn’t a brilliant poet because she was mentally ill, she was, in spite of it. We must be honest about the thin line between reinforcing suicidal impulses with poems & catharsis. So for me, I hope for the readers not to see poems as packets of solutions to life’s problems. Poems are powerful in the way prayers are. We must still do the work—see that therapist, actively seek healing in the other ways possible.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially for people who are mentally ill. Though, it has to be said. I often say to my dear friend, Ernest, that studying poets who died by suicide is cool, but we could also study those who survived, eh?
Your poem in Palette Poetry, It is impossible to live, speaks to police brutality in Nigeria and I am still thinking about this line from the work: ‘grace is a function of probability.’ How do you navigate the complexity of grace? Also, what is the Poet’s role here?
Quite a question. Thinking logically, it’s pretty straightforward—one can only lay claim to grace in the face of another’s misfortune. But that could also be very reductionist. In cases like this—where grace seems a wound, & a work of great approximation—I often reach for Whitman’s declaration: Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes).
And as for the poet’s role—I don’t even like this idea of a role—it is to simply admonish, to point in the direction of the endless (im)possibilities this world offers. Police brutality is a real evil, & those who aren’t yet victims, are simply that: not yet victims. Therefore—to me, at least—grace is this protean thing that seems invariably tied to our collective actions. Grace, kindness, community all are interwoven. I know this though, the door of grace can be widened through right (communal) action.
Your poem in RATTLE is an examination of erectile dysfunction but I like to imagine it as a visage to a transition, a shift. Something about how life keeps moving, or snaps without consideration for the individual. I’ll like to ask you about the writing process of this poem and what you intend to achieve with it.
This is why I hate poems (bursts into laughter). Seriously though, I suppose this is one of those poems that fits your earlier reference of “I write to ease internal turmoil.” I’d just gotten new meds & they were messing me up, so I was legit panicking, you know? And this is something not talked about enough—the side effects of mental health meds on your sexual life. Maybe people do talk about it, but not loud enough.
The backstory really just contextualizes the poem. I wasn’t reaching for some great idea of transition or growth or insight, I was simply a human being afraid for my body. Yes, yes, the “I” in all poems aren’t always autobiographical, but in that poem, it was.
It was scary though, the writing of it, because I didn’t know how long the effect would last. You can sense the pessimism in the last lines of the poem. Two weeks later, I was better off. Lucky me, I guess! Or “grace,” if you may.
You are doing a lot of work providing mediums to document contemporary Nigerian Poets and their works. Can you discuss your motivation and further plans?
Like I said in my editorial note for Issue One of EREMITE POETRY, my motivation is simple—I want poems everywhere: in banks, beaches, bus-stops, churches, homes, internet, malls, markets, mosques, parliament, parks, schools. I want poems everywhere because, often, they are the antidote to cruelty.
I want to look to the future unafraid of our destiny as Nigerian poets currently writing, you know? To imagine & be assured of the imagination that some kid, somewhere out there, ten, twenty years from now will find solace in the words. And it is possible!
We simply need better appreciation of all that’s happening right now (& of course, structures to support that appreciation). The year is 2021, we have Keats’ letters written to Fanny Brawne, Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother—Theo, Emily Dickinson’s letters. We have Plath’s journals, May Sarton’s journals, even Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. All these are only possible through thorough appreciation and archiving.
The plans are abundant, neither is there a shortage of ideas, what we need is financial support. Support Nigerian poetry journals, support the poetry prizes, support your friends, start a fellowship, start a poetry scholarship, start an archive, & sustain momentum. Don’t do more than you can at the moment, but try to do something.
You’re a marketer? Use it to further the agenda of poetry. You’re a banker? Convince your bosses to host a prize or a fellowship. You’re a programmer? Perfect, build that archive of Nigerian poets! You’re a video editor? Make poetry short films. Innovate, innovate, innovate. The future depends on it!