‘Every writer owes their country the duty of telling its stories’ – Ayokunle Samuel Betiku | PIN Literary Interviews

Ayokunle Samuel Betiku, who was longlisted for the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize in 2018, is our guest for this edition of PIN Literary Interviews managed by Semilore Kilaso. Here, he talks about himself, his works, Nigerian poetry and poets and the importance of social media to literary promotion.

Ayokunle Samuel Betiku is a Nigerian writer from the city of Ondo, South West Nigeria. He is a Young Writers and Creatives’ Award Fellow. He won the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize for 2020, the BKPW Writing Contest for February 2021 and the Wakaso Poetry Prize for March 2021. He was also longlisted for the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize (NSPP 2018). His works have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Libretto, Kreative Diadem, Shallow Tales Review, Agbowó, Pandemic Publications, Rough Cut Press, The Offing, The Temz Review, Trampset, Rattle & elsewhere.

1. Hello Samuel, it’s great to have you on PIN LITERARY INTERVIEWS. Other than what is in your bio, tell us more about yourself.

Hello Semilore, thanks a lot for having me here. Apart from writing, something else I do so passionately is preaching. I was told I had the habit of preaching to the plantain trees in the backyard of the house we lived in back then. Somehow, I can hardly find this interesting part of my early days in my memory, but the passion has always stayed. I also have a penchant for songwriting. I hope to intensively explore this aspect of me sooner or later. At the moment, I’m pursuing a Master’s Degree in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Ibadan.

2. When did you start writing, and what sparked your interest in poetry? Tell us about it and how you landed into poetry writing?

It’s hard to draw a chronological trajectory for my writing journey. My growth has been more of a collision of enriching events rather than a trackable process. But one definite landmark I can lay hold on when I look back is that I grew up amid books. My Dad and Mum both teach English (actually, Dad teaches more of literature), and this means a house full of written words to hone the mind. So, I have been writing as far back as my Primary School. Initially, I attempted both poetry and prose until a few years back when contemporary poetry became first a fascination and then an obsession. I’m working on reviving my passion for prose, though.

3. As poets, some of us tend to look at stylistics. How would you describe poetry in relation to your style?

One of the compelling aspects of contemporary poetry is its room for flexibility. How words transition from stones to water, from building blocks to a sea of possibilities. I often attempt to exploit this privilege. In recent times, I’ve been intrigued by the concept of brevity and depth. How much light, space and time could be compressed into the shortest verses? I should add that some of my works bear a spiritual and mystic undertone which I must confess is not always intentional. My faith just often finds a way to slither subconsciously into my works. Some of my writings also reflect my scientific background.

4. I think we start off writing prose before finding comfort in poetry for most of us. I hope you’re able to rekindle your love for prose soon. In your poem Headsets Run Down My Ears Like Tributaries, you write: “Lately I’ve been making paper boats with my poems. A very easy thing to do when a country holding you like crested irises by the riverside only happens in your head.” How has been a Nigerian living in Nigeria influenced your approach to thematic, use of language and writing in general?

Thank you, Semilore. Writers are essentially the outcomes of their environment. Our experiences—whether lived or vicarious—conveyed to us by the environment cannot be dissociated from what we write. As Anthony Okpunor puts it, “we reflect the things we have received by tongues or nature.” I sometimes find myself gravitating almost helplessly towards themes that hold the goriness we see and hear so often around us. Take, for instance, the poem which you graciously quoted. I had not set out to write about Nigeria, but after the first line about songs, all that dominated my mind were the ills plaguing the country. To ignore that direction would have felt like a betrayal. I believe every writer owes their country the duty of telling its stories. This sense of responsibility also stirs and steers the impulses of the writer. After the sad news of a lady’s abduction and murder, I recall how a poet friend who did not know her from Adam had stayed up all night to pen an elegy in her memory. What more could so strikingly portray how much influence the country wields on what we write?

5. Do you think Nigerian poets gravitate towards similar themes?

Yes, to a certain degree. Like I said, the writer and his environment are inseparable. Our themes are mostly projections of the country, though we approach these similar themes from varying dimensions, each reflective of the writer’s unique style. However, there is the place of personal experiences, which may differ, but we will still find resemblances on a trope level. The idea of grief, for example, is littered across Nigerian contemporary poetry. And this can’t be avoided because the writing community in Nigeria is a closely-knit one where we influence one another.

6. There is a sense of community and identity amongst African poets; perhaps this is why some say our poetry revolves around the same theme. Do you think African poets whitewash their art in a bid to get recognised and published? Do you think we should go beyond exploring our truth to become greater artist?

I think, for the most part, African poets are staying true to their narratives. As regards exploring beyond our truth to become greater artists, I believe what makes a great work isn’t attempting to explore an extraneous truth but the uniqueness with which our truth is portrayed. Two Nigerian writers I’ve always admired, Ojo Taiye and O-Jeremiah Agbaakin, both have exceptional poems on the Nigerian civil war. In Ojo Taiye’s Recycling the wastes of the past published in the Southern Humanities Review, we are seized by stunning language and taken to the very scene of the bloodshed. On the other hand, O-Jeremiah Agbaakin’s Jericho Hymnal in Kenyon Review shows us a profound allegoric and prophetic dimension to that historical landscape. The goal shouldn’t be to do away with our truth but to paint it in fresh, unique and striking perspectives. This is what art is all about. This is what makes for a great art.

7. As a writer yourself, do you have any interesting writing habits, such as how and when you write?

My writing process is somewhat random. A line may come to me and, after much thought, expands into a full poem. I may be triggered to write after hearing a song, reading a book or seeing an image. Also, as with every other writer, I prefer a quiet environment where I could easily conjure images and dissect my emotions without disturbance.

8. Tell me about your experience with Poets In Nigeria Initiative.

My first encounter with PIN was in 2016 via the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize. I remember reading the winning poems, The Sun Will Rise Again and Sundown in Port Harcourt written by Noah Oladele and Chisom Okafor respectively, and how for days the beauty and tenderness of those poems held sway over my emotions. I am still yet to recover from them and still return to them from time to time. I finally summoned the courage to apply for the contest in 2018 and was excited to have made the longlist. When I got the request to take a masterclass for PIN 10-Day Poetry Challenge this year, it was a huge opportunity I didn’t want to pass by. Many Nigerian poets doing excellently in the global literary scene have connections with PIN. We can’t talk about contemporary Nigerian poetry without making reference to Poets In Nigeria Initiative.

9. What are the advantages of writing communities and engaging Social Media as a tool for promoting literary art?

One of the reasons Nigeria keeps producing exceptional writers is the presence and cohesiveness of writing communities. Writers experience tremendous growth in association than in isolation. No writer should try to learn the ropes alone. We grow by influence, and this is exactly what writing communities afford.

Regarding social media, it is impossible to talk about the increasing interest in literary art among young contemporary writers without talking about how social media has been indispensably instrumental. Writing communities find more expression and consistent interaction on social media platforms. Writers are also able to make their works travel far with these platforms.

10. What Nigerian poet(s) do you continually revisit their works?

This is hard to list because they are many, but to mention a few: Ojo Taiye, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Peter Akinlabi, Adeeko Ibukun, O-Jeremiah Agbaakin, Hussain Ahmed, Jide Badmus, Rasaq Malik Gbolahan, Pamilerin Jacob, Logan February, Nome Emeka Patrick, Romeo Oriogun.

11. Poetry appreciation is gaining ground in Nigeria. What in your opinion, is the place of poetry as a genre of literature in Nigeria? What future? What opportunities for poets?

I am of the opinion that poetry has been pivotal in sustaining the nation’s consciousness, in making us aware of the deficiencies and possibilities of home.

With respect to its future, Nigeria brims with incredible talents. And it’s beautiful and emboldening to see these talents teeming among the younger generation of writers—an emboldening and promising sign of how stellar and breathtaking the future will be. Nigerian poets will become reference points in the global literary scene in years to come. Already, it is taking place. The coming years will only reveal more and more of it.

12. Thank you for your time Ayokunle. Kindly leave us with your poetry (max of 12 lines)

You will wield a blade when their arms reach out
to hem off the world. They will say stiffen, & you will

show them the twin glides of your hands humming
with songs. They will say yield to the walls, & you will

say what is tucked into the walls is a tongue versed
in the tongue of the sea. Silence, they will command

but you will call them—your misshapen years—ghosts
unfit to sentence the body into a phrase, undone

by the light.

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