‘How I Started Salamander Ink Magazine’ – Salam Wosu | PIN Literary Interviews

Salam Wosu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Salamander Ink Magazine, an online literary publication he started a month before the commencement of his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme in 2021. In this conversation with Semilore Kilaso, he shares his experiences founding and managing the publication while touching on personal literary endeavours.

Salam Wosu is a Chemical engineer and poet from Rivers State, Nigeria. His works have been featured and are forthcoming in journals like Glass: A journal of poetry; Agbowo; Kissing Dynamite; Porridge Magazine; Fevers of the Mind; Down River Road and numerous other online and print publications. He was shortlisted in 2017 and 2019 for the Korean Nigerian Poetry Prize.

PIN LITERARY INTERVIEWS: Hi Salam, It’s a pleasure to have you on this session of PIN Literary Interviews. Do tell us about yourself and Salamander Ink Magazine.

Salam Wosu: Thank you for having me, Semilore. It’s a pleasure to be considered for this interview session: a chemical engineer, editor, and, as I always say, an emerging poet. I hail from Port Harcourt, Rivers state.

Salamander Ink Magazine was created officially by me on the 13th of August 2021. At the time, it was a one-man team, and I was the editor, reader, designer, and publisher. From the start, it was intended to be a space that paid remuneration to Nigerian creatives, edited by Nigerian creatives, thereby reducing the need to look outside for validation by people who may not understand our narrative. With time, it has developed a lot more. Now I have 10 wonderful people working tirelessly with me to create a literary magazine that will stand the test of time.

PLI: How did you start Salamander Ink Magazine, and what prompted you to create a brand aimed at expressionism, culture, and art?

SW: Salamander Ink Magazine has a rich history because it began to exist long before it became a reality. I started writing poetry in 2017, which was not long ago. Still, immediately on entry into this whole literary universe, I noticed a reliance by African poets and writers on the validation of foreign magazines and journals. Yes, there are big magazines with a lot of funding that would both build your profile and be financially beneficial. Still, there are other journals that African and Nigerian writers submit to that don’t have that pedigree. So I thought, “why must our art be exported all the time when we can archive it to suit our needs?” The thought went further, and I decided that there should be an African journal that even non-Africans should look forward to submitting to, the same way we look forward to submitting to theirs. Hence Salamander Ink was born, getting its versatility from the salamander with the ability to live on both land and water.

By labelling it as a space for “expressionism, culture, and art”, I have given the creative or writer free rein to express whatever ideal they have conceived without the constraint of thinking if our magazine publishes such. Hence, experimental works are extremely welcome.

PLI: It’s great to learn the concept behind Salamander Ink. I assumed it was a fun derivative of your name. Salamander Ink has grown greatly in less than a year, which is beautiful. Kindly share your experience promoting poetry.

SW: To be honest, ‘Salamander’ was, for a brief moment, a nickname, and what became Salamander Ink Magazine was first intended to be a personal blog of my poetry – Salamander’s Ink.

The whole experience has been a rollercoaster ride. When I first began, I remember messaging a couple of writers to “push the agenda”. A lot of them liked the idea, but it would take more than a direct message to convince them that this space was one of a kind.

The submissions trickled in that first month, but by the second and third, word had gotten out about our devotion to paying creatives. Then we began to gain a following.

Editing for Salamander Ink Magazine has made me truly appreciate the vulnerability many poets and writers lay bare just to push their works. It has also taught me that camaraderie is a useful tool in the African literary scene and one I intend to use to promote our works. We owe a lot of our success to the creatives from all over the world who we have worked with, who have helped champion our cause and spread our gospel.

PLI: Running a website and publishing outlet requires funding, and as compared to other sections of the creative industry in Nigeria, there is barely any funding for literary artists. How has Salamander Ink Magazine managed to stay afloat amidst this?

SW: It hasn’t been all rosy in terms of funding. Since inception, remunerations have been paid by a self-funded treasury.

I started the magazine a month before I began my NYSC service year. Whatever income I’ve gotten, say from the monthly allowance or remuneration for my works published in other magazines, I have dedicated an amount to paying published creatives on Salamander Ink. I was so focused on this that at any mention of any amount of money, I would unconsciously calculate how many people I could pay with such an amount.

There are a couple of individuals who have supported my work and have contributed towards this cause, but the infrequency of such contributions only makes them a wonderful addition when they come but not one we rely on permanently.

 It would be a delight to have the finances to fund the many ideas we have for this magazine and the literary community at large. But at the moment, I think our dedication drives us and the faith that the means will always find us on the way while pursuing any dream.

PLI: What roles would you say small presses play in promoting literary art in Nigeria?

SW: The first role, I think, is Motivation. On the journey to being published by the really big presses, these small presses serve to publish some wonderful pieces which would not or might not have been accepted by the big presses because they tend to first decide on a certain amount they publish, thereby passing on some really beautiful works. The mere fact that your work was seen, deemed worthy and accepted by a collection of editors is a big win for anyone creating art and tends to spur you on no matter how difficult your creative process is.

The next role is Diversity, of thought and art. There are so many small presses in the US, UK, and Canada that one would argue their necessity. But, each one is being created to either serve a tiny demographic or publish issues with diverse themes to accommodate as many forms of creative works as possible, unlike some big presses that have established the writing they publish. It has stood that way for decades, making submitting to them a process of “Submit, get rejected, move on”. 

PLI: Small presses in the UK, USA, and Canada solicit funds through public donation and crowdfunding. Does crowdfunding work in Nigeria?

SW: Speaking from experience, I’ll say NO, it doesn’t. Or it hasn’t. Or there has to be a certain level you’d attain to get the funds you want. There are tons of people crowdfunding for different projects in the country nowadays, probably taking the initiative from the West, but the literary space – though we’ve taken that step to get the word out there – haven’t gotten anything close to the response we want. So I don’t think anyone out there in the country is dreaming of starting a literary magazine or press that has solely placed his shoulders on the funds generated from crowdfunding. That would be damning the whole thing before it starts. That’s why writers and creatives now are indulging in a bunch of opportunities, mostly in the tech space or wherever, because there is a stability that the literary space is yet to have in the country.

PLI: Although Salamander Ink Magazine would have its first anniversary in August 2022, it has impacted the Nigeria Literary Space. Do you owe it to community building and engaging social media as a tool for the promotion of literary art has greatly helped, or is it solely publishing phenomenal works?

SW: Both have helped me. First social media and all its perks helped get the word out there; then our consistency enabled us to stay strong long enough to encourage everyone out there that we meant business. Like I said before, camaraderie is a really important tool in the African literary space, and the sooner we realise that, the better for us. Because there should be no competition, we (every literary space/press) should work hard to push the African narrative out there and tell as many stories. Our consistency will increase the quality of African literature because both are directly proportional- the more we publish, the better we’d get at it. The better the writers will get at producing wonderful works. And for me, that is a community. All parts working concurrently for the benefit of each other.

PLI: Do tell us about the Salamander Ink team. How are you able to get such geniuses to work with you? Are they all volunteers?

SW: Honestly, it’s a miracle I have such wonderful writers and people willing to work with me. I learn more from them every day than they know.

Once the submissions started coming in, I spoke with a couple of them I knew personally; Blessing Ojo, whom I had met twice at the Korean Nigerian poetry awards, was excited to join the team on a pro-bono basis and help push the dream. Farastein Mokwenye and Nduka Nma were both schoolmates from my university days who possessed the creative and organisational prowess to assist me on this journey. They were both happy to join the team, knowing that I hadn’t yet the means to pay the team members.

Eventually, I would need a poetry reader with some pedigree and one who had a wonderful eye for poetry. Who else is better than Samuel A. Adeyemi? A virtuoso in the Nigerian literary scene. When he applied for the position, I was shocked a bit. The same thing with Obasiota Ibe – for our Fiction department. The fact that they respected my idea of paying creatives, even if I wasn’t paying them, was a serious catalyst in the early months of Salamander Ink Magazine. They have been with me and encouraged me in their little ways till now. Some weeks ago, a bunch of writers answered our call for readers and volunteers. Now we have Osy Mizpah – a diligent and talented writer; Frank Njugi – a rising star in the Kenyan poetry scene, along with Sally Garama, who is weaving beautiful art and a wonderful editor in the making; Nida Admani from Sri Lanka, who is very precise in her work and very coordinated; and finally Pamela Ukperi, a wonderful writer.

I envision and work towards the day when they will get their rewards for their hard work as it should be. But for now, they are volunteers for this magazine, and I consider myself both lucky and blessed.

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

SW: A lot of them. Listening to music, which is quite common among writers, and reading other writers. The habit that stands out from the others is probably locking myself in and reciting poetry I have memorised already. Something about saying those words out really loosens whatever restrains my creative juices. My favourite is a particular medley of poems performed by Safia Elhillo at CUPSI 2016. I have watched and rewatched it many times; I know almost every word in that performance. At some random times, I recite lines from there unconsciously, and they have also inspired a couple of my poems.

PLI: What Nigerian poet(s) do you continually revisit their works?

SW: This is easy. In no particular order: Chris Abani, Adedayo Agarau, Jakky Bankong-Obi, Romeo Oriogun, Iyanu Adebiyi, Pamilerin Jacob, Samuel A. Adeyemi, Gbenga Adesina.

PLI: Poetry appreciation is gaining ground in Nigeria. What is your opinion is the place of poetry as a genre of literature in Nigeria? What future? What opportunities for Poets?

SW: Poetry as a genre should be highly regarded in Nigeria. Why? Because poetry, like every other genre, should evolve, it has done that over the years. There are those in the literary scene championing promoting poetry in whatever form it comes now, experimenting with it, making it more colourful and thereby creating something that everyone can both appreciate and admire. Then some have taken it upon them to criticise whatever literary movement happens in the country. Critics are an important part of the literary scene. They help you see faults and suggest ways to correct them. But some have strategically placed themselves as hindrances, trying to say what can or cannot be done or what is or isn’t necessary. And if you look through time, there are always intellectuals who have stood against the evolution of thought at any point in time. But for me, poetry is as fluid (or even more fluid) as any other genre. I feel so happy seeing young writers wielding it as a tool to preach change, tell their country’s stories, resist laws that oppress the masses and raise their voices. Entertainment is one thing, but the poetry of a time should be a reflection of the times, and this age is one where our youth are finding their voice and testing its limits, pushing its limits.

In the years to come, poetry will still be a tool of activism, and their spaces will offer communion for Nigerians of any tribe and background. For this purpose, these spaces will and should always be encouraged, fought for and erected so that the structures we strengthen today will hold us tomorrow. I foresee a time when our ‘local’ spaces will be our go-to, and outside validation won’t be needed.

PLI: What’s your opinion about Poets in Nigeria as a vanguard of poetry renaissance in Nigeria?

SW: Poets in Nigeria has made itself such a behemoth in the Nigerian poetry scene that it is impossible for any Nigerian to begin his poetry journey without coming across them or collaborating with them. I was once published on PIN QUARTERLY, and I also participated in a 30-day poetry challenge in 2017 that helped me connect with many poets. Back then, all my poetry was on Facebook, and one time I got a message from Eriata Oribhabor, commenting on a poem I had written. He suggested a couple of edits, and the final work came out a lot better.

That is just what PIN has been built on – a need for a poetry community, a means to teach and learn and improve your art, a space to promote Nigerian poets and poetry in whatever form it comes.

This should be the sim of any literary space, which is why PIN is a success.

PLI: Thank you, Salam, for your time. We wish you and Salamander Ink Magazine the very best. Please leave us with a few lines of a poem you have written. (max 12 lines).

SW: Thank you very much, Semilore. I’m honoured. This is an excerpt from a poem of mine titled “Cargo of absence.”

…You always hold back a tear when you read my poems.

Almost as if you can taste the hollow in my chest, the smoke

in my mouth. I am not burning. I am already ash. The fire

has moved on. Hold my hand. I cannot promise forever.

I do not know if I have enough words left in me to last that long.

But for your sake I’ll write a new poem tomorrow.

Don’t worry I’ll put fewer words in it…

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