A student of Pharmacy with flair for literary creativity, Chiwenite Onyekwelu talks to Semilore Kilaso of PIN Literary Interviews on poetry writing, Nigerian poetry, literary contests, editing and literary administration.
Chiwenite Onyekwelu is a Nigerian writer. His poems have appeared/ are forthcoming from Isele, America Magazine, Brittle Paper, Cultural Weekly, Sub-saharan Magazine, Kreative Diadem and elsewhere. He was winner of the 2020 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize, runner up for the Foley Poetry Prize 2020, finalist for Stephen A. Dibiase Poetry Contest 2020, winner of Christopher Okigbo Poetry Prize 2019, as well as runner up for the Newman Writing Contest 2017. He edits poetry for the Sub-saharan Magazine, and is an undergraduate at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, where he studies pharmacy and plays guitar.
1 It is a pleasure having you on this session of PIN Literary Interviews. Can we please meet you?
Thank you. I’m Chiwenite Onyekwelu, from Ogidi, Anambra state, Nigeria. I’m a poet, essayist and occasional story writer. I study pharmacy at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.
2 You recently won the 2020 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize, an international poetry contest with over 3500 entries. You are also a multiple contest winner. What is it like winning literary contests?
Well, for me, winning literary contests come with this feeling of fulfilment and excitement. But it’s usually beyond these. Most often than not, it seems to fill the spaces hollowed out by the innate human desire to be validated by someone else or something else. With each contest won, therefore, I want to feel that I am beginning to become good enough. But because I know how distracting these occasional victories can be, I try not to let them get too much into my head. So, most times, I attempt to level everything up with a small amount of pessimism for future endeavors, so I’d have the mental stability to focus on my writing. And then I just move on.
3 You would agree that competitions are healthy and important in the creative space. What influence has winning contests had on the quality of your poems
Thank you for asking this question. One way writing contests have influenced the quality of my works is this: I tend to look beyond my immediate feeling, to consider what the Contest Judges might find alluring. At one hand, this is good: Because the judges are always more experienced writers, considering them as I write means stretching myself beyond the very limits, or even creating a work that transverses borders. Moreover, because these writing contests receive hundreds to thousands of entries, I usually find myself trying to come up with a piece that is somewhat exceptional— which is always the basic requisite for winning.
But there is also a negative side to it: if you are not careful enough, writing contests can coax you into telling your own stories halfway. Much as the quality of my poems improve with each new application, sometimes I find myself torn between making the hard choice of considering the judges, and telling my story the exact way it is. For instance, while writing my winning entry for the 2020 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize (a poem centered on the Atlantic Slave Trade), towards the end I wrote, “All my life I have memorized the Transatlantic Equation, where x is distance traveled towards the Americas and Europe.” I could have done away with this line, considering that the contest had American judges. But it was a story I had to tell, a story I have no rights whatsoever to alter. And so, I submitted it like that anyway. More than anything, I felt so proud of my resistance when the poem came out top.
4 You study Pharmacy at the University, write poetry, and also edit for Sub-Saharan Magazine. How are you able to balance your academics with your writing? Do you think poetry has any relation to sciences?
Understanding that sciences and writing are two complementing and most essential aspects of my life that has enabled me to set a balance between both. What I do now is to prioritize them above every other thing. I study my science books, and then I use much of my daily leisure time for writing. This subtly implies that I’ve had to give up on certain important areas in order to maintain this balance— weekly classes, football trainings, social media chit-chats and several other activities that fall into this leisure time. Of course, you should know that I have never been any proud of some of these measures.
To answer your second question— whether I think poetry has any relation with sciences— well, yes I do. Harvard University professor, Elisa New, gave a very clear description of this poetry-science relationship in her analogy that both poets and scientists often approach their works with similar curiosity, observation and patience; and that “… they have a delight in the small details.” How true this is! Moreover, poetry is a specialized medium of expression and recently many writers, particularly those in science disciplines, have been exploring exciting ways of merging both contexts in the presentation of their ideas and feelings. Momtaza Mehri’s Haematology #1 and Francesca Bell’s Late Mammogram are two perfect examples.
5 What is your schedule like as an editor? How often do you have to read, edit, and send out acceptance and rejection letters?
Actually, asides volunteering as an editor with Sub-saharan Magazine, I do freelance editing. This means my schedule can take different forms depending on which I engage in. For instance, Sub-saharan (through the editor-in-chief) sends accepted works over during weekends. But my freelance editing has no fixed schedule. Oftentimes I come across people who want their work edited or reviewed, and if the time is OK, I accept to do it. This is always an unpaid service which I undertake whenever I’m free— bedtime, after meal, after shower.
And at Sub-saharan Magazine, it’s not in my position to send acceptances or rejections.
6 What personal problems have you encountered as an editor? Have you had poets slander you because their work wasn’t accepted for publication?
I think the only problem I’ve ever encountered as an editor was a long time ago when I first started editing for close friends: I’ve had two persons complain that the edits were too much; that they had issues recognizing their own poems (laughs). Now I’m very much experienced.
About your other question, No, I don’t recall ever being slandered by a poet whose piece wasn’t accepted for publication. Like I said initially, it’s not my job to select what makes it to the magazine. But let me be humorous about this: I’ve got a very long name which cannot fit perfectly into any rejection email sent to anyone.
7 Writing or editing, which is easier for you?
Editing is easier. Always.
8 As a poet, do you have any interesting writing habits, such as how and when you write?
I write whenever an inspiration comes. Sometimes though, I induce it by reading a poem or two. But while writing, I’m not always able to fully concentrate until I stop seeing light. So, it’s always me waiting until night time, retiring to a dim place with my phone, or drawing the blinds to keep out sunrays.
My creative process goes like this: first, I form a mental picture of what I want to write about. Then I take out time to immerse my whole being into this picture so the emotions would flow in. But I try as much as possible to not think up any line— beginning, middle or the end line. I always want my work to lead the way. I want to feel that excitement as the poem opens by itself, as it carries me into lines I had not imagined beforehand. My first draft is always some kind of scribbling: I just put down whatever comes to my mind stopping only when I get stuck on the way, but even then, I avoid thinking while taking a break. This approach, I have realized, makes the poem appear fresh when you’re done writing. It’s not like you prepared some lines and then moved artistically to accommodate them.
9 What Nigerian poet or poets do you love to read?
The list is endless. I read I.S Jones, Theresa Lola, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Rasaq Malik Gbolahan, Gbenga Adesina, Ojo Taiye, Romeo Origun, Gbenga Adeoba, Pamilerin Jacob, Abdulbasit Yusuff, Nnadi Samuel, Nome Emeka Patrick, Ogwiji Ehi, Chukwu Emmanuel, Samuel Adeyemi, Praise Osawaru, Joshua Effiong; the list goes on and on.
10 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?
We are at a point where poetry is beginning to become appreciated, not just as a genre of literature, but as some form of unifying language. More and more Nigerians are coming out to say we write poetry, or we love reading it. The previous, elitist conception of poetry has almost been replaced by a more contemporary, accommodating perspective, and for this reason, several poets are getting published. The readers are right outside, waiting to read their works. Also, there are several literary platforms whose basic aim is to help these poets attain recognition, either through the provision of literary contests, publications and all else. So, looking at these available opportunities, I think the future of Nigerian poets is full of light.
There is something I would love to point out: recently, I came across I.S Jones interview with SprinNG, where she spoke about the need for the Nigerian government to get more involved by providing contest opportunities, as is obtaining in several other countries. I agree with Jones. But I want to add that we need more than just Awards and Prizes. What we lack more than anything are platforms for grooming these young Nigerian poets. Most of them have to rely on the arduous art of self-teaching. I know there are organizations that understand this dilemma. Akwanga Writers’ Residency (AWR) here in Nasarawa state, a brainchild of Nasarawa Creative, for instance is under development. This is huge, and it’s certainly one of the biggest opportunities I’ve seen so far for Nigerian poets and writers. We need more of this.
11 What’s your opinion about Poets in Nigeria as a vanguard of poetry renaissance in Nigeria?
I think the fact that Poets in Nigeria Initiative is at the front line of poetry renaissance in Nigeria is unarguable. PIN aids the fundamental role of transmission, connecting the more experienced poets with the budding ones. Personally, I knew little about contemporary poetry until I got to know about Poets in Nigeria Initiative. Now here we are.
12 Thank you for your time. Please leave us with few lines of a poem you have written. (max 10 lines).
Thank you for having me.
Master, is there no freedom
besides this one:
the glint of sun across your
neck, the sharp of
your metallic jaw, how you
lead me towards the
edge. Always wanting to slide
in through my pores.
But do you not see the small-
ness of this opening?
Master, why push me into a
room I won’t find air.