‘I try to do something different each time I set to write’ – Ola W. Halim | PIN Literary Interviews

Ola W. Halim won the PIN Food Poetry Contest 2020 with his poem “Garri: ‘67 – ‘70”. In this engaging interview with Semilore Kilaso of PIN Literary Interviews, he talks about his winning entry, Nigerian poetry, food insecurity and hunger, Social media as a tool for literary promotion and other relevant topics.

Ola W. Halim writes fiction and reflections somewhere in Edo State, where he also teaches English Language and Literature. Additionally, he edits prose for ARTmosterrific. He was a finalist for the 2019 Teach for Change Teacher’s Prize in Literature, and also for the Sevhage Short Story Prize 2019. He won the 2020 LitFest Prize for Prose for his short story, “Miracle”. His interests include psychology, fantasy and the absurd, albinism, the LGBT, and hybrid work. His work has appeared or is forthcoming on the Kalahari Review, African Writer, ARTmosterrific, Dwartsonline, Libretto, Punocracy, Tuck Magazine, Lolwe, and elsewhere. Halim lives mostly in his head.

1. Congratulations on winning PIN FOOD POETRY CONTEST (PFPC) 2020. Can we please meet you?

Thank you so much. I’m honoured beyond words.

I’m Ola W. Halim, actually Olaposi Washington Halim, but that’s a mouthful. I’m from Oyo State, but I live in Edo. I’ve spent most of my adult life here. I see myself as a recluse, someone who spends more time with their emotions (sometimes writing, reading or lamenting over stuck story ideas) than with other people. I have family—my mum, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, a nephew—and friends who love me despite how messy I can be sometimes. I’m a prose editor for the literary platform ARTmosterrific, and we’ve just released a beautiful first issue. I teach during weekdays and find time to write for myself or for others at night. I like good music, and my definition of good music is one that transcends you, makes you feel something different. Same with movies, but I do mostly psychological thrillers. And since this is food-related, I should also mention that I’m a headstrong fan of garri. Just give me well-roasted groundnuts and sugar, and we’re friends forever.

2. How did you learn of the contest and what prompted you to enter?

Through Micheal Ace. He runs a website where he shares literary opportunities on a daily.

What prompted me to enter? Well, because I wanted to try something new, I guess. You know, I’m more of a short story writer. I only find myself doing poetry sometimes, mostly when I can’t get my head around an idea through prose. So that was it. I wanted to see where I stood poetically.

3. If you are asked to hazard why your piece won, what would you say?

Honestly, I don’t know. I was surprised it won. But one thing that always defines my work, be it poetry or prose, is distinctiveness. I try to do something different each time I set to write. So, there’s always this question in my head: Ola, since there’s nothing that hasn’t been written before, how do you make this stand out? I think that kind of distinguished my work from others, and made it win.

4. How long did it take to write the winning piece?

Four months. At first, it was flash fiction. I’d read a lot about Nigerian history during the lockdown and gained new awareness, especially about the war. I deleted the flash fiction because it wasn’t working. I was trying too hard to inject too much imagery into the story. So, I converted it into something like narrative poetry and it just clicked for me.

5. You’re an English Language and Literature teacher. What level/category of students do you teach?

The secondary category.

6. Do you agree that competitions are important and healthy in the creative space?

Of course, I do.

7. Food insecurity and hunger is a major concern in the growing economy of Nigeria. What do you think one can do to remedy the situation?

Yes, it’s always been a big issue, food problems. We as a country neglected agriculture when we should have embraced it. We ran after oil because we felt it was the next big thing. Of course, it was, but who considered how it was affecting our agricultural produce? Water pollutions in the Niger Delta, fishes dying. Oil spillage eating into our crops, rendering them useless.

We’re a very feeble country. Sometimes, I sit thinking about it, and the realisation that we’re very vulnerable makes me scared. We’ve survived a devastating war which unleashed famine on us, which killed millions. We’re a single, indivisible and indissoluble country only in the constitution. In real life, we’re a group of different people answerable to their ethnic groups before thinking of Nigeria. Our governments are financial institutions, hoping to come and make profits and hand the batons to whoever they please. We have no say because we’re bound by lack of education and exposure and repression. In the community I live, during elections, you’re given bottles of beer and onions and salt and you’re then expected to vote for your ‘benefactors’; after voting, they give you money—nothing more than five thousand naira—and by so doing, you’ve given them the right to steer you as they please for another four years.

Don’t we have problems bigger than beer and onions? Are our small farms producing enough? Skip that for now and ask this: do our farmers have access to good health care in order to keep producing? Are most of our youths not really lazy, looking for shortcuts to success? Do they really want to work or they want to fake it till they make it whatever way? Does it not have dangerous effects on our feeble economy? Are we being educated on matters concerning sustainable development?

Then you have the results: terrible hunger.

Let’s support agriculture, support small farmers, which according to research, make up for over 70% of farmers in the world. We can give grants, loans. We can provide machines to make the jobs easier. We can provide basic health care services. We can create awareness, maybe educate them on emerging issues that could affect their jobs (because most of them are ignorant of these things). We could beautify agribusiness (borrowing my Agric teacher’s language here) and teach it to the youths, our leaders of tomorrow. We can help render cheap marketing and distribution services void of all that bureaucracy and what have you. One more thing I’ve begun to think about lately is urban farming. Maybe concentrating agriculture in our major cities could help. At least, it can reduce the costs of transportation and distribution.

Also, I think women empowerment could help alleviate hunger in Nigeria. Most of them need to be aware they have to work. You don’t depend on a man for basic things you could get yourself. Thankfully, there are women farmers where I live. What if they’re given loans and grants too? What if they’re taught the art of financial independence? Do you think we’ll have as many hungry children littering our streets anymore? Come on, we all know a woman’s burning passion for a child (hey, there are passionate men too, but you know what I mean)!

Finally, I think we should start talking seriously about birth control. Myself and my sisters go out on a Sunday and I’m shocked to learn a woman who’s probably managing with a rusty sewing machine is on her eighth pregnancy! I always feel like screaming at them, like what the hell is wrong with you?! In the school I teach, we have about ten students sharing the same surname. I found out that a man, a single man, gave birth to all of them, from two women! Don’t get me started on how they have to be driven for school fees all the time, how they sometimes miss tests and exams, how the two in JSS One sleep through class and later cry of hunger.

8. Other than the PIN FOOD POETRY CONTEST 2020 have you ever entered for any poetry contest organised by Poets in Nigeria Initiative or other platforms?

No, I haven’t.

9. Can you vividly recall the title of the first poem you wrote? Tell us about it and how you landed into poetry.

That was around 2010, secondary school days. It was a love poem, that secondary school lovey-dovey sort of thing. I can’t remember its title, but I know it wasn’t honest at all, because I wasn’t really feeling any love (being a devoted nerd at that time, my goals were three things: good grades, good grades, good grades). I didn’t give the poem to the person I’d addressed it to. I let my friend have it instead. Whatever they did with it, Ola doesn’t know till date.

I’ve always had this fascination for language, especially how it makes things beautiful than they really are in real life. As a child, I marveled at how L. Frank Baum created things that didn’t exist and made them so real. I searched for similar books: an Oliver Twist for kids, Alice in Wonderland. I discovered Nigerian writers later. Characters like Ralia and Chike whom I resonated with. I discovered poetry much later, in primary four or so. There was this poem our teacher read to us every morning, about how one hand can’t clap. It was beautiful. It had more pictorial expressions than any story I’d ever read at that time. I memorised it and started drawing some of its objects. In secondary school, we were exposed to more poetry but much more prose, and I think that was the pivotal point for me.

Even though I can’t remember when I started writing poetry, I remember wanting to be like writers who could bend words to their advantage. I think I was able to execute a little bit of that in my dishonest love poem.

10. As a prose writer and poet, how do you conclude you’re writing a poem and not prose? How do you develop from a word into lines?

Like I said, I don’t always set out to write poetry at first. It just happens whenever I’m stuck with a story and I desperately need to keep the ‘creative juice’ flowing. I think of the theme of the story in question and write lines with it. At first, it’s a total mess: something prosaic and random forced to embody a poem. But as days go by, its beauty begins to come out. Sometimes, I so much fall in love with the poem that l let go of the story (like in the case of the “Garri” poem).

Secondly, growing from a word to lines, for me, is nothing short of an epiphany. If, for example, I want to write about hope, I try to find out: “If hope were concrete, what would it be like?” or “What image or symbol could perfectly describe hope without me having to mention the word?”

Sometimes, I get an answer right there, so I start working with it. Most times, though, I have to consciously do something. Usually, I take a stroll. Imagine me seeing a dog by the roadside sniffing around its dead offspring, ostensibly hoping it would wake up. Feelings wash over me (I’m helplessly emotional) and lines start to materialise in my head. By the time I’m back home, I’d have had something tangible to put to paper.

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

Okay, I’m a huge fan of style. I like to imagine a literary work as concrete emotions, feelings that can assume lives of their own beyond the confines of the page or even performance. Somehow, investing in emotions defines my style, because that’s the type of work I like to read. I like reading poems that could make me cry, or laugh, or wish, or dream, or even dance. I like writing that takes you somewhere else, that dwindles and unfurls and slithers.

I do mostly narrative poetry. First, I create a story populated with characters with traits and feelings. Most of the poems I’ve written (unfortunately, I haven’t published very many of them yet) contain these people, people talking, thinking, feeling, acting; people not always restricted to verses and stanzas and rhyme and rhythm.

Some of them, like this “Garri” piece, are not written in verse. You just have a sprawl of words and all that. I love it, because I tend to like disobedient works and all that. So I’d describe poetry as an aesthetic offering of feelings, because it has to go beyond mere words strung together.

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

There’s a congregational feel to the whole thing. You’re with people, not just with ordinary people, but people who understand and appreciate art the way you do, people who at least understand you better than the average person. You know what it feels like whining all alone, sometimes with a blank screen or page mocking you, and suddenly, you find the words but then, no one around you appreciates it? Imagine finding a group of people willing to look at it, marvel at its beauty, unearth its faults. You feel important and relevant. You feel writing isn’t as lonely as they say after all. That’s how important writing communities are.

Talking about the social media, I’ll like to share a story I think is peculiar to many of us. I started posting my stories on Facebook in 2013 or so. I secured readership through Facebook. Although, there wasn’t deep criticism at first, logging in and counting the number of ‘likes’ your post had garnered was something. Imagine if there wasn’t Facebook, I’d have probably remained the sole reader of my work till now. And I think I’d have stopped taking writing seriously, because how can you keep on chanting to yourself when you’re not a sorcerer?

Other platforms have sprung up. Medium, literary blogs and e-magazines, you name it. People could read you without stepping out of their houses. People could store an eternity of books on their phones and carry it around like a piece of paper. Among other things, this has reignited interest in poetry (as you could easily publish a single poem or a collection online) and the short story.

13. What Nigerian poet or poets do you love to read?

I always find questions like this difficult to answer, because I don’t set out searching for a particular poet to read. I read anything that can make me feel different. But I could cite Chris Abani. His poetry collection “Sanctificum” was a fast-burning read. I like the works of Akpa Arinzechukwu and Romeo Oriogun for their honest examination of the African queer narrative. I like Aremu Adam Adebisi for his unconventional renditions of theme and style. I just read Ogwiji Ehi on this latest Lolwe issue; I like the taste of her poetry: mild, doesn’t scream too loud, yet evocative. I once stumbled on a Toby Abiodun performance, and for that moment, I fell in love with performance poetry. But like I said, I don’t have favourites. Nigerian poetry is always, always a beautiful experience.

14. What in your opinion is the place of poetry as a genre of literature in Nigeria? What future? What opportunities for Poets?

Thanks to social media, I think we’re moving. Poetry is becoming more relevant and frequent than it had been in the near past. Oh, also, the poetry competitions have also been helpful. We’re not there yet, but the future is bright.

15. What’s your opinion about Poets in Nigeria as a vanguard of poetry renaissance in our country?

Poets in Nigeria is an amazing initiative. Solely dedicating yourself to poetry (especially in countries like Nigeria) isn’t an easy thing. Most times, there’s nothing tangible to show for it. Sometimes, you don’t get sponsorship; people want to invest in something more ‘relevant’. But PIN is tenacious, sticking with Nigerian poetry and its poets. I think it’s one of the saving graces of Nigerian poetry.

16. Thank you for your time. Please leave us with few lines of a poem you have written. (max 12 lines).

Oh, thank you so much! I enjoyed this.

Here’s a part of my poem, “Poetry”:

let’s imagine i created poetry
and made her a woman,
and for legs, i gave her wheels to
chase men afraid of swallowing bitter truths
let’s imagine she fucked them on the altar
ashen with burnt lambs, and moaned orgasms
into golgothan resurrections, and
the morning after, the men got
pregnant, later to be delivered of
nothing but their haunting truths…

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