‘Nigerian poets are taking up elite spaces’ – Abdulbaseet Yusuff | PIN Literary Interviews

After a 2-month hiatus, Semilore Kilaso of PIN Literary Interviews returns with a delightful conversation with writer and poet, Abdulbaseet Yusuff. They talk about poetry writing, Nigerian poetry and poets, and other notable topics.

Abdulbaseet Yusuff is a Nigerian writer. His works appear or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Rattle, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Up The Staircase Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, MoonPark Review, The Indianapolis Review, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, and elsewhere. He’s contributing editor at Eboquills, and tweets @bn_yusuff. 

  •  Hello, Abdulbaseet Yusuff. It’s a great pleasure having you On PIN Literary Interviews. Do tell us more about yourself?

Hi, Semilore. I’m just as pleased. I’m Abdulbaseet Yusuff. I’m a poet, a freelance writer, and contributing editor at Eboquills. Except if you want my stance on whether Nigerian Jollof rice is the king of Jollof, I don’t think there is much else to say about me. And it’s also too early to be divisive.

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

A little difficult to remember when I started writing generally, but I think I wrote my first poem when I was in Junior School. We had just studied some poems from some selected African poets. I remember Wole Soyinka’s Abiku and JP Clark’s. There was also Niyi Osundare’s satiric Song of the Nigerian Driver — which, for a long time, was my favourite poem because I loved the subtle humour. I wrote my first around that time, and it was pretty much a clone of the works we studied in terms of tone and diction. There was something about that Osundare’s poem that struck me. I don’t think I fully grasped it then, but it must have been the light-hearted delivery. I tried to mirror that with my early poems but nobody is ever going to read them. Unless, of course, they hire Jack Bauer to torture it out of me.

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

Like many other poets, I have sampled many styles. I have not developed a consistent style yet, and I do not feel any urgency to do so. Every poem dictates its structure and language. Recently though, I have discovered that I am partial to traditional structures – left margins, tightly-knit equal lines per stanzas. So, what I do is hold the reins but leave it long enough for the poem to run around the park. By default, I opt for standard capitalizations. Writing entirely in lowercase letters does not come naturally to me, except if the poem intends to lull readers. As I said, it’s largely the choice of the poem to decide what it wants. Linguistically, I like to use science-inclined figures of speech, although I’m concerned that this could come off as esoteric.

  •  You write protest poems, has living in Nigeria shaped your approach to theme and choice of language?

Yes, it has. It is well-known that conflict is fodder for art. Artists engage with their environments. These environments are far from perfect. Even fictional environments take a leaf from reality. Conflict is generously distributed all over the world but I think Nigeria is one of those places blessed with an abundance of it, at the moment. I read a poem by Noor Hindi recently and she started by saying “Colonizers write about flowers”. Do you get the picture? People who live in privileged communities enjoy the luxury of being able to write about anything. Now I think everybody can and should write about whatever they want – I mean, I could write about flowers too if I want. But I don’t think it comes naturally to me. We draw inspiration from what we witness and it finds its way to our pages. In any case, I do not consider it responsibility or obligation. I just think I’m tilted towards that direction.

  • Your poetry has a humorous undertone, is this a reflection of your personality, or do you have a different writer’s persona?

It is a reflection of my personality. I like to think of myself as funny. I won’t get all the applause Trevor Noah gets because I still have to sort out stage fright, but I make myself laugh and that’s all that matters.

Even with art, I find myself more welcoming to humorous pieces. It is why I like the novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, or the short story, Hall Silicon, or a biography of Andrea Pirlo I recently read, I Think Therefore I Play. They don’t have to be excessively comedic. It’s my way of finding myself in art. Like “hey, I would totally say that!”

I enjoy sitcoms too. And if there is any debate as to which is better between The Big Bang Theory and FRIENDS, I pick The Big Bang Theory.

  • Your poems “Physics Textbook Explains Why People Can’t Leave Abusive Marriages” and “x as symbol for all things lost” amongst others are science themed, does your background as a science scholar influence your writing? Do you think a poet without adequate knowledge in sciences can pull it off with research?

Yes, it does. A lot. Science and art are man’s ways of interacting with their environment. They overlap. Observation is at the core of both fields. Only science does so with empirical data. Art, on the other hand, is intuitive. It’s just like how old folks don’t need those cookbooks with “two tablespoons of salt”, they just pinch the salt and do as they fit – and it comes out all right. There is no way to accurately evaluate the human experience. But science gives art a little more tangibility.

Speaking of the overlap between science and art, it’s interesting to see what people have done with Science Fiction – especially soft SF (not the Jules Verne kind of science fiction). They contain science but are not so rigorous that they become unappealing. Hopefully, more poets would explore that terrain.

Can they do it without adequate knowledge? Maybe they can. I’m not sure. But I think background knowledge makes it a lot easier.

  • There is a paradigm shift in Nigeria literature; Christopher Okigbo’s protest poem differs from the way a contemporary poet would write a protest poem and relate it to self/body. What exactly is contemporary poetry to you, is it just about the timing?

Like most other things, art and its styles change with time. People have become a lot more expressive. Confessionalism is the zeitgeist of 21st century literature. I think Nigerian poetry has evolved with it too.

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

We all love a quirk, don’t we? The closest I have to a peculiar habit is that I write first drafts on my phone. The breadth of the small screen keeps my lines in check. The similitude of a phone screen to a laptop screen is like that of a stream to an ocean. Streams are more approachable. So, that kind of gets me streaming. Pardon the pun. I wish I had a more fun quirk, like sipping coffee or stroking cats, but I have no love for caffeine and those feline cuties.

  • Do you ever regret publishing some of your works? If yes, why?

Hardly ever. But maybe some of my older works. I think that’s a universal writer thing — to cringe at our earliest works. There is one that has this silly typo that somehow managed to elude both myself and the editor. Did I reach out to correct it? No, I just let it slide. I admire the typo’s resilience.

  • Have you ever entered for the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize (NSPP) or any poetry contest organised by Poets in Nigeria Initiative?

I’ve never entered for the NSPP. But I’ve entered for PIN’s Poetically Written Prose contest and the PIN 10-Day Poetry Challenge.

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

    What can I say? It was one of the first platforms I found when I sought an online literary community. Kudos to the person or panel that came up with the name — “Poets In Nigeria” — it has that big umbrella vibe that gives you this sense of belonging.

    Also, PIN has been consistent. That’s not a small feat, especially as it’s privately funded initiative. The yearly prizes, festivals, the chapbook series, and university connect centres, etc. PIN is putting in the work and the work stands for itself.
  • What Nigerian poet(s) do you continually revisit their works?

I would ask you to get a notebook to write down their names because there are a LOT of them, but it’s an interview — we are not trying to create a database. I enjoy the works of Rasaq Malik Gbolahan, Saddiq Dzukogi, JK Anowe, Okwudili Neobolisa, amongst many others.

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

Fiction has taken the cake for a long time now. Maybe that might not change any time soon, but more people are taking interest in poetry. I think we have the new Spoken Word wave and Instagram poetry (Hi, Rupi Kaur!) to thank for the awareness. They have made poetry accessible and friendly to people who used to think poetry was a secret code for philosophers to communicate. Nigerian poets are taking up elite spaces, getting published in top-tier journals, winning awards. There’s also some unspoken rule that every literary journal has to have a Nigerian poet in every issue they publish. It’s evident.

And yes, the government. Even though it has now become a singsong. They have the muscle to finance literacy (and literature), and it’s about time they started flexing it. For a country that churns out a ton of great writing yearly, it is shameful that there are very few writing residencies and literary awards. Most (if not all) are funded by private organizations. Many writers are looking outwards, across the seas. They can put a stop to the brain drain if they put structures in place.

  1. Thank you for your time. Please leave us with few lines of your poetry (max 12 lines)

The beautiful things don’t last
They linger by leaving hunger in their wake

I have no regard for the orange tree,
whose branches, no matter how many times 

I cut it, lean over my neighbour’s fence.
The woman says it litters her house

That tree hugs to life, picks utility over beauty. 
I don’t want to eat oranges so much

it loses its citric thrill. I’d tire of a bird that
considers permanence on my windowsill

It is my understanding that the moon,
in its nightly cameo, enjoys the fondest gaze

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