Adedayo Agarau is our guest for this edition of PIN Literary Interviews. He talks to Semilore Kilaso about his writings, growth, Nigerian poetry and being shortlisted for the 2022 Brunel Poetry Prize.
Adedayo Agarau, shortlisted for the 2022 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, is a 2022 Robert Hayden Scholarship fellow of Stockton University and the recipient of the 2022 Stanley Awards for International Research at the University of Iowa. He is studying for MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop ’23. His manuscript, “The Morning The Birds Died”, was a finalist in the 2021 Sillerman Prize. His chapbook, “Origin of Names”, was selected for New Generation African Poet (African Poetry Book Fund), 2020, while Vegetarian Alcoholic Press published his chapbook, “The Arrival of Rain” in January 2020. His poems are live or forthcoming in World Literature Today, Anomaly, Frontier, Iowa Review, Boulevard, and elsewhere. Adedayo is the Editor-in-Chief at Agbowó: An African magazine of literature and art. Adedayo edited Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. You can find him on adedayoagarau.com and @adedayo_agarau on Twitter.
PIN LITERARY INTERVIEWS: Hi Adedayo, Congratulations on making the Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2022 shortlist. What motivated you to keep submitting for six years? What does it mean to be shortlisted?
Adedayo Agarau: Hello Semilore, excited about this conversation. Eriata Oribhabor’s PIN is an important part of my career, so is Kukogho Samson’s WRR. These platforms and innovations will take credit for my art and growth any day. Like I often say, creativity needs thriving platforms to grow. Brunel Prize is one of those very important platforms—it has published my literary heroes. Warshan Shire, Safia Elhillo, Nick Makoha, Gbenga Adesina, and many more whose works showed younger writers like me what possibilities there are, and what African poetics can do. Brunel Prize is as important to me, as it is important to every other emerging African poet—it’s literally the biggest Poetry Prize on the continent. Bernardine Evaristo’s mission has given us what continues to declare light on African Poetry. And to be shortlisted with Chisom Okafor, Zibusiso Mpofu, Asmaa Jama, and a host of others—is of utmost importance to me and my career. I am currently studying for my MFA, writing my second collection of poems, and preparing for my thesis—the Brunel shortlist is one of the many boosts I need to continue in the assurance that my writing is in the right direction.
PLI: Although you’re a graduate of Human Nutrition, how did you transition to writing and studying for an MFA?
Agarau: Writing has always been it for me. I get this question all the time. I was doing my industrial attachment in 2014 when I won the Pulse Student Poetry Prize. I still flirt with the idea of going back to become a full-fledged registered dietitian someday. Or maybe not, maybe I’ll just be a writer traveling the world, seeing places.
PLI: How has being Nigerian influenced your approach to thematic and use of language in poetry? Has a change in environment influenced the nature of your writing?
Agarau: As you would have guessed from my writing, the influence of Language cannot be overemphasized. I write from my mother tongue to a world waiting to learn of it. Yoruba as a language and a body of research helps me to navigate my themes—ease my discussions. In my newer works, I am confidently writing lines in Yoruba. The idea is that my work, and the works of people like Nome Patrick, who writes in pidgin, continue to not just be an artistic palette but also a research text for people interested in learning about our cultures and language. Moving to Iowa has actually influenced the way I write. Places and cities take a grand bow in my narratives.
PLI: So, what kind of questions would you say you’re exploring in your writings? How would you describe poetry in relation to your own writing style?
Agarau: Semilore, to be honest, I am on the long road of figuring out. I am very interested in research, stories about people, human angle narrative to grief, and how grief has impacted people. What happens after someone dies? The questions I am asking are not in the bid to provide contextualized answers but provide a new channel to open up discussions about our existence—our lives as Nigerians, and Africans—our language, how it interacts with the western tongue, how my sentences are mostly first thought in Yoruba before I write them in English. Right now, I am at the point where I am writing dreams, writing sleep stories for Calm.com, and working on my next project, The Year of Blood.
PLI: There’s this talk in the international literary community on how Africans explore grief and romanticise suffering. What does African poetry mean to you?
Agarau: Is this truly a question asked by the international literary community? Or people who are in our own community who think they have the key to what anyone should write about? We cannot continue to entertain the argument that writing about grief or suffering is an African thing.
Poetry is a work of truth. We are at the time where everyone is writing from the inside out—that is, everything that happens outside communicates and directly affects the workings of the body. African poetry has always been rich in personal narratives—in stories about self, dreams, and grief. In Idoto by Christopher Okigbo, he cried of certain depth where the cries emerge and sing to land about the need for rescue. What is this if it’s not a poem of suffering?
Does this even mean that I cannot properly bury my grandmother in a collection of poems? Does this mean I cannot write of my friends’ demise? At what point does suffering become an appeal or a romance, even when it’s my story and true? There are questions critics are not answering. Suffering and grief is an internationally shared experience, isn’t it?
Mental health, depression, and sadness is a major theme that we need to continue to write about. If Poetry is supposed to be liberating, why then do people who think they own the court of knowing demand that African poets be held back by theme. And to define African writing, I’ll say it is anything anyone who identifies as African is currently writing.
PLI: You’ve moved on from working at the New International Voices Series Project with Icefloe Press. You’re also the Editor–in–Chief at Agbowó; kindly share your experience documenting and publishing African voices.
Agarau: African voices are a breath of fresh air, Semilore. It’s a discovery and a gift. The number of amazing writers springing up every day is crazy, and each is telling a different story from the other. It’s been a privilege to accept, offer suggestions and pay to publish writers at IceFloe. The project at Agbowó is to continue to expand the limitless boundaries of African narratives.
PLI: Recently, I talked about how exhausting poetry can be. How one can become useless the whole day just because you’re trying to finish a poem. Does writing energize or exhaust you? Do you have any interesting writing habits, such as how and when you write?
Agarau: Poetry can be very draining. So I take breaks from reading and writing to party and feel alive. I take long walks when writing is not working. I listen to music. I watch the summer sunrise and sunset from my apartment window in Coralville. Anything to ease myself of the burden of writing.
PLI: What Nigerian poet(s) do you continually revisit their works?
Agarau: Nome Patrick, Agbaakin Jeremiah, Romeo Oriogun, Salawu Olajide, Gbenga Adesina, DM Aderibigbe, Wale Ayinla, Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu. I miss the writing of Salako Pelumi, Shade Mary Ann, and Dipe Jola.
PLI: 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?
Agarau: Poetry in Nigeria has enjoyed contributions from passionate people. Eriata and Kukogho, for example, carried out projects with their personal finances. Su’Eddie, who is also an amazing art administrator, has contributed immensely to the growth of Poetry in Nigeria. We hope that new bodies continue to spring up to support young writers. My friends and I are doing our best—we started a fellowship, the UnSerious Collective fellowship, which got a huge number of applications in its first year. I am also working with a team to start a National prize for Poets of Nigerian origin. I hope that things fall in place and that the future shines bright on us. Nigerian writers are telling important stories.
PLI: Thank you for your time Adedayo. Kindly leave us with your poetry (max of 12 lines)
Agarau: music man
with a line from @theayoadams’ tweet
the duck quivers a language.
a tree that cannot hold
the body cannot kill the body.
my grandfather’s cymbal clangs
as the wind wades the forest,
as fox shakes the woods,
as the birds take flight.
at night, the talking
drum says a proverb
but it’s the drummer
that gets the cowries;
it’s my father who
gets the praise, it’s my
father the girl kisses.
orin ṣetán, orin ń re’lé—
when the music finishes,
the music sojourns.