Interview: Inua Ellams and the clash of language.
Poets Rachel Long and Inua Ellams discuss how Inua names his poems, his writing process, and why he cherishes language.
Listen to the conversation here or read the transcript.
Rachel Long: Something occurred when you were reading Inua. I’ve always been in love and delighted by your titles. I remember first hearing them and then reading them, and how almost the length of them, the wroughtness of them, the unicorns of them and the candy in the mouth of them. And so I think I’ve always wanted to ask you how do you name your poems? What ceremony or process do you have?
Inua Ellams: I think I realised at some point, maybe four or five years ago that there’s a game you can play with your readers or your listeners with the title. You can purposely send them down the wrong path, so the poem becomes a surprise. Or it can function like a welcome mat, you’re saying come into the house. Or it can function like, not even a welcome mat, like what is already within a house: like a drink, like a seat, like a sofa already? So you say that and you are already in the world of the poem. And each time when it comes to titling poems I think ‘what do I want to do with this?’ Do I want to bamboozle? Do I want to entertain, to titillate, to make them laugh and lure them into a false sense of security? So I have that tension between the title and the poems. And also, I want to give them strange titles because it’s so much fun, right? It’s like the name of a child. Why would you want to name it what everyone else named their kids, you know? You want the child to have a name that commands respect and memory, that stands out a little. So those are all the things that go into naming the poem for me.
Rachel Long: I love that. I particularly like the sofa in the house of the poem, I love that. And also the fun! There is this crackle and aliveness right from the title, throughout your work as well. You have such a distinctive language clash and your compounds, which are often, I suppose, to some people, like cross cultural. So, for example, Jazz Superman, Ghetto Van Gogh, after Richard Scott and Kanye West, like you have this in all of your work and it’s throughout. And also the clashes even between words is really exciting, like ‘tongue tarmac’, ‘turquoise grit’, ‘battered rainbow’, there’s this constant clash, this alchemy between the words that you put together and in sequence. How, and…
Inua Ellams: And why?
Rachel Long: And why, perhaps. Why? I’m trying to be careful about asking a poet because you might not know why.
Inua Ellams: Maybe the main reason is because I’m a hybrid animal and I straddle so many different cultures, and have colonised so many different cultures, because I felt safe within them, within the ideas of them and they stayed with me. And I also work in so many different literary circles, that I’m constantly jumping from thing to thing. Therefore, when I’m writing poetry, I don’t think the point might only exist for poetry audiences. Therefore, my cultural references can be as broad as my theatre audiences, which includes everybody, really. And I’m constantly doing that and constantly watching and consuming various types of entertainment. And they sit with me, and filter down to the sediments, to the stones, the pebbles, and then I just naturally clash them together and see what sparks, and I’ve just always been doing that. And it’s fun to do so. A few years ago, I would start writing poems with this exercise, I would look for objects or ideas which just felt like they were polar opposites and think, how can I create a poem that is their marriage ceremony? And that is where ‘Candy Coated Unicorns And Converse All Stars’ came from. I thought, what can’t possibly be in the same room? And I thought, Okay, I’m gonna do this. I’m going to write a poem that brings them together. So it’s a literary challenge that I set myself which has now become subconscious.
Rachel Long: Is there a defiance in that? I suppose it’s a ‘why can’t I put them in the same room?’ like who says?
Inua Ellams: There’s definitely a defiance there because of the types of Englishes that I speak and the awareness of all of them, all clashing. And I always want to surprise my audiences in extremely literary circles and in the complete opposite one. Like I have a poem about going to Hip Hop rave, and it’s called Urban Autumnal, which is so, you know upper middle class, it has all these registers. But the poem is just about trying to watch your favourite Rapper rap his life out. So I’m always aware of straddling both. And it’s also because I wasn’t formally educated in English. Everything I consume comes from my interests, and the awareness of how English works in all of those places, like in graphic novels and comic books. When I’m speaking to various members of my Nigerian family, or friends in South Africa, or from, you know, from Palestine, or from Syria. The way they speak English, they’re incredibly eloquent, but how they construct sentence is rooted in the ways in which their language, their mother tongues, construct sentences, and they translate from there. So it creates really surprising syntax, and I just cherish all of that because it enriches language and English. There are more International English speakers than there are indigenous English speakers. So that English will grow to consume this English, and colonise it, and we can try and gate-keep it as much as possible but it’s like fighting the ocean, you’re gonna lose eventually, you know? So why not reach out to all of those potential audiences and create work that they can access rather than trying to focus on this small island?
Rachel Long: Thank you Inua.
Inua Ellams: You’re welcome.
Rachel Long: I feel like I’ve had a private reading.