Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria and is now based in the UK, where he has become one of the UK’s most recognised cultural icons. He is an internationally renowned poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer. Dividing his attention across several creative mediums, Ellams writes with a level of urgency that has become characteristic of his style in all of his disciplines. Hailed by Michael Billington as “one of the 25 best plays of the decade”, Barber Shop Chronicles burst onto the scene to receive praise immediately, selling out two runs at England’s National Theatre. Likewise, The Half-God Of Rainfall, initially a poetry collection penned as an epic story in verse, was similarly well received and highly anticipated when released in theatres. To much acclaim, he has published 5 poetry collections: Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars (Flipped Eye, 2011), The Wire-Headed Heathen (Akashic, 2015), AFTERHOURS (Nine Arches Press, 2017), The Half-God of Rainfall (4th Estate, 2019) and The Actual (Penned In The Margins, 2020). Ellams has also been recognised and awarded widely throughout his poetry career including The Liberty Human Rights Award for ‘An Evening With An Immigrant’ (2017), The live Canon International Poetry Prize for the poem ‘Shame Is the Cape I Wear’ (2014) and most recently The Hay Festival Medal for poetry for the collection ‘The Half-God of Rainfall’ (2020).

With roots in the oral tradition of West-African storytelling, listening to Ellams read his poetry is a stirring literary experience that reminds you of what it means to be young and the recipient of wildly unbelievable stories. Perhaps Ellams is so successful as a storyteller (in all his chosen forms) because he understands and generously offers a look at how to create a multi-layered narrative that ceases just at the right moment, inviting more, always. He writes poetry that holds within it an abundance of defiance, vulnerability and a masterful layering of sound. Themes range from childhood, immigration, love, masculinity and then further, such as references to God, unicorns, heroes and nemesis. Ellams, multidisciplinary by nature, borrows from a limitless source that makes for a hugely enjoyable collection of writings. Expect wit and darkness neatly and thoughtfully bound into his poetic pieces aside humour and innocence, all with a carefully controlled sense of pace.

In the recording of Ghetto van Gogh, a poem almost psalmic in its ability to pull the reader gently toward the moral and empathetic ending, we witness Ellams skillful misdirection in action. True to his experimental style, the sharply divided lines help to stretch a story the reader seemingly recognises and, quite literally, dissects it beyond what we supposed it to be. In the line “My mother who is inches from my ear” the symmetry between the narrator and the eponymous Ghetto van Gogh creates a delicacy, a fear even, that furthers the parallels and complexity of storytelling that comes naturally in an Ellams poem.

Again, in ‘Swallow Twice’, a poem as delicate in its handling of masculinity as it is aware of the need for vulnerability, Ellams presents another example of conjoining narratives. Stringing us slowly and blindly towards the unexpected end, the poem unravels graciously towards the blunt, the vulnerable and the unavoidable questions at hand:

how best

to pretend we know it all and when beer loosens

what inhibitions are left after shredding meat

with bare fingers / laughter cloaks our weaknesses

our inability to provide for those we love / who love us

we who still know nothing of what our lovers want

how frightening it is to have nephews growing up

who want to be like us / who want to be like men

In an Ellams’ poem, the noiseless moments speak clearly and the most radical commentaries are warmly embraced. This is the type of poetry that is, as Ellams details, ‘intensely political, intensely personal’ and so very difficult to ignore in the wider discussions of Black British poetry.

Recordings made on 15th October 2021 at Spiritland Studios, North London. Photograph by Henry Nicholls.

Poems by Inua Ellams

Guerilla Garden Writing Poem  - Inua Ellams
Ghetto Van Gogh - Inua Ellams
The Child God of Chaos - Inua Ellams
Swallow Twice - Inua Ellams

Books by Inua Ellams



The Hay Festival Medal for Poetry - The Half God of Rainfall

Prize website

The Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition - Fuck / Sunflowers

Prize website

Magma Poetry Competition - Fuck / Boys

Prize website

Winchester Poetry Prize - Plight / Fantasy

Prize website

The Liberty Human Rights Award - An Evening With An Immigrant

Prize website

The Live Canon International Poetry Prize Shame Is the Cape I Wear

Prize website

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