In an interview with The Wombwell Rainbow, you mentioned that you are most likely to die if you don't get to write. Also, your microchap my mother died and I became ______ is a gathering of poems questioning, expressing and living grief. Can I ask if writing, for you, is completely a way of unpacking and "unbottling" grief? Is it? I don't know. I think writing for me is more a way of documenting grief than it is a way of "unpacking" and "unbottling" it. But don't we unpack and unbottle in the process of documenting? I think we do that, too. But I don't think that's all that writing is for me: While I don't think I can write a poem that doesn't carry grief, because it marks every aspect of my life, I try to write about other things: Love, sex, my lover. Do you sometimes wish that Hope is something your poems offer more? O, I lean into pessimism more, I guess. Or my poems are so dark. But my poems offer hope, you know. I write about darkness: Grief, loss, longing, the insanity that is bipolar, yes. But, to quote Bertolt Brecht, my "singing about the dark times" is hope, hope that no matter how dark it is or gets I'll still be able to sing. And that keeps me going. Because I don't explicitly write about hope does not mean it's not there; it's there, the darkness just covers it like a shroud. If you pay close attention, you'll see it in that dark compound of words, shining softly, like a polished coin. Reading your earlier poems, I noticed a difference, in scope and in style, to the poems you write now. How has your writing evolved? Oh. That, lol. I like to say that writers grow almost every day lol. You write a poem today and you are so happy with the work, and then you send it out. In a week or two you come back to take a look and you feel so differently about the poem; it's because you are not the same writer you were two weeks ago, especially if you are a poet who is constantly growing. At the start of my writing, I was writing more about God and Christianity and the faith, because that was the battle I was fighting at the time (don't be deceived: I'm still fighting that battle). Also, I was writing like the writers I was reading at the time. I think, right now, I'm coming into my own voice, though I'm still playing around, exploring. T. S. Eliot says somewhere that "no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone." What poems or poets do you feel your works are mostly in conversation with? I love James Longenbach's work, especially the collection Draft of a Letter. That's a book I return to. I love Danez Smith's poems; they are one of my major influences. I just finished reading Soft Science by Franny Choi and Feeld by Jos Charles. I love Soft Science; I'll be re-reading Feeld. When it comes to writers who I pay very close attention to their words, drinking from the fountain of their knowledge and wisdom, there's Chris Abani. I listen to every Chris Abani lecture I can get. I listen to and read his interviews. He is so brilliant. Also, his friend and colleague Kwame Dawes. I pay attention to whatever Billy Collins says, too: interviews, lectures, and essays. There are many other poets that I love and pay attention to. Yes, I almost forgot, there is Kaveh Akbar, whose work I find very interesting because in many ways I write like him. There's a way that he lets the language carry him into raw, honest meanings; his poems don't try to sound smart. They just are. Also, I am fascinated by Langston Hughes. I'm currently reading Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband, it's doing my head somehow but I like it. What's on your current reading and rereading list? I'm reading the Anne Carson book I mentioned earlier and the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon, a very beautiful and unconventional novel. I'm also reading C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain. I'll be reading A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley soon. Also, I mentioned this earlier, I'll be re-reading Feeld by Jos Charles. You read submissions for Palette Poetry and Masters Review, and you are an assistant editor at Counterclock Journal. What do you look out for in a submission? What do you see or feel, and you're like This is it! If this ain't published, make I naked baff! Lol Lmao. I think it's the language for me. I like to say this: When I read the first few lines of a poem, I know if it's good or not. It's like listening to a song; the moment you hear that first note you know if it's diamond or disaster. When I read a poem, I want to taste the music in my mouth. I want a poem that makes me gasp or scream (I scream when I read a really good poem). This applies for short stories, too. Having been published in so many reputable literary magazines (I can't begin to mention), what tips do you have for fresh writers struggling with getting published? Humour me lol. I'm not in The Paris Review or POETRY, or a magazine that I love so much, The Sun. Lol. Thank you. Also, I'm a "fresh writer", too, abeg. Don't send my helpers away. Here. I remember sometime in 2019, I got a rejection from JALADA, though they had longlisted my work, a short story. I cried and cried, ruffled the sheets of my bed, threw things around. I was broke, and I needed that acceptance because the mag pays and I needed the money. While I have grown a thicker skin, I still get rejections. I've had four this year. Patience, that's all you need, active patience. You won't get into every mag you want to get into, but you'll get into a good deal of them if you are patient enough and you put in the work. To paraphrase Elon Musk, put in double of the work others are putting in. Read the mags you want to appear in. Also, learn to be part of a community of friends and mentors who can give you honest feedback on your work before you send it out to mags. You tweeted that you started this year with a rejection. What do you think about rejections, and how do you handle them? Lol. It was The Sun. They rejected a story that I really like. I used to feel very bad when I get a rejection, as I mentioned earlier. It still pains me, though I'm learning to be gentle with myself. The best I can do is write good stuff; it's not in my power to get them into mags. Rejection is to a writer what falling is to a child learning to ride a bicycle. It's what we, as writers, signed up for. It's normal. Do you have a literary community? And how has being part of that literary community helped in shaping your writing? I have a wall of friends who are writers around me. And they have been very supportive. They keep me going. What was the previous year (2020) like for you as a creative? And what has been your biggest challenge as a Nigerian writer so far? Last year was nice: I got into a few of my dream mags, won a couple of awards, was a finalist for others. I published a microchap, started work on my full-length poetry collection. I also curated an anthology. The biggest challenge to being a Nigerian writer is the fact that there is no structure for you and your dream. Thank God for what creatives like Ebenezer Agu, Itiola Jones, Adedayo Agarau, Otosirieze Obi-Young, Pamilerin Jacob, and many others are doing for the literary culture in the country, and on the continent. Please let us in on writing projects you're currently working on. Should we be expecting something huge this year? I don't have anything huge coming, at least for now. I am just doing little things that matter. I should start work on a chapbook; I just finished work on the first draft of my full-length, I MUST SAY THAT I WANT TO BE TRULY HAPPY. I sent the manuscript out already. I'm waiting for news. Let's hope that it is good. Whatever happens, I'll keep polishing the manuscript, and I'll continue to do the little things that matter. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Thank you, too, for asking.
ERNEST O. ÒGUNYEMI is a staff writer at Open Country Mag . His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Tinderbox, Sierra Nevada Review, Journal Nine, The Indianapolis Review, Down River Road, Capsule Stories, No Tokens, The West Review, The Dark Magazine, Mud Season Review, Isele , and in the anthology 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry III. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology.