Canopic Jar editor Rethabile Masilo recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Verissimo, the results of which are transcribed below.
Rethabile Masilo: The title of your first book of poems, ‘I am memory’, invokes different feelings (The chapters are entitled Memory Lane 1, Memory Lane 2, and so on). What memory made you choose this particular title?
Jumoke Verissimo: I think I was suffused with so much emotion at the time I chose the title, I am memory. Actually, it seemed easy to become a totem of several struggles at that time too. This was also because I discovered that in trying to forget, one remembers much more than is necessary. The chapters, Memory Lane 1, Memory Lane 2…came to me as one walking several paths of memory, so, I chose to forget by remembering these things in a way that it turns into a collective pain—like the death of a favourite cousin, anxieties for my country, the misunderstanding of love, the loved and a suffering beloved in love.
RM: There is ample mention of Ajani, ‘the struggle winner’ in your poems. Could you elaborate plainly to whom you were calling out (Ajani, you are kolanut / I taste you / Do I linger on your tongue, too)?
JV: Ajani is a persona that presents the idea of unrequited love. He is an imagination that is just as familiar to anyone. The poem started as a 5-line verse written for a university magazine, and then I added more lines for a crush and later rewrote it to meet the several love stories of unrequited love around me, when I needed to add a new poem to the book, because a large section had to go out. We can say, Ajani, is a persona for representing the perpetual struggle of lovers.
RM: In your opinion, how is poetry in Nigeria faring? Giants have come from or written about Nigeria. What is the situation today?
JV: In recent time, poetry has blossomed immensely in the Nigerian public space. There is some sense of relevance and recognition. Especially, on the performance poetry front. This also means there’s a perpetual ‘battle’ of what is and what isn’t poetry.
The internet has been rather significant too. In response to the several rejections from poetry magazines in other countries, Nigerian online magazines are flourishing too. We have online magazines like, Saraba, Praxis, Brittle Paper etc. making efforts to showcase Nigeria to the world.
Festivals like Lagos Books and Art Festival and Ake Arts and Book Festival have offered a significant presence to poetry. Recently, Lagos International Poetry Festival brought attention to the genre even more. Initiatives like Ibadan Poetry Foundation are offering background efforts to institute the culture of poetry into everyday life.
In all this, I can tell you there’s a positive chaos, and attention. It is what we will do with the gradual attention that the next few years would determine.
“Now those whose lands court the shock of dawn
Become pieces for lands in flight to pawn
The pensive graveyards wearing prose of lights
Or shadows cast on lids of fatigued exiles”
(from ‘Refugee Paradigms I’)
Very strong lines. Do you have any advice for poets who need to express feelings of engagement in social and/or political matters? What should they artistically espouse and what should they artistically shun?
JV: Thanks for your kind words.
I can only say ills of any kind churn my stomach, so when I try to engage social or political matters, I write from the pit of my stomach. I write because the things I see have formed in me words that upset my stomach and I need to spit them out. I let the words flush the pages of the paper, and then arrange them in order, so they can meet the need of someone with a stomach upset from social ills, who can’t find the words to use. Hopefully, my words can always come in handy.
Should I offer an advice to poets, I’ll tell them to go to the pit of their stomach and seek those words that do not settle the stomach.
RM: What makes you tick? Why is working on poems day in and day out important to you? What do you hope to accomplish by it.
JV: I think God placed a right sized fusee in me. And as for why working on poems day in and day out is important to me, I can only say, I have always wondered why poetry chose me. It’s a humbling experience to live each day, measuring emotions in words.
Each time I ask myself the question, what do I hope to accomplish with my poems, I also wonder, what does each birth of a new life seek to accomplish? We live first, and form our own perspective. I desire the same for my poems. I want them to live a full life.
Jumoke Verissimo is the author of I am memory (Dada Books), and the recently published, The Birth of illusion (Fullpoint). For more info please visit JumokeVerissimo.com.