I want to engage readers in more relaxed, introspective manner –
Barth Akpah's debut poetry collection, Land of Tales, made a sublime announcement in Nigerian literature that made many took notice of his talent. He has followed it up with a new collection, How Does the Rain Sound? Barth Akpah, who currently teaches at William V. S. Tubman, University, Harper, Liberia, spoke to The Sun Literary Review on his new work, offering us insights into what excites his curiousity, his poetic departures and cross-cultural experiences.
In your debut collection, Land of Tales, there was a surfeit of concrete poetry, which you have limited in your new collection, How Does the Rain Sound? What accounts for the change?
Well, several factors accounted for the style which you framed as concrete. One of such is the visual connection of the audience to my poetry. My mission is to emphasize the major concerns addressed in the collection via visual appeal. Also, it was an experiment I longed to see how artistic manipulation of space can offer visual impressions as a catalyst for meaning. Between the time most of the poems in Land of Tales were composed and their maturation for the public, the impulse for the messages in the poem ferried across the audience via typefaces by deliberate design was ineluctable. In How Does the Rain Sound? you can still find a few of such poems that are concrete. And again, the choice of style regarding concrete poetry can better be explained by the instinct of the mind and the fact that not every poem and its meaning is best delivered by the physicality of design.
You have been compared to Chris Okigbo. Tanure Ojaide, Gabriel Okara, and Wole Soyinka in terms of the fecundity of imagination, how does that make you feel?
I do not see myself now in the league of those bards whose poetry and intellectual productivity traverse Africa and beyond. That said, I feel honored by those who think I deserve a mention among them. I also feel good that many Nigerian young writers are measuring greatly in terms of the technicality of writing poetry as seen in the iconic Nigerian poets. I think our forebears – Chris Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, J.P Clark, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Angela Miri, Maria Ajima, Odia Ofeimun, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Remi Raji, Tade Ipadeola, Mabel Evwierhoma, Nelson Fashina, and such others should be happy that the poetry flame in Nigeria is sustained by emerging Nigerian poets.
As one of Nigeria's fast-rising poets, how did you wrestle with the anxiety of influence?
One cannot dismiss the truth in Harold Bloom's monograph concerning the “anxiety of influence” among young poets. We must note though that there is an imitative element even in the creation of man. Poets whether old or new can hardly deny an unconscious degree of influence by their precursors. However, the anxiety of influence which bothers on originality is not limited to poets alone. We all, irrespective of our callings, aspire to assert our uniqueness. For me, I strive to uphold the culture of writing in line with personal influence and experience which may be the disconnect in social norms and the struggle for sanity and how all these connect with readers easily. Remember that no two individuals are the same. Of course, by appearance, we have identical twins but in behavioural dispositions including thinking and writing, they surely differ. So, I write bearing in mind that my personality differs in some ways. This is not to underestimate the unconscious elements of influence so long it is not deliberate. The forebears deserve their accolades for their influence, but every aspiring poet must carry in their writing an identity that is uniquely theirs without the pressure of fame.
The title of your book, How Does the Rain Sound? instantly elicits opposite significations before one even begins to read the book –the beauty of nature and the disrupted influence of rain. So how does the rain sound to you here?
You are right about the opposite or dual significations of interpretation ascribed to rain as suggested in the title of the collection. In many cultures, rain represents rebirth, wealth, abundance, fortune, and the like. In this case, the positive inclination of rain resonates. However, in the context of the collection, the rain embodies the irritations, the anxieties which confront or threaten our existence. Life is sacrosanct but many times, it is fuddled with challenges. Remember the quandary of the Covid-19 pandemic; it is a kind of “rain” that brought death to many across the globe. Besides covid, the defective policies and anomalies which affect the economic status and psycho-social beings of the postcolonial subject can also be seen as “rain”. Within that frame, the rain sounds very weird and destructive. This is not to foreclose the possible interpretations of rain which may be different from what I said here. And that's why the question of how the rain sounds in the title leaves the reader to meditate and offer some sort of explanation based on the angle of their experience.
The “When Cupid Calls” section teems with love poems, how has getting married recently shaped your love verses?
(Laughs). Well, not much has changed and I do not think much would change anytime soon. My poems on love still bear testimony to some experiences I encountered before I embraced the sanctum of marriage. These experiences may not necessarily be mine personally. I must, however, admit that a couple of those poems reflect a switch to my heartstring now that I'm married. But, generally, my poems on love, like other poems in the collection stimulate the usual life encounters with love by average individuals in society.
You have been teaching and residing in Liberia for a couple of years now, but your poems still pay witness to Nigeria and Nigerians, what's your idea of home vis-a-vis your bardic exploration?
It is difficult to extricate myself and my writings from the temperaments of nationhood as a Nigerian. Since my arrival in Liberia, like most diasporic writers, the avalanche of happenings back home continues to stir emotions and lines of thought as seen in some of the poems. Though we lament the country's failings because of malfeasance in public governance, the patriotic quest for good governance, distance notwithstanding is what I crave. This is necessary because many of my family members still reside in Nigeria. Also, the encumbrances of living abroad have psychological weight on those of us in foreign lands. I must acknowledge that I've met very warmly, beautiful souls that made my world better in Liberia. But the nostalgic feeling is always there and that is why we are still interested in the sanity of Nigeria. So “home”, especially for those whose umbilical cords are buried in their ancestral land, is where you find that spiritual bond that protects the sacredness of existence but more importantly, that ideal setting where you connect with the good people of the world and the positivity of harmony with your root and the psychology of being.
In “Match Day Tears”, “October 1”, “SARS”, etc, you are miffed with the concept of change and the paradox of politics. Tell us more about the circumstances surrounding these poems.
I'm careful not to interpret my own poems but I will say the frightening and bewailing tone which characterizes governance in Nigeria informs the socio-political conditions surrounding the poems. How many Nigerians go to bed in a more relaxed atmosphere when the anger of the street lurks? There is a dire need for the perspicacity of leadership in Africa. But what did we see? As you said, the concept of change and the paradox of politics are irritations that are evident in the poems. The continuous anguish and alienation of the Nigerian masses evident in #ENDSARS protests, tribalism, insecurity, and lack of unity are some of the vexed issues foregrounded in the poems.
Prose poems and conversational poems are prominent in this collection, what are you trying to do with this?
It is simple. I want to engage readers in a more relaxed and introspective manner. It's like let's have a conversation over a story in poetry without sacrificing signs, symbols, feelings, sound, and other poetic vibes. Every poem or piece of art has an embedded story, and every story should be animated at a level of conversation. I feel that inviting lovers of prose and drama genres into poetry can be achieved, and I think that was done in the collection with poetry as the chief in command.
International themes feature in these poems, such as “The world begs for the tender eggs”, “Entognath Bug”, etc. How do external convulsions affect a poet like you?
Writers capture the complexities of every society. With the hindsight of glocalization and how connected we have become within and across borders, external paroxysms affect not just me as a poet but all. For instance, the raging war between Russia and Ukraine as portrayed in “The World Begs for the Tender Eggs” affects the global economy. The hazards associated with the war are already taking their toll on the global economy, energy, food crisis, security, and alignments of interests. A lot of Africans, especially those who are there for study or greener pastures in distressed countries, are directly affected. It is my responsibility like any other writer to capture the apprehensions of those troubled by the war whether they are related to me or not. That is why the subject matters of international politics between U. S and Iraq, between Palestine and Israel, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, racism in the West, and even among us as Africans have their fair presence in the collection.
You described Covid-19 as a “new god”. This is curious. What's the thinking behind this poem?
Of course, how best can one describe a virus that redefined and threatened our existence, mode of worship, greetings, feeding, transportation, health conditions, sport, and with impudence brought death to our doorsteps? Indeed, it was “a new god” whose staggering presence sent jitters across the world!
How related are you to Harry Garuba, concerning your poem on him?
Harry Guruba was a true definition of a living legend. Though he is gone, his memory sits deeply in our hearts. I did not have a personal encounter with him but as a student of the Department of English at the University of Ibadan, I have learned from those who drank deep from Garuba's Pierian spring. Besides, his poetry and scholarly engagements are classical exemplifications of hard work which many of us aspire. His death during the covid-19 pandemic further heightened a call to immortalize him as a revered colossus in African literature. My poem on him also reawakens the hope and struggle for survival in the wake of darkened clouds imposed by the pugnacious pandemic.
How have you adjusted to life in Liberia? Are we expecting a Liberian collection soon?
I have adjusted calmly after the initial shock of migrating to life elsewhere. My primary concern is to stay focused on the dictates of my duties especially improving and empowering Liberian youths academically, morally, and economically. Liberians are great people, hardworking, and full of life. The management, members of academic and non-academic staff, the Nigerian community in Harper as well as other community members have all played prominent roles in helping me adjust accordingly. As per a Liberian collection, I don't think so because some of the poems even in How Does the Rain Sound? have some of my Liberian experience. Besides, we should begin to think more as global citizens and scholars such that our writings bear testimony to happenings around the world, especially in this digital age where happenings regardless of one's location can be engraved in the annals of poetry.