Monthly Archives: January 2011

Ordinary People – Interview with Inua Ellams

This week I interviewed another ‘Ordinary person,’ Inua Ellams. Now, I was tempted to re-name this post ‘A life less ordinary,’ given Inua’s achievements, but on reflection I realised that we are all ordinary people, only some of us do extraordinary things. Inua is one of these people.

I first met Inua back in 2004 when I was a regular on the spoken word circuit myself, and back then he was simply a shy teenager with a love of words. I watched as Inua grew into himself, gradually embracing his star quality and becoming who he is today. If you haven’t heard of Mr Ellams, I suggest you start by reading his poetry collection, ‘Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales,’ which includes one of my favourite poems, ‘The One About God.’ Sample line:

‘…She rocks two jobs, three kids, two cars and gives change to homeless others. She can go from corporate to ghetto
She rocks red stilettos with earth brown badus and has cowry shells laced to her laptop carry case.’

You can also check out Inua’s graphic art on his website where you’ll also find a long list of clients who have worked with Inua either with words or visuals, and a variety of accolades for his work.

Together with Joshua Idehen and Musa Okwonga, Inua has been running Poejazzi, one of the most talked about poetry gigs in London, since 2006. In 2009, he wrote and performed the critically acclaimed one-man play ‘The 14th Tale,’ about his mischief- making life growing up in Nigeria and Dublin before he moved to London. Inua regularly runs poetry workshops and is currently working on a new one-man play amongst other projects. As if all that wasn’t enough (and I’m almost sure I have still managed to leave something out), he’s pretty easy on the eye too. Want to find out more about Inua? Thought you might…

Hi Inua. How are things?

Things are good. I mean, I have my daily hurdles, demons and insecurities, no more than the next person, and increasingly more often these days I stop myself and think – I write for a living  –  and realize I am incredibly lucky. Things could be worse, a whole lot worse if you consider the shape of the world and its extremities; those who are afraid to think, or live in oppressive regimes where to think other than the prescribed mainstream is punishable by death –  and here where I am encouraged to think as ludicrously as I can, write it and have classed as art… things are WELL.

When I first met you, I only knew you as spoken word artist; ‘phaze.’ Your way with words blew me away even then, back when you had less confidence in yourself than you do now. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from then to now….?

I am even less confident now! I look at the 13 Fairy Negro Tales and marvel at the fearlessness of youth, that I sat down and composed such long, sprawling, interlinked, interlaced conceptual set of poems and sustained themes, and that it touched so many people and still continues to. Whatever it is I was smoking then, I wanna smoke some now.

Since then, I have learnt more about writing and more of my position and the historical context in which my work sits – why it works and how it might work better.

Besides that nothing has changed; I wake each morning  and try to turn the images I am struck with into poems. And longer failed poems become plays. Got my heart broken and rebuilt a few times, have become the man I hoped to be in a few ways and am still growing, trying to make him better.

As I mentioned, I knew you only as a spoken word artist at first and later that learned that you are also a graphic artist. Are there any other ways in which you create that people may not be aware of?

I have talked about it in the past, but I wanted to be a visual artist when I was a kid. All the years spent painting, drawing, sketching etc meant that I had collected a chest of images and a lot of the time, I ‘see’ poems before I write them. I am usually first struck by images, I slap narrative after idea after philosophy till something sticks, chase it down a page and see what comes out the other end.

What’s your preferred creative channel?

I do not have one… some ideas are better communicated through certain creative channels. However, I begin by attempting to write a poem.

What or who inspires you to create?

When I lived in Dublin, I had a close friend called Stephen Devine who was argumentative as I was. We would sit and battle about the most insignificant things, our interactions thrived on language and we excelled in English lessons. One summer, Stephen committed suicide. I arrived after the school holidays to find the person I was most alive with, I was most expressive with, was no longer there. I started writing to keep that part of myself alive; to keep arguing with the world… That was the first ‘need’ to write.

Why I continue to write, why I am inspired to, is a reoccurring theme. During my first month in London after leaving Nigeria in ’96, I began to study my friends. Not just how I interacted with them, but how they faces moved when they spoke, when they laughed, the shape of their mouths, how their eyes flicked from side to side etc. In doing so, I reached the conclusion that they only differed from my Nigerian friends in accent.

When I moved to Dublin, the same series of incidents occurred where I’d find my old friends alive and kicking in new friends.

A more significant thing happened one afternoon speaking with a old friend on a phone after a few years without contact. I realized something we all go through at some point in youth – that his life had carried on with out me. He’d fought, dated, loved etc… things that I had done, that I continued to, he had done so without my being integral to his life. As I sat on the bus, listening to him, I considered that everyone on the bus had lives similar to mine that of which I was completely unaware of, and as the bus descended into the sprawling city of Dublin, thousands of people walking laughing etc, It blew my 15 year old mind to consider they had lives as complicated, insignificant, lush, petty, trivial and at the same devastatingly important as I thought mine to be, all occurring at the same time as mine, without my knowing.

After swallowing such a pill, I considered that a lot of the problems in the world stem from a belief in ‘the other’; that someone is somehow ‘different’ from you. In my work, I try to join, to unify, to reflect, to show we are fundamentally all the same.

Finally, what would you say your values are?

My values I can reduce to something Lord Polonius said to Laertes his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘This above else: to thine own self be true.’