“Art is free to be purposeless”

Photo Credit: Chibuihe-Light Obi

“Art is free to be purposeless” – A conversation with JK Anowe, by Chibuihe-Light Obi

JK Anowe is human, a 2015 recipient of the Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence in poetry, University of Benin. His works have appeared in Brittle Paper, Gnarled Oak, Expound Magazine, Poetry Life & Times, African Writer and elsewhere. His chapbook, *a parable for paranoia*, is available for download at Praxis. He lives and writes from somewhere in Nigeria.

Download The IKEMEFUNA Tributaries by JK Anowe

Chibuihe-Light Obi:
When did you decide to become a poet? Are there incidents or events that pushed you to consider going into poetry?

JK Anowe:
I cannot pinpoint a particular time I decided to become a poet. No, there was nothing like that for me. But there were, of course, incidents that triggered poetry, though before these incidents, I had loathed the genre. I found it boring, and excruciatingly so. I was more of a prose person.

Chibuihe-Light Obi:
You said somewhere ” it is not enough to write poems. We should inhabit them, fill them, live them, breathe them…” I find this really intense. Can you expound it a bit further? What does a poem mean to you? How is the birthing process and how much of yourself do you give into making a poem?

JK Anowe: If I were to be sincere, I’d say I didn’t think much of it when I said it. It came randomly, almost as an afterthought; one of those things that comes to mind when you try to redefine a purpose for yourself, to rediscover (& recover) yourself beyond the peripheries of your name (yes, I may believe a name, in its entirety, says a lot about the bearer, that it is a mirror through which one’s nudity could be seen, but I also think that sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes, we ought to make new names for ourselves, even though we could easily detach ourselves from said names).

Thus, a connection, however feeble, ought to exist between poet & poem. The poet being the bearer, & the poem, the name(s) said poet makes for himself, herself. (Sadly [or not], I do not believe anyone is born anything, poets inclusive). Now, it is not a question of purpose (for art is free to be purposeless). It is how willing the poet is to become a part of the experience, the name, the poem, even the purposelessness. Yes, the poem no longer belongs to the poet the minute s/he drops pen but I’m insisting the poet has to become the poem before it can be written. The poem is/ should be the poet’s name, a vessel that mirrors him, her, to the point of nakedness. Now, it is easy to confuse the aforementioned with “every single detail of the poet’s personal life or surroundings must be reflected in his or her oeuvre”, but it is also not difficult to understand they are two different things, for it is one thing to imagine oneself a dog, and another thing to be one. So the birthing process of a piece depends solely on how much of myself I’m willing to put, to transfigure into the experience. Some poems take months to write, others take minutes. Sometimes, I lose my way before I even start, other times I get carried away by the smoothness of the journey and lose my way eventually. It is what it is, & oftentimes, not what it is.

Chibuihe-Light Obi:
It was Jide Balogun who described the poet as a social crusader, and over the ages, poets have come to assume so many roles: as prophets, priests, custodians of history and culture etcetera. How do you view your poetry, where do you fit in into these niches? Your poetry chapbook ” The Ikemefuna Tributaries” is a lamentation for a society trapped in the throes of decay, it is a masterpiece, almost a classic example of the dirge: what does lines like the one below seek to register? How much of our social woes are you out to pursue in your poetry?

we make sail
paddling to dreams
where divided we stand
rocking in typhoons
of yesterday’s fart…

JK Anowe:
You assume that my poetry laments a society trapped in decay. Have you perhaps wondered if it mainly concerns itself with the complexities of The Self? The Self trapped in its own quagmire? In its own rottenness? The Self that, perhaps, does not fit into any of the niches aforementioned?

Chibuihe-Light Obi
Now that’s a very intriguing twist- your use of the society as a metaphor for The Self as against the popular Self-for- society pixel. Does this in a way insinuate narcissism, the obsession with one’s self ( seeing this is happening in the age of selfies. Lol!) Do you really care about roles and niches and the political relevance or say, usefulness of your poems? Do you subscribe to the view that art must attend to the needs of the society else it becomes questionable, losses its relevance?

Download The IKEMEFUNA Tributaries by JK Anowe

JK Anowe
It is not an obligation for art to attend to the needs of the society (like I said earlier, art is free to be purposeless. After all, those who came & went before us delved into the arts to find a voice for themselves, a safe haven. They sought freedom), yet it is necessary. However, I believe that even in its purposelessness, obsession & even narcissism, art still speaks. It never loses its relevance, whether or not it chooses to address The Self, or Society, it ends up doing so anyway. Because they are inseparable; Self & Society. The former is the most basic unit of the latter, though we’ve often been left to wonder if it is The Self that shapes Society or the other way round.

Chibuihe-Light Obi
Can you tell us a bit about Ikemefuna the poet personae in your chapbook. Was he hewn out of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? And, who are the poets, or in a broader sense, the writers that formed you? Do you have role models, poets whose works you follow closely?

JK Anowe:
I was reading Things Fall Apart for the umpteenth time, the scene where Ikemefuna was killed, & it suddenly occured to me how alike we were; Ikemefuna & you, Ikemefuna & me. How we can remain strangers even to the deepest parts of ourselves. When I started writing the first poem (that’d later define the whole series), it targeted the theme of injustice, though not in the conventional or societal sense of it. It was more concerned with the self; the injustices you, me, as individuals, inflict on our “selves”. Ikemefuna was & is many things; love, anger, pain, betrayal, human, deity. Ikemefuna is that part of you you do not see, that part of you you do not feel. Ikemefuna is a lifeline (a mother’s arm that a child reaches for), is as abstract as fingers that try to grasp water. And as for writers who “formed” me, I’d say I’ve none, for they’re are still in the process of forming me. In my early years, when I first started writing poetry, I busied myself with the works of Robert Frost, Achebe & Okigbo. They were my major influences at the time, & even though I’ve been exposed to other writers & their astounding brilliance, I’m still a foetus sprouting in the legacies of those three extraordinary gentlemen (in a league of their own). Over the years I’ve met & interacted with the most fascinating of extraordinary people, who have proven to be both prolific & daring in their administration of the arts. I’ve explored & I’m still exploring the works of ancient & contemporary poets, painters & writers, irrespective of their languages & cultures. I’ve discovered that there is so much I’ve learned & there’s still so much to learn.

Chibuihe-Light Obi:
You’re part of a new crop of writers who are doing a greater part of their work on the internet. What can you say are the impacts of the internet on the style, scope and content of emerging writers? How has the internet influenced poetry and writing in general? Are there benefits of writing in this period of Facebook and blogs and ezine? What are the opportunities opened to aspiring writers, and what are the ways you feel these opportunities could be channeled into literary breakthroughs?

JK Anowe: Yikes! This is a tough one. I dunno if I know much about the internet, but what I do know is this: we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it were not for the internet. JK Anowe would still be a closet-poet if it were not for the internet. So many readers wouldn’t have or wouldn’t have had access to my works if it weren’t for the internet. So I do think the internet – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, E-Magazines & even Instagram – has done a lot to influence the scope, style & even prolificacy of contemporary writers. I’ve often come across people who say online writing, especially Facebook, is no writing at all. And I just laugh in such times, because I imagine it is the sort of thing the crucified Christ saw, or heard, from the cross that warranted Him to tell His Father to forgive them “for they know not what they do”. And yes, there have been benefits, however meager. Especially followership. Anything other than that, I cannot say for sure. It might be shocking to hear but I’m yet to make any monetary gains from poetry, or even writing in general. But I’m proud of, grateful for, my followership, however little it is. And all these, I think, would not have been possible without the internet.

As for the aspiring writers, all I can say is this: do not be scared to put your works out there. Just take this from someone who’s good at being a recluse more than being any other thing. The internet will make you feel naked. So ready yourselves. Don’t bother packing for the cold, but never relent in finding healing, in finding warmth. Write till your fingertips fucking bleed, for it is only he that bleeds, that finds healing.

Chibuihe-Light Obi is a poet,memoirist and creative photography enthusiast. His writings aim to interrogate identity and memory; to probe language and silence; to confront stereotype. His works have been published in places like The Kalahari Review, Expound magazine, Brittle paper, Black boy review and Somewhere else. He is on the BABISHAI NIWE Haiku poetry shortlist and teaches Literature at SMGCS Okigwe.

Download Around This Fire I: responses from 10 poets to JK Anowe’s The Ikemefuna Tributaries, Epistle I: a parable for paranoia.

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