Poetry for Southern California
By Carlye Archibeque
A native of Nigeria, Chris Abani's poetry collections include Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004). David St. John says “Daphne’s Lot reminds us of poetry’s essential force—and constant triumph—in giving voice to the most trying of human circumstances.” Kwame Dawes says the poems in Dog Woman “…reveal a prodigious imagination, which is enlivened by sardonic wit and an inexhaustible capacity for irony and empathy.”
Abani’s novels are Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985) and GraceLand (FSG, 2004/Picador 2005) which was nominated this year as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in the fiction category, winners to be announced at the upcoming Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA at the end of April.
He currently teaches in the MFA Program at Antioch University, Los Angeles and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside. A Middleton Fellow at the University of Southern California, he is the recipient of the 2001 PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the 2001 Prince Claus Award and a 2003 Lannan Literary Fellowship & the 2005 PEN Hemingway Book Prize.
Carlye Archibeque: What kind of people want to interview you?
Chris Abani: Strange people. Like you. (laughs)
CA: What’s the weirdest interview you’ve done?
Abani: It was on the GraceLand tour. I went into the studio and the guy hadn’t read the book. So I came in and sat down. It was a live show and I said to him, “Do you want to talk before?” and he said, “No, no it’s OK.” Then we went on the air and he’s like “So Mr. Abani, Graceland! Elvis! Memphis! Tell me all about it.” And I said, “Well, actually, it takes place in Nigeria.” And then he got angry with me. Another weird interview was one I did in New York. He started arguing with me saying, “After all they did to you, you must hate Nigeria.” And I said, “No, not really.” And he got angry with me.
CA: That wasn’t the answer he wanted. He wanted: “Chris Abani angry Nigerian poet.” You must get a lot of that. I mean what you went through was huge, but…
Abani: It’s not all that I am. Everybody wants to define you by that. You write a book and that’s how they want to sell it. I’m tempted to write a Harlequin Romance and have them try, “Former political prisoner…” or “You have to read this Harlequin Romance by Chris Abani.” (laughs)
CA: How would you sell yourself?
Abani: I wouldn’t. I’d sell my books.
CA: But you have to admit that as a writer, you are the product. It’s hard to separate the selling from the work. People want something they can latch onto. How do you balance it out?
Abani: You don’t, I guess. You never do. It’s something you struggle with all the time. Especially when you come out with a certain kind of book, that has a certain aesthetic. Forget the commodified world. We live in an aesthetic world, particularly in the US which is mono linear. So if you come out with a book of poems that is entirely lyrical, say in a Jack Gilbert sort of way, and then if you try and come out with another type of book that is language poems it’s not accepted.
There is an expectation that you must have “a voice” and “a style” and if you deviate from that before you even enter the market, readers, who we assume you are being commodified for, might have an opinion about you, but also other artists, not just editors, begin to form opinions about you and begin to say things about you that make you less-than if you won’t stick to one voice because it becomes threatening in a way. You’re fluid and fluidity is ambiguous and ambiguity is something, particularly America, can’t deal with.
CA: Love it or hate it you have the background that people expect from a poet: the drama and the trauma of imprisonment. Do you think that kind of a background is necessary in order to write good poetry?
Abani: (laughs) God, no.
CA: What about those of us who have average middle-class lives?
Abani: The art is never about what you write about. The art is about how you write about what you write about. I was a writer before I was in prison. There are a lot of writers who have been in prison and write terrible work, polemic work. And there are a lot of writers in America who have grown up in, for lack of a better word, ghettos, and their work is deplorable, but there is something that compels them into the limelight. I don’t think you can get into a contest around hierarchies of pain and I don’t think that art was ever meant to serve that function.
Artists were essentially shamans or priests or seers in the old days and I think art is still the primary focus of looking for ways to deal with the questions of being human. I think you can do that while meditating in your room. OK so I went to prison, I suffered, but I’m here drinking a three-dollar coffee checking my email on a fancy gadget. The problem is we’re looking for something that doesn’t’ exist. We’re looking for authenticity. There is no such thing as authenticity. There is either good art or bad art. Art is never about its content it’s always about its scaffolding.
CA: What makes the scaffolding?
I think that craft is important. I think that understanding an aesthetic tradition is important. I think that locating yourself within an aesthetic tradition is important. I think even more important is finding a way to subvert the expectations of that aesthetic tradition, which is where all innovation comes from, is very important. Anything beyond that is a question of taste. Taste cannot be used to evaluate art it can only be used to evaluate choice of art: two different things. I might not like something. That does not make it bad art it means I don’t like it.
I was talking about this the other day with some other poets and we were talking about language poets and I was saying how amazing Jorie Graham was and they all came down on me and they said if you’ve had a really bad day or you’re miserable and you’re looking for something to make you feel better would you look to Jorie Graham? As if art was there to comfort us.
Art does comfort us. Some art challenges us, some art alienates us. We’re human and we’re complex and art should be complex. Some of us sit down and chant a Buddhist mantra when we’re depressed and it makes us feel better, that doesn’t make it art. What we do for our soul is different from what we do as artist and yet they are both intertwined. It’s very difficult to separate. I think the biggest problem is that in American there is no philosophical conversation around the making of art. All you find around the making of art are how to books as though we were making macramé or paper Mache.
CA: The general feeling seems to be that since poetry is not a commercial enterprise it has more freedom of expression.
Abani: Actually poetry sells more now than it did 30 years ago. When you think about it, in Frost’s time there was Frost and four other people. Right now on my block there are seven people with books in the book store. Every year, not counting self-published, if you count small press and large presses there are 15,000 books of poetry published every year. That’s a lot. When people go to a poetry reading it’s usually packed and there are readings everywhere. In Frost’s day it was not like that. Poetry came largely in anthologies and what was taught in schools. So part of the thing about it is that modern poets want to have it both ways: they want to pretend they are not part of a market and yet everything they write is geared toward popularity or talking to members of the audience who will say, “I totally get where you’re coming from.” So it is market driven in that way but I think that what happens is that in terms of actual sales there is not as much money to be made from a book of poetry as a novel but only if you have a good novel or a bad novel that sells well like the DaVinci Code.
About people who talk about poetry as having freedom to express, I think, having worked in this field for a long time, I think that what happens is that there is refusal to deal with craft and aesthetic and that’s what’s passed off as freedom of expression. When you think of a jazz musician who is improvising, but has spent 15-years learning all the scales, the chord progressions and the standards, the improvisation is still basically playing off of a theme but using the chords and the progressions that the theme is written in. Improvisation, while it is spontaneous, is spontaneous based on years of discipline and training.
That kind of thing, I think, is confused with bad work. I think people turn to poetry because poetry in America has become owned because people think that poetry is about self expression. I have a pen and paper. I’m not going to spend hours to learn how to draw because that’s hard, so they write poetry.
I used to say to my friends, you go to any party and when people ask you what you do say you are a poet and they’ll tell you, “Oh my aunt writes poetry. I used to write some poetry in high school.” So my new gig now is when I go to parties and people ask me what I do, I say I’m a prophet. And I’m waiting for someone to say, “Oh, I did a bit of prophecy in high school. Remember that earthquake? That was me.” I think you have to draw a line between the notion of someone who is essentially a craftsperson at work in an aesthetic field that is not limited, and someone who is a neophyte at work in a field that has no craft and not confusing those two.
CA: What do you think of the difference between Academy style poetry groups and grassroots style groups? Do you think that the distance the Academy puts between itself and the grassroots movement protects a higher aesthetic? Is the separation good?
Abani: It would be, if it wasn’t motivated by guild ideals. It’s not motivated by aesthetic. It’s basically a bunch of Philistines who have acquired power and consider anyone not like them a Philistine. It’s as bad as anyone who can’t write worth a shit claiming that anyone who can is elitist.
CA: It sounds like two warring factions.
Abani: It is and it’s a difficult thing to get an independent mix of different aesthetic persuasions. If you have a guild as it were, everyone shouldn’t be made up of everyone like say Mark Doty, who I love, but there should also be Brenda Hillman. There should be all kinds of people. Take for example when men do a lot of experimental work they get all kinds of attention but Brenda Hillman, who does the same work, is one of the most overlooked poets in my opinion, and yet she’s probably one of the most brilliant it’s just the world we live in. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but there’s been no real conversation. What happens is an “us and them.” The guild says everyone not the guild is fucked up, and everyone not the guild says the guild is fucked up and then we merrily go on. It’s all ranting within small circles. If someone was to write a book that really challenged the foundation of American poetics with philosophical treaties and said, let’s explore, let’s take five different kinds of poets and compare them: this one has this, and this, and this. Then someone else could take a look at that and write another book that says this is complete rubbish and suddenly you have a dialogue going, but that doesn’t happen.
CA: Do you think “freedom of expression” is often confused with the style of the confessional poets?
Abani: They were struggling with something. This was them struggling and that’s different from people merrily strolling along a road that somebody has already charted. There’s no risk in that for you. If there’s nothing at risk for you, it cannot be art. There has to be something at risk: shame, fear.
CA: What did you risk in something like, say, Daphne’s Lot?
Abani: Alienating my mother. That my whole family might be angry that I was putting the story out in public, that other Nigerians would be upset in the way I positioned our country. There’s always a risk. The risk has tangible, in fact often emotional, ends you are sent to. Your name can be drug through the mud in public and private places. People can take things you said and twist them out of context. Also, in Daphne’s Lot, I’m trying to deal with entering my mother’s consciousness, not mine. That’s a big risk for a son to do that. One of the poems is a love poem my mother is writing to an imaginary man which means I have to see my mother as a sexual being. And yet not want to have sex with her and yet not want to go, ew. (laughs)
CA: Both Daphne’s Lot and Dog Woman are from the perspective of women: your mother and a ghost. It’s interesting that even though it seems you would have more than enough from your own life to draw from, you do so much work in the persona vein rather than talking about your own life.
Abani: Because with “you,” writing about your own personal experience is always suspect. How do you trust yourself how do you not glamorize yourself? How do you not de-glamorize yourself as a way to glamorize yourself? How do you gain any distance? All those personals…the difference is that I pour myself into these personas. All the women, these poems are clearly arranged to show this is me doing this or this is where the persona comes in. That’s where the risk is for me I am owning the complication. If I’m going to speak about you then I have to own all my shit about you. That’s much harder than to say, I’m going to write about Carlye or “Carlye, this is who I am.” What’s the real risk? Other people have pulled it off but I honestly don’t’ think I can. I will completely, unfairly, beat myself up, which is another form of masturbation.
I have a lot of middle class kids come up to me after a reading or after I teach. They come up and say they feel so guilty about their lives and I say, what’s your guilt worth to anyone? It’s not worth anything to you. It’s not worth anything to me. It’s not worth anything to the guy who works in Compton. If you own your guilt then you don’t risk anything. Like the new male poets who say, “men are such bastards, we are such bastards, women should hate us.” And they use that as a way to get in to bed with a female poet. Instead of saying, “this is what I am, I am confused about myself, but I am still a man. I don’t like it.”
If there’s no real question, there’s no real risk.
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