Diana Mullins interviews Ernest Ogunyemi
“When I wrote these poems, I was clinking cup with my past and nodding at the future.”
“Psalm in Praise of Wanting” and “Amen” speak to an aspiring, a longing to live a life the young speaker dreams of, to make the impossible possible. The fear of becoming a “catalog of impossibles” is so compelling. Are these thematic expressions rooted in your life experiences?
I have a phobia for the future. I think: What if my dreams don’t come true? What if something happens tomorrow and my life takes a certain turn, one that will leave me wrecked, like a tiny ship hit by a storm? What if, what if, what if? But don’t we all? That fear, passing through my subconscious, found its way into these poems.
All my fears are not about the future—they are also rooted in my life experiences. I am twenty, but my life has taken so many wrong turns that it would be quite impossible for me to not fear. Seven days to my twelfth year birthday, my mom passed. A few months later, my grandma chased me away. I came to Lagos to meet my dad. At some point, my dad too traveled, left me with his sister. Then my aunt moved. So I kept moving from place to place, from experience to experience, from song to song. I have realized that everything is temporal, that time does to us what we don’t expect.
When I wrote these poems, I was clinking cup with my past and nodding at the future.
The “longing” in “Ode to Grief” seems to be of a different sort, one seeking solace and direction from a sacred spiritual source. The second to the last line is a phrase in the Yoruba language, “orisha ta o le ba binu,” and is followed by a powerful question to end the poem, “what ritual do you require?” Can you say more about why you end the poem with these two lines?
Like I mentioned earlier, I lost my mother early, and that grief permeates my work. In “Ode to Grief”, I wanted to deify grief, so I could at least appease him or seek his mercy. (“Orisha ta o le ba binu” means “Deity that we cannot be angry at.”) In the Yorúbà worldview, to appease a deity, you make a ritual. I want so badly for grief to be tender with me, I don’t want to always long for the hands of my mother. In this poem, it was my broken will asking grief to tell me what he wants for a ritual.
I chose to end the poem on those two lines because they punch. And because even if grief replies I won’t hear him, which is why I decided to end with that question. The poem would be turned into something else if I added more lines.
In “Lamentation” the speaker is directly addressing a divine power, “o Lord of subtractions,” who has “wild hands” that have been cruel. However, in “Psalm in Praise of Wanting,” the speaker asks, “Lord, fill me up with goodness,” and the reader finds a cautious speaker who believes that “goodness,” “magic,” and “mercy,” are possible. Do these poems reveal your own spiritual journey, or were you reflecting on wider cultural and religious issues?
I like the words “reveal” and “reflect.”
Yes, the poems reveal my own spiritual journey. (Is that not what every good poem does, revealing the poet?) A certain uncle preached at me when I came to Lagos, and I found Christianity very interesting. But then I began to ask questions, to prod the beliefs I held. Years after my mother’s death, the wound began to ache again, and I believe(d) that it was God’s doing. He was the one who carved that wound. In “Lamentations” I was addressing Him, pointing a finger in His eyes: “what have you not taken, Lord?”
Because I believe that there is a Force, a Divine Being behind everything that happens in the world, I believe in “goodness”, “magic”, and “mercy”. (I have a story titled “Mercy” about a young preacher who prays for a dead boy to be raised.) I believe that, somehow-somehow, God is good, though He can also be cruel. I believe that falling in love is something like magic. And I believe that God, in His abundance, can show me mercy.
So the “cautious speaker,” without betraying the poem, reveals my personality and my complicated relationship with God. Does it reflect on “wider cultural and religious issues?” Maybe. Did I intend to do that with the poem? No.
The theme of music appears in beautifully evocative phrases: “make of my life a gorgeous song,” “you lay dreams on dreams like a wonderful lyricist,” and “plucked bones, each a bad flute.” Are you a musician? How does music inform your writing?
Thank you for describing my lines as “beautifully evocative.” For a while I was a rapper. Then I began to sing in church. Music means a lot to me. All music. The bird singing on the line. The voice of Diamond Jimma. The lines of James Longenbach. And I believe every poem aspires to a certain kind of musicality.
Most times, I listen to music while writing. In fact, sometimes I play a piano song by Yiruma or Jorge Mendez, or a sonata by Beethoven. I try to transcribe the emotions that well up inside me, the mood that the music creates. It is so amazing, because the transcriptions are always so gorgeous and raw.
(I’m listening to Diamond Jimma as I write this.)
What is your favorite stanza in these four poems, and why?
I love every stanza in these poems! It’s so hard to choose a single one, but I’ll go for this:
I fear that the rain will fall & the sun will rise & the moon
& the stars will take the stage of the night & my life won’t
change. like you, I do not want to be a catalog of impossibles:
I love this stanza because it really captures my fear— fear that my life won’t change. But I also like the music. And the way it acknowledges that other people also carry this kind of fear. I mean, who wants to be “a catalog of impossibles?”
You are the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology. Please share some of your experiences, inspirations, and/or discoveries working on this project.
I really enjoyed curating this anthology, and it means a lot to me. It dropped almost a week after I made my second suicide attempt, at a time when bipolar was killing me. I was in a car going to the hospital when it dropped. A lot of people interacted with it, and though I was emotionally numb at that moment, I took pride in knowing that an idea I had in the corner of my head in my room in Abeokuta had fully grown. It was out in the world and people liked it.
Working on that project, I found favour in the eyes of people – Otosirieze Obi-Young, Itiola Jones, Nome Emeka Patrick, Pamilerin Jacob, Ojo Taiye, and many others. The anthology includes works from teenagers who live on the continent, and those in the diaspora who are of African descent. Being able to bring their works together in a single anthology is something that still fills me with joy.
From working on the anthology, I came to realize that young Africans are writing, and are writing well. What we need is more spaces for them.
You are on the editorial board at Palette Poetry, the Masters Review, and Counterclock Journal. How does this editorial work impact your own writing and vice versa?
Reading for journals opens the eyes. You see that people are really writing. You see an eclectic array of writing styles. And you become very critical. These things reflect in how I write now. I have voted no on some poems and stories. When I write, I look at my work and ask (not really consciously) if this poem or story will be good enough for a second read? Will the editor be compelled to read it a second time— either just for the beauty of its music, or for its images and metaphors, or perhaps only for the way it looks on the page?
What are your writing goals or works-in-progress? Do these four poems resonate with your current work?
Right now, I’m writing bad short stories and experimenting with poems. I’m reading craft books and interesting literature. I just finished working on a collection of poems; these four poems feature in it. It’s titled “I MUST SAY THAT I WANT TO BE TRULY HAPPY.” The title comes from a poem by Chinua-Ezenwa Ohaetocalled “I Set Up a Table and Have a Dinner with Pa.” I feel like the manuscript is a toddler, it cannot walk well or run yet, but I sent it out already. I hope to hear back from the editors and then start reworking it. I have sent it to some of my writer-friends, too.
Please share any longer-term writing goals or other creative aspirations.
I want to get an MFA, but I’m not even in the university yet for my undergrad. But it’s a long-term goal, so.