We conversed with D.M Aderibigbe, (winner of the 2018 Brittingham prize for poetry) over a period of about two hours. The striking thing about him is his affable and unassuming air. At some point he turned to jokes, even infusing the Nigerian pidgin and Yoruba in his speech, at some other, he had to excuse himself to take a medication for an allergy. Also, he had to be on the road (readings) the next day, so getting him to commit was trouble enough. But he did, and in fine style.
SRL: I’d start by congratulating you on your publication, prize, and commencement of your doctorate. How does your accomplishments, or should I say strides, affect you as a poet? Does it end at the feeling of triumph, a feeling which I think most prize winners would have, or does it feel like a burden, a pressured call to responsibility?
D.M: Thank you for this. I will start by saying it feels more like a call to responsibility. Before now, I had never really felt like a poet despite having published in prestigious journals. Despite having attended one of the top MFA programs on a full scholarship. Perhaps, this also had a lot to do with the fact that I had never really thought I could write what people would consider “poetry”, or “necessary”, (laughs). But all of that changed with this book prize. More than the validation, it came with a sort of light which revealed to me that the stories I am writing about, indeed have homes in people’s minds. And that my lines and stanzas are indeed “poetry.”
SRL: That’s illuminating. As Nigerians, we were weaned off a generation of really tough poet. Poets whom not only leaned towards the visceral but the cerebral. I recall your saying you read those poets. Like Soyinka, Okigbo. I see your poems mostly lean mostly to the visceral. Your language is accessible. For someone perhaps influenced by such hard poets, would you say your style was a direct rejection of that manner of writing, or you naturally leaned towards the way you write now?
D.M: Good question. Well, as an African who writes poetry, I don’t think I can escape Soyinka and Okigbo. (Luaghs). On a more serious note, those were the African poets I had access to early on. I consumed their poetry, but for some reason, I couldn’t write like that. I used to be so frustrated with my poetry during this period, because I really wanted to write the type of poetry Okigbo wrote. There were nights I cried because I couldn’t just find any older African writer who wrote my type of poetry. (If only I found poets like Jack Mapanje and Gabeba Baderoon then, that would have saved me jerry cans of tears.) So, in every way, my poetry isn’t a rejection of Okigbo/Soyinka’s, it’s more like a deviation from their type of poetry—which was the gold standard. (of course, inadvertently.)
SRL: You said in your reading at the Harvard Book Store, that your process is different; that you do not go to the poems, rather they come to you, and that often times when a poem comes to you, it’s often 90% done in your head. While I must say you’re one hell of a fortunate artist on account of your process, I must also ask, does it mean really, that your process (and struggle) of writing is simply getting the remaining 10% and refining them? Or is there more to it?
D.M: Well, I wish that was everything. You know because I wait on the poems to come to me, sometimes they take weeks to come. As a matter of fact, I haven’t written a complete poem in over a month. Yes, it is easy when muse visits, but the real work is how long it takes this muse to visit. Sometimes, I wish I had the discipline to force out poems from their abode. But most times, I can’t even find my way to where they reside. So, I hope the interview wasn’t misleading anyone in any way into thinking that I have it pretty easy. We all have our battles, some are just unique.
SRL: So you’re saying while others’ battle is the writing, yours is the waiting?
D.M: Something like that. But isn’t the waiting also part of the writing process?
SRL: Of course it is. By all means it is.
SRL: Ok. You often draw from the personal. In your book, your mother’s life and death, her sufferings on account of domestic violence. Since most of your poems are autobiographical, do you fear the day you’d run out of things to write? What happens when you write all you can remember?
D.M: While it is true that my book is deeply autobiographical, it draws a whole lot from imagination. I have said this before: while memory is the foundation upon which these stories are built, imagination is what determines the direction of the poem. With that said, the book I am working on right now—while based on true stories—has nothing to do with my life. The themes are really important to me as an African, but that is as personal as it gets. So, everything in this book has nothing to do with memory.
SRL: That’s another illuminating moment. I was almost hoping you wouldn’t take offence at the question.
D.M: (Laughs). It is a legitimate question, you know. When you draw a lot from personal history, this will be a recurring question. I have to get used to it. I am still learning, though.
SRL: Ok. We all are, I guess. (Laughs)
D.M: Of course. That’s what growth is all about.
SRL: The fact that your poems address social issues, it means you take a political stance for and against causes. Would you call your poems political? If not, what would you rather them? Because some people run away from being tagged a political writer. I guess this question would seem like the same notion of outsiders trying to box artists in by categorizing their work. This is not the case. I simply want to know if, for you, it’s OK to be called a political writer.
D.M: As an African, my being alive alone is political. In America where I live, every step I take on any street is a political act. Any day I stop being political, it means, I am ready to die. What I am saying is, I can’t afford to be apolitical in this world that is trying as much as possible to wipe me out. So, every single poem I write is overflowing with politics. I do not need to infuse it. Just by my identity alone, it is political.
SRL: You said that you suck at fiction. To use your words more precisely, the fiction you wrote, you did not like. Is that still the case with fiction? Also, do you still write songs? Because you stated your creative venture with that.
D.M: I still suck at fiction, man. I am trying to see if I can improve on it. But I do have a prose project that I am thinking about right now—nonfiction. No, I haven’t written any songs in years. But if the right offer comes in, bruh, I will definitely go back to it. O sa mo.
D.M: Abi, wetin man go do, na?
SRL: (Laughs). Ori e wa n be. In an interview with several African poets, Gbenga Adeshina talked about his struggle with Editors not understanding his metaphors, because obviously, he politically comes from the periphery; the fringe . Is that also a struggle you have to deal with? Perhaps yes, because E.C Osondu talked about his high context writing since coming to America; making his writing more relatable. Can you kindly talk a little more about this?
D.M: Yes, this is definitely true. I wish people will always put many of these things into context. As a Nigerian, my sensibilities are naturally different. They influence how I use my literary and poetic techniques. Add this to the fact that I didn’t have any English until I was twelve, and many of my (our) poetic/literary inspirations are from the street or things we see rather than what we are taught. These things are different for us. So, when you critique us, always put some of these factors into consideration. Do not use the same lens you use to critique someone who is culturally/linguistically closer to you. That is all I am saying.
SRL: I think it was George Serferis who said in an interview that he feels in the language that he knows. Following that sentiment, I assume you feel in Yoruba and besides poetry as a business is largely hinged on feelings, so: do you write poetry in Yoruba? And do you have plans to have your poems translated to Yoruba?
D.M: Yes, I actually do feel I Yoruba. But when I think poetically, I think in English. You know why? Because all of the texts I read are in English. Unfortunately, I do not write in Yoruba. However, as you might have noticed, I slip a lot of Yoruba words in my poems.
Hopefully, I can work with someone to get my book translated someday very soon. That will be a dream come true!
SRL: Ok. On the translation, perhaps I can work on that. Not me. But someone I think might be capable. I would like to know what your process of editing is like? Because in Alaska Quarterly Review, the third line had the word “splintered” (Which I personally love) but in your book and chapbook you use the word “tore” instead. Any special reason for this? Was this in a bid to sound less grandiloquent?
D.M: As for that particular poem, I changed it so that the line could correspond with the others, syllabically. Like the poem, most of my revision process is driven by form and structure—much more than content. As we pointed out earlier, content is usually 90 per cent done when a poem comes to me. But because I like when the content is in conversation with the structure, the latter usually eats the chunk of my revision time.
SRL: Do you have any fears as pertaining to your craft? And finally, do you have any quirk as a writer. Or engaged in any exercise to help your process? For instance, Joyce Carol Oates is famous for her running.
D.M: I’m not the most confident person when it comes to things about me. However, I try my best to be as hostile to fear as possible. I constantly remind myself that “Dami, Ole se ki ni yiii.” And with God by my side, it doesn’t take me long to expel such unwanted thoughts.
As to the second question, of course. I was asked a similar question in an interview a couple of months ago, and here is what I said: I try to mold my day in a way where I get at least an hour to do something that has nothing to do with literature. That something might be checking out my newsfeed on Facebook, CNN, tweets, Netflix, new and old music videos on YouTube, or sports.
SRL: Thank you for your time, Dami. You have to hit the road, and it would be unfair to continue to eat into your time.
D.M: The pleasure is mine. Thank you.
D.M. Aderibigbe’s first book, How the End First Showed won the 2018 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. He’s received fellowships from The James Merrill House, Banff, OMI International Arts Center, Ucross Foundation, Jentel Foundation and Boston University where he received his MFA in Creative Writing as a BU fellow, and also received a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. Born and raised in Nigeria, he is currently a first year PhD student at Florida State University, Tallahassee.