No Fixed Points: Inua Ellams talks to Reviews Editor Dai George

DG: How are you? What’s life like where you are, at the time of writing?

IE: I’m okay, I’m alright. Life for me at the moment oscillates between intense mundanity, intense emotional distress, absolute boredom, craving human touch and attention and running away when it comes. I’m in lockdown in the middle of south London and writing is almost impossible at the moment. I can’t concentrate, I can’t write about the war we are in, because we’re in the middle of the war and there isn’t any clear way out. Also, the war is deadlier if you’re a person of colour, if you are a Black person, and if you work in the creative industries particularly.

DG: What poetry has been seeing you through these difficult times? 

IE: Poetry has always seen me through difficult times. It’s always given me a framework with which to think, to reduce the world outside, to digest it and perhaps to control it. But writing poetry has failed for me because I’m not sure what it is we are trying to control, and the forces are beyond us, and the language with which to attempt to pin it down evolves constantly. There are no fixed points. I’ve always thought of writing poetry as an attempt to pin down the ocean. It feels even more impossible now because we don’t know what the pin is made of, and the ocean is entirely corrosive and possibly airborne.

DG: For those who don’t know yet, we should mention that there’s a clear constraint or organising principle running through your new book, The Actual – namely, that all the titles take the form of ‘Fuck [x]’ (e.g. ‘Fuck Time’, ‘Fuck Drums’). Could you talk a bit about how that structure emerged, and what you’re up to with it?

IE: About two years ago, after another incendiary tweet, I got angry. I was running between meetings and just started ranting about the American president. I wrote what I felt functioned more like a join-the-dot picture, like a collage of the various nicknames the world had coughed up for Donald Trump, and called it ‘Fuck Donald Trump’. I thought it was a little too on the nose so I called it ‘Fuck #45’ and I shared it at an open mic event in east London. I got such a warm response from the audience that when a friend dared me to write more poems like that, I accepted the dare. I wanted to expand the energy of that first poem, so began branching out its ideas, the socio-political yet personal notes it rang. I tried not to censor myself, to go towards the ‘angry-black-man’ stereotype and see how much I could undermine, highlight, celebrate and bring nuance to it. 

DG: The Fuck formula (if we can call it that!) obviously gives this book a vital momentum of anger and critique, but often that energy flips into tenderness and pity. In a poem like ‘Fuck Humanity’, for instance, the anger short-circuits when a character called Ellie ‘pushes her three-year-old hand into the calloused cave of mine’, and the closing poem ‘Fuck You’ becomes an unabashed metaphysical love poem. How does that emotional spectrum work across the book, in your view?

IE: I don’t fully know. I haven’t tried to map this through the book, and wasn’t fully aware as the collection was coming together. I just wrote as I felt and let the notion of the poem guide me to itself. They flowered organically. Anger was often the spark, but in the mediation required to fully realise the poem, to guide the spark home, something parental, paternal, in me would rise and these would be the emotional turning points and the settling of the poems.

DG: Is it fair to say that toxic masculinity is one of the objects of critique? It seemed to ripple beneath the surface – the ‘foolish machismo’ that so many men aspire to (in the words of ‘Fuck The Joker’), but also the particular, racist pressures that Black men face in Britain.

IE: Definitely – I actively challenge, critique and seek to undermine toxic masculinity wherever and whenever I can. It is singularly the most destructive expression of the gender constructs that govern our world. I do silly little things, from going out of my way to compliment men on their clothing, look and style, to writing book-length epic poems like The Half God of Rainfall. I am hyper aware of the privilege I have in being able to exist in the poetry world, in this space that demands, welcomes and applauds emotional connection. A lot of men, and a lot of Black men in particular, do not enjoy the privilege of such spaces. And because I am in a position of power and I have a platform, it is my responsibility to address it and, in doing so, to inspire in the men who are drawn to my work a deeper conversation with themselves; about who and how they are.

DG: It would be remiss not to mention that this book interrogates police brutality, and the ‘skittish fingers’ of law enforcement that endanger Black lives across the world (‘Fuck The Mandela Effect’). How did you manage the burden of writing about this subject, especially at a time when it was becoming a front-page concern in the media? 

IE: ‘Fuck The Mandela Effect was written about a year ago. After George Floyd’s passing, a friend asked if I had a poem in response to police brutality. I sent her that and ‘Fuck SympathyShe thought I had written them specially for George Floyd. I explained to her that the circumstances of his death weren’t new to Black people. We had seen many of us killed like this. We had been seeing it for years, in the US, across the world, and here in the UK. We had been digesting these images and imbibing the trauma of it for decades. Writing it wasn’t a burden. Writing it was a release, an exorcism of the demons of racism and white supremacy. When George Floyd died, I shut down emotionally. It was too much, too blatant, too raw. Whereas I had tried to be nuanced, to be lithe and mellifluous with these poems, his killer didn’t give a fuck. In many ways, I feel like I have failed George Floyd. I am yet to write something that captures such treacherous, state-sponsored, careful and exact violence. I’m not sure I have it in me to do so. 

DG: Could we talk about form? Each poem is constructed out of justified blocks of text, but with internal slash marks offering types of pressure, release, and transition in the syntax, almost in the manner of line breaks. Was this interplay between fixity and fluidity important to the project?

IE: Yup, it was viscerally important to project. I wanted to find a way to write freely, to open the tap and let what wanted to gush out, gush out. I was also writing on my iPhone, on a project management app I use called Things – all the poems were written in it, between meetings, hiking through cities, travelling incessantly… I couldn’t stop, and didn’t want to stop these poems and worry about line breaks and stanzas. I wanted them to come as they came to me, then think later about the reader and use the slash marks to guide them through the poems. The slashes operate as line breaks, but also as quotation marks, commas, bullet points, breaths, caesura and scene changes. The final poem I wrote was ‘Fuck Batman’, about the pandemic. I wrote it during lockdown and it was by far the most difficult to write. I was stationary, fixed, and could not be fluid. 

DG: Would it be fair to think of these as prose poems?

IE: I think so – I think they occupy some of the spaces that prose poems do. But I also believe if some were taken out of the block-text form, if the slashes were replaced with actual line breaks, they’d function just as well. Two or three of the poems were written for other projects and had other more traditional-poetic incarnations before taking on this form. But to be honest, and to excuse the pun here, I don’t give a fuck. There are 55 poems in the collection, and these are all the fucks I do have to give.

DG: The Actual comes hot on the heels of two very successful plays you’ve written (The Barber Shop Chronicles and Three Sisters, both premiered at the National Theatre). How do you approach writing poetry as opposed to drama? Are there overlaps? I was wondering in particular whether ‘Fuck Carrots’ grew out of your experience writing The Barber Shop Chronicles.

IE: ‘Fuck Carrots is a resetting of a conversation I had in a barber shop in Nairobi when I was researching Barber Shop Chroniclesand all the four ‘Found Poems’ in The Actual, are actually monologues from the play. They have a rhythm, structure and narrative logic that allowed them to function as floating islands within the large text of the play. ‘Fuck Nigeria’ and ‘Fuck Swamps were written as I was writing Three Sisters, all of which is to say, yes, there are overlaps between poetry and drama. All my plays are failed poems and all my plays begin as attempts to realise a topic or subject matter in verse… but what tends to happen is, as I dig deeper, as I explore and research, the poem splits into a pair, into linked conversations, into people, into narrative, and eventually into scene and act. The idea tells me when it wants to be a poem. It doesn’t grow legs, and it will threaten to go should I not honour its brief consideration of myself, as its conduit. 

DG: How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic will change poetry, for good or ill?

IE: If I knew any answer to this question, I would know how to begin to write poetry about this. In one of my favourite albums, the hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) is asked what he thinks will happen with hip-hop, where is hip-hop going. Mos Def responds, hip-hop isn’t some giant in the hills, hiding amongst the mountains, hip-hop is us; so the question to ask is, where are we going? What’s going to happen to us? A similar answer holds within its embrace the question of whether poetry will change. Will we change? Will we change for good or for ill? And the way things are going, the political shifts in the world right now… I just don’t know.

DG: What hopes do you have for the near future?

IE: Most of all, I hope we just slow the fuck down. The world is getting too hot. We have been accelerating, living beyond our means, stretching our arms further than our bones allowed, burning too quickly, and all the narratives of ‘getting back to normal’ suggest that our leaders and politicians, all led by capitalism and imperialism, just want to return to all of that chaos. If that happens, if we let that happen, we are doomed. I don’t mean to sound fatalistic but the signs were there and our leaders ignored all of them.

DG: In ‘Fuck Empire’, a longer sequence towards the end of the collection, I was struck by how timely one of the recurring phrases felt. In reconstructing various abuses of the British Empire, from China to Benin, you admire indigenous leaders ‘for preferring the health of [their] people’ over British wealth. Health versus wealth has become a newly urgent debate in light of the pandemic, so I’m just wondering whether this uncovers a type of logic linking imperialism and capitalism through the ages. Why are we always forced to choose?

IE: We are forced to choose because we live in a hyper-capitalist environment where exponential growth is the yard stick by which our government measure our worth. This is toxic capitalism. Exponential growth means exponential profit, which necessitates exploitation. If a system requires you to do your neighbour in, not to ‘be your brother’s keeper’ in order to get ahead, it can only breed envy and greed, toxic competition, toxic masculinity, sexism and subsequently mental health problems and the need for escapism through substance abuse and more… none of that is good. What is sacrificed is our collective health. All of this is fucked. 

DG: Give us a favourite line, a quote or a joke to fortify our spirits.

IE: ‘There are more stars in the sky than there are salt crystals on drive-through fries’ – I love how the writer compares something so vast, so numerous to something so small and insignificant, as salt on chips… I can’t remember the writer or the poem unfortunately.

Born in Nigeria, Inua Ellams is an award winning poet, playwright and founder of the Midnight Run. His books are published by Flipped EyeAkashicNine Arches and Oberon, and The Actual is forthcoming from Penned in the Margins.