Poet, Playwiright,Graphic Designer
The premise for Whispermaze, consequently for the love of the word, has always been set on the ability to encompass the latitude, to which the power of expression is able to raise aspirations and namely just for the sheer joy of doing so. Inua Ellams is a poet, playwright and performer, and he encapsulates the very same premise, his first collection of poetry, ‘Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales’ was published by Flipped in 2005, his first play; ‘The 14th Tale’ awarded a Fringe First, ‘Untitled’; long listed for the Alfred Fagan award, along with ‘Candy Coated Unicorn’s, ‘ Converse All Stars’, ‘Black T-Shirt Collection’ , and 'Mostly Like Blue' , to name but a few, and in doing so Inua Ellams remains a cornerstone at the pillar of artistic, and cultural expression. An experienced workshop leader, mentor and writing tutor, a resident writer/poet and performer at the Tate Southbank Centre, a talented Graphic designer and artist, founder of ‘The Midnight Run’ in 2005; an urban, social walking event that draws from the nomadic traditions of his Nigerian tribe: the Hausa people, through to meeting the Queen of England, by appointment. Inua Ellams work transcends times, and breaks down barriers as a member who is of few of his kind.
Who is Inua Ellams?
Poet, Playwright, and Graphic designer.
It’s the cheapest way to be free. It means it’s the easiest way to create, you don’t need other people, necessarily, you don’t need a government body to tell you that what you’ve created is art, you don’t have to study for it, though you can, and I recommend that you do, but you don’t have to, all you really need is a piece of paper and a pen, and even then that’s optional, It’s just the cheapest way to take the world into yourself, and give it back out.
Can you describe the time when you first realised that creating was something you absolutely had to do?
Well, the first time was when I created something and my Father liked it. I was four years old, and I stuck four, A4 pieces of paper together, and planned a City that would be built in Nigeria, in Jos, where I was born, there was swimming pools, football pitches, the ice cream factories and the Coca-Cola factories, because that’s what was important to me as a five year old, and it was split across the middle, the boys would live on one side, and the girls would live on the other side., and That was the first thing I drew, and invented. My Father was so proud that he folded it up, and placed it in his brown leather briefcase, this is an important briefcase, one which he took to work and by him doing that I thought I had penetrated the world of others, I brought them down to my level, I made them respect me, it’s fair to say I’m still trying to make others respect me and in places that haven’t welcomed me yet, places that seem bigger than me. I have this rebellious, nomadic, Nigerian spirit that’s makes me wanna’ go and make people think f**k, and to that using a simple thing as poetry, which is just made up of a language what everybody speaks, to dazzle them with the things people they already possess, to create something out of nothing; which is rooted in hip-hop philosophy as well, that is why poetry is what is for me.
What are you trying to communicate with your art?
When I first came to the UK from Nigeria I was twelve years old, and someone called me a ‘nig-nog’, and it was the first time I realised racism existed, in Nigeria all the other kids were black, and only when somebody explained what ‘nig-nog’ meant, and I understood what racism was I thought wow; ‘you people are stupid’, like nutty, I was confused, because I just couldn’t understand it. My school was so culturally diverse, you had children from Iran, and Egypt, and Iraq, and Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Japan, China, and looking at them what hit me was they looked like the children I grew up with in Nigeria, the eyes were different, the nose was different, the shade of skin wasn’t the same but fundamentally they the same, and that’s what I try to resonate through my work, the understanding that you are not alone, you belong to everybody else. I try to do away with the cobs webs that stop us from knowing each other.
Has your idea of poetry changed since you started writing poetry?
Oh very much so, when I first started, I was just straight up wrote whatever was in my head, it was about a the need to write, rather than stemming the flow or even with understanding what I wrote, and ever since then I started my reading, because I love reading poetry, everything form the old, dead white folks, right up to the current African American poets, or the Indian poets, poets from the Philippines poets… I get so much joy from this, because when you read other poets, and deconstruct their poems and see what they see through their eye, it’s the reason why I write all over again, you understand how amazing the process is, these days, starting a poem I might scratch my head for days, or months before. To give you an example, it took me a year to write one of my poems and that’s what I mean there’s more thought and now, poetry has shifted. The respect I have for poets has shifted, and I never called myself a poet until other poets called me one...
…And what is your definition of a poet?
I think a poet is someone who tries to distil the world into the simplest possible equation to be able to answer a multitude of questions at the same time. I think a poet is a magician, a liar, a fantasist and a thief, I think most poets write because if they don’t, in the end they’ll just end up…exploding, I think a poet is a political entity, because the job of a poet is always to write against society, to work against the crowd against the tide of things, always questioning, also wondering why it is this the way it is, for me they encapsulate a sense of purpose, they are treasurers of insignificant things, they are treasure seekers. At times I feel I don’t stand up to the standards to which I hold poetry, I admit that openly.
Tell me about ‘Midnight Run’, what does it entail?
That is rooted in my background as an immigrant, as city dweller it all started when me and my boy was waiting for the bus and the bus just didn’t come. We got fed up and decided to walk the bus route expecting the bus to turn up, and it didn’t, so we carried on walking, passing places we visited as kids, going down streets, talking about random things, looking at buildings, seeing people, 100 metre sprints into deserted, normally busy roads. We had so much fun walking this route, and I got thinking, I thought there has to be people who’d get a kick out of just doing this, that’s how Midnight Run started, I invited people on a poetry-workshop level to walk a route, experience each other in the urban surroundings, those people passed the experience onto their friends, and those onto their friends and now its spread to other countries. It’s about complete strangers hooking up to walk the city, play games, have great conversations, it’s the most amount of fun I have every year.
Can you speak about the ‘Barbershop Chronicles’, if so what can we expect?
It’s a play I’ve been working on for about three years now. A friend told me about a project, to teach barbers the very basics in counselling, so they would be able to understand how to handle things that might arise from a conversation of mental health nature, and I thought it was the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard, and I wanted to be part of it for various reasons. One, because when we moved to England, money became tight, I started cutting my hair myself, it meant that by the time I was 18 or 19 I had stopped spending time with black men besides from my Father, and to do this project I would have to spend time with other black men. Two, as a poet, as a professional liar and thief, I thought I could steal all the material I heard, because it was amazing material! And three, years before one of my closet friends went through some form of depression, of which he told no one about, and unfortunately he took his own life. The project would give me the opportunity to engage with depression, and how that affects men, and might have affected my friend. Unfortunately, the counselling didn’t happen, but I held onto the idea, and in 2013 I got a pot of money from the National Theatre to research this play called Barbershop Chronicles. As a result I travelled around England experiencing the barbershops culture here, then onto South Africa, Johannesburg, Kenya, Nairobi, Zimbabwe, I went to Accra in Ghana and Lagos in Nigeria, six weeks interviewing barbers and the clients, spending time with them to get an understanding of their place in the world, with their issues and just to see how the Pan African dynamics worked. This play Barber Chronicles touches on so many issues to do with what is it to be a black man, and how from England to Accra, similar conversations are taking place but we’re not aware of it here. I tried to recreate create the global network of African, black masculinity, and to put that in a dramatic context. I finished the seventh draft a couple months ago, and I am now waiting for the theatre to come back to me, to see if they want to put it on.
So, for the immediate future, what’s on the agenda for Inua Ellams?
At the moment I’m working on various plays, simultaneously, also a book of poems, the schedule is busy, which is always a good thing.
Well, thank you for your time, sincerely said it’s been very enlightening in talking to you.