Photo credit Sadia Hassan | Interview by Zoë Brigley
In most cases, the poems are hardly fully made, they come in lines, phrases and flashes.
Yoruba Abecedarian I
Assembled in a field of / browning corn stalks, dozens of soldiers huddled a faulty compass, entranced by their urge to dance to bullet songs. Ẹgùn kíì mu ọjọ́ so l’okùn, not even for the amulets around their wrists, they gawked the sky for floating feathers, because gbangba l’ aṣá tá fún ọmọ akín. hunted, the birds forgo their songs, but in their silence is ritual for the missing. They joined the sides of their palms together, but knew when to keep their eyes open in prayers. Lost in the Gwoza forest, they left me a message. Months after it was sent, I became an eagle nutmegged in currents of strong winds, but ornamented with the scriptures of lost shepherds. Ọgbẹ ọkàn le mú ni fuyé jú òwú tú tú ló pressed into a tent, to hide the soldiers from rain. Regiments of sacred men, waiting for the war to end, sonorously, they sing the praises of their lovers. Ṣugbọn omi àdágún ko le ya àwòrán aláṣọ̀ ala. Thrown inside a cave with a fork to dig up an exit under the tent, water runs against their feet. What a mirror does not shows, yearns to remain wrapped in shadow.
The idea of an abecedarian of Yorùbá really appealed to me. What gave you the impetus to do this?
I have not written many structured poems especially Abecedarian, until the poetry workshop with Aimee Nezhukumatathil. It was a semester long project where she made us write a verse for each alphabet on a weekly basis. It was during the summer of that semester when I was reading the poems I submitted, that the urge kicked in. I had been writing my own poems in Yorùbá and translating a Yorùbá poet into English around that time. So, I decided to write poems with the Yorùbá alphabets instead of the English version I turned in for class. This was important to me, as it is a way of continuously putting one of the languages I grew up speaking on the map. Creating the new form would rally generations of Nigerian poets to learn and match the evolution of the languages of our ancestors. Because of the impacts I envisaged with the project, I did not wait till I was perfect, I began and continue to learn.
I’m intrigued by poems that write in English but insert other languages too. Can this be a form of decolonizing English?
My reflex of writing in Yorùbá or the inclusion of phrases or sentences aligns with Ngugi’s concept of globalectical imagination and the interconnectedness of different spaces and perspectives, and that may be a form of decolonizing English. I am more interested in the preservation of terms and the formulations of new Yorùbá vocabularies through the inclusion in poems that explore contemporary issues and urban dynamism, in the face of war and environmental consciousness.
And what about the decision not to include translations? We have some Welsh-language poets here in Wales who refuse to provide English-language translations sometimes, but I’m intrigued to hear about your thought process behind this.
The decision to not translate the Yorùbá words is partially because I feel there is need to let the form exist in a unique pattern that is true to its origin, without altering the alphabets. We get introduced to different vocabularies which we sought out their meanings, for the desired motivation to fully immerse ourselves in the narrative, this I mean with English words, depending on one’s volition, you can make the choice. The audience are trusted to seek beyond their comfort spaces, meaning of phrases and lines. To preserve the Yorùbá abecedarian, there is need to show how sounds operate through the vowels that is different from the English. This uniqueness of the bilingualism pushes me to keep going, because translations help to hold the door towards an exit that can also be an entrance to appreciating different languages.
Finally I admire your tight use of couplets. Do you write in couplets a lot and what is the appeal of that for you?
I believe I wrote more free verses when I started out but recently, couplets is the most convenient for me because of the independence that may arise from each verse and how that function together with the other parts of the poem. In most cases, the poems are hardly fully made, they come in lines, phrases and flashes. With couplet, I can rely on each line and work on them on per line basis and build upon it, until there is the initial satisfaction of finishing what emerged from a blank page.
Hussain Ahmed is a Nigerian poet and environmentalist. His poems are featured in POETRY, Kenyon Review, Transition Magazine, AGNI and elsewhere. He has an MFA in poetry at the University of Mississippi and currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. He is the
author of a chapbook Harp in a Fireplace (Newfound, 2021) and Soliloquy with the Ghosts in Nile (Black Ocean, 2022).
You can find him on Twitter @Hussyainy and on Instagram also @Hussyainy
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