Inua Ellams: ‘Musical and delicious to the ear’, March 2012

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As part of Waxings blog’s coverage of the Perth Writers’ Festival, I had the opportunity to interview poet Inua Ellams. Here is the feature, as published on Waxings.org, March 2012.

Performance poetry is gradually finding its way out of the grunge-covered back rooms of dark pubs and catching the attention of wider audiences. One of the poets carrying this contemporary artform into the mainstream is Inua Ellams, a Nigerian-born Londoner who recently travelled to Australia to feature at the Perth Writers Festival.

Ellams was invited to the PWF to perform his play The 14th Tale, a one-man show combining poetry, performance, and personal narrative.

I ask Ellams if he had done any theatre before The 14th Tale. “The 14th Tale was my first theatric outing. My first collection of poems was published in about 2009 and I tried to stage the poems with a little bit of banter in between, but it didn’t quite work. There wasn’t a strong narrative, so I scrapped that and wrote The 14th Tale.”

Ellams’ poem-play is autobiographical, following the foibles of his mischievious childhood in Africa, weaving in tales of the men in his family. Ellams describes himself as a born trouble-maker, although he tells me over the phone (and you can actually hear the twinkle in his eye) that now he is making a different kind of trouble.

“Poetry for me walks the line between lyrics and finely, tightly written prose. I think that’s how I try to cause trouble – well, regarding work specifically, that’s how I try to cause trouble. By being aware of the line and walking it and constantly trying to redefine it. That’s one of the ways I cause trouble.”

Walking that line often means not fitting neatly into any one genre. Ellams is an accomplished poet of both the page and the stage but he still feels that he is not quite accepted by either.

“In London, I am often described as a performance poet, sometimes as a spoken word poet, sometimes as a page poet …” Ellams muses. “And sometimes I find that I am marginalised by both groups. There is this line that I seem to walk. And I continually try to further blur the lines, and even at performance poetry sets I just read my page poems. And when I write page poems, I just make them sound as musical and delicious to the ear as songs do.”

Speaking of delicious to the ear – Ellams’s voice is like a song itself. Soft and lyrical. Even when he talks casually, he sounds as if he is riffing on ideas for a new poem. And I think that is exactly the effect this poet is going for. Ellams speaks about poetry with a self-conscious pride, confident in his abilities as a wordsmith. He lacks the self-deprecatory humour that I personally can’t seem to shake off whenever I tell people I write poetry. For Ellams, poetry is not an indulgent activity. It is his craft. And it has held his life together.

Ellams tells me about a close friend of his from Dublin, Stephen Devine. They went to school together as teenagers, and the two boys had a friendship built on a love of language. “He and I would sit down and argue about the colour of the sky. We would just sit there for hours.” Then one summer, Ellams received a phone call telling him that Devine had been found dead, hanging from a beam in his garage. “I guess my world became very destabilised and the part of me that excelled with language, with Stephen, was no longer there. And I started writing to keep that part of myself alive, really.”

Since Ellams often performs his poetry, I enquire as to whether he takes the audience into consideration when writing. A debate that keeps coming up within the performance poetry community is whether a poet compromises their artistic integrity by writing to entertain the audience. Purists say one should perform for their own pleasure only; at the other extreme, entertainers seek only to win over the crowd. Ellams’s philosophy is an elegant compromise. “I always write for myself, of things that complicate me on a personal level. And then I edit it knowing that other people will have to come to this.”

So what does Ellams think of slam poetry, where poets are pitted against each other with only two minutes to please the judges? He hesitates. “I like it and dislike it in an equal sense.”

Ellams illustrates his opinion of slam poetry by telling me the story of a slam where he performed a poem that scored high – “it was the best poem of the night” – but ultimately did not win. “This guy, this huge guy stood up and read this poem about accidentally drinking urine which he found in a bottle of gin. And he got a full 30 points for that.” Ellams laughs incredulously. “I thought, this is never happening to me again.” He hasn’t slammed again since.

Whatever his personal feelings, Ellams is charitable as to the role of slam poetry in our culture. “I do think [slam poetry] has done a lot for the appreciation of poetry. Especially in the West, where we do have this competitive environment which champions oneupmanship and the idea of the individual. So, bringing poetry – which is old and classic and sometimes viewed as a dead past-time – bringing that into the twenty-first century I think has been really afforded and helped greatly by slams.”

Since first performing The 14th Tale in 2009, this already-established poet has written two successive solo shows, the most recent of which is currently touring Britain. Inua Ellams is a rising star of the spoken word scene. There is something about the frankness with which he describes himself and his work that borders on arrogance; there’s a lack of humility. But, as I talk to this charismatic young man, I can’t think of him as arrogant. He is simply focused. Poetry is a very serious craft in which he works hard to achieve a high standard. The Romantics would be nodding in approval. And the fact that Ellams is also crossing mediums to bring poetry to more people – that is just gravy.

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Helpful Men

Transports of Delight

Maybe I’m paranoid. But I don’t like sharing all the details of my journey with strange men on the train. And yet they seem to expect it.

I especially don’t feel like talking when I’m fresh off the plane in Melbourne, and I’m struggling along the train platform with my big red Samsonite that weighs two thirds of me. I despise both the suitcase and myself. Why do I always feel like the ‘expandibility’ zipper is a challenge to shove in more crap? Why did I pack two hairdryers? I have a problem.

So I’m pulling along my obese luggage, yanking it up the platform, and then the train arrives. And here’s the thing I never think about when I’m at home, packing my entire personal library (just in case I get the urge to re-read The Obernewtyn Chronicles again over the next two weeks) – I never think about the gap. The goddamn bloody gap between the platform and the train. It stymies me every time! The last time I went travelling with this suitcase, I was in London, heading to Heathrow. I had to change trains at Clapham Junction. Have you ever been to Clapham Junction? DON’T DO IT. It’s a train station that hasn’t been upgraded since the Edwardian era, and there are no elevators. Or escalators, or travelators. Nothing that ends with ‘ator’. Just miles and miles of stairs, and me with my obese suitcase and puny stick-figure arms. I have replayed the same scene many times over, in train stations across the world: me heroically trying to lunge into the train carriage and hoping the momentum will get my case across; my case getting inevitably wedged in the gap; some person reaching a meaty arm forward and hauling both the suitcase and me aboard. It’s humiliating.

But that is what happens to me, again, in Melbourne. Stuck in the gap. Someone hauls me aboard, and we’re away. I trundle into the train carriage, where there are plenty of empty seats. However, access to those seats is being blocked by two middle-aged women who are facing each other and chatting. Their legs are criss-crossing the aisle like they’re lounging at a cafe table by the seaside. I stand there, haggard with my bags, until they notice. They move their legs in a fraction, so I have just enough space to awkwardly lug my suitcase along sideways. As I pass, huffing with effort, one of the ladies remarks, “THAT’S a suitcase.” And they laugh, rawk rawk rawk. I smile and reply, “Yep, it’s a suitcase and a half!” The ladies’ eyes instantly narrow; I wasn’t meant to share in the joke. They turn away, back into their conversation.

I relax for the rest of the train journey, one hand resting on Big Red so it doesn’t wheel away. Using Google on my phone, I try to figure out how I’ll get to the backpackers’ hostel from Southern Cross Station. (I can’t remember a time before I had Google Maps on my phone, even though that time was less than three months ago.)

At Southern Cross, Big Red and I trundle out to the street and find the tram stop. The hostel’s website says “catch the tram line that runs to St Kilda,” so I wait for the tram that says “St Kilda”. The tram pulls up, I repeat my famed performance of Stuck In The Gap, and finally haul my luggage aboard. Once on the tram, I realise that the ticket machine is wedged further down the tram, hidden behind crowds of passengers. I can’t possibly get my suitcase down there. So I think, fuck it, I’ve suffered enough today; I’m riding outside of the law.

The tram skims through the city, and I gaze out the window while trying not to let my suitcase fall and crush anyone. After about twenty minutes, I start to get suspicious. I check my location on Google Maps. Ye gods! I’m miles away from the hostel – I got on the tram going in the wrong direction. Sigh. I thump off the tram at the next stop.

So now I’m standing on a tram platform somewhere in the wrong part of Melbourne, feeling pretty pissed off. All my wrongs are rising up to engulf me. I pedantically crosscheck the tram timetable with Google Maps, making sure the next tram I get on will be the correct one. Aha, I am on the right tram line, just going the wrong way. At last, I feel that I’ve got a handle on the situation. At this very moment, I am approached by a man.

He is not a young man. He is not a clean man. He is not the kind of man by which I would like to be approached at any time. He is, in fact, the kind of man you would see standing at the traffic lights wearing sweatpants and talking to himself. The expression on his face can only be described as a leer, and I am suddenly very aware that I am a young woman travelling alone with unmanageable amounts of luggage. The man walks towards me with a sort of stagger.

“What tram are ya looking for? Where are ya going?”

I straighten up to my very tallest and gently show him the flat palm of my hand, in a gesture that says “everything’s okay” and simultaneously “don’t come any closer”. I tell him with all confidence, “Thanks, but I’m fine.”

There it is, again. A strange man has approached a girl on public transport, trying to establish a rapport, and she has refused his advances. (Similar to my run-in with the Bogan on the Bus.) If he were genuinely an altruistic soul seeking to help, he would understand and back off with aplomb. But Sweatpants Man shows his true colours.

“Fine,” he spits angrily. “Just trying to help.” He stomps off, up the platform, growling under his breath.

Whenever I travel, I frequently second-guess my attitude towards strange men. Am I being unkind? Are they justified in being pissed off when I don’t respond to their advances with rapturous gratitude? But then I ask myself, why does he get so angry? If his motive in approaching me was really concern for my welfare, then he would be relieved to hear that I’m fine. If his motive is something else entirely … then I’m better off staying away from him.

The unknown men who help me haul Big Red onto trains – the meaty-armed saviours – they never need to know anything about my life. They never ask me questions. These men are the genuine altruists, the men who see a person who needs an extra hand, and provide it. Sometimes they offer help when I don’t need it, or when I’m determined to struggle with my bags alone. When I wave these men away, they don’t turn nasty. They don’t get angry, because they had no vested interest in helping me. They were – literally – just trying to help.

So maybe I am paranoid. I don’t like telling strange men where I’m headed, or what my plans are. But hey, at least I’m safe. And I know that if help is genuinely offered, I can accept it without fear.