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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Waxings interview: “On poetry, writer’s block and eating”, Sept 2011

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Since the unfortunate decimation of the National Young Writers’ Month blog, my interview with poet/filmmaker David Vincent Smith disappeared with the rest of the NYWM blog posts. But ALL IS NOT LOST because the article has been republished on Waxings.

I’ve just sat down for a chat with Perth writer and filmmaker David Vincent Smith, also known as DVS (pronounced ‘Devious’ – see what he did there?). DVS is one of Perth’s best performance poets, as well as one of the founders of Seventh Continent Productions. And he’s twenty-three years old. When he saunters in with his scruffy beard and wide grin, you might mistake him for a bad Gen Y stereotype – but this is one of the hardest working young writers in Perth.

“I’m a firm believer that writer’s block doesn’t exist,” he says. “I think it’s just an excuse. The idea that you could sit down and not be able to write is a load of shit. Writer’s block is not being able to write up to the standard that you want to be writing at that moment. I mean, nobody can always write their best piece every day. So, you just sit down and start writing and eventually, after maybe a page or two, you get into the flow. You get one line that will trigger an entire new thought and bang, you’re away. So, whenever people say, ‘Aw, yeah I’ve got writer’s block, I haven’t really done much in six months,’ I’m like, bullshit, you haven’t got writer’s block – you bought Call of Duty. Sit down over there, start writing.”

It might sound a bit severe, but this writer expects nothing less from himself. “I was working in a supermarket from when I was fourteen to nineteen, and I used to get fifteen-minute lunchbreaks. Because it was such mundane work, the whole time I was working I’d memorise paragraphs of the book I was working on, then write them out in my lunchbreaks. At night I’d go home and just compile it together. I was like, don’t waste a minute of your time, always be writing. Now I’m really brutal on myself – I just work, work, work.”

And all this effort has been paying off for the writer/director. In 2010, DVS was flown back and forth between Perth and Sydney, for free, twice. The first trip was to attend the finals of the Optus One80Project with his co-director Aaron Moss, where their film Southern Cross won the Viewers’ Choice Award. The Award came with a $10,000 cash prize, which the guys re-invested in their production company Seventh Continent. They also got to chat with Australian film industry success stories like Blue-Tongue Films (Animal Kingdom) and David Wenham (The Return of the King, Oranges and Sunshine).

DVS’s second trip to Sydney last year was for the national finals of the Australian Poetry Slam. He entered the 2010 WA Poetry Slam and quickly won his way to the state finals with a hip hop poem entitled ‘Fortified’. With lines like ‘My father gave me a shovel at twelve/ And I’ve been burying my emotions ever since,’ he won over the crowd and took out first place, snagging himself a place in the finals held at the Sydney Theatre Company.

Since then, he’s barely sat still. Earlier this year, he and Aaron produced a short film about slam poetry, called The Ballad of Nick Chopper, for which DVS wrote the script and most of the poetry. The film screened at the Perth Poetry Slam finals in February. They also entered another film in the 2011 Optus One80Project, Family Tree, as well as working on several other projects, including two new feature films and several music videos. Even as we speak, DVS reminds me that he can’t stay long because he has to get another script finished by today. Phew, this dude never stops!

“I usually have so many different projects on the go. I’m usually either writing for film, writing for music, or writing for spoken word. Or some article that I feel like writing just for the hell of it. If I want to take a break I just switch what I’m doing. Like, okay I’ve had enough of poetry, I’ll do film writing tomorrow. But I usually have so many different deadlines.

“Deadlines are really good, because they kind of force you to be creative. You could be like, well, my life goal is to write a novel. Well you could start that when you’re fifty, you know. One of my first life goals was ‘you must write a novel before you’re twenty-one’ and I ticked that off my list, and now my next goal is ‘you must make a feature film before you’re twenty-five’ and I’m really stressing out about that one! Unless someone gives me millions of dollars after reading this interview…” (NB: Cheques are payable to David Vincent Smith.)

DVS and I get to chatting about life in the creative arts. Like most young, arty-type people, we almost immediately began with ‘OMG how broke are we?’ While our friends with Law and Economics degrees are slaving away with the (possibly incorrect) assurance that they’re guaranteed a well-paid job one day, we of the Arts have not even that comfortable illusion. Sometimes following your passion means giving up financial security. DVS lives by himself and pays his own way, so I ask him how he’s been supporting himself while he makes his career in writing and film. He does some casual shifts at a bar in Northbridge, but I find out most of his money comes from an unusual source.

“I’ve gotten by for fourteen or fifteen months now just by winning random competitions and pawning off the prizes. Last year Aaron and I each won a Blackberry [for Southern Cross], and I sold mine to a chef in the kitchen next door at work. I hell needed money that week; I needed to go grocery shopping, haha.”

I ask him if he thinks we’re right to be encouraging kids to pursue writing when it’s such a poorly paid career path. Would it be wiser to caution them to get ‘real jobs’ to fall back on, rather than risk being a starving artist?

“I think you can only say what you did, and then let them make their decision,” DVS reasons. He knew from the age of eight or nine that he wanted to be a writer, and no threats of financial insolvency could hold him back. After high school, he enrolled in an Information Management course at Curtin University, but it didn’t interest him. “To be honest, I don’t even remember it. Uni was something that happened between what I wanted to do with my life, so it’s all a blur. If I didn’t find the odd assignment in my drawers every now and then, I’d forget I even went.”

Instead, he switched to TAFE (now called the Central Institute of Technology) and completed an Advanced Diploma of Screen (Directing). “I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be in terms of film studies, so I asked my lecturers lots of questions and really tried to get out what I wanted.”

Does he regret choosing the uncertain path of an arts career over a steady job in Information Management?

“I definitely thought about going the safe way, and then I thought, stuff it. Obviously it makes sense to have something to fall back on – it just depends how much you care about security. I like the idea of being able to eat food, but my aim in life is not to have a mansion or drive around in a Mercedes-Benz. My aim is to be able to spend every day writing and growing as an artist. I mean, that sounds really pretentious, but [that lifestyle] is more enjoyable, to be honest.”

I point out that, for most committed artists, their aspirations don’t reach as high as mansions or flash cars – they’re just aspiring to eat well and pay rent. A lot of young artists can’t afford to move out of home. David nods. “I do live out of home, but I’d love to be able to live out of home. And not slowly die out of home,” he laughs.

Having seen DVS in action on stage, I’m curious to know what goes through his mind while he’s performing his poetry. He laughs, and explains, “I was about to say, ‘not a lot’. I guess I’m very conscious of trying to engage people. Also, my hands – I see the words as movements. It’s hard to explain, but I see it as connections. I usually try to break each line down into an actual hand movement.”

I remember this from watching his performances – he almost seemed to have choreographed his poetry.

“When I’m writing I’m already seeing the hand movements,” he says. “I usually don’t sit down when I write, I usually walk around in circles. It’s like I’m orchestrating what I’m writing. It’s kind of a strange thing. So if you ever see me writing I’m just walking around in circles waving my hands in the air. It looks like I’m trying to do swimming freestyle through the air. And then [the movements] slowly become more controlled and constructed.

“I guess the other thing that’s kind of weird is sometimes before I start writing I know I kind of want to write a piece about [a certain idea], but I’m not really sure what it’s going to be about. So I kind of just let all the words that have to do with that kind of idea just bubble in my mind, and I just keep thinking of words that have to do with that. And then like you kind of get a – it’s hard to explain – like a taste in your mouth, and then you just go after a while.

“Sometimes if you have a good idea, rather than just starting to write it, you just let it simmer in your mind for a few weeks, and you let it build and build until you feel the story in your body, and then after a few weeks it just happens.”

Like they (whoever they are) say, writing is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. David Vincent Smith is a writer who seems to understand the importance of both.