Chuku's Chats with Tower of London's First Poet in Residence Inua Ellams

For World Poetry Day, we chatted to acclaimed poet, Inua Ellams. Born in Nigeria, the award-winning poet and performer has recently been appointed as Tower of London's first Poet in Residence. A playwright too, his play Barber Shop Chronicles sold out both its runs at The National Theatre and has just finished its tour, on the other side of the world in Australia. As a fan of his work (Emeka saw Barber Shop Chronicles twice!), it was our pleasure to hear him share how he got into writing, what his hopes are for his new role and just what is the Inua trim. 

 Inua Ellams (credit: Oliver Holms)

Inua Ellams (credit: Oliver Holms)

Your award-winning show An Evening with An Immigrant charts your path from Nigeria, where you were born, to the UK. How did you find that transition?  

It was life. At the time I didn’t think it was particularly difficult it was just what we needed to do to survive. Things that happened, happened and we rolled with them. It was only growing up that I realised how difficult it must have been for my parents that the things we were rolling with were punches. We were rolling with the punches. And it wasn’t a typical thing. It wasn’t an everyday sort of existence. But it was all of those things: it was beautiful, it was funny, it was heart-breaking, it was difficult, it was life-affirming, it was treacherous, it was character building and it was what made me who I am right now.

Our Mum grew up in Kaduna which is not too far (in Nigeria terms) from your hometown Jos. We hear this part of Nigeria is wonderfully green and fertile and feels completely different to the South and the likes of Lagos. Can you help us picture it and describe your childhood there? 

I left such a long time ago that I can’t authentically picture it if I’m frankly honest. Jos was the place of my childhood. I remember vague flashes of school, of what the house was like, of visiting places like the Yankari Game Reserve and my father’s work and that’s it. I left when I was so young I can’t remember, I’m sorry.

 Yankari Game Reserve

Yankari Game Reserve

My memories have been somewhat colourised by what I have read about the colonisers and what they did when they lived there - how Jos and the temperature was so perfect it was reminiscent of a summer in England, a cooler summer, and they were reluctant to release it around the time of colonialism.

And if you did a Naija-style Come Dine With Me, which three dinner guests would you invite and what dishes would be on the menu?

Wow. Hmm…Terry Pratchett – the British novelist and satirical writer and one of my earliest inspirations. Shango - the Yoruba god of thunder who was immortal. He discovered the secret of lightning and when he died was deified and became a god. I think trying to understand his transition and his headspace would be fantastic. Harriet Tubman - the American slave liberation icon - all that she did and how she did it. And Sade, the Nigerian-British singer.

(That was definitely four guests, but we let him off!)

 Writer Terry Pratchett - one of Inua's earliest inspirations

Writer Terry Pratchett - one of Inua's earliest inspirations

On the menu, traditional Nigerian foods from the North and South. So, from the North, from my father’s Hausa heritage, tuwo shinkafa and fura da nono. Then the basics – jollof rice, pounded yam and egusi soup, which I love. Suya, maybe some gizzard would be lovely. And then some vegetarian soups, which we’re lacking in Nigerian cuisine. Well, they’re just not as celebrated as others. Those would be on the menu and then maybe some lemon sorbet ice-cream, some strawberries and cream and mango. Just mango, nothing else, just the mango.

Now, anyone who has been told off by a Nigerian parent/uncle or aunty knows Nigerians have a special way with words but how did you get into writing and poetry, specifically?

This is a very short answer. I was broke. I wanted to be a visual artist but I couldn’t afford paint. So I started writing because it was one way of painting pictures with words. There were pens and pieces of paper readily available and I just tapped into that. My English teachers had always told me that I was good with English and I didn’t really take them seriously until I had nothing else to do but fool around with English and poetry was the easiest way of trying to construct something artistic with words, without having to write a novel or a play which I didn’t how to do at the time. But writing rhymes, trying to transcribe what I had heard rappers do or try to do, and splice that with my own insecurities and my own particular Nigerian, English, Irish lens through which I saw the world was where poetry came from.

On the topic of writing, we couldn’t do this without mentioning Barber Shop Chronicles - we loved it! And as much as we want it back in London for a third time, we are happy to see it’s been touring. How have you found the reception outside of London and the UK and how has it been to see something you created stretch so widely across the globe?

I’ve been humbled by the reception, especially from how well the play has done in Australia which is a deeply racist environment, in which to take a play exclusively about black men and black masculinity and African ones, specifically. But the Prime Minister of Australia went to see it which was quite incredible. The Australian audiences have just loved it and found themselves signifying with and articulating their own experiences, their experiences of the actors and finding their own way to relate to it. It’s just been humbling to see. But on the flip side it’s felt obvious in a sense, because we’re just writing about people and their lives and if you write with enough clarity, race and culture cannot just cut through, or rather, doesn’t matter, because people just relate with the situations or the things that people have lived.

 Barber Shop Chronicles

Barber Shop Chronicles

So, it’s been surprising and on deeper reflection, not so surprising because people are people. And we’re still made of rudimentarily the same things: emotions, arms, legs, feet, hand, insecurities, families. We lose and we find again.

It still bugs my head. When I saw how many people were flying to Australia – 22 people, including the cast and the staff around it, I felt suddenly irresponsible, like why did I that to them? Why did I do that to the world? It just ranges from panic to fear to pride that something I wrote, so many people believe it and they are taking it actively with them across the world…that’s magnificent. That has been magnificent to see.

And what about your own relationship with your barber. We've rarely seen you without a hat but you're a well-groomed chap, so how often do you go? And what is the Inua trim?

Well, I’m balding so when I go my barber just lops off everything from my hair and trims my beard when I’m there. But work is so crazy and life is so crazy that I rarely have the time to spend going round and chilling in this place like I’d like to. But the relationship is good, we follow each other on Instagram. We try and tap into each other and send a message now and then. And he’s great, a really, really good guy.

He was the consultant barber for Barber Shop Chronicles. He had an interest in theatre and performing and acting when I was a child, so for him he got to exercise those demons that he never saw flowered into a profession. But he’s a magnificent guy. In fact, I need to drop my barber a message and say what’s up to Peter.

As the Tower of London’s first Poet in Residence, you’re making history – congratulations! How does it feel to be the pioneer for the role and what do you hope to achieve whilst there?

It’s kinda cool. I’ve been trying to muscle into that space for about a couple of years now because I saw the building, loved it, I wrote some things in response to things they had on exhibition there and the conversations they were having on their podcast channel. But I’d always wanted to do something else and they kept approaching me, asking me to write things for them. And I said, “yes, but if I’m based there you guys can get tons of other writing out of me, so how about we do this?” And then they came on board finally.

 Tower of London's first poet-in-residence

Tower of London's first poet-in-residence

I’m really proud of the position. We’re starting gently and quietly. The people who are members of the Tower of London, they have a deep sense of ownership over the building and feel like they can have a lot of say in whatever is programmed and voice their discomfort if they don’t like things, which is awesome. It’s like the true sense of democracy and if you think about the history of The Tower of London and the monarchy in this country, lots of people, lots of commoners, lots of members of the public like I am, didn’t have a lot of say in how the country was governed. So given that the Tower has this history and they feel emboldened to respond is a good thing.

But my job is to further challenge that and to look at the history of the Tower of London and curate artists and writers and performers to create work in response to that history and to critique it a little. What I’m trying to do is just softly begin or rather, to begin softly – antagonising is the wrong word, a softer version of the word antagonising is what I’m looking for – to softly begin questioning, maybe, and poking a stick at that history and to think about what repercussions it has when we question those things that happened and how we face that in a modern, thriving, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic society, where people come to the history and the legacy of the throne with a lot of baggage and a lot of personal grievances. That’s what I’m trying to do – to raise the question: to say this existed, then this happened, but why did it and how do we respond to it and think about it now that we know better. Do we lie towards those histories? Do we shine a light on them and so this was foul? How do we address those things? That’s slowly what I’m trying to do there.

 The Midnight Run - Oliver Holms

The Midnight Run - Oliver Holms

So, when Ifeyinwa first heard about the Midnight Run, as a keen runner she assumed it was a midnight running club, which she now knows it’s not. But for those who don’t know about it, could you tell us what The Midnight Run is, where the idea came from and when’s the next one?

The Midnight Run is just a way of gathering a community for one night only to migrate through a city from 6pm to 6am or from 6pm to midnight. It’s about walking, talking, introducing members of an urban environment to art forms that they might not have previously had access to experience. It’s a way of being in the present with people, about experiencing art and each other in real time. In a nutshell, that’s what it is. It’s about play. It’s about entertainment but entertainment by being ourselves to each other. It’s about exploration, it’s about community and the urban space and how we interact with it. It’s very, very playful and very, very fun. The next one is on 25th June. And there will be a few more scattered throughout the year. I’d say just keep checking The Midnight Run website. We have lots of videos which explain in more detail what I’ve just said about what it is and why it works and how it works.

And as it is World Poetry Day, what's your favourite poem and why? 

There are so many but this is one of my favourites. It’s by a poet called Terrance Hayes and it’s called The Same City

I like the poem because it is delicate and it is beautiful. It questions masculinity and it goes some way to undermine it whilst strengthening it. It is about time, it is about fatherhood, it is about relationships, it is about love, it is about intergenerational relationships and intense ones as well. It is about what it means to be holy or how to strive to holiness. And I don’t mean that in a biblical sense. It’s just a beautiful poem. Time is cyclical, and this poem demonstrates that. Just check it out.

 Inua also recommends poet Safia Elhillo

Inua also recommends poet Safia Elhillo

And apart from Terrance Hayes, which other poets do you think our readers should be reading/watching?

I’m just gonna name the folks that I roll with. A guy called Kayo Chingonyi, who’s Zambian; a lady called Jay Bernard, who’s a friend of mind; a guy from America called Danez Smith, who’s phenomenal. Another poet I’d recommend is Safia Elhillo, also from America. Just begin with those four - experiment, explore, find their work, buy their books, read it.