Life, Sexuality, and Poetry in Nigeria
Editor's Note: Akpa Arinzechukwu is a Nigerian poet whose writing deals with the complicated intersection of sexuality, religion, and culture in Nigeria. He is currently living in Abia state, in the midst of the violence from the Biafran separatist movement. He recently sat down with Katherine Cintron, a student from Deltona High School, to talk about writing, music, and his project City Dwellers.
Katherine Cintron: When did you realize you wanted to create poetry, and what was your first step?
Akpa Arinzechukwu: I realized poetry was all I needed to voice the things I would likely not say or write using other mediums. Its cryptic nature could save me from questioning looks. And I realized this when I was a high school student. I was fifteen or so, and witnessed two boys flogged in the cold harmattan night for having sex in the dormitory. The experience was terrible, so, I ran to class the following day, brought a piece of paper and started writing what I thought was sonnet.
KC: As a pansexual Nigerian, how has your poetry transformed your life, for better or for worse?
AA: If the label never existed, the question would have been how poetry has transformed my life. Yes. Poetry has transformed my life with regards to the identity question. It has given me hope, and provided the right platform to show, which is truly the best thing, because it is easy to face the law that way.
My essays wouldn't do justice to my sexuality the way poetry would. I may not want to commit to painting grotesque images of a burnt people (gay men) in my essays. My hairs wouldn't allow that. But in poetry, a part of me is attuned to such paintings. This is where I get really honest and drained.
I feel like something has left me. The burden. The shame. Poetry has transformed my life as a pansexual in Nigeria. And it did for the best.
KC: How large of an impact has your close family given you in your poetry?
AA: You see, I come from a religious family. And I grew without a father. I do not even remember what he looks like. There were few occasions I heard him being muttered. I am always angry. Or I used to be an angry kid. I was so mad at him that when I started writing poetry, I think it was better to buy him some good dose of death. That loss and religion running in my family influenced my writing.
How large the impact? Very.
KC: What is the key message throughout your work?
AA: The key message? Live and let live.
KC: You occasionally tie in geometry to your life in your poetry; is there any reason why you choose to use math as another creative outlet?
AA: I didn't see this one coming (haha). I do this unconsciously, perhaps, because I was going to be a math guru -- mum wanted me to be a computer scientist or doctor. I was a student medical laboratory technician for a semester before leaving to study English language and literature.
Of all the things I loved with mathematics, it was, and is still, geometry. It explains life to me. It is the arachnid, life is woven into it. You can see a lot by untangling its web.
It isn't just a creative outlet for me. It is my life getting expressed through a perfect medium.
KC: How and why did you choose the songs to be accompanied by your collection of poetry, City Dwellers?
AA: How and why? Let me start with why. I love classics. I love music. And I spend time imitating what is played or what has been composed. I have always had a great fancy for composers. How could any human figure out how to make such an amazing thing by gathering instruments and sounds together? The mystery, you know? Let's just say that anything that holds my fascination follows me to the creative world.
How? I have a lot of the music I've listened to a lot and know the ones that speak to me or create the mood that is needed. So, I chose the music to set the mood and pitch (sometimes).
KC: Has any of your previous drug/alcohol usage affected the style of your writing?
AA: I think so. Say, Mushy tells you, “man, you are free.” And suddenly your imagination is running and you are all smiles. And you don't even know why you are so worked out. The person beside you thinks you are crazy, and truly you are. But you just haven't figured it out. You pick up the pen and you think you are doing someone a favor. Well, that's it. And in the end, you have nothing to show for your time and investment.
Has it contributed to the way I write? No. But has it contributed to why I am writing? Yes. Someone has got to tell people that they are not alone, and doing drugs and alcohol aren't the best options.
It has affected me creatively. In the moment, I may think am doing something, but nothing actually.
KC: What is your motivation to create poetry and of all the creative mediums, why specifically poetry?
AA: I write fiction, essays, and plays. I like lyric essay. But like I said before, the need to show my pain and loss, and still not say much, took me to poetry. I needed something to guard my thoughts, to hide behind. And poetry is that room at an obscure place where men like me run often to, to be saved.
KC: Do you feel any conflict between your religion and your sexuality within your work?
AA: No. Not at all. I am not even a religious person. It was many years ago, when I was a kid and teen pastor. I was even going to be a priest (haha). I don't do it anymore. I mean, religion. So, there's nothing that conflicts with who I am. But I incorporate this religion because it is the medium through which I am judged always. And having that root in me already, I can only fight my enemies with their weapon.
KC: Have you ever experienced writer's block, and if so how do you overcome it?
AA: Writer's block, in the way I am without knowing what to write? No. I always have something to put down. I have seen and heard too much not to know what to write.
But if it is in the sense of having what to write but no words for it? Yes. And I overcome it by pretending to be working with geometry or playing the guitar or listening to music -- Beethoven does magic.
KC: What is your most favorable writing environment?
AA: My writing environment is usually a room littered with books, journals, magazines, and a thesaurus, with fewer or no voices other than the one in my head. But sometimes, I am on the bus and something comes. It is injustice to that thought if I let it go, so, I write on the bus too. Or generally, I write wherever I find myself and there is something that needs to be written.
KC: As it pertains to your poetry, where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
AA: I am not a clairvoyant. I don't know. Let's see what comes by trying hard to live till then.
KC: What is your writing and editing process like?
AA: I write longhand or direct to my phone. And then, I take a chill before starting off with the laptop. By trying to translate what is on the phone or paper to another platform, my attention gets drawn to sounds. I think that's where music and poetry start getting handy with me.
KC: Do you have any advice for poets/creative thinkers who feel they cannot express themselves freely, such as yourself?
AA: I don't think I have any advice for anyone. But I have a couple words: don't fear. Fear: it's just a thing of the mind. Sooner, when you start facing it, you may also find the need to keep saving your head to keep saying it.
Life is too short to cage yourself.