Inua Ellams: Covent Garden’s first ever poet-in-residence
From Browning to Blunden, from Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw, London has been birthplace or home to more playwrights and poets than it seems possible to imagine. The city features as the backdrop and muse to countless works throughout history, and in these days of digital publication, the output shows no sign of slowing down.
As Covent Garden’s first ever poet-in-residence and a sometime scribe for the National Theatre, SideStory Insider Inua Ellams is very much a part of the burgeoning poetry scene in London. We were delighted to catch up with him for a chat, picking his brains to find out a little more about the world of contemporary poetry in the capital.
What appeals to you most about poetry?
Poetry for me has always been about the specificity of language: about romance, truth and about beauty. When I was a kid in school, the poet that stuck out the most to me was John Keats. He died when he was young and the themes of mortality and the feeling of being trapped inside a failing body while the mind was very much alive are central to his poetry.
I used to play a lot of basketball, but I developed asthma, so what he was saying – or what I understood of what he was saying – really resonated with me. I was really taken with Keats’ attempts to always find the beautiful and to always tell the truth, or his truth, whatever that meant. He wrote with a lot of emotion, a lot of overflowing passion which is something that is often ironed out of contemporary poetry. As a young Nigerian, it was captivating to find those emotions resonating in me from the pen of a dead British guy.
Contemporary poetry certainly has its own voice and identity ,though – what’s your take on it?
Contemporary poetry is vast and multi-voiced. There’s a lot of playfulness of language and a joy of life that I found in hiphop culture and music, and when I started writing poetry I tried to find a way to reference that somehow. At the heart of my writing is the attempt to make things beautiful, regardless of how ugly a topic or situation is. In the media, more often than not, our tragedies are reported more than our victories, along with ugliness from a political or environmental, racial or financial point of view.
There’s something wonderful about creating space and clarity and bringing a sort of sonic beauty to language that I strive for in poetry. Imagine an instrumental kind of music that is gentle, coaxing and hypnotic, yet also narrative and literary. That’s very much my aim with poetry: to write something delicious to the ear and something that sounds like waves – subtly relentless and gentle.
You said that the part of the appeal of poetry is the specificity of language, but isn’t the non-specific nature of language also the biggest challenge? I think so much of the transaction of poetry is about acknowledging the pointlessness of the transaction. There’s a Russian poet who said, ‘I know what I’ve given you, but not what you have received’, and I think this is absolutely true: words themselves do not hold their meanings. Meaning is neither steadfast nor constant – it changes from generation to generation and also from location to location and experience to experience. We all grow up in the world and experience it differently, so when I write about what it means to hug someone, it could mean something completely different to you. I think being a good poet is acknowledging that that meaning will never be coherently and entirely communicated, something will always be lost. Is that a problem? Certainly, but it isn’t a negative. In writing a poem you create a fluid space for communication. I learnt to enjoy that about writing poetry. You’re building a machine of words, yet you’re not entirely sure what it’s going to do.
Is a lot of that to do with the performative aspect of it?
Not exclusively. I think it’s more to do with just the act of reading a poem. When you’re performing a poem you can communicate a lot of what might be misunderstood, you can do a better job of passing on and confirming your intentions by preamble and by the weight you bring to certain words, for instance.
So it’s the reader’s experience for the taking, then?
Yes, it’s what the reader takes from the poem and what particular feelings it inspires that makes the poem work. If the poet isn’t there to say ‘this is what I mean’ or ‘this is how I mean it’, it leaves the interpretation entirely to the reader.
You’ve lived all over the place, so what is it about the landscape of the city – and of London – that informs your work?
Well, London in particular appeals to me because of its multiculturalism. Sometimes I feel that everyone comes from somewhere else here – you can find a representative from anywhere on the whole planet in some way, shape or form. It’s a city that has welcomed immigrants for a long time and there’s a lot to take from that. English as a language is nothing if not the cartography of immigration and migrations and London is very much the geographical embodiment of that.
I think being a poet requires a degree of role-play: to always think as other people – and other people in other places – so London for me is very much a natural container for poetic intention. The city is so sprawling and I love how easy it is to get lost down nooks and crannies in the same way that writing often requires you to get lost down imaginative nooks and crannies.
Is there anything specifically that helps you find your place in a city? Anything that helps you break into its heart?
Having the space to get lost helps me find my place. Elias Canetti said that the inklings for poets are the forgotten adventures of God. I like to imagine a scenario, like God got bored halfway through producing something and when he stopped, poets picked up the paintbrush. When I find quiet alleys or side streets, I’m reminded of this: half-forgotten, half-finished places that become the starting points for poems or stories.
I don’t really think there’s any one thing about London – or any other city for that matter – that is a kind of key to creativity and poetic thought. It is the entire experience. I view cities as organisms; a growing thing that is always both defined and undefined and changing from view to view, location to location, street to street, culture to culture, community to community. All of these things, I think, create a really healthy place for poetry to thrive.
That’s beautiful. It’s a really lovely way of looking at it. Is London something of a Mecca for poets, then?
It’s home to so many poets, both digitally and physically. In fact there’s just such a vast amount going on that I can’t keep track with all of it. It’s impossible. There are as many worlds as there are people, and there are so many schools of poetry; they just keep changing, keep redefining themselves over and over again.