Rasaq Malik Gbolahan is an Iseyin-born performance poet who is passionate about poetry and everything that elevates the art of writing. Aside poetry, Gbolahan is a cultural enthusiast and an indescribable lover of Yoruba cosmology. In this interview with IBRAHIM RAMALAN, Gbolahan talks about his passion for poetry and why Nigerian writers hardly make a fortune out of their art.
How did you start up as a poet and why poetry, don’t you write other genres apart from it?
Poetry emerged as the first path I walked when I embarked on the journey as a poet in secondary school. I wrote my first poem for the late lawyer and activist, Gani Fawehinmi. Even though I was quite befuddled because of the inevitability of the problem of having a mentor, I was proud of my first poem to the extent that I showed it to a friend. After reading it, my friend doubted the genuineness and reliability of my authorship of that poem. Later I gained admission to study at the University of Ibadan.
My first year in school connected me to a friend, Ojo Adeshina, whose print poems reawakened the spirit of poetry in me. I returned to my hostel, Nnamdi Azikwe Hall, where I started exploring nature and love as thematic preoccupations. I was fortunate enough to read Niyi Osundare’s Eye of the Earth Akeem Lasisi’s Night of my Flight, Jumoke Verissimo’s I am memory and other poets whose words stir and ginger me to celebrate poetry. In addition, I write prose work in English and my mother tongue. I write poetry in my mother tongue too.
What is the main import of your writing generally?
Universally, poetry plays pivotal roles in the building of an intellectual society. Poetry appeals and appeases the mind of a reader. Poetry shocks, hurts, calms, bites, stings, strikes. Sometimes it comes to you like a stranger searching for a place to sleep. Defining poetry, Emily Dickinson writes, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry.
”Th is definition accentuates that poetry is a potent means of creating a world that is both haunting and wonderful. Thus, my poetry does similar thing. My poetry reflects the plights of the people. My poetry identifies with victims of war and sufferers in an unjust country. It reaches out to people dying in silence, people craving love and kindness, people summoning the courage to survive in war-torn places.
Another significant thing about my poetry is the personalized tendency that permeates it. I write about home – I mean family. I write about women who are subjected to needless tortures and unwarranted derogations. It irks to discover that in a society like ours, the rate of sexual assaults and domestic violence is terrific and heart wrenching. As a poet who feels the pains of others, I find it imperative to address some of the burning issues in our society.
Considering the fact that Nigeria is a country where literary intellectualism is not duly appreciated, how do I plan to sail through?
In Nigeria, the truth is that literary appreciation is quite low. However, as poets we need to discuss what leads us to choose poetry as a medium of communicating to the people, or to ourselves.
I have always been saying this, and I will keep saying it: passion is the first thing to consider, if an Gbolahan Gbolahan artiste desires success in a retrogressive country like Nigeria. Being a poet, writer, artiste, or any career you pursue, it is very important to know that passion conquers the inherent fear of failure in our hearts. When I started writing poetry, I did not think about the money. I did not sacrifice my heart to the raging quest for the material things in life. I see poetry as life, as hope, as everything that reveals my potential. Writing is not what everybody should do –especially the lazy ones. It takes time to read and write. However, the end is always bright. I mean you meet people who appreciate your poems and laud your success. You meet people who celebrate you and believe in you. For me that is enough. It means I have been able, in my own little way, contribute meaningfully to their lives.
Tell us a bit about your poetry mentors or role models and in what ways have they influenced your life as a poet?
I have mentors who have contributed immensely to my growth as a poet. In 2011, I met Awaal Gata, who later became a mentor and a friend. I received his debut collection “Notes From Ndaduma,” from Yak Mokwa. I also had the chance to read Jalaludeen Ibrahim’s books, which came far away from the North. I met Jumoke Verissimo after reading her poetry book titled “I am memory”. I was lucky to meet Laura Kaminski on Facebook, and her friendship has brought to me wonderful books and texts. Over the years, Laura Kaminski has sent books to some of the emerging Nigerian poets. She has been able to feed us with books that continue to inspire us in a beautiful way. I would also like to mention Ellie Tipton, the editor of Poet Lore; Hayan Charara, a poet and mentor; Timothy Green, a poet and editor of Rattle; Danusha Lameris, a poet and mentor; and Funmi Aluko, a poet and mother. These people have inspired me in many ways.
Tell us why you are yet to have a book published despite your strides in the poetry world, especially as you are seen rubbing shoulders with prominent young poets like Saddiq BM Dzukogi?
I believe in writing what will be evergreen and relevant even when I no longer exist. I am aware that perfection is unattainable, but I am also aware of the fact that writing demands that you explore your themes through the effective handling of language. I believe I still need to learn and revamp my poems. In addition, being on the shortlist signals enormous challenges. People expect you to sustain the quality of your poetry. You also need to be more passionate concerning the need to grow and learn from others.
What are your fears about publishers?
I have never approached any publisher regarding my unpublished poetry collection. However, I like the books published in Nigeria. Parreisa has been doing fine with their published books. Amab has started publishing, too. Emotionpress, the brainchild of Folarin Olaniyi, has published some interesting books. I just hope that more publishing outfits and editors join the train of publishing good and canonical texts.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are getting frustrated by the day because of rejections, disappointment and rigours about getting a publisher?
Aspiring writers should not be in a hurry to publish. However, if they find their manuscripts worthy of being published, it is pertinent that they approach publishers and discuss how to actualize the dream of publishing their poems. I would suggest Parresia, Amab, Baron cafe/Fairchild Media, Emotionpress, and other worthy publishing outfits in Nigeria. These aspiring writers should know that if their manuscripts are rejected, they should not spend time feeling dispirited and dejected. Some of those who are award winning writers today also experienced similar thing. This tells us that the road to success is a rough path. They should endure and persevere. One should never relent, and success is sure at the end of the tunnel.
Tell us one amusing fact about poetry, plus your opinion on how one could make a fortune out of poetry?
Poetry favors passionate people. It requests that you dedicate everything to it. However, this does not mean that you will become wealthy. It means you are liberated and you have the liberty to immortalize yourself. It means the world will listen to you and appreciate your potential. Well, writers living abroad make fortune out of writing. I have friends studying abroad. I have friends who are interested in applying for MFA. If one has the opportunity to enroll in one of those schools for MFA, one could make a fortune out of writing. Over there, there are grants, fellowships, etc, for writers. Their writers win monetary prizes and they are supportive. For us to grow as a community of writers in Nigeria, we need to address the perpetual conflict and skirmishes that slacken the desired unity. We need mutual understanding and support.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I write. I write because when I am not writing with my pen, I write in my head. I arrange lines in my head. I spend time pondering on some things. I stay awake in the night to read.
What are you working on presently and when are we expecting your book – a poetry collection maybe?
I have started working on a new poetry manuscript. I hope to complete the collection this year. I am looking forward to 2018 for the publication of my debut poetry collection.
What are your challenges so far?
The struggle to survive in a country where writers are relegated to hustlers, to people searching for the means of survival in the streets. I believe writers should be celebrated because they are the spokesmen of the society. They explore and bring to the fore, the events happening in the society. Ironically, they are belittled and scorned by those who should adorn them with medals. They lament profusely concerning the lack of grants, fellowships, residencies, etc. I hope things change soon, so that emerging writers will feel