Inua Ellams: Why He Chose Poetry & How to be an Award-Winning Performance Artist, Poet & Playwright

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My father respected my work after he saw a man older than him queue for my book  ~Inua Ellams.

And while you might think that’s not a parenting goal, he does not.

According to him, “I love my father and he wants the best for me. He always has. I would be more distrusting of his opinions if my father blindly thought everything I did was brilliant, purely because I am his son. The meaning of my statement is that we tend to be cautious around things that are new to us.”

Inua Ellams
Source: IndiemusicFinds.Com

And that ladies and gentlemen is a s good an intro as you will ever need to the person and passions of Inua Ellams; Poet, Playwright, Writer, Performer and all-round creative guy.

Born 1984 in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, Inua and his family emigrated to England when he was twelve [12] because of a ‘complex interweaving of different issues, religious, financial, career choice, the search for a better life, both political and personal births, deaths and marriages.’

Did the move affect him negatively or live him without a sense of belonging? Probably not. In an interview with Okay Africa, he disclosed his idea of ‘home.’

Says he, “My grandmother’s people were Hausa nomads – those without homes – so wandering and setting up camp is in my blood. ‘Home’ is a fluid concept to me, one that changes from person to person, era to era, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, love to love and the world is a culturally and economically richer place for it.”

Poetry is probably not the ‘easiest’ form of  Creative Arts, so what was the pull? In an interview with Afridiziak, Inua detailed his very emotional reasons for putting words on paper. An excerpt:

“A friend of mine who I grew up with committed suicide in Dublin and I started writing after he died because I wanted to still enjoy literature. Literature was what a lot of our friendship was based on. That and arguments and the language of debating which we had together, drove me to write to continue with that. The other was that I was broke. I wanted to be a visual artist and I couldn’t afford to buy paint and I figured that I could paint pictures with words, and that’s why I write very descriptively. Another was that it was the cheapest and most direct way to articulate myself to myself and an audience who would listen and acknowledge that I existed and could contribute to a community that I belonged to even though I had no right to belong to it. By that I mean, I began writing when I was an immigrant and I spent the first few years of my career expecting to be deported at any one time.”

From fearing deportation to performing on the biggest stages in London, Inua’s immense talent has been seen on stages at The Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre, Glastonbury, Latitude, The London Word, Richmond Literature, Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and he has toured internationally performing in Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, New Zealand, America.  Inua is the first African to present a solo show on the stage of London’s National Theatre in 2010.

Source: OkayAfrica
Source: OkayAfrica

On his move from poetry strictly to performances, Inua admitted that he got fed up of attending poetry readings where the audience was half-drunk, chattering, and not paying attention. According to him, “I wanted to write something where people come expecting to be quiet for an hour.”

Inua’s first pamphlet of poems was published in 2005, two years after he began performing poetry on stage. His first play, The 14th Tale was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2009. A one-man act starring Inua Ellams and a torchlight,  it debuted at The Arcola Theatre and transferred to England’s National Theatre where it played to sold out audiences before national and international tours.

One of 6 artists short-listed for The 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize and winner of the Live Canon International Poetry Competition 2014, Inua’s poems have appeared in anthologies such as the Salt Book of Younger Poets, Chorus (MTV Books), City State (Penned in the Margins) TEN The New Wave (Bloodaxe), and in magazines such as Poetry Paper, Magma, Pen International, Wasafiri and Oxford Poetry.

Trained by the National Poetry Organisation, Apples & Snakes in their Poets In Education Scheme, Inua runs classes for educational, arts and corporate organisations around the world.

Inua Ellams
Source: OkayAfrica

He has written commissioned poems for Louis Vuitton, BBC Radio 4, Tate Modern, BBC’s Politics Show, Southbank Centre, The Africa Report and Houses of Parliament and has served as a judge for The Roundhouse Poetry Slam, the Faber New Poets series, Australia’s Poetry Idol 2014 and Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize 2014– judging poetry, prose and life-writing.

His most recent works include ‘The Spalding Suite’ -a play that centres around the basketball culture in the United kingdom-  and he is currently working on #Afterhours -a collection of poems.

Did I mention he is also a Graphic Artist? Yes! His clients have included Coca Cola, Airwaves, Puma, The Mayor of London, Blacktronica, Apples & Snakes, Roundhouse, Battersea Arts Centre, The Albany, Southbank Centre, Spread The Word, Frantic Assembly, The Caine Prize, Apples & Snakes, and Avant Garde Dance.

From anonymity to stardom; did Inua ever have a moment of self-doubt? Well, this might suffice.

“When I was 19 I tried to show off as much as possible then this astonishing poet, Kwame Dawes, ripped to shreds one such poem and I didn’t write for about six months.” OUCH!

Never mind that though; Inua has gone past the point of showing off; he is wielding his pen with skill, finesse, passion and purpose.

Inua Ellams
Source: SohoTheatre

Below is a poem by Inua Ellams.”For Baga.”

Nigerian Pastoral

-After Gregory Djanikian.

#Afterhours

If Adamu were leaning against a wall

mouth flush with fresh coconut

when trucks screeched to a halt

and Adewunmi were writing her name

in sand, dragging the small stick

when the magazine clicked

and Afoaka were hushing her twins

waving the straw fan back and forth

when the first shots rang out

if Aliyu barefoot by the oranges

were squeezing each fruit for ripeness

when the bullet shattered his cheek

if Akarachi refusing to run

were praying in his room

when the rocket struck the roof

and Azuba in her new hand-stitched hijab

were tucking away stray wisps

when the blast ate her skin

How long would it have to go on then

beginning with A and spilling over

into all the alphabets

before mother sister father child

could bear the same weight

in any faith, in any race,

be mourned with the same tongue. ~Culled from InuaEllams.Com

© 2015 – 2017, Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya. All rights reserved.

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