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An interview with Ben Okri

Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Nigeria. He is considered to be one of the best novelist of the postmodernist era. His list of accolades is vindicated with the sheer volume of honours conferred  upoun him, with  governmental recognition, gaining an OBE in 2001 and Fellowship into the Royal Society of Literature (1997) and he is also the recipient of some esteemed literary prizes, most notably the Man Booker Prize in 1991 (making him the youngest ever winner) for The Famished Road. He has produced 10 novels and 9 books of poetry, The Age of Magic (2014) and Wild(2012) being the last in the two categories respectively.

Ben signing autographs at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

I had the chance of catching a truly mesmerising discussion with Jerry Pinto at the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2017.  His assertion on the spiritual nature of writing was a true and encapsulating insight into his own literary philosophy and his revelation that each writer dies after producing a significant novel and is then reborn anew was a concept I had to further explore. At the author lounge of the DLF I managed to sit down with Ben in order to delve further into his literary psyche and influences. Did he consider himself primarily a poet or novelist? From where did he derive his inspiration from?What ignited his love of literature? What significant event in the modern landscape compelled him to write?Ben was keen and gracious enough to provide The Luxembourg Review with these answers and more.

Syed Shehzar M Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief

INTERVIEW

Shehzar: Hi Ben.. first of all a big thank you for doing this interview with The Luxembourg Review. In lieu with the talk you had given today, how many lifetimes ahead do you feel you have?

Ben: I think I have as many lifetimes as I have significant books.You have to understand that a strong book takes life but it also gives life. Every strong book that you write you lose something of yourself into it but it gives you secret energy. So it is both creative and destructive.

Shehzar: And would you say that it is a cycle continuously emanating from within a writer?

Ben: It is a cycle continuously emanating from a writers psyche. But it also comes out of a health. It comes out of your spiritual health and the health of your imagination. Some writers don’t recover as well after significant books.

Shehzar: What would you attribute that to?

Ben: Insufficient spiritual nourishment.

Shehzar: You said you were a lot different growing up. As a writer, what were the axial thoughts? The pivot from where your thoughts gyrated from? What were the central elements that distinguished  you?

Ben: An absolute sense that life is infinitely richer than we realise. The central thought for me is that life is constantly self generating. That life is concealed from us, that life is a mystery to us. Life is a revelation to us. Life is a house of many mansions. Life is a house of many universes.That’s where it comes from.It is this feeling I have about something immeasurable about life itself.

Shehzar: And that compels you?

Ben: It keeps me going upwards and inwards.

Shehzar: What would you say are the external factors that recently invoked your writing?

Ben: Many things. One of the things is the Grenfell disaster.

Shehzar: You had written a poem about that.

Ben: The Grenfell tower disaster moved me very very deeply in a way that I’ve not been moved for almost 15 years. It moved me very much because it made me aware that there is a gaping hole in the centre of capitalism and that hole is called humanity.

Shehzar: This reminds me a bit of that famous Yeats poem. The opening of The Second Coming ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ and I feel that movement away from that spirituality is reflected a lot in your writing

Ben: We human beings are many things.we are flesh. We are shadow. We are moonstone. We are tree. We are spirit. We are forgiveness, we are love. We are many things. And where spirituality of one kind or another disappears from the human story we become smaller and we are able to condone all sorts of monstrosities happening to one another.People can still lose spirituality whilst being religious.All you have to do is look around the world right now.Most of the terrible things taking place are taking place among religious people.

Shehzar: As an excuse?

Ben: Not as an excuse but as a blindness. I think sometimes peoples religion gets in the way of their humanity. Or that humanity should come first.  A religion without humanity is an insult to God.

With Ben after the interview.

Shehzar: You seem to have borrowed from what I understand a lot of the traditional stories. How deep is this embedded in you?

Ben: Stories are deeply embedded in me. I grew up with stories. My mother was a great storyteller. Told me stories all the time. My culture, where I grew up in Nigeria, all the different places are storytelling places, we told stories to one another as kids. Africa is a storytelling land so stories are part of how I breathe, of how I think. But the writing I do, I am interested in oblique stories, in indirect stories. In stories that have more angles that you suspect. I’m interested in secret stories, stories people carry in them and they don’t know they carry. Stories that sometime destroy and sometimes liberates them, sometimes ruins them and sometimes lifts them up. We are always carrying these unknown stories and I think its one of the most important things about novelists and poets, that they bring out these unknown stories in their people, in their times and age. They bring it out so people can see it, face it and begin to deal with it. Grenfell was one of those stories.

(The Grenfell Tower poem by Ben Okri on Channel 4 News)

Shehzar: You had written a poem about it as opposed to writing a novel or short story, in general you are regarded very well as a novelist and as a poet but which one do you feel closer to? Spiritually do you feel your stories are created as a novel or as poetry?

Ben: Everything I do comes out of poetry, I am primarily a poetic being. By poetry, I do not mean metre or syllables and beats. For me it is also angles of seeing, ways of being, the relationship between things, the tangents and spaces, suggestions, the pressure and space around things.

Shehzar: That reminds me of Khalil Gibran’s ‘Let their be spaces in your togetherness’. One of my favourite single lines.

Ben: Thats lovely. I know it very well. There should be spaces in our imagination to. We have gaps but not enough spaces. Big difference.

Shehzar: So what next for you? You had alluded to the success you had with The Famished Road, how it wasn’t there initially but after the Booker prize, things changed, but now when you write a new story, do you still go in with that original feeling of it being not so great. How do you feel about that?

Ben: I don’t particularly care what people think when I start to write. And I don’t particularly care what people think when I finish.I care really, mainly about the truth of what I am trying to say. I care truly about the truth of what I am trying to say and how deeply I can touch one person through this work. One person at a time.

Shehzar: Thank you Ben.

Ben: Pleasure

 

 

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An Interview with Gillian Clarke

Born in Cardiff in 1937, Gillian Clarke is The National Poet of Wales since 2008 and a remarkable figure in British poetry. She is a poet, playwright, editor, translator, lecturer and translator. Her work – including Poetry Book Society Recommendations, Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993) and Five Fields (1998) as well as her T.S. Elliot Prize shortlisted Ice (2012) – are emotionally laden with feminism, politics, life events, and are heavily centered around the theme of Place. Clarke is a poet who’s cultural upbringing in Wales shines through her work. Her work is studied in the GCSE and A-Level curriculum and she was on the panel of judges for the poetry competition named Anthologise, where school students aged 11-18 sent anthologies of their own poetry. Her contribution to the arts are widely recognised. She received the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry award in 2012.

Clarke provides The Luxembourg Review answers to questions about life as the Poet Laureate of Wales, the inspiration of traveling and its effect on poetic practice and advice to young poets who are interested in practicing the craft of poetry.


How much does the natural world inspire you?

I live in Ceredigion, 900 feet up, 6 miles in from the Irish Sea, which is visible between hills. We have 18 acres of land, and live several miles from the nearest village. This is our life. Being alive is what I write about. Wales has a low density population, and most of our towns and cities are close to the coast. Even when I lived in Cardiff we were surrounded by the countryside, in sight of mountains, and the sea visible from everywhere I have lived.

Is poetry an extension of our relationship with the physical forces of nature which govern us in our day-to-day experience?

I am sure that is not true. Poetry is art, and like all art, it is about what human imagination makes of what we see, hear, think etc. A main characteristic of being human is our pleasure in rhyme and rhythm, and poetry in its simplest forms (nursery rhymes, song lyrics) is natural to all. Its sophisticated forms are refined versions of human language. It’s word-music?

How important is nationality in defining yourself as a poet as your work can be accessed across the globe by a multitude of cultures?

I am Welsh, and I don’t know a life as anything else. I never think of ‘defining myself’, and did not call myself a poet. Other people did. The attention my nation gives to poetry and poets is supportive and nurturing. My parents (not educated people) had a great love for words, books, stories and poetry, in both langages. However, being Welsh is just one way of being human. The best writers are true to their culture, and are most universal when they express themselves through their own culture. W.H.Auden says:

“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine example, most Irish, most universal. Small countries look outward. Because my work is on the GCSE and A Level syllabus, it reaches wherever English is studied. I receive a steady stream of emails from students all over the world, and I answer them all.

gillian
Gillian Clarke with Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review Shehzar Doja at Chapter 1 bookshop, Luxembourg City.

Do you find that travels away from your homeland – to countries such as Luxembourg and Bangladesh – help your poetry go in new directions? Do you find these experiences pave the way for  new and varied inspirations?

Travel turned my focus from children, home and the domestic about thirty years ago. Every new place is fascinating, stimulating. I am an observer. I write what I know. It’s made me friends in many countries, taught me that the human being is the same everywhere, though coloured by a multitude of cultures, languages, ways of life. I must write from my own version of being human.

In 2008 you became the Third National Poet of Wales. What new challenges has this given you? Has this brought more pressure on you to write your poetry with Welsh readers in mind?

I like deadlines. That goes back to the weekly school essay! Over the past eight years I must have written well over a hundred commissioned poems and poems to support something. The commissioned, or requested poem is a tradition in Welsh culture that goes back to the 6th century. It is a ‘village’ tradition, here in Ceredigion, that poets rise to the occasion, as long as it’s an honourable subject. I write in English, but have ensured that all my public poems are translated into Welsh by a poet-friend whose first language is Welsh. So, on the Literature Wales website the poems appear in both languages. I have several poems placed on buildings, walls, pathways, as part of public places, and I usually use both Welsh and English in their writing –  except the most recently completed work by an artist in a long wall in a car park, in Newport, Gwent, five 6-line verses on the Welsh Chartists. In English.

With social media and online blogs making it simple to share poetry across the globe, do you believe the Age of Information has been beneficial to the poet? Do you think this has saturated the market in a way that devalues the art of poetry?

I don’t use social media, so I don’t see these works. It’s an open space for expression, which is good. It will have no effect on great poetry, and its enduring value. The internet as a tool, an infinite library, is wonderful. As I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and delete all invitations to connect, I can choose my correspondents, and my poets.

Some believe that poetic talents are innate or, at least, the potential is. Many fancy themselves as poets. What is your best advice to aspiring poets?

No, it is education, listening, reading, culture and family that make a poet. Had I been the daughter of painters, maybe i would have been an artist.

In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, what advice would you give young poets look to get their work out there and noticed?

Advice: read, and listen. Be alert to language. Forget being ‘noticed’. A real writer wants to learn and improve, rather than ‘be noticed.’ Submit poems for competitions. Book a week at a poetry course at Tŷ Newydd, our beautiful Writers Centre in North Wales, and be tutored by published writers.

Poetry is an art-form that most people believe they can take on. If someone pens a piece with a bit of rhyme and structure, there is a small potential they can claim themselves to be a poet. If someone were to sit at a piano and hit the keys without any prior instruction, I do not feel they would fancy themselves as a pianist. Do you feel the intrinsic nature of poetry is such that it allows people of all abilities to call themselves poets?

It is because language belongs to all humans, and a love of rhyme etc is a child’s natural way forward. Instead of taking the piano as comparison, take singing. All can sing, though not all are the greatest. If a person wants to write, I salute them, and welcome them aboard. Advice, apart from ‘read’: write to enjoy it, and don’t expect fame, money, publication.

Poetry, including nursery rhymes, seems to be loved in childhood. Poetry is read at life events such as weddings and funerals, through which can they leave a powerful impact. The emotional nature of poetry is not the issue, but people’s desire to read or listen to poetry outside of these contexts presents a significant problem in poetry’s popularity.

This is an out-of date view. If ‘poetry’s popularity’ is a problem. how come so many Literary/Poetry Festivals in Britain flourish – more every year? Why do so many young people contact me, all year round? How are so many readings by the best-known poets sell-out events?

Does modern poetry do enough to connect new readers as well as stimulate the majority of existing readers?

I have no idea. It varies from good amateur to truly great poetry, as all art does. A poet has to write true to herself, himself, and if it is appreciated, that is an extra bonus.  My emails from everywhere, those sell-out events, the two hour queues at Hay Festival signing books, the requests for a poet, special poems for events, buildings, public squares, tell how popular poetry is in Britain. It is a phenomenon, and the envy of many other countries.

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Interview conducted by Nathan Hassall.