Inua Ellams will be performing at Rally & Broad ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again‘ on Friday 17th October 2014, at The Bongo Club, Edinburgh, alongside Anneliese Mackintosh, Hailey Beavis, Toby Campion, The Banter Thiefs, and hosts/spraffers extraordinare Jenny Lindsay & Rachel McCrum. Doors at 730pm, tickets £5.
Born in Nigeria in 1984, Inua Ellams is an internationally touring poet, playwright and performer. He has published two poetry pamphlets: ‘Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars’ and ‘Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales’. His first play ‘The 14th Tale’ (a one-man show which he performed) was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival and his third, ‘Black T-Shirt Collection’ ran at England’s National Theatre.
Your Twitter profile describes you as ‘Poet, Playwright, Performer, Graphic Artist and Designer, Occasional Illustrator, Poor Basketballer, Hates Fish, Geek, Founder of @TheMidnighRun // Nigerian. How do you reconcile all these things on a daily basis?
1) When I was younger, I could do so, I could flip between things quite easily on a daily basis. I took multitasking to a whole new level. These days, I’m an older man, and my grey matter is greying and it feels like I can’t flip as easily as I did before. But y’know, I still manage it. I schedule like it’s going out of fashion. I have a multitude of apps which I do different kinds of work on, and a management app called Things where I type everything that I’m working on and it just reminds me what to do. That’s how I keep track of deadlines and all that jazz.
Artistically, they do work together in various ways. I write poetry from the same conceptual place that I create graphic design work from. All of my plays are failed poems, which is to say, all my ides arrive as attempts at poetry, and when I can’t write the poem or the poem is larger than my voice, or the span of a poem is better served by a multitude of voices, it becomes a play.
The Midnight Run is a project I started in 2005 where I gather complete strangers and we play through the streets of a city from 6pm to 6am, and in its duration, we engage with various artistic endeavours and tasks. That has come from my background as an immigrant and as a nomad, so that’s part of who I am – it’s in my blood.
Where do you call home? And why?
Probably my MacBook Pro. Her name is Meredith and she has served me well. Again because I’m an immigrant, I don’t really believe in geographic locations or confines. I believe in the relationships that exist between me and people in my life. Those are cerebral relationships but there is no reason why those are not as real as the physical world. I sink into memories, and have friends who I don’t see for months, years at a time but we’ll pick up conversations as if we had had them minutes before. Those are bubbles that I think of as home.
With regards to my computer, this is who I am when the lights are off and my fingers are poised over the keyboard. I feel as if I’m plugged into the very heart of humanity, especially when I’m connected to the internet and it’s a cycle of knowledge and inspiration, and knowledge and inspiration and words. I call my laptop home – perhaps that’s kind of sad?
What are your current Top 5 poems/poetry performances?
Poetry? That’s like asking me to choose my favourite child. I don’t have children but you know what I mean. I can’t do so. Performance wise, I can give you two definite ones answers.
One, was when I was performing The Fourteenth Tale at the National Theatre in London. I felt connected with the audience. The acoustics in The Cottesloe Theatre where I was performing was amazing. I could hear the audience breathing with me and I felt like I could do no wrong, and the audience who could do no wrong. It felt… right, like we were plugged into each other, into the heart of storytelling and poetry and everything was alive and kicking. That’s what I mean by ‘do no wrong’, we were in the present, and anything that could have happened in that ‘present’ would have been meant to happen. It was just great.
Poetry wise, a few years back in London, I was at some warehouse poetry reading thing and I read an old love poem called ‘Alice in NeverLoverLand’ which was from my first book of poems. It had been out for so long that I thought, I’m just never going to bother reading this poem again, this is the last time. When I finished reading, I was surrounded by three women, a grandmother, a mother and her daughter, and both of them were hugging me, crying, kissing me on my cheeks. When I asked what was happening, What was up? What’s with the kissing and stuff? The mother explained that the daughter had recently gone through a ridiculously, destructive relationship and she had given up searching for love. The poem that I read had given her hope. It had shown her that there are other people going through such similar things and that it was natural. You just have to pick yourself up, and try again. After that, I stopped underestimating the power of a single, lone poem, because you don’t know who you’re reading to. You don’t know where they’ve come from, where they meet you in the middle, in the transaction of the poetry reading and the digestion of a poem.
Can you tell us a little more about the Barbershop Chronicles?
So, I’m working on that as we speak! Barbershop Chronicles is a play which is set in barbershops across the world. It began as a poetry project – I wanted to be a resident poet in a barbershop, to listen to conversations, to see who I meet, write monologues and descriptive passages, poetic prose, about what I see, and the conversations that flow. But I didn’t get the funding to do the project but the idea stayed with and haunted me. So, a year later, I spoke with Fuel, my theatre collaborators here in London and I said ‘I have this idea for a cool project to write a play based on conversations I take from a barbershop’. A few months after we had a month of R&D, hanging around barbershops in London and Leeds. Thinking the project could be bigger, I visited barbershops in Africa.
I travelled through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana and hung around barbers and their clients over the Christmas period last year. I went to South Africa the week that Nelson Mandela died, which was crazy. I transcribe the best conversations and attempted to form a narrative with the themes and subject matters are links; to present something commenting on contemporary Africa. I wrote the first draft at the start of the year, and I’m currently writing the second third. Hopefully it will give a sense of what contemporary African masculinity is like, and the various challenges, shapes and forms it takes.
Where is the worst place that poetry has taken you?
Oh, I remember this like nothing else! It was Glastonbury music festival, 2006 – and I haven’t been to Glastonbury since. It was a horrific period, this was what drove me into working in theatre. I set up my tent, went to sleep and work up with my feet underwater, shower gel leaked into my contact lenses somehow and I put them on imagining I could blink away the soap, I went through echelons of pain. There was a storm that evening, wind whipping the tent in which I was performing, people who had been slithering in mud came tumbling in, diving through the tent. There were folks more interested in each other’s mouths or pelvises than what I was saying… I felt like the last poet on earth attempting to read poems to an Armageddon of an audience. It also coincided with the first of my midlife crises. (I’ve had several). I refused to work in poetry, decided to work in theatre where I could control everything, all elements of the within the space… But I couldn’t stay away. I returned to poetry. It is the mother of art-forms, it is the holiest and cheapest way to be free.
Where is the best place that poetry has taken you?
Probably the edge of the continent of Australia. The closest landmass to where I was stood was on another continent! There was no land left to run, and the view was incredible. It was beautiful, the sun was beating down. It was liminal. There was vegetation right before the beach which rolled into the ocean. So many parts of the physical world contrasted, contracted, existed in that same place. And also, the imaginative and the cerebral worlds in my head came together, narratives of myself as an immigrant, of the questioning of searching for home, of running. This happened in 2012, just when I had won the right to live and work in the United Kingdom and there’s a whole history attached to that. That’s the best place poetry has taken me to, to the edge of the world, and it brought me back.
For more on Inua, see here: http://www.inuaellams.com
find him on Twitter here: @inuaellams
COME + SEE HIM AT RALLY & BROAD ON OCTOBER 17th!
Ours is a mouthful of sea water.