Inua Ellams, also known as Phaze, is a Nigerian-born London poet whose new show Black T-Shirt Collection is currently on at the National Theatre.
I met him for at the Espresso bar the day after his first performance. He declines my offer of coffee and opts for some cashew nuts instead. He’s got a calming presence, looking quietly comfortable in a grey jumper and speaking with a measured voice, with an occasional Nigerian accent.
HP: So does poetry run in the family?
IE: My twin sisters are quite sculptural, with cakes.
HP: I think we’ve got to the bottom of your poetry right there. How about your dad?
IE: My father isn’t really an artist. He was just… he was a great talker. And I probably saw that when I was a kid, which gave rise to my interest in it at some level. But I only started writing because I couldn’t afford paint. I couldn’t be a visual artist, but I still wanted to be creative. And paint pictures with my fingers. That’s a lot of how I write poetry.
HP: When did you first think - Wow - it’s actually feasible I could be a poet?
IE: I think I started because it was fun and I liked the challenge of it in 2003. And it was probably in 2008 I thought ok I might be able to make a living and a career out of this. Then it was in 2009 after The 14th Tale I thought ok this is actually possible and these days it’s what I do.
HP: How long have you been working on this last play?
IE: Probably about year, a year and a bit, yeah. I wrote it I’d say… throughout last year, but just bits and pieces, then there was some money for me to go away and think about it, there’s a lot of research that takes place and lots of conversations that I had with people that gave rise to it. So I had the idea, but I had no knowledge of the political repercussions and themes that would arise from the idea until I started talking to people and interogating further the idea and the symbolism and the narrative.
HP: It’s an unusual artform, what purpose do you think it serves?
IE: You can pose the same question to any artform and whatever answer might be attached would be the same for this. It’s art. It could be anything it could be nothing. It could be – I don’t know – making someone forget about a bad day. Or making someone forget about a good day and realise that there are other people who had a bad day. Or making one conscience shift a little to one side. It could be political. You know, there isn’t a mathematics to it. There isn’t a diagnosis for art. You just create and hope that it generates a response. If they like it, that’s secondary.
HP: So how did you get from the Glastonbury poetry tent to the National Theatre?
IE: I think I went to Glastonbury in 2005 and 2007 and then decided that I hated going to festivals and reading poems to people… because lots of people were wasted and drunk or high or whatever and I just thought I create work that’s too dense and that I spend too much time crafting work to share it with people who are only half listening – and that frustration gave rise to wanting to move into theatre, because in theatre spaces you can control everything – the lights, the sounds, the elements, you are… as much as possible you become the controllor of the way in the which your work is received and the work itself, which is just exciting, maybe a bit of a power rush, but that is part of the reason I moved into theatre.
HP: What gave you the chance to make that move into theatre?
IE: There was this competition where they got four poets to write something fifteen minutes long and something a little bit more theatric than normal. So I tried to adapt my first book to stage and it didn’t really – and it kind of half worked – but it ended up winning the competition. The prize was to be commissioned to write something and then I wrote The 14th Tale. This was the first time I was commissioned to write something longer.
HP: Does that change your process, the pressure of a commission?
IE: No I mean it just - not my process of creativity, it just meant I needed to create a longer piece of work that had different demands on what I write and the nature of the poetry within what I write.
HP: I’d like to look at what is unique about the way you write -
IE: I don’t know if I’m best placed to answer that.
HP: Ok. Maybe not! I suppose I was talking about certain elements of the style - the fact that a lot of it is quite prose-like, but with those internal rhymes that give it fluidity. It reminds me of sermons and hip-hop in places, in a good way, the sometimes hypnotic use of language.
IE: For me I guess I’m influenced a lot by the hip-hop generation and by hip-hop music and the culture. That is manifested in a number of ways. What influences my poetry from the culture is hip-hop’s ability to create something out of nothing. Never to ask what do I need, but rather, what do I have and how can I do the best that I can with that. So that element of hip-hop, that very fundamental and basic attitude is very profound in certain ways and that gives rise a lot to my poetry and the kinds of things that I write and the ways in which I write it.
Then secondary to that – that’s just about the culture, but the music itself – um – their use of internal rhyme is very important to me, their use of narrative, their use of declamation and reclamation, not just of language itself, or of the words, but how they demand for attention to be paid to themselves, that is something that exists in hip-hop and also I think in West African tradition. So that is how it informs my practice as a writer and the grounds from which I use the springboard to write.
HP: One of the things that strikes me about your writing is it's ambitious, you're not afraid of big themes.
IE: I think I’m influenced by philosophy, but I try to ground it as much as possible. And if I write about fanciful great themes about the mind and blahdeblahblah you know… I just try to trap it in every day scenarios and every day situations and every day conversations and everyday stuff – those are things I do consciously and are the major strands to my work.
HP: I can see that it’s particularly difficult poetry to perform if people aren’t listening. Have you ever struggled with it being seen as pretensious?
IE: I think my earlier works might be viewed as that. But I think the honesty with which I wrote then and the fearlessness overcame the pretensiousness of it. So it was definitely never anything that was proposed to me as a criticism of my work, but I was aware of it I think, well I’m aware of it now, knowing more about literature and about the things that I thought I was being original about. But these days now, um, I think I try more and more to underplay the magical realist slash fanciful slash philosophical aspect of my work – or even try to give it more earth.
HP: Can you give an example of what you mean?
IE: There’s a short story called Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin which is quoted in the script, which is fascinating. He does what I try to do, which is – he gives earth to jazz and really grounds it and muddies it. And jazz – which a lot of the time can be extremely abstract and freeform – yet he just gives it a conscious and gives it a texture and that’s one of the things that I try to emulate.
HP: Do you have any heroes?
Literature – probably at the moment, hmmm... Well I’m reading a lot of Billy Collins, but I wouldn’t say that he’s a hero. But I like, a few times I really like what he does, so I’m reading some of him at the moment.
Kwame Dawes is probably a hero in terms of poetry for me. In terms of narrative, Neil Gaiman – probably one of my heroes. Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer. A podcast series called This American Life. And another one called NPR Planet Money. Those are heroes if you can make podcast heroes of mine.
In terms of hip-hop. Probably Mos Def who’s recently changed his name to Yasiin Bey. For very different reasons, Lil Wayne – he’s just crazy and has the most ridiculous one-liners that make you think. He chats so much rubbish, but once in a while there’s a diamond and it just takes your breath away.
HP: Why did you not go down the rap route?
Because I can’t do it! Very simple. I know people who do it really really well and to even attempt to would be an affront to them. I want to be able to enjoy it without being critical. I’m already working in too many fields.
HP: What would you like new readers at Hello Poetry to read of your work first?
Probably my newest collection. Even though it already feels a bit old to me, it’s where my voice is at the moment, though it’s changing already. It’s called ‘Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars”, just came out in November last year. But my website as well just – InuaEllams.com
. I do a lot of stuff there. And also twitter – I chat a whole heap of rubbish, but it’s fun and I think it’s the best place to get a sense of the things I’m influenced by and how the creative mind changes from day to day!
HP: Thanks very much Inua!
Inua's new show - Black T-Shirt Collection is on now (April 2012) at the National Theatre. Special £10 Tickets are for HP users if you book with the code 5567 through the National Theatre website