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"The Poems Fell Off My Grief": an interview with D.M. Aderibigbe

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets is now open through December 1st! To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, an interview with poet D.M. Aderibigbe about family, the body, and the publication of his award-winning chapbook, In Praise of Our Absent Father, available in the Eight New-Generation African Poets: Tatu box set.
 
Describe the process of making your chapbook manuscript. How did you conceive of the poems together?
 
First of all, thank you for having me. For a start, my chapbook is a room cut out of an apartment—my full-length is the apartment in this case. As for how the poems came out: the poems fell off my grief. As a male child, growing up I watched as my mother and other women around became practice sacks for whips, made of their husbands’ fists. Some of these women withered along the way. The ones who survived, were always too scared to say it out, because the sky of course is made of men’s muscles. So many more of these women stayed put in these horrific marriages because of their kids. Because they felt the need to give them “stable” homes. In every way, these events “are the neuroses from which I write.” These poems arose from the desire to immortalize these women. Actually, these goddesses. To point out that their vulnerability was a shield for their offspring. More importantly, to drag their silent tears into other people’s eyes. 
 
Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?
 
Hahaha. I did notice the tics even before putting the poems together. During this time, the question that kept rotating in my head was, what usually was the first response of my mama and the other women around me after getting hit? As a matter of fact tears were their only form of defense. So, these poetic tics are a manifestation of my creative thinking which is bent on making sure no childhood memory go unpunished. 
 
You talk about no memory going unpunished—what does memory do in your poetry? Is the poem a retelling, a reckoning? I think about this a lot as a writer—what do I mean to do in these pieces? Relive? Understand? Change, somehow, the telling of the past?
 
My poetry feeds imagination on memory. Memory is its primary tool. It is the ground upon which imagination germinates. So, memory is the livewire of my creativity. Although, it is imagination which now determines if the piece is a retelling or reliving or if its purpose is just to be understood.
 
How long did the process of making the manuscript take, from beginning to put it together to the moment you heard you'd be included in the chapbook collection?
 
That took about a year and 8 months. The first two poems of this collection were published by an amazing online journal called B O D Y in September of 2013 and I heard of the chapbook news in May 2015. It is safe to say that those two poems were the fuel for this chapbook, and by extension the full-length. 
 
How did you hear of your acceptance? What did you do immediately after you’d heard?
 
I heard through email. You see God works in such enigmatic ways. I was in my grandmother's house in the Ikotun area of Lagos for the first time in like 3 months that night when the news came. I was on the bed thinking about my trip to Kano for The National Youths Service Corps the next morning. I dashed into my grandma’s room who was asleep and started rewinding the moment. It was a bit elusive to her because she didn't know I was at that stage in poetry. But it was just the right news at the right time for a woman who enrolled me in my first school and was practically around throughout my formative years (I’m still forming anyways haha.)
 
What was it like to work with editors and bring the chapbook to press?
 
Working with Kwame was a phase of enlightenment for me. He didn’t communicate with me like an editor, but as a father, telling his blooming son what steps to take and not to take. Having him around was a blessing as he easily understood the collective vision of the poems and helped a lot. 
 
What do you wish you’d known about constructing the manuscript then?
 
Well, this is technically not about the construction of the chapbook haha. But seriously, I wish I knew I could dedicate a page to people who helped me a lot before this chapbook came into the world. I never knew I could, because I thought it was a chapbook! I would have said a great thanks to the likes of Francesca Bell, Jack Campbell, Nayelly  Barrios, Chris Crawford, Joshua Mensch, Ladan Osman, Leslie Anne Mcilroy, Laura Kaminski, Lena Bezawork, Daniel Bosch and of course Tsitsi Jaji, Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. And now that the chapbook is out, I can say big thanks to Boston University MFA program, my teachers there, Gail Entrekin of the Entrekin Foundation, Eileann Lorsung of Dickinson House and my Mama 0 (Jeryl), and Steve, Siena, Jason, Jett, Phil, Chloe Honum, among so many many others that this space won’t permit. Hahaha. 
 
What’s changed since you’ve published the chapbook? Do you think of or approach your work differently?
 
It is safe to say our minds are shaped by time. As such, our approaches change overtime, regardless of what we do. Since the chapbook, I had left my Nigeria and been to Morocco, Mexico, Barbados and of course the United States where I live now. This meant stepping out of my grandmother's gray hair for the first time. This meant stepping out of my 6-year old sister's tiny teeth for the first time. This meant learning things like sand, air, water, etc., all over again. You know, that's some kind of redefinition. This alteration in my life has had an enormous impact on my approach to writing. This is married to the fact that I'm currently working on my MFA in Creative Writing at Boston University. Studying under great teachers such as Robert Pinsky, Maggie Dietz and Karl Kirchwey has made me a better critic of my poems. They have helped dig out the tooth I never knew I had. Now, I am not scared to pluck out words, lines or stanzas I find not working in a poem. 
 
Can you talk about the importance of bodies in your work? Even in your responses to these questions, you seem very close to the bodies of your family, and I'm thinking especially of the gorgeous lines in "Virgin": "My mother was beating/inside my Father's heart, when my sister fell/From her womb..." There's so much intimacy and, also...not violence, but, perhaps, fierceness in your talking about your family's bodies. 
 
Thank you for pointing this out Katie. You know, my mind is conditioned to think of everything as having bodies. Even the air has its own body, which is why we feel it. It has been this way from childhood. As a child, the biggest stories I read were written on my mother’s face. Her expressions were the first language I learned.  But that’s as loud as my mother could go about what she went through. She didn’t have a voice, like most women of her time and place. Just her face and body. And if you weren’t close to her/them, you wouldn’t know any of these stories—these silent stories. For me, when I write, these bodies (and my sisters’) push themselves out of my head onto the page. These bodies always yearn to be heard and I’m just their agent.
 
What are you working on now? 
 
Right now, I’m working on some poems bound by time and geography. The poems are set mostly in a boarding school in Suleja, a city in Northern Nigeria. And they have wide-ranging themes touching on things that make and unmake us. 
 
I’m also at the basic stage of a memoir. This is a long-term project, but I’m in the rumination phase of the project. I should mention that this project was inspired by a writing class I took last semester under my dear professor, the non-fiction writer, Lou Ureneck. 
 
What are you reading?
 
Right now, I’m reading Selected Poems by Claude McKay, Wild Iris by Louis Gluick, The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtromer, Camp Notes and Other Writings by Mitsuye Yamada, The Autobiography of my Mother by Jamaica Kincaid. 
 
Next, I will be reading Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Fury by Salman Rushdie and Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw. And planning to re-read That Kind of Happy by Maggie Dietz, Fast Animal by Tim Seibles, The Tulip-Flame by Chloe Honum and Burn by Andre Bagoo.
 

D.M. Aderibigbe was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He graduated with a BA in History and Strategic Studies from University of Lagos in 2014. His chapbook, In Praise of Our Absent Father is an APBF New Generation African Poets Chapbook Series selection. He has received 2015 and 2016 fellowships and honours from Oristaglio Family Foundation, Entrekin Foundation, Dickinson House, Callaloo and Boston University where he is doing his MFA in creative writing, and where he’s also receiving a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. His poems appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, RATTLE, STAND, and elsewhere. Spillway recently nominated his poem for a 2017 Puschcart prize. His first manuscript is a finalist for the 2015 and 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.