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Behind the Scenes: An Interview with David Ishaya Osu

Writer in portrait: David Ishaya Osu

Hello, David! Can you give us a short introduction, tell us about yourself?

I am a full-blown Scorpio—27 October 1991. It feels good to share a birthday with one of my favourite poets, Sylvia Plath. I love poems, street photographs. I do not know how to hold my body when music strikes; I just groove. I am a wanderer. Do not box me into tiny corners; I hate rules. I am a disobedient poet. I am currently trying to figure out if I’m becoming a chocoholic; my girlfriend should confirm the diagnosis soon.

Can you recall when you first started writing? What inspired you to start?

As a kid growing up, I was told I was too inquisitive. I was told I was acting above my age. My questions and thoughts met responses such as: you do not need to know this now; this is not for your age; when you grow up you will understand; and so on. Not only was I disappointed, I started to hide—I withdrew into myself. I felt misunderstood (and I still feel misunderstood, though I no longer sweat it). Withdrawal, for me, meant discovering the world of imagination and figuration; it meant devising my own nomenclature.

Fresh out of secondary school I continued asking questions, picking books, rejecting popular judgments and wisdoms, and there I started scribbling. I was fascinated by the sheer beauty of words, of how authors translated their minds into texts—into readable beings. That beauty still inspires me: the pure joy of language, of lyrical embodiments. And the first poem I wrote at age eighteen or nineteen, I titled ‘What is love’. Love, love, love. I guess I will live the rest of my life seeking, to see or experience what love is.

What writers and/or poets have inspired you?

Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Uche Nduka, Unoma Azuah, Olu Oguibe, Fela Kuti, Bessie Head, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Anais Nin, Lidia Yuknavitch, Sappho, Sarah Manguso, Nancy Gaffield, Simon Smith, Michael Ondaatje, Lou Andreas-Salome, Rainer Maria Rilke, Leslie Scalapino, and many others.

When did you start submitting to literary magazines? If there is a writer out there that is still hesitant to let others read their work, or hesitant to send it to a literary magazine, what piece of advice would you give them?

I started submitting my poems after I was published in two national dailies in Nigeria. The editors at different times asked to see what I was writing. I was nineteen or so. That boosted my confidence to share more poems. I remember getting copies of the newspapers and showing my mates. That was how I started reading literary magazines, both print and online. I was mostly interested in reading new authors at the time. I wanted to see if there were people like me out there in the world. Reading meant discovering creatives who shared a community of wildness.

Artists should feel no pressure or guilt in publishing or not publishing. Write, write, write. Believe in your work; trust your art. My encouragement is that they should see it as sharing love with readers, with the world. A poem, a fabric, a design, a song, a sketch, a meal, a story, they are all pieces of our heart; gifts we can share. As long as we live in this world, there will always be need for poetry, for stories, for furniture, for grace, for comfort, for hope. We are humans, interconnected and interdependent.

Why did you decide to submit to Portmanteau? How did you come across us?

I saw the call for submissions on Twitter and thought it was a great vision. I have no preference, be they small magazines or big. Publications are what they are: to put the work out there. Personally, I want to support indie magazines, small presses as much as possible. No single publication has the whole world as its entire audience. We can reach people from wherever we stand or sit. The Portmanteau vision is impressive and deserving of all the support.

What does your writing schedule look like? I guess I’m wondering whether you write more when inspiration strikes, or whether you schedule time specifically for writing.

My writing schedule is unpredictable. The thing is, I am always bubbling with inspiration and new images. My writing is not tied to time, theme nor schedules. I rather choose to write or not to write, of which I feel no pressure at all. Sometimes poems happen to me in the middle of conversations with friends or strangers, and in total respect for their time and presence, I do not excuse myself out. I have trained myself to carry unwritten poems in my head, to nurture thoughts and ideas even without pen or paper. A way of living in the world that is not only for reading and writing; you go out for groceries, you have friends and family, you have chores, you have to shower, movies to watch, you have to sleep. I have no fixed plans at all for writing; my entire existence is art, poetry on its own. Sometimes you find a new poem in tending to your garden. Sometimes the poems gush out from your kitchen tap. Other times you see a story in the middle of a batter or dough. Catching trains, buses. It’s all a mix.

I notice that one of your poems, ‘London Loop’, has a location in its title. Are you often inspired to write about specific places? Are these places you’ve been, or how you imagine them?

They are places I have been to and places I imagine. The experience of a place is both physical and psychological. London Loop was exactly how it happened on a walk one evening. I had my zoom lens and had taken several photos of the guys fishing. I got close to them. We got talking. The poem was from that meeting.

With every movement, every relocation, you realise the body is a carriage of places—memories and fantasies of/for places. Our bodies carry testaments and histories of places we have been to—and even places we desire to inhabit. As a street photographer and psychogeographer, I am perpetually inspired by space and the expanse of my mind as I get lost in the city. I walk without a plan; I do not even keep a mental map.

In your poem ‘A Thousand Years’, I’m struck by the line, “the next train comes after this poem.” I love the way you play with time here. I’m wondering whether you construct your poetry in the moment (reactionary), or if you let the experience sit with you a while, and then write about it (reflection)?

Thank you so much for this kind comment, Shona. I remember I wrote this line in Waterloo East station. It was freezing cold and my mind was burning with images. The line happened just at the arrival of a train. The next train was my train, and I thought that would be the end of the poem. I closed my notebook, dropped it in my tote and hopped on the train. Guess what, when I got home the poem continued—images came flashing from everywhere, from the station, from unwrapping sweets, shoelaces, and so on.

There is a simultaneity to the past and the present and the future. I am aware that my mind jolts into capturing moments that would ordinarily be left out. Some moments never make it into a poem, though bodied in me. There is also a simultaneity to responding and imagining and reflecting. Is not life itself a loop? A thousand things happening at the same time.

When I first read your poems, I was first struck by your use of punctuation and enjambment. Each line in ‘A Thousand Years’ is encased in em dashes, for example. Also, ‘Gifts’ and ‘London Loop’ feel succinct because of the short lengths of the lines and the way you use enjambment to let the lines flow over to the next. Is there a particular reason these poems use punctuation and structure in this way? Can you explain your thought process behind these decisions?

My use of punctuation is hugely inspired by the poem, by the poetic presence, the experience and by a continuum. The architecture of the place I am at, the arrangement of affect and effect. In my poems, a full stop literally means a stop; interestingly, there are few stops in my poems (laughs). The poems are always in motion. There is a viscerality to punctuations in my work. Feed or drain the lake, the shape of water is its currents. I like to think that my interest in and study of architecture and city planning has greatly influenced how I structure poems aesthetically. Plus, I am obsessed with fragmentation in literature and of psychology. Disjointed thoughts or stories fascinate me.

Poems are not mere letters; they are carriers of currents; they are bodies; they are buildings; Poems are spirits.

I know that some writers dread the editing stages of the writing process, are you one of these writers? How do you approach editing your work?

I am on friendly terms with editing my work. Even when lines are removed, they are done in peaceful agreement—and in love. Some lines make it to new poems, others make it to recycle bins; there are those that never even make it to the page. I approach editing with all senses activated. Not just about what I want the work to be; I look out for what the work itself needs to become.

And finally, this is a bit of a fun question: what is your go to writing beverage and snack?

Heaven, a glass of milk or anything that has chocolate, and I am good to go. Soft drinks, yes. I have tried writing with wine and beer, and it did not go writerly; it went lovey-dovey. Alcohol makes me all emotional, craving to say my love and to receive love. Wooo, how can I forget kunu aya or chin-chin? One other joy that goes well with writing, for me, is music.

You can find out more about David on his website HERE

David Ishaya Osu is a featured writer in Portmanteau Issue 1. Click HERE to order now.

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