Monday January 14, 2013
Inua Ellams - A poet by design
By SHARMILLA GANESAN
A poet and spoken word artist shares how he uses words to paint images.
“…on long bus rides
I close my eyes and try to hear drumbeats
from Nigeria- the mother land calling.
I be like “yes mum, I’m hearing ya”
It’s like some ciphered world
with armies of sounds
and underground cultures
with talon-less vultures
trying to pierce my skin
and place talking drums within.” – Inua Ellams
Meeting Inua Ellams after watching him perform can be a surprising experience. Onstage, the poet and spoken word artist has a commanding presence, his thrumming voice and hypnotic syllables practically demanding that you pay attention. In person, however, Ellams seems younger than his 28 years of age, given to quick, shy smiles and sudden giggle fits.
It is precisely this contrast, though, that makes him so easy to warm up to, as I discovered during a recent interview, when Ellams was brought down to Kuala Lumpur by British Council Malaysia to perform at the Urbanscapes festival in Petaling Jaya, Selangor and conduct a poetry workshop.
While his prowess with poetry can initially intimidate you, a few minutes of conversation is all it takes to induce you to chat away like old friends.
Even in conversation though, you never forget that within this affable young man resides the soul of a poet, thanks to his lyrical turns of phrases, the lilting cadences of his speech, and his sudden unusual observations of everyday matters.
Born in Nigeria and growing up predominantly in London, Ellams came by poetry almost by accident in 2003. His first passion, which he continues to indulge in today, was graphic design and art. Poverty, he says bluntly, ushered him towards poetry.
“I was too broke to buy paint,” he shares. “I had massive immigration problems, so I wasn’t allowed to work officially, and I couldn’t go to university. So I read a lot, books like the Malcolm X biography, and became an ‘angry black man’ in South London.
“And then someone gave me Amethyst Rock Star by (American musician and poet) Saul Williams, and I thought, if that was poetry, I could get onboard with it. I had spent my whole life wanting to be in design, to create art. So I thought, I could paint a picture with words. That’s how my poetry started, and that’s how I write poetry, with lots of imagery.”
From these humble beginnings, Ellams has risen to being hailed as one of Britain’s exciting young creatives, and has had his works commissioned by organisations as diverse as London’s National Theatre, the British Museum, and the Royal Opera House, not to mention performed at countless festivals and spoken word events around the world.
Ellams’ works, featuring evocative titles like Candy Coated Unicorns And Converse All Stars and 13 Fairy Negro Tales, use pop culture, city life and cultural backgrounds to explore many different facets of life, but all have one underlying theme.
“The one fundamental recurring theme in all my works is that I don’t believe we’re different from anyone else. We’re all different versions of the same people. So when I write, culture and tradition sit at the top of the framework, but below is universal human emotion,” he explains.
His style, however, has evolved since his early days.
“When I first started, it was extremely wild and imaginative, with far too many similes and metaphors, and as much rhythm packed into it as possible,” he shares. “Then I met the poet Kwame Dawes, who critiqued my poems and put the fear of poetry in me.
“I didn’t write again for six months, but when I did, my writing was much more controlled.”
While he first gained recognition as a spoken word (performance poetry) artist, over the years, Ellams has gradually come to identify himself more as a poet. And yes, he says, there is a difference.
“Spoken word is written for the voice of the performer, it has a lot of their personality roped into it. And when you write for the stage, the audience is only going to digest the piece in that one setting.
“Things that need to be dissected only work when they’re written down. Poetry can be read and appreciated on the page. Poetry should simply be delicious in the mouth, no matter who is reading it,” he says.
He sees spoken word, he says, as a bar brawler – “it can sometimes be all about style and bombast” – while poetry is an old martial arts master.
“I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but I have my sights set on being a master,” he adds.
Ellams shares that he no longer writes spoken word pieces, preferring instead to focus on poetry and plays. He points out though, that the inherent musicality and rhythm of his writing work well when it is read out.
“I’m aware of the decline of spoken word; these days, anyone with a decent grasp of performance style can say they’re a spoken word artist. I still want spoken word to be a brand of poetry, instead of just speaking with style. I’m trying to bring more poetry to spoken word.”
And if he had to pick between being a poet and a graphic designer?
“I’d probably pick poetry. Most nights, I go to bed and wake up thinking of poetry.”
Inua Ellams’ poetry can be seen on YouTube, or visit his website at: www.inuaellams.com