Inua Ellams describes himself as the lovechild of John Keats and Mos Def. An accomplished poet, his first play, The 14th Tale, begins a new run at the Battersea Arts Centre this month (see our glowing review from the London Word Festival) . Xstream East Radio’s Nikk Quentin Woolf got the low-down.
What is The 14th Tale about?
It’s about my childhood. I came to the UK from Nigeria at the age of eleven and have lived in Dublin before settling here. The show traces the journey and dips back into my heritage to my Grandfather, where the story begins really. He was quite troublesome growing up, as was my father and me and I imagine my son to be I think. The play is essentially about that. It begins with this line, “I am from a long line of troublemakers”.
What prompted you to write for the stage?
I write really dense beautiful work; it relies on participation and close attention from the audience. I do a lot of readings and performances but I got really tired of reading to rooms and being aware that the entire audience were either trying to sleep or were chatting up the person beside them - not really engaging. Theatre made my ego grow. I wanted people to know that they would be spending a dedicated hour or so engaging with dense beautiful literature. A black box provides such an opportunity. I am trying to push the idea of performance and performance poetry in theatre.
So you haven’t fully stepped out of the poetry camp as yet?
Everything boils down to poetry for me. It all begins with the idea of an image, a narrative you might be able to attach to it well enough to give to an audience.
You once said that the play itself acted on one level as a metaphor for a shift, a tonal shift or a thematic shift in your own writing.
Yeah, this is true. My first book, Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales, was published in 2005 when I was wet behind the ears, a nineteen year old boy, not quite sure what poetry was or what my voice was, but I had all this anger, this idea that I wanted to give to people. I had just discovered African literature, heritage and history. I wanted to say, ‘Oh My God, this is disgusting, you really should know about this’. Fortunately I found a way to trap that, and that was in poetry. Back then I would write poetry that would be so metaphorically dense and crazy that only I would understand what the poem meant, but it was all just about self-expression. Stephen King says that when you write you should write first with the door closed and then edit with the door open. The idea is that you go through the creative process and make sure your ideas or elements are raw and then you go through the process of fine-tuning. After the whole experience of being angry and just writing, I realised the world is bigger than me and my voice. I learned that things have to be distilled. Also, my father had a stroke about that time, and therefore I really had to calm down, not just in terms of how I wrote, but with my role in my family. The play is a reflection of all of those things.
Is that urgent communication of ideas still important to you? Is it enough to put something aesthetically beautiful in front of people or do you want to say something with your work?
I think language is so wrongly used in our society that there has to be an onus. There have to be ways in which it can be delivered properly and cleanly and with enough responsibility. This is what good poetry does. Linton Kwesi Johnson describes poetry as the distillation of human experiences through language, the idea that it is fine-tuned, positive and true. This is what I think should bracket all forms of communication.
You started out, when you came here, pretty much penniless, was it was a close thing whether you became a poet or a painter?
I had wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to paint and create with my fingers, but I couldn’t afford acrylic paint, and I didn’t yet really know how to use Photoshop, but I still wanted to express myself, so I drifted into poetry because I saw it as the same thing, as painting pictures, but just with words instead of brushes.
Perhaps cost is a contributing factor to this lazy, sloppy usage of language that you dislike: because words are free, more people have access to them, more people feel entitled to them.
More people are going to university, therefore more people graduate with a good grasp of English, therefore more people can write, therefore more people may consider themselves writers. And I’m not saying that I am any judge of literature or who should be a writer, I’m just saying more people have access to the ideas, the thought patterns, that give birth to literature, therefore it’s easier for anyone to stand up and be a writer or a poet.
Clearly the play is heavily influenced by your life experiences and your lineage. Where is the line of demarcation between yourself and your art. Is there one?
Fundamentally, anything that an artist creates is autobiographical because you are expressing something of yourself and the truth becomes an abstract or a metaphorical idea, in that you can talk about a fictional character going through things that you have gone through. Therefore, though it is fiction, it is your truth, just coming through someone else’s mouth. The 14th Tale, I would say, is about eighty per cent factual and twenty per cent fictional.
Inua Ellams’ play, The 14th Tale will be at the Battersea Arts Centre from the 19th of October through to the 31st; details here.
The Arts Show with Nikk Quentin Woolf is at every Tuesday at 3pm.