Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

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