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A Poet Seeks to Know the Precise Weight each Word can Bear | In Conversation With Richard Ali

The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, Richard Ali
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On our latest Tweetchat series, we had one of Nigeria’s finest poets with us. Richard Ali has been Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (2011-15). The author of The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, Ali is also a founding member of the Nairobi-based arts collective, Jalada Africa, and sits on the board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, based in Kampala, which administrates the BN Poetry Award.

Richard Ali is presently the Programme Manager of the Association of Nigerian Authors Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (ANA PCVE) programme, which seeks to use literature to counter extremism. He is also an alumnus of both the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and the US State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership program.

He co-founded @Parresiabooks in 2012 and practices law in Abuja, Nigeria. His impressive resume runs on and on. His debut collection of poems, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, is published in 2019 by Konya Shamsrumi. Our conversation’s transcript below.

Syncity NG: Where did the love for literature come from? Your bio has shown your extensive strides in promoting the arts and literature. How did love for this thankless job come about?

Richard Ali: My love for words started in Jos in the 90s, the Abacha years. A decade earlier my father had amassed a trove of books as a young man in Kano. I grew up to meet these and would get to read a book during fuel scarcities. Before long, it was me actively going to seek out books from the cartons they were kept, then the school library during break….but I locate my love for the written word to that period of fuel scarcity in a trying period for the Nigerian middle class.

Syncity NG: Wow. Something good came out of those Abacha years after all. So, when did you decide that reading was no longer enough? When did you start writing?

Richard Ali: I Indeed it did. Something of a paradox eh, Abacha inspiring a love for words. 😀 My writing came later, first poetry and then prose. The first inspired by hating secondary school, typical teenage angst; the second by tragedy and the loss of my hometown Jos city.

Syncity NG: I noticed your deep love for Jos. You are not alone. @MI_Abaga has the same love for J-Town. What is it about Jos that inspires creatives?

Richard Ali: Ah, Jos in the 90’s was a movable feast. First the people, could be counted on for a sannu and good morning, [the] air cool always, and rocks around you giving a sense of rootedness. The rituals we shared, the food; it was PRTV’s 90.5 fm and the gods who ran it. Home. Jos was also about my mother and COCIN matan zumunta folks, Rayfield Resort, a wild life park, a museum, MOTNA. It was the sheer magic of sallah and Christmas and football in the anguwa, it was acha, kunu, the calm of rocks and cool breeze, and the Berom xylophone in a mental space. Jos was first teenage love as well, cosmopolis.

Syncity NG: Awww. You are making me feel nostalgic. Home for me has always been Lagos. Traffic, busy streets, noise, Danfo. Chaotic. But I love it. With the recent happenings in Jos, how has your writing addressed the killings/displacement of people from their home?

Richard Ali: You can say that the loss of Jos as a result of the crisis made me a writer. Displacement and exile is integral to my sense of self. As I said, prose came out of tragedy for me. My novel was an attempt to understand my loss and un-loss it, a city of memory is a penultimate space…before katakata in the sense of Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. We lose & it’s more than we who have lost.

Syncity NG: Speaking of your books—especially a city of memory and other literary pieces you put out there—how did a young writer like you find his authentic voice to write things the way he saw them? How did you channel that grief into words?

Richard Ali; By the time I came of age in the early noughties, there was a sense of disconnect from the previous generation of writers. Most had left in the worst days of the Abacha regime and whatever inter generational machine we had, had broken. Thus orphaned, one had to find a confidence in one’s own shaky, budding voice. Gimba Kakanda is from that period as well. We felt we were at the start of a new literary history. But that’s not the whole picture. I belonged to a number of online communities in the days long before Facebook, yahoo groups like Krazitivity and the Sentinel Poetry Bar where the exiles [of the] 3rd Generation, so called, hung out. And it was possible to, at an angle to the stairs, appraise them.

Practically. I’ve always had help. Toni Kan was very gracious, mentioned me in an interview in Daily Trust in the mid noughties. Uche Umez introduced me to Jude Dibia who mentored me—without  which there would have been no novel. I found my voice through all this.

Syncity NG: I was at Umar Sidi’s poetry reading last week at Patabah Books. It was there I got The Anguish and Vigilance of Things at just N2,000. My God, that book! It sucks you in and twists your soul. How did you create that magical body of work?

Richard Ali, The Anguish and Vigilance of ThingsRichard Ali: Why thank you! 😍 In The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, I have written my life on the page. Each poem is someone I know, something I did, a love I explored. So, [the poems] can be told like prayer beads against my story. How does a poet transform the personal & introspectively into a context for others, by definition “outsiders”? The experimentation with language. A poem seeks the essence of experience. A poet seeks to know the precise weight each word can bear.

@switminta: Should we expect more?

Richard Ali: Most def. There will be individual poems from time to time but it might be five years down the line before there’s new collection. I write from my life, you see, and each poem must be lived. There’s likely to be a collection of short stories and a novel before that.

Syncity NG: The Anguish and Vigilance of Things is like a girlfriend. On some days you love her, on some, she’s annoying, on some, she’s deep, and on some, you just don’t want to let go. I read the book with different emotions. Raw. Honest. Descriptive. Solemn. Old. Playful. Flirty.

Richard Ali: They may not look like it but each poem in The Anguish and Vigilance of Things is, in its sense, a love poem. It may be argued, someone did, that all our lives we are falling in love with the same person? There’s something there.

@mystiquesynn: How do you choose your titles? The title of your book is intriguing. Two, how do you know when a collection of poetry is ready to be published? Do you feel it in your soul? Also, where do you get the strength to run Konya Shamsrumi and Parresia Books simultaneously?

Richard Ali:

One cannot choose a poetry book title carefully enough! With mine, two things converged. First was clarity of my technique, being “at an angle to the stairs” of my life. Second was a fondness for the doomed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The title, with a little modification, was taken from a poem of Lorca’s Landscape of the Pissing Multitude. A dark little lovely poem. The line fit what I saw as my own approach to my life and my poems as gathered in that collection.

About your second question, one tries the best one can. With Konya Shamsrumi I’ve been very pleased with the amount of work done in such a small spate of time. I tend to be in the centre of a lot of things and what I try to do is for each to have at least a bit of my attention. Eventually. It’s your friends and admirers who compel you to publish your poems! Left to me, maybe they would have simmered for a few more years? Truth: I started with about 130 poems most of which I discarded for the 48 published. Those others will never be published.

Syncity NG: Tell us about these poems people have been gushing about. You and Umar Sidi planned to give us a double dose of good poetry at the same time. Tell us about these books. You are both published both at Konya Shamsrumi.

Richard Ali: KonyaShamsrumi is exciting! First, we created the KSR Collective comprising me, Sidi, Funmi Gaji and Rasaq Malik . We’ve published two collections with two chapbooks, names under wraps, due soon. We intend to expand the collective each year with 4 new members from across Africa.

Umar Sidi’s The Poet is Dust explores the person, the Human, in the context of society/the Earth in the Universe. Twist is, he approaches it using the imaginaries of Sufism, creating a collection of poems that have simply never been seen in Nigerian Literature. With The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, the central idea is love poems as testamentaries of a poet who has been “at an angle to the stairs” in relation to his own life. In achieving my ends, I seek out words that can yield and manipulate mood. Our worldviews are similar.

Syncity NG: Before we let you go, we’d like a few last words on the show, Richard. Say, advice to the poetry community or young poets who wish to be as successful in poetry as you are? Also, how do interested readers get The Anguish and Vigilance of Things?

Richard Ali: Poets, be true to your Self, which means to say “No”, to say “No, I will not serve”. To understand & be dissident. Only in this insistence do we find truth. Poetry is easily v. dangerous stuff, but worse would be a world without it. I reject such a world, so I write.

There’s a list of bookstores on the Konya Shamsrumi website. Also, you can always send me an DM [on Twitter] so I let you know the nearest bookstore stocking it. Stores like Patabah Books and AMAB Books and many others.


Please follow us on Twitter @Syncityng to participate in our #SyncityNGLLL series in real time. It’s a lot of fast-paced engaging fun. If you liked this conversation, click/tap here to read our Tweetchat with Saddiq Dzukogi and Logan February. You’ll love ’em!

Meanwhile we can’t wait for our anniversary anthology! See you next week!


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