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In conversationLiterary Circle

“I Am My Own Worst Enemy. I Feel Things Too Deeply And Want To Get Them Out Of Me” | In Conversation With Inua Ellams

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One Needs Good Collaborators To Build With, Whilst The Artist Creates Art.

In this edition of the SyncityNGLLL show, we featured a maestro of art and an engaging session it was. Joining our very exclusive guest list this season on Monday, 29th July, was the award winning and multitalented creative, Inua Ellams.

Inua Ellams is a Nigerian born award winning international poet, playwright, graphic artist and designer, and founder of the Midnight Run. Identity, Displacement & Destiny are reoccurring themes in his work in which he mixes the old with the new, traditional with the contemporary. He has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Tate Modern, Louis Vuitton, Chris Ofili, BBC Radio & Television. His books are published by Flipped Eye, Akashic, Nine Arches & Oberon.

Syncity NG: Let’s dive right in. Do you ever unwind? I went through your bio and I had a headache. Couldn’t keep up. Jeez, you work like a horse! So enviable! Your bio be looking like an encyclopedia. When did this creative hustle begin?

INUA ELLAMS: Lol, I don’t unwind as much as I’d like to, but I am trying to prioritize it more. Sleep and rest. I have a reminder once every week, to book time to ‘chill’ and I have begun to guard that time preciously.

Syncity NG: Lol. Book time to chill? Jeez. You are busier than I thought. How does it feel though? To be marvellous at the art forms you take interest in: poetry, spoken word and theatre?

INUA ELLAMS: The Creative hustle began in 2003, doodling in my sketchbook absentmindedly at a poetry event here in London. Someone asked if I could design a flyer and I said ‘yes’ when it was clear they were gonna pay me to do it. I didn’t know WTF I was talking about! I’m not marvellous at anything. I am clumsy as hell. I stumble. I make mistakes. I chip my tooth. I write 7/8 drafts of everything. What I am is relentless and persistent.

Syncity NG: So for you, hardwork will always trump talent? Even ‘marvelous’ people have unending rough drafts?

INUA ELLAMS: Hard work and luck always trumps talent. You could be the greatest and most versatile lyricist this side of ever, but if you are doing it only in your room and if your publicist doesn’t know how to platform your vision, it won’t matter. I think I have been lucky, in that a lot of what I write about is what much of the creative industries here in England is concerned with. Five years ago it wasn’t so, ten years from now it will not be.

Syncity NG: Ah! So you do agree that art is not always enough. There has to be a strong team and publicist backing your dreams?

INUA ELLAMS: If you wanna go fast, go alone. If you wanna go far, go together. Yes, one needs good collaborators to build with, whilst the artist creates art.

Syncity NG: Inua, you are beginning to sound like a strategic Igbo businessman -‘Publicist’, ‘Industry’, strategic placements in UK’s creative industry et al. Okay, I’ll bite. How important is the role of a branding and publicity team to the work of an artist?

INUA ELLAMS: I’ve had to dissect my experience so I can explain to younger artists who ask me for advice. It is good to start off small, start alone, doing things by yourself so you get a feel of all aspects of your work. But after a while, as the workload increases, you will need help.

You could be the greatest and most versatile lyricist this side of ever, but if you are doing it only in your room and if your publicist doesn’t know how to platform your vision, it won’t matter.

Syncity NG: Let’s talk about your art. What’s your creative routine like? How do you marry poetry, performance and theatre?

INUA ELLAMS: Two words: Structured Chaos. I don’t have a clear routine and I have many things around me to capture thoughts, ideas, scenes, lines, verses, as they occur to me. I write on my phone, notebook, iPad, desk, in bed, on public transport, clubs etc. I have an idea first, save it until it blooms into something else, then decide what shape it should take, then find people to make it with. I have a folder ‘full’ of ideas that are incubating. Some won’t be ready for years to come.

Syncity NG: Na wa o. You write everywhere. Watapun? What’s pursuing you? Is there a voice telling you to release a certain body of work by xyz time? Are your Nigerian parents asking you to ‘go and marry’? Is that why you want to create and create and create?

INUA ELLAMS: LOL! I am my own worst enemy. I have a big mouth. I feel things too deeply and want to get them out of me. I hate causing pain or being the cause of pain and always want to turn that energy into something digestible and (if I am lucky) beautiful. My parents, at least once a week, tell me to stop working so much and to rest more. I’m trying to listen to them.

Syncity NG: Okay, before I make the floor open, please tell me. Where does one start from to create? How can we ‘be like you?’ (for lack of a better phrase)? How did you get the West to listen and accept this Nigerian who migrated to the UK?

INUA ELLAMS: The greatest task of every artist, I think, is to know yourself, to know your concerns and to know what you can and can’t do. That way, you are not reliant on outside influences to create. Your spirit powers you through the creative process. I am trying to know myself, but the little I do know is solid rock enough to build art on. This is where I create from. I do different things, then take on different forms, but always the same things intersect: Identity, displacement & destiny. I think the West listen because they’re having this conversation (or trying to) with themselves, wondering how to reconcile their colonial past with their troubled present. I’m the pesky kid at the door, bending the Queen’s English in ways they haven’t figured out how to ignore. One day, they will and I will dwindle into obscurity, as I should, as most artists will.

Tomiwagbaye: As a writer when (like after how many years of putting in the work) did you feel you started getting recognition?

INUA ELLAMS: Six years, 2009, after a play I wrote won and an award.

Tomiwagbaye: Inua, in your own case did you reach out to an agent or agency or did they come to you?

INUA ELLAMS: They came to me.

Tomiwagbaye: That means you must have climbed the sycamore tree. Could you tell us major things you did that you feel made them notice you?

Cynthia Nnadi (@inkpharm): Okay. So I have a bunch of questions, but I have to organize them so I don’t freak you out. First of all, how do you suggest one copes with the feedback mechanism that comes with success? The anxiety—the fact that one success requires you to beat its standard. The pressure?

INUA ELLAMS: Feedback? You just have to learn to toughen up and take it, but to take it from those you trust. The pressure never goes away, and the ego (which one needs in order to create art) always gets bruised. You must learn to dust yourself off and start again.

Cynthia Nnadi (@inkpharm): Thank you. What do you have to say about age and writing. Can one be a young, experienced writer? Considering writing is talent and skill, one who has developed oneself enough, is it possible to be highly acclaimed in the ‘literaryverse’ or would one be seen as a greenhorn?

INUA ELLAMS: You can be much older and still be a young writer, or can be young and have been writing since you were four, therefore an old writer. The terms are fluid and don’t really mean anything when you scrutinise them.

Cynthia Nnadi (@inkpharm): Thank you for this response. Well answered.
Lastly, is there a wrong or right way to go about the art? Considering uniqueness of voice in writing is more or less intrinsic and not formulaic. Is there a wrong or right voice? Can that even be changed if your voice is ‘wrong’?

INUA ELLAMS: Theft, in my opinion, is the only real wrong way to go about art. Often, discovering one’s voice comes from imitation. I started off writing Shakespearean sonnets, trying to sound like him, until I got bored and wanted to sound like me. There isn’t a right or wrong voice. Just varying degrees of who you are, and how close you are to being yourself.

Cynthia Nnadi (@inkpharm): I asked because, one time I entered for a contest. And, I wasn’t picked. And someone said, your story was probably not what they were looking for. So those that get picked, is their voice ‘better’, preferred or we all just have our moments engraved in time?

MystiqueSyn O. (@mystiquesynn): 1. Do you mentor artists who are based in Africa/Nigeria? I’m asking of your contributions to art back home. 2. Can you in detail, tell us about finances? What does it cost to create your kind of art and how rewarding is it? 3. How do the awards come

INUA ELLAMS: 1. I don’t. I work with artists here in England, but not in Nigeria. 2. I could, but prices here in the UK are very different from Nigeria. I don’t think it would help. 3. Someone, somewhere nominates me. For poetry prizes or competitions, I enter myself.

MystiqueSyn O. (@mystiquesynn): Still interested in question 2. Please try. We will convert. It’s for research.

INUA ELLAMS: Projects vary according to the size of the production & creative team. Sometimes its a poem, just me & mic at it is £50. Sometimes it is an entire creative team of over 40 people, and it is over £100,000. As you know film & tv can be vastly more. The money doesn’t come to me.

MystiqueSyn O. (@mystiquesynn): Don’t worry. We can’t kidnap you in London. Happens only here. Lol.

INUA ELLAMS: Lol, just clarifying-o! My bank account carry dust, no be small.

Ladyviable: One quick question, please. Is it advisable for a creative writer to set his/her valuable standards based on competitions? Thanks!

INUA ELLAMS: Good question, and the answer is no! Jesu! The reason why competition judges chose a winning entry is akin to how someone wins the lottery. The variables are limitless and will cave your brain in trying to figure out. You just have to write you and hope for the best.

Kayinsola. The Unbroken (@K_tops): I hate to ask the corny “what’s your advice for younger writers” question but what would you say are the major principles you live(d) by, which led to your amazing success over the years? What made you such an enigma in the literary space?

Syncity NG: Before we wrap the show, I would like Inua to say a word of encouragement to creatives going through mental health issues or those who are demotivated.

INUA ELLAMS: Good point to end on. The first piece of advice is a fact: We are, none of us, fully mentally healthy. The second is to find someone to talk to, there is nothing to be ashamed of in this. The third is to do things that engage your body, that rests your mind.

Syncity NG: Many thanks to all synners for joining uss. Keep pushing. Keep moving. Keep creating. Keep winning.

Did you miss our conversations with Nii, Nana, Harriet, and the other guests? You can find them all on the blog. Also, do follow us on Twitter to catch updates on all things Literature and Art.

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