Inua Ellams is a poet, playwright and performer. He is also a graphic designer and has created work for clients including Coca-Cola, Frantic Assembly and the Southbank Centre. Inua talks to Elen Lewis about how the difference between poetry and spoken word is like working with two masters – the old martial arts sensei and the bar brawler.
Where do you write your best poetry?
I don’t have a specific location. Or if I do, it is a space that exists between my laptop and myself, which is a portable space. I also write on my iPad and on my iPhone. It’s a combination of apps, notebooks, laptops and palms.
Where do you have your best ideas?
In the shower. Without a doubt. I could say something pretentious about being predominantly made of water and simultaneously being cocooned in water, that the water in my body finds equilibrium with the water from the shower and they create a safe in-between space for my brain to soar… or something… but it’s far less convoluted than that. I think the shower is the only place where I am not distracted. I have to stand still and wait. After a night’s dreaming where all the residual stuff of the day before is sorted out by my subconscious, in the early morning stillness, new thoughts rise.
How do your graphic art and poetry inform one another?
I spent most of my youth wanting to become a visual artist. Later I switched to graphic design, which I think of as functional visual art. When I design for clients, I usually try to distil the message, the event, album, project down to a single image or object, and from there build a family of fonts and colours to communicate its attributes. I try to build a ‘language’, if you will. When I write poetry, equally, I am usually struck by an image. The image always comes first. As I think more about it or wonder about what it is a metaphor for, a family of themes, ideas, words and locations emerges – a language to better communicate the importance of the image/object – and this becomes the poem.
Who is your writing hero and why?
If I am to settle on one person, within the world of poetry, it would be Billy Collins, the American poet. Because he has found a voice within poetry which is entirely his own, or which has become attributed to him. Because he is read by a hell of a lot of people. Because he is one of contemporary poetry’s success stories. Because he makes it look oh-so simple.
Is there a difference in your mind between your spoken word plays and poems? Does one become the other?
There are differences between spoken word and poetry. In fighting terms, I see them as two masters. Spoken word is the bar brawler/bare knuckle boxer/cage fighter. Page poetry is the old martial arts sensei, with a long white wispy beard and a hat, who stands with his hands behind his back. When the fight is over, the bar brawler would have definitely got the job done. You’d see people passed out over the bar, dangling from lights, slumped over chairs. He’d have blood all over his knuckles. With the master, on the other hand, you might only realise his victory or defeat (it is irrelevant to him, the fighting is all that matters) two years later when you’re sitting on a park bench and a leaf falls, or the light changes and you think “…oh! That’s what that meant”.
I don’t believe one is better than the other (were they to fight it out, I don’t know who would win), it just depends on who you’re playing to, the reasons why you come to writing and what you’d like to achieve. Another obvious difference is that a ‘piece’ cannot be divorced from the performer or its performance; if it just reads awfully or doesn’t work written down, then it is not a poem, it is a spoken word piece. A poem should be able to stand alone, divorced from the writer. There are other differences, to do with complexity, experimentation, pacing, detail, density…
Plays are the far end of the spectrum. You write knowing that words alone are not the tools to communicate, or not the sole conveyers of the entire story, idea or meaning, and you need movement, light, sound and all the tricks that theatre affords to decorate the lone voice. I think of the poet as Bruce Banner, his transforming self as spoken word and The Hulk as theatre. Again, there can be skilfully nuanced versions, when a spoken word performance contains elements of either poetry and theatre, or theatre contains poetry and spoken word pieces.
Who inspires you?
Rather, what inspires me? Truth and the search for greater understanding. I don’t believe that we are fundamentally different from each other. I grew up in London, Lagos, Jos, and Dublin at three different pivotal and important stages in my life. I learnt from an early age that folks are folks. Regardless of race, culture, age, identity we are all as inventive, deceitful, gorgeous, violent, supreme, kind, devious, incredibly welcoming, kind and two faced as each other. I write to explain away our difference and celebrate our similarities.
You’ve talked of the power of Gildenstern’s quote in Hamlet, which says “the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream”. How has Shakespeare influenced your work?
He was a show off, a braggart, an immensely controlled, talented, gifted show off. He showed me “what dreams may come”. His inventiveness alone is dazzling. He was almost callous with language. He was my earliest introduction to the joy of working with words, I learnt to enjoy language from reading him and my earliest lessons in structure came from his sonnets. He was the welcome mat to the house that words built. Whenever I feel lost, I go back to that mat, I read a play of his and think “Ah, that’s what it’s all about”. I find my feet and begin again.
In 26 words, what advice would you offer fledgling poets?
Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Make Mistakes. Own your mistakes. Start again.