Jeremiah Agbaakin is an award winning poet, writer, journalist and graduate of law from the University of Ibadan. In this interview with Tell!, he shares stories about his early life, experiences as a poet and his motivations for writing.
In the poetry world, the Muselord is a household name. So, what’s Jeremiah Agbaakin like outside the poetry world?
Good evening Aisha. In my conversation with a mentor few days ago, I remember telling him out of …-you know those little impulsive wisdom that poetry is life and life is poetry. I find it very onerous to define myself outside the orb of poetry, word making and every manifestation of a love for creativity. I cannot imagine myself outside the poetry world.
But then, those who know me outside poetry (and by that I mean childhood friends who thought I was going to end up as a pilot or a scientist or a military man) see me as one unserious guy But I guess your question must be answered. First, I am a human. I am a lawyer in training and I am ordinary. I do not fail to remind myself of that.
Tell Us about your family background & early life
Well. I was born on the 9th day of a wet April, 1994 to a fairly young couple who were in love and a couple of older siblings: a boy and a girl. Later, two female siblings would join the family to take the tally to five children.
So I am the third child. I was born in the not so sleepy town of Ikire, Osun state. I remember having lots of friend, with just one or two always close to my heart. I also remember my love for reading science and literature at a very early age. I also remember my love for football though I sucked at it.
I was very talkative and had a hobby for constructing beautiful invectives in my little English. Once, I insulted a girl at the age of maybe 10 for you know turning down my admirations. She kept mute and only told me I was going to fall sick and die on Monday. She was that specific. In three days’ time, I fell sick. The latter didn’t happen obviously.
But as I grew up, my tendency for crisp verbal expression has reduced. I think the pen is a better tongue now.
The beauty and magic of poetry made my discovery of it inevitable. When I look back at what I do now and ask myself how I would fare if I never met poetry, I draw a blank. Much of my earlier contact with literature while growing up was mostly prose and drama. It was about melodramatic stories of heroes and heroines. It was Nduka the Trickster. It was mostly stories about wars and adventure. I never had an early contact with poetry.
But I had a head full of imaginations and pictures. I cannot count how many plays I’ve written (inside my head)
In junior secondary school, a ‘corper’ who was teaching us English was enchanted with the way I handled essay assignment. My first attempt at writing was essay. In fact, in SS2, I won two major state essay competitions in Osun state (organized by NESREA and PTDF). They were both science based competitions. By that time, I was very convinced I was going to become a writer.
But why poetry. Let me say the syllabus made sure I read Lenrie Peter, Oswald Mtshali and others. I remember winning a lunch ticket from an English teacher for reciting “Boy on a Swing” offhand. I memorized it and other poems for examination sake.
What was your first breakthrough as a young poet?
At a point, I began writing a parody of poems I’ve read. I used lines to woo girls on social media (laughs…) I’m not sure I can call those lines poetry anyway. My first serious attempt at poetry writing was in 2011 when my teacher, Mr. Matthew Adesina told me alongside a friend (Adetunji Tobi) that we had been asked to perform poetry at the state capital for a NESREA event. I remember composing poems for more than three hours in his living room. Then we wrote what we could and when he made sure he polished it, we memorized it.
That day was one of my fulling days in my life. I remember the audience ‘hmmming’, giggling and clapping. To me that was my first breakthrough as a poet. It instilled a shot of passion and confidence I needed doing to commence my poetry life.
You’re published on international poetry journals, how did you arrive at being internationally acclaimed/recognised?
I am flattered as I don’t think I deserve this acknowledgement. But I think I am a big dreamer. That spirit has helped me to picture myself in places where I may or may not find myself. But with every try, the distance closes in. When I set out to write at the beginning, it was just for the fun of it. I met Kunle Adebajo who had a poetry blog then. He encouraged me write. A law colleague, Oyinloye John also told me to open a blog.
However, I didn’t start sending my work to journals and magazines until 2016. It was WRR Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest. I had contested for Okigbo Contest in 2013/14 and was a finalist. But it was BPPC that showed me like minds. Then I determined to be a serious poet. Earlier, it was an addictive passion. Then it became a profession. I wrote tirelessly. I submit(ted) to journals tirelessly. You see rejections hurt. But then I didn’t even know the meaning of rejections. I just kept pushing. You see I wanted badly to win BPPC that I participated from March to September 2016. I never won! In a way, the condidence from BPPC shortlisting success as well as the never say-die experience prepared me for the frowning editors of journals.
There are ups and downs in life, I’m sure you’ve had your share of them. What fuels your passion to remain resilient in the face of tribulations?
The feeling that I’ve come too far to stop. And by coming far, I do not talk of the success. I mean the time and energies I have invested. I have a bad habit for reading biographies in any journal before the writer’s work (shame on me). I draw my inspiration and passion from a genuine connect with poetry. Everything is poetry to me. So how can I say I’m not doing again. I have made a practice of writing a poem everyday. I also read any poet. I mean any poet or poem or both. I am so entangled. But publishing is another story. Roy Guzman, an accomplished American poet said you don’t have to publish every poem. I write my heart and when opportunities to submit come, I do it expecting a rejection. When there’s acceptance, I feel flattered.
I think I am very practical when it comes to making submissions. I find out editorial philosophy of a journal or competition. I research who are the faces behind them and their tastes. It does not always work. But then, it gives you an idea of what you are doing.
You’re a six-time finalist of Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest, how do you feel?
I was actually shortlisted eight times. Twice in 2017. I have stopped contesting now though. I must confess that I am grateful to Kukohgo for the little experience I got from the contest. One thing I have learnt is that there is always something overhead no matter the height you have reached. Then, I saw the contest as the ultimate. I remember Kanyinsola Olorunnisola and his flatteries when I was shortlisted six times in 2016😁😁. It never got into my head. I just wanted to win the cash. It was a wrong motive but it led me discover that passion is essential, no matter the colour it comes in.
It is often believed that African writers are ‘conscience of the society,’ in that they write to express the going-ons in their societies. As a young poet, how have you pricked the attention of your audience on certain societal vices such as corruption and ethnocentrism?
Poetry aside, I think we cannot escape politics no matter how hard you try. They exert a considerable influence on our private and public lives. However, much of my poetry is not really about political commentary. But I am a political enthusiast. That informed my decision to join Bello Hall Press in my second year in the university of Ibadan. I used the Press platform more to talk about politics and at times rant about those perennial vices.
Poetry on the other hand is a very condensed art. There is often little space to talk about just bad governance. We have our newspaper for that.
My poems, albeit, have political colouring. For instance, my poem “there are landmines in Lagos” published by StepAway magazine was basically a protest against poor leadership. But then there is more to it. Politics and poetry share a common trait which is emotion. When the two intersect in my work, I make sure I tone down the politics. I appeal more to our private commonalities than the often abstract political talks.
So my poems may not really strike you as political. But if you’re looking for a political angle in my poem, I assure you that you’ll see it. It is a matter of perception.
If there is one thing you could change/modify about yourself, what would it be?
I think it is a bad idea to change anything about myself. As far as I am concerned, there will always be something undesirable to wish out. And so the continuum proceeds. I once loathed my impatience. I once loathed my endurance. But now I know better to live with one’s demons no matter how ugly they are
Aside poetry & journalism, what other things do you do enjoy doing
I am a sucker for detective movies. Just lock me up in a room with my favourite series for eternity. You are just doing yourself 😁.
I enjoy watching football too. Especially the arguments. Currently, I work as a banking agent while awaiting law school in October. I think I’ve fallen in love with the financial industry and how it operates. I used to hate economics and commerce. But now, it thrills me. I also love long conversations about dreaming, career and you know… writing.
Did I tell you I enjoy cooking! I feel alive in the kitchen. I love the creativity part of cooking. Overall, I love reading about science and God.
An anthology is currently being compiled called the MONUS anthology. MONUS being an acronym for Memoirs Of Nigerian University Students. The Anthology hopes to capture & preserve stories about true-life campus experiences of Nigerian University students & alumni. Would you be interested in submitting an entry?
I am very interested in literary projects. I’ve seen the call for submissions lot of time. I may not forgive myself if I don’t contribute. What do I do with my campus experience? ☹. But if I don’t contribute, the culprit would probably be paucity of time and abundance of projects.
Where do see yourself in the next 10 years?
I see myself aiming for bigger things that my mind is incapable of envisage at my humble stage now.I see myself in the academia teaching and mentoring poetry, of course
Any final remarks for the youths & aspiring poets that look up to you?
Dream and act. But dream big and act even bigger. I believe we are fated to fail but with mentored guidance, genuine devotion to the art as well as lots of persistence, anything is possible. Remember that altitude is a farce in aeronautics. There is always something overhead no matter your reach in the sky. So aim high and high and high. Enjoy the little moment of success too.
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