I have known Su’eddie for over five years now and I am so delighted to be speaking to him after my long hiatus from The Afro Reader. This is also very timely because his recently published collection of poems was shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for 2022 .
I hope you enjoy this interview!
1) THE AFRO READER: Hello Su’eddie. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It’s been a long time coming. I know you personally – we’ve been friends for a long time and I have since followed your literary journey. But it will be great for the readers to get to know you. So please tell us a bit about yourself?
SU’EDDIE AGEMA: I am your regular neighbourhood writer and development consultant with love for the craft, community and making a difference.
2) I love that – “love for community!” How have you been able to combine your developmental work successfully with your writing?
Thank you. Both are to borrow the cliché, jealous mistresses that are fully demanding. The beauty of it is that you are often inspired by what you see on the field and the projects you implement. They feed into your creativity and give you materials you can use. Sometimes I cannot write for long stretches, but when it comes, I try to put down as much as possible and then edit. In the end, I guess God’s grace is what I can attribute everything to.
3) Well-done Su’eddie. Good to know you’re doing great in both areas. How do you feel about being on the shortlist of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022?
It is a beautiful feeling, and to share the space with Romeo and Saddiq is priceless. We had a fantastic longlist too, comprised of people I respect. It is really great to be on the list. As I mentioned somewhere, this one is not just for us alone, but for the tribe. More people will have faith in their craft and know that if we can rise to this point, and get to this stage, then they can do so too. To be one of the people who can create that faith is something special.
4) Tell us about Memory and The Call of Waters, your shortlisted poetry collection?
Memory and The Call of Waters is a book close to my heart that explores personal and communal experiences with sprinklings of contemporary and historical happenings. By the time I had the spirit of the poetry come together, and I was sure I wanted it to reflect most of what it currently has, I was thinking of a collection that would explore personal and communal experiences. I often try to use a dominant theme or metaphor to drive home my target themes or objectives in every collection, as evident in Bring our Casket Home and Home Equals Holes. I owe Hyginus Ekwuazi many thanks for this because we spoke about it at a point in my career, and it has stayed. I eventually settled on using water as a dominant metaphor for the work because that constant lies with us biologically, geographically, and in every sphere. The collection’s thematic range flows from family, love, culture, individual struggles, religion and depression to hope, survival, and redemption.
5) When did you begin working on it?
I can’t remember clearly now, but I know that the first draft was completed by 2017.
6) How long did it take you to write the collection, and what was the writing process like for you?
It took me about six years to put the whole collection together. The first draft was ready by 2017, and I remember running through it with my friend, Servio Gbadamosi, but I was not okay with it. I eventually had to live through more experiences, create new memories, and, importantly, do some research into some of the poems I had worked on. In the same period, I got to stay in a couple of cities across countries and go through several things, enriching my experience. That, in a nutshell, is the backstory to Memory and the Call of Waters. There was no uniform writing process for the book really, as the poems met me differently. Some were spontaneous, some meditations, and others a combination of both. What I tried to do in rendering the sections was to fuse the various component poems into a tight poem that embodies their spirit. I worked on it with several associates, including Servio Gbadamosi, Silas Sharamang, Aondosoo Labe, Oko Owi Ocho, Torkwase Igbana, Iveren Ayede and a few others. Along the line, I had a workshop in Oxford with Kwame Dawes, followed by some writing exercises on Haiku that he gave us, which helped bring to birth new poems that came to join the book. I have had fruitful conversations with my literary siblings, Daisy Odey, Debbie Iorliam and Romeo, which helped reshape some of those poems.
7) What is your favourite poem from the book?
I don’t really have a favourite poem in the book. They are all special to me.
8) What do you hope people take out from the collection when they read it?
I hope the book will speak to them and perhaps make them reflect on life more positively.
9) At what age did you know writing would be IT for you? Can you describe the first time you knew you could write beautiful poems and stories?
I have never really had to think of it. I have always tried writing, though most of what I was writing was crap for the longest time. I drew comics in secondary school alongside my friends, Tardoo Ayua and Obinna Okeke. It was fun and we could tell stories for ages but it got increasingly hard to keep drawing. The English compositions in secondary school, inspired by my teacher, Mr Emmanuel Mbatsavde inspired me to switch from drawing comics to concentrating on the written word. I remember that I would also write poems and show to my literature teacher, Mr James Ihongu, who would look at the poems, applaud them and tell me to keep it up. I realised that most of what I was doing was crap but I wasn’t deterred. I kept writing up to the university where I studied English and was taught by writers like Dr Maria Ajima and Professor Moses Tsenongu, whom I had read or known by reputation from my secondary readings. Other people like Dr Andrew Aba kept encouraging me, even as I eventually got into the Association of Nigerian Authors, where peer criticism improved my writing. Mr Sam Ogabidu, who became chairman at some point, was personally responsible for always encouraging me to keep at my craft while trying to find avenues to print some of my poems. At the university level, I was in the Writers’ League, where the peer criticism of colleagues like Alex Hembaor, Andrew Bula, Joshua Jaja, and Joshua Agbo helped me hone my craft. The breakthrough for my writing, I think, came when I encountered the book Dawn into Moonlight: All Around Me Dawning by Hyginus Ekwuazi. I got the book from Sam Ogabidu and it revolutionised my writing. I got to meet Ekwuazi and he remains one of my closest friends. It was only after this meeting and lots of more deliberate efforts at improving my craft that I knew that I had reflections of works that are worth reading.
10) Why do you write?
Writing is a part of who I am and is a channel through which I live my truths, recording, preaching and doing my life’s ministry and mission. Sometimes, I am educating, entertaining, doing any of the other things I mentioned or just chronicling.
11) What keeps you motivated during writing slumps?
I’ve had many days when I thought it was the end and I wouldn’t go further, but having too many people’s faith burning bright has chased away the darkness. I guess that is my motivation.
12) The general rule is that you must be a greater reader to be a great writer. Growing up, what books did you read? And how did they shape your ability to tell stories?
The very first book I read was an illustrated children’s version of Bambi, and then I got to read books of the African Writers Series which my mother bought for me. I remember reading The Only Son by John Munonye, which was so realistic that I felt myself in the world of that story. Other books like Akpan and the Smugglers, Chike and the River, An African Writers’ Entertainment, Akin the Drummer Boy, The Bottled Leopard, The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Without a Silver Spoon by Eddie Iroh, Time Changes Yesterday, The Old Man and the Medal, Punaku Treasure, were books that I read. If you think of it, I grew up on a healthy African diet. I also read the writings and comics of my siblings – Taver, Gabriel, Sever, Theodora, Ngodoo, and Mlumun – which inspired me to want to write. They were part of my primary motivation for even going into the creative process because, as I mentioned earlier, they had this annoying habit of not finishing their comics, which made me start writing my scribbles and completing them rather than waiting for them. I could talk of many more, but we should stick to those for now.
13) What are some of the struggles you face when you write?
The key thing would be a lack of time since there are always so many things to do. Life conflicts with writing. You have to earn and be all the other things you are – whether on the family, career, or social side. On the literary side, there’s the job of promoting other writings, promoting oneself and creating opportunities for others. Ah, distractions and having to live are the major struggles I face in my writing life.
14) Packing for a journey and allowed to take one book. What will it be?
It is difficult to say, but I am sure I would go with a Bible.
15) Advice to young and upcoming writers and developmental enthusiasts?
Like I had said to Bizuum Yadok in a previous interview when asked the same question, it would be:
Don’t despair. Some days will be dark, and rejections might come in, but never give up. Keep writing, keep reinventing yourselves, read more, edit and never stop getting better. One day, everything will work out fine; even if they don’t, be proud you did your best. Volunteer, be out there and ensure that you do something. Don’t wait till things are perfect to start acting because that time might never come. Most importantly, seek alternative sources of income!
16) Does writing energise or exhaust you?
It is often a mixture of both, depending on the day, but often more of an exhausting process when you are in the thick of it. It is beautiful, no doubt, but the process is often exhausting.
17) What are you currently working on, literary and otherwise?
We are actively planning for the next Benue Book and Arts Festival and will soon announce a call for submissions for some literary prizes. There’s a novel and short story collection in the works too, but lips sealed on those for now.
18) You’ve written several books in different genres. Which is your most preferred genre?
I do not have a preferred genre as each serves a different purpose, depending on time and context.
19) What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
That’s a tough one, Chimdinma, but I will borrow some lines from something I had said before. Many friends and associates have walked these paths with me through the years, but the top two people are my wife, Agatha, and Hyginus Ekwuazi. Closely following is my near twin, Servio Gbadamosi. I am inspired by my friends and am fortunate to have them around me and with me. I am inspired not just by their writings but also by their work in the literary world and other spheres. I can easily mention Oko Owi Ocho (Afrika), Debbie Iorliam, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Sam Ogabidu, Bash Amuneni, Tine Agernor, Aondosoo Labe, Iveren Ayede, (Innocence) Silas Sharamang, Otene Ogwuche, Daisy Odey, Idoko Myles Ojabo, Eugene Yakubu, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, Romeo Oriogun, Eugene Odogwu, Adakole Okopi Stephen, Elizabeth Onogwu, and Dul Johnson. Some others who inspire me and keep me on my toes are led by my sister, Jennifer Aduro, Deborah Oluniran, Nathaniel Aduro, Elizabeth KJ Umoru, Zainab Mohammed, Hafsat Abdullahi, Miracle Attah, Agatha Atagher, Biachi Anointing, and Torkwase Igbana. These people are lights that really help me on many dark days. Following would be Justin Ebuka Muodebelu and Nana Hauwa Sule, who I believe in so much. I can call so many other names, but let’s keep it short already.
20) All poets have several words that come up repeatedly, words or sentences that reflect their poetry’s theme. What are FOUR of your absolute few words?
Let’s just say: love, life, community, and culture.
21) What book are you reading currently?
There are several, but the prominent ones are the ten other titles on the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022 longlist. It has been an exciting ride.
22) What is the most liberating thought you’ve ever heard?
God’s Grace Abides.
THE AFRO READER: Very Profound! Thank you so much for speaking with us, Su’eddie. All the best!
SU’EDDIE: Thank you, Afro! Glad to have you back!
Su’eddie Vershima Agema is a Nigerian poet, editor and literary administrator. He is also a culture promoter. Author of three poetry collections, Bring our Casket Home: Tales one Shouldn’t Tell, and Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile, Memory and the Call of Waters and a short story collection, The Bottom of Another Tale. Agema is a past Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) (Benue State Chapter) as well as Council Member, National Teen Authorship Scheme.
Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile made him a Joint Winner, Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Poetry 2014 and nominee, Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature 2018) and Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell was Longlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Poetry 2012). In 2019, Agema’s children’s book, Once Upon a Village Tale was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors Children’s Literature Prize.
His short story collection, The Bottom of another Tale was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Prose 2014 and the Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories 2015. Agema was awarded the Mandela Day Short Story Prize in 2016 with his story, ‘Washing the Earth’ while his poem, ‘Tales one shouldn’t tell often’ was shortlisted for the Saraba/PEN Nigeria Poetry Prize 2013. Agema’s work in progress short story collection, Tales of the Abroad by a Confam Africana was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories 2019.
Agema has been included annually in EGC’s Top 50 Contemporary Poets who rocked Nigeria since 2013.
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