Poetry needs institutional support to stay alive – Dami Ajayi
Medical doctor and poet, Dami Ajayi, tells BLESSING ENENAITE about his career, achievements and other issues
What inspired you to be a poet and how would you describe your experience so far?
I discovered writing early in life. I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was about 11 years old when I raided my mother’s library and became engrossed in her literary books. I read Thomas Hardy’s novels and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s as well, although I hardly understood everything I was reading then. However, I still gave it a chance. I started to write at that time, but I only began to pursue the vocation seriously around 400 Level in Medical School at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State.
My first love was poetry but I wrote prose as well, fiction and non-fiction, and reviews. I have written and published three books of poetry. Also, I have published short stories in several anthologies and over 100 reviews of books, music, films and theatre on notable platforms locally and internationally. I also blog avidly and use social media often, especially Twitter.
You are also a medical doctor. Do you still practice?
Yes I do. I work as a psychiatrist.
What are the things you do before you perform your poems?
I read to the crowd and give them a poem that will be memorable to them. Performance is a craft that should be taken seriously, so I do my best (laughs).
What are your notable achievements so far?
I have been lucky to have been read quite well in Nigeria, Africa and in the world. I have participated in close to 10 literary festivals on three continents – Africa, Europe and Americas. Every one of my books has sold significantly. In fact, my three collections are on the Amazon Bestseller list for African poetry as I speak. My books have been finalists for several prizes. I hardly lose sleep on the concept of notable achievements though. My goal is just to write and see what responses come forth. If a book does not garner attention now, it does not mean that it won’t in the long run. Writing is a waiting game, mostly.
What are the challenges you face as a poet?
Time is the real enemy, especially because I juggle the roles of writing and also working as a doctor, both highly cerebral and demanding activities. The next concern is how to write very well. A lot of people consider writing to be an easy task and one that relies on talent. Yes, it does. The talent is really aptitude for language. The real work is finding new ways of saying old things in a way that readers can identify with.
Poetry is said to have less patronage in Nigeria. How do you get people to be interested in what you do?
I don’t agree with that statement about less patronage for poetry. I think poetry is alive and well in Nigeria. Every one of my books sold more than 1,000 copies in Nigeria alone. Now, I am not saying that things can’t or should not be better. But one needs institutional support, high literacy and a great economy for people to care about the arts, literature and culture. A hungry person is poignant in poetry, but a hungry person can hardly read a poem.
It has been said that many Nigerians prefer to read short articles. What will you say is the cause of this and how can the people be encouraged to read more?
Have you checked how many books on religions are read in Nigeria? I am certain most bookshops stock every version of the Holy Bible. Monthly devotionals sell across religions. Have you checked the kind of broadcasts we read and share on WhatsApp? One of the expansive pieces I wrote on Ayinla Omowura published on The Lagos Review has thousands of hits. People read. Again, I think the problem is (lack of) time. Imagine if the commute time around the city is reduced with good transportation. Imagine one can take a train from Mowe (in Ogun State) to Obalende (in Lagos State) everyday to work. That time is good enough for reading. But imagine reading in a danfo bus when what one really should be doing is checking if you are in a ‘one chance’ bus.
You are also a music critic. How are you able to balance the two and which do you enjoy doing most?
Common! That’s like asking me to pick between my books and my children! I like everything I do. I enjoy both and make time for both. Music criticism is journalism, so it often demands an immediacy that poetry hardly requires.
Have you ever been tagged as a ‘hater’ when doing your job as a music critic?
Sure. That is the occupational hazard. I have been blocked on social media and trolled by music ‘stans’. Thankfully, it has not gone beyond that. Nobody has come to assault me and I hope that does not happen.
How do you maintain a fan base of readers to always patronise you whenever you release a new work?
Social media helps. I have also taken to writing a newsletter these days on Substack (an American online platform). Word of mouth does the magic in a sustained way but I put myself out there often by performing readings, attending festivals and undertaking interviews like this.
Ebooks are gaining more ground among readers. What is the fate of hard covers? Do you think they will go into extinction in the future?
I am not sure I agree with this statement, the statistics almost always seem to favour paper books. I think ebooks are popular and this is understandable as we spend a lot of time on the phone, but I am certain that the physical book is a self-sufficient invention that cannot be improved upon. It is the second best use of trees in my opinion.
Between hard covers and ebooks, which do you prefer to read and publish on; and what are the reasons for your decision?
I have no preferences. My books are published in Kindle Direct Publishing as well as in hard copies. The book is a product, and one has to make it available in every medium to turn a decent profit. I want to cater to the preferences of my readers but if you are asking about what I prefer, I like a hard copy of my book any day.
Piracy is a major issue for book writers and publishers. What do you think can be done to curb it?
Piracy requires institutional support. We need policies that criminalise piracy and judicial support to enforce these policies. Writers also can ‘unionise’ to push for these policies.
As one with some notable achievements in writing, do you feel pressured to make your next work better than your present?
The pressure is to write the next sentence and write it very well. When it is ready to become a book, then we put it out and see what comes.
What were your childhood dreams?
My childhood dream was to write, heal and to be of some kind of use to my society.
Did your parents support your decision to be a poet?
Yes, they did. I come from a very academically inclined family. They didn’t mind so far I was practising as a medical doctor as well. Now, they realise that being a doctor compliments my poetry and writing in general nicely.
What other achievements do you aspire for?
I aspire to wake up every day and live my day in a fulfilling way. That is the utmost achievement to me.
What are your other areas of interest?
(I have interest in) activism and social justice. I enjoy nightlife and travelling too, especially around Africa. COVID-19 stopped that a bit, but I will soon get back to that.
How do you unwind?
I unwind with a cold bottle of beer and goat meat, with highlife music playing in the background.