Dámì Àjàyí: I remain a lyrical poet
Dámì Àjàyí’s recent book is Affection & Other Accidents (2022). Dàmì Àjàyí is a poet as well as a psychiatrist, currently living in London.
I caught up with him over Google document and Twitter DM — this is while he is touring with Affection & Other Accidents. We discuss language, naming and healing after a heartbreak.
Àkpà: Hello Dami. Thank you for agreeing to do this. I am excited. Congratulations on the publication of Affection & Other Accidents. How’s the book tour going, and how are you making sense of the world as it is right now?
Dami: Thanks Akpa. The book tour is going really well, thank you. The reception of these poems have been warm in Abuja, Ibadan, Lagos and even London. We have just survived a pandemic but its dent on humanity is something that still sits with us. There is a dimension to this grief, to the inexplicable and intangible passage of time during the COVID-19 lockdowns. That impact is one that we are yet to unpack, but there is time hopefully.
Àkpà: I am suspicious of time as a catalyst for healing and getting by or moving on. Esiaba Irobi writes in Inflorescence, “time wounds all heels” — something that resonates with Clinical Blues IV from your debut collection, Clinical Blues:
My milk has spilled everywhere:
Lecture theatres, Cadaver rooms
Hospital wards, Operating rooms
Like unbreakable plates…
Doctors wield wide bore cannulae
Plastic pistols don’t repair tissues
The clinical truth is Post-Mortem
At least we can lie that we tried.
I mean here is a poem from 2012 detailing our 2021 till date experience of being everywhere but nowhere, especially for medical practitioners. But what hits me about this poem when I think about the pandemic, Nigeria and time, is that last line. Hope is a lie in disguise. I am afraid of what might be unpacked with time. Do you think above all that, joy is possible? That beyond here is a country called hope, or is this a clinical truth? In On Time, from A Woman’s Body Is a Country, this line has me: ask fathers the time it takes / for dreams to become undone.
Dami, what are you dreaming now? What does hope mean for you? Where does grief go when hope is made manifest?
Dami: A friend used to say death is the cure to life and that makes sense. I suppose as humans we find ourselves agonising over the meaning of death and a death of meaning. By a death of meaning, I mean legacy which could be anything from memories to memorabilia to progenies and so forth. When one reflects on time and death, it thickens the plot. I suppose this is probably what the great bard Esiaba Irobi meant. I like to think time is complacent but he opined that time is a noxious agent.
Thanks for bringing this poem to mind. I haven’t read it in a long long time so it is lovely just to see how it has aged well enough to give a perspective to the pandemic. Covid-19 did put a lot of things in perspective about health, wellbeing and our health systems. But then, in the face of grim realities, how do we forge ahead?
There is a place for hope, optimism and redemption, if you like. And I suppose that hope is that elixir we need sometimes to help us to look beyond the bleakness of our lives and that of our kind.
Funny you ask me about my dreams. I wanted to say I am not dreaming at present but then I imagine that you are asking about things that I wish to come to fruition.
Àkpà: Yes, if you don’t mind. Because now that I think of it, I am also thinking about moving; living now in a distant land. Surely, I wonder what an émigré would make of loneliness at night, just like you captured in 328 to World’s End:
& the waiting starless sky,
the shrivelling cold too
that reminds an émigré of
home & unanswered prayers
outsourced waterproof warmth from a pullover
does not compare to that of the genial Jamaican lady
explaining her small actions like they matter to
an unlikely stranger.
& Fela’s horns deign to
pierce the night vicariously
through my ears.
& the night soil man
makes peace with his
Perhaps, loneliness is an expat’s comfort, birthing the longing for home or for a different warmth? There’s so much unease going on in 328 to World’s End, there’s so much silence happening. Is there something you think could be made manifest for you at this moment? What is it we need to know of a dying cigarette or friendship, as regards the diaspora? Silence moves through your poems as if it isn’t the passage of time we are mourning.
Dami: I wrote 328 as a tribute to the bus that took me to and from work in Northwest London in 2019. It is the 328 to Chelsea and World’s End but I shortened the title for impact. I believe World’s End is a pub but I have mobilised that pub’s name to represent a certain kind of disquiet and unease I was experiencing at the time.
My engagement had fallen apart. I was working in a new country, navigating a new culture and learning things as basic as travelling on a train and bus afresh. It felt like my world was really coming to an end. In retrospect, my world as I knew it then came to an end. But growth does not come without its own crisis. Same applies to dislocation, relocation, emigration. It comes with its own demands. But better not to have many things changing in your life at the same time. It is stressful and I think that would be my counsel for anyone considering relocation.
Also there is a caveat. Relocation is final in the psyche. Call it an exile’s curse. The man who leaves is never the man who returns. The place you left is not the one you return to. That’s some kind of existential limbo, being trapped in the interstices of an existence in which you never quite fit in on either side.
Hardly do you get warned about this subtle but permanent change. Hardly do you get warned about the lure of over-integrating, or the hard bristle consequences of holding back. And in all of this you just reflect on the morality of your privilege to just hop and leave lest you acquire the diasporic condescension.
It is hard work. And you have the weather to “weather” too. Which circles back to my poem. There will be a lot of silence. A lot of time to sit with your thoughts. I wrote that poem one cold Sunday evening at Wembley Park station and I wanted to speak about the camaraderie I experienced with a kind Jamaican lady. It was less than a minute, she told me things about her life which felt like a gift, a blessing and ultimately, it brought me warmth. I must warn you also about these kinds of unexpected warmth. Because that is the very nature of humanity.
Àkpà: I was going to tell you I had imagined this poem written on a trip somewhere, and here you have said it already. I think the beauty of art is to engage the audience in such a way it seems they are a part of it. Affection & Other Accidents is a shift from your two other collections — from the Dami labelled “a hopeless romantic” by Ayodele Arigbabu, to a very emotionally vulnerable poet existing in metaphors and experimentation. “We were to be married that summer. A perfect Danish wedding with all your family & friends & / none of mine…” is a closure once encountered cannot be undone. I am wondering how much of existing outside of or within the self took place for these poems to be written. Did form lend itself to you when these poems decided to be written, or were you the one who lent your voice to it? Anne Carson tells us “language is what eases the pain of living with other people, language is what makes the wounds come open again.” These poems are a trapdoor. We are in. There’s no escaping [chuckles]. Do you understand what I mean?
Dami: I am grateful to have an audience in my lifetime. Some greats were not that lucky! You are right, people have said there is a shift in my work. I suppose that should be expected. If I am still writing poems like Clinical Blues which I completed in 2011. Or writing poems like A Woman’s Body is a Country (which I completed in 2016) then I am not channelling any kind of growth. But I also remain a lyrical poet, my poetry remains loyal to song. It is just that the hopeless romantic gains his cynicism. I believe we call it breakfast these days (chuckles). But how then do we display our vulnerability with the same verve that we displayed our hopeless romance? That is the pertinent question that demands our truth and open-ness. You have spoken enthusiastically about form and experimentation and I agree with you, this book is an exercise in form. Before I wrote free verse for 10 straight years (2007-2017), I flirted with the sonnets. I was quite traditional in my approach to poetry pre-2007. I cared very much for metre, rhyme and so forth. But the allure of free verse has always been that it rids you of formal constraints. Poets serious about craft can tell the difference between constraint and restraint. I think formal constraints can be sublimated. So I wrote pantoums, ghazals, several kinds of ghazals actually, because these two forms are repetitive and that draws a kind of lyricism. I also wrote a lot of haiku-like things and the prose-poems, the longest of them is the titular poem which you quoted.
Truth be told, I did not know I was writing a poem when I wrote the title poem. I was just writing, as a way of recreating, of making sense of what had happened, of bearing witness to my experiences at the time. The entire book is obsessed with movement; perhaps this is why accidents become the metaphor to match with affection. There is all that kinesis, all that free energy thrashing about. How do you transmit that into an experience? Language. So if you say the poems drag you in and shut the door, then that is a measure of success. Anne Carson already said it better. There is a therapeutic impact from telling your story perhaps because it dissipates energy for the storyteller. But when that story is set in form, poetry, prose or worse still, prose-poetry, then it is best to say it in pidgin, you don enter am! The title is the door that sucks you in.
Àkpà: If we have language, we are capable of wonder, bewilderment. It seems to me the poet has both wonder and exasperation as captured in this Interlogue II: It is still surreal / that you did me dirty / in five cities. When desire morphs into hopelessness, we are suspended in wonder. Sometime ago I travelled interstate to go see a lover who served me the metaphorical breakfast. All I had left in me was the words of Ejowvokoghene Divine Odururu: I never expected it! You know, in your words, “love also leaves scar tissues.” You mentioned writing one’s story being therapeutic. Is that what this book is, considering it is a tribute to departures? How much healing can one get from art? I mean, being present in the work, bearing witness/testifying, does not mean healing is possible. Do you agree?
Dami: You must know that quote from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Breakfast is an important meal of the day. It is so important we also have brunch. Breakfast will be served because every person who loves must also grieve. That is the very nature of life, our essence. But these things are mundane too. Accidents are mundane even if they have that element of surprise. No one leaves home expecting not to return. And I suppose this is why you travelled interstate without any expectations. Accidents scar and I know this both as a human and as a doctor.
I have also been cynical about the healing power of writing. But something interesting happened in 2019 when everything was suddening. I read my second collection, A Woman’s Body is a Country, and I began to find some prophetic affirmations therein. I came to my own work as a humble reader who could now use these words to reflect on my current feelings.
Put simply, I think I wrote the book forward for myself because it set things in perspective for me. The book soothed me through that crisis and writing Affection & Other Accidents is partly documenting that in the best language possible.
I have heard that it is an uncomfortable book to read. But discomfort is a deeply human experience. And vulnerability can be quite repulsive. But then again vulnerability is about bearing witness, about being naked. This is why I mobilised Okigbo’s Idoto. But here I was in another country, by another river, physically and in my psyche. Healing is a long process but bearing witness and submission may be the first step. How do you heal if you do not acknowledge that something happened?
Àkpà: This is a revelation. I agree with you that for healing to take place, acknowledgment must be done. How does one heal from something that never happened? It is ironic. In the poem written after John Coltrane, you write: Call them lovers & you may be right. / Call them lovers & you may be wrong. / There lies the dilemma—in naming.” Naming is an important element in this collection. Cancelling R. Kelly has this line: “You will not fuck me to an R. Kelly tune.” What you have named is what got power. But I am also concerned about what isn’t named — the unspoken, which haunts this collection as well. Thinking of it, about nineteen of these poems are set to or are written after songs. What was your process? What went into making this, and for how long?
Dami: Naming is empowering. Perhaps one of the true gifts of language at its basest. Think Adam in Eden, his first task with language was naming things. We are wired to name things. It is almost impulsive and there is a particular kind of distress that comes from being unable to name things. A disequilibrium of sorts, if you like. That goes to the heart of that sultry poem, set to the smoky jazz of John Coltrane. Say it. In another iteration, it is Delroy Lindo’s popular primetime TV joke. There is politics to naming things, a kind of inclusive politics, think password. Come to a clandestine meeting with the wrong password and see if there will not be consequences. This ultimately leads up to cancel culture, the anonymous mob, braying for blood and twiddling thumbs. Cancelling sometimes seems like the easier option for dismissing the proximity between good and evil. That cognitive dissonance that comes with agreeing that R. Kelly can be both a serial abuser/paedophile and still retain his ability to sing like an angel. It is difficult to contend with and this is not spoken about often. It is this dilemma that I bring into this account of a bedroom ballad gone wrong. It is fictional I should add but people have challenged the veracity of that claim. Because it did not happen to me in particular does not mean it is not someone’s truth. Actually, all the poems in this book were set to songs. My process is another kettle of fish. Keeps changing. With Affection, I did not know I was writing a book of poems. I had sheepishly told Kwame Dawes in 2017 that I did not think I had another book of poems in me. He was understandably upset. I wrote about this in my monthly newsletter on Substack. Little did I know the plan of the universe. You could say the book happened to me too, like an accident.
Àkpà: [chuckles] I believe every poet is one masterpiece away from another. They don’t even know when it is coming, and of course, accidents. You teased us on Twitter about a playlist based off of these silences and odes to departures. Are we getting it now?
Dami: There is a playlist already on Spotify. I am writing some sort of liner note for this edition of my newsletter. Perhaps we are all one accident away from a masterpiece.
Àkpà: I have gone through the playlist. Reread this collection while listening to it, and it makes so much sense. If these poems are accidents, I wonder how many of them you took to the Accidents/Emergency Unit to take this form. I am talking about editing. You are a doctor as well as a poet. Do you silence one for another or do you bring everything to a surgical room? If I walked into your room this summer, writing a poem, what would be on your desk?
Dami: I meant Accidents as a metaphor but I must not betray the allure of my practice as a doctor. I am a psychiatrist in the community so banish thoughts of antiseptic ORs from your mind. If you were to come into my consulting room, you would find a formulary for appropriate dispensation of medications, a text on prescription guidelines and Roy Porter’s seminal book, Madness.
There’s an Igbo version of this conversation. Click here to read.