In celebration of the release of his chapbook of elegiac poems, Ugochukwu Damian Okpara sat down with Editorial Intern Katy DeCoste to discuss blank space as language, living for hope in the face of trauma, and the journey towards tenderness.
Katy DeCoste: Can you speak to the many meanings of “tremor” throughout the book?
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara: The word “tremor” has stayed with me for a while now. And all through the moments, I journeyed toward visualizing it. Zora Neale Hurston writes, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So, I worked toward seeing it beyond its facade. I had initially wanted to interrogate the word using the nonfiction form, but failed at it, and the poems in this collection were a success at a different attempt. In a way, they allowed me to step outside the self, and explore fear and anxiety through an outward expression such as the quaking of the hands. But really, the many meanings of tremor in the book trail towards fear—a mother weary of losing her son, a lover unsafe even in the comfort of their partner or a safe environment, or in the poem, “Leaving Sad Things Behind,” where even your solitude haunts you, probably because you’ve been hyperaware of yourself and your environment.
In my neuro class, I came to know of the critical period during brain development, and how life experiences during this period could forever impact the nervous system, after which nothing can be done. For one, I believe the past is constantly being intertwined in the present, and through the various experiences of the speaker, trails toward their tremor and, in shaping them, becomes a critique of their life. Even in the poem, “I Know the Origin of My Tremor,” the speaker acknowledges the tremor and goes further to poke it—what would you save if you found him in the hands of a mob because of his mannerism and/or who they chose to love? Will you save the stick? Or the stone? Or even him?
KD: In “In the History of Belonging,” you write, “rejection is the language furrowed in my mother’s tongue.” How do mothering and motherhood figure in this collection?
UDO: Motherhood is central to life—in being the medium through which life springs forth. I think the maternal leaning found in some of the poems was a result of my personal experiences with my mother, and the tendency to run to her when my world becomes enveloped with chaos. Thinking of this line now, rejection being furrowed in a mother’s tongue, I wanted the opposite for the speaker, to deprive him of a place to run to. Even this rejection isn’t alien to us. There are myriads of stories where a mother abandons a child or treats them a certain way because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality. And often we do not make of what this does to the child. In the collection, the arrangement of the poems with respect to motherhood sort of journey through brokenness, depression, and tenderness. Rejection being furrowed in a mother’s tongue, to the speaker saying “dear momma, see me before this elegy fills me up,” and finally to a mother willing a son to come to her embrace. Really, it’s all a journey, one that is both unnecessary and sad.
KD: Can you speak to the use of white space in this collection, especially in poems like “A Ruined Candle Wax Still Breathes Itself Into Shape” and “Self Portrait as White Spaces”?
UDO: For me, silence is language, and so is the white space used in the collection. It bears its weight. I wanted the white space in the poems to signify pauses. In that fleeting moment when nothing is said, what becomes of the reader? To an extent, it’s a whole system of what lies before, after, and even the summary effect it has on the reader. Often it could be a small moment to ponder or a preparation for wonder. To speak of the use of white space in the two poems you mentioned, I’ll begin with “Self Portrait as White Spaces” because it appears first in the collection. While making the poem, I wanted the structure to mirror the speaker. What does it mean to have that many pauses in the poem? In a way the speaker is broken—even exile doesn’t bring the joy he yearns for—and so the many pauses in the poem reflect his internal state. The brokenness. The need to mend.
I’ve been listening to Birdy lately, often in moments when I question the purpose of this world. In Birdy’s voice, my pain becomes more intimate with me. It is as though pain is something tangible, something I can hold and examine its features. To paraphrase Ellen Bass, to sit with what weighs me down. It is in this intimacy that I often find hope when I look beyond the moment. Hope makes the uncertainty of the future bearable. Birdy and RHODES sing, “If we’re strong enough to let it in / we’re strong enough to let it go.” To an extent, this is what the poem “Self Portrait as White Spaces” does for the speaker. He embarks on a journey to make sense of it all. In the epigraph of the section where “A Ruined Candle Wax Still Breathes Itself Into Shape” appears, Pamilerin Jacob says, “Life is one long journey into tenderness, into rekindling.” The poem ferries through “Self-Portrait as White Spaces,” through the visualization of chaos to finding and living for hope. In the poem, the white spaces evident at the beginning become eclipsed at the end, and then the poem falls into shape. It also alludes to the title that a ruined candle wax still breathes itself into shape.
KD: Tell me about the portrayal of desire and sexuality in this book?
UDO: So much of living outside the spectrum of what society knows is filled with desire. For instance, either as a queer person or an effeminate man, you walk down the street and you’re taunted, made fun of and mimicked. You think you’re writing much about it, only to log into Twitter to see another effeminate boy beaten because of his mannerism and perceived sexuality. For one, it could be you. In “Prayer,” I write “I know what desire looks like for I’ve stood at its door for too long.” And I think this may reflect everyone who lives outside the spectrum of what a hostile society knows. There may be this desire to fit in, to find home, a safe space, to truly live, and so on. The speaker journeys through it all. No one sees fire and deliberately runs into it.
KD: Each section in this collection, and several individual poems, are introduced with epigraphs. Can you tell me a bit about the epigraphs you’ve chosen?
UDO: In January 2020, I left home to a new environment. The thought of leaving my parent’s house was exciting. I thought it was an opportunity to begin again, to find joy and live in its tenderness. Then I moved and it wasn’t quite what I envisioned. The silent comfort of my room filled me with paranoia, and made me question life and its purpose. What found me were the epigraphs beginning each section. To an extent, I saw reasons to live in them. Ellen Bass’s poem “The Thing Is,” found me first. It is a beautiful poem about loving life despite it having its back to you. “How can a body withstand this?” Truly, it made me sit with what weighed me down and often, when overwhelmed, I’d find myself mouthing “to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it.” Ruth B’s “Lost Boy” resonated with me the same way Bass’s poem did. Listening to the song, I imagined it as a friend, broken like me. We’re holding each other’s hands, looking at the moon and stars, and finally running away from all of it, all of reality. It is in this kinship that I was able to survive the bouts of sadness that enveloped me. Finally, Pamilerin Jacob’s poem made me realize that in the end, we’re journeying towards tenderness, where what has happened before won’t matter. It will fade away, sure! And you’ll be glad that you’re here.
After I arranged the poems in the chapbook, I found that they were journeying towards tenderness. And that group of poems resonated with the different stages of my life during my search for home. I wanted something to prop each section. Something that would also mirror my journey. And the epigraphs were just ideal and beautiful.
The works of Chibuihe Obi and Romeo Oriogun were some of the first queer poetry I read. They were relatable and influenced so much of my early writing. Having their works begin some of the poems in the chapbook is my way of paying gratitude to them.
KD: In “I Practice to Get Hold of Myself,” you write “sometimes a poem is a truth” and “in my next world, / i promise, i will come as a happy poem.” What role does poetry play in the joyful possibilities of queer futures?
UDO: In a way, I do not necessarily think poetry plays a role in that. I think what lies behind the future mostly precedes what role poetry should play. If the world was fair—especially here, where very inhumane laws are enacted against queer people—then I wouldn’t have written that line about coming back as a happy poem. I think now of Noor Hindi’s poem, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”. In the poem, she wishes to write about the moon and flowers but can’t get herself to do that because outside, her people are dying. How can she even bring herself to write about the flowers and moon at that time? If the world was tender to queer people, then the poems that would spring forth would mirror that. On the other hand, the ability to relate to a poem, when it stays with you, it sort of offers you a hand, hug, or anything, saying, “I see you, let’s walk down this path together.” And who knows? Just by being seen, you can find joy on this journey.
KD: Many of these poems deal with violence and trauma, yet this collection is underscored by hope and joy. What role does queer desire play in imagining this kind of radical tenderness?
UDO: In that state of trauma or violence, one could get overwhelmed by all of it. In fact, people do. It is also the same way grief overshadows one, and its lexicon: until we meet to part no more, is underscored by hope and joy. Hope and desire are constantly being intertwined. It is even interchangeable. In a way, aren’t we all living for hope? That a wound wouldn’t fester? That a hand would pull you close and call you kin? That the ache in your heart would elude you? That if the world is tender, then we would love to return? And if it isn’t? Please bring me back as a happy poem or even a pineapple. It is with these thoughts that the collection approached me, and I approach life this way too. I think in living for hope, we become tender, knowing that whatever ache tugs our hearts, will eventually fade away.
KD: You frequently return to prose poetry in this collection, like in the opening piece, “Exile Leaves You at the Foot of Desire.” How does this form shape the articulation of themes such as desire and loneliness?
UDO: I think it is what each poem wants. In making my poems, form is critical. Sometimes I mess up a poem because I’m trying to fit it into another form. I could even lose out on a poem because I’m not paying attention to its form. Sometimes I know what I want to make but struggle with it because I’m putting it in the wrong vessel. Some of the poems in the prose form were failed attempts at being in the traditional poem format or even a couplet. It was only when put into the right vessel were these poems able to live.
KD: These poems speak of survival, both individually and across generations. What kinds of relationships and communities can help us survive?
UDO: Create a safe space. I think queer people or any other marginalized groups, for that matter, should create their safe spaces. You try to control who and what has access to you, that way you relieve yourself of the responsibility of living on the edge, of being overly on guard about certain aspects of your life. I know it is exhausting and emotionally draining to achieve this, especially in a hostile community where you can’t control much. But you can try. And hopefully, it gets better.
Download your copy of I Know the Origin of My Tremor for free here!
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian writer & poet, is an alumnus of the SprinNG Fellowship, and Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop held annually by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. His works appear in African Writer, Barren Magazine, The Penn Review, 20.35 Africa, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. In 2019, he was the 1st Runner Up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize. He was also a contributing interviewer for Poetry at Africa in Dialogue.
Katherine (Katy) DeCoste is a queer, white settler currently living on the unceded territory of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples and the WSANEC peoples, where they are pursuing their MA in English at the University of Victoria. In 2020, they received their BA Honours in English and History from the University of Alberta, as the Rutherford Memorial Medalist in English and Dr. John Macdonald Medalist in Arts. You can find their poetry in Barren Magazine, Grain Magazine, The Antigonish Review, and other outlets. In 2020, their play “many hollow mercies” won the Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Prize. When not writing, reading, or answering emails, Katherine can be found playing Dungeons and Dragons, volunteering with food support initiatives, and forcing their friends to eat their baking.
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