Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today David Ishaya Osu reads three excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
I doubt Whitman needs much of an introduction—an American poet, journalist, and essayist, and often credited as the father of free verse, Whitman is a staple of the American canon—but can you tell us about Whitman’s importance to Nigerian poetry and writing? How did you discover Whitman? Does he have a large readership in Nigeria?
David Ishaya Osu: I have no idea on what Whitman’s importance there might be to Nigerian poetry and writing. I am also not aware of Whitman’s readership statistics in Nigeria. What I am aware of is that I feel a connection to Whitman, humanly. I first saw Whitman in Microsoft Encarta in 2010 or so; and when I came across Leaves of Grass at AMAB Bookshop, I had no option but to grab it.
Sundress: I love that you sent in 3 recordings for Leaves of Grass—the first two are pulled from “Song of Myself” and the third from “Burial Poem”. I have to ask, which edition are you reading from, and do you have any preference of one edition over another?
David Ishaya Osu: Mine is the Dover (2007) unabridged republication of the first edition published in 1855. I’ve not bothered to look up other editions. Maybe when I’m tired of drawing lines in this copy, I will get others.
Sundress: This excerpt from “Song of Myself”—written, and made mainstream so many years before American women were able to vote—is one of my favorite feminist poetic bits. What does this particular section mean to you?
David Ishaya Osu: I see this section as an intriguing record of the humanity humanity is. It means to me, for living sake, that being a member of the universe is enough right to be treated with equal worth – no bias in favour of gender, wealth, race or social class. On the other hand, history and ongoing events have so shattered our senses, tolerance and empathy. “And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man / And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.” I think you should listen to this song by ASA: “Sometimes I Wonder.”
It’s time we took deeply to heart that we all are our mothers.
Sundress: I don’t want to detour too much here, but I love the connection you made between Whitman’s century-and-a-half-old poem and a contemporary singer from halfway across the globe. I particularly like Asa’s lines, “Didn’t nobody tell you, no man’s ever made it higher by bringing other people down. You tried and you could lose the ground.” Can you tell us more briefly about Asa?
David Ishaya Osu: I had to wait till today, September 17, 2015, to reply this part of the interview. The reason is simple: it’s Asa’s birthday today. In the spirit of the moment, she’s the only one on my playlist today. Maybe Onyeka Nwelue would be the right person to talk about Asa more, since he’s had countless moments with her at her concerts and elsewhere. However, my encounter with Asa is via telepathy – her songs, reading her interviews, and just running my mind on her fantastic videos. Asa is an endless poem. Asa is one Nigerian songstress whose voice enters you but never to leave. For instance, in “The Way I Feel,” I see the persona as all of us – the world. And this world is actually on its shoulder – from environmental threats to emotional blackmails to the Chibok girls that are still missing to the legacy of white supremacy to the system of miseducations to the complete waste of myths, to man’s refusal to find friendship in water, birds, in the flowers of ourselves. The other things I know about Asa are that: she lives in Paris, she seems highly bohemian –no wonder she rises above the status quo– and, most importantly, she’s added Yoruba to my tongue even when I may not exactly know what it is – but then, the heart knows. Bukola Elemide is simply the goddess.
Sundress: “Leaves of Grass” is my personal favorite work of Whitman. I’m very interested to hear why you picked these particular five lines. What spoke to you here?
David Ishaya Osu: A large part of our humanness has been cultured on the prejudice against pain and people whose parts do not entirely fit in the play of society. This girl will end in hell, that boy is for heaven, we seem to prove. What this has caused is that we behave both in favour and in fear of people and their performances. Heaven is here, hell is there, we say and seek. How contradictory that the more we run away from hell, the more of heaven we do not get. This sophistry has compounded our despair. And this, to me, is what Walt Whitman is painting; hence the need for “the poet of the woman the same as the man.” We live in a dire reality where our cases are prejudged by our gender and class; less interest is paid to understanding the urgency and the cruciality of the situation at hand. What then shall we do?: Humanity is humanity’s responsibility, boy or girl or rich or poor or cross or crescent, humanity is humanity’s responsibility. Compassion ought to re-become our currency. Who is this poet? Well, the poet is you, the poet is me, the poet is her, the poet is him. The poet is all of us. The poet is the world. The world of woman the same as the world of man. Some people call it egalitarian, I call it poetrilitarian (laughs).
Sundress: I’m not as familiar with “Burial Poem” as I am with your other two Whitman choices. Can you walk us through the poem and highlight why these two lines, “I cannot define my satisfaction..yet it is so,/I cannot define my life..yet it is so.” resonate with you?
David Ishaya Osu: One major way of being alive for man has been the hobby to hypothesize every particle that happens within and outside his portion of space. Definitions here, definitions there; yet these definitions have seemed to continually elude their definers. What have followed after this attitude, obviously, are records of prejudice, records of post-judice, guilt, ostracism. This is the truth, that is falsehood; and the ideas keep conventionalizing and keep clashing with each other, simultaneously. Somewhere, somebody blames a school; another person elsewhere suffers a rape heritage. What is this? What is that? Questions upon questions upon thousands of responses. With and without the foregoing, much of what we are aware of is that we are present at our various ends and means of living. For an explanation, I would this is how the lines resonate with me. Millions and millions of millions have remained ‘something’ – something in that song, something in a lover, something in that apple, something in that moon, something about a dress, something about something. Something about something, yet it is so. I personally feel it’s time we edited the dictionary and other books of meanings; not in the sense of throwing them away, but in a way of appreciating other perspectives and narratives that are unlike our expectations – and this is what the humanities and arts in general embody. And by the way, everything is art, everything is writing itself in our very eyes.
Sundress: How has Whitman inspired your own writing? Do you find yourself becoming a “poetrilitarian”?
David Ishaya Osu: I treat my reading of Walt Whitman (and other people) as both psychic and corporeal. Both intra-action and interaction. Without feeling bigheaded, Whitman is to me a sibling the same way a dream works with sleep, the same way I respond to good news, the same way somebody says of your fine dress, of a dancer doing her magic, like that like that. There, lips touch lips and we term it kiss. Just connections. Like I earlier said: everything is writing itself in our very eyes. Everything is inspiring everything – an itch under the scrotum would inspire either a body movement or a bath, a body somewhere will cause a head there to turn 360. I was watching a movie one day, and when a character in the movie yawned, I instantly yawned too. You know, when I thought it quietly, I said to myself that life is a reply. Something is inspiring something somewhere somehow, and vice versa. And nothing.
On the poetrilitarian, yes; or, no, I am that I am (laughs).
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
David Ishaya Osu (b. 1991) is a Nigerian poet. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Atlas Poetica: A Journal of World Tanka, Birmingham Arts Journal, Off the Coast, The Kalahari Review, Vinyl Poetry, RædLeaf Poetry: The African Diaspora Folio, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others. David is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, and he is currently polishing his debut poetry book. David is a street photography enthusiast.
Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist born in 1819. Whitman, often called “The Father of Free Verse,” was controversial in his time but is now among the most influential poets in the American canon.