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SEGUN L E E FRENCH t a l k s about Praise Songs for Aliens

Crocus 30 Poems Competition Interviewer: First of all, let’s talk about winning the competition, congratulations! What does this debut collection mean to you? Segun: Publishing this book has meant that I can explore new ways of writing and move into a different arena of poetry. I have worked as a performance poet for a long time and really enjoy it. But I have also read performance poems that don’t feel right on the page. It was important for me when I was putting this collection together to have poems that work well on the page. Interviewer: Let’s talk a bit about your musical background, you were a singer in the band Earthling and you now lead the music/word collective Speakeasy. How does that play into your spoken word and written poetry?

like a song. For example songs can have a lot of repitition, but written as a poem, those same reptitions can sometimes feel redundant. One of the inspirations for my poems is Ted Joans, a surrealist American performance poet who has recently passed away. He published his poems and technically speaking, some of them are very basic, but they are good performance poems. He had no shame about publishing them, they fit in well with the oeuvre of his work. I really wanted my collection to work in the shape of a narrative -- not necessarily a consecutive story, but with a beginning middle and end.

Irosumeji * Osameji * Iretemeji Interviewer: Praise Songs for Aliens

Segun: I think my musical training in jazz and other musics gives me an acute sense of rhythm in language. In fact, the rhythmic elements of poems are as important to me as the semantic elements. In a sense, I want the poems to “sing”, to fly off the page -- to sound in the reader’s head just as they would sound if I were reading them aloud. Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit more about the things that you feel are successful for the stage vs. the page?

author interview

Segun: There are many poems that are great for the stage, especially joke and song poems. A performance poet has a role somewhere in-between the poet and singer. Of course there are poetic messages, but the words also have to fulfill an immediate emotional function --

I’m sinking, breathing afterbirth coming to meet you

The stars look very different

With my Bic, I rub them out one by one all the names of god. from ‘Ekundayo’, Praise Songs for Aliens

does have three distinctive sections. They broadly correlate with these themes: origins and kin, love and exploration of wider political questions. Where do the titles come from? Did you write with these categories in mind or did you discover these themes as you assembled the collection? Segun: The names of the sections come from the Yoruba religion and the book of Ifa. When the babaalawo (priests) throw their shells, it makes up a binary system of predictions...

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


Theirs is a system of 256 possible signs -- similar to Chinese i-ching. Each of the Odu combinations have a name that is attached to states of being, emotional conditions, stories and proverbs. There are a 1000 different possible responses! I discovered the categories as I assembled the collection. I realized that they fit into three clear types. Interviewer: So, let’s first talk about the first section, Irsosumeji, what does it mean in Yoruba and what does it mean in terms of your poems? Segun: Irosumeji shows emotional difficulty, but whatever the problem, the questioner can succeed by making the correct sacrifices. Children who are born under Irosumeji must learn patience and that no condition is permanent. The collection opens up in the night markets. I hoped to capture an awareness of the divine existing in the mundane, and how all of those multiple imperfections (difficulties) of that experience can demonstrate grace. Many of those poems came from what happened to me in real life. I travelled to Nigeria in June 1999 along with my mother who is white, English. Lots of inspiration for those poems came from those moments when my emotional journey felt reflected by the landscape. Then in September that same year my dad died. I had literally just met him. I went to Nigeria to sort something out and then lost something else. There is this heavy sense that if there is a pattern to the deaths -- then it isn’t very nice. But if there isn’t a pattern, then there is no point trying to pin one down... In this section there is movement from a state of grace to a state of despair. So here I am grappling with the idea that all of the oracles are driftwood. That you could rub out all of the names of god and they mean nothing more than what you attach to them. That is where my first section ended up. The poem ‘Ekundayo’ is dedicated to my twin brother and to Elvis Presley who also had an identical twin who died shortly after birth. Interviewer: I was very affected by these poems and the weight of the backstory comes across -- grace captures the sense

perfectly. Artistically, how do you think you were you able to give each poem that quality? Do you think it is partly because these poems are in a sense, elegies? Segun: Something I’ve always kept as really important is a concept that Amiri Baraka wrote about poetry in his poem called ‘Gatsby’s Theory of Aesthetics’. I’m paraphrasing here, but he writes that poetry is about difficult meaning, and then goes on to write: ‘Life is arbitrary, except in its basest forms. Arbitrariness, or self imposed meaning is the only thing worth living for. It is the only thing that permits us to live’. I have extended that to include many things that are on my mind: faith, religion and my own poetry. It is the story it makes in your life and to fix it down isn’t possible... It can shift or change, but its purpose is in its context. It changes with time and can gain or lose relevance. So artistically, I approach poetry’s meaning with a similar arbitraryness.

“ Something from Amiri

Baraka...

meaning in poetry is

give us new meaning,

Iretemeji Interviewer: Let’s talk about the third section. Here the haunting of history takes on a particularly fierce voice. In many ways it feels close to the ideas that you’ve mentioned in your first section, especially a sense of foreboding. How do you see your role as a poet in these poems? Segun: The haunting is definitely there. The last section is very clearly for me about death, or more exactly: the power of past deaths and the accumulation of spirits. The Africans and the Chinese believe in the numinous -- the world that you can’t see. We believe that there are dead people around us at all times. So this section is about taking many reflections of that central idea. Interviewer: What does Iretemeji mean?

Segun: Iretemeji means: squaring the circle (like freemasonry) and is linked to images of mutiny and rebellion. The message of Iretemeji is to be more humble and dedicate your life to Ifa. This Odu also forbids human sacrifice and warns -don’t go looking for death because health and happiness are on their way.

Baraka, Tupac, Notorious BIG... Interviewer: And how does this relate to the poems in your third section? Segun: Here I am writing about the journey of black people to the Americas and how the spirits are carried through culture, music and genes. It has created

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


I’ve always kept as important is an

idea

‘Poetry is about difficult meaning’. For me arbitrary. The way the poet assembles the words but

the meaning isn’t fixed in purpose or time.

tropes that bear fruit in a powerful way. The poems ‘B-Movie’ and ‘Black Angel Death Song’ are particularly influenced by Baraka. There is one of his poems about the ocean and its ghosts which is very powerful... And for me, there is something intrinsic about African Americanism, Jamaican culture, ebonics etc. that has had such a domination throughout the world. How has such a visciously oppressed population produced the most powerful music in the 20th and 21st century? -- The feeling of where that power comes from is that it comes from death...

of previous errors, i.e. your parents f***ups?! Now that I have a son, I feel acutely concerned about repeating previous mistakes. Interviewer: Do you think fatherhood will change your poetry? Segun: Yeah it has already changed my poetry -- I haven’t written any poems since he was born! I have done lots of free writing, and yes, everything I have written since he was born has been about fatherhood. So the next book is probably going to be dominated by that.

...and if you think about the biggest cultural icons of the 90s, Tupac and Biggie, the major body of their work, ‘Ready to die’, ‘Death around the corner’ are talking about subjects that are quite scary. I feel it reflects what their culture is built on -- which is the huge sacrifice of people in the ocean...

Osameji

There is the idea of bones and the idea of graves -- burial and the rights associated with it. When those rights are surpressed they continue to recur as patterns throughout history and they will continue to make you acknowlege them. You could say that societies are warped from historical genocides.

Segun: Osameji represents the Aje witches or mothers. It also acknowledges that the power of women is superior to that of men. Children of Osameji tend to lack concentration and have a tendency to run away. They are advised to have patience in relationships and there is also the risk of mental illness or breakdown.

Interviewer: So what is the role of the poetry? Does it heal some of that?

What is interesting about the first and last section is that they closely tie together. The middle section is a way of trying to find an escape and expressing life through interpersonal relationships and love.

Segun: Making a record helps to demonstrate the pattern. In one way it is a comforting thing because there is a sense of mirroring. Hearing something again, repitition, especially in mourning has a healing process. But there is also a warning in it... You also identify the pattern so that you can break it. Something I haven’t addressed in this book: I wonder, ‘how do you break the pattern

Interviewer: So, babies means that we can probably talk about the second section! There are a lot of dedications, it is really sensual, really lovely. What does Osameji mean literally and what is its place in the collection?

Interviewer: Do you have a favourite poem in this section? Segun: Hmmm, that’s hard to say. In terms of the memory and experience I would have to say ‘Front Seat’, In terms

of the writing, I would say ‘Alchemy’. I had a lot of fun writing this poem. Interviewer: I’m glad that you mentioned ‘Alchemy’ because this is a poem that I wanted to discuss. It is an unusual poem with two contrasting sections. The second section has the most adventurous shape of all your poems. Where did you get the idea? Turning base metal into gold... Segun: Perhaps because I studied some French poetry, one of my favourite writers is Guillaume Apollinaire, a surrealist writer and concrete poet. I think I have held on to some of his ideas. He used to write calligraphic poems, poems with shapes, short stories. He was also interested in quite a few ‘big questions’. He questioned the confidence trick of faith and the patterns of lineage... Anyway, some of my structural influences have definitely come from Apollinaire. In ‘Alchemy’ I wanted to convey a change. So the first part is very basic -- it is about tension, foreplay etc... The second part is about climax and post-climax. In a crude structural sense, the shape of the poem visually conveys this idea. The theme and content is more about the ambivalent nature of sex. Another aspect of the poem is awareness of my own desire to get closer to my dad as a Yoruba man. Nigerian women felt like a way of getting closer to him -- which is all tied into a mixed race thing. The poem ends: my skin turns black. Is it a positive thing or not? Is it a sacrifice? It sounds like I’m putting more into the poem than is actually there! Interviewer: Not at all! I suspect all of these ideas, questions and emotions

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


have a way of touching poetry, regardless how subtle. Segun: Actually... there is also the Sufi concept of alchemy which gives the poem its title. Alchemy has been imported into European culture and the bastardised idea is the simple concept of turning base metal into gold. The original idea was maintained through masonic rights -- which is an idea about the rights of sexual magic. When the rose and the cross come together, they are closer to god, a divine experience. So, base metal (sexual intercourse) leading to gold (divine spiritual inspiration). Interviewer: And that’s only in the title! Speaking of titles, can you explain how you chose the title for your collection and and the cover image? Segun: Praise songs (oriki) are traditional Yoruba poems/songs that list the traits of an illustrious ancestor as if the descendant also possessed those traits. I can only understand my own family’s praise songs if they are translated. Therefore, I am alien to them, as I am alien to Yoruba culture. Likewise, I am alien to British culture, which like all white supremacist culture, denigrates my identity as Black (i.e. bad) or mongrel (impure). The theme of aliens also ties into the Black millenarian tropes explored by Sun Ra and Earth Wind & Fire, the idea that Black people are descended from aliens, the concept of the Mothership. The cover image is an Ibeji doll, that I filtered to make it look “electric” and futuristic. Afrofuturism is an essential theme of the collection. Interviewer: Do you find that because your subjects are so multilayered that you will return to these topics in future writing? For example do you think you will write more poems about your twin brother Ekundayo?

Segun: Yes, I will probably get really boring about it! At the moment I am putting my writing energies into a play called: Palm, Wine and Stout, which is a semiautobiographical play with more or less the same issues that are covered in the book. It is about the culture clash, my mum who is white, me who is mixed raced, and my Nigerian family. Interviewer: Is this departure from poetry a relief? Segun: Drama has a different function to me than poetry, even though there is a lot of poetry in drama -- choreagraphed poetry. Drama is certainly not as condensed as poetry and you can convey interpersonal relationships a lot better. Poetry is obviously much more internal, even if it is an internal voice that speaks to the public or and internal voice that

addresses the muse. Drama makes it easier to talk about interpersonal relationships and people pay you to do it! Interviewer: Who is commissioning this then? Segun: It is commissioned by the Theatre Writing Partnership and is still in the pilot form. Hopefully that will lead to a full commission, possibly touring in autumn 2010 or spring 2011. Interviewer: Segun, thank you for such an engaging interview! Do you have any advice for young aspiring poets? Segun: If you want to write poetry for the page, then... read. Read a lot of poems. It may seem obvious, but a lot of poets don’t. I would also say that poetry doesn’t have to be complex in expression, it is better to be complex in meaning.

EP

Front seat (Kabba bus May 2001) The thin white cry of some bird high above the motor’s drone. The bare chassis against my toes, hot steel, rust & thru the holes I see the road. Yr leg hangs over mine, we change to 2nd gear & climb this hill will never end, I pray & shield yr eyes from sun.

Title: Praise Songs for Aliens ISBN: 978-0-946745-33-5 Price: £5 Available from: www.amazon.co.uk www.cultureword.org.uk For more information about Segun Lee-French

check out Cultureword’s website For readings contact: segungun@yahoo.com

Interviewer: Eileen Pun © Crocus November 2009

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


Crocus Debuts: Interview with Segun Lee-French