UEA Live

UEA Live: Alison Winch in conversation with the poet Inua Ellams

The poet, playwright and elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Inua Ellams, joined Alison Wench, co-director of UEA Live and lecturer in media studies at UEA, to discuss masculinity, identity and the making of his latest poetry collection, ‘The Actual’.

Born in Nigeria, Ellams’ family migrated to England under political exile – however after the Royal Mail ‘lost’ their documentations in the post, they moved to Ireland where Ellams spent his adolescence.

While Ellams’ poetry is often deeply political as a result of his experiences in Nigeria, England and Ireland, writing about politics was never his intention. Speaking to Alison Winch, he reveals how politics was never the focus of his writing, saying, “I wasn’t writing to rebel against anything. I was just writing.”

The first portion of the event was focused on readings from ‘The Actual’ but rather than read from a chosen selection of poems, Ellams decided to leave it in the hands of the audience who would type a word into the chat for Ellams to find that word or a synonym of it in his book and read that poem.

Immediately from the first poem, ‘F**k Boko Haram’, there was a clear contrast between the force of the titles in this poetry collection to the delicacy and beauty within the language.

Each title begins with ‘f**k’, a deliberate continuity on the title of this collection to showcase the disbelief and outrage of events within the modern world. As well as this, Ellams speaks about being “terrified of the angry Black man trope” and through the delicacy of the content, he is able to begin to “deconstruct…the portrayal of Black people in the west.”

A large portion of the writing for ‘The Actual’ was written on his phone as he travelled between destinations. Due to this, he uses slashes instead of punctuation that creates a sense of ‘tumblingness’, propelling the reader through the poetry.

The lockdown has therefore had a big impact on Ellams’ work. He recalls how the last poem he wrote for this collection, ‘F**k Batman’, was the most difficult to write as it was specifically about the pandemic and he wasn’t able to write this in the movement he had with the other poems from the collection.

When Ellams speaks, he speaks from a place of deep philosophical thought, carefully considering every word he says. Sharing his thoughts on love after reading the powerful ‘f**k love’, Ellams asks “what does it mean to love when all your feelings are ineffable sufferings?” He compares how the Greeks would have six or seven words for love, whereas in the English language there is only one word for something as complex as this. He then ties this beautifully to the idea of masculinity, like with the reluctance men have of telling their friends they love them.

Ellams’ poetry is thought-provoking. It questions the traditional ideas around masculinity, identity and stereotypes. He sees himself as a narrator, “telling a story to an audience who already know,” whose role is to articulate this narrative in a way that the audience can enjoy. Some of Ellams’ closing thoughts in regard to the reader is to see them as an extension of his family or friendship group. This connectivity between reader and author allows his work to become a deeply personal journey into Ellams’ literary world.

His latest poetry collection, ‘The Actual’, is available to purchase at bit.ly/JarroldBooks.

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Thomas Manning

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January 2022
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