It’s always a challenge to capture the essence of a collection of poems in a short interview. One can never do the great piece of work justice. Nevertheless the publication of Ishaq Imruh Bakari’s latest anthology, entitled ‘The Madman in this House,’ is as thought provoking, touching and elucidating as his previous collections. It is a ‘must read’ for anyone inquisitive about African culture and history. Ishaq Imruh Bakari is a Giant in the field of cinema and literature. He continues to enrich our lives with his contributions. ‘The Madman in this House’ maintains the same tradition of expanding our minds while stimulating the senses. Written in a unique Jazz style, the latest collection of Bakari’s poetry is a definite gift for all seasons.
Congratulations on the publication of your new collection of poems ‘The Madman in this House.’ This is the fourth in a series of poetry books, covering different aspects of your life, work and philosophy. In the book, you explore the theme, ‘resistance to colonialism’? The first poem is a poignant illustration of the theme. Can you give a background to the poem, ‘Pleased to meet you El Negro.’
Thank you. As part of my wider interest in the return of the plundered African art and artefacts that have been horded in museums and various collections, mainly in Europe and the USA, I came across the story of El Negro. This was in 2016, when the story, ‘The man stuffed and displayed like a wild animal’, appeared in a BBC online magazine. A book, El Negro and me, by a Dutch writer who had become intrigued by the ‘El Negro’ story, had just been published, and was being celebrated.
As these things go, the corpse that is at the centre of the real story, had been displayed in museums in France and Spain from 1831 until 1997; and was in 2000, reburied in Botswana, as the article stated, ‘In the spirit of Jesus Christ’. The book in a sense seemed to facilitate an occasion to ask the seemingly innocent question of who was, as it was put, this ‘son of Africa’? Hence, the poem emerged as an articulation of my response.
When the remains of the ‘Negro’ are returned to home soil, would you say this is a triumph over colonialism? Is this an accurate interpretation of the sentiment captured in the words;
‘And finally, the boxed
Delivery from showroom
Heaven,fuzzy hair is all
That stood the test of time.
Repatriated fittings and fixtures
Fortified in the consecrated
European mind a national
Treasure was prepared to be
Received into African soil
Thankfully with colourful umbrella against the sun.’
There is no intention to suggest ‘triumph’ in the sense of the word. If anything, the intention is irony. El Negro and his circumstances, historical and contemporary, are indicative of the barbarism that African peoples are continually being asked to accept, to excuse, and to get over. This is the sentiment that the whole poem seeks to convey.
On 24th November 2021, Numbi Arts held a launch event in London to celebrate the publication of your anthology. During the event, you talked about the 3 African images printed at the beginning of the book. Please explain the significance of the images?
In structuring the collection, and in reflecting on what I had done, it seemed important, at least for myself, to somehow, signify the various levels on which the work was meant to resonate. One way in which I tried to achieve this was firstly, by way of the titles of the sections: ‘New Planet of the Apes’, ‘Desert Storm’, and ‘Warri (Oware) Moves’. This last title refers to the board game of mathematical logic, played across the African world. It is Warri in Antigua, Oware in Ghana, and in Tanzania it is Bao.
I use some lines from the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo as an epigraph to the whole collection. Following this, there are three Adinkra symbols, which are meant to synchronize consecutively with each section of the book. These symbols are firstly, the War Horn (a bull horn) known in Ghana as Akoben, and in Jamaica as the Abeng. This symbolizes in the Adinkra system, vigilance. Then there is the Fern/Aya, the plant, which symbolizes endurance. And, lastly, the Ram’s Horn/Dwennimmen, humility and strength.
Under the first heading ‘New Planet of the Apes’, you examine the cultural touchstones of our recent history, through the poem, ‘The Grenfell Tower Murderer’ which still evokes harrowing emotions. Can you comment on your thoughts and the lines;
‘Official and unofficial
Suspects left casual and ballpark
The murderer mingles
In between the margins of profit
Behind an unapologetic anti-migrant march
Behind flowers clutched in sacred memory’
As far as I am concerned, what now stands as the Grenfell Tower after the tragic and unnecessary fire in 2017, is a crime scene. Enquiries continue, revelations get reported, and as usual, it is all working its way through process and performance towards a cultivated political amnesia and institutional numbness…there is the Steven Lawrence precedent. If there is any outcome to the contrary, we will see…
The other big incident which may cause a cultural shift is the George Floyd incident which ignited the world. Is it possible that the poem, ‘The impossibility of being Black,’ acknowledges that this painful and yet common tragedy faced by Black men and women, still living under ‘colonial regimes’ will bring forth change?
‘On this day,the whatsup instapoly
Graph speaks of another hero born,
In one short breath for Man
A giant leap for misplaced faith
Thank you George Floyd
Unrestful-deadness flows abundantly
From the silence seeping
In the wailing solitude of a sorrow song.’
As you will note, there is an epigraph to this poem: ‘BETWEEN me and the other world there is ever an unasked question/How does it feel to be a problem?’ These lines are taken from The Souls of Black Folk; the first paragraph of the first chapter headed, ‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’, written by W.E.B. Dubois in 1903. The poem plays upon these lines in the last verse.
The issue for George Floyd and for all ‘Black men and women’ living under Western tyrannies, is that we cannot solve the psychotic ‘problem’ of the predators that insist on placing their feet on our necks. This is the real tragedy, and in this configuration, part of the impossibility, which the poem seeks to expose. To change that is another matter for the perpetrators to deal with. As the poem insinuates, for Black people, there is a need to realize and actualize the ‘giant leap’ beyond ‘misplaced faith’ that I think the moment has come to symbolize.
Throughout the second section of verses, you reflect on visits to Gaza and your work as a filmmaker capturing the conflict. ’War in the Time of Terror’ is particularly moving. What more can you tell us about those experiences and the images evoked in the composition below;
When terror comes
Roaming between sidewalks
It takes a cold stare
With eyes dispossessed
And reflection deferred
Between the headlines and graffiti
The concealed fears and fantasy
Beware the comfort offered
By ranting lords and majesties
It is interesting that there is an impression that I have visited Gaza. This is not so. I have never been there. However, the situation of the Palestinian people has been one of my concerns for decades. For me, in one way, it symbolizes the need to perpetually resist victimhood in the struggle for justice. This has provided an important reference point for my own approach to life as an African Caribbean. Let us not forget that the Jewish narrative has informed certain influential threads of Pan-Africanist thought, in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
In terms of the idea of ‘return’, as the first wave of diaspora Africans, do we return to occupy a privileged, oppressive, apartheid space; or do we return for mutual development and equitable change? The lines that you have quoted simply suggest that those who sow terror, will reap terror, and ‘we’ should not get caught up in the tricks of this politics. My position underlines my empathy with the Palestinian people, and it is gratifying to think that the poems communicate on a deep level.
Finally, in the last section ‘Ware(Oware) Moves,’ the theme is more celebratory. Reflections on African literature and your love of jazz are prominent themes in the mix of poems. Referencing again the launch event, when you said you ‘write in dialogue’, using ‘jazz phrasing and tones,’ please elaborate for our readers.
Yes, I did say that my writing is a dialogue. In the sense that it is so in relation to anyone who takes the time to read or listen to the poems. Strange as it may seem, I also said that as a way of explaining my work to myself, I find it necessary to approach the use of English as a foreign language. This is where, what I refer to as Jazz, its forms, its ‘phrasing and tones’, have helped me to find a path towards a way of writing poetry, through which I can find my mode of expression and aesthetic. The journey continues…
The jazz influences can indeed be visualised in the way you phrase and present the poems. But would you say that your style of ‘jazz’ poetry is best appreciated when spoken out loud? Take for instance the last poem and ode to the Jamaican jazz-musician Coleridge Goode?
‘Bad bass lines stomp
lightly taking time
To tell the tales
That will keep agile
In free formed landscapes
Unfurled and on fire
Upright you stand
Destiny in hand
Have built new freedoms
With calypso sketches
Simmering in the symmetry
Of deep majestic tones.’
In the way that I understand the question, all poetry is ‘spoken word’, contrary to the much repeated cliché, which is a little bit of a nonsense really. However, on my part, speaking, reading, reciting the poem all amounts to the same thing. How this happens and under what circumstances, would vary. I always hear music when I read my poems, and I am always somewhere in or with an ensemble of some kind.
‘The Madman in this House’ is published by Smokestack books.
For more information visit; www.smokestack-books.co.uk
See also Travels with the Author – Imruh Bakari;
Watch the book launch: The Madman In This House – 24 November 2021;