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Chika Jones: A Nigerian writer creating awareness of societal issues through his poetry

Apr 12, 2023 04:00PM ● By Kufre N

Image: Portrait of Chika Jones. Credit: Imogirie Gaston

A young Black man thriving in the poetry scene in Nigeria and the U.K. is Chika Jones, who is only 32 years old. 

His poetry and writing prowess got him an endorsement from the Arts Council of England for a Global Talent Visa. This aided his relocation to the U.K. where he continues to make waves through his talent.

In an exclusive interview with FunTimes, Jones opens up about what inspires his creativity and how poetry contributes to storytelling, which is the base of cultures.

Please introduce yourself and your poetry/writing career

My name is Chika Jones. I am a 32-year-old Nigerian, born by Yoruba and Igbo parents. I lived most of my life in Lagos and recently immigrated to the United Kingdom. I think that’s it, really. 

About my poetry/writing career: I fell in love with books at a young age, and that love was honed when I stumbled on a library in my secondary school - Akokwa High School in Akokwa, Imo state. I started out writing poetry and fiction. 

In 2013, as a university undergraduate, I got the chance to perform on radio – Rhythm FM in Port Harcourt, and I got quite good feedback from that performance. This made me more interested in performance poetry. At the end of 2013, I auditioned for and won the National Poetry Slam - War of Words in Lagos, and that was a launch pad into a career of writing and performing poetry.

I have written fiction and non-fiction, but the bulk of my work is in written and performed poetry. Performing in Lagos, Owerri, Abuja, Abeokuta, Kaduna, Berlin, and London, among other places, has made me fall in love with this art.

What topics do you usually write about in your poems?

I would like to preface with this - I did not set out to write about certain, most of my initial poems, have been responses to societal issues. I have written about gender-based violence and rape, about how the poor are marginalised in Lagos, about Lagos itself as a city, about the Biafran war, about what it means to be Igbo in Nigeria, about love like most poets, and more recently about racism. However, since 2021, I have been very interested in the concept of joy, what it is, why it is important, and how to capture and share it through poetry and performance.

How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a standard ‘Chika original’ poem

In my earlier years, my poems came from seeing something and feeling very strongly about it. Most times, this feeling was anger. This formed the bulk of the poems I wrote and performed. Of course, there were poems that weren’t borne out of anger. I had the occasional poem that is inspired by a book I read, or by a concept shared in a poem by a poet I love. These days, the poems rarely come from anger; they usually come from reading or feeling something, usually joy.

Because the process has been fine-tuned by the years, I can talk through it. Usually, I start with what I am trying to say or a feeling I am trying to elicit from the reader. The writing usually comes in a burst. After the initial draft, I then go over it to strip away the excess, the over explanations, and the unnecessary. As part of the final steps, I look at musicality and technique. Three final questions I ask are: Do the lines sing or hum at the end? Does the poem make you relook the familiar furniture of everyday life? Does it bring joy to read? Of course, as with most poems, these are questions you never answer, but I find it helpful to ask all the same.

What’s the best advice someone has given you about storytelling through poetry?

I would say it is to always allow space for the reader to come in. And this was something I read in an essay about photography either from Emmanuel Iduma or from Teju Cole. Maybe both. When writing, never let it be closed off, finished, done. Always allow space for the reader to enter because only then can they really enjoy what has been written.

What’s the worst advice someone has given you about storytelling through poetry?

I rarely receive or solicit writing advice; most of what I know and have taken to heart is from reading. So, no worst advice.

What do you feel is more freeing in poetry that is restricting in other forms of literature?

Nothing. I don’t think anyone comes to literature looking for freedom. However, if we consider differences in medium, I have learned that they are not all that different in goals. In all forms of literature, we are trying to tell a story and hoping that someone out there will understand it and it will change their life for the better.

Has there ever been a moment when you didn’t want to share one of your poems with the world because of its subject matter? If so, what did the subject matter address, and why did you choose not to share it?

I have a few love poems written solely for my wife that I haven’t shared anywhere. Mostly because I want them to live only for her. Sometimes, publishing or sharing a poem takes on a commercial nature, and I want to leave those poems out of that.

Do you think poetry will gain its deserved relevance in Nigerian/African society? Why or why not?

Poetry has always been relevant in Nigeria and Africa, and it will always be. If the question is about popularity as compared to, say, music, for example. Then the answer is there is poetry in music. Omah Lay’s recent album ‘Boy Alone’ is a good example of this. Will poets ever be as popular as musicians? On aggregate, no, because the audience they cater to are different, despite the overlap, and it will always be like that. Because you need a certain deliberateness to listen to and enjoy poetry that music does not always require, life places a lot of demands on people, and they will always find it easier to listen to music than to listen to poetry.

What do you feel poetry can or cannot contribute to a country’s political system, culture, and traditions?

Poetry contributes to storytelling, which is the base of cultures. And everything else comes out of culture, even political systems. Can poetry change Nigeria? Yes, and it does every day. Everyone that reads a good poem is changed by it. However, what is more urgently needed is political activism and protests and even poems cannot be a substitute for that.

Now having a duality in two different countries, England and Nigeria, how can fellow artists in your position bridge gaps to create work that resonates across multiple countries?

I would not encourage artists to try to make work that resonates across multiple countries. Instead, they should focus on making work that they personally enjoy. My guiding principle is your work should always be, and this is a phrase from Teju Cole, ineluctably particular. When your work is so particular, it gains universality. Never start out with the universe in mind, start out with yourself in mind. That is easier when you have a firm grasp on the things you love and the things that are important to you.

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