Inua Ellams is a poet, writer, teacher, performer and graphic artist. His first show, The 14th Tale, was part of the British Council Showcase in Edinburgh in 2009, winning a Scotsman Fringe First Award. He has published four books including his first collection of poetry, 13 Fairy Negro Tales, when he was just 22 years old. Contrary Life caught up with Ellams to find out more about his inspiration and his latest show…
You seem to be reaching quite a varied audience with past performances at festivals such as Glastonbury and Latitude, as well as the Tate Modern and the National Theatre this April. How hard is it as a word and graphic artist to reach a wider audience and are you surprised by the amount of success you’ve had so far, especially at such a young age?
I use social media a lot. I Tweet like it is going out of fashion, I play around on Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube and have a website (inuaellams.com) with a lot of information. This is how I get around. I have an online presence and make it easy for my work to be accessed and followed.
The real difficulty is diversifying: trying to avoid repetition; how to decide what type of information works best on what kinds of platforms. My mother was blessed with good looks and the remnants of what graces the faces of my sisters – the lil bits that extend to me – mean that under the right kinds of light, I don’t look like something the cat dragged in. That’s a long sentence. I mean to say that we live in an increasingly visual world, and for better or worse, it helps to understand how images work and also how your personal imagery and iconography works.
Yes, I am surprised by what I have achieved considering I started writing seriously in 2003. I want to attribute it to luck, to being in the right place at the right time, but I also work hard and I work a lot. In the arts world, there is no real mathematics or strategy to anything. You can’t study this, go there, do that, and be guaranteed success. All you do is create and be honest with yourself. Write what you are happy with and hope others understand where you are coming from. To write, a poem or a play is to take a leap of faith. I am 27 and I have been leaping all my life, from country to country, culture to culture, I grew up fast and learnt a lot in a short space of time, my childhood prepared me for all that I do now. A lot of my friends describe me as an old soul and more often than not, I feel like I was born 50. I’m waiting for my body to catch up with my soul before I’m in true equilibrium with the world.
Your latest show Black T-shirt Collection reflects on the political and personal consequences of living in a capitalist world, and the cost of success. Tell us a bit more about it…
Black T-shirt Collection came by accident. I was walking along by the Southbank Centre in London and spied a gentleman walking towards me wearing a black t-shirt. On the front was printed the captains of all the Star Trek series; Picard, Janeway, Sisco etc. I’m a Star Trek fan so I thought it the coolest t-shirt in the world. Then I considered what it might feel like having the coolest collection on black t-shirts, hence the title. I had no idea what to do with the title; didn’t know if it would become a poem, if it would become an illustration or whatever.
After a while I began to interrogate it, to critically think of what to do with the concept and a short story about two friends came. Art must be a combination of abstraction and representation. Without representation, it has no human meaning, so I wanted to give to story worth. Political, Personal, Progressive. I wanted to do this as naturally as possible and the more I interrogate the short story I realised the potential to discuss things that I had lived through. But, I baulked at the task and feared I could not write it well, that it was too big for me, that others could tell the story better. However the great guys at Fuel, Kate McGrath particularly, believed I could and we had long discussions about the story. It starts in Jos, Nigeria where I was born and travels the world also exploring homosexuality, fair trade clothing, exploitation and friendship.
Where do you find your inspiration from, does it come from personal experience?
When I first started writing, my creations were solely topical, political (in the bad kind of ways) and inspiration came entirely from the world and what I thought to be the ills of the world. These days, I begin with an image. Something strikes me and I interrogate that image for meaning, try to invent its meaning or attribute meaning. Inspiration comes from such puzzles and trying to understand myself. There is a fine line between this and navel-gazing, but I believe in the power of art as a tool for social change and as Ghandi famously said “be the change you want to see in the world”. I start with trying to understand what makes me tick, what made me tick as a child and how this confronts the everyday world.
Your next show, Knightwatch, is premiering at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival in June before touring the country. What will it be about and what can people expect from the show?
The show is at its very core, about global warming. It is told in four parts, about the destruction of an entire city by the four elements. Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, in that order. However, it is told through the lives of only four characters and the story is set in a place not dissimilar to South London. It engages the narratives of gang culture, violence, youth disorder and for the first time, I am working with live musicians – a flute player and a drummer. The story will performed outdoors in disused spaces like old basketball court, car parks, roof gardens and parking lots.
Rhythmically, it is the most complex and challenging thing I have written. The first section is in mellifluous prose, my default writing voice. The second as a ballad with a strict classic rhyme structure. The third section is a long hip hop song, which I hope will show audiences how classical poetry contributed to rap music and the fourth and final section returns to what I am most comfortable with, that of the first section; free verse, musical, magical language.
More info: See Inua Ellams this month at the National Theatre.