Introducing YELF Artist of the Month, Rasaq Malik.

Rasaq Malik Gbolahan is an Iseyin born poet who has a passionate love for poetry and everything that elevates the art of writing. A graduate of the University of Ibadan, Gbolahan is a cultural enthusiast and an indescribable lover for Yoruba cosmology. His works have been published in Nigerian Newspapers and online and print journals all over the world including Poet lore, Rattle, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Spillway among numerous others. He was a finalist of the 2017 Brunel International Poetry Prize as well as the 2018 Sillerman First Book Prize for African poets. His chapbook No Home in this Land was published by Akashic Book and African Poetry Book Fund in the annual New Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set. Rasaq believes we can change the world through words.

Enjoy our Interview with Razaq Malik here:

Q: Why do you write poems, what does its practise afford you as a person?

Razaq: Poetry occurs as a solace to my solitude. Growing up in Iseyin, I never learnt how to face the world, how to challenge barriers and erect a standard for myself. I found poetry in my late teenage years. Since my parents are unconscious of Arts and its importance, I had to struggle through the university as a budding poet with an unbridled passion for poetry. Another primal reason why poetry seems to engulf my life is the need for immortality. I am aware of the desire to address copious issues and struggles that inhabit the world. I am keen to know how life begins as a child and how it ends with us being stripped of the strength to return to the past. We can’t all write our stories. Thus, it is necessary that some of us act as vanguards, as gatekeepers, as scribblers of people’s lives and their failures and successes. Poetry documents dreams. It opens the door of the past and shows us the dust of memory that swarms old pictures of the dead and the living. I seek that revelation, that slow but indelible initiation to the world of others. I find those sacred answers to bizarre questions of life in poetry. Poetry encapsulates everything we need to know as travellers. For example, reading ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost to my students created a long conversation around how temporary the cycle of life is. In 2015, I lost a childhood friend to death. I couldn’t attend his janazah because I was in Benue. In the process of mourning his untimely demise, I remembered growing up with him in the same neighbourhood. I attempted voyaging to the past, to the moment his body thinned on sickbed, to the time he succumbed to death out of intense pain. I wasn’t conscious of these stories until he died. I found comfort in writing about how both of us used to tame grasshoppers at Ebedi nursery and primary school, Iseyin. Through poetry, I built a memorial ground for him. I return to read those poems whenever his picture surfaces on my phone. Also, the tragic occurrences of blasts in the north dominate some of my poems. I try to personalize the aches of those people who have come to be detached from their homeland, those who have buried one, two or three people. There are those who have buried many. How do we narrate their stories? I invite poetry to represent them.

Q: What is the poetry scene like in Nigeria, any particular challenges?

Razaq: The poetry scene in Nigeria is porous. It is also delicate. Over the years, emergent voices have deployed the use of the media to aid the propagation of their poems. However, there is a need to say that the media has also been used to celebrate mediocrity and to lift the banner of ignorance. Young Nigerian poets need to read voraciously. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to reading Nigerian poets. It is pertinent to explore writers from other countries. We should pay more attention to how to distinguish banality from efficiency. When I set out to be a poet, I never thought about financial sustenance. I started as someone who derives fulfilment from writing. It hasn’t changed. I survive despite the unavailability of rewards for writers. Ours is a country where writers look impoverished at readings while leaders flaunt embezzled money at parties. So, is important to map out your plans and reasons for writing because you attempt. That is why it is my tradition to recommend ‘Letters to a Young poet’ by Rainer Rilke to emerging poets whenever they seek my advice. It is important to search the depth of things when it comes to writing. It is not going to be a rosy journey. Thus, it requires that one decides if one is ready to write or not. Already, there are people masquerading as poets on the media. It is when they see the challenges attached to it that they flee and never return. Serious poets don’t flee. They welder the storm come out alive. Young writers need to learn how to embrace criticism and rejections. The media should have served as a medium of constructive criticism. There were years when Pa Ikhide, Mr. Ahmed Maiwada, Torty Abartive, Okoroafor Chibuzor, Emmanuel Dairo, etc would engage critically some of the poems posted online by young writers. Unfortunately, things have changed. We only have praise singers and people who detest criticism.

Q:  You are widely published in prestigious poetry Journals all over the world, what’s the secret to your success in this regard?

Razaq: I read every day. I let consistency play a major role. I try to read journals to know what they want. As a writer, one should be proactive. One should be able to spring surprises through writing. Endurance matters, too. Sometimes I miss deadlines because I want to perfect my poems. A writer shouldn’t be in a hurry. I have stopped developing headache whenever I receive rejection letters. It is part of the game. There are a lot of opportunities outside the country. There are journals to submit to. There are competitions and residencies. There are grants and fellowships. One should just keep working. Some day, it will be your turn to win.

Q: You were shortlisted for the Brunel International Poetry Prize last year, how has that affected your art?

Razaq: Brunel came when I wasn’t expecting it. I started submitting to Brunel since the Inaugural edition that witnessed the likes of Uncle Peter Akinlabi on the shortlist. I never said because I wasn’t on the list I would stop submitting to them. I kept submitting, every year. I did this for four years before they shortlisted me. Sometimes I tell this story to people for them to know that everything has to do with passion and perseverance. It takes years to be a winner. It takes years to emerge. There are stages for everything. If your year hasn’t come, don’t feel disillusioned. Continue working. Believe in yourself. If prizes come, fine. If they do not, fine. I have heard people talk about how prizes validate us. I agree to this. However, I have come to realize the essentiality of staying unruffled if prizes are not forthcoming. This is the reason why one should check often the reasons why he/she writes. If you stop writing because you haven’t won prizes, then you have never been truthful to yourself. There are many brilliant writers out there. They toil daily just to write great stories. But the world doesn’t notice them. Yet, they never stop writing. Also, I don’t let things get to me. Being on the shortlist helped me in a way that allowed me to meet new faces and lovers of my poems. However, I don’t rest on this. I never allow my successes to intoxicate me. Even after being on the Sillerman shortlist, I keep working every dawn and night. This is my dream. My gift to humanity.

Q: How is your chapbook doing in the market, any word for poets who might harbour the dream of being published by the African Poetry Book Fund?

Razaq: My chapbook is doing fine. I have had good reviews so far. Some have been published online, while some have graced the internet. But I never let this affect my productivity. I keep writing. Because I am this solitary guy, I spend more time with myself. Reading liberates me. It exposes new things to me. Little things begin a great story/poem. I give books to my students to read. They come back happily to say Jazakumlahu khairan. I don’t have all. I try to survive with the help of Allah and people who surround me.

APBF is an amazing platform for those who desire to give a voice to their silent manuscripts. I cherish the communal strength that exists between APBF and their authors. We have been fortunate enough to have Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani pioneer this. Both are studious and committed to the rise of new and brilliant African voices.

For those who harbour the dream of being published by APBF, I would say they should never relent. It takes years of passion to arts to achieve this. Keep working on that manuscript. Keep reading new books. Don’t be ruptured by insincere commendations from e-praisers. Just keep your head low. Keep writing.