Ben Okri

By Elmhirst, Sophie | New Statesman (1996), April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ben Okri


Elmhirst, Sophie, New Statesman (1996)


Wild is your first poetry collection in many years. Has it been brewing for a long time?

It's been long in the cooking, for sure. I began my writing life as a poet, so poetry has always been fundamental. I evolved from poetry to journalism to stories to novels. But poetry was always there. I take volumes of poetry very seriously. The first one, An African Elegy, coalesced around the themes of modern Africa, the artist, political points. This one, I've been gathering for some time. Some of the poems were there; others took years, sometimes just straightening out one line.

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Is the architecture of a collection important?

Yes, very important. The sense of the whole doesn't emerge until you're putting the poems together. Then their inner themes start to emerge - it's like a journey you're making through a theme in your mind. This volume is bookended by my mum and dad Mum went first and the poem is not about her passing away; it's about her presence. That's why it's called "My Mother Sleeping": it gives me this sense of her continuing presence, which is very African. We don't have a clearly demarcated sense of death in Africa. We have a graded sense of the passing away of people. It's full of presences, the volume. I was interested in the wild, not as in wildlife or [what is] outside civilisation but as a raw, formative energy that artists notice when they look at objects.

You talk about the limitations of seeing with our eyes. Does writing help you to see?

Writing helps me to look and listen. It has grown more acute with the years. Maybe one of the central problems, apart from how deeply do you feel, is the depth and clarity of seeing and hearing. I study people all the time. For some reason, we're not very good at seeing what's there or hearing what we're hearing. Quantum physics tells us this now - that the world is not actually as we see it. Our seeing of the world is a double process of interpretation.

Has the way you see changed over time?

Oh, yes. The relations between things, for example. There are things I couldn't see before, because I brought with me an African consciousness and, over the years of being here, that consciousness has been interpolated by European consciousness. …

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