The Books Interview: Ben Okri

Ben Okri

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.

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. I see things that I didn't see before. Like forms of greetings - the way people say hello. Years ago, I would have thought that two people meeting and saying hello was cold, because the way Africans greet is very expressive.

Do you see your poems before writing them?
Some poets do see [their poems]. Some see the shape of the poem before the words fill them. I have lines. My colours are part of the way words come out of my mind. But suddenly, a line or half-line will appear and pull out the rest, in some process of affinity. The poem is never complete in the mind. It emerges and then it's like an act of unveiling. The unveiling is the longest and most difficult part of it.

You say in a poem that you "feast in dreams and fast in life". How clear is the line for you between dreaming and reality?
For me, they shade into one another. More than that, the very nature of their mirror relationship calls each one into question. There is a certain degree to which reality is a dream; there is a certain degree to which a dream is reality. That's what is fascinating to me. Artists and writers have to deal with the element that makes the real real and the dream real while you are dreaming it. That's where stories and poems get their power.

There is a metaphysical dimension to your work. Are John Donne and his contemporaries an influence?
Anyone who has done a rich amount of reading will have been aesthetically and metaphysically bruised by Donne. But the metaphysical dimension to my work is something that comes out of the African tradition. There is something about that tradition which, because it doesn't see reality as clearly demarcated as is currently seen in the west, because we have this whole thing about realms of reality, already gives you a metaphysical view of life, even if you're an atheist. I think it's this sense that any given reality is implicated with other realities. Here is not all there is. I'm not saying there is a heaven: I'm just saying that we have this intuition that around the fringes of reality there is something else.

Interview by Sophie Elmhirst
Ben Okri's "Wild" is published by Rider Books (£12.99)