Amatisoritsero Ede, born in Nigeria, has been a Hindu Monk with the Hare Krishna movement and worked as a Book Editor with a major Nigerian trade publisher, Spectrum Books. His first collection of poems, Collected Poems: A Writer’s Pains & Caribbean Blues, was published in Germany and Nigeria. His work has appeared in seven anthologies in Canada, England, Germany, and Nigeria. A second poetry collection, Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children (New York: Akashic Books, 2009) just came out. He has won several awards for his poetry, and was the 2005-2006 Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, under the auspices of PEN Canada’s Writer-in-Exile Program. He edited Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and is the publisher and managing editor of the online Maple Tree Literary Supplement. He lives in Canada, where he is SSHRC Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in English at Carleton University.
We engaged in this conversation with a series of emails; over the course of our correspondence Ede proved to be intelligent and generous, often responding late at night.
Tell me about your experience as a Hare Krishna monk. Was that in Nigeria? Does that spiritual background affect your writing?
Yes, I was with the Hare Krishna Movement in Lagos, Nigeria. I was 24 at the time. I was dealing with too much existential angst and needed solitude and withdrawal, the better to self-study. I had tried all forms of spiritual contemplation–Christianity particularly, only to discover that Biblical teachings are too literarily understood and disseminated by the clergy, and that it was merely “religion” with all the regimentation and unquestioning acceptance of dogma that that implied. I simply had too many questions and the church little or no answers. So as Dambudzo Marechera would have said, “I picked up my bag and left” that House of Hunger. I left, especially as I witnessed the overt commodification within–particularly–the Pentecostal “prosperity churches” that were beginning to mushroom at the time.
Growing up within the traditional Yoruba worldview of accommodation, religious and otherwise, as emphasized by Yoruba traditional religious pantheism, I also did not understand such fascist utterances like, “Jesus is the only way” and, “No one comes to the father except through me.” I guess they presume the father is your ubiquitous next-door family man, and did not grasp the esoteric importance of “father” as deployed in any scripture. And to expect that a father would put the child in hell, say a bakery oven—let me mimic the clergy’s own literal (mis)understanding of scripture—for being a sinner beat me too. The Bible did say that He gave us free will to choose from good and bad. Why does He not just make everyone do what He wants, if that is His will? Many questions; no answers.
It seems like a lot of your struggle with Christianity in particular seems to stem from interpretation of texts, from issues of language.
You can see how language must have taken over the process of interpretation–of hermeneutics–and reads the people who are supposed to be reading for meanings. In retrospect, there is also the problem of translation from original biblical source languages into target languages. A lot of metaphorization must have been lost or watered down in that globalizing process. Where then are “the errors of the rendering” as Christopher Okigbo says? Beyond metaphor, there is also the question of the esoteric significance of any scriptural language. For the lay clergy, it is all mostly literal–not all the time, but mostly. So when there is mention of “hell,” clergy and laity alike take it literal and tremble in fear thinking of a bakery oven. With a mention of “prosperity” ‘people of God’ think of Gold like Aaron at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses to come down with the Ten Commandments. I am coming to the significance of all that to Vaishnavism–the Hare Krishna Movement–in a minute. Many question and little answers.
More confusing for me was the fact that this religion, Christianity, has been responsible for, or complicit in, a lot of atrocities historically; its investments in slavery, colonialism, and capitalism is all too well known, even if often ignored in analysis or on the pulpit. Part of the arrogance of this religion is that it never apologizes for anything. Not for the Nazi gold scandal, not for the crusades, not for pedophilia in the church, not for excesses like psychopathic pastor Jim Jones in Guyana and many more. Definitely not for slavery or colonialism and the “civilizing” mission. So you see the transliteration of scripture is then taken to an extreme and misreadings occur, which allow psychotics to hijack such transliterations for their own warped uses. As Shakespeare has it, “the devil cites scripture for his purpose.” At some point earlier I was a Muslim, though that was due to an adult’s prodding to get us young rascally boys out of the way. I did it by rote. I found there were—still are—a lot of misreading of the Koran as well–literal misinterpretations of what should properly be esoteric and not so mistranslated as it often is.
So it was out of curiosity and the continuous search for something beyond my immediate grasp that I ran into the Hare Krishna folks dancing in downtown Lagos. I loved the sound of the mrdanga (the oblong drums), conch shells, and cymbals. And they did look weird. So I approached to find out what the ruckus was all about. And they began to explain the Krishna philosophy and religious thought to me. It was deep and not the usual literal slant I had experienced with Christianity particularly. The esoteric nature of the musings also struck a cord with my yearning for a deeper or higher explanation of things. I was in the face of the esoteric. I had toyed with the esoteric growing up; reading books like 14 Lessons in Occultism and Enter the Silence, books of palmistry and astrology. Lets us say I had a yearning and an affinity for the esoteric. Christianity took all of that away with its jealous ways. I got “born again” and burnt all my esoteric books, which were “of the devil”! When I got out of the church I was mad as a hatter! I cannot find some of those books anywhere. Hinduism–that’s what Krishna consciousness is–is pantheistic like the traditional Yoruba religions I grew up with. Hinduism in my experience is not as jealous as Christianity and Islam. These religions, younger by far than the traditional African and most Eastern religions, are very narcissistic. So I listened to the saffron-robed, bald-headed Prabhuji and decided I would go to their temple later and find out more–case the joint if you like! I went in and didn’t come out for a long time. I shaved my head too and wore a doti.
The Hare Krishna experience is one of a kind. You are supposed to drop all attachment to material life–family, friends, books, habits – good and bad. In short you renounced material life and lived a spiritual life of austerity and self-denial. Even food is not a big necessity. At some point you are supposed to conquer the tongue enough to need maybe just a piece of fruit a day. I never got that far–because again, I picked up my bag and left! The discipline was good but unearthly. You went to bed at 9 pm, woke up at 3 am; if you don’t wake up someone douses you in a sprinkle of water or rings the morning bell right into your eardrums. To further aid your wakefulness you take a cold shower, then mark your body (solar plexus, navel, forehead, shoulders, and so on) with tilak, which is clay from the Ganges, wear your doti and go into the Temple by 4 am to begin morning devotion with songs: Samsara dava dana lida loka trayana karuna ganagana twam, praptasya karlyana dana lolu paysa vande guru sri ca na ra vindam. That is Sanskrit. Don’t ask me what it means because I don’t remember; there is a book where all the songs are translated. I loved those songs and still miss the temple if only for their resonance and the accompanying mrdanga and cymbals. It was bliss I can tell you: meditation, concentration and contemplation all in one. It definitely was consciousness- changing for me. Then the morning sermon–well, not really a sermon as such, but a meditation read (in Sanskrit) from the Bhagavad-Gita, then translated and explained by a more senior devotee–like the temple president. All, very very esoteric and mystifying for a bhakta–a new devotee.
The evening singing lifts you bodily and you are slapped flat like Spiderman against the ceiling for the next one hour at least, dancing in spiritual ecstasy. It was better than weed or cocaine! That’s why Hare Krishna thrived in the USA during the flower power, punk and hippie eras when even prominent figures like John Lennon were members. If you needed drugs simply “chant and be happy.” That was the drug! Chant the Hare Krishna maha mantra,
It was great experience but tough, so one day I picked up my bag and left. It was a tough decision to leave; it was difficult to go. But poetry and other matters called. I left.
That spiritual background does not affect or influence my poetry in a direct way but rather in the roundabout fashion that I insist on the truth as an ontological phenomenon; calling a spade as spade, as I see it. I do not play the mind games with self that people like to play. If someone is deceiving me at least I won’t deceive myself. “I am finely attuned to my own psyche” as Soyinka says in The Interpreters.
There are a lot of contemporary poets from a vaguely Christian tradition—I think of many of the Japanese haiku poets as well—that conceive of poetry as a sort of prayer. Does that at all resonate with you?
You are right about the idea of the poem as a prayer. The Jesuit Priest Gerald Manley Hopkins–early modernist and precursor of a full-fledged modernist movement–did just that with his poetry, pray. Is all of Rumi not one long prayer to the psyche? But to be more specific, religion has sometimes been an impetus for devotional poetry or literature generally. The critic G.H. Vallins in his The Best English has an elaborate analysis of how the Bible has been a model for early English poetry or prose. The Psalms of King David could be considered as free verse, praising the Christian God.
Have you read any of the recent translations of the Psalms, focusing on their poetry and the Hebrew poetic devices employed rather than, say, their sanctity as holy texts? I’m thinking specifically of Robert Alter and David Rosenberg.
No I have not read that. That would be an interesting read. I will definitely look out for the Literary Bible when it comes out. But to get back to Hopkins… What Hopkins, like King David of the Psalms, does is to praise God with his idea of inscape and instress. “By ‘inscape’ he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by ‘instress’ he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder”₁ And that instress is the God in the thing, the object; it is the creative essence, which reflects the workings of a supernatural supreme personality of Godhead. In that way his poems are eternal prayers. But he wrote in secret. Poetry was considered too secular a preoccupation for a Jesuit priest to indulge in. It was seen as almost a sinful self-indulgence. So none of his work was published in his lifetime. Talking about which the spiritual background of Hare Krishna does not appear in my public poetry directly because I was almost forbidden to write poetry in the temple unless it had something to do with the religious, focusing on Krishna, the supreme personality of Hindu Godhead. I did write some poetry in that fashion and they were published in a journal we produced at the temple called transcendence. But otherwise you won’t find any directly spiritual poetry in my oeuvre. I could not not write poetry of all kinds. I felt restrained by the ecclesiastical demands of writing to form. So I picked up my bag and left. Now I am retracing my steps into traditional African religion and my patron saint, the Yoruba Trickster God Esu, is very liberal. “I write what I like.”
Obviously your relationship with Germany—political and personal—has had something to do with your poetry. It’s found its way into your subject matter; have there been any other, deeper ways its affected your poetry? What about the German poets?
There are no particular direct stylistic ways the German poets influenced or affected my poetry. This definitely has to do with the fact that I was a finished poet by the time I moved to Germany from Nigeria.
A finished poet? What, exactly, do you mean? Your fundamental sense of aesthetics had already been developed?
By a finished poet I mean that I was already largely formed in my stylistics and aesthetic predilections, yes. And importantly I had already serviced my apprenticeship. I had written my juvenilia. I remember presenting Wole Soyinka with a notebook of handwritten poems when I first met him as a teenager of 18. He was kind enough not to say anything but just, “it is coming up; it is coming up!” None of my juvenilia is published at all. I can’t even find them, or I unconsciously lost them. Later on, I belonged to a group of poets at the University of Ibadan referred to in Nigeria as the Thursday People because we (the poetry club) met informally on Thursdays. That group was a spawning ground for good poetry and cross influences. It is the same group that Niyi Osundare belonged to–more and more in a fringe sense as he grew up and away as a poet. Others include Harry Garuba, Chiedu Ezeanah, Remi Raji, Uche Nduka by affiliation, the late Sessan Ajayi, Sanya Osha and many more. I particularly had a close poetic relationship with Chiedu Ezeanah for his rigor, and we critiqued each other’s work honestly and without rancor. Such frank and no-nonsense criticism within the group generally helped me hone my craft. I am amused how in North America, despite the proliferation of creative writing schools, no criticism goes on at all. What passes for criticism is usually the unalloyed praise of the blurb writer. Writing blurbs has become a profession in itself and the unspoken ethic of it is that you praise the book to high heavens, deploy hyperboles couched in comparatives like “the best,” “the greatest,” “the most accomplished”— In comparison to what? one wonders. Even though I have left Nigeria, Chiedu still electronically sends me his poems from time to time to critique. He knows I will not call a spade a fork. The result of North American political correctness is that critics, both academic and lay, are petrified and refuse to do their work. Everyone is so sensitive; egos are so frail that you don’t dare offend their testiness by saying a poem is bad! You are supposed to simply praise. Why was it that the Romantic poets cut off the public and formed an inner group to critique their works? Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others at some point refused to follow the demands of the rabble about the direction their work should take. It led to a rejection of the age-old patronage system and the relationship of the Romantic poet to the public was then mediated through the market–especially with the increase in the English mercantile class and expansion of the middle class. Today, the general public and the critic behave like Wordsworth’s uncritical, unholy rabble. What you have out there is a lot of badly, hastily written poetry. There is also the desire to “popularize” poetry with things like slam and the “prose poem”—what an (oxy)moron! I think Derek Walcott recently frowned at that expression in a public talk. I can’t remember the circumstances now. These days everyone wants to be a poet. I wonder why. Poetry might be the queen of the arts but it is a beggar queen, you don’t make money with it. I suppose perhaps that some think writing poetry is easy and fast and does not need the patience, diligence, discipline, and long-suffering of prose. This view is far from the truth. The art requires more rather than less discipline. My own litmus test is this: if you can replace any word in any of my lines with another word, without causing a major breakdown in the very essence and structure of the poem, then I did a poor job in the first place! With me if at the syntagmatic level something is removed you will discover that it affects the whole paradigm. One word replaced and everything goes to hell! The rhythm and cadence–what Seamus Heaney refers to as that “ta-dum-ta-dum” in his The Government of the Tongue–the imagery too would probably go to hell, especially with me. I am an informal imagist.
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