Interview with Jakky Bankong-Obi
A Judge for the 2021 SprinNG Women Authors Prize
Jakky Bankong-Obi is a poet and Media Consultant from Kakwe-Beebo in Boki, Cross River State. Jakky lives and writes from Abuja.
Her work has been featured/forthcoming in London Grip, The Kalahari Review, Zarf Poetry, Gutter Magazine, Hobartpulp, Pidgeonholes, Pipewrench Magazine, Memento; An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, etc.
Jakky is also Co-Editor at Icefloe Press. She enjoys long walks, yoga & dabbling in nature photography. She is on Twitter as @jakkybeefive.
People’s philosophy or purpose always gives insights into their art and creativity. In 5 to 10 sentences, can you tell us why you write? What’s your creative philosophy? – If you have one.
I write because I’ve always been in love with words. For me, writing is basically a response to reading. I believe that my writing is simply what I am giving back to words, to language, to books, and to the way other writers have spun the wonderful worlds in the books I’ve read and will read.
Last year May, you tweeted, “A huge part of being a poet or even a writer is believing in a piece despite 34 rejections and then eventually finding a home for it. Glory be!” What are your writing goals – which have you achieved, what are you still pursuing, and what keeps you going?
I think every writer’s goal is to improve. It’s a craft, after all, and every craft leans towards its own mastery. And mastery is nothing but the alchemy of skill and spirit. My goal as a writer is my goal as a person – to live and feel my life as deeply as possible so that all my truths bleed out in the work I do. Then, of course, there are dream journals/publications, prizes, fellowships, certifications, but the core is building that connection with the words inside to strike a chord with the reader.
With the modernization of poetry and its inclusion of non-traditional styles, there have been discussions on what makes poetry, or “good poetry.” To some, a poem is good when a reader can unearth its meaning. To others, meaning isn’t what defines a poem. In addition, there are several other aspects of poetry criticisms that we can consider. With your expertise as a Co-Editor at Icefloe Press, poetry writing, and publishing experience – how do you define “good work?” Has your editorial experience informed or influenced the evaluation and process of your writing?
My analogy is that a good poem/work is like a journey with many sights to see. Sometimes the trip is short, other times it is long. The truth is we may end up right where we began or someplace else, and sometimes we get somewhere only to be told we need to take another trip. But undeniably, there are experiences to be had on the trip. Every poem/work makes you experience something. It is always evocative. It may obscure or clarify its subject matter using literary devices, but it is always saying or doing something. So, I ask myself what a poem is doing and how it is doing it.
I think editing always helps your writing. Editing makes you a more disciplined and, I think, a better reader. This, of course, helps with sharpening your writing as well. They feed off each other.
At the beginning of their journeys, we met many writers who thought they could only write one genre or had the vision to publish one book, which has changed for them. What is one truth you believed about yourself regarding your creative work that has now changed? We have seen a lot of your poetry; do you plan to explore other genres in the future?
The thing that has changed about my creative work is that I could be a poet.
Professionally, I’ve written quite a few things, and I believe I have a motivational e-book somewhere in the ether, but poetry was never in the offing for me. Poetry for me was all a happy accident, and while I’m still writing and improving, I think I’m more of a “write what you are writing” kind of writer. I may be a poet, but if I had an idea for fiction, non-fiction, etc., I’d definitely do that. I have a personal essay on Hobartpulb, which was really a prose poem that somehow ended up as that piece. I also have a few photographs published too. In an ideal world, I would like to have the time to follow ALL my artistic instincts.
Looking at the most influential publishers of Nigerian authors and even the most famous Nigerian authors and books – their works are focused on a narrow narrative about the African experience. African writers' books hardly ever gain an international audience if they aren’t about war, poverty, corruption, sexism, or densely focused on culture. While these topics are important, they focus more on the survival of African beings rather than our living. You have previously spoken on the expectations for African writers to write on what is considered “weighty” subjects. How has that knowledge influenced your writing? Do you see yourself owning a body of work, whether a book you write or an anthology you edit that defies these expectations?
The truth is that the issues are there. All the negative narratives are true in our country and continent. But we are still here. Living our real and ordinary lives: plying our trades, building careers, going to school, having children, building & raising families, businesses, etc., and the simple reality is that not all of us will leave the country/continent, and we must write our realities. That reality is also love, is beauty, is music, is food, is culture, is ceremony, is loss, is grief, is nature, is personal pain/heartbreak, illness, travel, etc. The goal is to write it all. To write about the wars, as well as the love and the vast mundanity that makes our lives and truths.
You have professional experiences spanning international relations, human resources, media, and publishing. Can you share how you have been able to marry your multi-faceted professional life with your writing? Or are they separated?
They are both separate and similar. There are aspects of my professional life that have nothing to do with writing, and there are some that have everything to do with it. I have to read and do a lot of research for both, though, so there’s that. But, I mostly try to give everything as much focus as I can.
You have said in an earlier interview that your poem, In light of Wonder, was an act of activism against the expectations of what a Nigerian/African woman should be writing about. Can you talk about these expectations if and how they contribute to shrinking the number of thriving and recognized female Nigerian/African writers? What would it mean to break free from these impositions?
I think we all feel these expectations as African creatives to fit into the negative narratives as earlier stated. However, in the end, you really have to write what you have to write. Art is always subjective, not everyone will like what you write, and you’ve just got to deal with that. But even more importantly, we have to keep creating spaces for ourselves wherever we can. Nigerian/African women writers seem to me to actually be on the rise. The internet is full of them. We are all over social media, the internet, writing communities, social spaces, academia, etc. I just think there are not enough spaces to recognize them. Let’s recognize African women for writing whatever it is they are writing.
Also, my personal opinion reinforced by experience is that recognition is not the point. The point is the writing itself. Being celebrated or recognized by your peers and betters is amazing. Possibly, every writer thinks about winning a prize/award/honorable mention somewhere nice, but in the end, it’s not the point. This helps with freeing up those impositions.
Your works have been published in several literary magazines, including London Grip, an online platform. Some have said that we are witnessing a takeover of “traditional” publications by the new wave of online magazines. What do you think of the transitioning of publishing and its expansion into media, positive or negative? Does it threaten or expand the legitimacy of literature?
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people are coming into the art via media. I see this as one of the positive impacts of technology. The fact that we can now have real-time access to things and opportunities we would hardly have had before. Of course, everyone who reads books enjoys the experience of the book in hand, but there’s got to be a balance where traditional and online publishing spaces can create room for new voices. New media means a new audience and as well new talent. It’s the reality of the world now, whether you are in Africa or Australia. We are all reading and experiencing each other’s art in real-time, and there’s no going back from that now. Let those who set the parameters of legitimate literature do with that what they will.
The low level of recognition of books by female Nigerian authors is undeniable, the same as publishing and literary opportunities. After the SprinNG Women Authors Prize launch, there has been praise for our approach in tackling this issue by supporting the affected demographic. But, on the other hand, we have experienced criticisms even from some female Nigerian authors. We can think of the several issues that female Nigerian writers and authors face in the industry; which ones are the most important to you, and what solutions do you hope can be affected? Also, speaking of the SprinNG Women Authors Prize and its mission, do you think that in a world where there is an imbalance in recognizing female Nigerian authors, having a prize that offers special attention is the right approach? Why or why not?
I think it’s representation. Women writers are a lagging demographic in what is already an impossible industry. To bridge the gap, we would all have to do our bit. Editors and publishers have to take steps to expand representation. We are asking that traditionally held spaces make room for a more equitable system all over the world. This is what creating award spaces for women is about. Frankly, there should be more prizes and publishing spaces for Nigerian Women writers.
In April, Poetry Column, the Poetry Desk on Nigerian News Direct, held a month-long women-only feature. I happened to serve as Guest Editor for the month, and we had a flood of submissions from writers who it turned out were submitting for the first time. And I’ve now seen a few of them with poems published elsewhere. The rise of online and new Nigerian/African journals has meant more African women are being published. To see more women grow in the industry, we have to create these spaces for women deliberately.
As much as we can say that art, particularly poetry, is transforming, what’s also happening simultaneously is that the literary space is forming factions and cliques. These groupings can be found in writing styles, poetry techniques, and even age groups. Putting on your editor hat, do you think this affects the growth and acceptance of emerging writers and new voices? As with most forms of arts, poetry and poets have endured gatekeeping and policing; do you think there must be boundaries with experimenting forms and style in poetry for it to maintain its classification?
Surely, if you insist strictly on particular styles, techniques, or forms when it comes to art or poetry, you stifle the space. Art as itself is experimentation. Art is idea translated into form via medium. None of these things are in their nature is static. Even within styles, form, factions, etc., no two artists or poets are the same. As a matter of fact, no two poems are the same. While I appreciate everything traditional, I think openness is what creating and experiencing art is about.
After establishing a certain social and literary relevance for their work, many poets pursue academic opportunities, such as an MFA or a Ph.D. in an area of interest.
Do you see yourself exploring such paths? How are you currently challenging yourself as a writer, and what do you plan to do in the future?
Poetry aside, I’ve always wanted to further my studies, and inevitably it does look as if it has to be poetry. I can tell you, however, that I haven’t made any plans to that effect.
As a writer, I have a few goals, some of them daily goals to help improve the process. I also have a chapbook currently making its way in the rounds of submissions, and I have also started on my next book idea (which is really that I’ve started making notes). I also have a few editorial commitments that run to the end of the year, and I’m taking a few writing workshops. I’m basically trying not to overdo it!
Some writers pursue accomplishments through publications and work. Some pursue accomplishments through contests and prizes. To some, experience is the accomplishment and vice versa. Your biography in most places is focused on your experience and expertise. What has been or could be the most memorable accomplishment you desire for your creative pursuits?
I think as someone who’s really interested in the idea of landscape and culture and identities, I’d love to be able to do a body of work centered on the landscape and cultural ecologies of my village. I spent a lot of time in the village while growing up, and it was all fine. Unfortunately, as I grew older, my family grew more religious, and the village became a place of suspicion on account of witchcraft and juju. I still go home from time to time but haven’t spent an extended amount of time there though now it’s really because I can’t. There’s hardly any time because of work and other practical matters. If I could, I’d like to spend some extended amount of time there to see how my art engages with that.
What are you currently reading, and what projects or individual pieces are you working on?
I’m reading World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass, and a host of other poems, journals, articles. I’m a chaotic reader though I have a system that may or may not need improvement.
I also have a few unfinished poems (who doesn’t).
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