Pamilerin Jacob is a young Nigerian poet & mental health enthusiast. His poem was shortlisted for the Ken Egba Prize For Festival Poetry 2017. Some of his poems also appear in the Best “New” African Poets 2017 Anthology (as Olawale Ibiyemi). He made the winning list of PIN Food Poetry Contest 2018. Author of Memoir of Crushed Petals (2018) & Gospels of Depression (2019); he is a staunch believer in the powers of critical thinking, Khalil Gibran’s poetry & chocolate ice cream.
This interview was conducted by Uduak-Estelle Akpan.
What inspires your writing?
Why is poetry your choice genre?
I always say, Poetry chose me. & even when I dabble into other genres, you can see the poetic impulse, floating in between the words.
Why are you passionate about mental health advocacy as it is evident in your writings?
I have a mental illness, & have tasted of what stigma does to healing. How it ruptures the process. How it renders hope inept. I find it a personal responsibility to dismantle the culture of silence surrounding mental health.
Does one need any special attribute to be a good poet/ what in your opinion is that special thing?
Thirst. There has to be a perpetual thirst for the betterment of the craft.
Vulnerability too. In poetry, the poet rather than the tongue, speaks with the heart.
You studied accounting in your first degree, is there any clear relationship between that and your work as a poet?
I would say, the ability to search for imbalances & attempt to rectify them. The accountant balances the books, the poet balances the soul.
Do you care about distinguishing your work from that of other writers/how do you make sure of that?
Personally, I feel that a good poem is in itself unique. Doesn’t have to struggle to distinguish itself. A poet’s voice is sharpened through constant tonguing of self-truths, however frightening. & the reader will always recognize such a voice, though blindfolded.
How do you balance your day to day engagements with the demands of writing?
Honestly, I have no clue. But I guess it has to do with the fact that, there is thirst. So regardless of my activities, I always come back into a poem to marinate.
Who are the five Nigerian writers that inspire you?
This is a hard one. I have lots of them.
Niyi Osundare, Servio Gbadamosi, Shoola Oyindamola, Logan February & Adedayo Agarau. (there are lots more though! Romeo Oriogun, Kanyinsola Olorunnisola, Saddiq Dzukogi, Odia Ofeimun, Christopher Okigbo, Jide Badmus, Chrisstie Jay, Kormbat, Obafemi Olatunde etc)
Which are your top five Nigerian books?
Waiting Laughters by Niyi Osundare
A Tributary in Servitude by Servio Gbadamosi
To Bee A Honey by Oyindamola
Painted Blue with Saltwater by Logan February
For Boys Who Went by Adedayo Adeyemi Agarau
What is the best part of being a writer?
The healing. Communal & Personal. It is so magical.
Do you remember when you wrote your first piece/ what prompted you to start writing?
Hehehe… I was in SS1. & was in the middle of an existential crisis. I remember writing the words, “if I were God, I would clear all the bad eggs”. I was young & had so many questions.
How do you develop yourself as a writer?
Oh I read. I read. I read the good stuff, the bad stuff. Also, while writing, I enjoy the terrible parts- the annoying first drafts. I have certain people who come to me seeking advice, & most often after doling out the advice, I apply them to self also.
I experiment with form. I study the poets I admire (ancient & contemporary). I ensure to attend literary festivals when I can.
More than half of my income is spent on books.
How has the internet helped or limited you as a writer?
The internet definitely opened me up to tons of writers & opportunities. It helped me carve my persona.
On the flip side, it is a HUGE distraction while writing. We all know the joke about how writers spend 98% of their time behind the laptop combing the internet for irrelevant things, only spending 2% of planned time actually writing. It is a joke, but there is a tinge of truth in there.
Some of your early poems on instagram are signed Olawale Ibiyemi; Is Olawale’s writing style in any way different from Pamilerin’s?
I like to think of Pamilerin as a persona needed to cope with present afflictions. I used to think he was a teenage boy trapped in my body, but now I know better. Pamilerin is a truth that unveils itself daily to me.
& as for the writing style, I suppose Pamilerin is more articulate with his thoughts.
You were once quoted to have said, “I write to ease internal turmoil”; what does that mean?
It means that first, I write to heal. To break down every wall erected by trauma in my body. The pen for me, is first scalpel, then microphone [for smashing the silence].
What challenges have you faced as a published writer?
People who come into the poems looking for me. Sure, some poems are autobiographical, but to think that each poem is primarily about me never ceases to amaze me. Nigerians are funny.
The “I” is not always personal, often it is communal.
Should we expect you to delve into other genres in the future or will it always be poetry for you?
As Providence wills, I want to delve into essays. But I don’t think I will publish a collection of essays anytime soon.
Your chapbook, Gospels of depression has the central theme of mental health advocacy; do you think that it is inciting the response you hoped it would?
Definitely. Folks are getting the message, both the subliminal ones & obvious ones.
Are there poems in Gospels of Depression where the characters were developed from your personal experiences or those of other people?
Yes, Mr. Friday in the poem Mr. (Good) Friday is a real person. We shared the same room while I was on admission in the psychiatric ward at various times in 2016, 2017 & 2018. Some poems also draw from my personal experiences & those of friends who have had daunting experiences.
In the poem titled “Searching for love in a father’s mouth”, what would be your advice to the narrator?
Hmmm… I would advise that the persona stop searching for love at all. In Khalil Gibran’s words, “think not that you can direct the course of Love, for Love, if it finds you worthy directs your course”.
Also, in Rumi’s words “your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all barriers within yourself that you have built against it”. I think as humans, we are usually desperate to find love in places where OBVIOUSLY, there is none. The persona, in my opinion, should be open to new experiences. There is always someone else holding out a bowl full of affection.
One would say that some of the poems in Gospels of Depression like “Luminous Mystery 04: Trans-disfiguration” and “The Lunatic that Ticks for a Liberal star” were delivered with an accusatory tone, do you feel that way or did you at any point think that you were being too hard?
Hehehe…at all. That was not my intention.
If they did feel accusatory, it means that they struck the right nerve. You get?
Gospels of depression is your second book, how different was the journey to its publishing in comparison to your first?
Like my first book, I wrote a huge chunk of the work while in the hospital. The difference this time was that I was very interested in experimenting with form.
What inspired the general idea behind the book “Gospels of depression?” Recently I was asked this, & I said, “I wanted to write a gospel that spells out the woes of folks who are mentally ill. Something that would resonate as both spiritual & soothing. This is because religion is most often, the first source of justified stigma”
That summarises the general idea. The book is an attempt to change the narrative, to find solace in one’s spirituality while intentionally pointing out the errors of institutionalized religion & its role in the justification of stigma.
What were your challenges writing Gospels of depression?
I cried a lot while writing a lot of the pieces.
Especially when I wrote, “say to the mountain, be thou removed, & Durojaiye will delete himself from the family like a word document”. That line hit me hard.
How long did it take to assemble the poems in the collection?
A little over a month. I started writing the poems when the call was put out by Poets In Nigeria for a Chapbook Contest. I wasn’t sure I would submit to them, but I knew they sparked this particular manuscript. I was working on something else before this. A collection titled “Infidel”.
What is the most valuable critique of Gospels of depression you have gotten?
When a Christian friend said, he felt offended by my allusions to the bible. It gladdened my heart because, to me, it meant that I had shattered the silence between mental health & his belief system. & he didn’t know how to view mental illness other than through the lenses (of demonic attack) that his belief system had handed over to him.
My goal wasn’t to offend. But the Yorubas say, “taba gun yan nu ewe, taba tepa nu odo, eni maa yo a yo”. The revolution against silence, often comes with frayed nerves. Totally understandable.
Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?
Feeding the 800,000
If you had to take out one poem from the collection, which will it be?Errrmm… Joyful Mystery 01: The Annumbciation. Simply for aesthetic purposes.
Will you continue to write on the theme of mental health or should we expect books advocating for other causes?
I recently fell in love & have been reading a lot of Pablo Neruda’s work… hehehe. That’s a sure recipe for a love poem. Maybe I will write more love poems, I don’t know.
Also, there is this other bodily affliction that I have never written of, because I have found no words for it. Every time, I try to write about it, my fingers stiffen. Words fail me. I guess I am still working on that vulnerability, which is why I absolutely adore Jericho Brown & Danez Smith’s poems. Check out Jericho Brown’s poem “heartland” & Danez Smith’s “it won’t be a bullet”.
What future plans do you have for your writing?
I hope to explore the nuances of bilingualism in my poems more. Niyi Osundare recently spoke about that, & it blew my mind.
At what point will you say you are an accomplished writer?
Every time, I walk out of a poem. I feel accomplished.
What advice do you have for new writers reading this interview?
Do not rush. Sincerely, we are all learners. & please, be comfortable writing terrible things. Lots of terrible things. Then edit.