Dami Ajayi: The doctor’s in, and so’s the poet

Dami Ajayi is a poet whose work is critically-acclaimed, and he is also a practicing psychiatrist. A festival favourite, his readings have been described by fans as ‘electric’, likewise his collection of poems, ‘A Woman’s Body Is A Country’ (Ouida, 2018). In-between clinical duty and writing work, he took time out to chat with Weekend Magazine. Herewith, are excerpts:

Daily Trust: When was your first poem published, and how did it feel?

Dami Ajayi: This must have been sometime in 1999. I was still in secondary school and I was called to the principal’s office. I was scared, worried that I was in some kind of trouble. I was handed a letter from informing me that my poem was to their standard and included in their forthcoming anthology. I still remember the crooked smile of Mr. Nuhu Hassan. But more importantly, I remember how my parents prayed for my blossoming talent the next day at our morning altar. I was a proud man even though retrospect, is some kind of cheap scam, but back then I felt like I was onto something. And maybe it was.

DT: So, at what point in your life did you decide ‘I want to be a poet’?

Ajayi: I don’t think I have made that choice. At least, not yet. I just happen to have published poems. These days, I have published more writings on music than poems. There is a scattering of fiction too, but this is not arousing much interest at the moment. But I am seriously a multi-disciplinary writer. I write poems, stories, essays. I have novel manuscripts in different stages of completion.

Hence, the question maybe is when did I decide I want to be a writer. I was 11, in secondary school. I just knew that was what I wanted from life, to write sentences, publish books. I tried to start a magazine with my peers then, but that failed. 10 years later, Saraba Magazine happened.

DT: Your poems have garnered wide critical attention and acclaim. What is it about your work, would you say, that makes it have global appeal?

Ajayi: I don’t have an unbiased answer to that. The global appeal is a big thing, as it were, which I really can’t lay claim to yet. For instance, I have not published a book of poems outside Nigeria. My readers are mostly from Africa and her Diaspora but I know what you also mean. I have travelled a bit on account of my poetry. I will say I have been lucky. There are a lot of poets out there whose poetry is just as good, if not better, but there is no infrastructure to ensure they get the attention they deserve.

My luck has been good timing, being on great shortlists, having a champion of my cause, my publisher, the incredible superwoman, Lola Shoneyin. This way I have been able to attend book festivals in Nigeria, Africa, Europe and America. That way I have acquired this notoriety that you now call global appeal (laughter).

DT: You’re also a doctor, specifically a psychiatrist. Does that facet of your life sometimes inform your artistic side?

Ajayi: I decided I was going to become a psychiatrist after I wrote a poem called Romasinder Blues, one of my most famous poems, written when I was a medical student. And this poem inhabits and celebrates a specific psychotic experience and a divine inquiry, so really it is my artistic side that influences my medicine.

One foot in the arts makes empathy a major consideration of my medical experience and without empathy, a doctor is nothing but a cold hand and shoulder. Patients hardly connect with that. Patients deserve better than that.

Of course, being a psychiatrist exposes me to a lot of human stories, but I must be sincere, I haven’t even started to unpack that treasure trove yet.

DT: Your work ranges across poetry, essays, and music reviews. How do you switch one off, to enable yourself do the other?

Ajayi: As easy as switching on a light bulb. My brain circuitry is organised to know how to navigate each genre. So I shouldn’t really take credit for that. It happens mostly in my unconscious. But I guess there is something that all genres of writing share, a certain kind of openness the writer must inhabit. The paper or word processor you utilise is already open as it were, naked. You must come to it with an equal measure of openness and see where that leads.

  Ajayi’s book,  ‘A Woman’s Body Is A Country’
Ajayi’s book, ‘A Woman’s Body Is A Country’

DT: What kind of writing is your favourite?

Ajayi: I see what you are trying to do here. Getting me to commit. That is an easy question. Poetry. It comes most natural. I have been doing it for 22 years. From when I did not even have a name for what I was doing till now that I am fully conscious of my power as a poet.

Poetry is the most challenging genre, still it is what I prefer because there is a measure of poetry in every other genre. It is the single most important aesthetic a writer needs: the impulse of a poet. And it is not that complicated. It is just the tendency to concern one with the beauty in language.

DT: You were recently in the news, for an incident on board British Airways, wherein you reported that your laptop was stolen by a passenger. What really happened, and do you have any updates?

Ajayi: That was a disastrous experience. I was in Europe for summer holidays, in Cologne, at the Afrolution Festival in Berlin and visiting family in London. On my return flight to Lagos, my laptop was nicked somewhere between one hour from landing and leaving the airport. I know the laptop was stolen, because I got an update that it was used in Nigeria a few days ago.

What is most interesting is I had only one co-passenger, and the laptop was stowed away in front of the seat between us one hour before the plane landed.

British Airways have been rather unfortunate in their handling on this issue. In fact, they have been blatantly cold, distant and racist. I made complaints as expected and they wrote me like 3 weeks later that they “appreciated the inconvenience I have suffered” and were “unable to assist you in finding your lost laptop”.

This opened a can of worms about the unjust way British Airways treat Nigerian passengers. People from different age groups called me to tell about their experiences, across at least 30 years. But all that is over for me now.

DT: You will be facilitating a workshop on poetry next week, in Abuja. How did that come about, and what do you hope to achieve at the end?

Ajayi: I’ll be in town to read from my book at the Abuja Literary Society and at the Roving Heights Bookstore, so I also decided to be useful to younger poets as well. I teamed up with the retired-but-not-tired banker and architect who is primarily a poet, Bash Amuneni, to put together a two-day intensive workshop on poetics.

My hope is to help young poets establish a cohort of sort, some camaraderie that will make the painfully lonely job of being a writer a bit less so. Also, to stir up a consciousness and a devotion to the beauty of language in them and most importantly to help them realise the power in that ubiquitous thing they carry around: words.

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