Welcome to the six hundred and forty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with poet, playwright, novelist and essayist and spotlightee Sheriff Garba. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello again, Sheriff. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Sheriff: Well, I’m Sheriff Garba, a published poet. I also write articles, essays, plays, short stories, and I’m presently working on a novel. I live in Ogun state, Nigeria. I discovered my passion for writing during my primary school years, about thirteen years ago. At the time, I wrote a children’s storybook titled The Adventure of Aguiyi. I gave the manuscript to a broadcaster-uncle of mine to edit but unfortunately that was the last I ever heard of the book. I finally published my first poetry collection, Aries, Aphrodite, and Aries in 2008.
Morgen: Oh dear. It’s very easy to lend things to friends and family and never see them but you’d have hoped not with something so important (with me it’s DVDs). Do you write poetry to form or as it comes? If to form, what are your favourites? Are some easier than others?
Sheriff: I write poetry as it comes. For me personally poetry has this especially spiritual quality which distinguishes it from other literary genres. Thus for me the best poem is an inspired poem. And of course inspired writing – by implication – is writing that you allow to write itself.
Morgen: The little poetry I write, I tend to do the same (unless instructed otherwise). Do you generally write rhyming or free verse?
Sheriff: I prefer and write free verse most of the time. However I also write a few rhyming verses if I’m inspired to.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Sheriff: A poetry collection, Aries, Aphrodite, and Aries. First edition, 2008; second edition 2011.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Sheriff: One. For a novel I submitted when I was eleven or thereabouts. Of course it helped to hone my writing and editing skills.
Morgen: Oh sweet. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of practice since then. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Sheriff: As a writing principle I avoid competitions. It may smack of hubris but I hold a very dim view of competitions in general. Save in exceptional cases, winners of competition emerge because they measure up to the standard(s) of a particular judge or group of judges. The frame of reference is usually relative and as such a winner owes his win, not necessarily to his stellar performance but more to luck. So if you, especially as an artist, are sure of your abilities, just continue attending to your art.
Morgen: Competitions do tend to vary from judge to judge and how they were feeling at the time. Of course you never know who you’re up against so luck, yes, I’d say so. Do you deal with publishers directly or do you have an editor / agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Sheriff: I deal with publishers directly. In Nigeria – as elsewhere in Africa, the position of a literary agent is virtually non-existent.
Morgen: They are more difficult to secure that publishers these days. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process?
Morgen: Most people I know still prefer paper books and I only came to eBooks early 2012 so that’s quite late by comparison of some. Do you think eBooks will change poetry? If so, how?
Sheriff: As things stand the e-book revolution has touched every aspect of literature and I think sooner or later those changes are bound to affect poetry too but I don’t see any major changes to the poetry landscape arising from that, especially in terms of revenue and penetration.
Morgen: What / who do you read?
Sheriff: That is a somewhat simplistic question because I’m a versatile reader (and writer). I read everything and anything I lay my hands on. In terms of favourites however, I love Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi (Nigeria) and Sydney Sheldon and Dan Brown (US). I read a bit of e-books but ninety percent of the time it’s paper.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Sheriff: In Nigeria, just as in other parts of the world, a writer does pretty much all the marketing for his book and himself as a brand. I follow the rule in that regard.
Morgen: I’ve only had two authors say that their publisher does their marketing (although they’re both still active online). It does mean we get to liaise with our potential readers which is great. Do you have a favourite of your poems or topic to write about?
Sheriff: I love all my poems but I especially fancy the love poems among them. In line with that, I’ll probably settle for River of Regret. It’s a lyrical poem that struggles with the dialectic of determinism and fatalism in the romantic relationship of two young lovers.
Morgen: Presumably you choose the titles of your poems – do you get to keep them or are you ever overridden?
Sheriff: I published with an indie press and as such I exercise the freedom to choose the titles of my poems. Although there were some suggestions which eventually resulted in some minor changes in one or two instances.
Morgen: Do you show / read your poems to anyone before you submit?
Sheriff: Definitely. I show them to trusted critics in the academic and writing world. I do poetry readings too.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Sheriff: I’m working on a couple of books at the moment: Nigeria and Her Leaders – a chronology of people and events that have shaped the life of Nigeria since independence from the British in 1960; Roses in the Twilight – an anthology of love poetry; Iskókí the Essaylogue – anthology of essays on humanities and socio-economic dialectics in Nigeria, Africa, and the world; and Legend of the Wakili Tales a multi-cultural YA novel.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Sheriff: I hardly write everyday. In fact the only writing I do regularly is the articles I contribute to my column, ‘Sheriff’s Shelf’ in the Nigerian online magazine, Ayaka. And that is like twice / thrice in a month. I don’t suffer from writer’s block only writing block. In the sense that I’m always bursting with ideas at any given time and I usually have a clear-cut idea of how to go about structuring and writing down those ideas. The only snag is the actual writing itself i.e. the typing or writing on paper. Perhaps if I had a secretary then the problem would be gone for good.
Morgen: Well, when you’re a rich and famous author… Why do you think poetry is such a difficult market to break into?
Sheriff: On the contrary I feel poetry is a relatively easy market to break into. The issue for me is how hard it is to become a success in that market. And I feel that issue exists because of the comparatively low readership in that genre of literature. A writer is nothing without his readership and when that readership is virtually non-existent then the domino issues of publishers pseudo embargo and low revenue for poets will follow. And for as long as these factors remain in place the situation is likely to remain unchanged. Which is why I said earlier that I don’t see the e-book revolution generating any major changes in poetry.
Morgen: Are there any tips you could give to someone wishing to write poetry?
Sheriff: Now that question is a bit complicated for me. It’s complicated because on the one hand I see poetry as spiritual and inspired – more like a scriptural book, and as such I strongly feel that a poet should just write a poem as it comes to him. On the other hand however, one cannot but agree that ignoring grammatical and related rubrics in writing a poem will hurt the quality of the poem.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing of your poems or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Sheriff: I do little or no editing – if you are referring to syntax, semantics etc. In terms of form, structure, and theme however, I do some editing from time to time to try and align my changing moods and inspiration with that of the poem.
Morgen: I used to write a lot of 60-word stories and found the more I wrote the closer they came out to the word count. It’s obviously not a direct comparison but do you find your poems come out at similar lengths, or do they really vary.
Sheriff: I write poetry as it comes basically. Thus I’m bound to, and do write poems of varying lengths from time to time.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Sheriff: Depending on what I’m writing. In the case of my history work, Nigeria and Her Leaders, I’ve been working on it and researching since 2005. In the case of my newspaper articles or essays however, I do small research that could be anything from less than one hour to a full day.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Sheriff: Yes actually. There is this memoir I have outlined. I do love it but I fear I may have to lock it up and throw away the key eventually because of its overly personal references. Of course I could disguise it or even novelise it but that option has simply refused to jell with my creative muse.
Morgen: I have a crime novel like that. I wrote it from personal experience, as my therapy novel, but I love the result (I’m particularly horrible to the antagonist) so I’m going to have to change the names and some of the other details, but it can be done. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Sheriff: Well I guess my favourite aspect of writing is the opportunity (and privilege even) that I get to vent off my feelings through writing – a cathartic escape. I also love the opportunity I get, to contribute my own quota to the growing body of knowledge in the world. The least favourite part of course is giving your all to the craft and getting little or nothing back in return – money etc.
Morgen: As Jules Renard is quoted as saying, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money”. Sad but true. I even have the fingerless gloves to look the part! What advice would you give aspiring poets?
Sheriff: Write your poems the way it comes. Submit them to external criticism and assessment to relatively unbiased critics and assessors. Plus equally more important, get a day job; you will become the exception to the rule if you earn your living exclusively from writing or performing poetry.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Sheriff: Jesus Christ (although I’m a non-religious Christian); Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart) and Sir Ahmadu Bello (the first and only Premier of the Northern Region of Nigeria from 1954 to his assassination in 1966). For Jesus, I guess bread and wine; for Achebe I guess yam foofoo and egusi soup; and for Sir Bello I guess tuwo shinkafa and native groundnut soup.
Morgen: They sound lovely. I’m a big fan of soup. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Sheriff: “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” Luke 6;31. The golden rule may sound sentimental but if you hate to be killed then you will loathe to kill someone else. And of course if that happens, murder will be gone from the world.
Morgen: Wouldn’t that be good. We’d just write about it instead. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Sheriff: Yes, I do research and I attend poetry readings, writing conferences etc.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Sheriff: I listen to music, rap especially. I watch movies. Follow the news. And of course I battle it out on Mortal Kombat.
Morgen: Of course. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Sheriff: Yes a couple: Writers Digest, Poets and Writers, http://www.pw.org/content/literary_agents etc.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Sheriff: I’m on Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Quora. In terms of their relevance to the writing craft, I find Linkedin and Facebook more useful as I find more links to the writing world there.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Sheriff: Endless possibilities and many of them are looking increasingly positive. With the rise of blogs, social networking, self and indie publishing not to mention e-books, writers can take more effective control of their future and take it in any direction they want to go.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
Sheriff: Suite101.com, Ayaka Online magazine, and my blog, http://sheriffgarba.wordpress.com.
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Sheriff: How has your personal life influenced your writings? In my own case, my relationship experiences – positive and otherwise have inspired some of my best lyrical and romantic poems; among them is River of Regret and MTL which I mentioned earlier.
Morgen: On the dark side, there’s the crime novel I mentioned earlier – the protagonist was based on me – and the lead character in my debut novel (The Serial Dater’s Shopping List) is heavily autobiographical but much lighter. It’s also set where I live so that was enjoyable. Thank you, Sheriff.
I then invited Sheriff to include an extract of his writing…
River of Regret
I do not suffer myself regrets—
For no voyage is as fruitless as a voyage
On the River of Regret.
And yet there comes a time
When a man’s body wings around in the sky of sadness
When his feet perch on the twigs of nostalgia.
Like one who journeys through Hades
The blood of the sacrificial lamb in his arms,
Calling up the ghosts of memories gone by.
…Never to return.
I can still see her now.
Fair and beautiful, caring and smiling,
A tenant of the towers of ivory yet full of purse;
Everything a man could wish for in a woman.
But I was young.
Young in body and young in brains.
Like an infant, I made a toy of her.
She suffered my follies for a while—only a little while.
And then she flew
Into the embrace of another
Older in body and older in brains.
Sometime later, the child grew into a man
But by then it was a few months too late:
The kisses were already dry
The knots were already tied—never to be unwoven.
And now here I sit
Paddle in hand, canoe underneath,
Preparing to sail on the river of regret
But again—I shall sail not
For just as I have refused to sail in times past
So I refuse to sail yet again
For what is done is done
And milk once spilt
Can never be recovered.
I can still see her now.
Fair and beautiful, caring and smiling…
Like an infant, I made a toy of her.
By the time I came to
She had flown the coop
But I won’t sail on the River of Regret
For that is but cold comfort
I’ll learn from that mistake
So the next time my hoe picks up a gem
I’ll polish it, cherish it,
Cling to it, and never again
Allow it out of my sight!
Some say a cage is a curse
Not only for the falcon
But also for the falconer
The best things in life are free
And so is love.
Perhaps twas best I left the cage door open
I left her free and she flew away
Into the embrace of another
Older in body and older in brains
Never to return
Almost rowing to the River Rue,
But perhaps twas best it happened thus
For a true falcon always returns to the falconer.
The best things in life are free
And so is love.
Sheriff Garba is the author of the poetry anthology, Aries, Aphrodite, and Aries. He is a Nigerian novelist, poet, playwright, and essayist. His numerous works span the disciplines of literature, history, philosophy, and science. At present he is working on Nigeria and Her Leaders – a chronology of people and events that have shaped the life of Nigeria since independence from the British in 1960; Roses in the Twilight – an anthology of love poetry; Iskókí the Essaylogue – anthology of essays on humanities and socio-economic dialectics in Nigeria, Africa, and the world; and Legend of the Wakili Tales a multi-cultural YA novel.
He is the recipient of the 2006 Centre for Environment and Science Education, CESE of the Lagos State University, LASU Best Essayist prize. He is also a member of the Lagos State branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors.
In his leisure time, he loves to battle it out on Mortal Kombat, listen to music especially rap, and watch movies.
He was formerly an active contributor on the Canadian news website, Suite101.com He now writes a column, Sheriff’s Shelf in the Nigerian online magazine, Ayaka. He resides in Ogun state, Nigeria.
“Sheriff Garba’s poetry is complex and captivating. The poems explore themes as varied as power, tyranny, racism, patriotism and love. The lyrical undertone and exhilarating imagery of his poetry draw you to his remarkable poetic landscape. . . . This is a poet to watch – truly one of the best among Nigerian poets of his generation.” Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, novelist, poet, dramatist, and Professor of English, University of Lagos, Nigeria
“This collection of poems by Sheriff Garba explores themes that range the simple to the complex, drawing abstract and concrete images from as far back as ancient Greece to contemporary Africa. This collection of poems attests to this poet’s innate talent for rhyme and rhythm. It is sure to delight the connoisseur and excite the new initiate to poetry.” Tayo Ogunlewe, Ph.D., Sub-Dean, Faculty of Arts, Lagos State University
“Aries, Aphrodite, and Aries is a deeply imaginative exploration of the body, mind, and soul of human existence. The verses in the robust collection, covering crucial subjects as diverse as love and religion are skillfully crafted using rich imagery, symbolism and other ingredients of good poetry plucked from mythology, history, politics and other spheres of human experience.” Folu Agoi, Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos Chapter (2004 – 2007)
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