Uche Ogbuji (@uogbuji) was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado. Uche is a computer engineer and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing native Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West settings and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely, most recently in IthacaLit, String Poet, The Raintown Review, Angle Poetry Journal, Featherlit, Outside In Journal, Don't Just Sit There, Qarrtsiluni, and Leveler. He is editor at Kin Poetry Journal and The Nervous breakdown, founder and curator at the @ColoradoPoetry Twitter project.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez, Uche talks about his experience as a constant traveler, about being a computer engineer and a poet, and about embracing colonial forms and aesthetics.
Dariel Suarez: Could you tell us a bit about the ideas behind your poems in Middle Gray? What inspired you to write them?
Uche Ogbuji: "Rainbow Children" emerges from my long observation, even before I had children of my own, that offspring of mixed races seem exceptionally vivacious. There's the idea that nature craves genetic diversity, that inbreeding trudges towards the grotesque, for example. A friend of mine, Heather Fowler, sent a poetic prompt with the theme "prism" and the poem came forth with pleasing spontaneity from analogy with how the bending of light exposes its concealed color. The Fibonacci sequence form came directly from the way my mind was turning to nature's persistent patterns.
In "Sojourn" I ponder how so much trouble in my relationships has emerged from my restlessness and stubborn independence. It's a rather vain appeal for understanding from those who would come to care for me. Its allusions to physics (wave mechanics and rotational kinematics) have always come naturally to me, which I suppose will be the echo of my long engineering education.
DS: How has your Nigerian background influenced your poetry?
UO: I started writing poetry in the crazy period of my much-too-young transition from secondary school to university in Nigeria. I really cannot remember what first compelled me to write, but I soon fell in with other friends who loved poetry.
There was a very energetic arts scene at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, all centered on the iconic Anthill club, which I frequented, often participating in readings and other events. There were also competing social and aesthetic axes, for example between Négritude and Soyinka's dismissal thereof (a matter of how visible and conscious an artist should be about dwelling in his race). I was in a minor, offshoot group who rather than being threatened by colonial forms and aesthetics, embraced these, using traditional forms and accepting the influence of Western canon literature.
My friends and I felt that we could successfully express our native Nigerian points of view in an artistic framework that was already so familiar and that wielded so much influence, and that it was indeed our responsibility to harness such power. Given that we were writing in English we'd already given the keystone victory to colonial legacy, anyway.
Oddly I think my Nigerian background has made me much less sympathetic to the radical contortions of poetry that have characterized the 20th century. Much of this upheaval has come at the same time that poetry has lost its popular audience. Correlation is not causation, but I wager I have a better chance to make an impression on the broadest audience by focusing on techniques to which they are already attuned. The reputation of rhyme, meter and traditional poetic diction is not nearly as damaged among the general public as it is within the cloisters of literary academy.
My ambition to find as much influence as I can for my Nigerian-rooted but pan-cultural perspective compels the practical course of making content rather than form the vehicle of my rebellion against narrow colonialism. My determination in doing so was hardened in the crucible of the artistic battles of my Nigerian coming of age.
DS: You mentioned in your bio that you've lived in places such as Egypt and England. How have those experiences impacted you as a person and writer?
UO: Traveling has always fuelled my writing. I've pretty much lived a life of alienation and restlessness, and whether or not by coincidence I think I started writing around the time I began to accept that it was not really my lot to fit in any one place. I've learned that writing is part of my process of response and adjustment to changing environment. I love the worldwide diversity of culture and language and find endless inspiration in trying to pick up a new language or soaking in as much as I can of an unfamiliar locale. It's hard to really say how all this affects me as a person, because constant moving and voyaging is so ingrained that I have no basis for comparison. I'd never lived anywhere longer than three years until I was over 30.
DS: Who would you say are your favorite poets? What about their work do you like most?
UO: My favorite poets are Sappho, Villon, G.M. Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath and Christopher Okigbo. T.S. Eliot, Aimé Césaire, Ted Hughes, Horace and Yeats aren't far behind, and I'm sure I'm leaving gaps in my list. There's nothing that really unifies these choices. I love Sappho for her elegance of trope and meter, Villon for how he combined street-wise incorrigibility with masterful language and dialect, Hopkins for the Anglo-Saxon energy of his tongue-twisted diction, Hardy for the depth he expresses with such subtlety, Pound for his unapologetic veneration of intellect, even in its most chauvinistic forms, Plath for the way she could pack savagery into such surprisingly well-crafted packaging, and Okigbo for a uniquely African combination of most of the qualities I've listed.
DS: You also mention in your bio that you are a computer engineer and entrepreneur. Do these aspects of what you do influence your poetry in any way? How do you manage your professional or work life and your artistic life?
UO: I was studying Electrical Engineering at the University of Nigeria before I transferred to the US to graduate in Electrical and Computer Engineering, at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. That means I got drilled in almost all the maths and physics available. It's hard for me to even think of the most airy, philosophical matters without some idea or analogy from science coming into my head, and often taking over what I write down. I don't know whether that means I incorporate science into my poetry any better than the less scientifically educated, but I do know that for me, the two are impossible to separate.
My work in business and computer technology doesn't really come in my poetry very much, mostly for the personal reason that poetry is my refuge from the pressures of my day job. It's not easy to manage these two facets of my life for the simple reason that there aren't nearly enough hours in the day, and there is hardly a day in which my to-do lists have shrunk rather than grown.
DS: Can you tell us about your editing work with Kin Poetry Journal, The Nervous breakdown and the @ColoradoPoetry Twitter project, of which you are the founder and curator?
UO: Despite the problems I've mentioned with time management, I must have come to enjoy poetic involvement and community so much that I keep on piling on the projects. The editing stint at The Nervous Breakdown (TNB) ended a long period of writing in near isolation, when it seemed I couldn't find much in contemporary Anglo-American poetry that suited my aesthetics. TNB work opened my eyes to many interesting trends and people. TNB is very broad and eclectic, and I found myself craving a project focusing on my idea of poetic craft and I was fortunate to find a group of like-minded editors to join me in founding Kin Poetry Journal. The @ColoradoPoetry Twitter project is really just a modest way for me to serve the superb community of poets in Colorado, which I discovered bit by bit. Coloradans seem especially strong in poetry deeply rooted in location, which is somewhat novel for me as a natural wanderer, but something into which I've been growing.
DS: Where can readers find more of your writing? What can they expect in the near future from you?
UO: Speaking of poetry deeply rooted in location, my first chapbook, Ndewo, Colorado was published by Aldrich Press in 2013. The title means "Hello, Colorado" in Igbo, and the poems have the state as a shared theme. I also have at hand the usual big, full-length volume freighted with all my poetic growth, and I continue to wrestle with it, to negotiate the idea that I may be able to turn it into a respectable book before too much longer.
I wish I could say more about my near future plans, but I'm still learning from the process that led to Ndewo, Colorado, and I'm still wrestling against the clock to get anything done at all. I have been fortunate with a fairly steady stream of poems appearing in various publications, and I try to track all this activity at my home page http://uche.ogbuji.net/ and on my Twitter feed @uogbuji.