Tracing a Lineage of Violence: Talking with D.M. Aderibigbe

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Divided into six distinct sections, How the End First Showed, D.M. Aderibigbe’s first full-length poetry collection, follows a multigenerational chronology of familial violence. Primarily set in Lagos, Nigeria, Aderibigbe’s work, on the line level and as a whole, moves quickly. Most of the poems in this debut are compact narratives, and many immediately bring clear scenes to the surface only to later complicate them with vibrant figurative language. In other words, Aderibigbe’s poems first present strong images so that the initial impressions can later be reimagined and further examined from new perspectives. There is a natural compounding of images and the emotions that accompany them.

Aderibigbe and I first met during a campus visit to Florida State University in March 2018, before I was familiar with his work. Right away, I was drawn to his kind, easygoing personality. We were both deciding where to sign on to begin our PhDs in the fall and, for me, the process was somewhat overwhelming. Throughout the day we discussed academia, writing, the possibility of leaving colder climates, and much more. By the end of our short time in Tallahassee, I knew we’d stay in touch even if we ended up in different programs. Fortunately, we reconnected later in the summer after both opting to attend FSU.

At the time of this interview, Aderibigbe had returned to Boston for a few scheduled readings, so we corresponded via email. We spoke about book contests, the transmission of family trauma, creative writing PhD programs, and what’s on his reading list.

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The Rumpus: Your debut collection, How the End First Showed, won the 2018–2019 Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin Press. Contests have always intimidated me and I’ve heard other writers provide similar sentiments. Thinking a little bit about how you started to conceptualize this collection of poems, can you talk a little bit about putting together the contest submission? What was the process like from concept to completion?

D.M. Aderibigbe: I’m an unconventional writer, so the process of putting together this collection was similarly unconventional. It began with two poems I published in a wonderful journal called B O D Y in 2013. These poems revolved around domestic abuse, hunger, and a son’s anger towards his runaway father. Then, every single poem I wrote after that started bearing strong resemblance to those themes, which would metamorphose over time to include an extended elegy for my mother whom I’d lost less than three years earlier, and also poems taking place in the future when the speaker is able to give guidance to their own child. And by the time we were celebrating the birth of year 2015, I had a generation of poems to fill up a whole book. As such, it is safe to say, I didn’t even conceive this book. It just happened.

As for the contest, the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes have always been a favorite of mine. So I just sent in my work when I saw that the submission period was open. I didn’t actually spend so much time planning for it. I like the fact that the judges are not revealed until after the winner has been announced. It really helped me to submit without any pressure.

Rumpus: How has the book changed throughout the editorial process? Most of these poems were previously published in journals, but did you have to alter any of them or swap around their arrangement to make the collection more cohesive?

Aderibigbe: Unlike the initial draft where the poems just fell on the page, this draft was intentionally reorganized. I took out and re-added poems. Took out and re-added. I rewrote poems that I thought were worth saving, and expelled those that I found not up to my new level of growth. I wrote new poems to fill up spaces where my intuition led. I swapped poems and so on. I did all of these things for three times the amount of time I spent writing the poems. I did this work not only to make the collection more cohesive, but also to give it a chronological structure. The book begins with events that occur during the time of the speaker’s grandmother, who is present both as a witness and as an active participant, then progresses to events around the speaker’s mother, then the mother’s death, and it ends in a futuristic space. This was just one way that occurred to me to organize the many themes this book encompasses about what make us humans.

Rumpus: In one of your blurbs, Robert Pinsky notes in your poems, “an essential gesture is simile: the explicit, striving word ‘like’ recurs often. And in every poem Aderibigbe thinks in metaphor.” When I was reading through How the End First Showed I found myself also noting the intentional ways in which you compound similes and metaphors. How do you think about figurative language in your work? Do these gestures occur naturally or do you dwell on how they interact and connect?

Aderibigbe: Writing comes to me in images. As a matter of fact, complexity for me is realized through imagery rather than diction. I guess it is safe to say figurative language occurs naturally in my work. But the question which comes to mind now is, are these images always born in perfect shapes and sizes? Of course not. There are many angels among them, those ones I let them be. Equally, there are numerous devils. These ones I try to rework, and focus on how they feed off of or stay off each other. This line of action is determined by the character of each poem.

Rumpus: Another distinct element I found in this collection is the ways in which you seem to intentionally reach a sudden close in the last line or two of many of these poems. I’m thinking here of poems like “New Hell” and “Easter Night.” Visually, of course, you can see the poem coming to an end on the page, but this organic acceleration builds anyway and it’s almost like seeing a yellow light at the last minute and deciding to slam on the brakes. How do you decide where a poem ends? What considerations go into how your poems close? A related question, how do you know when a poem is finished?

Aderibigbe: You know, I’m less premeditative than my poems suggest. As I pointed out earlier, most of these poems just happened. Of course, I had the vision before starting each of them, but as soon as I began, they took control of their own life and I just followed their lead. But you are so spot on with your observation. The last few lines of each poem is where I am most intentional. As you can tell, my poems are narrative, and each serve as a story-within-a-story. As long as it is chronological, I usually see the need for a close or as you said, a “sudden close.” However, I always attempt to make this closing lines image-based. So that even though the story in the poem seems to have come to an end, the poem lingers on. I should add that this is not the case for every poem I write. Sometimes, some poems just control their destiny to the end. Also, there are scenarios where I think I have finished a poem, but then will add a couple of lines or a stanza the next time I read it. I have had to cut down poems, in other instances.

Rumpus: Thematically, How the End First Showed deals with family traumas, specifically abuses against women. There’s a lineage of abuse that the speaker’s grandmother and mother suffer while the son bears witness. I thought of a term that comes up a lot in Armenian writing, the “transmission of trauma” or “transgenerational grief.” In “Elegy for My Mothers,” the speaker concludes, “Lord, / is this what it takes to be a woman?” In that moment, and many others throughout the collection, it’s easy to feel how that grief spreads through the entire family. You expand this beyond the familial to include not only one family, but also the way women are treated by society at large. Can you discuss how your poems address misogyny and toxic masculinity?

Aderibigbe: Toxic masculinity is my history. To give you a clearer picture of this history: as a child in the Bariga area of Lagos, I lived in a kind of house known as “face me I face you.” It’s a bungalow with rows of tiny rooms on either side of a passage. The bungalow housed twenty rooms in total—ten on either side. So privacy was foreign. There was hardly any morning that a woman’s bruised voice wouldn’t rise before the sun. If it wasn’t my mother (whenever my father made his yearly cameo in our life), then it would be the woman in the next room or the one in the next. When they step out, these women would wear scarves around their faces just to hide the confluence of shame that had gathered around their eyeballs. On days when this didn’t occur, there would be a shabbily dressed woman running about on the street shouting “e jo egba mi ooo,” meaning “please, save me.” After her, a man with clenched fists and tightened lips. People—men and women—would look at them and laugh and say things such as “won ti tu bere were won,” meaning, “they have started their madness again.” And they would look away afterwards. A lot of times, the shabbily dressed woman running was my mother, and the man with the clenched fist and tightened lips was my father. Later, the neighborhood would let me know that it was the woman’s fault. If she didn’t rile up her husband, he wouldn’t chase her like that. “What unprovoked man would be that angry, ehn?” So in an important way, this book is not just about tracing this lineage of violence against women in my family and at large, but also attempts to question the apparatus of patriarchy—the ludicrous notion that the world came into being through a man’s penis, and that everything in it belongs to him—which made it possible.

More importantly, this book projects the heroism of women who died so their children could live. Who lived so their children could live. Who with battered lips would still kiss their children, and with broken fingers washed their clothes. Who with hot tears smiled to them saying “with you, my joy is full.”

Rumpus: Has the focus of your poems changed at all since finishing How the End First Showed?

Aderibigbe: How the End First Showed goes beyond domestic abuse to cover themes such as extended elegy, absence, and also broaches on events around my hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. Some of my new poems also revisit these topics. But largely, I have been working on poems that explore new themes. These themes are personal, yet public. They are pretty urgent but often overlooked. I guess that’s due to their complicated nature. The themes are research-heavy and emotionally demanding. But these stories are intrinsically African, and I want it written by an African, so I’m looking forward to this work. That’s all I will say about it for now.

Rumpus: What are your writing habits? Since we’re both first-year PhD students at Florida State, I know you have workshop deadlines, but what keeps you motivated and productive?

Aderibigbe: As you well know, due to our teaching and scholarly engagements as graduate students, time is perhaps the most expensive commodity in our lives right now. I can’t speak for you, but I am certain that it is for me. Because of this, I try to mold my day in a way where I get at least an hour to do something that has nothing to do with literature. That something might be checking out my newsfeed on Facebook, CNN, tweets, Netflix, new and old music videos on YouTube, or sports.

Another thing I do, especially when there is a deadline and I can feel the night breathing in my ears, is walking around my tiny apartment, singing some Fela Kuti, Bella Bellow, Angelique Kidjo, Majek Fashek, or any songs plucked from my childhood. I do this mostly when I’m working on a critical paper and I’m pressed to the wall—which is always the case.

To keep motivation flowing through my veins, I always need to engage in something that is in motion.

Rumpus: How has your PhD experience been thus far? At this point, there are tons of takes on the MFA, but I haven’t seen as much discussion about creative writing PhDs. I feel like I’ve had to exercise critical muscles that weren’t emphasized as much during my MFA and wondered if your experience has been similar.

Aderibigbe: I totally agree with you. The MFA is mostly about the creative aspect of the work. But the PhD’s firmament, in addition to the creative component, spreads across the critical and pedagogical territories. If I’m being as honest as I can be, my experience has been a mixed bag. Because, it is the first semester, and I didn’t ask many questions before coming, and let’s face it, I had never had to do this much work, so the critical and pedagogical hours have been draining out the creative ones. I’m sure it’s not as bad as I make it seem. Many people are probably managing all of these components better. It is my own undoing, and I will plan better next semester. Conversely, I appreciate so many aspects of the PhD program here at Florida State. As contradictory as it may sound, despite me whining about the critical-heavy nature of the PhD, one of the main reasons I decided to pursue one is to spread my tentacles beyond the tenets of creative writing. I studied history as an undergrad, and did some wonderful lit courses in my MFA program, but this PhD has introduced me to some lit courses that stand on the broad shoulders of the ones at my MFA.

On a social level, I like the fact that the PhD program here is fairly large, which means you get to meet more people and learn about their unique experiences and viewpoints. As my elders back at home will say “ogbon ko kin to ologbon.” Meaning, “no knowledge is sufficient for anyone who is always willing to learn.” You know, life is a book of endless lessons.

Rumpus: To close, what, either academically or for pleasure, are you reading right now?

Aderibigbe: The past few months, I’ve had my gaze buried in between words of Renaissance poets such as Petrarch, Mary Sidney and her brother, Phillip, Edmund Spenser, Gaspara Stampa, Shakespeare, and so on, as well as the concomitant essays and counter-essays about their work. As a student of language, it’s been so refreshing to see that many of the things being done with language today are not really new, but just being redone. It’s been eye-opening to learn that drama has always existed in the poetry world. I’ve been learning a lot about the life of poetry.

But once the semester is over, I have some books I’m planning to read. One of those is the debut novel by Kashmiri writer Feroz Rather, titled The Night of Broken Glass. From the excerpt, I can see how much lyricism is native to his prose.

Another book I have on my shelf and will read next is Dorothy Chan’s Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold. From the couple of poems I have read here and there, I appreciate how much she infuses humor into serious topics such as racial stereotypes, racism, and so on, without being excessive.

I also intend to re-read a couple of books. Camara Laye’s memoir, The African Child, originally published in French as L’efant Noir in 1953 is one book I need to return to. With the state of affairs in the world right now, I need a book that will help me escape to my rustic childhood, even if it’s just for a brief moment.

The other book I will be reading again is Buchi Emecheta’s novel, The Joys of Motherhood. Another book that will return the rains and sunshine of my childhood. And most importantly, serve as a timely reminder that I need to continue being kind to myself and to those close to me and otherwise.


Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an interviews editor at the Southeast Review, and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast online, Booth, The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com. More from this author →